Sunday, January 30, 2011

Islamist regime may follow Mubarak exit

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past week, the eyes of the world have been riveted on the turbulence that has gripped Egypt. The scenes of tens of thousands of young, largely male, unarmed demonstrators taunting the baton-wielding police and making a complete mockery of the nationwide curfew has been enthralling. Minus the overtly religious dimension, the upsurge is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran between 1978 and 1979 that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty and rendered his awesome security apparatus ineffective against organised mass fury. In just three days, a copycat variant of the Jasmine Revolution that sent Tunisia's Ben Ali into exile in Jeddah has sent out the unmistakable message that President Hosni Mubarak is now history.

The timing of Mubarak's formal departure from the seat of power in Cairo may not happen instantly: autocratic rulers accustomed to ruling uninhibitedly don't always give up as easily as Ben Ali. Like the Shah of Iran who appointed the liberal Opposition leader Shapoor Bakhtiyar in a desperate last-minute bid to thwart the inevitable, Mubarak could make a token gesture of accommodation to meet what he has admitted are the "legitimate grievances" of the people.

Tragically for him, it's already too late. Even in Washington, the mood is already veering towards regime change. A much-weakened US is aware it has few cards to play in Egypt. The only thing it can realistically hope for is for Mubarak to go fast, for the anger to subside fast and for a liberal democrat to step into the void and ensure that Egypt doesn't become another radical bastion in West Asia, a Sunni complement to an increasingly maverick Iran.

The real sub-text of the international concern over Egypt is the fear that it will join the forces of radical Islam and destabilise the precarious balance in West Asia.

The fears aren't entirely misplaced. The televised images of determined youngsters in jeans would suggest that the Egyptian outburst is a case of Facebook on the barricades, the 21st century equivalent of the student protests of 1968 in western Europe. Yet, the absence of visible symbols of religiosity in the protests—so unlike Iran where Ayatollah Khomeini personified the opposition to the Shah—shouldn't blind people to two disconcerting facts.

First, that since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the opposition to Mubarak's autocracy has been led by Islamists, both moderate and extremists. With its extensive penetration in civil society, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) has been the traditional and best organised opposition. It has apparently given up violence for the past two decades and the group has consciously chosen to play a supportive, rather than leadership, role in the recent mobilisation. But there is also the more militant Islamist resistance led by Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who recruited the likes of Mohammed Atta as suicide bombers.

It is naïve for the West to imagine that moderate opposition leaders such as the Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei can assume a credible role in any alternative dispensation without the support of the Islamist opposition. In Der Spiegel last week, ElBaradei defended the Ikhwan spiritedly: "We should demonising the Muslim Brotherhood…They have not committed any acts of violence in five decades. They too want change. If we want democracy and freedom, we have to include them instead of marginalising them."

Unfortunately ElBaradei's message of inclusiveness isn't likely to be reciprocated. Last Thursday's New York Times quoted conservative Muslim cleric Abu Omer as lamenting that "ElBaradei and the others, they have no connection with religion." Clearly, the idea of a secular Egypt is yet to be accepted by the so-called "Arab street".

Equally ominous is the fact that one of the main criticisms of Mubarak is his alleged "betrayal" of the Palestinian cause and his understanding with Israel. Mubarak was aware that the rapprochement with Israel that followed the Sadat-Begin agreement in Camp David was never popular in Egypt. He tried to deflect this uneasiness with a curious two-track approach: peace with Israel coupled with the benign indulgence of virulent anti-Semitism within the country.

This clever ploy hasn't worked. The young protestors, many of whom are linked to the apparently moderate Kifaya movement, are virulently anti-Israel. They want a reversal of the foreign policy of Sadat and Mubarak, a development that could bring Egypt closer to Syria and Iran and threaten the fragile peace of West Asia. This is more so because the Egyptian military has been generously equipped by the United States. The prospect of these weapons being directed at Israel is scary.

Ultimately, the future of Egypt rests in the hands of Egyptians. Egypt is a country that hasn't tasted liberal democracy. It's exasperation with Mubarak is understandable and the determination to oust a regime based on repression and crony capitalism is understandable. But change brings its own imponderables and the future of Egypt is a greater cause of concern than the future of, say, Tunisia and Myanmar.

There is nothing inevitable about the shape of post-Mubarak Egypt. There are many possibilities and the prophets of doom may well be proved wrong. However, the experience of Iran is a warning that the ouster of a hated regime through a popular uprising doesn't always result in the creation of something more wholesome. History is not always the story of mankind's unrelenting march to progress: one step forward often leads to two steps backward.

Sunday Pioneer, January 30, 2011

The India story is losing its plot

By Swapan Dasgupta

Over the past few days, many have remarked on the curious spectacle of TV anchors in colourful woollies talking to Indian notables in their cashmere overcoats about Indian issues amid idyllic snow-covered surroundings. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong in interrogating Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kamal Nath or, for that matter, Rahul Bajaj and Uday Kotak on the Indian economy and the "governance deficit". But why not do it in Delhi and Mumbai? Must we literally reduce the annual World Economic Forum jamboree in Davos to an 'India adda'?

These are not the envious and insolent gripes of someone who has never had the privilege of visiting Davos during the Rich List season. There is a larger issue. The WEF meet in Davos isn't by any reckoning an India seminar. While India isn't the incidental footnote it was in the early-1990s, global investors don't also see it as the obsession it was in 1492 when Columbus embarked on his search for the elusive western sea-route from Europe. "Amongst the delegates", wrote stockbroker Paul Fletcher in a blog from Davos, "there is a feeling that if we hear another session on demographics or China versus India we may protest."

Such a forthright disregard for the so-called 'India story' may understandably offend nationalist sentiments and bring on the West versus Rest polarisation that keeps many public intellectuals in business. But the harsh truth is that India has been sold, re-sold and re-re-sold in so many samosa and Sula evenings that it has lost novelty. The Davos lot is aware and excited by India's potential—who wouldn't be at the thought of a 91 million strong middle class by 2030? They are also aware but a little less moved by the realisation that calculating opportunity costs aren't among the inherited attributes of the timeless "ancient civilisation, new nation" (India's self-description in the billboards of Davos).

The irritation at the mismatch between words and deeds has begun to show: the latest report by the Reserve Bank of India shows that foreign direct investment in India declined by 36 per cent between April and September 2010 compared to the same period in 2009. This decline coincides with FDI growth of 17 per cent in non-Arab Asia. Whispers from North Block suggest that thanks to a rampaging Minister of Environment the story for the next six months may be equally discouraging. As talk of a "governance deficit" becomes all-pervasive, "India inclusive"—another promotional line in Davos—is increasingly being seen as the eyewash for 'India elusive'.

It is not as if those quizzed by the Indian media on the 2G licences and uncompetitive interest rates are unaware of the emerging wrinkles on the face of Bharat Mata. It is an open secret that the mood in Indian business circles is distinctly downbeat. They know that the 'India story' is meandering.

Yet, Davos 2011 has an India story, but a hidden one. On the face of it the CII is putting on a brave face, hosting the 'India adda'(which, incidentally, in colloquial Bangla, implies a convivial but purposeless interaction) and doggedly selling India as a worthwhile alternative to both China and the troubled West. As a collective, Indian business is doing its patriotic bit. At the level of the corporation, however, its Davos mission is different. The networking of corporate big-wigs is guided by a sharp eye for opportunities outside India, not least, in the West. India Inc is hedging its bets.

The trend is unmistakable. According to a Columbia University study, Indian companies invested more than $75 billion overseas between 2000 and 2010. This included some $14 billion invested by the Tata group in the United Kingdom. Indian companies are now the second largest investors in UK, the third largest in Germany and their investments in Indonesia may touch $15 billion. RBI figures reveal that Indian FDI in British Virgin Islands rose 102 per cent to touch $542 million in 2010; and in the Channel Islands it amounted to $516 million in 2010 against a modest $44 million in 2009. And these are just the 'white', kosher investments.

The reasons why Indian business is exploring alternatives to India are well known. For the past few years, the business environment has become increasingly wayward and unfriendly. From growing infrastructural bottlenecks to red-tape and corruption, the cost of business is becoming too expensive and troublesome. The larger stability needed for sustained growth has been replaced by social tension and political venality. Against these hassles, even the high-cost West seems tempting.

Global capitalism has a sharp antenna. Its stalwarts may leave Davos and its adda with a quirky poser: the future could belong to Indians but does it belong to India?

Sunday Times of India, January 30, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Literary noises

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were just two complaints I had of the Jaipur Literature Festival where I spent three very fulfilling days this week. The first was my utter exasperation with two gentlemen, appearing in rapid succession, who insisted on engaging me in conversation on the biases of TV channels. In normal circumstances I am happy to proffer my two- anna views on anything remotely linked to the media but on this occasion I may have been needlessly frosty. The reason: I was sitting quietly by myself, soaking in the wisdom, wackiness and poetry of Vikram Seth who was speaking at the tent barely 50 meters away. This was after all a literary festival and I had come to enjoy the fare.

The second occasion was two days earlier, when I failed to find a chair inside the marquee for a session by the South African-born writer J.M. Coetzee. Instead I found a place where I could at least hear this legendary figure, if not see him speak. Coetzee has a reputation for being incredibly shy and wary of public occasions and it was quite apparent that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Coetzee, not surprisingly, didn't speak about either the state of the world or agonise over his inner turmoil. He said he would read a short story which he had specially chosen for the occasion.

I made myself comfortable as he began his reading. I don't think he had even finished two sentences when his soft voice was overwhelmed by the vernacular chatter from a family of five that included a brattish eight-year-old boy, discussing their lunch. I tried a 'shshsh' and, instead, got strange looks. The chatter increased as two others on my left began speaking to their friends on the mobile phone about nothing in particular. My distant encounter with Coetzee was soured by the Great Indian Noise.

I tried to find another place but by then I had lost the thread of his narration.

The problem may well be attributed to something that fashionable writers call semiotics. A 'festival' conveys a multitude of meanings in the English context. The raucous weekend in Glastonbury each summer where people end up caked in mud is a festival in the more robust sense of the term. But festival is also the description for the gathering of genteel publishers, bibliophiles and others in the picturesque village of Hay-on-Wye.

In much of India, a festival implies a carnival, a fair and a mela. The idea that a group of people can sit in pin-drop silence (as those seated inside the marquee did) soaking in the story of an elderly gentleman about cats and Catholics, and then proceed to describe it as "good fun" would be absolutely preposterous to the family that kept me from enjoying Coetzee. In their minds, they were the ones having "fun" and enjoying a family outing on a Sunday; I was the weird guy insisting on some quiet in a public space.

India has a tradition of kavi sammellans and mushairas. But a Festival of Literature, made glamorous by exhaustive media coverage and the presence of beautiful people and even Bollywood notables is a novelty. The Kolkata Book Fair which attracts more than a lakh of visitors has evolved into a mela centred on stalls selling books. So too, as I discovered earlier this month, has the Vibrant Gujarat meet in Gandhinagar. The crowds flock to this event and even sat through seminars about investment opportunities in Newfoundland not because they were seeking investment avenues but because they craved a window to the world.

Colonial administrators often marvelled at the Indian penchant for tamasha. Many of those who found their way into the Literature Festival venue at Diggy Palace were unclear as to what exactly to expect. Some were excited by an earlier and quite baseless rumour that J.K. Rowling would be there to sign copies of the Harry Potter books; others imagined they could get some tips on creative writing; still others just felt it was the place to be. For all their undoubted popularity, even Martin Amis, Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai and David Finkel aren't exactly household names in this part of the Orient.

A section of the 60,000 or so people who dropped into the Festival did so because they wanted some exposure to the world of letters and to ideas that don't facilitate a MBA degree. Despite the purposeless demand for autographs of anyone who looked remotely 'famous' and inappropriate behaviour such as reserving every chair in sight and rudely walking out mid-session, there was also a realisation that arts, literature and non-vocational scholarship also have their place in an economically vibrant society. This recognition hasn't as yet manifested itself in more book buying—an average Indian print run is 2,000 copies and even the Festival bookshop sold just 9,000 books—and the growth of public libraries, but a start has been made.

As the Jaipur Literature Festival finds a place on the global map, the organisers will be under various pressures. There will be demands to regulate the crowds, to make it a paid, niche event and, at the very least, to ensure that there are fewer silly questions from the audience. There will also be demands to make it a festival of Indians engaging with other Indians on broadly India-centric themes and experiences. This implies excluding sessions such as one on the Nile by travel writer Anthony Sattin and the one by James Mather on the British Levant Company—both of which I found rewarding.

Both pressures must be resisted. The annual event in Jaipur has become what it is because a cockily resurgent India is the 'hot' story after China, and because Indians yearn, sometimes indiscriminately, for everything on offer globally.

I would rather tolerate my two high points of exasperation and inconvenience than see the soul taken out of the Jaipur experience.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, January 28, 2011


Friday, January 21, 2011

A much familiar weapon

Manmohan Singh's reshuffle has invoked pity and mirth

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the great paradoxes of the democratic way is the public yearning for strong, decisive leadership. The great 20th century heroes in non-totalitarian societies have either been saints (Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) or leaders with a marked touch of imperiousness (Charles De Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher).

India is no exception to this trend. Jawaharlal Nehru may be greatly admired by the liberal intelligentsia for his seminal contributions to the creation of democratic institutions. However, opinion polls have repeatedly confirmed that Indira Gandhi—whose democratic credentials were always suspect—remains, in the popular imagination, India's most admired Prime Minister. Her authoritarian conduct did result in a fierce electoral backlash in 1977. But that is because she broke the rules of the game with the Emergency. In general, however, her determined and haughty style of leadership was admired. The aam aadmi (if such a creature does indeed exist) revelled in the realisation that Mrs Gandhi was both respected and feared within her own party. She was, as former West Bengal Chief Minister Prafulla Chandra Sen feared and protested to the Syndicate when they first nominated her for the top job, truly a Ma Kali.

The importance of both fairness and fear in governance and political management was always acknowledged by imperial administrators in India. In his critique of what he perceived was the Viceroy Lord Irwin's generous accommodation of Mahatma Gandhi, Churchill told a rally of Empire loyalists in January 1931 that "It is never possible to make concessions to Orientals when they think you are weak or are afraid of them. If they once think they have got you at a disadvantage all their moods become violent, concessions are treated as valueless, and necessary acts of civil repression often only add to the flames."

It is no longer 'correct' to make broad generalisations based on ethnic or national stereotypes. However, Churchill's understanding of the behaviour of "Orientals" can be contrasted with other societies where fierce individualism is the norm, and where over-bearing leadership pays limited dividends, except perhaps in times of war.

On July 13, 1962, for example, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, hitherto an epitome of unflappability, did something completely out of character: at one stroke he sacked seven members of his Cabinet. The casualties of that 'Night of the Long Knives' included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord Chancellor, the Education Minister, the Defence Ministers and the Ministers responsible for Scotland and Wales. It was a political massacre, the likes of which had never been witnessed in Westminster. "I feel my neck all the time", Rab Butler, who escaped the massacre, confided to journalist Harold Evans, "to see if it is still there."

In his 'official biography' of Macmillan, Sir Alistair Horne suggested that the drastic action was actually prompted by something that, in hindsight, seems fairly routine: economic sluggishness. "By the summer of 1962, Macmillan reckoned that, like the human body, the British economy had developed a certain resistance to most medicines." The Prime Minister merely wanted to change the Chancellor of the Exchequer but he was also under public pressure to inject some new, younger blood into the Cabinet. In a moment of rare impetuosity, he decided to combine these two very different imperatives and ended up sacking one-third of his Cabinet.

The results were not rewarding. Far from being perceived as a leader who actually led, the Cabinet changes were seen as an indication of Macmillan's own vulnerability. "It astonished me", Lord Kilmuir the outgoing Lord Chancellor wrote in his memoirs, "that a man who had kept his head under the most severe stresses and strains should lose both nerve and judgment in this way…" Macmillan was later to describe Kilmuir as the "stupidest Lord Chancellor" but in this case the assessment was not wide off the mark. Macmillan's approval ratings fell from 47 per cent to 36 per cent in nine days. In hindsight, the Sunday Times headline "His own executioner" proved remarkably prescient.

The negative reaction owed to two factors. First, the impression that the Conservative Government's troubles, however grave, did not warrant a revolution; and secondly, that playing butcher was not part of the job description of a patrician Prime Minister. It was the larger understanding of the personality of Macmillan, rather than any British penchant for moderation that made the drastic reshuffle seems excessive and governed by personal considerations.

No such opprobrium was attached to the equally drastic reshuffle undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in September 1981 that led to the sacking of the Foreign Secretary, Education Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords. Thatcher's motives were unabashedly political: she wanted to recast the Cabinet in her own ideological image. This may not have been to the liking of the Tory grandees but it corresponded to her emerging 'Iron Lady' image. In short, a ruthless overhaul was something Britain expected from Thatcher. She was Britain's Indira Gandhi.

In normal times, there would have been few expectations of drastic change from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last Wednesday. Despite the Indian penchant for decisiveness of the Mrs Gandhi variety, past precedent wasn't an encouragement. The Kamaraj Plan that led to the redeployment of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai and S.K. Patil for party work hadn't been a great success; Mrs Gandhi's sacking of Desai as Finance Minister in 1969 triggered a chain of events that led to the Congress split; and Desai's dismissal of Charan Singh in 1978 deepened the fissures within the Janata Party.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times. In the 20 months since its re-election, the United Progressive Alliance Government has its way and become mired in corruption, mismanagement and non-performance. Despite the eight per cent growth of the economy, there is a recognition that India is slowing down due to the non-removal of infrastructural bottlenecks. In addition, far from regaining its status as the dominant party, the Congress has failed to make inroads in North India and has been seriously undermined by self-goals in its strongholds of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. A ministerial overhaul doesn't automatically address the problems of economic sluggishness and political disarray but is seen as an index of political resolve to address the decline.

Manmohan Singh has in the past withstood charges of weakness by juxtaposing it to decency and personal integrity. Unfortunately, the recent kerfuffle over corruption has marred the Prime Minister's image because he has been seen to be wilfully looking the other way. To redeem his own reputation, he had to be seen to be doing something that indicated that his core values were also the values of the Government. In short, he had to be seen to be retiring those who were either becoming a liability or were considered deadwood. The country expected a Night of the Long Knives.

Tragically for the Prime Minister, last Wednesday's much-awaited and much-hyped exercise has proved farcical. He has been shown to be lacking the political clout to drop even a single minister, including Manohar Singh Gill of 'Punjabi wedding' fame and those whose health prevents them from playing any meaningful role as ministers. Worse, he implicitly acknowledged the inadequacy of this reshuffle by promising another one after the Budget session. Where an axe was called for, he waved the all-too-familiar babu weapon, the transfer order.

Macmillan invoked disgust; Mrs Gandhi invoked shock and awe; but Manmohan Singh's reshuffle has invoked pity and mirth. Governments can withstand criticism but they are powerless to confront ridicule.

The Telegraph, January 21, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is it time to acknowledge the Gujarat miracle?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is a commentary on the bizarre priorities of our information order that investment commitments totalling $450 billion, equalling nearly one-third of India's GDP, are either ignored or put on par with anodyne political statements. This, however, is not the occasion to lament the lack of even-handedness in the treatment of anything remotely connected to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. It is the time to celebrate something that is fast becoming undeniable: the emergence of Gujarat as the economic powerhouse of India.

Last week, there was a stark contrast between a Gujarat bubbling with optimism and the rest of the country despairing over economic mismanagement and missed opportunities. It is not that all the MOUs signed at the 5th Vibrant Gujarat summit will be translated into reality. Many will remain paper commitments. But when the who's who of Indian industry line up to proclaim their faith in Gujarat as a wholesome place for investment, having already put their money where their mouth is, neither India nor the rest of the world can afford to be in denial.

The proclamations of faith in Gujarat are all the more meaningful because they have been made despite the Centre's unremitting displeasure with anything that could bolster Modi's credentials. Modi doesn't usually win awards for being the "Reformer of the Year" or for innovative governance. In fact, he doesn't even make it to the short-list. But he has invariably secured an unequivocal thumbs-up from those who have a real stake in the emergence of India as a world economic power.

The sceptics who insist that the rise and rise of Gujarat has little to do with the state government are partially right. Entrepreneurship and business are part of the Gujarati DNA, a reason why Mukesh Ambani stated that Reliance Industries has always proudly cloaked itself in the Gujarati business ethos. But Gujaratis have been under no obligation to sink their money into Gujarat: from Dholera to Durban, the world has been their karmabhoomi.

The reason why Gujarat has registered the highest, double-digit GDP growth in the past decade owes considerably to the targeted, business-friendly approach of its government. Four features stand out. The first is quick decision-making—what Modi has dubbed the "red carpet not red tape" approach. Ratan Tata, for example, recounted how the land allotment for the Nano project was completed in just three days, a quick-fire decision that has fetched Gujarat some Rs 30,000 crore in Tata group investments and direct employment for some 50,000 people.

The second feature is the curious phenomenon of the near-absence of political corruption at the top. Even Modi's worst enemies will not deny that the Chief Minister's fanatical personal integrity has had a salutary trickle-down effect. Irritated by politically-inspired extortion, industry has identified Gujarat as a place where it is possible to do ethical business.

Thirdly, Gujarat since 2002 has been marked by social peace. Particularly important for industry is the absence of rural unrest which unseated Tata Motors from West Bengal and is now so marked in Maharashtra and Karnataka. This is because Gujarat has bucked a national trend and is witnessing high growth in agriculture—last year the sector grew by 9.9 per cent. This means that farmers now have a stake in the larger prosperity of the state and aren't swayed by populists and Maoists.

Finally, the growth of Gujarat has been spurred by a philosophy of "minimum government and maximum governance". In plain language, this means that the state government has concentrated on creating the infrastructure for growth and left it to the private sector to get on with the job of actual wealth creation. In Gujarat, politicians don't talk the language of class conflict; they too mirror the preoccupation with dhanda (business). So all-pervasive is the respect for enterprise that even the children's amusement park in Ahmedabad has created kiddie games centred on the use of virtual money!

The extent to which this vibrant Gujarati capitalism will benefit Modi's national ambitions is difficult to predict. But one thing is certain. As Gujarat shines and acquires an economic momentum of its own, more and more businesses will find it worthwhile to channel a major chunk of their new investments into Gujarat. The Centre may not like the resulting uneven growth but the alternative is not to thwart Gujarat by political subterfuge—such as preventing public sector banks from engaging with the state government and the whimsical use of environmental regulations. Gujarat has shown that accelerated and sustained growth is possible when the state plays the role of an honest facilitator, rather than a controller.

Modi didn't create the Gujarati character; he was moulded by it. He merely gave it a contemporary thrust and an ethical dimension. If politicians focussed on these, India will be a much better place.

Sunday Times of India, January 16, 2011(END)

Friday, January 14, 2011

RSS must right itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Judged purely by the lax standards of short-term politics, it was understandable that the Congress would go to town with the 'confessions' of Swami Aseemananda, the militant Hindu activist who is being held as a terror suspect. Having been at the receiving end of an effective Opposition onslaught against corruption and Sonia Gandhi's links with the controversial Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, the ruling party was desperately in search of retaliatory fire. Aseemananda's testimony before a Magistrate which was conveniently leaked to an obliging media has given the party a half-decent talking point, though it is unlikely to shift popular focus from corruption and economic mismanagement.

The Congress may have also based its decision to focus on "Hindu terror" on the cynical calculation that the Muslim community, which is no less affected by inflation, may be deterred from reposing faith in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Certainly, Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh is doing his utmost to both exploit legitimate Muslim fears of retributive terror and simultaneously pander to conspiracy theorists who see the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai as a grand global conspiracy to defame Muslims. A book on 26/11 that Digvijay has been promoting, for example, is replete with incredible theories of a Zionist conspiracy in Mumbai that is as distasteful as the one surrounding the 9/11 attacks in New York. Underlying this approach is the belief, bolstered by the muted reaction to last September's Ayodhya judgment, that there is no likelihood of any voter consolidation on Hindu identity issues.

Yet, and notwithstanding the political grandstanding, there are serious issues involved in the furore over "Hindu terror". For a start, the testimony of Aseemananda, a man who was apparently moved by the plight of a Muslim boy wrongly held for involvement in the Mecca Masjid bombing in Hyderabad, cannot be dismissed as being fabricated. Like many religious figures who have taken to violence, Aseemananda apparently believed in the moral and ethical legitimacy of an eye-for-an-eye approach. He was well aware of the grave legal implications of implicating himself in the larger conspiracy and yet decided to tell the truth, as he saw it. Although there are legitimate questions surrounding the release of his testimony to the media, Aseemanda's version of events cannot be easily dismissed as either fabricated or obtained through coercion.

Read with the reports of the interrogations of Lt-Colonel Purohit and others charged with the Malegaon bombings, Aseemananda's testimony offers fascinating insights into the working of ultra-militant Hindu nationalists who felt they were serving the nation by inflicting pain on the Muslim community.

It would appear that there were two distinct conspiracies at work, albeit with some overlaps. First, there was the Abhinav Bharat group, which may well have begun as an intelligence gathering exercise by a section of the Military Intelligence but ended up as a rogue operation. Second, there was the group of Sunil Joshi which comprised of people with RSS links. The hand of Abhinav Bharat seems to have been present in the Malegaon blasts and there are reasons to suspect Joshi's involvement in the blasts at Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif Dargah. Although Joshi claimed to Aseemananda that his boys had also bombed the Samjhauta Express, there is no corroborative evidence to suggest the group had the requisite expertise to assemble such sophisticated IEDs.

Aseemananda was known to both groups and he appears as a common point of ideological inspiration. But apart from this link, the relationship between the two groups was laced with bitterness and rivalry. A bone of contention appears to be Indresh Kumar, a high RSS functionary on whose behalf the organisation went on public dharnas last year. Purohit and his associates seem to have regarded Indresh as an "ISI agent" and Abhinav Bharat didn't seem averse to the idea of assassinating RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Aseemananda's testimony indicates that Indresh had deep connections with the Joshi gang and may have facilitated their activities.

In a speech in Surat last Monday, RSS chief Bhagwat said that the "extremists" connected to terror had either dissociated themselves from the RSS or had been edged out by the organisation itself. "There is no place for radicals in the RSS", he claimed. Bhagwat's claim appears credible when viewed against the record of the Abhinav Bharat network. Many members of this network are, interestingly, still at large and persisting with their advocacy of aggressive Hindu nationalism. However, Bhagwat's charge of political vindictiveness falters in the case of Indresh who continues to hold an important post in the RSS. There is enough in the various testimonies to suggest that Indresh was recklessly flirting with those who didn't shirk from using terror.

Without the necessary corroborative evidence, it may be unfair to suggest Indresh was a mastermind or even a facilitator of either of the terror networks. However, there is no disputing the fact that he was mixed up with the most dubious of people. A high functionary of the RSS has to be circumspect about both his activities and his associations. Indresh, it would seem, was reckless. The RSS decision to stand by him may be a measure of its sense of regimental loyalty but is unlikely to be viewed by the larger community with the same degree of generosity and indulgence. It has certainly given the Congress a handy stick with which to beat both the RSS and the BJP.

Yet, there could be some redeeming political fallout from the larger "Hindu terror" controversy. Ever since the general election of 2004, there have been voices in the BJP arguing for a greater RSS detachment from day-to-day politics. Unfortunately, these voices have been subsumed by the RSS' steamroller approach. This over-involvement has led to political distortions and has cost the BJP politically. For its own sake, the RSS needs to first put its own house in order and save the BJP a lot of blushes.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, January 14, 2011



Monday, January 10, 2011

Using “Hindu terror” to grab headlines

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union was still around, there appeared a Red Joke Book in time for the Christmas market. The nice thing about the collection was its indiscriminate irreverence: it mocked both the capitalist West and the socialist East. One Stalin joke is worth repeating.

A delegation from his native Georgia, it seems, left Stalin's office after a long meeting. After they had left, Stalin realised that he couldn't find his favourite pipe. He promptly summoned the notorious Beria to find out if anyone from the delegation had purloined it. However, after some time, while rummaging through his own things, Stalin located the pipe under his table. He promptly telephoned Beria and asked him to release the Georgian visitors. "I am sorry Comrade", replied the KGB boss, "but half the delegation has already admitted taking your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."

At the risk of doing the newly-formed National Investigation Authority a colossal disservice, this Stalin joke came to mind upon reading the official drip-feed accounts of the confessions of Swami Aseemananda, the Bengali sadhu who is making headlines. It is not that there is any reason to disbelieve Aseemananda's statement, made before a Magistrate and therefore admissible in court, and equate it with the confessions Beria secured. My sources suggest that the swami made his statement voluntarily because he was insistent on telling the truth regardless of the consequences. The swami apparently believes that retributive terror is morally justified and may even say so in court.

Aseemananda's apparent determination to emerge as another Nathuram Godse fighting for a misplaced ideal is his own business. Such beliefs (if indeed he holds them) have no place in democratic life and any sympathy for such extremism is unwarranted. However, my concerns are different.

First, the confession is an important input into the investigations of at least four terrorist strikes that occurred between 2006 and 2007. Aseemananda was well connected with the network of extremist Hindus who believed in an eye-for-an-eye approach. It doesn't seem he was involved in the operational aspects of the bombings but he certainly provided intellectual inspiration and may even have given logistical and financial assistance to the field operatives. Every lead he has provided has to be rigorously pursued and examined, not least because catching the real culprits of the bombings is a national obligation for the investigative agencies. Equally, the investigators have to collect corroborative evidence so that the prosecution cases are able to withstand judicial scrutiny.

Given the inordinate importance of Aseemananda's confessional statement, it is bewildering that it has been supplied to the media even before all the leads provided by him have been pursued and suspects either interrogated or arrested. Any criminal lawyer will readily admit that the premature release of the prosecution's evidence can forewarn others who may be involved and enable them to take evasive action. So, why did the government make this statement available to the media last week?

The answer is self-evident: to extract every drop of political mileage from the confession and use it as another prop in the "Hindu terror" charge of the Congress against the BJP. Since Rahul Gandhi has been shown to have said that Hindu extremism is more dangerous than jihadi terror, the Breaking News must be made to demonstrate his prescience. Equally, "Hindu terror" constitutes a parallel narrative to the national preoccupation with Congress corruption.

That the government can risk compromising the larger investigation for two days of headlines is revealing. It is a pointer to the cynical politicisation of criminal investigations in India.

Secondly, there is something extremely curious about the way in which there is a rush to suggest that the Samjhauta Express bombing of February 18, 2007 was the handiwork of a gang headed by a RSS pracharak. With ruling out the possibility entirely, it would seem that Aseemananda's testimony doesn't provide any meaningful leads. It suggests that one Sunil Joshi had boasted to him that his men had carried out the bombings, and that even Aseemananda had discounted the claim.

In an ideal situation, the investigations have to find corroborative evidence to substantiate the point. Were the "Hindu" desperadoes technically equipped to make such sophisticated bombs? Did they have the logistical wherewithal to carry out the operation?

There is a larger international dimension as well. The US investigators have claimed, based on inputs from sources in Pakistan, that it was a Lashkar-e-Tayiba squad under Arif Qasmani that had carried out the blasts. This was an important basis for the UN Security Council decision to brand the LeT a terrorist organisation, a decision that has international ramifications. Does Aseemanda's testimony overturn these conclusions?

The answer is: highly unlikely. The theory that the Sunil Joshi gang carried out such an audacious operation can't yet be substantiated. But at the same time, to say so makes fantastic headlines at a time of political turbulence: BJP linked to terror, Zero losses in 2-G!

Where the country is yearning for a robust and rigorous approach to the war on terror where the culprits must be apprehended regardless of their political and religious cover, the government is seeking to earn political brownie points. Just like Beria did.

Sunday Pioneer, January 9, 2011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Binayak Sen became a cause celebre

By Swapan Dasgupta

At the risk of appearing to be callous or, indeed, flippant, it may be suggested that the elevation of Binayak Sen from a relatively unknown activist to a cause celebre is partly due to a dramatic image makeover. When Sen was arrested in May 2007 by the Chhattisgarh police on charges of aiding and abetting the Maoist insurgency, the photograph of him in circulation was that of a thickly bearded stereotype of the Bengali intellectual espousing unattainable radical causes over endless cups of tea and unfiltered cigarettes.

The Sen that appeared before the public in May 2009 after the Supreme Court granted him bail on grounds of ill health presented a striking departure. The lush beard had gone and, instead, there was the benign face of a man who had withstood two years of incarceration in inhospitable jails with fortitude. If the captions hadn't indicated this was Sen, he could have been easily mistaken for either a kindly primary school teacher or a jholawala with an NGO.

The earnestness, however, was intact. But if the pre-2007 portrait of a Bengali Che Guevara prone to reckless excitability was quaintly disturbing, the post-2009 image was distinctly non-threatening. Like the distracted Kobad Ghandy, Doon School's contribution to the Indian revolution, the Sen that smiled and posed for photographs after being sentenced to life imprisonment seemed incapable of either malevolence or subversion. He just didn't fit the mental picture of a dangerous man.

The striking mismatch between what TV images suggested and what the Sessions Court Judge in Raipur pronounced may help understand why the recent discourse on Sen has been so woefully one-sided. To the young and the impressionable, to the cause-hungry 'intellectuals' and to NRI grandees on their winter vacation, Chhattisgarh is India's Heart of Darkness. In this imagined state, governed by the political first-cousins of those who administer Gujarat, heavy-handed policing, law of the jungle, capitalist iniquity and the brutal suppression of tribal rights exist in equal measure.

"For the past several years", Sen is quoted by a PUCL pamphlet as declaiming shortly before his initial arrest, "we are seeing all over India—and, as part of that, in … Chhattisgarh as well—a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources, including land and water."

It is not that Sen's perception of a "concerted programme" of expropriation is widely shared, even by those horrified by the harshness of the sentence. If Amartya Sen in his scholarly avatar is any guide, democracy is the great corrective and India is about as rumbustious a democracy as you can get. In that case, is Chhattisgarh the rotten apple?

The prevailing discourse has presented the issue as a simple war between the forces of enlightenment and darkness. Sen was the barefoot doctor who attended to the sick and needy, articulated their hopes and fears, and raised his voice against state oppression. For that he was targeted, framed and sentenced. "If the High Court has its thinking straight and unbiased", declared the Nobel Prize winner Sen, "it will overturn the decision." Anything else, he argued, would imply that "as happened in Gujarat—justice is difficult to get in the state which is under the control of a political regime that is keen on justifying its policies, some of which are very deeply problematic, rather than bringing justice to a people living in Chhattisgarh…"

Such an assertion is astonishing in its arrogance. Disagreement with a judicial verdict is part of the democratic debate. But to assume that any alternative perspective implies a bent and biased system is rash. It has as much validity as Ilina Sen's outburst that state intolerance could compel dissidents to seek political asylum overseas.

Sen may or may not be an overground functionary of the Maoist underground that specialises in murder and extortion. At present, we can only go by the Sessions Court judgment. Yet, by leveraging the publicity surrounding his arrest and conviction, his supporters have given the Maoist insurgency unintended legitimacy. It is one thing to claim that the evidence against Sen has been planted by a vengeful police. That's a technical issue of evidence the higher courts will review. But 'human rights' activists have used their anger with the judgment to turn every TV studio into not merely an appellate court but a political forum to cast aspersions on the credentials of both the criminal justice system and Indian democracy.

The right to campaign peacefully for Sen is a feature of India's open society. However, the campaign's success in creating a paranoid discourse suggests interesting possibilities for those who have no time for the India we value and cherish.

Sunday Times of India, January 9, 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

Doughty crusader


By Swapan Dasgupta

The one criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that doesn't stand up to exacting scrutiny is that he doesn't know what's happening in his government. Singh may be habitually reticent and he may often feign ignorance and helplessness but that is not to suggest he is unaware.

The point is worth illustrating. The last occasion Singh spoke publicly on the unending growth versus environment controversy was at a media interaction on September 6 last year. Asked about industry's fear of the rampaging Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh, the PM proffered what seemed a tangential answer. We have, he said, no intention of reverting to the licence-permit raj.

The answer was revealing. Having played a part in blunting the jagged edges of over-regulation, Singh was able to see the headline-grabbing actions of Ramesh for what they really are: a resuscitation of controls, using a 'green' cover.

Unfortunately, the PM did with his penetrating insight what he has done with other great policy derailments: looked the other way. He may have tacitly encouraged Planning Commission chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia to ask if Ramesh knew the implications of chalking "no-go" areas for economic activity. He may also not have intervened to stop other inter-ministerial disputes involving the Ministry of Environment from spilling out into the open. But Ramesh has treated decorous voices of scepticism with all the swagger and brashness of a bully from the Praetorian Guard.

The rise and rise of Jairam Ramesh has been one of the most astonishing stories of 2010. An apparatchik with not even a hint of a mass base, he is today arguably the most powerful minister in the UPA-2 government. He has become to economic policy what Pranab Mukherjee is to political management. His reputation isn't based on his success in making India a more green and pleasant land but on his penchant for saying 'no'. In a polity where real power lies with the states, he has made his ministry the instrument of the Centre's intrusiveness, with devastating consequences.

Ramesh 'achievements' are awesome. He has blocked the largest FDI of Rs 51,000 crore by POSCO in Orissa, stymied the emergence of India as the largest aluminium producing hub in the world, disrupted the Rs 2,000 crore IPO of the first private sector-created hill station of Lavasa in Maharashtra and put a spanner in the works of two Jindal-promoted steel plants in Orissa and Chhattisgarh. The opportunity costs of his veto may well equal the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme budget!

That's not all. He has unilaterally flouted all guidelines and committed India at Cancun to positions that could undermine national sovereignty and jeopardise the country's future growth. He has shifted the parameters of India's environment diplomacy at both Copenhagen and Cancun, disregarding the advice of India's tried and tested negotiators. What is particularly striking is the dreary frequency with which he has personally repudiated the inviolable red lines of India's global positions, much to the amusement of the rest of the world.

In between, he has questioned the government's approach to national security during a visit to China and batted shamelessly for Chinese companies, presumably in pursuit of his Chindia pipedream. More astonishing, Ramesh has done all this and more after repeatedly rubbing the PM and senior Cabinet colleagues the wrong way.

A lesser politician would have been shown the door and made to cool his heels on the backbenches. Shashi Tharoor (before his political hara-kiri) was ticked off by party bigwigs for his harmless displays of public school humour on Twitter. But Ramesh has emerged unscathed from all the controversies and, indeed, grown from strength to strength. He even considered it prudent to level a blanket accusation at the entire political class, claiming harassment by MPs lobbying for corporates that have been stung by his decisions.

There are activists who see Ramesh as the best thing since sliced bread: a doughty 'green' crusader who is not afraid of doing what is right and playing by the rule book. He has, they say, put environmental activism on the map of India, not least by heeding Medha Patkar on Lavasa , Bianca Jagger on Vedanta and Greenpeace on POSCO, appointing National Advisory Council activists to expert committees, and being influenced by internationally-funded advocacy groups on climate change. If public opinion in India was shaped by earnest graduates of American liberal arts colleges and environmental journalists, Ramesh would have been top dog politically—with the added attribute that he is 'very close' to the equally earnest heir apparent.

Unfortunately, life isn't all black and white. Behind Ramesh's fearless willingness to kick all polluters in the butt lurk malevolent political calculations. The Minister, for example, played with a straight bat on the airport in Navi Mumbai. He made Praful Patel sweat, shed tears for the mangrove swamps and then proceeded to clear the project with token caveats. The stakes were just too high and any non-clearance would have led to him being roasted alive by the state Congress.

Equally, he deemed the Jaitapur nuclear power plant of strategic importance and linked it with the Indo-US nuclear agreement. In a different context, he would have waved a report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences describing the project as a "social disaster" to issue an immediate 'stop work' notice. This time the protests didn't matter because they were, in his view, "politics on the pretext of environment."

He should know. The stay on Vedanta's Niyamgiri project was timed to allow Rahul Gandhi his "sipahi" moment. The dispute in Lavasa arose out of a turf battle: should the clearances have come from the Maharashtra Government or the Centre? In the case of POSCO, Vedanta and Jindal brownie points were earned by deflating Naveen Patnaik's aspirational balloon. Additionally, in the case of POSCO, there was the additional delight of undermining the Prime Minister who had taken a personal interest in the successful completion of the project. Presumably, from Ramesh's perspective, these decisions didn't amount to playing "politics on the pretext of environment."

There were other sub-texts as well. The Lavasa promoter, it is widely believed, was tarred and made to suffer a huge loss of business credibility for supposedly being 'close' to Sharad Pawar. A project which began in 2004 and has more or less completed its first phase was ordered by Ramesh's ministry to restore status quo ante! The order was subsequently modified but it revealed a mindset. In the case of Vedanta, N.C. Saxena, a member of the inquiry committee, recently admitted to Indian Express that the decision would have been different if the company had given jobs to 500 local tribals. POSCO was asked by Ramesh's ministry to commit some Rs 3,000 crore to a Corporate Social Responsibility programme as a precondition of clearance. These may be worthwhile political calculations but they were certainly not "green" considerations.

In a recent interview, Ramesh claimed that "I want to professionalise the system of decision-making. I have proposed the establishment of a National Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Authority — a professional body, independent of the Ministry." This may well happen in the future but for the moment Ramesh has made the Ministry of Environment a celebration of discretion and arbitrariness. He has merrily set about adding to the scope of his jurisdiction, taking on non-Congress state governments and overturning existing clearances. His 'green' norms are breathtakingly simple: "show me the person, I'll show you the rule." That, many would say, is what defines governance in India.

The Telegraph, January 7, 2011

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