Sunday, May 29, 2011

NAC’s Bill would land Dikshit in jail

By Swapan Dasgupta

Amid the annual madness over college admissions, Delhi is witnessing a sideshow in St Stephen's College, which its Principal has described as a "national treasure". It seems that Sandeep Dikshit, a Delhi MP and son of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, was dropped as the alumni representative on the college's governing body. The college authorities say that Dikshit hadn't attended a single meeting since 2009 and Dikshit has retorted that St Stephen's has lost the plot and functions like a "communal institution." In reply, Principal Valson Thampu has charged Dikshit of failing to distinguish between communalism and "minority rights."

Despite the headline-grabbing potential of anything to do with St Stephen's, this controversy is somewhat stale, and unless someone says something rash, is certain to peter out in the coming week. However, my reason for invoking this minor skirmish is different.

If the Communal Violence Bill (CVB) as drafted by the National Advisory Council is passed by Parliament, it is entirely possible that the Congress MP for East Delhi could well be confronted with a non-bailable warrant on the charge of creating a "hostile" and "offensive environment" against a minority institution [clause 3 (f) (5)]. A member of a minority group could walk up to any Police Station and submit that Dikshit's expression of disgust with St Stephen's had contributed to his "mental" and "psychological" harm [clause 3 (j)]. He would claim that Dishit's outburst "could reasonably be construed to demonstrate an intention to promote or incite hatred" against the Christian minority [clause 8]. Since the proposed legislation stipulates that "Every Police Officer shall take action, to the best of his or her ability, to prevent the commission of all offences under this Act" [clause 18 (2)], the relevant thana will have to register a case under the new legislation.

Nor can the politician in Dikshit brush off the case as yet another occupational irritant whose handling is left to a lawyer and forgotten. The CVB is explicit that "unless otherwise specified, all offences under this Act, shall be cognizable and non-bailable" [clause 58].

More insidiously, the proposed legislation has an intriguing clause: "Where any question arises whether an offence committed against a member of a group was committed against him or her by virtue of his or her membership of a group , it shall be so inferred that it was so directed from the nature and circumstances of the act" [clause 73]. In plain English, this means that there is a presumption of guilt of the accused. As far as the CVB is concerned, the principle of innocent until proven guilty has been turned on its head.

Cooling his heels in custody, the MP may wish to send someone to impress upon the complainant that he meant no harm to the "secular fabric" of the country. Unfortunately for him, the CVB is categorical that the "National Authority shall take appropriate action to protect the identity of the victim or informant at all times" [clause 40]. In short, the man charged with spreading communal hate won't even know which lunatic has made the complaint against him, and for what collateral reason.

In case, the Police Officer decides that the case against Dikshit is frivolous and completely spurious, that will not be the end of the story. The anonymous informant who has to be constantly updated on the progress of the inquiries [clause 69 (1)] will have the automatic right to appeal to a seven-member National Authority [clause 70 (1)].

The National Authority appointed by the Centre is not made up of seven sober and dispassionate judges. Of the seven, four must be members of a minority group or SC/ST and four must be women [clause 21(3)]. Apart from a knowledge of law, they must "have a record of promoting communal harmony" and shouldn't have been a member of a political party in the year preceding their appointment [clause 23 (1)]. Additionally, they shouldn't "have exhibited bias against any group, by acts or in writing or otherwise [clause 23 (2)]. It is unlikely such an authority will be unbiased.

For India, such a National Authority, blessed with draconian powers, including the right to enter properties, carry out searches [clause 33 (4)] and even control media content [clause 8 and 67(1)] may remind people of the infamous Rowlatt Act. But there is an added twist: this is the first time a statutory and quasi-judicial authority will be appointed on the basis of a communal quota. And this body will also monitor and review transfers and postings of the civil administration in districts that have a record of communal tension or where communal disturbances could flare up [clause 32(2)]. India will thus make its debut in coupling activist jurisprudence with communal jurisprudence. With a State Authority mirroring the National Authority and replenished by Human Rights Defender for Justice and Reparations' in each district [clause 56 (1)] it will not be jobs for all the activists and their friends, relatives and lovers.

India will witness a parallel government committed to the principle that some Indians are more equal than others. It will open the floodgates for settling private scores and political vendetta. The dangers of outsourcing law-making to the self-professed army of the virtuous couldn't have been better illustrated.

Sandeep Dikshit is lucky he said what he did in the twilight days of sanity.

Sunday Pioneer, May 29, 2011


Friday, May 27, 2011

A fresh alternative

The BJP has to make an informed choice to reinvent itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Judging by the costly but purposeless media blitz launched by the United Progressive Alliance to mark the end of the second year of its second incarnation, the Congress leadership seems hell-bent on getting over its annus horribilis. Undaunted by the ash clouds that have grounded the government, party strategists have calculated that the jailing of 'tainted' politicians and the harsh action of the courts against errant corporates will persuade the electorate that the UPA is capable of setting in motion a process of ethical cleansing. An ambitious legislative agenda has been set for the next session of Parliament that includes a Land Acquisition Bill, the Lokpal Bill and even a draconian Communal Violence Bill.

The government's ability to restore its own credibility and inject a sense of purpose into the Congress is a possibility but is by no means a certainty. It only requires some fresh revelations on either the 2-G spectrum scandal or the Commonwealth Games fiasco to upset calculations. In addition, there is always the likelihood that some of the subterranean whispers of crony capitalism could come into the open and add to the government's woes. Despite the seeming nonchalance, the government is nervous about the months preceding the Uttar Pradesh elections next year.

The only solace for a beleaguered Congress lies in the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has reinvigorated itself. The BJP had initially calculated that the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal and Kerala would put an end to all future hopes of a possible Third Front and contribute to greater political bipolarity: those sitting on the fence would have to choose between the UPA and NDA.

Unfortunately for it, the BJP's pathetic performance in all the five Assembly elections clearly revealed that there was little by way of an incremental vote the saffron party could bring to the table in enticing unattached regional parties to join the NDA. The Congress performed disastrously in Tamil Nadu but even that was much, much better than what the BJP could ever dream of.

In 1998, many regional parties had climbed on to the BJP bandwagon because the national momentum created by Atal Behari Vajpayee added to the vote share of regional parties. Today, this is no longer the case. The BJP is strong in the Hindi belt, western India and Karnataka but a non-starter in about 250 parliamentary constituencies. Most important, its inability to recover lost ground in Uttar Pradesh has meant that the NDA, as presently constituted, will need many post-poll partners if it is to even entertain the idea of a non-Congress dispensation at the Centre in 2014. At the same time, as the Assam results so vividly demonstrated, a covert post-poll arrangement not only hands over the stability plank to the Congress but also runs the risk of losing the core vote.

The BJP, for example, performed dismally in the Barak Valley because its core Bengali Hindu vote felt that a Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi was better placed to meet the challenge of the Badruddin Ajmal-led Assam United Democratic Front than a BJP sitting in the opposition. Had the party negotiated a pre-poll alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, it could at least have projected an alternative to the Congress. Fighting separately (albeit with a covert understanding with the fractious AGP), the BJP failed to reassure its traditional voters that it was a serious player. The same factors that saw a large chunk of its middle class vote move to the Congress in the Lok Sabha poll in 2009, now worked to its disadvantage in Assam.

The lessons of the recently-concluded Assembly elections are daunting for the BJP. Unless the party is able to attract more regional parties or dramatically improve its position in Uttar Pradesh, it is guaranteed to remain in the opposition after 2014. The viability of regional players such as J. Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik won't be compromised by their inability to be a partner in the government at the Centre; for the BJP three consecutive election defeats will have a catastrophic effect on its morale nationally. The BJP needs the regional parties more than the other way round.

Yet, there are outstanding questions. If the BJP is of no consequence in the states where the regional parties dominate the non-Congress space, why should those parties be averse to a pre-poll alliance with an eye to power at the Centre? Why should the regional parties be wary of a mutually exploitative relationship with the BJP that protects each other's turf?

The answers are not flattering to the BJP. Any national alliance with the BJP runs the real risk of the regional parties triggering a minority reaction against it without, at the same time, generating a countervailing Hindu consolidation. If the NDA, with a BJP prime ministerial candidate, does manage to include some additional regional players, the Congress is certain to play the 'secularism' card aggressively. Where the BJP isn't a factor, Muslim votes follow one set of logic; where the BJP is relevant, the single focus is to defeat it. This is a situation that the regional parties would not like to countenance.

The BJP may live in denial of an unstated minority veto against it—and its allies—but it is a grim fact of life. And it can only be overcome by a counter-consolidation of Hindus which seems a remote possibility.

There is a paradox that confronts the non-Congress and non-Left opposition. No alternative, non-Congress dispensation at the Centre is possible without the BJP. However, the leadership of the BJP in such an alliance could dilute the unity of the public outrage against a non-performing UPA. Worse, it could inject an extraneous element such as secularism into the electoral calculus.

There is a perception in the BJP that this problem can be overcome if the party gets over its unending leadership impasse and projects a moderate, modern, Vajpayee-like face as its prime ministerial candidate. In addition, a conscious sensitivity to federal issues and advocacy of state interests in Parliament could earn the BJP brownie points in the right quarters. However, for these shifts to have a larger impact, the BJP has to be in a position to register a dramatic improvement in next year's Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. At least 30 parliamentary seats from Uttar Pradesh and the retention of existing bases are necessary if the BJP is to aspire to overtake the Congress as the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

Minus a recovery in Uttar Pradesh, the regional parties are unlikely to countenance any pre-poll understanding with a formation led by the BJP: the political costs of the enterprise are, as yet, not commensurate with the potential returns. However, national politics could change quite dramatically if the BJP was persuaded that the likelihood of a victory in 2014 would be greatly enhanced if the NDA was to project a non-BJP leader as its prime ministerial candidate. The experience of Bihar, where the JD(U) and BJP struck a harmonious alliance and even succeeded in winning the votes of minorities, is instructive. It could become the model for a broad front of anti-Congress impulses.

An NDA battling for federalism, integrity, harmony and good governance led by the unifying figure of Nitish Kumar is an idea whose time is fast approaching. But for this to happen, the BJP has to overcome its internal stalemate and paralysis and make an informed choice.

The Telegraph, May 27, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The puritanism of Marxists is intriguing

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is remarkable that confronted by an electoral uprising against 34-years of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal, the Communists have reacted with the same self-righteous indignation as Puritans faced with the frivolity of reprobates. Politburo member Brinda Karat has reminded those writing the CPI(M)'s obituary that the party was born out of the 'class struggle' in West Bengal. She avers the party will draw the lessons from a defeat in the electoral arena—always a sideshow in the Communist scheme of things—but it won't be the same one the revisionists, the faint-hearted and other class traitors are anxious to impart. Ms Karat has implicitly reaffirmed her unbending faith in revolutionary intransigence. In time, other Comrades will complement her logic with copious quotations from Marx or Lenin 'himself'.

It is intriguing why Communists invariably suffix the names of their gods with the term 'himself'. It's never 'Marx said' but always 'Marx himself said'. 'Himself' is perhaps the force multiplier that theologians need. The idea is not to impress non-believers but to baffle possible heretics and potential 'revisionists'.

It is, in fact, quite inexplicable why a movement that flaunts its 'scientific' credentials so ostentatiously is so fearful of 'revisionism'. Since 'scientific socialism' has deemed that the victory of socialism is not merely desirable but also inevitable, today's Communists should be as smug as the nut next door who claims to have calculated the precise date on which the world will end. If "history" is indeed "on our side", as the flamboyant Fidel Castro once said, why should Commies be obsessive about textual citations from the Collected Works?

In ordinary parlance, 'revisionism' involves the ability to think, re-think, fine-tune, question and even challenge existing beliefs and assumptions. It's because Galileo was a revisionist that the Flat Earth Society is close to extinction. Yet, 500 years ago, the fear of falling off the edge of the earth haunted explorers and even became a deterrent to commerce in some societies. Progress implies the unending celebration of revisionism.

To Communists, however, revisionism is about as abhorrent as 'popery' was to Anglicans in 17th century England. The analogy with the abstruse sectarianism that gripped Christian Europe after the Reformation is appropriate. For the fiercely God-fearing Puritans the good life meant rediscovering Biblical fundamentals. It also meant the complete rejection of the artistic and cultural embellishments that grew out of the Catholic Church.

More than a century ago, Lenin 'himself' wrote an article whose contents are no longer worth recalling. But it had a very catchy heading that summed up his sectarian conceit: "Better fewer, but better." Whereas most 'bourgeois' parties engaged in the thankless task of contesting elections and satisfying individual ambition, tailor policies to blend existing realities and a nebulous ideal, the Leninist party aspired to be a version of the old ICS—an elite group of the highly motivated with the moral backbone to carry an entire Empire, preferably on its sola topee but if need be, on a majestic Red Flag and to the robust notes of Internationale. Just as the ICS sahibs were presumed to know what was good for the 'real India', the 'vanguard' Leninist party was meant to epitomise the most advanced sections of the 'struggling masses'. The people were mute; the party spoke for them.

Not unnaturally, the people occasionally got a little excitable, demanding the impossible. These resulted, as Bertolt Brecht once rued, in the party having to abolish the people ('counter-revolutionaries') and having to elect a new one.

In November 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall triggered a chain of events that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout Eastern Europe, popular fury was directed at a self-serving party bureaucracy that combined tyranny with monumental socialist inefficiency. The grim inheritance of Lenin and Stalin were brushed aside as people chose personal freedom over regimentation and shortages.

What is interesting is the different ways in which Communists reacted to the Soviet collapse. In Europe, it resulted in Communist parties either going into voluntary liquidation or becoming virtually indistinguishable from the Left-wing of social democratic parties. As a political movement, Communism in Europe died with the 20th century. At best, it maintained a tenuous intellectual presence among tenured academics and the editorial classes.

In India, however, the rejection of the Red Flag in Moscow and the erstwhile 'socialist bloc' was interpreted with dogmatic eccentricity. The socialist experiment faltered, it was argued, because the party was injected with revisionism and had had deviated from Communist principles. For many who learnt their Marxism in parties like the CPI(M), the key to the future doesn't lie in less Leninism (as the Europeans imagined) but even more of it. For the CPI(M), the God didn't fail – the people were unworthy and the Comrades didn't pray hard enough. On such profound certitudes are politics in India based.

Sunday Times of India, May 22, 2011

NAC-drafted Bill to kill State Governments

By Swapan Dasgupta

The next time a partisan government at the Centre decides to facilitate the dismissal of an elected state government with majority support in the Assembly, it will not have to appoint a less ham-handed version of Karnataka Governor H.R. Bharadwaj. The former Law Minister who was sent to Bengaluru on a mission of subversion failed because both the political culture and Supreme Court judgments have made it difficult (but not impossible) for the Centre to impose President's Rule on flights of whimsy. Gone are the days when Governors such as Ram Lal, B.D. Tapase and Romesh Bhandari could subvert the Constititution's federal principles with impunity.

No, the next time an inconvenient B.S. Yedyurappa or a Narendra Modi has to be destabilised and eventually dismissed, the role of the Governor will become secondary. The principal part may well be played by an emerging body of professionals who will have the power to hold any state to ransom. Like the wedding organiser and party organiser who have made life incredibly easy for people with sufficient money to burn, a breed of riot organisers will be very much in demand in the coming years. That is if the draft of the Communal Violence Bill prepared by the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council is passed by Parliament.

India has always been indulgent to bad ideas. The Nehru-Gandhi family in particular has taken exceptional care to nurture quackery and cretinism as long as they were packaged in the garb of 'progressive' politics. Just as the Planning Commission was the nursery for bad economics for four decades, the NAC is fast becoming the instrument for Sonia Gandhi's misapplication of mind. Its contribution to the derailing of India's global competitive potential will be assessed (and, hopefully, even quantified) by economic historians in the future. However, mercifully, the NAC had so far desisted from imposing its grubby paw prints on the basic features of the Constitution—although the centralist 'one size fits all' philosophy was a recurring feature of all its proposals. The draft Communal Violence Bill marks a departure.

The implications of the Bill are grave. To destabilise a difficult state government, a cynical dispensation at the Centre will merely have to engage the services of a riot organiser. The riot organiser will simply have to either orchestrate tensions in a chosen locality—not a very difficult project—and trigger a little riot against either a minority community or local Dalits and tribals. No administration, however well-meaning and committed to social harmony can prevent a determined bid to foster disharmony. Under the proposed law, that local disturbance will become the pretext for the Centre to use Article 355 to intervene in the State.

Next, the seven-member National Authority for Communal Harmony, Justice and Reparation made up, presumably, of 'non-partisan' grandees such as Harsh Mander and Teesta Setalvad, will get into the act. Blessed with statutory sanction, this committee of the good and virtuous will stricture the local administration and the state government for its alleged lapses and suspected complicity in the riots and make a case for the breakdown of the Constitutional machinery. The committee's report, in turn, will become the occasion to file FIRs against 'difficult' state leaders and an obliging Bharadwaj-like Governor will recommend the imposition of Article 356 on the state.

Yes, a few innocent citizens would have died or had their property destroyed in the exercise. But at least they would have died so that the supercops of secularism could rule.

The Communal Violence Bill proposed by the NAC is not merely flawed, it is positively dangerous. In a country where laws sometimes exist to be subverted, the proposed legislation will be a direct incitement to made-to-order rioting and political destabilisation. The presence of a legally-sanctioned committee of the wonderfully virtuous overseeing the state administration is calculated to undermine any elected government and make administrators accountable to two masters. Governance would be made dysfunctional and the primary focus of every official would be to keep the Centre happy. Even an issue as localised (but no less regrettable) as the violence in Greater NOIDA over the quantum of compensation for land acquisition would become the pretext for the Centre to first intervene directly and subsequently dismiss the Mayawati Government.

There is a strong case for ensuring that the state government (which has ultimately responsibility for law and order and the preservation of peace) carries out its obligations diligently and without fear or favour. The best way to ensure this is all-round vigilance. Many district-level committees made up of local notables can be constituted to be an informal watchdog body and even assist the local administration. But political power ultimately vests with an elected government and not with do-gooders nominated by the government because they have the right aesthetic and NGO credentials. Sonia Gandhi has chosen to exercise power without making herself accountable. Now she seems determined to foist this model of colonial paternalism on the rest of the country.

India is a federal country and the more federal it becomes the better. The attempt to regress to back-door centralism has to be resisted. The issue is not riots versus secularism; the choice is between federalism and centralism, between a Delhi Sultanate and local democracy. Parliament should choose wisely.

Sunday Pioneer, May 22, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Wise men’s folly

By Swapan Dasgupta

For a long time, until voter identity cards became an obligatory feature of elections, horror stories of electoral malpractice were routinely heard in West Bengal. There were instances of entire mohallas being excluded from electoral rolls; there were tales of non-Left parties being prevented from stationing polling agents; and, finally, there was an epidemic of organised impersonation. The phenomenon of proxy voting was particularly interesting. In some cases, the Comrades identified potential 'class enemies' and ensured that someone voted for them before they arrived to vote. In other cases, stealth was unnecessary: the Comrades merely informed the relevant people that they had been spared the trouble of joining a long queue on voting day. "Stay at home and enjoy a holiday", the householders were cheekily told. On their part, the cadres emulated the Irish principle "vote early, vote often".

The magnitude of what came to be known as Bengal's 'scientific rigging' was known in relevant circles and, not least, the media. That electoral malpractice existed in an overall climate of fear and high-handedness was also known. The remarkable feature of the flood of post-election reports dissecting the oppressive control wielded by the CPI(M) on Bengali society is that they didn't surface earlier. For nearly three decades, India's 'civil society' chose to live in wilful denial of the Left's depredations.

That tyranny and Communist-run governments are inseparable don't need much elaboration. History has established a place for Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong among the great mass murderers of all times. The international Communist movement that once claimed that "history is on our side" abruptly fell to pieces after 1989 when an oppressed people rose and threw out the Commissars without a tinge of remorse. Some of the defining symbols of post-War Europe—the Berlin Wall, KGB, Staasi and the May Day parade on Red Square—are just memory today.

In view of the global disrepute of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', it was curious that the Left in India retained its moral halo in the eyes of the intelligentsia and media. More important, it persisted with the delusion of infallibility. On May 13, as the scale of the Left Front defeat in West Bengal became evident, the CPI(M) Comrades didn't budge from their arrogant, self-righteousness—although the CPI seemed in a more reflective mood.

Apart from an outburst by an ex-minister who won his seat in the Sunderbans and the outgoing Chief Minister who chose the dignity of silence, the CPI(M) leadership were in no mood for public self-flagellation. In one TV channel, a well-spoken Central Committee member of the CPI(M) said quite uninhibitedly that the people had failed to comprehend the party's nuanced arguments. After the Politburo meeting on May 16, the CPI(M) sneeringly informed its critics that "Electoral politics is just a part of our agenda. There are many issues of ideology, people's rights and related agitations and struggles that we must keep up." The message was clear: the CPI(M) is an instrument of history; it can't be held hostage to people's votes.

In September last year, CPI(M) ideologue Prabhat Patnaik, Professor of Economics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote an article to a Kolkata newspaper in defence of the party. It's a document that exemplifies the Communist conviction that it is they, and only they, that have the monopoly of all earthly wisdom. Why, he asked, did more than half the electorate in "two most intellectually advanced states in India" consistently vote for the Left Front? And why, despite "all its omissions and commissions" does the CPI(M) still attract "some of the finest young minds" in India?

The reasons were three-fold, argued Patnaik, and held good for both the CPI(M) and the organised Left movement as a whole. "First, it is the only modern force in politics; second, it is the only consistent democratic force in Indian politics; and, thirdly, it is the only consistently anti-imperialist force in Indian politics."

To understand the ability of the Left to live in a world of its own virtuous imagination, it is worth quoting from Patnaik's defence of the CPI(M)'s claim to be the "only" democratic force: "Critics often point to this or that misdemeanour on the part of the CPI(M) cadre, this or that action on the part of the CPI(M) 'hoodlums' to contest the CPI(M)'s commitment to democracy. But even if each of the alleged misdemeanours happens to be true, it would be crass empiricism — or, what comes to the same thing, crass moralism — to deny the CPI(M)'s historical commitment to democracy from a set of individual incidents of the sort that all political formations at the ground level can be accused of."

In plain language, Patnaik has said that the normal standards of disrepute and contamination don't affect the CPI(M)—to even suggest so is tantamount to "crass moralism"—because the party of the Red Flag is thrice blessed. Even the "pervasive association" of Communism with one-party rule, he says, lacks "theoretical justification."

It is unfortunate for the Left movement that the voters of "intellectually advanced" West Bengal embraced "crass empiricism" and "crass moralism" of Mamata Banerjee and shunned modernism, democracy and anti-imperialism. Its defeat in a state after 34 years has ominous implications for the physical safety of those cadres who tried to force-feed people's democracy to what Karl Marx may have called "sacks of potatoes". But the national impact of the Bengal loss is more profound.

In India, the Communist movement averted the crisis of Left politics that hit individual Communists and their fellow travellers after the Soviet Union collapse by projecting Bengal as the alternative socialist experiment in a 'bourgeois-landlord' state. Bengal encapsulated the Left's politics, its economics and its cultural modernism. Last week, it was the totality of that alternative built on political intolerance and intellectual conceit that crumbled. Having waited for the returns from political alchemy, the voters finally allowed their common sense to prevail.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, May 20, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Elections leave BJP in a fix

By Swapan Dasgupta

Just as Communists are fond of invoking the "final crisis" of capitalism, the BJP is perennially hopeful of the lotus blooming in Kerala—at least for the past 30 years. But just as capitalism invariably survives to fight another day, Kerala has a nasty habit of confronting the BJP at the door with a Hose Full sign, but yet tempting it to try its luck the next show. This is what happened last Friday when the BJP registered its predictable zero tally but was runners-up in three constituencies.

It would have been worthwhile had the BJP decided to concentrate its resources and energy on the few places where it has a meaningful local presence and can at least retain its security deposit. Injected with an overdose of exaggerated self-importance, the BJP chose to contest nearly all the seats in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. As affirmed by the party leadership, the logic of this massive presence was to demonstrate the quantum of its popular vote. From a purely academic perspective it may be useful to quantify the BJP support base but does it constitute a political plank? After all, the appeal to vote for the BJP because it is conducting a Census of its supporters is hardly the most riveting political intervention—even if it was backed by 'star' campaigners descending on thinly-attended meetings from helicopters.

Naturally, the silly appeal to vote for the BJP to strengthen its national standing didn't secure a single MLA in any of the three states. The party came second in one constituency in West Bengal; it wasn't even so lucky in Tamil Nadu. In both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the tally of lost deposits was much greater than the winning tally of Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha. Never mind the pretensions to being a national party, the BJP was mocked as a 'notional' party. In an election that saw the ouster of the Left Front after 34 years and a rejection of cronyism in Tamil Nadu, the BJP cast itself as the joker in the pack.

Ironically, there were two MPs from West Bengal and four from Tamil Nadu who were elected to the Lok Sabha on BJP tickets in 1999. True, they were the beneficiaries of an alliance with the Trinamool Congress and DMK respectively. What is significant is that the BJP couldn't leverage its alliance with regional parties to establish a viable presence in the state. The moment those alliances ended, the BJP reverted to a position of utter irrelevance.

The implication is ominous. Unlike the four general elections between 1991 and 1999 when the BJP could supplement its traditional areas of strength with a viable presence in the rest of India, the party has stopped growing beyond its core. In 1996, 1998 and 1999, the BJP could offer a significant value addition to all those regional players that joined its coalition. In 2011, except in Assam, it revealed that it has very little to offer the regional parties in their home turf.

This is not to suggest that the BJP is a declining force. The party remains strong and buoyant in its strongholds—as the victories in the by-polls in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh indicated—but the expansion into the south and east which seemed imminent in the Nineties has been reversed. What this means is that the BJP's ability to extract a larger understanding with regional parties is now exclusively dependent on what role a Jayalalitha, a Mamata and a Jagan Reddy imagines for themselves at the Centre.

The Congress can still chip in at the state level with a small contribution to woo a Dravidian party or a Trinamool Congress; the BJP has no cards to play outside its home turf and, on the contrary, is viewed as too much of a risk for regional parties to want to hobnob with it.

With the Left losing out in both West Bengal and Kerala, its ability to be a magnet for a non-BJP, anti-Congress alliance has also diminished. However, for many of the regional players, joining the NDA is not a realistic option because association with the BJP doesn't give them any incremental votes to compensate for minority desertions. At the same time, the regional parties are too keenly aware that there is a perceptible anti-Congress mood, particularly in southern India, that will be dissipated if no possible alternative is seen to be emerging at the Centre.

There is an emerging paradox. The BJP and the regional parties need each other if they are to contemplate an alternative coalition at the Centre. But as a national party with national aspirations, the BJP needs the regional parties more. In 1998, the mutual interdependence was regulated by the BJP. Today, the regional players wouldn't mind tasting the Delhi cake but not if it threatens their own domestic situation.

The implication is clear: the leader of any revitalised NDA will have to be chosen by a cluster of non-Congress regional parties. The BJP has to choose between a non-dominant status and a further spell in the opposition. If the BJP ranks are bereft of a leader who is acceptable to all of India and who isn't a repellent, the choice will naturally devolve on Nitish Kumar.

Sunday Pioneer, May 15, 2011

There are two Mamatas. Which will prevail?

[This is the unedited English version of the article published in the editorial pages of Ananda Bazar Patrika on May 14, 2011]

By Swapan Dasgupta

During the unrest in France in 1968, some students at the Sorbonne put up a poster: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." The political life of Mamata Banerjee seem to have been guided by this principle. The more impossible the mission the more she has been driven to pursue it relentlessly. May 13 was her crowning glory. She created a surge of hope out of profound hopelessness and overwhelmed a seemingly impregnable Red Fort built by the Left Front over 34 years. For Bengal, it was akin to the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

There were two Mamatas I saw last in the final stages of her campaign. The first was at a public meeting in the largely middle-class Dum Dum Park. There she delivered a measured speech and spoke with passion about the ruin of education during Left Front rule. She referred to how the Left had undermined the learning of English, how the Comrades had missed the IT boom and prevented the spread of technology.

At the Narainpur locality of Rajarhat where she spoke a few hours later, it was a very different Mamata who took the stage. This was a poorer area, typical of the refugee resettlement clusters where until a few years ago the CPI(M) majority was weighed, rather than counted. With a boisterous, youthful audience cheering her on, Mamata transformed herself into the street fighter, ready for a brawl. She warned the CPI(M) that her people wouldn't countenance their strong-arm tactics any more. "Our candidates don't wear bangles", she proclaimed menacingly. The 8,000 or so crowd went delirious.

As West Bengal goes ecstatic, celebrating its 'liberation' from 34 years of Left Front rule, there are concerns over which of these two Mamatas will prevail in the next five years. Will it be Mamata, the sober, bespectacled Didi of the posters? Or will it be Mamata the vengeful Ma Kali?

The rainbow coalition that rallied behind Mamata was forged by different impulses. There were those fed up with 'cadre raj' and the tyranny of the Local Committees'; there were those who rued the uninterrupted decline of Bengal and sought a place in India's capitalist future; and there were those who discovered a nebulous utopianism in Ma, Mati, Manush, particularly after Nandigram and Singur.

The election results tell the story of a mass rising against a streamlined, political machine. Yet, not everyone who pressed the button for paribartan share the same dream about the future. Mamata won over an aspiring middle class that wants new industries, new towns with malls and flyovers, and were disappointed that the Tatas shifted their Nano plant out of Singur. But she also pandered to the insecurities of the small farmer, the beneficiaries of Operation Barga, who are fearful of a future detached from rural life. And, playing a prominent role in her campaign were 'intellectuals' who hated CPI(M) 'dadagiri' but yet saw themselves as fashionably Leftist.

Mamata's electoral strategy was clever. She learnt from a Left that had won seven elections by keeping its opponents divided. In breaking from the Congress in 1997, Mamata redefined the anti-Left culture. First, she maintained a distance from the bhadralok-jotedar alliance that stood in opposition to the 'struggling masses'. She gave political voice to a class—perhaps unique to Bengal—for whom prolonged economic stagnation and decline had forced a lowering of cultural standards. Mamata's victory symbolised the 'fallen' Bengali's revenge on the CPI(M). It had a veneer of refinement but there was also the crude energy of anger and hopelessness.

In every way, Mamata blurred the battle lines the Left had drawn from the 1960s. She chose to actively embrace the disgruntled Left in her campaign. That wasn't because this group was electorally consequential. But their presence in her mahajot muddied the Left claim of Mamata being the representative of privilege and big money. With her austere lifestyle and daring, she created an alternative 'pro-poor' narrative that the CPI(M) couldn't challenge effectively.

Winning an election is one thing but governance is a different ball game altogether. Mamata has come to power not only riding the wave of widespread disgust and hatred of the CPI(M) but also on the crest of hope. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee won a resounding mandate in 2006 because he epitomised Bengal's desire for a better future. At that time Mamata lost badly because she was seen to stand for obstruction. Yesterday, Bengal made her the new messiah and reposed the same faith in her as they did in Buddhadeb five years ago.

Her first priority has to be the management of anger. For 34 years, the Left practised a form of politics that was based both on the control of government and the regulation of society. The Left politicised every arena of civil society. Nothing—not education, not arts and culture, not business, and in some cases not even social relations—was too small for its attention. Even Lenin's birthday was declared a public holiday.

This emphasis on control has led to a Bengal that is dotted with localised tyrannies which in turn has generated local grievances that in course of time has evolved into anger. In the aftermath of paribartan, there will be a determined clamour for 'badla'. Mamata may have warned against the spirit of revenge but she may well be powerless to control it.

Yet, she must discard a flawed inheritance. Can a non-Left government afford to have its programme of governance sabotaged by the Coordination Committee-controlled government machinery? Effective and non-partisan governance demands a thorough political cleansing. The only issue is how ably manages it. She can't afford to convey an impression that tyranny has been replaced by chaos and vindictiveness.

Mamata has a one-year window of opportunity to ensure that Bengal moves from anger to creative optimism. For that to happen, she needs to create the environment for economic activity to take place. If she gets bogged down fighting political fires—which can abruptly turn fierce—she will lose the momentum and destroy the political alliance she has patiently built.

Since the 1960s, the Communist movement has successfully created a citizenry that was saw empowerment only in terms of political awareness. It was not supplemented by economic empowerment. The Left strategy of agriculture-led growth failed to meet rising expectations. By 2000, even the Left Front recognised that there was no real alternative to boosting manufacturing and services. Unfortunately, the political culture it had nurtured—marked by bandhs and militant trade unionism—proved a road block. In a non-regulated economy, where states competed with each other, Bengal just couldn't convince investors it was better, if not as good as, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Tamil Nadu.

Can Mamata reverse the tide? Like Buddhadeb, Mamata will be haunted by the legacy of Nandigram and Singur. The problems associated with the acquisition of fertile agricultural land have meant that governments will find it difficult to facilitate the purchase of cheap land as a sop to industry. In opposition, the CPI(M) will invariably rediscover its lost radicalism and ensure that Mamata too is prevented from doing what they tried to do and failed. Politics has reduced the government's room to be pro-active in wooing industry.

If Bengal is to take advantage of its natural advantages, it will have to bank on two things: a wholesome environment and a shift away from the 'cholbe-na' culture that has defined Bengal. In wooing Nano away from Singur, Narendra Modi may have made the Tatas an offer they just couldn't refuse. But this was only the icing on the cake. Gujarat has succeeded in wooing large, medium and small industry because its collective mindset is geared towards enterprise and growth. Bengal has to rekindle the spirit that was snuffed out after Dr B.C. Roy. Mamata can do her bit by putting an end to the competitive politics of self-destruction. But unless society is receptive to a new mood, nothing can work. After all, no one is obliged to invest in Bengal.

Curiously, Modi and for that matter Nitish Kumar holds out important lessons for Mamata. Like these two successful chief ministers, Mamata is her own boss, fiercely independent, passionately committed to her state and scornful of internal opposition. The resounding mandate she has received gives her the space to run a one-woman administration. This may run counter to the text-book standards of collective functioning. But experience has shown that India's best state governments are those that can operate single-window systems of decision-making, propped up by a core team of professionals insulated from political pressure. At the risk of being called a dictator, Mamata can rise to the challenge by being true to her personality. She should remember that the people didn't vote for her MLAs but voted for her to both slay the demon and redeem Bengal's lost pride.

Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali), May 14, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

India lacks the will to confront enemies

By Swapan Dasgupta

The so-called $1 million 'mansion' in which Osama bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad for the past five years looks, to subcontinental eyes at least, more like an ungainly—and most likely, unauthorised—construction we are accustomed to seeing on the fringes of our unplanned cities and towns. That the CIA was able to hone in on such a building and observe it undetected for nearly a year is a tribute to its capabilities. The success of the inappropriately-named Operation Geronimo on May 2 has forced a review of the theory that Langley's over-dependence on electronic surveillance had made it less effective in a war where the 'non-state players' banked a great deal traditional methods of communication and money transfers. The CIA has shown that when the situation so demands it can fall back on old-fashioned intelligence gathering through a network of spies and informers.

For the US, it was not merely its ability to ferret out the darkest secret of Pakistan that has been both noted and, in some cases, appreciated. Equally significant is the global realisation that it has the capacity to act on that intelligence—whether through Drone attacks or daring special operations. True, the Abbottabad raid violated Pakistan's sovereignty and Washington would have been seriously embarrassed (and even become an object of ridicule) had the operation misfired—as it could so easily have done. Given the sheer magnitude of the risks involved—recall President Jimmy Carter's humiliation when the operation to free the American hostages held by Iran's Revolutionary Guards ended in disaster—President Barack Obama is entitled to draw some political mileage for his show of forthrightness.

It is interesting to see how just one successful Special Ops has lifted the morale of not just the US but even its allies. General David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff of the UK, for example, that the success Abbottabad was "definitely a positive" in the context of the ongoing operations against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. "It will remind like-minded people wherever they are", he is quoted in The Times as saying, "that one day their deeds will catch up with them. That is psychologically very important in the context of Libya and other crises in the Middle East…" Yet, the same General Richards had confessed in November 2010 that defeating Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy was "unnecessary and would never be achieved". It could, at best, be "contained".

The shift from resignation, bordering on dejection, to gung-ho assertiveness isn't likely to be confined to General Richards alone. In the short term, Operation Geronimo is certain to roll back the tide of western defeatism that had egged on Pakistan's innate duplicitousness. But for how long?

As more and more details of the hunt for Osama bin Laden comes into the public domain, it is becoming more and more apparent that Americans have recognised that there is no place for squeamishness in the national security business. President Obama may have won his election in 2008 on the strength of both his ethnicity and a groundswell of aesthetic rejection of President George W. Bush's War on Terror. However, what is now apparent is that the success of last week's operation was ensured by the groundwork done by the previous regime. Had some of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay not been subjected to "special interrogation techniques", the CIA wouldn't have got to know about Osama's trusted courier. And if they didn't have his identity, the spooks wouldn't have been able to gauge the significance of four telephone calls.

Official disclosures have also made it quite apparent that firefight" was inappropriate to describe the encounter in Abbottabad. Only one of those inside the grim house is said to have challenged the marines with a gun, and his resistance was short-lived. Osama, it has now been admitted, was unarmed and apparently cowering inside a room with his latest Yemeni wife.

The implication is dramatic: Osama was executed. Since no court in the US has sentenced him to death, his killing was clearly extra-judicial. And yet, Obama has taken the credit for approving the operation and has even honoured commandos who participated in it. In the eyes of the US, those who ended the life of the country's most wanted terrorist were heroes.

To view Operation Geronimo as a modern variant of a cowboy film starring either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood isn't far-fetched. But was it ethically wrong? Should Osama have been captured alive and then brought to trial in a New York court or, as some have argued, a Nuremberg-type war crimes trial? Alternatively, should President Obama and all those involved in the operation be put on trial for subverting the course of law and taking part in a pre-meditated, extra-judicial killing? Should something like a Special Investigation Team that was inquiring into the killing of Ishrat Jehan, someone the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba claimed as their own, be set up in the US to probe Osama's death?

The US is likely to laugh away these suggestions, just as they have brushed aside Pakistan's protests on the violation of sovereignty. The killing of Osama has demonstrated that effective counter-terrorism is ultimately also a reflection of the national character.

The lessons for India don't need to be spelt out. We lack the will to confront our enemies. This is why we are always a soft target.

Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2011

Wimpish India may lose the Great Game

By Swapan Dasgupta

A week after the 9/11 attacks, when an angry United States was planning fierce retribution against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, General Pervez Musharraf made a televised speech on the choices facing Pakistan. In a rambling address, Musharraf drew inspiration from the early history of Islam. The Prophet, he reminded viewers, had negotiated the Treaty of Hudaibiya with the Quraish of Mecca. The truce may have seemed a climbdown and an admission of weakness but it offered the army of Islam the elbow room to spread the faith throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It was an invigorated Islam that finally regained Mecca.

The implication was obvious: confronted by a superpower that bluntly demanded Pakistan should choose between Us and Them, Musharraf was effecting a tactical retreat. To Musharraf, the U-turn in Afghanistan didn't signal any strategic shift or emotional conversion; it suggested dissimulation based on expediency—the al taqiyya or deception that is theologically sanctioned for the larger good of the faith.

With the encounter in Abbottabad ending an exhaustive manhunt, there must be functionaries in Washington DC who regret not being more attentive to the fine print of Musharraf's September 2001 speech. It is not that the US and its allies weren't aware of Pakistan's penchant for "looking both ways" and facilitating Taliban factions. But its duplicity was sought to be rationalised as wariness of a regime in Kabul that valued India. As the relationship with President Hamid Karzai began souring, it suited western strategists to imagine that Pakistan's shenanigans were facets of a new Indo-Pak proxy war. With war weariness engulfing the public mood in both the US and Britain, 'pragmatism' deemed that Pakistan should have a major say in determining a peace settlement that included the Taliban—as distinct from the Al Qaeda. In a speech in February this year, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton even deemed that laying down of arms and acceptance of the Afghan Constitution were no longer prerequisites for dialogue with the Taliban.

Until the May 2 "firefight" spoiled the party, Pakistan believed it was on the cusp of a historic victory. With President Barack Obama having announced a phased withdrawal of US forces from July, Islamabad felt it was just a matter of time before it regained its "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. Its army chief General Kayani was audacious enough to suggest to Karzai last month that his cooperation in a settlement that accommodated the Taliban could even be underwritten by China—a country that has acquired substantial interests in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan.

Of course, it was not all smooth sailing. Pakistan was worried that the Afghan conflict and its quiet encouragement of jihad had triggered a blowback. Some of the Islamist groups nurtured by the ISI to inflict pain on India had developed autonomous agendas and had even begun targeting the Pakistan military. This threat was partially offset by an unexpected bonanza: India's retreat from its post-26/11 position of no talks until Pakistan completely disavowed terrorism. What is now called the "Mohali spirit" was also premised on the convoluted rationale that the process of normalisation would bolster Pakistan's fledgling democracy. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Pakistani cantonments were worried by this wishful calculation. To them, India's talks with "useful idiots" of the civilian government merely helped Pakistan look more respectable. It was also a great relief to the western powers that valued both countries: India for business and Pakistan for facilitating its exit from Afghanistan.

Abbottabad has nullified this script. It was one thing for Pakistan to be harbouring Mullah Omar in Quetta, but Osama was another matter altogether. Pakistan's perfidy hasn't merely made the US angry; it has been shown to be a sucker. In normal circumstances, India should have been jubilant and telling the world 'we told you so'—a sentiment echoed by the media and society. Tragically, the latest confirmation of Pakistan's habitually duplicitous conduct has left Singh strangely unmoved. He has instead reaffirmed his faith in Pakistan's innate goodness—a gesture of monumental magnanimity that is prone to being misconstrued.

India's wimpish official response to Pakistan's double-dealing isn't likely to generate oodles of gratitude. A beleaguered Pakistan has reacted to its own embarrassment with a heady cocktail of victimhood, nationalism and anti-Americanism. Such an outburst can't be delinked from that country's pet hates. When it comes to India, Pakistan is often loath to even practice al taqiyya—so profound is its fear of India's skills of absorption. This may explain Islamabad's calculated over-reaction to notional threats of Indian special operations. For Pakistan, anti-Indianism is the national adhesive.

Pakistan is still unsure of the extent of Western retribution over its sanctuary to Osama. It is banking on a temporary frostiness that will dissipate in the face of the imminent departure from Afghanistan. Pakistan has reposed faith in the two aces it has up its sleeve: its nuclear assets and its firm alliance with China. The West, it believes, will bark but won't dare bite.

In the normal course, India would have been an additional pressure point on Pakistan. Having abandoned that option, India has made itself redundant in the Great Game. Singh may yet get to visit his native village in Pakistan. In craving for that privilege, he may also secure India's banishment from Afghanistan and the onward march of China in South Asia.

Sunday Times of India, May 8, 2011



Friday, May 6, 2011

Pak apocalypse when?

By Swapan Dasgupta

When he made his momentous broadcast at 11am on September 3, 1939 to announce that Germany had not replied to the ultimatum served on it and that "consequently, Great Britain and Germany were at war", Neville Chamberlain didn't quite rise to the occasion. A character in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On is recorded as remarking that the speech was so utterly deadpan that the Prime Minister may as well have been announcing a "by-election defeat".

Mercifully, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn't deem it appropriate to say something in public after the tranquillity of a Monday morning was disturbed by the excitement over the "fire-fight" that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He waited till evening before issuing a message so tepid that it could as well have recorded the Reserve Bank's rise in interest rates. Where most of India was in a 'we told you so' mood and revelling in Pakistan's misfortune at having been caught cheating, our Prime Minister was unmoved.

It is likely that the mirth over a neighbour being found in a proverbial compromising position may turn out to be a passing show. The country that deftly managed to ride out the A.Q. Khan scandal, the US anger after 9/11 and the global indignation that followed the 26/11 Mumbai outrage has by now developed the hide of a rhinoceros and is unlikely to be affected by the discovery that the world's most wanted terrorist was safely ensconced in a town teeming with the military. To believe that today's Pakistan can be shamed into goodness is like hoping Harry Flashman (in Tom Brown's Schooldays) would cease to be a cad and become a true gentleman.

Yet, it was not cynicism that prompted Singh's apparent show of detachment. Since the SAARC summit in Thimphu last February, Singh has tried to turn India's Pakistan policy upside down. The earlier position—robustly reaffirmed after the Mumbai outrage of 2008—of making meaningful bilateral engagement conditional on Pakistan's disengagement from all acts of terrorism was substituted by a candyfloss diplomacy premised on the belief that engagement was the best way to make Islamabad fall in line. It is not that New Delhi was blind to the roguish agenda of a section of the Pakistan military and its intelligence services. However, it was felt that the fragile civilian dispensation would be strengthened if India demonstrated magnanimity. Singh, in short, was also engaging in a civilising mission: to bolster the 'good' Pakistani establishment and isolate the 'bad' guys in the cantonments.

The progress of what has subsequently been dubbed the 'spirit of Mohali' depended crucially on public indifference. Singh appears to have calculated that the fierce preoccupation with domestic politics would give him the space to proceed quickly but silently on building bridges with Pakistan. What he didn't want was the furore that greeted the Sharm-el-Sheikh declaration of July 2009 where the U-turn was unveiled for the first time. That storm resulted in even the Congress distancing itself from its Prime Minister's initiative.

To the extent that the Abbottabad raid has brought Pakistan's duplicity in full international glare, Singh's muted response to the US's show of might is understandable. Pakistan, after all, has been exposed as monumentally perfidious. Osama wasn't just an ordinary terrorist: he personified America's perception of evil. Pakistan doesn't merely face the wrath of the White House, Capitol Hill and Langley; it is confronted by the collective anger of an entire nation. It will take considerable ingenuity and grovelling on the part of Pakistan to get its relationship with the US back on a surer footing.

As more and more evidence of Pakistan's double-game hits the American networks, public opinion in the US is certain to become more and more hostile to the idea of subsiding a rogue state with billions of dollars and sophisticated armaments. A re-born President Barack Obama who has added machismo to his list of political attributes can hardly go against public sentiment—and certainly not in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

Ironically, the West's pressure on Pakistan to come clean on its relationship with Osama and stop "looking both ways" is likely to play out very differently within that country. Pakistan may not be a text-book model of a functioning democracy but even here public opinion cannot be ignored. The remarkable ease with which a beleaguered Pakistan establishment was able to steer the public debate into one involving the violation of national sovereignty, thereby giving full expression to the prevailing torrent of anti-Americanism, is revealing. It suggests that far from this national embarrassment opening a window of opportunity to the 'good' Pakistanis to question an unscrupulous and rotten dispensation, a wave of perverse xenophobia and Osama worship could become the pretext for an already illiberal society to turn medieval. A cocktail of xenophobia and religion may make sensible Pakistani voices irrelevant.

There is a section of radical opinion in the Islamic world that feels that the West is economically so challenged that the threat of more upheaval will force it to retreat, leaving Pakistan to reclaim its pre-2001 status in Afghanistan. This is not a wild calculation. Underneath the triumphalism that has manifested itself in the US is also a feeling that the war goals set after 9/11 have been achieved and that it is time to leave the region to its anarchic fate. The flip side of this belief is that the West's disengagement is certain to be seen as a triumph of Islamist radicalism and a posthumous victory of the 'martyr' of Abbottabad.

In whichever direction the endgame finally plays out, India will not be unaffected by the shifts. The tenuous assumptions on which Singh built his policy of appeasement towards Pakistan seem set to fall apart. No wonder he preferred the written to the spoken word: he would have sounded like someone who had just lost a general election.

Asian Age/ Deccan Herald, May 6, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

British royalty: a shared hallucination

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe I have a wrong set of friends but the conversation throughout last Friday centred on the Royal Wedding in London. One TV channel tried to engage me in an evening discussing on the Purulia arms drop but I was having none of that. Between downing vast quantities of bubbly at the garden party co-hosted by the British High Commission and the BBC (which, for a change, did the right thing and flew the flag) and debating a spooky controversy, my priorities were clear.

The newly-appointed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may mean very little to the India of 2011. Unlike his grandmother and father who assiduously keep alive their Indian and other Commonwealth connections, Prince William is still in his internship and hasn't yet grasped all his future responsibilities. But in the normal course of things he is a future King of Britain who has broken new ground by marrying a thoroughly English commoner. This may explain why an estimated two billion people in the world watched their wedding on TV. And, presumably, at least 10 to 15 per cent of the viewers were Indians. Yes, the William and Kate wedding did captivate the ordinary, unpretentious middle-class Indian imagination more than the politically-correct commentariat will admit.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. First, regardless of the periodic outbursts of anti-imperialism and nationalist self-assertion, Indians nurture a genuine fondness for Britain and its traditional institutions. We may have ceased to have a King-Emperor in 1947 but Independence and a new political arrangement wasn't accompanied by an enduring hatred and bitterness. There were a lot of things Indians disliked about the Raj but in the six decades of Independence these have been overshadowed by the inheritance we cherish. We may have changed the names of roads and public buildings and banished the imposing bronzes of imperial rulers to obscure venues but the relationship of India and Britain remains "a shared hallucination" (Enoch Powell's telling description).

Those with an interest in the past should research the exhaustive coverage in India of the death and funeral of Sir Winston Churchill—a man who, in his lifetime, was loathed by Indian nationalists for his unwavering defence of the Empire. The posthumous respect showered on Churchill or, for that matter, Lord Mountbatten, suggests a large-heartedness that narrow nationalism has always failed to appreciate. One day, India will also have the decency to relocate one of the discarded bronzes of Lord Curzon to a site overlooking the either the Archaeological Survey of India or the new building of the Ministry of External Affairs. Curzon, after all, began the process of preserving India's inheritance for India and putting the mark of India on a foreign policy that was independent of Whitehall.

In this infuriatingly complex "shared hallucination", the House of Windsor occupies a special place. Why are the Indian immigrants to Britain so categorically royalist? Why do they crave for that invitation to one of the garden parties at Buckingham Palace or even a chance to donate generously to a charity endorsed by the Prince of Wales? No amount of radical multiculturalism has been able to prevent British Indians from adoring the monarchy. This is not merely because Indians (and particularly Hindus) love to adapt; the sentiments are more heartfelt.

Nor does the belief that monarchy is the natural order in Britain stop at the Indian diaspora. I have always been amused that the persistence of Guardian-loving editors here to have the British monarch described as Queen Elizabeth II—much like the ship—has been scuttled by popular usage. For English-speaking India, the old lady with the handbag and the slightly batty husband is still 'the Queen'; there is no other. At the same time, India is a proud Republic.

This peculiar schizophrenia may a source of bewilderment to sociologists but it is nevertheless real. The Royal Wedding proved immensely popular with Indians because it epitomised many of the institutions we hold dear.

The first was the sheer pageantry. It is worth exploring whether the splendour of the occasion was something they learnt from us or we preserved because of them. But the coming together of ceremony, tradition, family and patriotism was something Indians have instinctively celebrated and which the country's new-found prosperity has allowed us to rediscover. We have even recognised its tourism potential, just as Britain has.

Many Indians may not have appreciated all the finer details of the very English, Christian service that solemnised the marriage. They may not have grasped the political significance within England of the singing of William Parry's 'Jerusalem' and the choice of Sir Edward Elgar's 'Crown Imperial' that accompanied the procession of the bride and groom from the altar. But what may have impressed Indians was the fact that the Englishness of the occasion wasn't distorted by some contrived multi-faith or secular improvisation.

I loved the flag-waving on the streets, the street-parties for the kids, the merry-making in the pubs and the overall message of a nation united. And I particularly loved the Bishop of London for quoting the lesser-known St Catherine of Siena to put it all into context: "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire". That's something we should never forget.

[This article is dedicated to raising the hackles of the grim, the sanctimonious and those who lack the ability to laugh at themselves.]

Sunday Pioneer, May 1, 2011


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