Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yoga Modified: From soft power to nationhood

By Swapan Dasgupta


There is always a danger in trying to anticipate the manner in which an event that seems terribly significant today comes to be viewed by posterity. Matters are further complicated by a made-in-media society that is often inclined to attach more breathless significance to a 140-character tweet than it did to the abolition of the Planning Commission. 


The significance of last Sunday’s World Yoga Day was to a large extent overshadowed in India by the lavish media attention showered on the controversies surrounding the help given by two important politicians to Lalit Modi, the cricket impresario now embroiled in controversy. While this controversy has an undeniable significance in terms of its possible impact on public perceptions of the Narendra Modi government, its historical significance may well prove to be more short-lived than the yogic callisthenics on Rajpath. However, this in turn is again dependant on two factors: first, the ability of governments to endure energetically with the occasion and, secondly, the social penetration of yoga as a national virtue. 


Even if the media was rather casual in recognising the potential significance of the Yoga Day—now sanctified as an annual summer solstice event by the UN—the same can hardly be said of those who spiritedly opposed participation for a number of reasons. 


There was, first, the religious objection of a number of Christian churches and the Muslim Personal Law Board. This objection was grounded in apparently theological reasons. Since the ultimate objective of yoga is to strive for the oneness of the mind and body of an individual with the Supreme Being—by whichever name it is described—it was seen as obliteration the distinction between man and God. It was debunked as a possible invitation to what Marxists call ‘false consciousness.’ Secondly, there were misgivings over the implied sun worship that was met by dropping the surya namaskar from the official event. 


Far more commonplace were, however, the secular objections, including those raised by individuals claiming to be yoga practitioners. Their argument ran something like this: yoga has been around for thousands of years and being a deeply personal endeavour, doesn’t warrant state sponsorship. This disdain for congregational yoga was complemented by the hostility of those who detected an underlying Hindu agenda in the proceedings. Yoga’s historical association with a larger Hindu inheritance could well be one reason why there was a de-facto boycott of the June 21 events by the Congress Party. Presumably, Yoga Day ran counter to its “idea of India.” 


The issue isn’t frivolous. Since the later part of the 20th century, there is a multicultural view of nationality that has gained currency. According to this view, India is akin to a vast supermarket where an array of goods is on display and it is up to both individuals and communities to pick and choose what they want. Everyone does his or her own thing, regardless of the larger consequences. 


This view runs counter to the nation as an historical community that is bound both by inheritance and a shared public culture. India, most of us agree, is by no means homogeneous. And neither should it be. It is defined by a multilingualism that is not confined to languages alone. There is one language we speak when addressing the largest community we call the nation, another which we address as members of smaller communities—be it of regions, communities, faiths or even people of shared background, and yet another we reserve for a global interaction that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. For nationhood to endure it needs constant renewal and the creation of symbols that most people can identify with. These can be modern as, say, cricket, or grounded in both history and modernity—a role performed admirably by yoga, a discipline whose origins are historical but whose growing popularity is grounded in contemporary lifestyles. 


The importance of yoga as a symbol of India’s soft power—along with Bollywood and curry—has long been recognised. Modi has deftly tried to link it to our sense of Indian nationhood—another thread that binds people together. Yes, it is an invented symbol. But so for that matter are the Ashokan lions, the tricolour and Jana Gana Mana—all ‘inventions’ of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. 

Sunday Times of India, June 28, 2015

Revisiting unsung heroes who defied Emergency

By Swapan Dasgupta


Watching clips from an old documentary on the Emergency on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, my wife pointed to a rotund man with long sideburns standing next to the unmistakable figure of Raj Narain—the socialist troublemaker whose election petition triggered the landslide. “Who is he?” she asked. 


For a moment I was irritated. “How can you not know him?” I asked incredulously before realising that she was barely 10 when Indira Gandhi undertook her tryst with authoritarianism. To my generation—college students in the heyday of the JP movement—that fat man was not only familiar, he was a figure of endearment. In my three years at St Stephen’s College, he addressed students in the auditorium at least twice, and on both occasions there was standing room only. 


He was witty—made fun of his own bulk—and, most important, he took devastating potshots at the socialist consensus that was the fashion those days. For my generation, Piloo Mody was one of those colourful figures that made politics interesting. A leading figure of the Swatantra Party, he was the man who arrived in Parliament with a badge proclaiming, “I am a CIA agent.” This was in response to Indira Gandhi’s shrill charge that the troubles in India were at the behest of subversives sponsored by the CIA. 


And yet today only a handful of pensioners remember this colourful man who too was jailed during the Emergency. It is said that what he missed most in jail were his beloved pet dogs. On some visiting days, a considerate jail superintendent allowed his family to bring the dogs to the prison. 


Piloo Mody was just one of those characters who defined Indian politics of the post-Independence era. There were so many others, cutting across the political divide who were stalwarts in their days and who are today not even footnotes in the popular memory of contemporary India. 


Last week some of us commemorated the 40th anniversary of Emergency because it was the proverbial tipping point that defined our political consciousness for the rest of our adult lives. Earlier in the year there were functions to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. For many this was important because Nehru defined their politics and their ‘idea of India’. To my mind both anniversaries are important. The tragedy is that these occasions are observed in terms of the lives of great mean. What is often overlooked is the fact that neither Jayaprakash Narayan nor Nehru played solo roles: there was a supporting cast of those we can choose to call either heroes or villains. The story is incomplete without them and yet these are precisely the figures whose importance has been overlooked. Consequently, they are barely recognisable to a later generation. 


Thanks to some interest in the Emergency and the publication of books such as the one by journalist Coomi Kapoor, some of the stories around the Emergency have been revisited. Yet, as someone remarked to me at the end of an event where Arun Jaitley, Kuldip Nayar and Anil Divan shared some of their memories of the traumatic 20 months, “its remarkable how much we have forgotten.” Last week, I retrieved my well-thumbed copy of David Selbourne’s “An Eye to India” to refresh some memories. More than the stories of the anti-Emergency movement, it lavishly documents the culture of craven submission that accompanied Indira Gandhi’s attempt to impose dynastic authoritarianism. 


Selbourne’s book is a must-read for those who seek to know how and why it was possible for the government to get away with this sinister subversion of democracy for so long. It lists the villains of the game—the opportunistic 20-pointers, the careerist academics and Vice Chancellors and the sly ‘progressives’ who pretended they were battling an imaginary counter-revolution. This documentation was important. Over the years and thanks to the collective Hindu failure to develop a historical consciousness, the past has been expediently moulded to suit contemporary tastes. The historian Patrick French who was present at the release of Coomi Kapoor’s book put it succinctly: “You will never meet an Indian whose family was a loyalist during the Raj; and you’ll never meet someone who supported the Emergency.” 


This expedient refashioning of history is facilitated by our collective refusal to take historical documentation seriously. But the evidence exists—and Kapoor’s book is likely to embarrass a few individuals who ratted on their friends during the Emergency. There are many more who need to be outed. This is not merely to expose the hollowness of their subsequent grandstanding for republican ideals but because it tells us that when confronted with difficult choices, people often choose the one that is most advantageous and painless in the short run rather than the one that is morally valid. This is what happened in France when Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime offered an expedient way out of confronting with the reality of Nazi occupation, and it is what happened in India during the Emergency. 


Yes, there was a spirited anti-Emergency struggle by a handful of people who should all be honoured and remembered. But in the main the real story is one of a people who effortlessly fell in line, snitched on their colleagues in the news rooms and even participated in government-sponsored foreign junkets to tell the world that trains were now running on time and the nation was on the move. 


Maybe it’s the fear of what will be unearthed that makes India reluctant to confine its historical consciousness to comic book accounts of great men. No wonder we have no time for the other players big or small, heroes or villains. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 28, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

To forget is costly

By Swapan Dasgupta

The CPI’s lyrical ecstasy over the Emergency was understandable. It saw the Emergency as the means of increasing ‘progressive’ influences over both policy making and the state.

At the best of times India is bad at commemorating the past. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the 40th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s 20-month Emergency will be marked in a perfunctory way. Although even this patchy commemoration wouldn’t have happened had the Congress still been in power at the Centre, the casual way India approaches its history — both distant and recent — is quite galling. This makes it possible for the entire horrific experience that shaped the political outlook of a generation to be reduced to a set of slogans and catchy headlines.

Part of the distortion arises from the fact that the events between June 1975 and March 1977 are outside the personal experiences of the vast majority of a young country. In the absence of proper documentation, the Emergency often appears too distant for meaningful comprehension. Moreover, most of the chief actors of the period have died and the stray TV reminiscences of individuals who were relevant to the period, valuable as these are, can’t really substitute for India’s larger problem with consciously remembering. Even those who have a conscious stake in ensuring that India never forgets its experience with arbitrary and authoritarian government are often hamstrung by the profound embarrassment over the Janata Party fiasco between 1977 and 1979. And there is no getting away from the disconcerting reality that those who were most responsible for the derailment of democracy during the Emergency were subsequently rehabilitated politically. Some even made the seamless shift to the other side.

In a recent interview, veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani stressed the total lack of contrition of the Congress Party. The point is well made and needs to be addressed. However, it is useful to remember that the Emergency happened and was sustained not merely by the personal agendas of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, D.K. Barooah, Bansi Lal, Ambika Soni, et al. It struck terror into the hearts of India and reduced a country to abject submission because it was backed up by a large number of functionaries who included second-rung politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, industrialists, judges and academics. Without their complementary support, constitutional authoritarianism may well have been more fragile and more short-lived.

The role played by a supine judiciary in legitimising the suspension of habeas corpus and even the right to life has been among the better-documented features of the Emergency. Equally, the remarkable ease with which the media — otherwise so conscious of its rights and entitlements — capitulated before the likes of Sanjay Gandhi and Vidya Charan Shukla (the then information and broadcasting minister) and crawled when asked to bend is now part of folk memory. However, what has been neatly obliterated from popular memory is the contribution of what was called “progressive forces” in constructing the intellectual scaffolding of the Emergency.

The term “progressive forces” needs a little explaining in the context of the times. After the Congress split of 1969, and Indira Gandhi’s expedient adoption of aggressive socialist rhetoric, a big chunk of the Communist movement, especially those tied to the apron strings of the Soviet Union, felt that an alliance with the Congress was imperative to push a “progressive” agenda. In this respect, the importance of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was paramount.

In the India of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the CPI was far more important than its parliamentary representation suggested. It was the beacon of “progressive” thought and it showed the way to an influential Left body whose membership spanned the Congress, CPI and unattached individuals in academia, media, public sector units and even business (usually linked to trade with the Soviet bloc). The CPI’s formal alliance with the Congress in 1971 strengthened Indira Gandhi’s socialist credentials and made it a fight against the parties of “right reaction”. Communists and fellow travellers were generously rewarded with state patronage and in turn they were a big influence in the moves to secure a “committed bureaucracy” and “committed judiciary”. When the anti-corruption movement headed nominally by Jayaprakash Narayan shook Bihar and Gujarat in 1973-74, it was the CPI ecosystem that convened umpteen “anti-fascist” conventions and warned of the advancing tide of “counter-revolution”.

Predictably, the CPI was in the vanguard of the forces that cheered on the Emergency. In his speech on February 28, 1976, to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CPI chairman S.A. Dange said, “The rightist and fascist forces made a diabolic bid for the seizure of power which was foiled by the bold pre-emptive actions taken in declaring a national emergency.” The party asserted that “a new stage of popular anti-fascist unity had been reached between the Congress and the CPI at all levels…” Exhibiting characteristic Communist sophistry, CPI ideologue Mohit Sen — who enjoyed a special relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family — claimed that “the mantle of destiny” had “slipped over the broadening shoulders of our party”: it had “ceased to become the object of history and become its subject… not so much the product, as the producer of history”.

The CPI’s lyrical ecstasy over the Emergency was understandable. It saw the Emergency — particularly the ability to function without any political challenge — as the means of increasing “progressive” influences over both policy making and the state. It was seen as an important step in ensuring a permanent left and pro-Soviet domination of India. This onward march was particularly visible in the universities where fellow traveller, education minister S. Nurul Hasan, ensured the dominance of professed Marxists (who included out and out careerists) into positions of power and influence. It was an enduring legacy that outlived the Emergency and continues to plague contemporary India.

The CPI’s dream of becoming intertwined with the Congress was thwarted by Sanjay Gandhi, who hated all shades of Communists. However, as the only non-Congress party that could function openly during the Emergency, the CPI penetrated into different layers of society. Its fellow travellers maintained their close links with the Congress and, in time, became valuable allies in the Gandhi family’s larger political battles against, first, the Janata Party, and, subsequently, the BJP. The history of the ideological battles that the National Democratic Alliance governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have had to encounter can be traced back to the dark days of the Emergency.

Forgetting the past, it would seem, also involves the inability to grasp the essence of contemporary political battles.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

War on words on Yoga hides positive fallout

By Swapan Dasgupta


Over the past month, and ever since the Union Government took energetic steps to make the observance of World Yoga Day on June 21 as widespread as possible, a furious controversy has erupted over the appropriateness of the move. As a rule, debates and controversies are often decried in India for two reasons: the shrillness of the exchanges (particularly when TV channels get into the act) and the social schisms that often ensue. 


Yet, not all bouts of fractiousness are necessarily counter-productive. I would hazard the opinion that, despite its unfortunate sectarian underpinnings, the impact of the verbal gunfire over World Yoga Day has been largely positive. More than anything else it has clearly exposed the sharp divide over approaches to Indian culture and traditional knowledge systems. This could even have a bearing on future policy initiatives.


Contemporary debates are often replays of earlier disputes, and it would be instructive to look at some of these. 


In 1824, the British government in India established a Sanskrit College in Kolkata. Unlike the only other government-funded Sanskrit College in Varanasi that was aimed at instructing both East India Company and Crown officials, Kolkata’s Sanskrit College was for the benefit of Indian students. Actually, ‘Indian students’ (or “Bengali” students as the official notings would have it) was a misnomer. In deference to what the administration perceived as prevailing local sensibilities, admission was limited to Hindu students of the Brahmin and Vaidya castes. 


In 1851, in response to a wider bhadralok pressure, the Government contemplated widening the admissions net to include Kayastha students. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Principal of the College, was asked his opinion. In his reply to the Council of Education, Vidyasagar stated that he had “no objection to the admission of other castes than Brahmanas and Vaidyas or in other words, different orders of Shudras, to the Sanskrit College.” Contesting the Manusmriti, Vidyasagar cited the Bhagvata Puran—“acknowledged to be a divine Revelation and to be the essence of all the Upanishads, the most sacred portion of the Vedas”—to show that there was “no direct prohibition in the Shastras against the Shudras studying Sanskrit literature.” 


An enlightened conservative who was in the forefront of moves to secure widow remarriage and combining Sanskrit learning with instruction in English, Vidyasagar, however, balked at the prospect of opening the Sanskrit College to all Hindus. The reason he cited was not theological but “expediency.” The admission of those castes “wanting in respectability” and “lower in the scale of social considerations” would, he feared, “prejudice the interests of the Institution.” In a subsequent letter in 1855, while turning down a Suvarnabanik (Vaishya) student, Vidyasagar regretted that “Admissions from that class will I am sure not only shock the prejudice of the orthodox Pundits of the Institution but materially injure …its popularity as well as respectability.” 


Despite his better judgment, Vidyasagar was compelled to succumb to an insidious phenomenon that has plagued both Hindu society and India: the belief that access to traditional knowledge systems—and, indeed, knowledge itself—must be seriously limited. This was by no means an Indian phenomenon alone. In many parts of pre-Reformation Europe, access to classical learning was limited to the monastic orders. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is a gripping tale of the devious prohibitions on inherited wisdom in Christendom. 


This exclusivist view of religion and culture is often marked by a certain measure of arrogance and loftiness, and all in the name of purity. The belief that there is one faith for the riff-raff and another for those who have earned the right to enlightenment—the tragic tale of Eklavya in the Mahabharata is an example—has been a source of national weakness. For a very long time—and maybe as a defensive response to unending foreign invasions—there has been attempts to curtail the public and congregational aspects of worship. 


The struggle against this Guild Hinduism has been long and arduous. It was only in the mid-19th century that community Durga Pujas came to be celebrated in Bengal. The earlier practice had limited the worship of the Goddess of Shakti to the private homes of the well-off. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that Lokmanya Tilak popularised the community Ganapati festivals in the Bombay Presidency. He had to encounter the disdain of those who felt that worship was an exclusive affair. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi initiated the temple-entry movement that threw open worship to all Hindus. 


The World Yoga Day may well seem a tamasha to those who believe that its practice is private and personal. What this aloofness from anything congregational conveniently sidesteps is that for historical reasons, Yoga has not permeated deep into the entire society. It has been cherished and nurtured as a special preserve of those who had the luxury of access. A handful of them now express aesthetic outrage that Yoga awareness will throw open its doors to those who were hitherto outside the physical fitness ecosystem. It is so reminiscent of the indignation of the pedigreed few at the open access to the Gayatri Mantra as a result of technology. Just as the Gayatri Mantra was patented and handed down to only a few, they would rather sharp practitioners patented the yoga asanas and confined its reach to only a very few. 


Over the years India has witnessed many social revolutions that have broken down a series of artificial walls to the dissemination of our traditional knowledge systems. Sanskrit is no longer the preserve of the so-called “respectable castes”, as they were in Vidyasagar’s time; in many temples, priesthood is no longer denied to non-Brahmins; and, with time, Yoga will become a truly Indian heritage cutting across faiths and communities. 


Maybe that’s want the sceptics don’t want: for a wide swathe of Indians to embrace an inheritance that had been kept under lock and key for centuries. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 21, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

Impression management - Narendra Modi must ensure that the good news eclipses the taunts

By Swapan Dasgupta

As nations and societies get more and more interconnected, headline management has become a key feature of statecraft in democratic societies. The information overload and the mushrooming of media in all their forms have made it increasingly necessary for those involved in public life to try and influence the shape and form in which 'news' is disseminated to the wider world. Just as it was impossible in an earlier age to mould the bush telegraph - or its Indian variant, bazaar chatter - to suit 'national interests', political players of the early-21st century are discovering that the widespread empowerment of citizens that inevitably flows from easy and free access to information can lead to all sorts of complications, some entirely unwholesome.

Western societies, where 'information'- some real and others half-baked or entirely imaginary- is in over-abundance, have created a new breed of professional spin doctors who are now an indispensable part of any political establishment, perhaps as important as those who seek public office. Governments and political parties are often likely to devote more attention to headline management than to other, more crucial, aspects of statecraft. At the same time, the bid to mould public communications has become intertwined with image management. This blend has ensured that what is communicated is on a par or even less important than the perceived public image of the person who says it.

In the British general election, one of the main reasons why the major chunk of undecided voters chose to vote Conservative inside the polling booth was their lack of faith in Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition Labour Party. Despite the unrelenting anti-Conservative messaging of the intelligentsia, the BBC and the more articulate sections of metropolitan England, the Labour leader could not overcome the disability of an image that deemed he was too remote, too Left-wing, and too lacking in the common touch. While Labour had the upper hand in policy matters, the Conservatives prevailed on the question of leadership and, by implication, trust.

For the past six months or, more particularly, since the Bharatiya Janata Party crashed to an ignominious defeat in the Delhi assembly election, the Narendra Modi government has been at the receiving end of unflattering headlines. From the outbursts of individual Hindu extremists ranting against 'love jihad' and threatening to celebrate the life of Nathuram Godse to opinionated gripes against expensive monogrammed suits, the frequency of foreign visits, the hidden agenda of World Yoga Day and the cross-border operation against Naga rebels, there is a growing impression that the Central government has lost control of the narrative. This impression may well be at odds with the opinion polls that revealed a wide level of satisfaction with the prime minister's performance over the past year, but it is nonetheless real. When ruling party functionaries complain that every trivial incident is being blown out of proportion by a cussed mainstream media, they are not entirely wrong. The old pre-September 2013 pattern of Modi-can-do-nothing-right, which, ironically, helped the then Gujarat chief minister to capture the national imagination as a doughty crusader against a venal establishment, has reappeared but with more damaging consequences for Modi.

The 'conflict of interests' charges levelled against the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and the Rajasthan chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, in connection with the travel documentation of the flamboyant cricket impresario, Lalit Modi, have brought pre-existing strands of negativity together to produce an almighty controversy.

There are facets of the kerfuffle that are worth considering. First, till the subtext of the hacked emails was packaged into a news bomb last Sunday morning, the headline projection of Swaraj was in sharp contrast to that of the prime minister: the 'good Sushma' was routinely juxtaposed against the 'imperious Modi.' A tribe of reporters with a nodding acquaintance with the internal dynamics of the BJP were, in fact, licking their chops in anticipation of a day when Swaraj would emerge as an alternative power centre to Modi, the inheritor of L.K. Advani's dissident mantle. Yet, the moment the controversy erupted, the potential embarrassment to the external affairs minister was equated with the possible first step in the unravelling of the Modi sarkar. Those baying for Swaraj's blood have intensified their attacks because they can detect the possibility of bringing Modi's overall ratings down a notch or two. The more ambitious dream of a government becoming prematurely dysfunctional is a development that greatly assists in boom time for those the prime minister described as "newstraders."

Secondly, it is an open secret that Modi's prescription for effective headline management is to bypass the mainstream media - more accurately, leave its handling to the Press Information Bureau and the ministry of information and broadcasting - and focus purposefully on connecting with individuals on the social media. Backed by wonderfully choreographed events - such as the Vibrant Gujarat summits - this approach worked remarkably well in selling the "Gujarat model" during the 10 years of UPA rule. It contributed in no small measure to the building up of an alternative narrative to the mainstream media's unrelenting focus on the riots of 2002. Why is this approach faltering today?

There are no easy answers but some possible explanations are in order. To begin with, Modi's hegemony over Gujarat was near-complete after his second election victory in 2007. He could focus on expanding his influence over the rest of India with the full awareness that his backyard was totally under his sway. At the Centre, however, Modi has to confront with an old, entrenched Establishment whose influence is both deep and far-reaching. This Establishment has grudgingly accepted his 2014 victory but has never really reconciled itself to a prolonged spell of Modi rule. After the BJP's Delhi defeat, it has seized the window of opportunity available to the opposition by establishing centres of messaging that, ironically, grabbed the space vacated by the pro-Modi forces after the campaign structures were dismantled post-May 2014. It is significant, for example, that most of the online news portals that have emerged in the recent past - some blessed with resources - are spiritedly opposed to Modi.

The adverse headlines the government has been attracting in recent times appear to stem from its failure to make the narrative correspond with the larger political shifts in India. There has been a failure of political messaging whose impact is also being felt in the markets. As of now, the fall-out is limited to the domestic markets but unless the trend is checked it will begin to affect international perceptions as well.

Of course, successful messaging is also dependent on the robustness of the message; pure hype rarely endures. Here, however, Modi is on a much better wicket. He will now have to focus on more effective and imaginative ways of getting the good news to overshadow the taunts and sniggers. He has to join the battle frontally and make the moulding of the public discourse a key facet of statecraft.

The Telegraph, June 19, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Berating Modi's truimphs

By Swapan Dasgupta


In any healthy and rumbustious democracy such as India, it is only natural that government decisions are contested. Some of the disagreements are entirely ritual and lacking both conviction and substance; others are entirely ideological and stem from divergent beliefs over what is appropriate; and still others are a curious blend of alternative aesthetics, personal agendas—what is popularly called ‘vested interests’—and plain spitefulness. 


Over the past few months, the Narendra Modi government has encountered some vocal opposition to its initiatives. The Goods and Services Act has been questioned by businessmen wary of being included in the tax net; the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act have been contested by those intent on permanently preserving the legacy of Sonia Gandhi and those, like Mamata Banerjee, who gained prominence by championing farmer populism; and the Prime Minister’s overseas visits have been mocked by those who believe that India’s foreign policy should be all about peace with Pakistan and accommodation of China. The public airing of differences are part of the democratic game and despite the exaggerated shrillness that accompanies rival positions, provide evidence of the innate fractiousness of Indian politics. 


There are some disputes that are, however, a little more revealing than others. In the past few weeks, India has witnessed two slugfests that tell us something about alternative self-images of India, maybe even different ‘ideas of India’. 


The first kerfuffle was over the World Yoga Day that will be observed both in India and in umpteen other countries. The decision of the government to actively promote the event was immediately accompanied by a wave of sectarian anger. A section of the Muslim clergy debunked the official patronage of yoga as an attempt to promote the Hindu ethos. Yoga was denounced as un-Islamic and we were informed that Muslims must not perform surya namaskar because it meant genuflecting to an entity other than Allah. To avoid getting entangled in a purposeless theological controversy that could have inflamed passions, the government accommodated a slice of the objection by the Muslim clergy and dropped surya namaskar from the official event. Of course, there is nothing to stop yoga practitioners at non-official events from doing what they do each day without necessarily equating it with a Charlie Hebdo act. 


Once the apparently ‘non-secular’ dimension of Yoga Day was over and dealt with, the sceptics came up with an alternative indictment of the government. ‘We don’t need Modi’, they bleated, ‘to tell us about Yoga. He didn’t invent it. So why is he appropriating it?’ Variations of this theme can be found in articles in both the print and online media. 


This expression of outrage by the metro-based sniggerati is instructive. It is clear that the real objection is not to Yoga—which, after all, commands awesome respect in the centres of ‘alternative’ living, notably California. Their dissatisfaction arise on two counts. First, they loath the fact that Yoga Day is being promoted by Modi—the man who must be mocked, decried and spat on for everything he does. Second, the association of Modi with yoga implies that there is a link to a popular Hinduism which is so un-cool. It is one thing for yoga to be practiced in up-scale gyms and followed with a glass of nourishing carrot juice. But Modi wants yoga to be learnt in sarkari schools. The Prime Minister, they rightly fear, is going to take away the mystique of the ‘alternative’ away from yoga and restore it to the centre of India’s traditional knowledge systems. 


Now let’s look at the second controversy over the special operations carried out inside Myanmar against the rebels who ambushed and killed soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment in Manipur earlier this month. 


The first bout of objection was to the publicity that was given to the operation by both the army and political functionaries of the government. The immediate response of the sniggerati was: why brag? In normal circumstances they would cried foul over ‘human rights violations’ but the deaths of Indian jawans was just too fresh in public memory to permit this outlandishness. Sniggering over the 56-inch chest was therefore the next best thing. What was lost sight of was the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, the publicity was carefully pre-meditated and aimed at sending out a wider message. The intriguing fact that while the gunfire was in the east, while the smoke and fury emanated from the north-west suggested the message had indeed gone home. 


Now, of course, they are talking of a botched operation confirmed by unknown and unnamed ‘sources’. And journalists are quoting other journalists to demonstrate that the Modi government can’t even organise a proper covert operation. 


What can be concluded from the recent bouts of contrived outrage is an ‘idea of India’ that is charmingly eccentric. It basically consists of India remaining in a state of permanent defensiveness. We musn’t flaunt our traditional knowledge systems, even when they find ready acceptance globally; we musn’t acknowledge our Hindu heritage because it isn’t ‘secular’; we musn’t go beyond agonising over garbage heaps and child labour because that allows some people to feel superior; and, for heaven’s sake, we must never do anything that destroys the age-old belief in our meek passivity. In short, India must be permanently short of achievement and long on accepting sympathy. 


If Modi is doing something to unmake this grammar of politics and public life, he must be doing something right. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 14, 2015

Why so squeamish? It's time to trumpet military success

By Swapan Dasgupta


In December 1991, I wrote an article lamenting the absence of any commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Indian army’s victory in the Bangladesh liberation war. For at least a thousand years, the article argued, the history of India had been an interminable saga of humiliation and capitulation. The surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka was our first real victory. 


This robust assertion drew considerable flak from many liberal intellectuals, including my friend, historian Ramachandra Guha. He berated me for an unseemly show of jingoism and, by implication, argued that the great successes of a country are best left understated. 


The magnitude of last week’s special operation on the Indo-Myanmar border may be lesser but the debate in its aftermath is very reminiscent of the issue I had raised 23 years ago: why are India’s intellectuals so squeamish about celebrating military success? 


The gunning down of 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment on June 4 by Naga rebels based in camps inside Myanmar quite understandably provoked national outrage. Apart from the usual charges of laxity, the Prime Minister was taunted with charges of being a papier mache lion. Whatever happened, sniggered the critics, to the fabled 56-inch chest? 


Conventional wisdom deems that it is injudicious to address national security concerns by responding to public opinion. Feelings tend to run high in the aftermath of any incident where there are high casualties, civilian or uniformed. In such situations, the government has to demonstrate resilience, take a deep breath and often play a longer-term game. The problem with India is that at least in the recent past resilience has been equated with a do-nothing approach. Terror attacks that are part of a proxy war don’t often lend themselves to non-diplomatic responses since the real masterminds are hidden behind multiple layers of deniability. This, however, may not be the case with attacks by Maoist insurgents located in dense jungles or rebels operating along some of our more inhospitable international borders. There is, in short, no one-size-fits-all approach to the different challenges that confront India. A flexible approach that factors in both the state’s retaliatory capabilities and political will is the key. 


What occasioned surprise over the events of the past week was not that there was military retaliation across an international border, but that it happened with such remarkable promptness. The operation revealed three facets of our present approach to national security. First, it suggested that intelligence and military capabilities were in a state of readiness which is reassuring. Secondly, there was coordination between the diplomatic, military and political organs of the state. And finally, it revealed that the political leadership was willing to exercise a hard but high-risk option that would ruffle feathers. 


In the aftermath of the operation, what is being questioned is not the act of taking the battle to the rebel hideout in Myanmar. The critics of the Narendra Modi government have questioned the wisdom of making the military action public and the resulting triumphalism in the social media. They would rather the whole thing was managed in silence, minus the #56inchRocks.


It is not that this approach is bereft of merit. Israel—a country exposed to a multitude of threats to its very existence—has a fine record of successful special operations. However, not all of them end with the sounding of trumpets. Could this operation in Myanmar have been left understated? 


If the sole objective of the mission was simply to give the NSCN(K) a bloody nose and force it to the negotiating table, media silence would have been understandable. However, it was also aimed at telling hostile elements throughout the neighbourhood that India’s approach to national security has undergone a shift. The terse message was: India too can inflict serious pain to those who trouble it. It was a policy approach that needed to be broadcast loudly, not least as deterrence. Judging from the hysterical responses across the western border, the message has been delivered and, hopefully, digested. 


For too long, India has loftily internalised being a punching bag. Now it is time to show it has teeth as well. If this offends a thousand years of servility masquerading as civility, so be it. 

Sunday Times Of India, June 14, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Janata experiment

By Swapan Dasgupta


Even two years ago, the very idea of a dyed-in-the-wool Lohia-ite such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar openly calling on Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi for political consultations would have seemed absolutely preposterous. Till June 2013, Nitish and his Janata Dal (United) was in a coalition with the BJP in Bihar, and had been so since George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav had forged an alliance to counter the ‘jungle raj’ of Lalu Prasad Yadav in the mid-1990s. Indeed, when Nitish broke the long-standing alliance after the BJP appointed Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election, Sharad Yadav was in fact the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance, a position he secured after Fernandes became too ill to continue in public life. 


In India’s ever-changing politics, the idea of strange bedfellows is no longer all that strange. As the most spirited and noisy crusader against Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, Ram Manohar Lohia had contributed most significantly in making anti-Congressism a viable political platform. Although the Communist parties stayed away from such an arrangement—a schism that had its origins in the Quit India movement, the Cold War and, most notably, the visceral hatred of the socialists for China—Lohia had absolutely no inhibitions in forging a working relationship with the then Jana Sangh and Swatantra parties. 


In ideological terms, the Lohia wing of the socialist movement was different from the other tradition that included stalwarts such as Asoka Mehta who ended up in the Congress after Nehru embraced socialist planning in the mid-1950s. More than any other leader, Lohia gauged the importance of caste as a forum of political mobilisation, an approach that had hitherto been confined to the splinter groups of the Ambedkar-ites. The emergence of a ‘backward caste’ identity that was formalised after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in the 1990s, has a direct link with the political approach of Lohia and his disciples. This caste-based mobilisation, however, really took off after kisan activist Charan Singh came together with socialist leaders such as Karpoori Thakur to form the Bharatiya Kranti Dal after the 1967 election. 


There were good reasons why, after Lohia’s death in October 1967, the old anti-Congressism plank remained a viable option for the socialists and kisan populists. 


First, despite the setback in 1967 and the split in 1969, the Congress’ position as the dominant party was intact. India’s politics were determined by where other parties stood in relation to the Congress and its domineering leader Indira Gandhi. The Communist movement was split between those who wanted an accommodation with the Congress as part of a ‘progressive’ combination and others who were attracted by the charms of a peasant-led uprising, as had happened in China. The free-market Swatantra Party was hobbled by its identification with industrialists and the erstwhile Princes, and ceased to be a viable force after the 1971 election. Its adherents either drifted into the new Charan Singh-led Bharatiya Lok Dal or associated themselves individually with the Jana Sangh or even the Congress. 


Secondly, the period between 1967 and 1989 was marked by tussles between different shades of Left socialism. There was Indira Gandhi’s statist socialism, the kisan populism of Charan Singh and the quasi-revolutionary peasant activism of the CPI(M). Socialism was so much in the air that even the old Jana Sangh, that re-established itself as the BJP in 1980, claimed adherence to “Gandhian socialism.” The old socialists occupied a very distinct political space as fierce opponents of socialist cronyism, corruption, dynastic politics and authoritarianism. After the Janata Party experiment collapsed in 1979, the most effective challengers to the Congress were those who operated within the Lohia-Charan Singh mould, with the CPI(M) providing a different model in West Bengal and Kerala. It is worth remembering that the BJP variant of politics centred on Hindu grievances and aspirations didn’t become a major factor until 1989. 


Finally, after Indira Gandhi’s comeback in 1980 and Rajiv Gandhi’s resounding triumph in 1984, most of the effective opposition to the Congress became regionalised. Apart from Fernandes who had a national perspective, the inheritors of the old socialist mantle found solace in regional politics—Karpoori Thakur and then Lalu Yadav in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Biju Patnaik in Orissa, Devi Lal in Haryana and Ramakrishna Hegde and H.D. Deve Gowda in Karnataka. The BJP was perhaps the only party that even kept up a national pretence. However, its support was patchy and it was always a poor third party in areas where the outfits of the erstwhile Janata parivar constituted the main challenge to the Congress. As such, the regional leaders had little hesitation in associating the BJP as a junior partner in electoral alliances. The mental image of the Congress as the dominant party was to prove quite enduring till the three general elections of the late-1990s. 


It was only after the Ayodhya mobilisation and the emergence of the BJP as the alternative pole of politics that sections of the old Janata parivar began replacing anti-Congressism with anti-BJPism. Mulayam and Lalu were first off the mark and shed their earlier antipathy to the Congress, not least because the old dominant party had been reduced to a shell in the Ganga belt after the 1991 polls. Nitish Kumar’s break with Lalu in the mid-1990s was not over ideology; it was centred on leadership styles—an issue that hasn’t died yet. Broadly speaking, the principle of one leader per state was adhered to, except in Bihar where the weight of Nitish as a charismatic leader far exceeded the JD(U)’s social influence. It is this mismatch that will continue to plague the Janata parivar in Bihar. 


There’s an additional reason, apart from the waning appeal of the dynasty, why the Congress has shed its untouchable status for the old Lohia-ites. After the Mandal Commission controversy, the Janata factions assumed that the backward caste vote would come their way en masse. A caricatured view of the BJP as a party of the rich, middle classes and upper castes held sway among the Janata parivar ideologues for a very long time. Increasingly, however, this is not being borne out by electoral behaviour. The BJP has made significant headway among peasant castes such as Jats in Uttar Pradesh and non-Yadav backward castes throughout the Hindi belt. Indeed, in many ways the BJP—as opposed to the RSS—is fast becoming an OBC party, a trend that gathered momentum with Modi’s successful 2014 campaign. 


The Bihar election later this year will be all about which political formation—the two Janata parties or BJP—can secure the bulk of the ‘backward’ vote and replenish it with the votes of Dalits. In this game, the Congress is a bit player, the reason why its importance stands so severely diminished. 

Asian Age, June 12, 2015

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Why it's OK to bend over backwards for Yoga Day

By Swapan Dasgupta

Until relatively recently, there were two prevailing stereotypes of India in the wider world but particularly in the West. The first, and by far the most unflattering image was that of a country where suffering, starvation, disease and butchery were the defining features of existence. The second was the picture of India as an exotic haven—where sadhus, mendicants, snake charmers, tigers, elephants and jewelled maharajas were in abundance. This was also the India of the mythical Indian rope trick and, of course, the mysterious art of yoga. 

To encapsulate the celebration of exoticism as ‘soft power’ would be a misnomer. Although Indian leaders harked back incessantly to the 5,000 years of antiquity, it carried little credibility, except to the small handful of those who made the heady trek to Varanasi and Kathmandu from the late-1960s. But that discovery of an alternative lifestyle had more to do with a momentary crisis of post-War Western civilisation than a conscious recognition of India’s soft power. In the ultimate analysis, the rules of international politics deemed that soft power could only be an appendage to ‘hard’ power—once military but now economic. Tragically, this is where India faltered. 

Soft power, by which we imply a curious mix of everything from Bollywood and Buddhism to cricket and yoga, vipasana and even transcendental meditation, became soft power only after India acquired economic muscle and Indians started making it big in spheres that were moulded by the capitalist ethos. When he travelled to England for the second Round Table Conference in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi was regarded as a curious mixture of a wily politician, a saint and a crank. He attracted the respect of all but his dedicated disciples were drawn by his asceticism, vegetarianism and even his travelling goat. The mainstream viewed him as a curious oddity. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the United States in October last year, he was in the middle of his punishing navratra fast. Yes, this did cause some bewilderment over diplomatic banquet arrangements but it wasn’t accompanied by sniggers and mirth. The Modi fans that trooped into Madison Square Gardens for the boisterous public rally were very different from the fans that Gandhi attracted to his temporary abode in London’s East End 83 years before. One difference was that Gandhi spoke for a subject people while Modi represented an assertive, rising power. In Gandhi’s case, his personal lifestyle was thought to be distinctly odd and quirky; in Modi’s case it was seen as India’s ability to blend modernity with traditional customs—and this included yoga. 

Yoga has become a byword for India’s soft power. It is today an international phenomenon that has successfully blended with a global concern for healthy body and a stress-free mind. Modi didn’t make yoga popular throughout the world. In seeking international recognition for yoga from the United Nations, he was aiming for two things: an institutionalisation of Indian soft power and, more important, highlighting the importance of heritage to an India that is prone to taking these things a bit too casually. International Yoga Day is not merely a diplomatic initiative, it also involves projecting India to itself.   

It was entirely predictable that yoga is still greeted with a measure of scepticism in some international quarters. Apart from being associated with a fashionable, new age lifestyle, it has drawn the ire of some religious figures who associate it with Hindu philosophy and ascetic practices. In its 1989 document Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI), the Catholic Church warned of the risks of yogic postures being mistaken for spiritual effects: “To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.” Likewise, some Islamic theologians have described yoga as un-Islamic and questioned the practice of the surya namaskar. 

That yoga owes its ancestry and its evolution to the practitioners of the sanatan dharma isn’t in any serious doubt. Nor can it be denied that the goal of oneness with the divine is at variance with the tradition of worship. However, opposing government involvement in Yoga Day because there is opposition from a section that doesn’t believe in the cross-fertilisation of different faiths is ridiculous. The cultural underpinnings of India are to a very large extent defined by a Hindu ancestry. This can neither be wished away nor artificially secularised (or even baptised). Yoga is a national heritage that cannot and should not be confined to a religious compartment. Nor must encouragement be given to those sections who reach for the gun at the mere mention of the term Hindu. If that happens, India runs the risk of repudiating its music, dance, literature and art. Most important, it runs the real danger of dislocating history from nationhood. 

India isn’t and must never become a Hindu state. Yet, as a nation we have been forged by bonds that also cover religions. Heritage isn’t born out of a laboratory or even government orders; it emerges from lived experiences and beliefs and practices that have been passed down for thousands of years. There is more to civilisation that art in museums. In yoga we are witnessing the globalisation of a living tradition. The move warrants encouragement and pride, not sectarian scepticism. The opposition is not merely to yoga, it is to the very idea of Indians engaging the world on their own terms.  

Sunday Pioneer, June 7, 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015

Conspiracy theories - India's honeymoon with Narendra Modi is far from over

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Reserve Bank of India Governor has an intriguing way of translating the complexities of monetary policy into everyday language. However, notwithstanding what Raghuram Rajan meant by a “Goldilocks policy”—or, more important, what market players felt he meant—he ensured that any euphoria over his long-overdue rate cut was tempered by a measure of wariness, bordering on confusion. 

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt attach sinister motives to Rajan giving the thumbs up to the “ just right” economic temperature of today but simultaneously spoiling the party by pointing to a big monsoon deficit that will lower growth in the coming months. However, even if the RBI Governor is exonerated on this unfair charge, the awkward truth is that the opponents of the Narendra Modi government will be looking for their own version of ‘achche din’ in the face of the country’s ‘bure din.’ To them, Rajan’s expression of concern over lower growth and higher inflation constitutes a moment of anticipation when Modi will falter and, maybe, even fall on his sword. 

This isn’t a caricature. Those involved in the hard slog of political mobilisation are normally circumspect in attaching undue significance to economic data and their translation into politics. However, the intellectual class tends to be less restrained. Ever since the Aam Aadmi Party coasted to an emphatic victory in the Delhi Assembly poll last January, the mood of those who sunk into depression after the general election results in May 2014 has undergone a discernible transformation. Many of them have come to believe that not only is India’s honeymoon with Modi over but that the ‘masses’ are now readying to atone for the past ‘misjudgment’. 

Take the recent intervention of Professor Akeel Bilgrami who, apart from holding a chair in Philosophy is also the Director of the South Asian Institute of Columbia University in New York. In an article in an Indian Left-liberal newspaper, Bilgrami wrote:  “In its dark night of the soul this past year, Indian politics saw two chinks of light beckon with some small encouragement. These apertures are tiny and tentative and one should be careful not to invest them with an optimism they do not warrant. Still, they are not nothing: first, the loss suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi Assembly elections…; second, the recently recurring agitation against the Land Acquisition Bill.” Presumably, the professor will now be encouraged to add another ray of beckoning light: a possible drought that could further unsettle the Modi regime. 

In a similar vein, sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan, now a professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, detected rays of hope in both the AAP victory in Delhi and the elevation of Sitaram Yechuri to General Secretary of the CPI(M). In a newspaper article he wrote poetically: “When we combine the Left and the Kejriwal-like struggles, we get a great jigsaw; a compost heap of ideas of a vision of India, speaking many dialects, providing for translation and articulating new visions of government and technology which bring nature back into the social contract and which link body and body politic in more dignified ways. Such a pulsating vision of India … offers itself as a re-examined experiment to stop the Modi juggernaut and recreate an India that can dream the music of different worlds. It may be a quilt patch but it will be holistic, mature and evolving in terms of its struggle. It might also get us beyond the mediocrity of our current obsessions.”

The use of ‘mediocrity’ to describe the fascinations and priorities of the present government at the Centre is revealing. In recent times it was first used by the intellectual architects of what has come to be known as ‘dynastic politics’ in the interregnum between Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in the summer of 1964 and the dynastic restoration in early-1966. In its May 29, 1965 editorial—a year after Nehru’s death—the Economic Weekly (the precursor to the Mumbai-based Economic and Political Weekly) noted the intellectual establishment’s disavowal of Lal Bahadur Shastri as a “pygmy” holding the fort till another enlightened soul (preferably with Nehru’s lineage) stepped in. Dripping with condescension, the Economic Weekly editorial however suggested that Nehru’s diminutive successor wasn’t totally unworthy: “The fact that the mediocrity of the Lal Bahadur team reflects the mediocrity of India as a nation need not necessarily make it any less the efficient as an engine of locomotion.”

The past isn’t necessarily a guide to future politics. However, experience suggests that the Nehru-Gandhi family has been hitherto adept in donning the mantle of Left politics to claw its way back into the reckoning. Those who see the coming together of disparate ‘people’s movements’ in a grand coalition to outflank the BJP and its coalition partners, probably see the Congress under Rahul Gandhi being a collateral victim of a quasi-subaltern upsurge dominated by enlightened NGOs, driven ex-civil servants and professors with experience in ‘alternative’ politics. But this celebration of the fragments is by no means universal. There are many more, like Bilgrami, that see the grand, anti-Modi resistance as being a Sonia Gandhi-led alliance of the Congress and the Left, with the likes of AAP and others playing bit supporting roles. 

The entire scheme is premised on the supposed upsurge against the amendments to the previous UPA regime’s Land Acquisition Act. As an idea, it even seems credible. However, before an apocalyptic picture of the Modi government crumbling in the face of a mass upsurge by angry and hungry peasants is internalised for seminar consumption, a cautionary note or two is advisable. First, regardless of the furore in Parliament and particularly the Rajya Sabha, it is striking that all attempts to build an extra-parliamentary movement against the Land Acquisition Ordinance have encountered less than lukewarm support. Rahul Gandhi began his second coming with the promise to re-enact Jawaharlal’s discovery of peasant politics in Pratapgarh nearly a century ago. However, with every passing day, the Congress leader has diversified his focus to cover every conceivable grievance. This may well be calculated strategy but it could also suggest that the Land Acquisition Ordinance by itself isn’t as big as issue as appears from a distance. 

Secondly, the likely rain deficit and the possibility of low crop yields is certain to prompt a significant rejig of the public spending priorities of the Centre. With the private sector underperforming, we are likely to witness a significant boost in spending on public works, not least to inject liquidity in the rural economy. The political prospects of the Modi government will depend substantially on how this programme is managed and how efficiently the delivery systems are put in place. In short, the belief that rural India will be victim of governmental indifference and will trigger a grand alliance of the poor against “neo-liberal economics” may turn out to be fanciful. 

In the past year, the performance of the Modi government may not have matched the exacting expectations of the optimists. Yet, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that in 12 months the government hasn’t really tripped up in any major way. Most important, its responses to crises—whether the evacuations in Yemen or the winter crop failures—have been reasonably purposeful. The Goldilocks economy has been sustained with targeted government action. This is a phenomenon that the academic critics of the regime have chosen to ignore, not least because it doesn’t correspond with the conviction that India’s choice last year was a colossal misjudgment. 

The Telegraph, June 5, 2015
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