Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tharoor go, save your class

By Swapan Dasgupta

The recent controversy to have hit the embarrassment-prone Minister of State Shashi Tharoor has been interpreted by some observers as a clash involving the ‘old’ and the emergent India. Tharoor’s cosmopolitanism, his willingness to tap social networking for political ends and his flamboyance, verging on exhibitionism, has been invoked to suggest a departure from the stodgy hypocrisy of Indian politics.

On his part, Tharoor consciously promoted his own superior distinctiveness, grabbed a disproportionate share of media space and riled colleagues with his smug superciliousness. Escalating resentment against the interloper was undeniably a factor behind trivial pickups, such as the one of his ‘cattle class’ tweet, turning into battles of a class war. The simmering tension between vernacular India and English-speaking India erupted into the open with Tharoor.

Apart from the fact that neither St Stephen’s nor the UN bureaucracy had equipped him to fight the ugliness of the class war, Tharoor was insufficiently attentive to the fact that unlike the media, diplomacy and even the professions, politics is not the preserve of the PLUs.

To survive in the cut throat world of netagiri, PLUs have to overcome their class background unless, of course, they are blessed by family ties.

An appreciation of the social turbulence that Tharoor predictably encountered in his first year in politics is not to endorse his argument that entrenched ‘vested interests’ picked on the new boy and gobbled him up for nashta. Being an orphan of Macaulay has its own problems in today’s India but the disability of upbringing is compounded if question marks are attached to the person’s integrity.

Rajiv Gandhi was treated with exceptional indulgence in the first two years of his prime ministerial life. However, once the Bofors scandal raised concerns over his integrity, particularly his family’s links to Ottavio Quattrocchi, he found himself being incessantly mocked at for being a babalog. The derision cost him the 1989 election.

In his interview to NDTV, Tharoor self-righteously proclaimed that in his long and distinguished career in international public diplomacy no one had ever raised a question about his integrity. He is absolutely right. As someone who has known him since 1972, I must confess a sense of bewilderment when the Delhi grapevine first started picking up whispers centred on the IPL bidding. Tharoor may be faulted or even appreciated for his earlier lapses but sleaze and Shashi didn’t seem co-terminus.

I have to confess that many of us have been deeply disappointed. The facts of the Sunanda Pushkar ‘sweat equity’ allotment are very damning. Tharoor’s deep involvement with the Kochi bid was an open secret and even an admitted fact. Delhi society was also fully aware of his liaison with Sunanda — he made the association pretty public — and his proposed marriage to her. She accompanied the Minister on what we presume was an official visit to Assam and there is TV footage of her being welcomed by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. There was nothing discreet or distant about the relationship. She was a lady much more than someone Tharoor ‘knew well’.

Under the circumstances, the extremely generous disbursement of free equity worth approximately Rs 70 crore (but whose worth could multiply nearly six times in five years) to Sunanda appears fishy to say the least. Tharoor has claimed that the arrangement owed to her ‘proven expertise’ in marketing and running businesses. It is a claim that appears to be based on unrecognised potential and has drawn derisory responses.

Equally, Tharoor’s suggestion that the attacks on Sunanda are indicative of gender bias has appeared expedient. The awkward conclusion is that cold business logic cannot justify such an incredibly lucrative bonanza for Sunanda. No wonder her denial that she is a ‘proxy’ for the Minister has been greeted with scepticism. Even the Congress has not been convinced that Tharoor and Sunanda are personally linked but professionally detached.

Tharoor has divulged many explosive details about the murkiness of the IPL. His attacks on Lalit Modi have struck a chord and put pressure on the BCCI to take a more direct interest in the business of the tournament. There are strong indications that Tharoor’s intervention may also facilitate the appointment of a professional CEO for IPL.

Likewise, Tharoor’s point about spreading cricket to Kerala is well taken and it is unlikely that Kochi will be deprived of its IPL team.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that Tharoor hasn’t been able to explain Sunanda’s stake in the Kochi team to everyone’s satisfaction. As a person well versed in the ways of the world, he was aware that it was the non-disclosure of a friendly loan of £ 373,000 from a colleague that led to the resignation of Peter Mandelson from the British Cabinet in 1996. He may have also been aware that generous salary increases and promotions to his girlfriend Shaha Riza led to the resignation of Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank president in 2007. Tharoor must, in addition, be only too familiar with the nepotism that sullied the record of his former boss, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

As an avowed believer in openness, transparency and probity in public life, Tharoor can hardly deny that this is an open and shut case and makes his continuation as a public servant untenable. It can hardly be his case that rectitude is an unworthy Anglo-Saxon ideal or simply a stick to beat Mayawati with.

Tharoor’s predicament should give no joy to those who have yearned for freshness in politics. He had his chance but let human frailties and the air of India cloud his judgement. His unavoidable fall will be celebrated by those who want politics to remain a closed shop. But for letting the side down so badly, he has only his cocksure arrogance to blame. A man who sought ‘new’ politics was brought down because he couldn’t rise above old politics. For the honour of his class he should step down.

Sunday Pioneer, April 18, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bent and beautiful India

Tharoor is only the symptom of a deeper malaise

By Swapan Dasgupta

Nearly eight years or so ago, just as India was settling into a state of newly-acquired prosperity, a political writer described the country’s upper echelons as being dominated by the “bent and the beautiful”. Today, that commentator is, alas, a high official in the prime minister’s office and gagged by concerns of propriety from proffering his comments on one of the most sordid scandals to hit the country, a scandal that serves to showcase a bent and beautiful India.

The irony of the turbulence that has shaken the Indian Premier League is that it coincides with the astonishing commercial success of an improvised game that departed from the niceties of traditional cricket. India’s domination of the economy of international cricket is one of the highlights of contemporary life and its implications have been profound.

In 1988-89, the great unwashed spent an hour each Sunday morning glued to an episode of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana; two decades later, some 32 evenings of March and April are taken up by a T20 fever that generates Rs 15,000 crore of economic activity. From a reverential preoccupation with a folksy, quasi-religious idiom of entertainment, India has changed gear to a fast-moving, choreographed amusement that involves the best international stars and oodles of glamour.

In the sphere of mass culture, the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, has done to today’s India what the Beatles did to Britain in the 1960s: secured an image overhaul. The Ambassador-dominated, shortage-ridden India of the past has been subsumed by a curious animal that breathes money, aspires to style and oozes self-confidence. The pom-pom girls at IPL matches may seem farcically tacky but their pathetic gyrations are lapped up by a crowd that is only too pleased to witness Caucasians dance to an Indian tune.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that the magnitude of the IPL’s success was unanticipated. When the initial auction for the teams took place four years ago, there were only a handful of corporate organizations which considered the high investments and the long gestation period as a risk worth taking. This may explain why there was a heavy dependence on high net-worth individuals and glamourous film stars. Today, that scepticism has yielded way to a bout of unbridled exuberance and expectations of near-instant returns. In addition, team loyalties, which seemed somewhat fragile in the first two years of the tournament, have given way to firmer attachments. Compared to the empty stands and the free tickets that were a feature of IPL-1 (IPL-2 was played in South Africa), IPL-3 has been a sell-out. Having an IPL team in the state has become a regional imperative and may explain why politicians are anxious to earn brownie points with the electorate by being perceived as cricket lovers.

It is the commercial and popular success of the IPL that is at the root of the present distortions caused entirely by the involvement of politicians. The controversy surrounding the flamboyant minister of state, Shashi Tharoor, illustrates the point vividly.

That Tharoor detected political opportunities in mentoring a consortium that was intent on giving Kochi an IPL team is understandable. Yet, his role was more than that of a benign ‘patron’, as he now claims. Tharoor took an active interest in the operational aspects of the bidding process. He personally called on various bigwigs in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, including Sharad Pawar and Arun Jaitley, before the auction and was present in Chennai around the time the bids were opened. After his consortium won the bid and chose Kochi, Tharoor exulted publicly and attempted to extract maximum political mileage for himself in Kerala. From being the outsider, he projected himself as the personification of Malayali pride.

It now transpires that Tharoor did more than assume the role of a mentor to the consortium: he offered them political protection against a rival political grouping promoting the interests of two unsuccessful bidders. According to details given to Business Standard on a non-attributable basis, two of the seven investors in Rendezvous Sports World were “summoned to the residence of a Union Cabinet minister and told to back off from bidding for Kochi or else. ‘We have many ways to take care of the likes of you’, the two… were told at the end of a conversation with the minister that began at 10pm and went on till 4am. They were told to go to Delhi to meet another minister from the same party, who… repeated: ‘Get out of the IPL. Sell the team.’” Other sources have indicated that Tharoor was used as the conduit to appeal to the Congress leadership to stop this harassment.

If Tharoor did indeed play knight in shining armour, fighting a political mafia, his role is laudable. However, it now seems that prior to taking up the political challenge, he was aware of and ‘supported’ the allotment of five per cent unpaid or sweat equity to Sunanda Pushkar for her marketing and networking expertise. The market value of the equity donated to Pushkar by RSW is anything between Rs 50 and Rs 70 crore, a sum that hardly stands up to the claim of being a “minor” stake in lieu of services rendered. It is estimated that in three years’ time the equity would be worth approximately Rs 500 crore. For this sum, almost every marketing guru in the world would have been queuing before the RSW offices with an application form.

It is a different matter that Tharoor’s liaison with Pushkar is an open secret in Delhi, with the venerable Press Trust of India reporting (a day before her stake holding became public) that the two planned to get married after the minister sorted out his divorce with his present wife. Since neither Tharoor nor Pushkar have denied their proximity, the surmise that the five per cent equity was for political consultancy rather than marketing expertise is legitimate. It’s a surmise that the Opposition too has made, and the resulting furore could bring Tharoor’s political career to an abrupt end.

However, Tharoor is only a symptom of the malaise. It must be remembered that he was brought into the RSW orbit only because the consortium rightly feared an organized bid to ‘fix’ the IPL auction. As commissioner, Modi has contributed enormously to the innovation of T20, popularizing it beyond the narrow circle of discerning cricket lovers and milking its commercial potential. At the same time, he has allowed himself to be buffeted by pressure from politicians who see it as a convenient business opportunity. At one time, politicians saw business as the milch cow of election funding and nurtured crony capitalism to ensure a reliable source of resources. Today, many politicians have begun to see business as an extension of politics and are less inclined to respect the relative autonomy of business. The IPL is in danger of falling prey to this shift in priorities and the hurdles put in the way of the Kochi franchise is indicative of the blurring of lines.

The shift has to be resisted, not least because cricket involves the public interest. The worst solution would be any increase in the government’s role in cricket administration. A more meaningful approach could involve complete transparency of financial transactions and the appointment of a professional chief executive accountable to a board made up of both the BCCI and the different franchise holders. Despite his pioneering role, Modi has shown that his neutrality and fairness cannot be taken for granted. Correctives are needed before the rot sets in deeper.


The Telegraph, April 16, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shoaib-Ayesha farce is legal disgrace for India

Now that the decks have been cleared for the Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik marriage on April 15, it is worth reflecting on the controversy that riveted the subcontinent for a week. Was it, as the brigade of the superior feels, a classic case of the media pandering to the base voyeuristic instincts of the great unwashed? Or, was it a contrived and cynical controversy that led to free publicity for two individuals, much to the embarrassment of two respectable families?

There is virtue in both assertions. The aam janata are conditioned to equate the private lives of celebrities with public interest and Sania was a star whose glamour quotient equalled Bollywood and cricketing greats. Her decision to marry Shoaib was governed by personal choice, but it didn't distract from a widespread perception that the groom was unworthy of the iconic Hyderabad girl. It was this undercurrent of disapproval for the interloper, also seen as a habitual predator, which fuelled gory interest in the charges of duplicity levelled by the proverbial 'other woman'. In the dogfight of reputations, Shoaib emerged as the clear loser and this ignominy may, unfortunately, rub off on his fiancé.

Yet, there was more to the filmi melodrama played out in Hyderabad than mere salacious titillation. The relationship of Shoaib and Ayesha Siddiqui has raised disturbing questions that centre on the cavalier misuse and manipulation of the laws and institutions governing the family.

A marriage is governed by well-defined laws or social and religious customs. That Shoaib could persistently deny the fact that the nikahnama involving him and Ayesha was valid suggests that there is a huge grey area surrounding non-codified practices. In Pakistan, a marriage has to be registered — which this nikahnama was not — to be valid, while there is as yet no obligation to do the same in India. Second, the nikah was conducted over telephone, an unusual practice that Shoaib seized upon to contest the reality of the marriage to Ayesha. Indeed, had it not been for some telltale archival TV footage, the threat of non-bailable arrest under the draconian Section 498(a) of the Indian Penal Code and the intervention of community elders, the cricketer may have raised the pitch, claimed harassment and turned the whole incident into an emotive but ugly Indo-Pak spat.

Yet, Shoaib's grudging admission of his marriage to Ayesha has in turn raised awkward questions. The elders in India upheld the legitimacy of an unregistered nikahnama contracted in Pakistan, where registration is obligatory. More to the point, they upheld a telephonic nikah — something clearly not anticipated in the religious texts. In the process they have opened the floodgates of dodgy, long-distance marriages where the bride and groom don't even have to be physically present. The scope for misuse is profound and equal in scale to the fixed-term muta marriages that are a cover for prostitution.

The disturbing implications of the Shoaib-Ayesha marriage don't stop here. The talaqnama negotiated between Shoaib and the Siddiqui family may have freed Ayesha from the unenviable status of a deserted wife and put an end to all criminal proceedings but the speed with which it was concluded is ominous. It suggests that the prescribed waiting period between the first two talaqs and the final divorce is largely illusory and can be circumvented according to convenience. In view of earlier rulings by Indian Muslim clerics that a peremptory triple talaq is valid even if the husband is either drunk or in a rage, the sanctioned fast-track divorce of a celebrity is certain to become a precedent, just as the telephone talaq by Chand Mohammed to Fiza in Chandigarh last year gave ideas to many.

It may interest Indians to note that Shoaib wouldn't have been able to secure such a speedy divorce in Islamic Pakistan. Ayub Khan's Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961, set out a 90-day timetable, including written notice and a formal hearing by an Arbitration Council, as the procedure for divorce. Even polygamy, a step Shoaib implicitly contemplated, involves cumbersome procedures in Pakistan, the violation of which could lead to imprisonment; in India, he could have had up to four wives quite casually.

Untainted by Zia-ul Haq's subsequent tweaking and some perverse court judgments, Pakistan has relatively more equitable laws governing Muslim marriages and divorce. In India, as the Shoaib-Ayesha tangle has so vividly demonstrated, Muslim personal laws are an unregulated open market, prone to arbitrariness, theological hair-splitting, expediency and social pressures. The shifts in social consciousness and perceptions of justice that have accompanied economic growth, women's empowerment and globalization are insufficiently reflected in India's patchy Anglo-Mohammedan law.

The bizarre Shoaib-Ayesha face-off was a legal farce and a national disgrace. In its elusive quest for a consensus, India can't afford to shelve personal law reform indefinitely.


Sunday Times of India, April 11, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Big town delusions, small town truths

[An article on Calcutta I wrote for an anniversary edition of the Times of India, Kolkata edition, April 2, 2010]

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially; at the same time,
its horizons have shrunk. If it is to be all that it thinks of itself as,
it must progress well beyond the reality of nostalgia as its biggest
industry, bandhs as its greatest success story, and beyond the
present opportunistic economy

By Swapan Dasgupta

While channel-surfing one lazy evening, I came across Karan Johar in
conversation with the lovely Bipasha Basu. Speaking about her childhood and early years, the Bong belle mentioned that she had grown up in Calcutta (as it was then called and what I am most comfortable calling it), blah, blah.

“A real small town girl,” retorted Karan, wallowing in his own cleverness. Bipasha looked a bit bewildered. A small town called Kolkata? Either Karan was an air-head par excellence or one of the canniest observers of contemporary India.

The celebrity Mumbaikar’s condescension towards this corner of eastern India reminded me of the time in 1972 when, as a wide-eyed 16-year old, I boarded the Rajdhani Express to Delhi and St Stephen’s College. Let alone any feeling of inadequacy in the Capital of India, the handful of us who wisely fled the academic chaos of Calcutta secretly harboured a sense of superiority. Compared to our classmates from Patna and Jaipur, not to mention the public school types from Doon and Ajmer, we knew that we had seen the bright lights of big city life — which they clearly had not.

What is more, we had also imbibed a good enough dose of the pseudo stuff to warrant that cultivated intense appearance - mainly to impress the girls. We knew the pronunciation of Camus and could, without even the hint of a concealed snigger, call something a Kafkaesque experience. We had even seen subtitled Japanese and French films.

Nostalgia is a bourgeoning cottage industry in today’s Kolkata. When Stephen Court became an inferno, the probashi Calcuttans exchanged stories of languid afternoons in Flury’s (where there was a waiter in the mid-1970s who was the spitting image of Brezhnev) and boozy lunches at Peter Cat. The more ancient among us looked back wistfully at the time when the Armenian College rugby team literally used to pulverize the opposition. Where are they now?

One after another, the landmarks of old Kolkata have disappeared. My parents spoke of the demolition of the Senate building of Calcutta University. I saw the grand front façade of Bengal Club being replaced by the Metro Rail headquarters, a building of incredible ugliness. In 1969, there was the ceremonial removal of all the grand bronze statues of the icons of the British Raj. With special glee, the United Front Government of the day kept the de-installation of Lord Curzon till the verylast. The grandest of all the Viceroys and, ironically, the man who protested most against the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1911, was being made to watch the winners rewrite the past in their own image.

The banishment of the imperial bronzes symbolised the end of gracious Kolkata. In 1970, Firpo’s and its Long Bar was turned into a market for the rag trade; the charming flea pit of Tiger cinema has gone; there is no Skyroom for fine dining, with its unspecified dress code, courteous service and an unchanging art-deco interior; and Sir Biren Mookerjee’s grand mansion on Harrington Street (the prehistoric name of Ho Chi Minh Sarani) and even Statesman House on Chowringhee Square sit in anticipation of the demolition man. If the levellers had had their way in 1969, the memorial to the Old Queen would have probably been renamed too, just as the Ochterlony Monument was.

Cities change and none more so than those that live through profound historical flux. There is precious little left of the Kolkata of my youth that can be passed on to another generation. That, perhaps, was only to be expected. Indians are particularly insensitive to history; they move on. Calcutta too has moved on, to a new Kolkata, to the marginalisation of the old North Kolkata, to the over-congestion of the once spacious expansion south of Park Street, to the creation of suburbs that stretch to Baruipur and beyond; and to the creation of a spanking New Town in Rajarhat.

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially. At the same time, its horizons have shrunk. Calcutta may not be the archetypal small town — a term we still associate with Bhubaneswar, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Durgapur. But it is definitely a provincial town--vibrant, but provincial

As with most things, there is an obvious economic explanation attached to the change in status.With the exception of tea, the old industries that sustained Kolkata have either died or are in terminal decline. Jute belongs to history; light engineering was devastated by the crippling power shortages of the 1980s and 1990s; and other heavy manufacturing was done in by the mindlessness of labour militancy. Kolkata has received the crumbs of IT; politics quashed the emergence of a hub for automobiles; and financial services never recovered from the flight of capital that began in the 1970s.

Kolkata merely leads the way in the number of successful bandhs.

The city is experiencing an unending crisis of opportunities. Life is good for those with an inherited house and an assured modest income. The trappings of the erstwhile big city are still in place: decent schools, good medical support, agreeable clubs with reasonably-priced food and drink, domestic help and friendly neighbourhoods. But this is offset by a collapse of future prospects.

The tell-tale signs of an improvised, jugaar economy stare at the visitor. The ubiquitous hawkers are everywhere, selling everything from cheap electronic imports from China to everyday clothes at unbelievably low prices. For the itinerant vendor who comes into the city each day from places as afar as Burdwan, trade is a facet of the subsistence economy. He competes against settled retailers, leveraging the absence of overheads and taxes to competitive advantage. Both the hawker and the small retailer are, however, confronted with a common challenge: the size of the overall cake doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.

It’s no longer a problem confined to the people who, in happier circumstances, would have sustained an organized services sector. The growing impoverishment of the abhijat middle classes has resulted in need-based Bengali entrepreneurship. Initially, there were the fast-food outlets run by venerable mashimas and the younger son in two ground floor rooms or even a garage. The more ambitious ones have converted charming old houses into small restaurants. The successful ones even have valet parking and accept Visa cards.

In the past year, the leveraging of prime real estate for extra income has taken another turn.Kolkata today boasts of innumerable ‘guest houses’ located inside middle-class homes. They cater for a wide range of people, from the travelling mid-level executive who would have otherwise stayed in a grotty C-class hotel to the overseas Bengali ‘doing’ Calcutta with his family. I would argue that these guesthouses have not merely appropriated a share of traditional hotel occupancy, they have in fact nurtured a new market for themselves.

The emergence of a new breed of bhadralok restaurateurs and hoteliers has been propelled by the quest for opportunities in a stagnant economy. In a fight for survival amid adversity, many Bengalis have had to reinvent themselves, eschew their inherited lordliness and abhorrence of commerce and assume new roles.

The reinvention was overdue. A curious feature of the economic stagnation of West Bengal is that it has affected the ethnic Bengalis in Kolkata far more than their Hindi-speaking counterparts. The
evidence of this is largely anecdotal. The managers of Kolkata’s five-star hotels have all pointed out that most of their prized clientele happened to be vegetarian and that the city is emerging as a major centre of innovative, multi-cuisine vegetarianism.

Whether the relative prosperity of Kolkata’s large non-Bengali elite owes to their businesses outside the state (tea in Assam and mining in Orissa and Jharkhand come readily to mind) awaits empirical verification but it does suggest an intriguing quirkiness to the story of economic stagnation.

The Bengali bhadrolok has traditionallybeen peripatetic -the Bong traveller is a figure of endearment and ridicule in most of India’s tourist spots - seeking opportunities wherever they presented themselves. The British were forever complaining of the ubiquitous babu who had planted himself in clerical jobs throughout the land. However, the establishment of a Bengali diaspora both within and outside India was complemented by a pulsating and vibrant Kolkata which was both home and the fountainhead of culture.

Today, Bengalis seem to be doing much, much better outside the home state. This has created a strange disequilibrium which has translated itself into the blunting of cultural dynamism. Culture always needs an economic surplus to sustain and patronise it. The artists of Kolkata have, for example, prospered on the evolution of a lucrative Indian art market in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Unfortunately, Bengali writers, poets and playwrights have had no such luck, their language defining the limits of marketability.

The net consequence has been a steady erosion of cultural dynamism
verging on debasement. You have only to see some of the more recent Tollywood productions or the Bangla serials on TV to realise the scale of cultural decline.

The self-assured, arrogant Calcutta of the past has died. It has been replaced by the Kolkata of genteel decay, by brashness and a gritty struggle for sheer survival. The city’s future now depends onits ability to confront the present and recover a lost inheritance. It’s cholbey na to the present and zindabad to the quest for another (elusive) utopia.

This poor, big, small town.

Times of India (Kolkata edition), April 2, 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

Without balance

The Congress’s hostility may add to Modi’s political standing

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indian jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise by law. In the case of the chief minister of Gujarat, a clutch of determined activists have turned the principle on its head. The starting point of the ‘liberal’ discourse on Gujarat is that the law is an ass and Narendra Modi is guilty of ‘genocide’, ‘mass murder’ and organizing an ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’ in 2002.

This epidemic of hyperbole would not have mattered had the abuses been confined to routine political sparring. Never mind C-grade politicians who love embellishments, even India’s intellectuals have a tradition of overstating their case — Lord Curzon once rued it as the Indian penchant for what the English called a ‘mare’s nest’. “Very often,” he noted bitterly, “a whole fabric of hypothesis is built out of nothing at all. Worthy people are extolled as heroes. Political opponents are branded as malefactors. Immoderate adjectives are flung about as though they had no significance. The writer no doubt did not mean to lie… As he writes in hyperbole, so he tends to think in hyperbole, and he ends by becoming blind to the truth.”

Curzon made that observation to the Calcutta University convocation in 1905. A hundred years later, we had the curious spectacle of one of India’s leading historians comparing the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s high-handedness in Nandigram to the Jallianwala Bagh killings!

The ‘truth’ that Curzon felt Indians had scant respect for is, of course, a matter of perception. In statecraft, however, there is a wall that separates political rhetoric and the legal process. In the case of Modi, that distinction has been sought to be obliterated by shrill groupthink. Modi may well be politically culpable for the administration’s failure to prevent the retaliatory killings of Muslims after the Godhra outrage of February 2002 — and this was a subtext of the 2002 and 2007 Gujarat assembly elections — but this is different from the unproven assertion that he conspired with the killers.

It is important to distinguish between political failure and criminal conspiracy. The inability of his opponents to defeat Modi electorally on two separate occasions has prompted them to seek legal recourse, using moral indignation and media outrage as pressure points on the judicial system. Modi’s detractors failed to influence voting behaviour in Gujarat but they succeeded in creating a polarized environment and unilaterally pronounced him personally guilty of mass murder. Eight years after the riots and despite many of the cases going to the Supreme Court, there is no first information report or charge against Modi. The special investigation team which questioned the chief minister exhaustively last Saturday can, of course, recommend that Modi has a legal case to answer but till that happens and till a court pronounces him guilty, the chief minister is innocent. This fundamental principle of jurisprudence holds good for every citizen of India, however exalted or lofty.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the SIT may conclude that there is no evidence to link Modi to a criminal conspiracy. Will that satisfy the activists or his political opponents? The answer is well known. Those who persist in describing Modi as a ‘mass murderer’ will continue to do so regardless of what the SIT or the courts decide.

The unending abuse of Modi by those who see themselves as enlightened may well be political grandstanding. But through sheer persistence, and some official patronage that began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has continued with the United Progressive Alliance, they have distorted the discourse to ensure that everything in Gujarat, including its spectacular economic progress, is viewed through the prism of the 2002 riots. Some non-governmental organizations even invoked the 2002 riots to denounce the Tata decision to shift its Nano manufacturing unit from Singur to Gujarat.

Sanctimonious shrillness, it would seem, has overwhelmed civilized conversation. The incredibly petty blacklisting of Amitabh Bachchan, and even his son Abhishek, by the Congress is in line with this wave of hysteria and intolerance. The owners of the Congress have their personal reasons for shunning the Bachchan family — the inside story of the great Gandhi-Bachchan fallout remains a subject of salacious gossip. In the normal course, this feud should be of little concern to the great unwashed. Nor has it affected the fortunes of the two families: both are distinguished in their own spheres. However, when a family feud is cynically linked to the standards of activist-determined correctness, it becomes a source of worry. By charging the brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism with implicitly endorsing the 2002 killings, the Congress has signalled a ban on any association with Gujarat. Despite their personal misgivings, Congress chief ministers have rushed to oblige someone’s flight of whimsy.

Conversely, as the Republic Day awards showed, Modi-baiting has become the route to a Padma honour and a compensation for forfeiture of deposits in elections.

The issue is not Bachchan. The Congress has imposed sanctions on a Gujarat that is celebrating the golden jubilee of its statehood. Last week, an attempt was made by activists, with the backing of the Congress, to prevent the Chief Justice of India from sharing the dais with the chief minister. Thankfully it didn’t work and constitutional decorum was maintained but the message was unmistakable: any association with Modi’s Gujarat will incur the Centre’s displeasure. It was a message to the Ambanis, Tatas and Adanis too.

An integral part of India has been declared a rogue state for having the temerity to elect Modi. Bachchan has the standing and perhaps even the self-confidence to withstand official pressure. Given the hostile public reaction to the Congress’s churlishness, the controversy may even help him get back some of his sheen. But many lesser beings may wilt under the threat of official pressure. In the liberal discourse on Modi, there is no pretence of balance: the khap panchayat of liberalism has pronounced him guilty. The clamour is for the Indian courts to endorse the verdict; those who resist, risk abuse and accusations of bigotry.

For the indefatigable chief minister, there is a definite sunny side to the Congress’s targeting of Big B. By equating the promotion of Gujarat with the deification of Modi, the party has added weight to the chief minister’s attempt to become synonymous with his state. An assault on Bachchan is certain to be regarded as an attempt by the Congress to deflate Gujarat. The resulting outburst of regional pride is calculated to give Modi’s political standing a further fillip. In the past, he has cleverly translated the ‘secular’ indignation over the riots into an attack on the self-respect of Gujarat. The Bachchan episode may help the veteran marginally but it has given Modi a brush to paint his opponents as petty and spiteful.

For India, however, there is a heavy price to be paid for the Congress’s ham-handed overkill. Competitive politics has hitherto been governed by a set of club rules that the mainstream parties have agreed to follow. The Congress has chosen to break the liberal assumptions of constitutional politics by setting bizarre standards of intolerance. Those with long memories will recall the unwritten ban on broadcasting Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency because the singer had the temerity to refuse to perform at a Youth Congress rally.

Hostile public reaction may well force the Congress to call off its hounds and allow normal politics to prevail once again. That would be prudent. If nothing else, there is a cruel irony behind embracing the vicious logic of the very rioters who equated the Godhra arsonists with an entire community.

The Telegraph, April 2, 2010

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