Monday, May 30, 2016

Partisan poll coverage puts media in the dock

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day after the first phase of voting last month in Assam, the political pages of the Delhi edition of a pink paper carried a curious report. It reported that the workers of the Congress Party had burst firecrackers celebrating the ground reports from Upper Assam that reported a huge consolidation of Muslim voters in its support. To be fair, the report also suggested that the BJP and its allies appeared to be doing spectacularly well in the urban centres, but this important detail was lost amid the gloating that followed the Congress’ premature celebrations.

The inclination of the media to put out positive stories in support of a side it is inclined towards isn’t new and nor is it a recent phenomenon. Throughout the recently-concluded round of Assembly elections, readers and viewers of what passes off as news were subjected to fiercely partisan accounts of the mood in the constituencies. In Assam, we were told that the Muslims were gradually veering round to the view that only the Congress was in a position to save the community from the BJP. This meant that the AUDF led by perfume trader Badruddin Ajmal was gradually being squeezed out of the race. The results revealed that the AUDF still retains its relevance and that the Congress too has a substantial Muslim support. Indeed, both the Congress and AUDF appear to have reduced themselves to becoming Muslim parties in Assam.

Likewise in West Bengal, a section of the media, particularly the ABP Group, the biggest media player in eastern India, actually launched a no-holds-barred attack on Mamata Banerjee. It not only created an environment to bring the Congress and the the CPI(M) together in an electoral alliance, but put out highly tendentious reports that suggested the unlikely combination was certain to win. The important distinction between what it thought to be preferable and an accurate description of what is actually happening on the ground was obliterated. So insidious was this campaign that most of the media were convinced till the early morning of May 19 that the Trinamool Congress would either lose or that the results would be tantalisingly close.

Finally, even in Tamil Nadu, the age old aversion of the media to a Jayalalithaa that accorded it absolutely no importance manifested itself again. This election didn’t result in a total, one-sided verdict — the DMK emerged a very respectable second and would probably have done even better had it not needlessly accommodated a Congress which is nothing short of being merely a letterhead in Tamil Nadu. However, the media seems to have quite deliberately overplayed the quantum of resentment in Chennai at the State Government’s apparent mishandling of the floods last year. If there was fierce and lingering resentment, it certainly didn’t manifest itself in the electoral outcome.

It was only in Kerala that we saw the media conduct itself quite professionally. Maybe this was due to the fact that there is a gentlemanly understanding between the two fronts and endorsing on or the other is part of a general consensus. The media reports suggested a genuine uncertainty over which combine would be most affected by the surge in support for the BJP, and this uncertainty was understandable. In the event, the UDF lost far more from the BJP’s spectacular advance to 15 per cent of the popular vote, than did the LDF. The BJP turned out to be a very effective anti-Congress spoiler.

The coverage and treatment of the Assembly elections of 2016 raises very important questions regarding the media’s larger role in a democracy. That media freedom is inalienable and is part of the larger democratic freedoms enjoyed by citizens is undeniable. The larger question that emerges is whether it is justified to view the media as a separate Fourth Estate any longer?

If these elections and the general election two years ago are any indication, the media is gradually shedding its autonomy and is becoming indistinguishable from the larger political process.

Its functioning suggests that the media is rapidly turning into fronts of political organisations. The allegiances may be negotiable and could even have a transactional dimension but the larger political purpose is unmistakable. Barring some important exceptions, the difference between journalism and political activism and between journalists and politicians are increasingly becoming blurred.

Maybe this is an old development and maybe editors have always seen themselves as waging political war by other means. However, as the consensual categories break down and India moves away from Congress domination, a need to formally acknowledge the shift is becoming paramount. By formally acknowledging its own demise, journalism may even end up enriching partisan politics. It will certainly make its job description more honest.

Sunday Pioneer, May 22, 2016


Mamata's experiments with a khichdri coalition

By Swapan Dasgupta 

Mamata Banerjee was fully entitled to enjoy her spectacular second-term victory by organising a grand swearing-in ceremony on the grand Red Road in Kolkata on Friday. It was by all accounts a difficult election campaign with a wide array of forces ranged against her. That she defied pre-existing electoral arithmetic and a vicious campaign launched against her by not only the CPI (M)-Congress combine, the intelligentsia and the biggest media house of the State made her victory all the more creditable.

Yet, while basking in her triumph, the Chief Minister of West Bengal was guilty of over-reading the significance of her conclusive victory against her old foes. Within minutes of it becoming apparent that she was sweeping the polls on May 19, her Trinamool Congress spokesman Derek O’Brien said on TV that it was but a small two-hour aeroplane ride from Kolkata to Delhi. Her Finance Minister Amit Mitra who resurrected the idea of a Federal Front echoed this sentiment. On her part, Mamata has not been so explicit but it was clear that she revelled at the fact that Friday’s swearing-in was attended by, among others, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. Apart from this, Arun Jaitley, Babul Supriyo and Ashok Gajapati Raju represented the Central Government.

True, there were important absentees. The Congress and Communists stayed away and even the Chief Ministers of neighbouring Orissa and Sikkim weren’t seen. And the formidable Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was probably too busy with her own ministry-making in Chennai to make a short flying visit to Kolkata.

Notwithstanding those who weren’t present — and there may be innocent explanations — the galaxy of State leaders present in Kolkata has certainly fuelled speculation that following the elections in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal, something interesting may be happening in all-India politics to build a viable national alternative to the BJP.

Before rushing to conclusions, it is pertinent to note that there are at least three models that are being experimented with —and almost simultaneously.

Sunday Pioneer, May 29, 2016

The first, preferred by the Congress, is the old United Progressive Alliance model with the Congress as the dominant player and other regional parties, ranging from the DMK, the Left and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) playing a supporting role. This approach acknowledges the diminished stature of the Congress but still accords it a role as a distinctive pole of national politics.

The second model that seems to have caught the fascination of Nitish Kumar attaches primary importance to alliances at the regional level where the dominant partner varies depending on circumstances. Thus, the RJD and his Janata Dal (U) that were the joint senior partners in Bihar, with the Congress playing a clear subordinate role. Nitish hopes that the experiment will be successfully replicated in Uttar Pradesh with the Samajwadi Party as the senior partner and maybe even in Punjab with a Congress-Aaam Aadmi Party alliance. For Nitish, the important thing is to ensure that the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance are defeated in the State elections. This will set the stage for the 2019 elections that could see the aggregate of State elections defeating the Narendra Modi Government. The nature of the central coalition and the choice of a leader can be negotiated subsequently. But Nitish, whose hatred for the BJP has assumed a somewhat strident proportion, clearly sees himself as a future Prime Minister, a project endorsed by Lalu Prasad who would love to be the last word in Bihar.

Finally, there is the Mamata model of the Federal Front. According to this model, a national coalition of regional parties that excludes the Congress, BJP and Left is the way forward in national politics. For Mamata’s Federal Front, the point of inspiration is the 2014 general election results in West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana where the regional parties prevailed and prevented the encroachment of the national parties. If 2019 results in the regional parties also prevailing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, there is a possibility of a patchwork coalition of regional parties prevailing at the Centre. Whereas Nitish sees the coalition being bound by secularism and anti-BJPism, Mamata sees the federal principle as the basis of unity.

On paper, each of these three alliances have a measure of electoral viability. However, there are two imponderables.

To begin with, their success depends on the Congress reconciling itself to the present 45 seats in the Lok Sabha and shedding all hopes of a national revival. It also presumes that all intra-regional rivalries being set aside for the sake of a larger national cause. However as the still-born Janata parivar unity demonstrated last year, this is easier said than done.

Above all, however, there is the vexed question of arithmetic and chemistry. The patchwork coalition works best in national politics when the dominant party is in decline and another national alternative hasn’t acquired sufficient momentum. This happened in 1996 and witnessed two fragile governments led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. By 1998, the pendulum had started swinging once again in favour of national parties. Experience suggests that federal and unitary impulses go hand in hand in India. While the region is all-important in Assembly polls, the nation becomes the point of concern during parliamentary polls.

Whether India will want a khichdi sarkar in 2019 is a moot point. Instead of focussing her energies on such a pipedream, Mamata should be better advised to address the pressing issues of West Bengal first and look to Delhi later. That is also an advice that should serve Nitish too.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The makeover of Modi and the remaking of India

By Swapan Dasgupta 

Maybe it was the resounding win in Assam just a week earlier or even the equally conclusive rejection of the principal opposition party in the same set of elections, but the commemoration of the second year of the Narendra Modi government has been significantly less tentative than the first.

The first year of any administration, especially one where the ministers are new to the job, invariably involves on-the-job learning and blending discovery with disappointments. For the Modi government, elected with the dizzying promise of ushering achhe din, there was first the discovery that its inheritance was dire. The belief that the return of political stability and decisiveness would automatically kickstart a listless economy was quickly shattered. The economy, it was quickly realized, would require prolonged healing. Equally, it was realized that radical prescriptions of change would have to be tempered because the country was loath to digest shock therapy. In short, effective governance would have to involve intelligent innovation, unending application and perseverance.

The government can boast tangible achievements that include a significant enhancement of India’s competitive edge, the upgradation of infrastructure, a focused foreign policy, devolution of resources to the states and, above all, a sharp reduction of corruption in official decision-making. Most important, the past two years have witnessed a steep rise in the energy levels of government. There was scarcely a month that went by without the launch of a significant initiative that touched some area of the citizen’s interaction with the government. These included lofty programmes such as the Swachh Bharat initiative that involved the daunting task of altering the popular mindset. By way of early returns, many of India’s railway stations are today cleaner than they have ever been in living memory.

In 2014, it was Modi’s perceived qualities of leadership that motivated voters — even in places where the BJP had only a nominal presence — to turn a parliamentary election into a quasi-presidential one. The two years of Modi is, therefore, equally an occasion to assess the evolution of a prime ministerial style.

The most striking difference between the Modi who was chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years and the man who is now Prime Minister is the extent to which he has tempered his aggression. True, Modi remains pugnacious at election rallies but in matters of state, his combativeness has been replaced by an eloquence that seeks to bring the disparate strands of India together. The passion that made him one of India’s foremost orators is intact, but has been replenished by a broadening of national concerns. In his Mann ki Baat, for example, there is a conscious desire to move beyond partisan political concerns and address societal themes that touch people’s daily lives. As Prime Minister, Modi is attempting to position himself above the daily bickering of politics. While this exposes him to charges of wilful silence on awkward subjects, it has also raised his profile to beyond that of a humdrum politician.

In line with his status as the unquestioned head of the government, Modi has tried to position himself above political dogma. Nominally, he may be rightwing but this is coupled with an astonishing show of flexibility that comes from doing what is necessary and what is effective. Thus, in view of the private sector’s inability to invest adequately in India’s growth, Modi has undertaken an expansionist approach that is best described as Keynesian.

Modified: As Prime Minister, Modi has tried to position himself above political dogma, showing flexibility to do what is necessary and effective

Schemes such as Aadhar and MNREGA that had been debunked by the BJP while in opposition have been revived because they have a contextual utility. And privatization, which the BJP favoured during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years, has been put in cold storage because it is deemed politically hazardous. For Modi, dogmatic absolutes have been substituted by managerial flexibility.

Finally, Modi has injected a sense of no-nonsense austerity into the lives and political styles of the political class. Whether it is the crackdown on needless foreign junkets or ministerial opulence, he has challenged the penchant for the easygoing and the shortcuts. Modi is governing by example and its impact is still skin-deep and the possibility of regression is still high. But if he has made a mark in just two years, the possibility of him reshaping India is enormous.

If Modi gets 10 years and doesn’t trip on his sword, the India of 2024 will be a vibrant country. More important, the Indian may be a very different being. We could be on the cusp of an exciting Modi Revolution. Only the ranks of the entitled and the chalta hai brigade need to be very afraid.

Sunday Times of India, May 29, 2016

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Trump's angry Whites versus Hilary's elites, Blacks and Hispanics

By Swapan Dasgupta


Among the biggest pitfalls of political analysis is the belief—sometimes not altogether self-conscious—that what we believe is desirable will translate into reality. All of us have, at some time or another, been guilty of such a misreading of the situation, and not necessarily because of ideological convictions. 


Last week, contrary to all the wisdom of punditry, the flamboyant billionaire businessman Donald Trump decimated all his remaining Republican opponents and emerged, for all practical purposes, as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election in November 2016. When he entered the race many months earlier, the pollsters gave Trump only a two per cent chance of negotiating the primaries successfully. He defied the collective wisdom of the punditry and the organised might of the Republican Establishment to prevail. The next few weeks before the Republican convention may witness another last minute attempt by the grandees to deprive him of the nomination. But with the party faithful rallying behind him, any last minute bid to foist a more ‘respectable’ candidate is doomed to failure. In democracies, manipulative politics is powerless in the face of popular fury. 


The Trump nomination has also set in motion a parallel explosion of conventional wisdom: the firm belief that November will witness the easy victory of Hilary Clinton. This confidence stems not so much from a larger international confidence in the wife of the former charismatic US President. The Democratic Party primaries have revealed the extent of Hilary’s vulnerability in the face of a popular onslaught. If a poorly funded, slightly maverick, self-professed socialist such as Senator Bernie Sanders could the well-oiled Clinton many nervous moments, imagine what Trump can do? 


Hilary may well end up as the first woman President of the US. But her victory against Trump isn’t by any means assured, as yet. 


It is tempting to portray Trump as a loose cannon blessed with a foul tongue and a repertoire of crazy conspiracy theories. The belief that such a man could only go so far and no further has been unendingly disproved over the past few months. Obviously, Trump’s wild politics strikes a chord among many Americans. While debunking those beliefs is easy, it is far more instructive to identify the basis of his undoubted appeal. Just as Indian politics isn’t determined by the Left-Liberal consensus of the newsrooms in Delhi or even the preferences of the insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi, the mood of America isn’t always gleamed from the self-comforting echo chambers of the campuses and financial wheeler-dealers. While their inputs should always be factored, they don’t constitute the whole story. 


To my mind, what makes the Trump campaign very potent is the fact that it has been able to tap the vast reservoirs of accumulated anger. When combined with fear, the cocktail is both hateful and explosive. 


At the top of the anger-filled agenda is the belief that the US has slipped from its divinely-ordained position as the world’s top dog. The Trump supporters believe that the once-mighty US of A is being kicked around by Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and an unscrupulous China on the other. American workers, they feel, are losing jobs and being reduced to impoverishment because they are hostages to transnational capitalism. Moreover, the demographic shift that has accompanied a permissive immigration policy has resulted in a huge mass of people who are no longer attached to the fundamental Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of the US. 


Most of these beliefs aren’t unique. Over the past two decades, the facets of American ‘declinology’ have been articulated by well-heeled think tanks. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan articulated the resentment against multilateral trading systems and the Harvard academic Samuel Huntington (better known for his Clash of Civilisations) wrote tellingly of immigration destroying the American ethos. 


Trump’s achievement has been in tying all these different strands of resentment into a single, angry narrative and a single slogan. For a man whose campaign has so far been largely self-funded and without the benefit of a large army of pollsters, speech writers and researchers, the achievement has been colossal. As a canny businessman Trump instinctively detected political openings and rushed to fill the void. Whereas his Republican opponents in the primaries focussed on their Christian credentials, Trump’s appeal was more wide ranging. Trump appealed to angry New Yorkers as well as those who felt short-changed by the ‘system.’ 


It is the fierce anti-Establishment thrust of the Trump campaign that should not be underestimated, and more so since Hilary is seen as the personification of everything that is rotten about a cosy consensus. But more than that, Trump scores by not accepting the neo-Conservative beliefs on the economy at face values. Indeed, at times the differences between Trump and Hilary’s Democratic rival Sanders is notional. It is this positioning that provides him the opening to appeal to traditional Democratic voters who are not driven by ethnicity. To put it starkly, against Hilary’s grand alliance of the educated, the Blacks and the Hispanics, Trump offers a grand alliance of angry white America. His only shortcoming is that he alienated women with a few incredibly stupid comments but he still has time to repair that damage. 


I believe that unless Trump scores a series of self-goals or unless Hilary somehow reinvents herself after securing the nomination, we are likely to see a riveting election whose outcome is not pre-determined. Decision makers in India should keep an open mind on developments in the US. 

Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2016


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Forget Obama’s lecture. Brexit is good for India

By Swapan Dasgupta


Imagine, for the sake of argument, that India was facing a crucial election whose outcome would determine its future course. Then consider the likely public reaction if the leader of a mighty country with which we have a “special relationship” flying down to Delhi and telling the people which way to vote. Worse, informing us that if the vote went differently, India would be relegated to the “back of the queue.” 


This is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom last week. President Obama flew down to London, lunched merrily with the Queen, presented a lovely wooden rocking horse to the young Prince George and then lectured Britons on what was good for them, because it was in his national interest. 


Obama’s intervention—laced with characteristic charm and smooth talking—centred on the June 23 referendum that will determine Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union. The stakes are high. If Britain votes for Brexit, it is calculated to have a knock on effect all over Europe and, conceivably, trigger the unravelling of the EU. As it is, there is widespread scepticism of the EU in France over immigration. And in southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, there is rage over what is perceived as a German-controlled EU. From economic austerity to unregulated immigration, almost every European country has a grudge against an emerging super-state. 


Yet, quite ironically, Obama’s gratuitous advice to British voters didn’t witness an uninhibited display of outrage and nationalistic flag waving—as it inevitably would have done in India. On the contrary, the Churchillian we-will-protect-our-sovereignty voices were (at least in the opinion polls) momentarily subsumed by the concerns of the risk-averse. There was jubilation in the City of London and among the so-called “Davos men” that Obama had successfully injected the profound fear of an uncertain future if Britain exited the EU. Yes, they asserted, the EU wasn’t perfect but the alternative was far more dreadful. If this trend persists for the next few weeks, the referendum outcome is likely to show that contemporary Britain has turned its back on history and embraced a new European identity. 


The forthcoming referendum may well suggest that, unlike emergent countries where nationalism has a profound emotional appeal, the more prosperous parts of the world are guided by economic pragmatism. To put its starkly, the Remain voters are more guided by a concern for their jobs, mortgages and pensions than the face of Britain changing with the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the EU countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And, for the moment, the Remain brigade appears to be the less-shrill majority. 


On the face of it, apart from the sheer quaintness of the campaign, Brexit doesn’t appear to excite the Indian imagination. The conventional wisdom in the corporate boardrooms and among the strategic community is that India would prefer a UK inside the EU. After all, thanks to the English language, London has become the new gateway to Europe, one of India’s larger trading partners. 


To my mind, apart from reflecting the American consensus, this quiet preference for the status quo is a typical risk-averse approach grounded in intellectual laziness. There is little by way of preparation in the event a majority of Britons decide they prefer to be governed by politicians in Westminster than bureaucrats in Brussels. 


That the final decision is beyond the control of New Delhi is undeniable. At the same time, India should be heartened by the robust enthusiasm of the pro-Brexit camp for developing closer economic ties—leading to possible Free Trade Agreements—with the Emergent Asia that includes India and China. Brexit actually permits India to develop an economic outpost in a European country. The EU is governed by abstract principles and its preachiness is infuriating; the UK being a “nation of shopkeepers” is by contrast flexible and driven by commercial calculations. India and Britain understand each other far better than an amorphous EU comprehends the exotic Orient. India would rather do business bilaterally with European countries than be weighed down by a monolithic Europe. 


At this stage of our development, India should welcome a little churning in the West. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union did us absolutely no harm. 

Sunday Times of India, May 1, 2016


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