Friday, April 29, 2011

Left on its own terms

More than one election may be needed for change to happen

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance would probably have lost the 2009 general election even if its candidate from Pilibhit hadn't been caught on camera making a provocative hate speech. The significance of Varun Gandhi's misplaced show of muscular sectarianism, which was repeated ad nauseam on TV, was that it bolstered an existing trend and widened the BJP's electoral deficit.

It is not that the BJP instantly recognised that its Gandhi had scored an untimely self-goal. Despite the tut-tutting of a few, a great many of the party faithful refused to believe that the speech would rebound on the party. The thunderous acclaim at the venue that greeted the threat of Hindu retribution was replicated in many BJP offices in North India. Indeed, many of the senior leaders who made a beeline to visit Gandhi in jail actually believed that the vile speech was a positive game changer. It was, but not in the way the BJP would have liked it to be. In hindsight, that one outpouring of bad taste cost the BJP a chunk of its traditional middle class support.

Although no two elections are exactly alike, it is tempting to draw an analogy between the Gandhi speech in Pilibhit and the contentious utterances of the CPI(M) state committee member Anil Basu at a rally in Hooghly district. Just as Gandhi was carried away by his own rhetoric and the applause of the gathering, Basu forgot the important distinction between sarcasm and tastelessness. His comparison of Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee with the prostitutes of Sonagachhi violated every rule of political engagement and forced a harassed Chief Minister to order a salvage operation. But what is interesting—as the video recording of the speech makes very clear—is that Basu's outrageous assertion was greeted by loud applause. He spoke to the committed and the comrades loved his abusive combativeness.

At the same time, it is undeniable that Basu's speech was seen by all those Bengalis with a bhadralok self-image as a complete violation of civil conduct. For the CPI(M), Basu's speech was its Varun Gandhi moment. The speech by itself won't be the determining factor behind the possible Left Front defeat on May 13 but it may help widen the existing gap between the forces of parivartan and continuity. With his arrogant exuberance, Basu may have undone some of the gains from the CPI(M)'s lavish, post-2009 show of contrition. It is one thing to commit the party to learning from past mistakes and promising people that the follies of Nandigram and Singur won't happen. The sincerity of the self-criticism becomes suspect when it is accompanied by a high-handed show of arrogance by a functionary who spent enough time in the Lok Sabha to know what is parliamentary and what is not.

To be fair, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was quick to grasp the magnitude of Basu's offence and extract an apology within 48 hours. The Chief Minister, for all his political shortcomings, has always been a model of bhadralok refinement and has desisted from both abrasive speech and the abrupt cussedness that was the hallmark of his illustrious predecessor. But Bhattacharjea is a rarity in the contemporary political world of West Bengal. The four decades of Marxist domination in the state, going back to the first United Front Government in 1967, has witnessed a cultural transformation that has seen many of the established behavioural assumptions being relegated to the fringes.

Till 1967, the cultural tone of politics was set by a Congress leadership that had cut its teeth in the national movement. Unlike large parts of North India where the advent of Gandhian mass politics had also triggered a social revolution, Bengal politics remained in the firm clutches of the upper echelons of the professional classes and the gentry. There was a remarkable cultural continuity between C.R. Das's emergence as the supreme nationalist leader and the 14-year chief ministership of Bidhan Chandra Roy. It was not merely that the main leaders of the Congress—the Bose brothers, Tulsi Goswami, Kiran Shankar Roy, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, Humayun Kabir, et al—came from the same social strata, but that the district leadership of the Congress, comprising heavyweights such as Atulya Ghose, Ajoy Mukherjee and P.C. Sen, followed the tone set by the Calcutta elite.

The tone of politics didn't emerge in isolation. At a time when Bengal was economically vibrant, the bourgeois-fication of public life was a logical consequence. The terms of refinement, public behaviour and even the parameters of what was regarded as avant garde were moulded by a deep commitment to the established order. Social respectability implied emulation of a relatively enlightened bhadralok order, backed by an expanding economy. The only hiccup was an unsettled class of refugees from East Pakistan who were relegated to the margins of a vibrant metropolitan society—with disastrous consequences for the settled order.

The Communists consciously challenged this inherent elitism. Although many of its erstwhile stalwarts such as Jyoti Basu, Hiren Mukherjee, Indrajit Gupta and Bhupesh Gupta were products of the same privileged social strata, they sought to consciously déclassé themselves. This meant celebrating rebellion, disavowing bourgeois refinement and embracing plebeian coarseness. The Communists wanted to turn the world upside down and this involved wilfully violating the norms of respectability and consciously giving offence. As the Leader of Opposition, Jyoti Basu, for example, refused toget up when the Assembly stood in silence to pay homage to Nalini Sarkar who, apart from being a politician of standing was an entrepreneur of repute.

The Communists always harboured a sense of Marxist superiority that stemmed from profound intellectual arrogance. They posited their own 'scientific socialism' to the backward mindset of their opponents. The sneering brusqueness of Gautam Deb, the CPI(M) chief propagandist in this election, stemmed from this ingrained sense of superiority. It was this attitude that infuriated the Opposition and was an obstacle to Somnath Chatterjee (a much mellowed man today) functioning as an effective Lok Sabha Speaker.

The plebianisation (in its most pejorative sense) of Bengal has also flowed from the sharp economic decline of the state. The sheer lack of opportunities and the debasement of education have created the groundwork for a desperate, often mindless aggression that has permeated into the entire public space. This is reflected in popular Bengali cinema and TV serials. The stereotype of the refined Bengali bhadralok still persists all over India but its reality has increasingly become questionable in today's Bengal.

The Left has been remarkably successful in dismantling an old culture centred on courtesy and, indeed, deference. In its place has emerged a culture that in the emerging Calcutta of the late-19th century was associated with the Buttola novel and the khemta dance. An aggressive lack of courtesy, bordering on lewdness, has become the hallmark of assertive and successful leadership.

Nor has the cultural shift been confined to those who were empowered by the agitational politics of the Left. Its tentacles have spread to the Trinamool Congress and even the local BJP. It goes without saying that Mamata could not have achieved the level of success she has had her politics not been couched in a pugnaciousness that often mirrors the Left. She has taken on the Left on the Left's own terms, undercutting its social constituency and even attracting a clutch of former comrades. This may explain why those looking expectantly to the recovery of Bengal's self-esteem may have to look beyond one election. Yet, a mandate for parivartan could begin the process of rolling back decades of regression.

The Telegraph, April 29, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Congress subverts anti-graft agitation

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is a sobering experience for a journalist to be proved wrong. Human behaviour and, for that matter, political behaviour does not follow—whatever Marxists say—any science and are dependent on too many unknown variables. However, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to suggest that last week's column where I had argued that the Congress seems hell-bent on pursuing a policy of subterfuge has turned out bang on target.

What the country witnessed throughout this past week was the Congress, backed quietly by a section of the Government, going on an overdrive to discredit the father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan, important 'civil society' representatives nominated to the drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill by Anna Hazare.

First, there was the discovery of a dispute between Shanti Bhushan and the Uttar Pradesh Government over the stamp duty for the purchase of a property in Allahabad's Civil Lines. The UP Government claims that Shanti Bhushan underpaid the stamp duty and has issued a notice for more. The matter, as happens to such things involving lawyers, is under litigation. I have some issues with Shanti Bhushan leveraging his position as a sitting tenant to force what seems like a distress sale by the landlord. But that is not to suggest that the lawyer 'evaded' taxes. He has merely disputed the Government claim for an additional Rs 1.35 crore.

Secondly, there was the mysterious appearance of a CD containing a purported conversation between Shanti Bhushan and Mulayam Singh Yadav and his now estranged associate Amar Singh. Although the full transcript hasn't got into the public domain, Delhi's bush telegraph is abuzz with suggestions that the lawyer allegedly offered to 'fix' the judiciary. There are also hints of generously-funded PILs. The Bhushans have questioned the authenticity of the conversation and slapped defamation cases against Amar Singh and Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh. However, some newspapers claim they have a certificate of authenticity from the Central Forensic Laboratory in Hyderabad.

Finally, the Indian Express has established that Shanti Bhushan and his other son were allotted two farm properties around NOIDA by the Mayawati Government. Since the Bhushans are fighting two important PILs against the Mayawati Government, the transaction has raised eyebrows. The Bhushans say the allotment followed their application following a public offer. That may well be the case but what is under scrutiny is the discretionary allotments of farmlands by the UP Government. Should, detractors of the Bhushans are asking, they have accepted the allotments knowing full well that the procedures adopted by the State Government authority were suspect? There is no suggestion of corrupt practice but the Bhushans are accused of not living up to the exacting standards they demand of others.

The cumulative effect of the three assaults on the integrity of the Bhushans is that it has cast a shadow over the moral credentials of the 'civil society' crusaders against corruption. The Congress is absolutely jubilant since it has consistently sought to deny the Anna-led movement its moral halo. Who are they, belligerent Congress leaders are asking, to lecture us on corruption? Or as they said in the Bible, "Physician, heal thyself."

There is no doubt that the sustained Congress campaign has had the effect of showing the Bhushans as damaged goods. There have been calls for the duo to step down—a demand that, ironically, stems from bitter factional disputes in the activist-dominated 'civil society'. If that happens, the Government would have scored a huge psychological victory.

Since the Congress also believes that politics is all about clever management and tripping opponents, it is also possible that the Government views the anxieties in the anti-corruption as evidence of disarray. It is only a matter of time, they believe, that anti-corruption as a political issue will be dead and buried.

If life was only about cleverness, the Congress optimism would have been justified. However, it is entirely possible that the frenzied bid to derail the Anna campaign could also be viewed as confirmation that the neither the Government nor the Congress attaches importance to fighting corruption. Indeed, last week's events may well be seen as evidence of a Congress vested interest in arbitrary and corrupt governance. That the Bhushans could have some explaining to do doesn't mean that the Congress emerges squeaky clean.

Actually, the Congress believes that the fuss over corruption is a passing show and will be replaced by 'real' issues—whatever these may be. To my mind, that seems like a desperate pipedream. What the explosion of sentiment in support of Anna indicated was that this is an issue that drives the middle classes. And what drives the middle classes permeates sooner or later into rural India because the urban dwellers too have roots in the localities.

The Anna Hazare movement was somewhat guarded in its hostility to the Congress. It appeared to target the political class and the prevailing political culture. Yet, the viciousness with which the Congress tried to derail this movement will hold out important lessons for the future. The next time the streets of India resonate with anti-corruption chants, the movement will be more explicitly anti-Congress.

Anna Hazare was the buffer that prevented the parliamentary opposition from taking full advantage of popular anger. In weakening that buffer, the Congress may have won a short-term advantage but is in real danger of losing the war.

Sunday Pioneer, April 24, 2011



Monday, April 25, 2011

A free state has the right to self-defence

By Swapan Dasgupta

The battle over Binayak Sen's fate is just one facet of a culture war that has divided the middle classes. At stake is not merely rarefied concern over the relevance of a 150-year-old provision of the Indian Penal Code—the Sedition Law. There is a parallel clash over democracy and citizenship.

On the one hand are the middle class champions of muscular nationalism—the sort that sheds tears when Lata Mangeshkar sings 'wo mere watan ki logo', gets goose pimples on hearing Vande Mataram and waves the flag enthusiastically at cricket matches. They are a throwback to the 1950s but their biggest support comes from the generation that discovered nationalism with the Kargil war, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and one-day cricket. They have a single-minded commitment to India's emergence as a global power and have little time for either separatists or Maoists. Unapologetically committed to achievement, their heroes tend to be the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, APJ Abdul Kalam, Mukesh Ambani and, in some cases, even Narendra Modi. They are the pillars of a resurgent Middle India.

Ranged on the other side are the equally middle class dissenters with an over-representation in the arts faculties, the media and among 'civil society' activists. Highly networked and blessed with refined tastes, their vision of India is centred on a fierce sense of rights and entitlements. If the other side strives for an opportunity society, their priority is a just and compassionate India. Inheritors of the spirit of 1968, they tend to be wary of what Romila Thapar derisively called 'syndicated Hinduism', preferring folk and non-conformist traditions. This may explain their greater sympathy for stone throwers in the Kashmir Valley, their romanticism of the Maoist insurgency and their celebration of an India that is permanently innocent and unspoilt.

Although a minusculity, this Fringe India enjoys high public profile courtesy endorsements by People Like Us and backing by the English language media. Their refined angst may irritate crowds who cheer the cricket team but they have the power to sway crusading IAS officers and activist judges. To the West, they are India's future.

A curious feature of this binary divide is that both groups enjoy an uneasy coexistence within the Indian Establishment, often cancelling each other out. The furore over Sen's conviction and subsequent quasi-exoneration by the Supreme Court epitomised this dysfunctionality. With the Law Minister promising to review the Sedition Law, it is possible that the clash between Middle and Fringe India may exacerbate.

The case for review rests partly on the disproportionate life sentence awarded to Sen who is at best a Maoist sympathiser and at worst a facilitator. But it is not the quantum of punishment that has agitated his supporters. They want the entire law scrapped for two reasons. Firstly, they insist that a law devised to maintain imperial control has no place in independent India. Secondly, it is argued that restrictions on contrarian views violate the argumentative rights of democratic India.

Although the Sen case is not really about the doctor's right to be an overground sympathiser of the underground but his role in assisting a violent, outlawed organisation, the two points are worth exploring.

First, should democracy be governed by absolute permissiveness of speech? There are statutory restrictions (dating back, ironically, to colonial times) against religious hate speech. Should this be scrapped? Should the state attitude to all opinion be totally non-judgmental? If not, what are the no-go areas that don't disfigure India's overall democratic personality?

Some libertarian supporters of Sen have argued that passive extremism, including calls for the violent overthrow of the state and secession, should be tolerated as long as there is no actual involvement with the real world. This implies that jihadi propaganda can be tolerated as long as those advocating violence aren't involved in any terror cell. They can legitimately remain detached motivators. The irony is inescapable: the Indian state must guarantee the use of democracy to destroy both democracy and itself.

Secondly, while there is a case for using discretion to distinguish between Arundhati Roy and Ali Shah Geelani, how should the law deal with Maoist insurgents committed to the violent overthrow of the state? The suggestion that there are existing laws to deal with criminal misconduct is disingenuous. Apart from the difficulties of the 'due process' in disturbed areas, reducing counter-insurgency to fighting crime presupposes a reactive approach. It undermines the role of pre-emption in counter-insurgency.

Finally, there is a much larger issue. Must democracy be a constant punching bag? Should the state have no right of self-defence?

These are concerns that go beyond Sen's eventual guilt or innocence. Yet, they can't be addressed by Fringe India alone. It's time the debate was joined by the other side too.

Sunday Times of India, April 24, 2011




Sunday, April 17, 2011

Congress opts for confrontation

By Swapan Dasgupta

Politics resonates with leaders and apparatchiks who not only have inordinate faith in their own cleverness but simultaneously believe the rest of the world is made up of fools. The Communists have traditionally based their conceit on their profound insights into a mysterious commodity called "scientific socialism"; the smugness of many RSS functionaries can be traced to their exaggerated sanctimoniousness; and the arrogance of Congressmen owe almost entirely to the conviction that only they know the art of 'managing' politics.

In the immediate aftermath of Anna Hazare's fast, an event that took it by surprise, the Congress has chosen to display the entire range of its skills in political management. From its perspective, there was a desperate need to send out a SOS, call in accumulated IOUs and invite all its good men to come to the aid of the party. Having been at the receiving end of a torrent of corruption-related scandals since August last year, the party was despondent and dispirited. So profound was the sagging morale that at this rate it would have been impossible for the UPA Government to complete its full second term—an ignominy calculated to have devastating electoral consequences.

After the government's abject capitulation before Anna on the evening of April 8 and suggestions of a possible defeat in Tamil Nadu and the loss of momentum in Kerala, the Congress could wait no longer. Even as the last voter was entering the polling booth in the southern states, the Congress unleashed its dogs of war with a very clear two-point brief: first, to dissipate and eventually destroy the groundswell of support for Anna and, second, to blunt corruption as a political issue.

To the person of average intellect, the best way to cope with the national concern over corruption was to tackle the problem headlong, with a combination of firm administrative action and, where necessary, additional legislation. To the clever Congress managers such lateral thinking was 'non-political'. The 'political' way, as they saw it, lay in out and out subterfuge—a game the Congress believes it has unrivalled skills.

First, it was necessary to discredit the leading lights of the operation. Anna himself was a difficult target—although some dirt has been heaped on him—but some of the 'civil society' nominees to the Lokpal Bill drafting committee have been chosen to be at the receiving end of a campaign of vilification. The campaign is very reminiscent of the St Kitts operation of 1988-89 when it was alleged that V.P. Singh's son possessed unauthorised offshore bank accounts.

In the St Kitts case, the operation was outsourced to a godman of dubious reputation; today's operation, targeting Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan and using the tapes of an alleged phone conversation, has been outsourced to an orphaned politician who proved useful in the past. It is understood that a Leader of Opposition is being targeted by this politically-approved rogue operation.

Secondly, latching on to a statement by Anna complimenting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's administrative acumen, there is an attempt to show that the entire anti-corruption movement is being remote controlled by the RSS. An elaborate conspiracy theory linking the Jantar Mantar show with Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been built up to hint that the future of parliamentary democracy is under threat. More theoretical versions of this theory have resurrected Karl Marx's writings on France to argue that the middle classes are veering towards undemocratic Bonapartist solutions—a hint that Modi may be the only beneficiary of an anti-corruption upsurge. Harsh Mander of the National Advisory Council has even asserted that Anna's anti-corruption movement lacks compassion!

To play the anti-communal card in times of distress is a time-tested ploy. Faced with a people's challenge, the Congress has chosen to inject sectarian divisions into the movement. 'Secular' commentators have invoked memories of movements led by Jayaprakash Narayan and V.P. Singh to argue that these invariably pave the way for an onward march of the BJP. Secularist crusader Javed Anand of Communalism Combat even explained why as a Muslim he couldn't identify with Anna.

Thirdly, a panic-stricken Congress has been unnerved at way a section of the NGOs (which the party believed was a captive constituency) turned on the Government. Its response is the all-too familiar divide-and-rule approach. Digvijay Singh gave the game away by making personalised attacks on those chosen by Anna to be in the committee. He was indiscreet enough to openly say that Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, both members of the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC, should have been chosen—a certificate that speaks for itself.

Finally, the Congress has decided to withdraw all cooperation from all the bodies either inquiring into cases of corruption or suggesting legislation to fight it. The proceeding of the Public Accounts Committee was disrupted last Friday; the Joint Parliamentary Committee is certain to be bogged down by procedural and turf battles; and there is little likelihood of the drafting committee being able to agree on a common Lokpal Bill.

The Congress has chosen to a path of confrontation towards the movement against corruption. It seems to believe that brazenness is a sign of cleverness. This was precisely the mistake Indira Gandhi made after 1973 and which Rajiv Gandhi repeated in 1988-89. The consequences are well known.

Sunday Pioneer, April 17, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

Time for a reality check

Was the Jantar Mantar drama a wake-up call or an air-raid alert?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is a commentary on the fragility of the dispensation in Delhi that it took barely 72 hours of sustained media indignation, a patchy show of flag-waving solidarity by the middle classes and the obstinacy of a 71-year-old Gandhian busybody to expose the moral nakedness of the Manmohan Singh Government. Last week's drama at Delhi's Jantar Mantar centred on Anna Hazare's fast and the appointment of a committee to draft a Lokpal Bill to check governmental corruption was a much-needed reality check for all those who had somehow assumed that India was on the cusp of greatness. The resilience necessary to cope with periodic political turbulence appear to have deserted the system.

In the coming weeks, particularly if the present round of Assembly elections fail to give solace to the Congress, the phenomenon of 'weakness' is certain to be clinically dissected. Is the vulnerability of what Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi loves to call the "Delhi Sultanate" a problem peculiar to a Congress party that is never fully comfortable with a Prime Minister from outside the 'dynasty'? Or, as India's 57 varieties of Right and Left radicals would no doubt argue, do the tremors created by Hazare point to the larger systemic rot in a tottering First Republic? Was the Jantar Mantar drama yet another wake-up call or an ominous air-raid alert?

From the perspective of those alarmed at the ease with which the Government wilted, it may be heartening reassuring to know that a jolted Sultanate will try to contain the damage. The reassurance becomes less robust on the realisation that the fightback will centre on the only available weapon: subterfuge.

First, Cabinet members such as Kapil Sibal have begun decrying the belief that the Lok Pal legislation is a wonder drug for all of India's ailments. The idea is to paint Hazare as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Secondly, Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has demanded the extension of the Lok Pal's jurisdiction to include both the private sector and Non-Government Organisations, the repository of 'civil society' virtuousness. Although the suggestion is ridiculous, it is calculated to create concern within corporates and NGOs at the dangerous consequences of unbridled populism.

Thirdly, the perceived shortcomings of the five-member panel chosen by Hazare to provide the 'civil society' perspective on the Lok Pal legislation have been sought to be highlighted. Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan has lamented the absence of a Dalit face in the committee; activist Mallika Sarabhai has criticised the absence of a woman among the 'civil society' representatives; and umpteen people, not least Baba Ramdev, has referred to the preferential treatment accorded to the father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan. In the coming days, more such fissures will emerge.

Finally, the 'secular' bush telegraph has been used to spread the theory that the Jantar Mantar show was masterminded by shadowy figures in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The overuse of slogans such as Bharat Mata ki jai and Vande Mataram and Hazare's praise for the integrity and administrative acumen of Modi have been cited as proof of deep saffron involvement in the movement. It is being whispered that Hazare is actually a convenient front and that the real muscle for the anti-corruption stir comes from the poster boys of evangelical Hindutva, notably Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The Congress' attempt at some form of counter-mobilisation is understandable. The Hazare bomb, which the Government never anticipated, has damaged the party in two crucial ways.

For a start, Hazare has crystallised the middle class disquiet over growing corruption into an angry, anti-politician mood. Although the mood is momentarily against all politicians, it is certain to have the greatest effect on the credibility of the Congress. Unless a new force abruptly emerges to harvest the popular fury electorally, past precedent would suggest that it is the principal opposition party that invariably stands to gain from a wave of anti-incumbency. In other words, the Congress is wary that the middle class disappointment with Prime Minister Singh could facilitate the electoral rehabilitation of the BJP and even the emergence of Modi as a possible national saviour.

Secondly, the speed with which the Hazare movement was able to ride roughshod over all obstacles and dominate the national imagination for a week suggested a breakdown of the Congress system of political control. Since 2002, more or less coinciding with the Gujarat riots, the Congress has institutionalised its relationship with the NGO movement and used it successfully as a battering ram against the BJP. The establishment of the National Advisory Council, with disproportionate representation from the community of so-called 'activists', enabled the UPA Government to involve the voluntary sector in legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Food Security Bill and the proposed anti-communal law. The Lok Pal Bill which has now been referred to a 10-member committee was initially supposed to have been vetted and approved by a supra-Cabinet comprising select members of the NAC. A reason why the Government could not press the constitutionalist argument centred on the supremacy of the elected representatives in decision-making was that it had already ceded a lot of this space to an unelected NAC chaired by the Congress President.

The Hazare-led upsurge has upset all these calculations. By favouring one set of NGOs and extending official patronage to one set of 'activists', the Government unwittingly set in motion a countervailing response by those who felt left out of the process. Last week's spectacle in Delhi was their revenge on the co-opted NGOs. The Congress may, arguably, retrieve lost ground and even create a deep schism within the NGO movement as a result of its rearguard actions. However, there is no doubt that in the process the UPA's image as the only political force that is receptive to the urges of 'civil society' has suffered immeasurably. It will now have to cope with a parallel army of the virtuous, including a formidable brigade linked to quasi-religious gurus.

A second pillar of the Congress' political management was TV. The remarkable ease with which the feel-good effect of India's World Cup victory evaporated didn't owe merely to the emergence of yet another army of the indignant equally determined to impose its whimsical agenda on a functioning democracy. The near-spontaneous revolt of a middle class driven by consumerism against corruption put many otherwise 'liberal', loosely pro-UPA national news channels in a dharma sankat. They could have opted to exercise restraint in their coverage, perhaps seeing it as just another tamasha rather than as an Indian version of Cairo's Tahrir Square. But their decision to join in the hyperbolic outpouring was dictated by commerce. Swimming against the tide and upholding lofty constitutionalism meant going against the prevailing sentiment in their middle class target audience—a decision that would ultimately be reflected in diminishing viewership figures. Additionally, they had to also cope with the parallel attraction of social networking—a force that has been deified despite its potential as an unguided missile.

The week-long Hazare show that stirred urban India has wounded the Congress grievously. The party will no doubt try to extricate itself from the mess through an elaborate process of manipulation. But it will have to undertake the exercise amid the larger realisation that its capacity to stage a moral recovery has been eroded. Hazare has also crippled its shock absorbers.

The Telegraph, April 15, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Anna Hazare fills the void in corruption battle

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past week, India has been trying to come to terms with a phenomenon they neither understood nor anticipated. The abrupt emergence of Anna Hazare as the symbol of a largely middle-class outburst against the insincerity of the war on corruption has been puzzling. In many ways this 71-year-old self-professed Gandhian from rural Maharashtra is a total antithesis of what modern India apparently stands for. He is neither young nor tech-savvy; he doesn't talk the 'development' jargon of well-travelled NGOs; and his politico-cultural symbolism—Chhatrapati Shivaji, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Bharat Mata and Vande Mataram—is seemingly at odds with modernist impulses of India's aspirational classes. Yet, Anna has become the unlikeliest symbol of a movement that may well end up unseating a government, even if it doesn't succeed cleansing public life.

Perhaps the lionisation of another diminutive man with an infectious smile is an indication that the more India changes the more it remains the same. Nearly four decades ago, Professor W.H. Morris-Jones had observed that Indian leadership follows three idioms: the traditional, the modern and the saintly. The last fits uneasily into perceptions of Indian modernity or, for that matter, the caricatured view of its conservatism. But in the past 100 years, the most significant movements for change have been propelled by people who lived in a world of their own imaginations and were driven by exacting ethical standards.

Frankly, you had to be a bit crazy in 1919 to dream of unseating the Raj. You also had to be very other-worldly to believe in 1973—barely a year after Indira Gandhi's anointment as Durga after the Bangladesh war—that the corrupt edifice of the Congress could be brought down. Maybe it is too rash as yet to place Anna on par with either the Mahatma or 'Loknayak' Jayaprakash Narayan—the two saintly crazies who reshaped 20th century India. Yet, it is important to recognise that being impractical has never been a deterrent to inspirational leadership, at least not in India.

There are many features of the alternative Jan Lokpal Bill proposed by Anna and his supporters that are either outrageous or quirky. The belief that a Lokpal appointed by a committee of the great and good should have overriding powers over an elected government is at best utopian and at worst anti-democratic. And the proposal of who should constitute the electoral college of the virtuous is, to say the least, eccentric. Why should all those of Indian origin honoured by the Nobel committee in Sweden and Norway and the last two Magsaysay Prize winners—chosen by a committee in the Philippines—be ex-officio members of a desi Star Chamber. Why not the recipients of the Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna? Or for that matter, why not everyone honoured by the local Rotary Club?

The issue, fortunately, is neither the Lokpal Bill nor even the principle of 'civil society' representation in the drafting committee—a characteristically NGO-ish demand. The overwhelming majority of those inspired by Anna's fast don't seem all that preoccupied with the minutiae of a proposed legislation. What has excited them is the fact that someone of unimpeachable integrity has chosen to take a stand and confront a decrepit and smug system on the issue of corruption.

In 1921, when Mahatma Gandhi asked people to abandon schools, colleges, law courts and resign from government service in the quest of swaraj in just a year, only a small handful actually did so. Indeed, many of India's foremost intellectuals, including Rabindranath Tagore, were disturbed by what they saw as Gandhi's reckless manipulation of impressionable young minds. But Gandhi's larger moral appeal outweighed the shortcomings of his political strategy. The Mahatma became a national inspiration in the struggle for independence; Gandhism always remained a fad. A similar distinction marked JP the symbol of resistance to Indira Gandhi's authoritarian misrule and his woolly Total Revolution.

In the coming weeks, there will be fierce assaults, not least by rival 'civil society' activists, on the implications of Anna's Jan Lokpal proposals. Some of these will be couched in lofty constitutionalism such as the sovereignty of Parliament; others will be blended with competitive self-righteousness; and still others will see Anna as an unwitting tool of the anti-Congress opposition, just as the Communists saw 'fascist forces' in JP's movement.

A clinical dissection of what Anna actually represents and the forces backing him will not, however, divert focus from the growing groundswell against corruption. There is a political space for a credible, even angry, movement against the rot in India's political system. Circumstances have allowed a venerable, gutsy and untainted outsider to fill the void. It's the sentiment behind his anointment that is relevant, not the fine print of a law to make India virtuous.

Sunday Times of India, April 10, 2011

Anna’s fast leads to panic in the Congress

By Swapan Dasgupta

Reflecting on events 37 years ago, I must confess that my youthful support for the Jayaprakash Narayan's movement was based on perverse considerations: more than I agreed with Total Revolution, I despised those who opposed JP. These included: an insufferably arrogant Congress establishment which believed it was destined to rule forever; a smug clique of "progressive" politicians and academics who imagined they ruled India through the reflected glory of Moscow; and a flotsam and jetsam of babus and journalists who just wanted to play safe. The shrill charges of being CIA dalals, fascists and disruptionists levelled against the JP movement by this unwholesome bunch proved sufficient to transform my neutrality into support for JP.

It is remarkable how eerily history has repeated itself. Anna Hazare's fast resulted in a spectacular outpouring of public support for an unrelenting war on corruption. Although the fast was ostensibly to press for the inclusion of 'civil society' activists in the committee to draft a more meaningful Lokpal Bill, it was reflective of the larger disquiet against the government's complicity and lack of seriousness in fighting corruption.

But there was a larger and unstated feature of the public support for Anna. What the country witnessed last week was a middle class revolt in which social networking played a significant. Electorally, the middle class anger against the Congress and the UPA Government may not prove decisive. The ruling coalition, for example, still believes its support in rural India is intact thanks to the large number of state-funded welfare schemes.

The belief that anti-corruption is essentially a middle-class issue which carries diminishing electoral returns (because the middle classes don't vote in sufficiently large numbers) isn't a scientific rule; it is merely a working assumption. Ignoring middle class sentiment constitutes an enormous political risk. What tilted the balance towards the UPA in 2009 wasn't a rural sweep but its ability to carry urban India. Particularly relevant was the image of decency and progress associated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The PM captured the essence of middle class aspirations far more successfully than did the BJP. This was quite a contrast to the 1990s when an emerging BJP encapsulated the feelings of Middle India, not least the young.

The significance of last week's excitement over Anna's fast lies in the formal withdrawal of middle class support from the Congress and Singh. The enthusiasm for a new icon was directly connected with the disappointment with a PM in whom so much faith was reposed. The PM was shown to be a man of straw and the middle classes have rejected him unequivocally. It is striking how little those who backed Anna with an infectious enthusiasm were moved by arguments that the sovereignty of Parliament was being undermined and that India was witnessing the tyranny of the non-elected.

It is not that the misgivings over the exaggerated self-righteousness of some of Anna's chief backers lack any basis. The likes of Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan have often conveyed the impression of being activists in search of causes to latch on to. Their presence doesn't enhance the quality of any movement, especially not a rooted, middle class stir. However, what is also relevant is the credibility of those levelling charges against the wild, anarchist streak in Anna.

In politics, timing is everything. The Congress has conceded most of Anna's demands, much to the discomfiture of Kapil Sibal who, as is his wont, overstated the extent of the Government's contempt for hare-brained, utopian schemes. In doing so—apparently a result of the PM and Sonia Gandhi's magnanimity—it hasn't been able to dispel the impression that it has grudgingly bowed to fierce public pressure. The Government was desperate to move national attention away from Anna's fast because it was fearful of its impact in the Assembly elections. It had to either subvert the movement from within or concede defeat. It is interesting that until last Friday afternoon, the endeavour was to fuel internal rivalries and pit the fractious NGO activists against one another—an exercise that also involved the intelligence agencies. The stubbornness of Anna prevented this from happening and by Friday evening the Government decided to concede this battle in the interests of a larger war that will be fought out in the committee rooms.

For the UPA, being upstaged by a 71-year-old Maharashtra rustic with no deep knowledge of the byways of national politics was a bitter experience. One of Sonia Gandhi's more astute moves after 2004 was in creating the National Advisory Committee as a Praetorian Guard in 'civil society'. The co-opted activists have played a valuable role in channelling youthful idealism in a safe, political direction. The NAC activists were particularly useful in managing the English-language and media discourse, conferring respectability to the dynasty and painting the other side as forces of darkness.

By refusing to be tamed, by widening the orbit of anti-corruption activism to the likes of Baba Ramdev and by incorporating nationalist symbolism (Bharat Mata and Vande Matatarm), Anna has managed to effect a separation of 'civil society' from a decrepit and failing government. Hence the intense nervousness in Lutynens' Delhi that is reminiscent of the panic in 1974-75. The future depends on how well he succeeds in pushing through the process.

/330633/Anna%E2%80%99s-fast-leads-to-panic-in-Congress.html Sunday Pioneer, April 10, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Middle Kingdom

The challenge for a new order in West Bengal will be daunting

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1971, shortly after writing my final school examinations, I decided to abandon Calcutta for Delhi. My reasons were pragmatic: I wanted to complete my degree in three years. In Calcutta, then in the throes of competitive political violence, completing a BA degree took at least an extra 16 months which, in effect, meant wasting two academic years.

A venerable grand-uncle was horrified by my plans. "Are there colleges in Delhi?" he asked superciliously. To him, there was only one place—apart from Oxbridge—for a student wishing to read history: Presidency College. He had neither heard of St Stephen's in Delhi nor did he care to be enlightened. For him, as with generations of proud Bengalis, it was Bengal uber alles.

It would be interesting for a historian to try and locate the moment the Bengali bhadralok first started viewing itself as the intellectual master race of India. Did it follow the collapse of the Maratha confederacy and the decline of a culture patronised by the Peshwas? Was it an offshoot of Raja Rammohan Roy's varied theological interventions and, particularly, the outpouring of pride over his journey to England to parley on equal terms with Englishmen? Or did it have something to do with the accident of having the longest exposure to Western culture and civilisation?

Whatever the origins of this cockiness, it is undeniable that Bengal entered the 20th century with an enhanced notion of self. Even the Partition of 1947 didn't puncture Bengali pretensions. Dispossession and hardship did, however, contribute immeasurably towards a change in intellectual priorities and fashion.

Just as the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi triumph in Germany radicalised British intellectuals and drove some of them into an alternative barbarian camp in the east, the famine of 1943 and the subsequent loss of East Bengal unsettled bhadralok intellectuals. The drift to what is called 'progressive' politics may have been a global current but it led to two fundamental distortions in Bengal.

First, with their innate distrust of capitalism, Bengal's intellectuals detached themselves from the wealth creation process. During the nationalist movement, there was a conscious attempt to inculcate the virtues of swadeshi entrepreneurship in Bengalis. After the 1950s, intellectual consensus gradually swung to the other extreme. While socialism was projected as the preferred alternative, the reality was less appetising. The romance attached to deprivation and even squalor by the 'creative' Left meant that 'progressive' social attitudes were often dictated by a profound sense of envy. Ashok Mitra's notorious description of gentlemanly conduct as un-Communist was eerily reminiscent of Gibbon's observation that "the decline of genius was soon accompanied by the corruption of taste" in classical Rome.

Secondly, it wouldn't have been that damaging had 'progressive' thought been just one of the significant intellectual currents in Bengal. The final decades of the Raj, for example, witnessed a lively engagement between loyalism, nationalist conservatism, Hindutva, Muslim separatism, Gandhism, revolutionary terrorism and Marxism. After 1967 and the steady erosion of support for the Congress, the debate became a tussle between shades of either socialism or Marxism. This Left stranglehold created an ideological straitjacket and contributed to an intellectual ossification.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who led the ephemeral Congress fightback between 1971 and 1977, didn't paint himself as an inheritor of Dr B.C. Roy's no-nonsense conservatism. He sought to outflank the CPI(M) and the Naxalites through a combination of muscle power and 'progressive' posturing. Such a posturing was also the hallmark of Mamata Banerjee's disastrous 2006 election campaign. In the ongoing election campaign, the Trinamool Congress has tried to regain some of the middle ground she abandoned during her opposition to the Tata Motors project in Singur by promising political sobriety and development with a human face. But the mere fact that she had to genuflect before Left populism to achieve her electoral breakthrough in the 2009 parliamentary election is indicative of the Communist movement's success in making the political culture of West Bengal drearily monochromatic.

A consequence of the Left stranglehold over all facets of present day Bengal was the state's insulation from both national and global developments. In its first term the Left Front did succeed in transforming power equations in the countryside. Operation Barga which granted security of tenure and de-facto ownership of land to erstwhile sharecroppers did lead to the empowerment of the poor. This was complemented by militant trade unionism—a phenomenon that triggered the nervous flight of capital from 1967.

The irony is that developments in the Left bastion coincided with the deregulation of the economy nationally. Whereas the rest of India jumped at the new opportunities offered by market-friendly policies and provided meaningful avenues to satisfy the explosion of entrepreneurship, Bengal basked in the self-fulfilling glow of empowerment which, more often than not, meant the freedom to be insolent and play street cricket during enforced bandh holidays.

The Left Front's belief that the establishment of a more equitable rural society would trigger a new wave of industrialisation turned out to be utterly misplaced. Bengal was left far, far behind in the race because the environment for investment was not thought to be conducive. The marginalisation of Bengal wasn't due to any ethnic prejudice: at an individual level Bengalis benefitted from the resurgence of India. The problem was Bengal.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wasn't a reincarnation of Hare Krishna Konar, the man who provided muscle and organisation to peasant militancy. In another environment, he would have been perceived as a Left social-democrat, maybe even Bengal's Kautsky. But his inability to persuade a party wedded to the cholbe na culture made his courtship of corporate India seem less persuasive.

What is particularly bewildering is that Bengal's unending economic slide took so incredibly long to be realised. For nearly three decades Bengal lived in denial. When Rajiv Gandhi described Calcutta as a "dying city" he was being both prescient and politically imprudent. But the anger which greeted his flippancy was an outburst of a sub-nationalism that was cocooned from a larger sense of reality. Jyoti Basu's sneering description of Atal Behari Vajpayee's government as "barbarous" wasn't a simple rhetorical flourish; it was based on an assumption of innate superiority. For the Bengali Left, West Bengal was indeed the Middle Kingdom. It may have been deeply aware of what was happening in the wider world but it was the least influenced by them.

Maybe it was the departure of Tata Motors to Narendra Modi's Gujarat which marked the moment of realisation. Maybe it was the visible lack of opportunities coupled with rising consumerist aspirations that made the penny drop. Whatever the trigger, it is significant that the popular discourse is now centred on the grim reality of a stagnant Bengal in a country that is banking on a nine per cent annual GDP growth. Those committed to the regeneration of Bengal may find it reassuring that the Trinamool Congress manifesto has documented the decline of the state in relation to the progress of Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and even Orissa.

As voting day approaches, Bengal seems to be in a state of readiness for change. If that change does happen, the challenge for a new order will be daunting. An over-politicised and inept administrative apparatus, a sharply fractured society, accumulated anger at three decades of 'cadre' tyranny and an intellectual culture still wedded to a spurious 'progressive' consensus are formidable obstacles to progress. The reshaping of Bengal will necessitate enlightened political leadership. But it will also necessitate a full-fledged counter-revolution—at least in the mind of Bengalis.

The Telegraph, April 1, 2011

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