Thursday, January 29, 2015

Guv Jindal’s ID test: Can Indian-Americans go all American?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has, quite understandably, drawn flak in the ‘old country’ for his unequivocal rejection of any prefix to his identity as an American. However, more than offending those proud IndianAmericans that flocked to Mad ison Square Garden in New York to celebrate Narendra Modi’s visit by waving the Indian tricolour, his speech is likely to be viewed with equal suspicion by Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans and even Black Americans -in short, almost every US citizen that couples national identity with proclamations of other ethnic, religious and other inherited identities.

Yet, before Jindal is roundly denounced and declared an apostate, it would be instructive to recall that the desire for a monochromatic identity isn’t unique. The governor of a state in the American South with national political ambitions may have his reasons for wilfully underplaying his roots: it fetches no meaningful electoral returns. But the debate over the prefix isn’t confined to the great ‘melting pot’ that is the US.Some of us will recall the uproar that greeted the launch of diplomat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin’s launch of a magazine bearing the suggestive title ‘Muslim India’. Why, it was then asked, did Shahabuddin choose ‘Muslim’ as a prefix? Shouldn’t he have proclaimed his ‘Indian Muslim’ credentials?

That Indians carry the baggage of multiple identities is a fact of life. The mere suggestion that being Indian involves not simultaneously being an Assamese, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati or even Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Hindu would be unacceptable to the vast majority. Apart from a minusculity of uber cosmopolitans, there are few individuals that perceive their self-identity in terms of the passport they hold. The debate is really centred on the hierarchy of identities. Are we Indians first and something else also or, does the little identity take precedence over the big identity?

The answer really depends on the context. A national politician invariably emphasizes ‘desh’; a regional player stresses ‘pradesh’. In a social context we emphasize language, religion and even caste; in the civic and professional sphere we prefer our Indianness. It is not likely to be any different in the US, as Jindal will discover in his political journey.

The debate does not end here. In his speech, delivered in the backdrop of the rising sectarian tensions in Europe after the Paris killings, Jindal made a passionate plea to immigrants to abjure their cultural and political inheritance. He said that his family had migrated to secure the ‘American dream’ and, therefore, had distanced himself from his Indian inheritance -in more ways than many would feel was strictly necessary. He was not disparaging India but he had moved on to better things.

In many ways, Jindal was proffering a sophisticated version of the ‘cricket test’ of loyalty proposed two decades ago by the British politician, Lord Tebbit. The issue is not trivial. Why should many thousands of British, French and Dutchborn Muslims from various ethnic backgrounds be waging war on behalf of the ISIS? This is a question that is being asked with growing exasperation all over the West. Why, it was earlier asked in Britain, should Americans of Irish origin fund terrorist Republican groups? It’s being asked in Sri Lanka where residual Tamil separatism is being propped up by the diaspora.

Jindal clearly has raised an important issue.But while there is a case for the diaspora keeping its distance from the politics of countries they left behind, maybe for purely economic reasons, can overseas Indians disavow the culture and history of their forefathers? Will Jindal’s acceptance of Louisiana include seeing its past as a Confederate state during the Civil War as his own? Maybe the internalization of the past is more negotiable in a country forged through successive waves of immigration. But in the more rooted societies of Europe, can a first or secondgeneration immigrant from the erstwhile colonies accept the national past without caveats?

Sunday Times of India, January 25, 2015

Obama's parting speech won't do Modi political harm

By Swapan Dasgupta

President Barack Obama’s Town Hall speech has, quite predictably, triggered a minor storm. The government side has, not unnaturally, brushed aside suggestions that the eloquent sermon that also touched upon themes such as religious and minority rights was a veiled indictment of the Narendra Modi government. However, both the media and Modi’s other critics have gloated over this apparent sting in the tail at the fag end of an otherwise successful visit. They have used Obama’s invocation of Article 25 to add to the existing turbulence over religious conversions. Regardless of how the visit of the US President was perceived in the larger public, they have cited the subtext of the Town Hall speech to try and puncture the Modi momentum. 

The argument proffered by some over-enthusiastic members of the Modi ministry that Obama was speaking in broad generalities and peppering the media with tasty—but essentially banal—soundbites isn’t entirely persuasive. American politicians invariably tend to be salesmen for an “American dream” which they combine it with gratuitous advice to peoples that are not driven by the same national vision. 

The belief that Western civilisation and its way of life is both materially and ethically superior has underpinned US diplomacy since World War II, even when it has involved shoddy compromises with disreputable regimes. President Ronald Reagan—an accomplished communicator, on par with President Bill Clinton and Obama—made effective use of the “truth, justice and the American way” spiel to demolish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union. Over time it has also incorporated facets of the condescension that was a feature of British imperial diplomacy, at least until the Suez debacle of 1956 drove home the end of Empire. A possible reason why this approach has persisted is due to the undeniable fact that national elites, particularly in the erstwhile colonised parts of the globe, have actually internalised the belief in the superiority of the “American way.” It is only very recently that this perception has been challenged by first, an ever-rising China, and subsequently, Islamism—neither of which are benign influences.. 

Given this backdrop, it would be misleading to believe that Obama’s references to harmony, co-existence and cultural pluralism was entirely innocent and divorced from the specific. The reference to Article 25 of the India’s Constitution conferring untramelled rights to all religious communities (apart, interestingly, from Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs) to profess, practice and propagate their faith wasn’t innocent. In the wake of the ghar vyapsi initiative by a section of Hindu activists, there has been a call by the RSS and even the BJP to effect a legal ban on all conversions—a move that would necessitate a modification of the existing Article 25. The initiative has been resolutely opposed by the Christian clergy, not least because it feels that evangelism is central to its larger religious mission. The foremost foreign funding for the evangelists comes from the US which has witnessed the rise of political Christianity. Although the Christian Coalition isn’t well disposed towards the Obama administration, its priorities are nevertheless an important input in the making of American foreign policy. With Republicans dominating Capitol Hill, the White House was no doubt mindful of the need to accommodate some these Christian concerns, even by way of a token utterance. Thanks to the manner in which Modi’s detractors have interpreted the Town Hall utterances and the debate it has generated, Obama can at least draw satisfaction that one of his domestic compulsions has been met. 

Such an argument isn’t either fanciful or needlessly paranoic. The extent to which security concerns and business interests have moulded US foreign policy has been richly documented. Less appreciated is the extent to which Christian lobbies—those institutions that send money to India as opposed to those who see India as a zone of potential profit—provide a non-secular input to the workings of the State Department. During the term of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA Government, for example, the US Embassy in Delhi was quite active in mobilising domestic opposition to the sporadic attacks on improvised churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat. Domestic opponents of the BJP (and Modi in particular) have received unending encouragement and patronage from institutions such as the official US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). 

In its 2014 annual report, USCIRF clubbed India with Afghanistan, Cuba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey as a mid-level threat to religious freedom. It listed three issues that the US Government should keep in mind while deepening its strategic relationship with India. First, it advised the administration to “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India.” Secondly, it wanted steps to “increase the US Embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights” concerns. Finally, and in more specific terms, it “urge(d) the central Indian government to press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally recognised human rights standards.” 

President Obama’s brief mention of religious tolerance last Tuesday could well be read in this context. Obviously, the demand for anti-conversion laws to prevent mass-scale “harvesting” of souls has ruffled a few feathers in the world of political Christianity. 

However, these sectarian concerns that stem from the US’s domestic compulsions must be kept in perspective. India may be pervesely equated with Afghanistan in the USCIRF’s index of religious freedom but this is offset by the acknowledgement of India’s economic potential and its importance in the emerging Great Game in Asia centred on an assertive China. Obama didn’t come to India because he wanted to wag a finger at Modi and lecture the country on how to conduct itself. As far as his priorities went, the USCIRF agenda was just a footnote. No wonder the sermon was left till the very end of his visit and delivered at a non-official function. More to the point it was couched in the language of economic self-interest and made to appear as a universal truism: that growth and prosperity need a climate of social harmony. 

It is understandable that both the mainstream and social media have picked on these contentious sentences to either berate Modi or denounce the US for being oh-so patronising. By its very nature the media in its entirety loves acrimony and polemical exchanges. The complicated negotions over the civil nuclear partnership was too abstruse for studio brawls; Michelle Obama kept a low profile and didn’t provide the much-anticipated glamour quotient; and the sheer stodgniess of the President’s official banquet at an outhouse in the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex couldn’t really be pinned on Modi. So, in the end, the largely successful Obama visit boiled down to two contrived brawls: the first over the gratuitous references to India’s duty at the Siri Fort auditorium and, finally, over Modi’s monogrammed pin stripes. The first allowed the disoriented army of Modi-sceptics to feel that America still cares. The second permitted the pillars of entitlement a snigger or two at the expense of a man they despise but whose popularity remains undiminished. 

Obama’s Republic Day visit was the first occasion that Modi’s skills in public diplomacy was put to the test—earlier visits by the China’s premier and Russia’s President didn’t generate the same measure of popular interest. In their minds, Indians were comparing Modi with representatives of the Gandhi family who had excelled in the meeting-the-foreigner department. The ‘chaiwala’ didn’t let the side down. He did well out of the visit and, ironically, the little storm over Obama’s parting shot won’t do him any harm politically.

The Telegraph, January 30, 2015


By Swapan Dasgupta

The Congress spokesperson Janardan Dwivedi who is now at the centre of an intra-Congress controversy was only partially right when he suggested that Narendra Modi’s BJP was better able to connect with people’s sense of Indian-ness than his own party. While this assertion can also be taken to imply that Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi was perceived to be rootless and, by implication, less of an authentic Indian, the Congress’ apparent detachment from Indian moorings can’t be pinned on an individual alone. 

Towards the final stages of the general election campaign, when the Congress’ position seemed quite hopeless, Rahul had called for a debate on the ‘idea of India’. The idea wasn’t original and he was merely echoing the agonised outpourings of ‘secular’ intellectuals who were expressing their sense of foreboding at a possible Modi victory in the editorial pages of English-language publications. In any case, at a time when the quality of governance and leadership were the key issues, it made absolutely no sense to posit an abstruse intellectual theme as an election issue. The ‘idea of India’ debate was a complete non-starter and the only people who took it seriously were a handful that wouldn’t have voted for the BJP in any case—whether Modi was the leader or L.K. Advani or even Atal Behari Vajpayee. 

It is unfair to put words in the mouth of Dwivedi who, in any case, is having a hard time explaining his apparent show of disloyalty. However, it is entirely possible that Dwivedi—an old-style, Hindi-belt, Brahmin Congressman—may have had the Gandhi family’s ruinous flirtations with Left-inclined, cosmopolitan intellectuals in mind when he spoke about the Congress’ perceived detachment from India. 

Over the past 10 years, and more specifically in the UPA Government’s second term in office, the Congress based its entire political appeal to the electorate on three themes. First, there was frenzied bid, first through the MNREGA and subsequently with the Right to Education Act and the Land Acquisition Act, to make entitlements at the centre of the political discourse. This Left social democratic and NGO-centric approach was the party’s 21st century variant of Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao slogan that won elections but left the economy seriously under-performing. 

The Congress failed to factor in the socio-economic shifts that had taken place after P.V. Narasimha Rao begand dismantling the over-regulated raj. In the process it failed to gauge the rising aspirations of an impatient youth and the restlessness of the middle classes that yearned for a prosperous India. 

Secondly, by signalling that minorities had first claim on state resources—one of Manmohan Singh’s few overstatements—the party created a roadblock between the national identity and Hindu identity. After the Ayodhya movement, there were signs of an emerging gulf between the Congress’ self-image and those who consciously saw their Hinduness as an attribute of Indian nationhood. Rao tried hard to narrow the gap but Sonia Gandhi and her son increased it further. In cultural terms, this overdose of minorityism left the Congress detached from the central flow of Indian nationalism which is undeniably governed by a loose and unstated Hindu ethos. 

Finally, in proffering a modernist and secular sense of nationhood—something that its favoured intellectuals passionately professed—the Congress tried to build an artificial construct that can best be equated with post-War Germany’s ‘constitutional patriotism.’ In war-ravaged Germany, trying hard to unburden itself of the grotesque legacy of Hitler and traces of an even earlier militarism, an adherance to the Constitution was seen as both expedient and necessary. Coupled with its enthusiastic endorsement of the European Union project, constitutional patriotism implied extricating the nationalist ‘virus’ from the bloodstream of the German people. It is interesting that the sudden promotion of the Constitution as the defining symbol of modern India began shortly after the Ayodhya movement had resurrected the forgotten doctrine of Hindutva. India’s alarmed secular intelligentsia, fearful of the nationalist drift which they equated with fascism, turned to the only available de-Nazification approach they were aware of. 

The Constitution is a document of utmost significance in India, not least because it has endured for six decades with its basic character—the Preamble apart—broadly intact. The Supreme Court’s rulings had, in addition, insulated the basic freedoms from politically-inspired truncation. Today, there is a coss-party consensus over the need to uphold the Constitution—in his general election campaign Modi described it as his ‘holy book’. Yet, at the end of the day, the Constitution is a set of rules that governs India’s democratic process. It sets out the basic architecture, the façade, of governance but allows ample scope for internal modifications as and when necessary. 

What the Constitution does not do and cannot do is establish the emotional basis of Indian nationhood. All viable nation-states are, to use the evocative expression of a historian, “imagined communities.” There is no one “idea of India”. India is an aggregation of a sense of belonging that is partly a consequence of history, partly shared cultures including beliefs in sacredness and partly a faith in the institutions of the state (including the Constititution). To try and establish a shared hierarchy of attachments is difficult and counter-productive. Yet, Indian nationhood would be woefully incomplete if all the elements that help shape India’s mentalities are not accommodated. 

At one time the Congress was the great banyan tree that accommodated all the trends under its shade. Today, it is on the verge of transforming itself into a bonsai plant that is tailored to cosmopolitanand (by implication) less rooted sensibilities. It is for this reason, as even some Congress stalwarts are beginning to recognise, the Modi era signals a departure. 

The 65th anniversay of the Republic is important not because the US President will be in India to celebrate the occasion. After a long period of drift, India has begun reclaiming itself. 

Sunday Pioneer, January 24, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

Alternative circles of influence rising

By Swapan Dasgupta

In India, culture wars are never-ending. The resignation of Leela Samson and some other members of the Central Board of Film Certification — popularly but inappropriately called the “Censor Board” and the subsequent recasting of the whole board by the ministry of information and broadcasting have, predictably, ignited a controversy. At the heart of the dispute are three issues centred on taste and patronage.

To begin with, there is the question of the composition of the CBFC itself. By convention and practice, bodies such as the CBFC are rarely above politics. Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, and without exception, they have been used to dole out some harmless recognition to individuals who are seen to be politically friendly with the government at the Centre. Ms Samson may not be formally associated with the Congress but she is without question an important figure in the wider intellectual and cultural circle associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi took special care to cultivate and patronise this community and accommodate them in bodies established by the Central government. Sonia Gandhi continued that tradition and even extended the party’s range of influence by incorporating important functionaries of NGOs in the National Advisory Council and as consultants to various ministries. Along with the left that made up in intellectual influence what it lacked in the electoral sphere, the Congress paid special attention to the exercise of its “soft power”. If nothing, it ensured a favoured status to a politically inclined cultural establishment whose influence in society was large and immeasurable.

By contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been slow to wake up to similar opportunities. Until the mid-1990s at least, the attitude of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was distinctly anti-intellectual. Instead of countering pre-existing prejudices against anything that remotely reeked of the label “Hindu”, it shut its doors on those it perceived as “Macaulay’s children”. Such rigid attitudes have undoubtedly undergone big changes ever since the BJP became a contender for national power — witness the post-1991 appeal of the party among filmstars but the party has a long way to go before it can catch up with the Congress.

A small example will illustrate the point. Last week witnessed the formal release of the works of classical literature in the Murty Classical Library series — a laudable venture funded by Infosys scion Rohan Murty. According to a person who attended the launch, the guests consisted almost entirely of those who are loosely part of the Congress establishment. This included former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, historian Romila Thapar and a host of other public intellectuals who are in the forefront of the sharp attacks on the Narendra Modi government. This is not to say that either Mr Murty or the Harvard University Press is consciously partisan. It is just that those who drew up the guest list probably didn’t know anyone from the new BJP dispensation or didn’t think any of them were sufficiently “respectable”.

To be fair, the circle of Prime Minister Modi incorporates individuals with influence in civil society. As chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years, Mr Modi travelled the extra mile to make connections with Bollywood stars, economists and corporate notables. These connections helped his election campaign considerably and played a big role in increasing his acceptability. While the selection of the new members of the CBFC certainly points to the repayment of old political debts, it also indicates a thrust towards creating alternative circles of soft power influence. Some members of the outgoing CBFC who joined Ms Samson’s protests against the clearance to the contentious Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s Messenger of God had actually lobbied for an extension of their term in the belief that BJP just didn’t have suitable replacements. I have been told of similar lobbying by members of another committee dealing with security whose term expired this week. Apart from the fact that membership of an official committee is a useful visiting card, there is widespread belief that neither the BJP nor Mr Modi has the social range to create an alternative establishment.

Political capacity building is a slow, long-drawn process. Compared to the Congress that has been deeply entrenched in the power structure, the BJP is a new player. Many members of its political circle may appear raw and unfamiliar with the niceties associated with responsibilities of state. Maturity, however, comes with sustained exposure and this won’t happen unless a conscious decision is taken to throw people with the right political instincts into the deep end.

When he was the human resources development minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Murli Manohar Joshi was reported as telling a hostile questioner: “It’s our turn now.” The snappy answer was in reply to doubts over Mr Joshi junking old Congress-nominated bodies and replacing them with individuals of his own choice. It was a brusque retort but Mr Joshi was entirely right. The same set of people, blessed with an inherited and semi-divine “scientific temper”, should not be allowed to become India’s centres of entitlement. The process has already gone far enough and corrective action is warranted.

Yet there are limits to the it’s-our-turn approach. The State in India has become bloated as a consequence of the political job-creation process, even in areas where hard-nosed professionalism was called for. Areas such as education, scientific establishments, public sector undertakings and banking need to be insulated from patronage politics. Last week the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that it is not the business of government to be in business. It is hoped that he takes this process forward by also reforming the larger political culture to avoid tax revenues subsidising politics. The creation of an alternative establishment has to be principally outside the realms of the formal structures of government, except where it serves the larger national good.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, January 23, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Can Kiran Bedi take on the Muffler Man?

By Swapan Dasgupta


One of the main functions of intelligence services is to prevent surprises. To the extent that the induction of Kiran Bedi into the BJP as the de-facto chief ministerial candidate for Delhi took both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (and, by implication, its formidable support systems in the media) by complete surprise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah can be said to have scored an important tactical victory. 


The Opposition’s “intelligence failure” meant that the AAP campaign centred on exposing the BJP’s lack of a credible Delhi face came to an abrupt and inglorious end. For the next few days at least, AAP posters positing the ‘charismatic’ Muffler Man against a ‘dreary’ Jagdish Mukhi or an allegedly ‘tainted’ Satish Upadhyay will appear singularly inappropriate. Kiran Bedi may not be every local politician’s cup of tea but there is little doubt that has credibility and a reputation for upright fearlessness that extends beyond partisan lines. In a quasi-presidential race, which is what the Delhi election is turning out to be, Arvind Kejriwal may discover that the advantage he hitherto enjoyed (going by the opinion polls) as the most-preferred CM choice of Delhi voters may have been nullified.


In the war of the Magsaysay Award winners, Delhi may well be split between voters in slums and Muslim clusters supporting Kejriwal and the middle class in its entirety and rural voters endorsing Bedi. The Modi-Bedi combination has the potential of tilting the scales in favour of the BJP. The key lies in both sides motivating their social support base to actually join the voter queue on February 7.


It is, however, important to remember that no election is ever won until the last voter has pressed the EVM button. There are enough examples of both initial advantages being squandered through tactical miscalculations and the challenger losing steam midway through the campaign. The BJP has scored by inducting a respected Delhi face such as Bedi into the party. Now it has to use her effectively so as to confer a local dimension to Modi’s ‘mission’. Tactically, it would be a mistake for the BJP to pit Bedi as a candidate in New Delhi against Kejriwal. Her appeal is pan-Delhi—as is Kejriwal’s—and reducing her to a constituency-level politician would be a case of mis-utilisation. 


There are no doubt purists who feel that catapulting a new entrant into a leading role does disservice to the BJP’s reputation as a party of karyakartas that rewards long and selfless service. In their view, Bedi must first prove her credentials before she can be accommodated on the High Table. As a general principle, the purist view is unexceptionable. However, since the general election victory of 2014, Modi and Shah have undertaken a set of initiatives that are redefining the BJP. The mass membership drive launched late last year is an important departure from past practice. From being a karyarta-based party, the BJP is remoulding itself into a society-based organisation. Apart from being more representative, this expansion strategy involves lessening the importance of the ‘professional’ politician. This is not to undermine the importance of the traditional karyakarta who has served the party selflessly through both good times and bad. However, in today’s context when the party aspires to be in government at all levels, there is a compelling need to blend loyalty with both social spread and administrative competence. 


In the case of Bedi, what tilted the scales in her favour was the winnability factor. That too was defined by the context. Kejriwal may well be a loose cannon and temperamentally a disruptive ‘anarchist’ better suited to lead protests than head a government. Yet, in his short political innings he has successfully posited himself as an upholder of political integrity and an indefatigable campaigner. Battling him in a Delhi where there inequality is stark and the arrogance of power offensive needed someone from outside the formal structures of politics. In the past, political parties have reached out to film stars and sporting celebrities to cater to such a need. But in a battle where Kejriwal was the principal opponent, such an approach would have been a self-defeating exercise in trivialisation. With her background as a formidable policewoman, civil society activist and anti-corruption crusader, Bedi was an ideal fit. Her image promotes change with responsibility and contrasts with Kejriwal’s reformist recklessness. At the same time, it caters to the underlying middle class exasperation with traditional netas. 


Regardless of the eventual outcome—which, hopefully, will result in a clear mandate for one side—the Delhi election promises to be quite fascinating. That this will be an election fought on three levels—on the ground, in the studios and on social media—will add to the excitement. Unlike big states, voter turnout in Delhi has tended to be higher for Parliament, a shade less for the Assembly and poor for municipal polls. There is a distinct possibility that the February election should result in a turnout that matches the participation in the Lok Sabha polls of last year. If that happens it will mean that more and more people are acquiring a stake in the governance of the Delhi they live in. In the evolution of Delhi from being merely the National Capital to being a city in its own right, this election could well be a landmark. 

Sunday Pioneer, January 18, 2015



Friday, January 16, 2015

Theology and sense - Appropriateness is very culture-specific

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is an unfortunate reality that when the West sneezes the rest of the world—barring China—catches a cold. The calculated murder of 17 people in Paris by those who saw themselves as jihadis earlier this month resulted in more than a common cold: the West developed pneumonia and some of the resulting scare inevitably spread to the rest of the world. It was so unlike the massacre of some 2,000 people by the Boko Haram in Nigeria the same week that got relegated to the News in Brief section of the global media. 


This is not the occasion to rail against the inherent iniquity of the world information order. Like the reform of the UN Security Council, corrective action must necessarily await a further shift in the economic centre of gravity away from Europe and the United States. However, amid the disagreeable happenings in France, there was at least small comfort that India wasn’t blown off its feet by the legitimate sense of outrage in the West. It is reassuring, for example, that only one mainstream paper chose to reprint the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons—and it apologised for causing offence the very next day. Till the time of writing, no Indian publication has also reprinted the satirical magazine’s post-massacre cover depicting a bearded gentleman resembling an Arab of yore shedding tears. 


To some, particularly those Indians that incorporated the cartoons in their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter as an act of solidarity, this exemplary display of ordinary decencies may appear an act of capitulation or even squeamishness. That may well be so. However, it is important to bear in mind that appropriateness is very culture specific. The veterans of the 1968 rebellion who ran Charlie Hebdo—and paid for it with their lives—were guided by a culture of irreverence and iconoclasm. Perceiving themselves as the libertarian inheritors of the bloody French Revolution of 1789, their world-view was not moulded by the notion of restraint. They sought to extend the boundaries of free speech and free thought to the limits. It was a replay of the “Be realistic, demand the impossible” banner unfurled Sorbonne students in the heady climate of 1968. 


It is worth remembering that the turbulence that defined that generation wasn’t confined to the West alone. The youth unrest nurtured by the opposition to the Vietnam war is remembered—perhaps a bit too fondly—today because it gave the world some rather good music, hallucinatory experiences and removed many layers of sexual inhibitions. Less remembered is the perverse impact that China’s Cultural Revolution—that took place around the same time—had on the minds of young, educated minds. The unrestrained destructions of the symbols of a defeated, “feudal” order was eerily similar to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Nearer home in Calcutta, puerile Maoists went on an orgy of iconoclastic violence beheading statues of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, murdering traffic policemen and venerable Vice Chancellors, and getting themselves killed as a consequence. 


It is a commentary on the transience of political fashion that the Cultural Revolution isn’t listed as among Mao Zedong’s achievements in China, and the Naxalite movement is at best a source of dubious nostalgia for ageing radicals who have moved on to better things. 


The thread that linked the murderous, alienated jihadis in France with their targets that sought to laugh at the real world was a common lack of restraint. The French Muslims of Algerian origin who were frustrated by their subordinate status in the metropolis attached great store in their re-discovery of faith. Their Islamism gave them a new purpose in life and cleansed them of the stigma of a life of petty criminality. They may not have been as erudite and aware as their cartoonist victims but they were driven by a common desire to disobey existing social codes and forge new rules—one governed by doctrinaire beliefs and the other by irreverence. 


The massacre of the cartoonists by self-appointed custodians of the faith was quite rightly seen as an assault on the culture of scepticism born out of the Enlightenment. The solidarity marches in Paris, attended by the leaders of many countries, and other parts of Europe suggested a deep revulsion to the violent ways of settling differences. There is also a simmering disquiet in Europe at the unintended consequences of a multiculturalist approach that didn’t take into account the fundamentals of prevailing national cultures. No wonder there is a rise in sympathy for nationalist parties that berate mainstream consensus politicians for their moral cowardice in handling both a political and cultural challenge. 


This combination of fear and anger that has surfaced in many parts of Europe is not entirely based on prejudice and Islamophobia, as has been suggested by disoriented uber liberals. In her revealing study Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam (Hurst, 2014), Innes Bowen has documented the frightening extent to which the hardening of the trappings of religiosity has been accompanied by cultural separatism, especially in the Muslim ghettos. It is one thing for an increasing number of Muslims to wear the hijab and burqa and grow beards as a sign of distinctiveness but the problem arises when this is accompanied by pressure from the local mosque to maintain a social distance from non-Muslims and view them as lesser beings. Traditionally, first-generation immigrants have stuck to their own kind, being unfamiliar with the ways of the host society. But when this aloofness is perpetuated across generations and, more important, conferred a quasi-theological legitimacy, the results can be deeply unsettling. It would seem that the rash of Al Qaeda terror cells in Britain and the departure of nearly 20,000 Muslims across Europe to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq are direct consequences of the emotional rejection of their adopted homeland.  


That Muslim immigrants in Britain, France, Holland and Germany must take an honest and non-theological view of the reasons that are contributing to Islamophobia is apparent. Although this is a daunting project whose success can only be measured in the long-term, the incorporation of Europe’s Muslims into the mainstream—without compromising their religious faith—cannot happen if libertarians persist in gratuitous insult. There are some facets of religious belief—the dietary taboos, codes of outward appearance, rituals of birth, marriage and death, mythology and even art forms (including the Islamic disapproval of the any human depiction)—that are personal and socially non-offensive. Wilfully offending these on the ground that nothing is beyond rational dissection is needless and in bad taste. However, in the event of theology acquiring the garb of political ideology and intruding into the secular domain—as used to happen with the Christian faith a few centuries ago—a clash is unavoidable. 


Despite its recent history, contemporary Europe is by and large an easy-going (perhaps too permissive) and accommodating society. Since the conclusion of World War II and decolonisation, it has swung from destructive nationalism to New Age cosmopolitanism, with mixed results. Today’s European Islamism, along with disruptive immigration and the expansion of the European Union, is threatening the new order and prompting a regression. The turbulence this can result in will not be limited to Europe. The disorder is global. 


A hundred years ago the crazy actions of some Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo triggered a sequence of events that led to one of the great human disasters. There are too many institutional safety checks in place for a similar recurrence but in dealing with crazies it is best to not take chances. 

The Telegraph, January 16, 2015







Sunday, January 11, 2015

Can ponzi-hit Bengal go in for an image ‘poriborton’?

By Swapan Dasgupta

When Narendra Modi started his bi-annual Vibrant Gujarat summit to attract investment in his state, the initiative was greeted with astonishing scepticism by the intelligentsia and media and hostility by the Congress-led Centre. It was cynically interpreted as a self-promotion, Modi jamboree. At the 2013 summit, for example, there was no Union minister present, despite the self-evident fact that the growth of Gujarat would add to the national growth. And, apart from the CEO of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the heads of public sector units gave the occasion a miss. 

Fortunately, there are limits to how much politics can influence the course of investments in the post-licence raj India. That Vibrant Gujarat was more than just another fancy event in Gandhinagar’s wonderful convention centre owed entirely to Indian industry and foreign capital—both anxious to not miss out on the exciting Gujarat story. Yes, Modi did draw political mileage from the summits and his responsiveness to investments was a factor that contributed to the enthusiasm for his prime ministerial ambitions. In the process, Gujarat—and, by implication, India—was the big gainer. 

It is a commentary on the efficacy of good ideas that global investor summits hosted by state governments have become the norm each winter. This year’s Vibrant Gujarat summit was preceded by similar exercises in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even West Bengal. 

As an efficiently-run, entrepreneur-friendly state, Vibrant Gujarat 2015 has naturally received generous coverage—and more so because the Prime Minister bequeathed the baby he nurtured to his successors in the state. But it is worth dwelling a little on the Vishwa Bangla event at the eco-park in Kolkata, enthusiastically hosted by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. 

It is natural to view this abrupt attempt to sell West Bengal as an investment destination as a feeble attempt of the beleaguered state government to regain the political initiative. Whether she likes it or not, the image of Mamata Didi in the investor class is negative. Apart from being viewed as the lady that drove Ratan Tata’s precious Nano plant out of Singur—and into the welcoming arms of Modi in Gujarat—Mamata is widely viewed as an obstructionist who has imbibed all the regressive facets of the protest culture that has plagued West Bengal for the past 50 years. Her strident opposition to all the economic reforms initiated by the Modi Government has reinforced that perception. 

The cumulative effects of this ultra-Left political culture has been devastating for the state. Once second to Maharashtra as a centre of manufacturing, Bengal is perhaps the only state that has experienced deindustrialisation. Industry shudders at the very mention of Bengal, regarding it as a state that is best left to pursue its quirky, entitlement-centric Gross Domestic Happiness. Bengalis are still very much in demand, but only outside Bengal. Small wonder that Kolkata often gives the impression of being one big retirement home. The productive classes appear to have bought a one-way ticket out of Bengal. 

Having thrashed the Left in their own game, Mamata has grudgingly discovered that her ‘poriborton’ dream is beginning to drift into a nightmare. The surfeit of ponzi schemes—run with political protection—in the state is no accident. It is the paucity of legitimate investment opportunities that has prompted small savers into investing their money in dodgy instruments that promise high returns. 

To recover, Bengal has to jettison the mindset of victimhood and permanent protest. Whether a Chief Minister too settled in her mercurial ways can lead this transformation is an open question. But at least it is reassuring that in hosting a business summit and attempting to sell Bengal as an investment destination, Mamata has recognised the need to travel down a different path. 

India, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his speech last Wednesday, is both a “cooperative” federation and a “competitive” federal order. States are competing with each other to attract investments. Unless Bengal embraces the market economy, it is destined to remain a laggard. For Mamata the choice is stark: either join the emerging mainstream or remain doggedly socialist. 

The Berlin Wall and the system associated with it collapsed in 1991. Bengal remains the last monument to the old order.

Sunday Times of India, January 11, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tricks to create hostility - Modi must grasp some elementary truths about the Opposition

By Swapan Dasgupta


There have been three occasions when the Bharatiya Janata Party or its earlier incarnations have been in power at the Centre. The first time was in the government of Morarji Desai between 1977 and 1979 when it was an important, but minority, partner with Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani holding important portfolios. The second occasion was the Vajpayee government of 1998-2004 when it was the senior partner of the National Democratic Alliance. The government led by Narendra Modi that assumed charge in May 2014 was also nominally an NDA government but this time the BJP has a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha. 


The thread that binds these three regimes separated by more than three decades is a curious one. On all three occasions the nature of the opposition to it has been remarkably similar. More important, the offensive has been mounted by the same gharana


The Janata Party government came into being after the country’s bitter experience with Indira Gandhi’s 21-month experiment with full-scale authoritarianism. However, it wasn’t merely the political opposition that was stifled. The Emergency was also the culmination of the experiments with ‘progressive’ politics by the Indira-dominated Congress, ably assisted by its ideological mentors in the Communist Left. The brazen and unapologetic misuse of the state media for partisan ends, for example, began in 1969 during Indira’s battle with the Syndicate. Likewise, the thrust towards ensuring Marxist control of higher education was initiated—with the battle against “Right reaction” and Jayaprakash Narayan’s “fascist” movement providing an ideological cover. The project of rewriting history was also taken up with gusto by the then Education Minister S. Nurul Hasan. 


It is hardly surprising that when the Indira regime collapsed after the 1977 election, the new government would initiate corrective measures. The erstwhile Jana Sangh didn’t control the Education Ministry: Pratap Chandra Chunder, an old-school Congress leader from West Bengal, headed it. Chunder was horrified by the attempted Left takeover, particularly of the social science departments, and tried to correct the imbalance. In a similar vein, as Information and Broadcasting Minister Advani initiated the first moves to take state-run radio and TV—there was no private sector involvement in the electronic media then—out of the day-to-day control of the government. 


Both these initiatives provided the ammunition to the dejected Left and the defeated Congress to mount an offensive against the Janata Party government. A shrill campaign against the “communalisation” of history text-books and the “infiltration” of All India Radio and Doordarshan by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was initiated. In 1978, after Om Prakash Tyagi introduced a Private Member’s Bill seeking regulations to monitor religious conversions, the cry of ‘minority rights in danger’ was raised. Even Mother Teresa was persuaded to lend her voice to the campaign.


The Left being particularly skilled in the art of warfare inside campuses and seminar halls, the counter-offensive proved remarkably feeble. Consequently, those very intellectuals who were responsible for putting a ‘progressive’ gloss on authoritarian politics re-invented themselves as the champions of pluralism and the ‘scientific temper’. They created the broader ideological climate that enabled the issue of “dual membership” (and the personal ambitions of Charan Singh) to destroy the internal coherence and unity of the Desai government. 


When the Vajpayee government assumed charge in 1998, Murli Manohar Joshi was entrusted with the Human Resources Development portfolio. Joshi made the battle against the intellectual Left one of his main priorities. By then, however, the Left was far more entrenched and more important—in the aftermath of the Ayodhya dispute—had entered into a unspoken strategic alliance with the liberals who had a profound aesthetic disdain for what they saw as crude Hindu religiosity. Joshi took on the “eminent historians”—Arun Shourie’s telling description of the individuals that set the tone for determining what is now referred to as the ‘Idea of India’—without inhibition. Unfortunately for him, the BJP lacked the intellectual capital to complement his endeavours. And once again the same lot that had helped unsettle the Desai government two decades earlier led the charge against ‘saffronisation’. This time the creation of a mood hostile to the government was actively aided and abetted by a media that had imbibed the advantages of being hostile to the BJP. 


The Janata story was repeated in another respect too. The murder of Graham Staines, an European missionary actively engaged in saving lost souls in the deep interiors of Orissa, by the leader of a fringe Hindu militant outfit, set the tone for a renewed bout of scare mongering. This campaign gained a fillip with reports of attacks on Christian churches in the adivasi-dominated Dangs district of Gujarat. Together with the Gujarat riots of 2002, the stage was set for a sustained attack on the Vajpayee government. 


Once again the efforts paid off. One of the principal reasons for the NDA’s unexpected defeat in 2004 was the near-total consolidation of India’s minorities—particularly Muslim and Christian—against it. The 2004 election campaign, particularly in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, saw inflammatory videos of the 2002 riots being played in Muslim clusters. Nor was this an initiative of local mosques: the entire scare propaganda also saw the organisational involvement of the Left. 


The remarkable extent to which the old themes are being reproduced in today’s India to undermine Modi doesn’t need reiteration. Many of the older players are no longer there but their ideological progenies have picked up from where they left off. The ghar vyapasi movement has been blown up to such an extent that many Christians feel that there is a national campaign of targeted persecution; and, in a pre-emptive strike, the Left has secured the endorsement of the Indian History Congress against any attempt to address the biases in history text-books. 


There is a temptation in some BJP circles to view the minuscule Left as modern-day Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. They would rather let the proverbial dogs bark while the caravan moves on. To my mind, this approach underestimates the ability of the Left and cosmopolitan liberals to punch above their weight. The Winter session of the Rajya Sabha was disrupted and attempts to pass important economic legislation thwarted. The ostensible issue was religious conversions but the real reasons lay elsewhere. The Budget session may witness a repetition of the disruption with yet more economic legislation in the pipeline awaiting parliamentary approval. Once again conversions will take the ostensible centre stage, with other examples of saffron high-handedness acting as fillers. The Opposition will naturally be players but so will many media houses with their own axe to grind. 


Modi and his political managers must grasp some elementary truths. There is a method behind creating the image of the Prime Minister as a bigoted juju man. In the short term it lies in derailing the economic agenda, shifting the focus elsewhere and then attacking the government for under-performance and perverted priorities. The larger design is to create conditions that will make it impossible for Modi to function effectively. The Congress, as of now, doesn’t pose any challenge to the BJP preoccupied as it is with unresolved questions of dynastic leadership. Its place is being taken—as a purely interim measure—by an emerging extra-parliamentary alliance of the Left, the liberals, the media and the minorities. 


Previous experience has taught the critics of Modi that the BJP is constricted from generating a countervailing response when it is in power. For the sake of his political efficacy Modi had better prove them wrong. 

The Telegraph, January 2, 2015

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