Friday, March 27, 2015

Bonds for a new world - Alliance-building in Europe may be suggestive for India

By Swapan Dasgupta


For me, one of the more astonishing moments of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last week was an exposition of the trans-Atlantic relationship by Poland’s President’s Bronislaw Komorowski. Speaking to an audience that was drawn mainly from the European Union countries and the United States, the Polish leader said he looked forward to the continental drift that would lead to Europe and the Americas becoming one land mass. However, rather than wait a millennium or two before the Atlantic gap disappears, he urged that the EU and US pre-empt geographical evolution and become one in his lifetime. 


Nor was President Komorowski the only European leader to dream extravagantly. In her speech to the Brussels Forum, Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen emphasised that the EU must have a big goals and march purposefully in that direction. For her, a worthwhile goal for the moment was the creation of a unified European army. Although she did not stretch the point, the logic of the proposal was only too apparent: to put an end to all residual nationalisms and, more important, posit Europe as a coherent power centre that would bolster the trans-Atlantic alliance. 


Both the Polish President and the German Defence Minister were no doubt thinking big but they were also addressing their own national predicament. Poland, forever the frontier state that has moved traumatically in the past two centuries between fragile existence and obliteration from the map, the guarantee of national independence necessarily involved compromising sovereignty to ensure survival. This was the logic of its Warsaw Pact membership when it looked east to defend itself from the west; and it was the basis of its membership of NATO and EU when its protective cover derives from the west against a Russia that has dismantled the Soviet economic structures but left Stalin’s geopolitics broadly undisturbed. 


Germany’s problems are less centred on security than on the vexed question of channelling national ambitions. The country’s economic dynamism and the depth of its creative talent were never in doubt but these were offset by an aggressive nationalism that inevitably invited a gang-up of forces against German hegemonic impulses. Since 1945, and particularly after re-unification, Germany has steadily come to assume the role of Europe’s dynamic epicentre. Whether it likes it or not, the future of the European project is perceived to be with Germany. Yet, because of its pre-1945 experiences, Berlin has been loath to assume a clear leadership role within the EU, preferring to keep its role deliberately understated. This, however, has not prevented the periodic eruption of anti-German sentiment in different parts of Europe, as is happening in Greece today. Guilt-tripping Germany, as many of Europe’s populist politicians have found, is potentially rewarding. 


Such a situation cannot last indefinitely and certainly not in a situation where the quality of Washington’s global involvement is a source of concern in the capital cities of Europe. Throughout the Brussels summit, there was an attempt to show that the image of an US as a weakened force was horribly wrong. This was coupled by a parallel endeavour to argue that NATO’s response to the Russian challenge in Crimea and Ukraine has not been confused and dilatory. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, was clear in his mind that Russia had violated the post-Cold War consensus and forced NATO into the path of “adaptation” that would include confronting “hybrid warfare” (a phenomenon we in India call ‘proxy war’) and responding with a greater sense of urgency. 


Yet, serious doubts linger. It is interesting that the Brussels Summit spent relatively little time debating the grave implications of the rise of political parties that seek to unravel the European project. The United Kingdom Independence Party, which seeks a referendum on the UK’s membership of EU, is expected to secure nearly 15 per cent of the popular vote in the May general election. In France, the National Front led by Marine Le Pen secured nearly 25 per cent of the vote in last Sunday’s local polls and is expected to outpoll the Socialist Party in the presidential election. In addition, Greece has put a big question over the fiscal integrity of the Eurozone with its determination to not accept a sharp reduction in government expenditure. Taken together, they suggest that the cohesiveness of Europe is still work in progress. A few decades of free trade and the free movement of peoples cannot entirely overcome centuries of national distinctiveness. 


Yet, there is a lofty self-image of the EU that centres on common ‘values’ that have liberty, democracy, human rights and free trade at its core. To these have been added—courtesy the ambitions of President Vladimir Putin—the inviolability of national borders and the peaceful resolution of disputes. In the early years, these values were posited against the ‘evil empire’ in the East but following the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a pan-European cosmopolitanism, particularly among the young, the European ideal became enmeshed in bureaucratisation and a fierce sense of laid back entitlement. The missionary zeal that had marked the pioneers of the Common Market lost its sting. Membership of EU was an inescapable feature of life, as perhaps was the trans-Atlantic security umbrella, but it was viewed as the preoccupation of overpaid Eurocrats in Brussels. 


That Putin has restored an extra dose of energy in the EU states and among NATO members is obvious. To put it bluntly, Russia is once again seen as a major threat. The debate is now over ranking in the hierarchy of dangers: does Russia rank above or below the parallel threat being posed by Islamist radicalism? The debate is still inconclusive, not least because Mosul is further away than Kiev, but, in the process, the biggest gainer is China. 


In the Brussels summit, China invariably lurked as a shadow in all discussions, sometimes as China and more often than not as the central figure in Asia. The honeymoon with Japan that had been a feature of European deliberations on another world seems well and truly over. And India pops in and out of the consciousness, more as an add-on to China. 


What makes the EU perception of China particularly interesting is that that its intentions aren’t suspect. There may be a Great Game being played out in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and it is understood that China is deftly redrawing the power architecture of the world. However, this is viewed as an entirely legitimate extension of its growing economic clout. It is also an area where there is a discernible difference between how the US and Europe thinks. The untroubled ease with which EU member-states disobeyed the US on membership of the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a clear indication that commonality of ‘values’ doesn’t always take precedence over cold material interests. It could be a precursor to European acquiescence in China’s march to translate economic might into political clout. 


For India, the lessons are clear: its importance to the unsure trans-Atlantic community will depend quite substantially on its ability to build its own capacities. Maybe there is a lesson from Europe for India. Germany is slowly re-establishing its political power on the strength of its ability to build a non-threatening partnership with smaller European states. Individually, German leadership rekindles memories of a troubled past. But as the nucleus of a cluster bound together by a economic agenda and a common fear, it can even propose a common European army. India could profit from using its domestic expertise in alliance-building in foreign policy. 

The Telegraph, March 27, 2015







Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Israel, Washington must swallow its pride

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of Lutyens’ Delhi’s less-guarded secrets is the fact that there were a few diplomatic missions that were banking on Narendra Modi falling flat on his face on May 16, 2014—the day the general election results were declared. According to some well-informed individuals, this included the US Embassy which was understandably concerned that the man they had denied a visa and treated like an untouchable would now be the next Prime Minister. Such a result, it was feared, would leave Washington in an awkward predicament.

The outcome confirmed the US’s worst fears. But it wriggled out of its embarrassment by getting President Obama to congratulate Modi personally and invite him to visit the US. Having dialled a wrong number, the US now sought to make it up with a show of graciousness—although I am pretty sure that gnashed teeth accompanied the show of diplomatic niceties. In any case, since the US’s gratuitous interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country was not even a footnote issue of the general election, it was possible for Washington to swallow its pride without inviting further acrimony. 

Last week’s election in Israel was qualitatively different. First, the US and Israel share a special relationship that is far more consequential to both countries than US-India relations. Secondly, short of actually saying so publicly, the Obama administration had made it quite clear that it didn’t want a fourth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The pugnacious Netanyahu who prioritises Israel’s national security and future over the larger strategic games Big Powers like to play, had, over the past few years, clearly told Obama where to get off. In particular, he minced no words in underlining his abhorrence of the US’s undue accommodation of Iran’s nuclear programme that poses a grave threat to the very existence of Israel. 

Disagreements among world leaders on core national issues is not uncommon. Indeed, it is at the very heart of diplomacy—the endeavour to minimise differences, seek compromises and avert armed conflict. President Obama has every right to disagree with the approach and orientation of Netanyahu. But there are two features of the Obama administration’s behaviour that any sovereign nation will unacceptable. First, it was odd, to say the least, for the US to proffer its views on Netanyahu’s interventions during the course of the election campaign. The US made its displeasure over Netanyahu continuing as the head of the government quite apparent. Indeed, it seemed that it was directly trying to influence voting intentions in Israel. Secondly, after Netanyahu’s Likud Party defied the pollsters and outpolled the main opposition Zionist Union, the US went into a mood that can best be called petulant. In its churlish reactions to the outcome, it seemed to question the gumption of Israelis to disobey the advice of Washington. The predictably hostile comments of the American liberal media, notably the New York Times, to the election outcome was indicative. 

It often happens—and more so with American liberals—that what seems appropriate for a country from the perspective of Washington or Manhattan isn’t  similarly viewed by the people who are directly affected. This is a consequence of democracy, a political system the US often believes it has a copyright over. It is quite clear that the late surge for Netanyahu was a result of his success in conveying to Israeli voters that he would not be arm-twisted by Obama. In other words, the people of Israel made it quite clear that it was resolutely opposed to any two-state settlement that skirts the fundamental issue of Israel’s national security. 

In the coming days, unless the Obama administration cools off, we are likely to witness a sustained bid to coerce Israel into disregarding the political message of the election. Having failed to effect a regime change, the strains in US-Israel relationship will be the signal for another global bout of Israel-bashing. It is, for example, likely that the over-politicised UN Human Rights Council will release a report damning Israel’s conduct in Gaza. This report may even be voted upon in the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva. Now that Sri Lanka is likely to be given a breather, the focus is likely to revert to Israel. 

Prime Minister Modi was among the first leaders to congratulate Netanyahu on his re-election and his tweet in Hebrew was appreciated greatly in Israel. The Indian PM knows and recognises the enormous potential of India’s ties with Israel and, unlike our earlier government, isn’t afraid of saying so publicly. Consequently, he will recognise that the forthcoming UNHRC report, whose conclusions were pre-determined, is less a tearful outpouring of overpaid human rights activists as a political intervention against Israel. Its context is obvious.

Having been a target of the human rights evangelists himself, Modi must make the necessary diplomatic adjustments to ensure that the UNHRC is de-politicised and doesn’t become an instrument to target countries that have fallen on the wrong side of organised lobbies. The Government of India must reassess the validity of its votes against Israel and Sri Lanka in various international fora, not least the UNHRC. It must repudiate the very principle of intrusive diplomacy—particularly when the targets happen to be vibrant democracies. 

It was decent of Modi to tweet his congratulations to Netanyahu. Now he should act on it. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 22, 2015

20th century Gandhi gets a 21st century makeover

By Swapan Dasgupta

We are often told, maybe quite rightly, that individuals are secondary to the flow of history. By that logic, the dismemberment of the British Empire that began with India’s independence in 1947 was perhaps inevitable after World War I physically decimated the British ruling classes and World War II left the country near-bankrupt. Stretching the argument, India should be honouring Germany’s last Kaiser, Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo for facilitating our tryst with destiny.

Mercifully, there is a conflict between cold reductionism and common sense. This could be a reason why, two Saturdays ago, a beautifully sculpted statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square. In that prized location, Gandhi will be sharing space with Sir Winston Churchill, the leader who saved Britain from Hitler but who failed to save the empire for Britain.

The irony of Gandhi and Churchill being celebrated in the same public space without even a hint of squeamishness has not gone unnoticed. Nor have Indians failed to note the innate generosity of a society that has chosen to embrace an opponent who, Churchill hoped, would die of selfinflicted starvation and save war-torn Britain a lot of bother. If, as many of the present generation of Britons seem to believe, the empire was built on perfidy, greed, oppression and the generous spilling of ‘native’ blood, the Gandhi statue is akin to what an Israeli notable said about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin: a “memorial to immortalize…shame.”

Of course, the comparison of the British Raj with Hitler’s gas chambers is misplaced. Collaboration, not annihilation, constituted a principle of British expansion and, till 1921 at least, Gandhi was a prime example of this process. Indeed, the suggestion that satyagraha succeeded principally because the opponent had internalized a moral structure built around the notion of fair play is worth considering. The anti-apartheid struggle led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa began as passive resistance but progressed into armed struggle precisely because the white regime refused to yield to sustained moral pressure. The course of India’s freedom struggle is, therefore, as much a commentary on Oriental saintliness as it is about imperial flexibility.

Gandhi’s success lay in forcing the imperial power to make an honourable exit out of India, minus the bitterness that accompanied decolonization in many other parts of the world. He was less successful in securing an equally smooth internal settlement involving all Indians. But that failure was not because of Gandhi, but despite him — and for which he ultimately paid for with his own life. Consequently, 68 years after India moved out of the orbit of empire, there is the bizarre situation of Gandhi being honoured in India and Britain but not throughout the lands that constituted British India. And even within the nation that has conferred on him the elevated but inappropriate title ‘father of the nation’ — the assumption being that Indian nationhood doesn’t predate him — his legacy is being more critically assessed, and not merely by a loony fringe.

There is a second paradox that the ceremony in London has driven home. To an India that revers his saintliness, the centrality of Gandhi the politician who brought the masses into politics is juxtaposed with the acute embarrassment over Gandhi the relentless critic of modernity. For Gandhi, political swaraj was only a facet of the larger battle for a moral order that would restore the innocence and purity of the traditional village and repudiate the distortions of science and technology. This utopian quest didn’t have too many takers, either within India or in the wider world.

The universal Gandhi that is now a feature of London’s landscape is an exercise in 21st century repackaging. First, it obfuscates his historical context by putting him in close proximity to Churchill, the man who personified the other side. Secondly, it is Gandhi’s association with non-violent conflict resolution that is posited as the guiding principle of politics in the age of jihadi extremism.

There is a Gandhi Mark-2 in the making. As his universal appeal acquires pre-eminence, the legacy of Gandhi the Indian political agitator will steadily lose focus. This isn’t a sinister Western conspiracy. A remoulded Gandhi is entirely in harmony with India’s growing belief in its globalized destiny.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Indian national character 2.0

By Swapan Dasgupta 

It is always hazardous to make generalisations about the national character. Yet, both politicians and scholars, while acknowledging the pitfalls, are always prone to internalising stereotypes as an instrument of convenience. We may debunk the British inclination to label communities as “martial races” or “criminal tribes”, but how many of us are entirely free from this so-called “colonial” preoccupation? 

Take the man Indian liberals love to cast as the model of progressive and secular values. Writing to Krishna Menon in July 1949 after he was forced to confront a bout of political agitation in West Bengal, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The Bengali terrorist mentality of extreme emotionalism colours their so-called communist viewpoint and makes them look sometimes quite insane. There is a violence and an intense hatred looking out of their eyes.” 

Now, compare this interesting assessment of the Bengali character by India’s first Prime Minister with that of a die-hard imperialist who was nevertheless a great lover of India. Some 50 years before Nehru’s angry aside, a more measured Rudyard Kipling wrote that Bengali babus demonstrated the “unreasonable petulance of small children, always morbidly afraid that someone is laughing at them.” And another 50 years ago, Thomas Babington Macaulay in his celebrated essay on Warren Hastings wrote on the Bengali character: “Large promises, smooth excuses, elaborate tissues of circumstantial falsehood, chicanery, perjury, forgery, are the weapons, offensive and defensive, of the people of the Lower Ganges.” 

I have deliberately chosen one set of stereotypes about Bengalis to illustrate two larger points. First, that it has become second nature for almost all of us to draw mental portraits of communities and peoples based on a combination of experience and received wisdom. Some of these stereotypes evolve with time. The Hungarian-born George Mikes’ wonderfully funny depiction of English-ness in the 1950s is, alas, no longer valid. Neither for that matter is Nehru’s belief that the “average American” (by which he presumably meant those who interacted with him) had “technical knowledge” but lacked “higher culture” and were, hence, philistine. If anything, the US has become too culturally disparate for sweeping generalisations. 

Secondly, generalisations of an entire people by outsiders tend to be invariably at odds with how the people perceive themselves. Much, for example, is often made of the inherent arrogance of the Chinese people vis a vis all foreigners — a characteristic that is said to have been inherited from the “Middle Kingdom” mentality of yore. Equally, China is said to have imbibed and internalised the fierce Confucian commitment to hierarchy that makes for blind obedience to the state. Yet, in a recent visit to China, what struck me as rather significant were the social forces that have completely upturned the traditional male domination in the personal sphere. This is particularly so among the young, the generation that followed the disastrous one-child norm that was imposed by the Maoist regime. I don’t know how this will affect the future course of politics and society, but in the coming years the stereotype of the Chinese people will undoubtedly experience a significant modification. 

The issue of national characteristics is of some significance in the context of some of the debates on the economy that are being conducted in today’s India. 

The first centres on the pace of reforms. The legislation to enhance foreign equity participation in insurance from 24 to 49 per cent finally secured full parliamentary approval last week. The measure, first mooted by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in its 1998 Budget, took 17 years to clear all the political hurdles. The tortured process of the Insurance Bill is likely to be cited as evidence of the laboured incrementalism that is the hallmark of India’s reforms programme. It was way back in 1991 that “reforms” first entered the political lexicon; now, 24 years later, the political debate continues to be centred on the incomplete process. 

Part of the explanation for this tardiness is India’s democracy that has rendered decision-making infuriatingly slow. However, more than the failure of successive governments to demonstrate political resolve and cut through Opposition — as Nehru, for example, did on the very emotive Hindu Code reforms — the slow pace of change is often attributed to the Hindu mentality, particularly its expansive sense of time. To this has been added Hindu fatalism, the belief that life in this world has to be grappled with an exceptional measure of resignation. Kipling described the attitude in his 1887 poem, What the People Said, written on the occasion of the Durbar:
And the Ploughman settled the share
More deep in the sun-dried clod:
“Mogul Mahratta, and Mlech from the North,
And White Queen over the Seas —
God raiseth them up and driveth them forth
As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;
But the wheat and the cattle are all my care,
And the rest is the will of God.”

This perception of the permanently unchanging India has held a romantic fascination for both, traditionalists at home and foreign Indologists. That it has a basis in real life, particularly among rooted rural communities, is undeniable. Indians have often been inclined to evolve rather than effect ruptures with the past. But has six decades of democracy and the communications and information revolution shifted attitudes? 

In 2014, Narendra Modi destroyed the existing electoral calculus and won a parliamentary majority, mainly owing to a massive endorsement by the youth. The imagery of his victory was achhe din that incorporated the promise of change, rapid change. Implicit in the verdict was a vote against incrementalism, the philosophy that had guided earlier governments. 

To my mind, interpreting the mandate is the real challenge for the political class. Was the verdict a knee-jerk response to a decade of sluggish governance? Alternatively, was India in the throes of acquiring a new mindset that broke with the leisured timelessness of the past? If it did, what are the implications for policy? Does it call for re-imagining the modern Hindu mind? 

An observer can ask the questions, the strength of a leader lies in taking the final call.

Sian Age, March 20, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Borderline questions - It is often convenient to misread history to avoid harsh truths

By Swapan Dasgupta


The public commemoration of anniversaries is drearily routine and, at best, a marketing opportunity for the publishing, postage stamp and collectibles industries. Yet, which birthdays, death anniversaries and momentous events a country chooses to remember often tells us more about contemporary realities than the past. Likewise, any landmark anniversary a society chooses to overlook is a commentary on collective awkwardness with a facet of the past. 


March 23 marks the platinum jubilee of the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution. On that day in Lahore, with Qaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah as the presiding deity, the Bengal peasant leader Fazlul Haq moved the momentous resolution that proclaimed that no future political settlement “would be workable…or acceptable to the Muslims” unless “geographically contiguous units…in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North-western and North-eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute ‘Independent States’ in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” The resolution triggered political developments that culminated in the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan on August 14, 1947. 


It is understandable that today’s India will be disinclined to remember that day in Lahore. Although time can be potentially a great healer, the wounds inflicted by Jinnah’s successfully advocacy of the two nation principles still rankle in the collective psyche of India. The creation of Pakistan was a body blow to the idea of Indian nationalism and constituted a major defeat amid the triumph of Independence. Neither the vivisection of Pakistan in 1971 nor the existential agonies our troublesome neighbour is at present experiencing has quite served to sweeten the bitter pill the country had to swallow as a result of the Lahore resolution. 


However, it is not an acknowledgment of defeat—and barring B.R. Ambedkar, the nationalist pantheon was unanimous in seeing it as a colossal tragedy—that makes it embarrassing to address the hiccups of history. The sequence of events from March 1940 to August 1947 raises very awkward issues that seem best to run away from. 


After the creation of Bangladesh—an event that punctured the belief that Islam constitutes a sufficient basis of nationhood—there has been an increasing tendency to view Pakistan as an unintended consequence of the Lahore resolution. Jinnah, it has been contended, and not entirely without basis, was basically using the threat of Pakistan to press for a federal India where the powers of the Centre would be limited. By this argument it was the determination of the Congress leadership—and particularly Jawaharlal Nehru—to ensure a strong Centre that thwarted Jinnah’s attempt to achieve Hindu-Muslim parity. The Cabinet Mission Plan was a missed opportunity. 


Jinnah, it was also claimed, was using the Muslim community as the pressure point for his constitutionalist thrust and, consequently, never had too much time for abstruse debates on the proposed Pakistan’s Islamic identity. For Jinnah, Pakistan meant a modern nation with a Muslim majority. 


Extending this argument to politics on the ground, it has been suggested that the idea of Pakistan was always kept utterly vague and confusing so much so that Muslims in the ‘minority provinces’—the ML’s core support—were completely unaware of what separation actually involved. Likewise, it has been suggested that the Muslim ulama was resolutely opposed to Pakistan and, had the franchise been extended to the poor Muslims, the social limitations of the ML as a party of the landed gentry and the educated middle class, would have been thoroughly exposed. According to this version of history, Partition was a knee-jerk response to Lord Mountbatten’s hasty withdrawal timetable and the communal riots resulting from ML’s Direct Action Day in August 1946. 


In a just-published book Creating A New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan that may well be at the centre of a new bout of revisionism, a young historian Venkat Dhulipala has challenged the new orthodoxy. Basing his research on the speeches, writings and poetry of those who were actually involved in the hard slog of mobilising Muslims, particularly in the United Provinces and Bihar, he has, in effect, resurrected a memory of the Pakistan movement that was shared by the participants (and opponents) but which has somehow not found place in recent history writing. 


First, Dhulipala has questioned the claim that Pakistan was insufficiently imagined. On the contrary, using evidence from the ‘minority provinces’ that were ML strongholds, he has documented a vibrant engagement between the protagonists and opponents of Pakistan over the implications of separate statehood. This was a debate that touched not merely the clergy but also involved the participation of the Muslim professional classes. Almost every aspect of Pakistan ranging from Hindu-Muslim differences, the viability of new country vis a vis India, the likelihood of an Islamic state and the boundaries of Pakistan were hotly discussed at different levels from March 1940 till the moment of Partition. Therefore, far from the idea of Pakistan being shrouded in deliberate vagueness, Dhulipala suggests it was “imagined…plentifully and with ambition.”


Secondly, contrary to the claims by a repentant and orphaned ML regional leadership in the ‘minority provinces’ that it was unaware of the serious implications of separation, Dhulipala documents the openness with which the plight of Muslims in UP, Bihar and the Central Provinces was discussed. The anti-Pakistan Muslim politicians attached to both the Congress and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind (JUH) was quite explicit that there was nothing in Pakistan for the Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces. Curiously, the ML leadership didn’t disagree. Instead it posited the strong support for Pakistan among the Muslims in the Hindu heartland as evidence of “sacrifice” for a lofty cause: the creation of a new Medina that would become the focus of an international Islamic brotherhood. The Muslims there were assured that no harm would come their way after separation because the Hindu minority in Pakistan would be “hostage” to their security and well being. In short, the Muslims in the ‘minority provinces’ waved the flag of Pakistan knowingly and with their eyes wide open. Their post-Independence repudiation of the ML was born of sheer expediency. 


Thirdly, contrary to the impression of the Muslim clergy opposing Pakistan, Dhulipala reveals a vertical split with only the Madani-controlled JUH endorsing the Congress and the rest, including a large chunk of Deoband-trained maulvis, joining the ML campaign for separation. The schism was essentially over two issues: composite nationalism versus Muslim nationalism, and the likelihood of an Islamic state in Pakistan. Indeed, both the pro-Congress and pro-ML clergy were united in their endorsement of an Islamic state as the ideal for all Muslims. Contrary to what Jinnah said in his speech of August 11, 1947 to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, the mood of the ML’s foot soldiers were unambiguously for a state that would replicate the early Islamic experience. 


Finally, it would seem that Pakistan struck a deep emotional chord among most of the Muslims in united India—a reason why established regional parties and regional leaders proved powerless to combat it. Jinnah may have kept the doors of a federation of self-governing states open till the last minute. However, the passions the Lahore resolution aroused meant that any last-minute compromise would not have endured. By 1946, Muslim India was unwaveringly committed to a separate Pakistan. The alternative was civil war. 


Dhulipala has raised a host of uncomfortable issues that politicians and intellectuals on both sides of the Radcliffe Line would prefer to shy away from. In the quest for an elusive modernity this denial is understandable. Unfortunately, history often comes back to haunt the present. 

The Telegraph, March 13, 2015










Sunday, March 8, 2015

India a target of hateful envy

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is not necessary to be unduly paranoid or even nurture vaguely conspiratorial theories of Western condescension to suggest that the furore over the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ has successfully made the country an object of both derision and mockery. This may have been completely unintended but even the most ardent camp followers of Leslee Udwin—and Delhi abounds with too many of them, all extremely vocal and articulate—won’t deny that in the process of possibly ensuring a BAFTA award (or some other equivalent honour) for herself, she has not done any service to India—a country which, if our own media is to be believed, she has apparently dubbed a “really sick society.”


First, to all those in the world who made it a point to watch the hour-long documentary on the horrible Nirbhaya rape case, she has driven home the point that behind the façade of the glitzy malls, hi-tech and soaring GDP lurks an India that is not terribly dissimilar from the one that Katherine Mayo described in Mother India some 80 years ago. True, she has taken care to amplify another India that won’t take the institutionalised degradation of women lying down. But these voices of enlightenment are projected as coming up against a wall of mental perversity that propelled the convicted rapists into believing that what they had done wasn’t something out of the ordinary. In short, the crime for which the rapists were awarded the capital punishment was indicative, not of individual criminality, but a larger social malaise. 


To some extent the film-maker is right. It would be silly to not believe that there is an army of misogynists that contest the inalienable right of women to both the public space and their own bodies. To them, the only place for women is in the protective confines of home, as mothers, wives and daughters. Any departure from this pattern cast women, in their eyes, as either un-Indian or, worse, sluts. It is also true that there are individuals in high places who share these attitudes, if not openly then certainly within a closed circle. 


But there is a larger question that is left unaddressed. Why does a society that can be said to be fundamentally conservative—and this includes women—also have some of the most progressive legislation in matters concerning property rights, inheritance, marriage and divorce? This is true for all Indians, except the Muslim community that has steadfastly opposed all pressures to keep pace with the times—an issue that neither India’s radical feminists or their influential friends overseas are willing to address because that would somehow be anti-secular. India also has pretty draconian laws governing dowry, sexual harassment, violence against women and rape. These attempts to ensure gender equality and gender justice haven’t been put in place because India is a ‘sick society’ with ‘sick’ people in charge. They have happened because there are enough people who feel that a modern India must actively fight regressive attitudes that were once as prevalent in the West as they were in India. 


What Udwin and those who think like her have done is to suggest that actually India is no better than, say, Iran where dynamic women are weighed down by a combination of politicised religion and custom. Perhaps this makes Western crusaders feel that they are on a genuine civilising mission. What, after all, is the essential difference between Udwin and those evangelists in the United States who underwrite the ‘harvesting of souls’ in the benighted parts of the world? There is an uncanny convergence between feminist evangelism and religious evangelism directed from the West. 


If someone in authority—and the real identity of the person that facilitated the filming in Tihar jail has not been revealed—thought that a BBC film would be an honest portrayal of an event that shook India, he/she underestimated the extent of cultural bias. Or maybe the individual shared those assumptions. 


However, this supercilious assertion of cultural superiority and the portrayal of backwardness have often acquired a life of its own thanks to ham-handed over-reaction in India. 


If there was apparent outrage in the international media that the Indian authorities were considering action against the BBC and the film-maker, this was soon replaced by the absolute jubilation that the ban on India’s Daughter was a farce. Technology had ensured that a simple directive to YouTube or any other site was not going to prevent more innovative access to the banned material. The ministers who had threatened a total ban and robust fight back against a conspiracy to vilify India were made to look foolish—much to the particular delight of an international media that loves nothing more than a spat with the authorities to feel self-important. 


It is understandable that MPs were particularly agitated over the access given to a ‘foreign’ broadcaster—I don’t think they would have given the same access to a ‘desi’ channel or publication. But if the response to indignation is a series of knee-jerk measures, like a ‘red corner notice’ or an ineffective ban or a prosecution of technical lapses, India will look ridiculous. The last thing the country or the government needs is for the controversy escalating into a free speech. Such a development would only reinforce the patronising belief that India has a bit too much social dirt to hide from the outside world. 


As India advances into the zone of economic growth and prosperity, there will be many more barbed attacks from those who resent an intruder in the High Table. India will have to live with snide asides in the media and from visiting dignitaries. It is possible that this horrible portrayal of women as sexual playthings will have an effect on our tourist inflows. These challenges will have to be faced, not by retreating into the isolation of a bunker, but through resilience and a determination to proceed along the path that makes India a target of hateful envy. Most important, responding to abuse with abuse won’t be helpful. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 8, 2015 




Friday, March 6, 2015

AAP's Normal Politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

A note of piousness invariably overwhelms the small screen each time the news anchors shift their gaze to the Delhi-centric phenomenon called the Aam Aadmi Party. This was definitely in evidence during the last phase of the Delhi Assembly election when it became increasingly clear that the BJP was very definitely on the back foot and that Arvind Kejriwal was heading for a clear victory. It persisted during the painless process of government formation but acquired an extra thrust as a vocal section of the commentariat posited AAP as the ‘real’ alternative to Narendra Modi and Kejriwal as the man who would effect a major realignment of a Congress-free opposition. For a media that has traditionally had a severe distaste for ideas, the undefined term ‘alternative politics’ began to be bandied about with generous abandon.

In normal circumstances, this piousness would have turned to allergy as leading stalwarts of ‘alternative politics’ let loose charges and counter-charges against each other. The parody version of the ‘socialism in one country’ versus ‘permanent revolution’ that had marked the Stalin-Trotsky battle in the late-1920s in the Soviet Union was, however, treated with surreal seriousness. Reams of internal position papers with sombre headings like ‘The Way Forward’ suddenly began to be reprinted in a media that is otherwise inclined to give a wide berth to anything remotely smelling of policy. In the social media, AAP camp followers shed copious tears over the ‘unfortunate’ happenings, even when the public disposal of accumulated grievances revealed that ‘alternative politics’ wasn’t free from mainstream chicanery and even old-fashioned financial dodges. The supreme leader of the movement was even quoted by his factional rival as suggesting that electoral politics necessarily involved some ‘compromises’.

Those familiar with the vicious ‘ideological’ sparring that is a feature of the Left, NGOs and the Lohia-ites would instantly have recognised a very familiar phenomenon in the intra-AAP squabbles. However, there was one major differences: the schism and splits of political sects happened outside the public gaze and was of no interest to anyone apart from the actors themselves and a few fellow travellers.

Ideally, this should have been the case with AAP’s internal strife. Viewing completely from the outside and as a non-sympathiser of AAP, the conflict was always completely one-sided. For better or worse, the mobilisation of AAP was centred on the personal appeal and charisma of Kejriwal. This may not have been the case when the party was forged out of the India Against Corruption movement of Anna Hazare. However, with time, it was clear that the ‘Muffler man’ and the ‘Muffler man’ alone represented the AAP mainstream. Yes, the new outfit picked up passengers along the way, many of whom spun verbose theories of ‘alternative politics’ and the ‘third’ or ‘fourth’ way to breathless young reporters and anchors who just wanted something to beat the BJP with. But in terms of popular understanding, there was never any doubt that AAP had evolved into a proprietary concern of Kejriwal, ‘alternative politics’ be damned.

Frankly speaking it couldn’t but be otherwise. ‘Collective decision-making’ is a wonderful ideal but any political party or, indeed, any organisation that attaches equal weightage to every input stands in real danger of becoming a victim of fractious incoherence. In many ways, AAP-1 was marked by such anarchic tendencies, especially after the 49-day government triggered a media-fuelled bout of irrational exuberance. AAP-1 became an incoherent coalition of individuals with bleeding hearts, the so-called people’s movements, NGO dropouts, disaffected Leftists and academics trying to conjure up a post-Marxist utopia. It is to the credit of Kejriwal that he drew the relevant lessons from the 49-day disaster and the general election debacle to cobble together an AAP-2 that was different.

AAP-2 is still work in progress but from initial indications, it seems that Kejriwal has discarded much of the ideological baggage he accumulated. The broad thrust of the anti-corruption crusade and the overall commitment to the underprivileged is intact. However, while AAP-1 was trying to change India, using models drawn from Europe and Latin America as inspiration, the scope of AAP-2 is far more modest: to act as problem solvers. From a party propelled by ideologues, it is rapidly becoming a party of new age technocrats with compassion. In addition, it is also creating a support base among that section of the underprivileged that has been orphaned by the increasing irrelevance of the Congress.

Curiously, and minus some embellishments, the new Kejriwal project isn’t entirely different from the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah bid to change the profile of the BJP. Apart from tactical miscalculations, one of the reasons why AAP-2 overwhelmed the BJP in Delhi was the latter’s inability in Delhi to break the mould of middle-aged, middle class politics that has traditionally defined it. Judging from recent speeches, it would seem that the Prime Minister has drawn the right lessons from the Delhi defeat. The Modi government is now combining its emphasis on ‘deliverables’ with the conscious targeting of the less privileged.

Finally, sheer pragmatism has propelled Kejriwal into realising that national expansion be damned, the priority is now to consolidate the AAP gains in Delhi and, at best, make some forays into the wider National Capital Region. AAP-2 is, in effect, fast turning itself into a regional party of Delhi. It has kept its national and even international pretensions on hold as it settles down to the mundane and often dreary process of governance. I would even hazard the guess that in the coming days it will move decisively away from what the media classes hoped it would evolve into: the nucleus of a national opposition to Modi.

These shifts are certain to disappoint those who embraced AAP as a vehicle of what some Marxist sects call ‘entryism’: entering a mass movement with the express purpose of shaping its ideological direction and eventually taking it over. Some of them will make peace with Kejriwal and await another opportune moment to resurface.

Soon, even the media will grasp the emerging reality of an AAP that practices ‘normal’ and not ‘alternative’ politics. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 6, 2014

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