Sunday, August 29, 2010

N-Bill intervention a boost for BJP

By Swapan Dasgupta

The passage of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill through Parliament was marked by a rare display of convergence. A Bill that was greeted with horror and outrage when it was first drafted was deftly modified to accommodate the objections raised by the Opposition, particularly the BJP. The final product may not satisfy everyone, not least those inclined to accommodate potential N-suppliers at any cost. But it constitutes the broadest consensus on a subject that will be crucial to India's transition to another energy regime.

The Government should, of course, be complimented for its pragmatic approach to a law the Prime Minister considers a key item in the welcome kit for the US President when he comes calling in November. Had the Cabinet persisted with the initial Rs 500 crore liability and the surreptitious attempts to make a mockery of the all-important clause 17b of the Bill, it would have had to engage in the same skulduggery that was last witnessed during the Trust vote in 2008. That, in turn, would have made President Obama's visit contentious.

Yet, it takes two to tango. If the UPA showed a willingness to pay heed to the opposition's objections and suggestions, it was also because the BJP shifted tack from its confused opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal to a policy of constructive engagement. It was, therefore, not merely Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Prithviraj Chauhan who chose to think of the BJP as the legitimate Opposition rather than as the 'enemy'; the BJP too undertook a much-needed course correction.

Contrary to some impressions, the tentative shift away from the cussed and disruptionist role played by the BJP in Parliament between 2004 and 2009, has not been easy. Those responsible for what I have often described as the 'Hizbollah-like' opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal succeeded in making the party look ridiculous to its large middle-class. The process was egged on by three factors.

First, there was a complete non-application of mind by the leadership. Stunned by its unexpected defeat in 2004, the top rung of the BJP seriously believed that unrelenting opposition would ensure that the fragile UPA dispensation would simply keel over. This belief owed as much to wishful thinking as to astrology but its net effect was paint the BJP as an obstructionist force.

Secondly, during the tenure of UPA-I, BJP moved away from the modernist plank that was a feature of the NDA Government. This was partly a reaction to the India Shining campaign's failure but it was also egged on the small trader impulses of those guiding the wider saffron movement. Thanks to this limited and blinkered vision, the BJP was unable to either present a coherent critique of the UPA's inept statist-welfare model or emerge as the natural party of rapid development. Consequently, Congress consolidated its traditional BPL vote and made deep inroads among the BJP's natural APL base.

Finally, following its 2004 defeat, the BJP abandoned all meaningful attempts to create a broad church party and retreated into an ideological ghetto. The growing importance of the RSS in the BJP may have been dictated by organisational imperatives but it led to serious distortions. The party leadership outsourced its strategic thinking to activists whose familiarity with a world beyond the committed was tenuous. This meant that the party didn't necessarily do what was right and necessary but tried to second-guess an RSS whose decision-making was at times guided by either flights of whimsy or based on eccentric inputs.

One major consequence of this over-reliance on a cultural body that is not naturally at ease with either politics or governance was the failure of the BJP to generate new blood. Rahul Gandhi's political impact may still be untested and based disproportionately on flattery and hype. However, the heir apparent has succeeded in creating a network on new talent. The BJP, on the other hand, has succeeded in repelling those who are committed to a non-Congress alternative but who have no connections with the RSS. The truncation of the NDA since 2004 is a reflection of the ghetto mentality that has overwhelmed a section of the BJP.

It is heartening that some of these dubious certitudes have been called into question by the leadership of the BJP parliamentary party. The party's role in the creation of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill marks the party's first worthwhile intervention in policy making at the Centre since 2004. It won't lead to an instant change in the popular perception of the party but it will give some reassurance to those Indians desperately searching for a worthwhile alternative to a blundering and complacent Congress.

Unfortunately, even this limited gain is in danger of being wiped out if the BJP now falls into a trap laid for it by the Congress. The 'saffron terror' issue is one where BJP must rebuff all attempts by extremists acting as custodians of Hindu interests to gain legitimacy. A resurrected Ayodhya dispute will be another test of its responsible nationalism. The Congress wants to paint the BJP as a party of narrow-minded fanatics out to destroy India's plural society. It wants to show that India's future isn't safe in the hands of such a force.

More than a thousand speeches, it is worthwhile policy engagements, like those on the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, which will persuade India to have another look at the BJP.

Sunday Pioneer, August 29, 2010






Friday, August 27, 2010

Climatic Arthashastra

By Swapan Dasgupta

In Agatha Christie's celebrated ABC Murders, the plot centres on the search for a serial killer who selected his victims by the letters of the alphabet: a Mrs Ascher in Andover, a Miss Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston and a cinema goer in Doncaster. The case tested Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" until he realised that the series of apparently purposeless murders were aimed at drawing attention away from one particular killing.

Whether the Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh is an avid reader of crime fiction isn't something that is public knowledge. In recent weeks, however, the Minister has earned himself the name Minister for Non-Clearance for the alacrity with which he has put a spanner in many projects. Apart from the big No to Vedanta's plans of using its plant in the Kalahandi district of Orissa to emerge as the foremost aluminium producer in the world, Ramesh has put on hold the land acquisition for the Rs 51,000 crore POSCO steel plant in the Jagatsinhpur district of Orissa, articulated his scepticism of plans to build Mumbai's second airport in Navi Mumbai and his Ministry has made public its plans to have another 'environmental' look at the new privately-promoted, picturesque Lavasa township in Maharashtra.

On the face of it, Ramesh has opened a multiple fronts, a feat that has won him the gushing praise of international jholawalas and all those in India in search of a big stick to beat 'big money' with—and this includes the Left-leaning editorial classes. Those activists who were put out of gear when Ramesh narrowly failed to subvert the national consensus at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change have suddenly found something to cheer about. The inscrutable functionaries of the People's Republic of China haven't as yet reacted publicly to their favourite Indian minister's preening triumphalism. But considering Beijing's vested interest in what The Economist has described as "a colonial-style trade relationship that is hugely favourable to China", any measure that curtails India's own value-addition to its own mineral wealth will be viewed with satisfaction in China.

Politically speaking—although Ramesh steadfastly denies any political agenda—the Minister has chosen his targets with care and due diligence. On the face of it, he has targeted two states: one ruled by the anti-Congress Biju Janata Dal and the other by a Congress-NCP coalition. But this apparent even-handedness seems an elaborate eye-wash since it is unlikely that the Centre will compromise the future economic viability of Mumbai or risk an open confrontation with its NCP partner. Like the ABC killer, Ramesh has tried to conceal his real target through decoys.

Bearing the brunt of the Ramesh offensive is the 11-year-old Orissa government of Naveen Patnaik. Unlike most other modernisers, the soft-spoken, aesthete Chief Minister does not flaunt his commitment on his sleeve. Having aroused the hopes of a backward state that is not on the radar of the babalog elite, Patnaik has proceeded with extreme sensitivity to the delicate question of land acquisition. Despite extreme provocation from politically-inspired agitators, he has refrained from heavy-handed police tactics and put in place an extremely generous rehabilitation policy.

The owners of 1,877 betel vines in the 4,004 acres required by the POSCO plant, for example, have been promised Rs 17 lakh per acre of acre of agricultural land plus a dole of Rs 2,250 per month till a family member secured employment in the steel plant. It may be mentioned that 3,556 acres of the 4,004 to be leased to POSCO is government land. Oriya appetite has also been whetted by the state government decision to ensure that 90 per cent of the jobs created go to people from Orissa, a decision that has left the South Korean promoter dissatisfied.

The report of a sub-committee of the N.C.Saxena committee which formed the basis of Ramesh's peremptory 'stop work' order has found niggling faults with the POSCO land acquisition process. These objections, predictably, will be set aside in the coming months. But the delay is certain to give a fillip to the anti-POSCO brigade, disrupt all schedules and even raise costs. These don't concern Ramesh. He is looking to create a situation whereby public faith in Patnaik's ability to manage Orissa's development is called into question. More important, by seeking to identify Patnaik with 'big money', he is aiming to hit at the Chief Minister's credentials as a leader of unimpeachable integrity. This would explain why the inexplicable order on the POSCO project has been carefully linked to the denial of bauxite mining rights to Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills.

In his triumphalist media interactions last Tuesday, Ramesh made it seem that a pathetic Patnaik had come to him pleading for Anil Agarwal. "I merely listened, smiled, and did not say anything", he said with an air of smug superiority. The subtext was gin clear: 'who the hell is the Orissa CM?'

Ramesh's arrogance arises from two factors. First, by getting a member of the activists-dominated National Advisory Council to do his hatchet job, he has painted the war on Orissa as Sonia Gandhi's project. Secondly, he carefully timed his decisions to coincide with Rahul Gandhi's rally in Kalahandi. These are clear signals to the Prime Minister to refrain from protesting too much. Ramesh's admirers also say he has also got his own back on P.Chidambaram who once sat on Vedanta's Board of Directors.

India needs to take environmental concerns seriously and follow laws—although laws can't be applied retrospectively and goalposts can't be constantly shifted. It's also a great idea institutionalise a local stake in the region's future growth. But these causes aren't going to be served by converting the Environment Ministry into an instrument of blackmail and recrimination. Indira Gandhi used planning to settle political scores and dish out favours. Environment clearances are turning out to be the new instruments of political control in a market economy. Today it is Orissa; tomorrow it will be another non-Congress state.

Deccan Chronicle, August 27, 2010






Monday, August 23, 2010

Let Pakistan stew in its own juice

By Swapan Dasgupta

Around the time the authorities in Pakistan first began appealing for international assistance to help the victims of the devastating floods—what the UN, with characteristic hyperbole, has called the "greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history"—I was driven to send a Tweet: "Pak…has specialised in milking adversity for profit."

Predictably, the message drew many adverse comments. I was charged with insensitivity, narrow-mindedness and what not. The underlying theme was that suffering is suffering and there was no need to politicise it. Fearing I may have dialled a wrong number, I opted out of this debate.

It now transpires I was being unduly squeamish. The past fortnight clearly suggests that my fears of Pakistani intentions aren't born out my own hateful prejudice: it is shared by much of the world, although they wouldn't be indiscreet to say so publicly.

Last week, the UN appealed to the world community to raise $460 million in aid. So far, according to the Wall Street Journal, around $228 million has been raised. Writing from Islamabad, the correspondent of London's Daily Telegraph noted: "International aid officials are struggling to raise funds for Pakistan because of what they call an 'image deficit'. Business leaders inside the country are also offering goods and services rather than cash in order to make sure funds are not misused."

The fears don't seem to be misplaced. Just as the military hardware donated to the Pakistan military by the West to fight the hateful Taliban in Afghanistan have a strange habit of being diverted to the eastern front, aid to Pakistan ends up in strange sort of places. It has been revealed that nearly $300 million of assistance for the 2005 earthquake that killed 80,000 people (mainly in the so-called "Azad Kashmir") were diverted to other, presumably worthwhile, causes. Syed Adil Gilani, the head of the Pakistan chapter of Transparency International told The Times (London) last week that of the estimated 87 billion Pakistan rupees spent by the Federal Flood Commission since 1977, anything between 60 to 70 per cent has been embezzled.

OK, you may well say that the failure to distinguish between public funds and private resources isn't exclusively a Pakistani failing. Those following the murky saga of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi would be inclined to believe that the awesome record of the Federal Flood Commission across the border may well be matched by those who, we have been promised, will be severely punished after our national pride has been salvaged in October.

However, before the sadbhavna brigade rushes to the facile conclusion that India and Pakistan are brothers-in-corruption, it is necessary to impose a small caveat. The money squandered or pocketed in connection with the CWG is money paid for by the beleaguered community of Indian taxpayers. Unlike the socialist 1960s when India led a ship-to-mouth existence and ministers went begging bowl in hand for aid, today's market-driven India taxes its own people and businesses and then proceeds to misuse the money.

Pakistan is cleverer. Our neighbour doesn't bother too much with internal generation of resources. It leverages its strategic importance to ensure that some gullible foreigner pays for its profligacy.

Pakistan has turned extortion into a fine art. In the 1980s, General Zia-ul Haq cleverly exploited Pakistan's position as the frontline state in the jihad against the godless 'evil empire' to ensure happy days for the military. After 9/11 and the initial shock of the 'with us or against us' threat issued by the Bush administration, Pakistan perfected the ability of "looking both ways"—British Prime Minister David Cameron's evocative phrase. The military was generously funded by the US, NATO countries, the Gulf states and China, and multilateral agencies underwrote the country's development. From this largesse, a significant amount was conveniently diverted to bankrolling the Taliban in Afghanistan, not to mention shadowy groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba which trained its guns on India. In other words, US and British soldiers in Afghanistan were being killed and maimed by weapons paid for by the American and British taxpayers. When West occasionally opened its eyes and threatened to choke the unending supply of dollars, Pakistan would simply retort 'no money, no cooperation'. The threats have always worked.

Pakistan has emerged as the world's most deft blackmail state. Now blessed with nuclear weapons and a quiet but unbreakable alliance with China, it is smiling all the way to the bank. Floods or earthquakes, democracy or dictatorship, LeT or A.Q.Khan, Pakistan has got away with murder because it knows exactly how to threaten and how to extort.

This may be why those noble souls in the West who donated so generously for Tsunami relief and for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti have suddenly become tight-fisted over Pakistan. And it is this 'image deficit' which prompted Pakistan to even accept the $5 million offered by India, a generous sum considering that China—now the world's second largest economy—has donated only $7.2 million. Recall that when India offered a larger sum in 2005 for the victims of the earthquake, Pakistan left the gift unopened.

India's liberal chatterati say that we should be honoured and flattered that Pakistan accepted our donation. They say we should give more. For what? Must the guns to be deployed in the next terror attack be paid for by the Indian taxpayer?

There is a simple way out: let Pakistan stew in its own juice.

Sunday Pioneer, August 22, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

Right and wrong

A battle between the Republic and democracy in New York

By Swapan Dasgupta

In an essay published in 1985, Irving Kristol, the 'godfather of the Neoconservative movement', quoted a political scientist as saying that American democracy is based on one key assumption: "that the people are usually sensible, but rarely wise." The American system of government, with its elaborate checks and balances and separation of powers, he contended, was geared towards ensuring that the popular will would ultimately prevail.

The operative term was "ultimately". "Short of the ultimate", Kristol wrote, "the Founders thought it appropriate that popular sentiments should be delayed in their course, refracted in their expression, revised in their enactment, so that a more deliberate public opinion could prevail over a transient public opinion."

Kristol was addressing a debate then raging in the US over school prayer and crime and liberal fears of a rampaging populism that would brush aside the principles on which the Republic had been founded. The debate, in any case, was not new. Throughout its history, the US has led a schizoid existence. Till the defeat of the southern Confederacy in the Civil War, its lofty espousal of freedom jarred against the reality of slavery; and till President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights legislation, some Americans could well have been said to be more equal than others.

Nor was it a case of some white bigots in the southern states violating the enlightened principles that shaped the US Constitution. Dixieland's resistance to the complete abolition of slavery was based on the principle that individual states of the Republic had a right to choose their own course of action, unhindered by Federal intrusiveness and Yankee notions of correctness. Both sides in the Civil War could fall back on both public opinion and the Constitution. The dispute was, quite predictably, settled by force—not merely in the battlefield of Gettysburg but again a hundred years later in Birmingham, Alabama, when federal forces were despatched to escort a handful of scared Black students to a de-segregated school.

The battle between the lofty embellishments of Republicanism and populist democracy has re-surfaced in the passionate controversy over the proposed construction of an Islamic Centre, better known as Ground-Zero Mosque, on a site a stone's throw from where the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre stood till that horrible September 11 morning. Coming in the wake of the mid-term elections to the US Congress, the controversy has escalated into a clash between two Americas—one which ostensibly swears by the Constitution and one which waves the Flag.

If the editorial columns of the 'respectable' media are any indication, it is a simple battle between (pro-mosque) enlightenment and (anti-mosque) bigotry. The former has the unequivocal backing of intellectuals, the First Amendment and critical endorsements from President Barak Obama and the Mayor of New York. The latter may be burdened by the philological clumsiness of Sarah Palin, the Islamophobia of Newt Gingrich and absence from the soirées of Manhattan, but it has the endorsement (or so the polls say) of nearly two-thirds of America. This has been compelling enough, particularly in an election year, for Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and New York Governor David Paterson to call for a review of the project. The force of public indignation against Cordova House, as the Islamic Centre will be called, was also sufficient to transform Obama's categorical support at the White House iftar into evasive waffle a day later, prompting one writer to dub him a "stubborn man without conviction".

On the face of it, the pro-mosque lobby is on strong grounds. The US Constitution allows every citizen the unhindered right to both preach and practice faith, without any interference from the state. The rigid separation of state and faith, which was originally intended to forestall any partiality to or discrimination against non-conformist Christian sects, has now come to the aid of a religion that is outside the Judaeo-Christian framework. The universalism of their Constitution has now come to haunt Americans.

The only possible way the construction of the Ground-Zero Mosque can be legally prevented is by denying it planning permission. This was the route taken by a local authority in Britain to stop a Tabligi Jamaat mosque from being built at a site overlooking the main stadium for the 2012 Olympic Games. But with state control being far more tenuous in the US and New York's Mayor having given the project his blessings, a governmental veto of the project seems unlikely. This may explain the attempt by New York Governor Paterson to persuade the developers to voluntarily abandon plans to build at this particular site and, instead, opt for a more non-contentious venue.

The opposition to Cordova House isn't based on a challenge to the constitutional right of Muslims to build either a mosque or a community centre. The issue is the alleged 'insensitivity' (some would say provocation) of building it so close to a place where 3,000 people were killed by terrorists claiming to speak for Islam. Would it be proper, ask the sceptics, to build a Japanese war memorial at Pearl Harbour?

The promoters of the project have claimed that Cordova House is aimed at promoting inter-faith understanding. However, this has been greeted by scepticism on account of a history of Islamic triumphalism and the tendency of Muslim rulers in distant lands to build a mosque to commemorate a victory. Regardless of the intentions of the Imam in charge of the project, and even his reputation as an authority on Sufism, the fear is that sooner or later the building will come to symbolise a victory monument and become a hub of Islamist extremism. Sinister meaning has even been attached to the use of Cordova, a city that once symbolised Islam's inroads into the Christian world.

Curiously, one facet of the controversy appears to be troubling both the liberal, non-Muslim supporters of the mosque and their flag-waving opponents. Both fear that whatever the final outcome, the controversy will sharpen the polarisation between Islam and the West and have a negative impact on US foreign policy in the Islamic world.

The fear is justified although, ironically, the debate over Cordova House is only peripherally a tussle between Islam and America. The controversy is really another chapter in the battle between the Republic and democracy. Americans, a historian presciently observed, "Americans erected their constitutional roof before they put up their national walls…and the Constitution became a substitute for a deeper kind of national identity."

The problem was initially addressed by two filters: the first by an enforced compromise between the brash 'frontier spirit' and lofty 'aristocratic' values, and secondly, by forcing newcomers into a melting pot of Judaeo-Christian values. However, the evolution of the American 'nation' appears to have been derailed by the emergence of a new, disparate America which may in time resemble an ethnic menagerie, bound by a Constitution that was written with a relatively cohesive society in mind. The groundswell from below over the Ground Zero sacrilege constitutes the spirited protest of an older and somewhat endangered 'national identity' which appeared to have been subsumed by the Obama landslide of 2008 but is actually alive and kicking. It is basically a plea to the governing elites—where the liberal self-image counts for too much—to not allow permissiveness to override common decencies.

A mosque overlooking the scene of the 9/11 won't reinforce America's image as a haven of enlightened tolerance; it may set it apart as a country unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

The Telegraph, August 20, 2010











Sunday, August 15, 2010

This August 15, face the reality of Kashmir

By Swapan Dasgupta
This August 15, our world has been turned upside down. For the past two months, the Kashmir Valley has been engulfed in an orgy of stone throwing directed against the civil government and the security forces. It has been widely described as the Kashmiri intifada, a tag calculated to generate oodles of romanticised angst. Nearly 45 people, many of them children, have died as harried security forces have attempted to restore order. Quite predictably, each death has bolstered a caricatured view of brave but desperate protestors being felled by the lathis and guns of an uncaring colonial power.
For the propagandists of the yet unspecified azadi, the upsurge has become the moment of liberation, a time to dispense with ambiguity. Behind the poetic justification of stoning, a romantic exile’s quiet but unmistakable endorsement of the fidayeen gunmen and the ridiculous recourse to pseud-speak (“Life here is Orwellian, Kafkaesque and Catch-22 all rolled into one”) is a more ominous development: the defiant proclamation that a ‘solution’ to the Kashmir problem isn’t possible within the Indian Union and the Indian Constitution.
A position that was once the prerogative of the likes of the fully-veiled Asiya Andrabi of Dukhtaran-e-Milat notoriety—even the stalwarts of the All Party Hurriyat Conference used to camouflage their subliminal desires in the demand for a tripartite agreement—has entered the mainstream discourse.
The Kashmir Valley has always nurtured a core group of highly motivated activists who never reconciled themselves to the accession of 1948. That was always a fact of life which provided succour to Pakistani adventurists determined to complete the “unfinished business of Partition.”  Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s Operation Gibraltar in 1965 was prompted by the belief that his tiny spark would light the proverbial prairie fire in the Kashmir Valley. The ISI made the same calculation when it eyed the protests of 1989-90 as an opportunity for an armed insurrection. But somehow, secessionism never got to the centre stage in the Kashmir Valley. Azadi was a template slogan for all occasions, akin to the labour movement’s Inquilab Zindabad . It was poetic rather than literal.
The threat to the Indian Union posed by the recent ‘spontaneous’ outbursts that even left the Hurriyat leadership feeling unwanted, shouldn’t be minimised. The ferocity of feeling and the visible show of hatred against all symbols of authority, particularly the Abdullah family, suggest that the old political recipes to soothe ruffled feathers will carry diminishing returns. No doubt Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meant well when he addressed the all-party delegation from Jammu and Kashmir last Monday. But with the wealth of ground reports at his disposal, he should have known that neither autonomy nor a committee exploring a public sector-driven employment generation scheme would address the situation. The protestors screaming azadi now mean what they shout; their eyes are on what they imagine is a bigger prize.
This grim reality may be unpalatable to those convinced that Kashmiriyat is inherently at odds with the doctrinaire Islamism that will darken the Kashmir Valley if the India link is snapped. This inability to face an awkward truth may explain the appealing suggestion that the stone chucking youth are actually crying out ‘to belong’ to an economically resurgent India and that New Delhi must respond with a kindness, generosity and opportunity.  
How the TV chatterati interpret events in Srinagar is of some importance in determining how Middle India sees the Kashmir problem. Since the last thing anyone wants is for youthful over-boisterousness to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash in the rest of India, there may be some merit in squeamishness and even wishful thinking. However, piousness on the air waves won’t change the ground reality. For the impressionable agitators living in emotional ghettos, the PM’s elegy, last week’s solidarity dharnas in New Delhi and supportive noises by Indian intellectuals have prompted one inescapable conclusion: India’s resolve to keep Kashmir a part of the Union is fast waning.
The perception may be a self-serving and a result of mistaking contrition for capitulation, but it nevertheless exists. On Independence Day, it may be time to introduce an alternative understanding of India, an India where indulgence also merges with unflinching resolve. 
Sunday Times of India, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010


By Swapan Dasgupta

In the turbulent late Sixties, when West Bengal began its long and unending spiral of decline, the creative minds of the state were engaged in two parallel pursuits. The more far-sighted of them packed their bags and got the hell out of an emerging nightmare. Those who stayed on immersed themselves headlong into a self-defeating radical enterprise that led to nowhere. 

For a long time, the battle of ideas was spiritedly fought on the crumbling walls of a Calcutta that cried out for urban renewal. The wall graffiti of those days was original, vivid and not without a trace of humour.
I particularly recall the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPI-M) parody of lines from Dwijendralal Roy’s play Chandragupta.  Gazing at the mighty river Indus, the all-conquering Alexander of Macedonia informs his general Seleucus, his fascination with the India that lies beyond: “Satya Seleucus ki bichita eiy desh: dine ora Naxal, rate Congress” (Truly Seleucus what a curious land this is: by day they are Naxals and at night, Congress).

The Naxalites emerged from the womb of the CPI(M) in 1967. But that uncomfortable reality didn’t stop Jyoti Basu, Pramode Dasgupta and Hare Krishna Konar from treating its wayward progeny as an instrument of “counter-revolution”. 

This perception wasn’t entirely unwarranted. It is now sufficiently clear that Indira Gandhi and Siddhartha Shankar Ray used the puerile shenanigans of the urban guerrillas to unleash a “white terror” that, besides decimating the Maoists, also put the CPI(M) out of business from 1971 to 1977. What Mao Zedong called “waving the red flag to attack the red flag” was successfully used in West Bengal, albeit at a very high cost.
Mamata Banerjee became active in the Congress when the Naxalites were in disarray and the CPI(M) had gone into hibernation in West Bengal. It is more than likely that she imbibed from her political mentors the tale of how the state was reclaimed for the Congress, albeit for just six years. For a long time, and throughout most of her lonely war against an all-powerful CPI(M), Ms Banerjee was content with only one aspect of the war: street battles and agitations. 

To add to an approach that firmly established her as the most potent symbol of resistance to the CPI(M), Ms Banerjee has, of late, added an all-important dimension: political strategy. Using the imagery of the legendary Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, she has added the “war of manoeuvre” to the “war of attrition”.
This week’s “non-political” rally organised by Ms Banerjee in Lalgarh, a hub of Maoist activity in West Midnapore district, led to a predictable furore in Parliament. Citing her olive leaf to the banned Communist Party of India(Maoist) and her stated misgivings over the death in a police encounter of its leader Azad, the Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley, said that “the principle of collective responsibility is being breached, and there is a disagreement on the policy of the government” towards the Maoists. The United Progressive Alliance government was deeply embarrassed by this forceful charge of incoherence. What made it worse was the revelation that at least two Maoist leaders wanted in connection with serious charges of rail sabotage and murder were open participants in the rally. 

Ironically, this attack, while deeply embarrassing for the Congress, may actually prove politically beneficial to Ms Banerjee. In playing footsie with the Maoists and their front organisations, the Trinamul Congress is moving with crafty, if cynical, pre-meditation. 

In throwing her weight behind the Maoist campaign against CPI(M)’s “high-handedness”, Ms Banerjee has earned herself the grudging but tactical support of West Bengal’s Left-liberal intelligentsia. This sub-strata of poets, artists and filmmakers amount to relatively little in today’s West Bengal. They are a pale shadow of the group that dominated and distorted Bengali intellectual life in the first three decades after Independence. Yet, their shift from being Left fellow-travellers to becoming Ms Banerjee’s camp followers — a process that the leader actively pursued and encouraged — is symptomatic of a larger process: the cracks in the Left edifice.
A reason for the Left Front dominance since 1977 is that it has created an umbrella big enough to accommodate all anti-Congress tendencies, except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On a parallel track, the Left has also pursued a policy of keeping the anti-Left forces deeply divided. The CPI(M)’s greatest success was in facilitating Ms Banerjee’s split from the parent Congress in 1996 and then driving her into the arms of a BJP which, in turn, drove away the Muslims from her. These two developments ensured that a divided anti-Left couldn’t cope with the electoral might of a united Left. Today, it is the Left which looks bedraggled, with Ms Banerjee having won over two important far-Left groups to complement her deep inroads into the Muslim vote. The Congress, many of whose leaders negotiated local peace treaties with the CPI(M), may not be happy with Ms Banerjee’s imperiousness and her devious ways. But, as the civic polls earlier this year showed, the alternative to breaking with Ms Banerjee is political oblivion. 

The Maoists are also important to Ms Banerjee in another way. Districts such as West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, where the Maoist influence is greatest, also happen to be areas where both the Trinamul Congress and the Congress have negligible ground presence. In using the Maoists to keep the CPI(M) on tenterhooks in its strongholds, Ms Banerjee is doubling her pressure on the ruling coalition. 

Yet, dalliance with the Maoists is potentially dangerous and can backfire, as many Nepali politicians will readily testify. Ms Banerjee’s covert understanding with the outlaws can, at best, endure till the CPI(M) is removed from power. After that, will she revert to the original doctrine she learnt as a cub political worker? But will the Maoists have acquired a stable base by then? Will Ms Banerjee then have to fall back on the Ray doctrine to eliminate her newest ally that has no faith in the niceties of constitutional politics? 

West Bengal’s tryst with violence, it would seem, is likely to persist after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee retreats into the Opposition benches. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, August 13, 2010 

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