Friday, September 30, 2011

A Heady Dose of Humour: Class continues to be an obsession in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Few individuals in public life can be as delightfully malicious as my friend, fellow Stephanian and sparring partner, Mani Shankar Aiyar — though this can’t be the reason why the president nominated him to the Rajya Sabha as a “man of letters”. As someone he dubbed the “Hampstead Hindu” permanently pitted against him, I can vouch for his erudition, puerility and devastating wit, the last two being inseparable. During the long waits before the TV cameras start rolling, we have often ended up discussing obscure themes. These have included the role of Sir Samuel Hoare (who?) in the Government of India Act of 1935 and whether it was Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain who mistook the butler for Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But conversations have also been laced with impish back-stabbing — and not merely directed at Arun Shourie, a fellow Stephanian he, to his own surprise, outscored in the final examinations many decades ago. On one occasion, Mani lit into a prickly and pompous Congress MP: “He imagines that God created wax to stuff into his ears.”

That’s Mani — the man with an anarchic gift of the gab.

At 70, an age when people become lofty and even spiritual, Mani has regressed into the halcyon days at St Stephen’s and Cambridge amid people with broadly common backgrounds and shared assumptions, the People Like Us. Some three weeks ago, after being confronted with a letter by the sports minister, Ajay Maken, charging him of waging war on Indian sports, being “obstructionist” and scuttling India’s bid for a future Asian Games, Mani shot his bolt. He retorted by feigning astonishment that a BA (Pass) from Hans Raj College could master the Queen’s English and be familiar with the term “dichotomous”.

Predictably, Mani’s assault on Maken and Hans Raj got many people’s backs up. Even Stephanians who shared Mani’s superior disdain for Pass course ‘locals’, ‘behenjis’ and institutions ‘across the road’, kept silent for fear of being exposed to charges of social snobbery and elitism — grave crimes against the inclusive dumbing down process. They chortled in private while reminiscing over a time when hostellers were referred to as ‘gentlemen in residence’ and when the annual IAS/IFS intake of Stephanians could make up at least two cricket teams.

To add to the farce, the principal of Hans Raj College clarified that Maken hadn’t actually read for a BA (Pass) but had graduated with a BSc (General) degree — a clarification that widened the smile on Mani’s face.

That Mani was being characteristically incorrigible is obvious. His real crime, however, was more heinous: he was guilty of flaunting his self-ordained superiority — something that in the unwritten club code is just not done. In the settled world of Nehruvian privilege where Mani blossomed, cleverness was always consciously concealed but privilege fiercely guarded in the guise of socialist egalitarianism. In my days at St Stephen’s, the worst abuse you could hurl at something — apart from being a bore — was to call him a ‘swot’ or ‘mug pot’. Life was something to be negotiated with natural brilliance and effortless ease — even if you discreetly burnt the midnight oil before the examinations. A well-honed sense of self-deprecation was what distinguished a gentleman from the players. To pass the social test, it helped to pose as a stuttering clod, even an archetypal upper-class twit, whose accomplishments were strictly limited to the school playing fields and courtships around the back gates of women’s colleges.

There was also a rule governing social put-downs: it had to be subtle and, preferably, laced with a touch of humour. The brilliant but raffish Tory MP, Alan Clark — the only man in recent times to speak in parliament after a generous overdose of claret at a convivial lunch — was once told of the wonderful furniture in the house of Michael Heseltine, a self-made politician. “The trouble with Michael,” he retorted nonchalantly, “is that he had to buy his own furniture.” To Clark, life was a basket of entitlements. It mirrored the words of the once popular Anglican hymn: “The rich man at his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high or lowly/ And ordered their estate.”

We can be outraged by Clark’s outrageous hauteur but few can deny its infuriating sharpness. Mani may have rightly been miffed by Maken’s letter, even believing he had been put up to it by higher powers. Maken is a “decent chap, I knew his uncle well”, he told me on a TV show. If that indeed was so, he may just as well have crafted an “Ode to a Hans Raj Boy”, borrowed the lines from Oliver Goldsmith and recited: “And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew/ That one small head could carry all he knew.” That would have been the less disagreeable Stephanian way.

A sharp repartee does not necessarily lead to an audience rolling in aisles; a few quiet chuckles from ‘those who know’ are always preferable. But there is always a problem with ‘in’ jokes: the quiet appreciation of the few are invariably overshadowed by the simmering anger of the great many that nurture the suspicion that they are being mocked by those who have rarely had it bad.

This point was driven home at a TV show Mani and I did in Miranda House, one of the best women’s colleges of Delhi University. The audience didn’t think that the competitive displays of Stephanian humour were very funny — not because they weren’t amusedper se but because the ‘in’ jokes from a bygone age also reeked of social privilege. They interpreted the closed world of overgrown schoolboys as evidence of social condescension. The students weren’t earnest radicals; they aspired to a society where opportunities were equal and not determined by glibness and social skills. In a crudely cricketing sort of way, their role model was M.S. Dhoni, the Ranchi boy who made good, not the Nawab of Pataudi from Winchester and Balliol College.

There is an important distinction between an elitism based on the pursuit of intellectual excellence and the snobbery centred on privilege acquired through an accident of birth. Unfortunately, they often converge — not merely at St Stephen’s but in Oxbridge colleges and American Ivy League colleges — and the results can be devastatingly off-putting.

The Indian elites, it has often been said, readily reconciled to British rule because, like their rulers, they too were obsessed by class and the trappings of hierarchy. Class was also injected into the DNA of the indigenous sahibs Macaulay sought to create. Why else would St Stephen’s have nurtured a Wodehouse Society, alas now defunct, devoted to the celebration of the indolent puerility of a Bertie Wooster, a Bingo Little and the newt-loving Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle? It is not that the students really believed that life was all about chucking bread rolls at the Drones Club and becoming engaged to the dreadful Honoria Glossop. It is just that this was an ambience they regarded as the nearest thing to living in a perfect world. To the outside world, this obsession was not merely bizarre, it was positively offensive.

Legend has it that one Stephanian stumbled on entering the room for his IAS interview. “What is it,” barked one of the interviewers. “It, Sir,” came the reply, “is a singular, neuter pronoun.” In today’s world he would have been failed for insolence.

India has changed; Mani hasn’t. Like in the rest of the Anglophone world, class continues to be an abiding obsession in India.

The Telegraph, September 30, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Nawab of Pataudi: A Tiger and a Gentleman

It is fortunate that Mansur Ali Khan, or the Nawab of Pataudi as we knew him, played cricket in the 1960s and early-1970s. Had he emerged in today’s environment, we may have seen him at a few club games and perhaps even in Ranji Trophy matches but he would have been an unlikely member of the Indian Test team.
Such an assessment may appear excessively harsh and unjust. But this grim prognosis has nothing to do with the innate worth of a man who combined natural talent with style and strategic shrewdness. Tiger Pataudi excelled at a time when cricket, while being competitive, was also a gentleman’s game. In an age when the distinction between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ wasn’t merely confined to separate changing rooms at Lord’s but extended to larger questions of attitude, Tiger was the quintessential lordly amateur — a man who saw a cricket match as much more than a question of winning or losing.
Perhaps he had to. In those days, when cricket’s centre of gravity was still England and Australia — South Africa, alas, had ruled itself out of international reckoning by self-inflicted wounds — with the West Indians contributing to raw excitement, India was a habitual loser. The Indian crowds that packed the modest-sized stands at Test venues rarely expected the home side to win — that was a happy bonus. They expected displays of individual excellence — an Everton Weekes lofting the ball out of the ground, a Rohan Kanhai executing his trademark hook shot, a Colin Cowdrey demonstrating the art of perseverance and the duo of Ray Lindwall and Alan Davidson exposing the shortcomings of any batsman inclined to fish outside the off stump. For Indian enthusiasts, the result of the Test was incidental. More often than not, India came out second best.
In hindsight, it’s a miracle that Indian cricket managed to survive the decades of adverse results. Hockey, for example, has not managed to draw in the crowds (and sponsorships) after the decline in India’s fortunes after the 1970s. Cricket’s sustained popularity owed everything to the fact it was as much an individual sport as a team game. More to the point, it was a game that epitomised an ethos which, despite all our anti-colonial pretensions, was firmly rooted in India’s innate admiration of the culture of a land that once ruled over us. Some four decades ago, cricket was a different game from the cricket that has prospered ever since its economic home shifted from Lord’s to Mumbai. It was a game for the officers not the subalterns and advertisers.
Tiger Pataudi fitted into India’s mental image of the cricketing ideal. Before he made his Test debut against Ted Dexter’s visiting MCC side in 1961-62, he had what everyone imagined was the ideal pedigree: Winchester, Oxford and Sussex. He was our Peter May, our Dexter. He combined elegance with the right aptitude; he was our Englishman. Not since Prince Ranjitsinghji and his nephew Duleep had India seen anything like it. The Nawab of Pataudi, Sr, would perhaps have been an ideal but his cricketing career was woefully brief. Tiger was the inheritor of that tradition.
The legend of Pataudi was further fuelled by circumstances. In the normal course, the rightful successor of Nari Contractor — felled by a Charlie Griffith delivery that he seriously misjudged — would have been Polly Umrigar who, along with Vijay Manjrekar and Chandu Borde, was the mainstay of the Indian batting. But the cricket authorities had appointed Tiger as vice-captain of the side touring the West Indies in 1962. The appointment was primarily to help him gain experience and was essentially a grooming exercise for the future. No one expected that Contractor would be ruled out of all competitive cricket and that Tiger would be Captain of India at the age of 21, even before he had played 10 Tests for India.
The point is not that Tiger became Captain prematurely on the strength of being a stereotypical ‘natural leader’ but that he didn’t disappoint. Unlike his born-to-rule predecessors in the post — such as the comic Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy) and the underperforming DK Gaekwad — Tiger lived up to his potential. Despite the loss of an eye, he was among the few Indians of his vintage who was capable of playing genuine pace bowling; he was an exemplary fielder in a side that didn’t believe in running after the ball; and, most important, he mastered the art of making the best use of available resources. It is important to remember that while most sides had a happy combination of pace and spin, the Indian team had spin and more spin. Yet, as Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Venkatraghavan will readily admit, no one knew how to better utilise spin than Tiger. He was the spinners’ dream captain — something that Dhoni is clearly not. He knew the art of captaincy.
Yet, that was a leadership which belonged to a different era when commentators and sports writers were more guarded in their judgements and when every Test wasn’t followed by a mandatory Press conference. Tiger’s dry wit and his understatement — both very English — would never have fitted into today’s voluble and brash India.
In Tiger’s death, India doesn’t merely mourn the loss of a great cricketer, it observes the passing of cricket as a gracious game.
Sunday Pioneer, September 25, 2011

A Foreign Complex

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, September 23, 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Modi proves his critics wrong

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are politicians whose perceptions of the outside world are derived almost exclusively from interactions with karyakartas who now live abroad or whose son/daughter or neighbour’s first cousin is now the proud holder of an OCI card. This could explain why their sense of the world happens to be somewhat eccentric. I recall an NRI who had lived some 26 years in a small town in southern USA (and thereby becoming his politician brother’s main intellectual input on foreign affairs) turning livid when he heard me argue that President George W. Bush had a lot of popular backing for his politics. “I have not a single person who ever voted for Bush”, he informed me. When I suggested that his social experiences were limited, he took very serious umbrage.

I was reminded of this incident all through last week after the Supreme Court angered activists by refusing to order the filing of a FIR against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. This anger turned to apoplectic rage after Modi, with his keen sense of the spectacular, decided to undertake a three-day fast for ‘sadbhavna’. A friend of mine with a high media profile proclaimed grandly that she hadn’t met a single person who was supportive of Modi’s new campaign. “We have to draw the line somewhere”, she said grandly. Modi’s supporters “aren’t the types you can invite into your home.”  

What bound the gentleman who’d never encountered a Bush supporter (and therefore felt they didn’t exist) and the lady who wants Modi supporters out of her life was their sense of denial. Unfortunately, the real world isn’t shaped by individual experience; nor, for that matter, are all attitudes in India determined by the babalog media. Had that been the case, Modi would have by now been banished to the most inhospitable island in the Indian Ocean and left to rot. Instead, the more he is vilified and painted as the blood-sucking inheritor of Dracula’s mantle, the more he seems to grow from strength to strength.

Modi’s trajectory is fascinating. In 2001, he was parachuted into Gujarat after a six year absence to salvage a government that even the BJP had more or less written off. By March of the next year he was at the centre of a political tsunami that would have blown most politicians off their feet. Instead, Modi has successfully turned calamity on its head, learnt from that experience and come out stronger.

In December 2002, the Congress actually believed it was winning Gujarat. Its optimism was based on the inputs of NGOs who were central to the crusade against Modi. So fanatical was social pressure of the chattering classes that opinion polls scaled down the magnitude of the impending BJP victory by portraying it as a touch-and-go election. Outlook magazine’s poll, for example, forecast a convincing Modi defeat because the clever pollster had conveniently transferred all the ‘undecided’ responses into the Congress kitty.  

It was the same story in 2007. This time the media assumed the role of the opposition and wrote about Modi encountering indifferent crowds. Psephologist Yogendra Yadav declared that Modi could be defeated. I recall meeting a senior editor from NDTV at a large Modi rally on the outskirts of Ahmedabad that resembled a rock festival. Earlier in the day he had told me that Modi’s prospects seemed very iffy. “Very impressive”, I remarked amid the melee. The man shrugged his shoulder and replied nonchalantly, “Hardly. This is his home turf.” 

The point was simple: Modi had to be seen through tinted lens. There were global tenders issued for issues, real or contrived, to keep the Gujarat pot boiling. The court cases indicate the pattern. First, it was said that the Gujarat police was biased. Next, the charges of partiality were levelled against the Gujarat judiciary. The Supreme Court then undertook to monitor all investigations through its own, specially appointed Special Investigations Team. When the SIT doubted the veracity of the claim by activists and witnesses whose testimonies came touchingly close to outright perjury, its integrity was questioned. An environment was sought to be created so that trial by judiciary became trial by media. Last Monday, a gleeful media waited in anticipation of an adverse Supreme Court order that would inevitably have led to Modi’s resignation. The judges stuck to the law and ignored the pressures on them. Now, even after the Supreme Court has pronounced its unwillingness to accept every wild claim as the Gospel, the Modi baiters are undaunted. “Modi hasn’t got a clean chit” is the mantra of the day.

In their eyes it will always be a heads I win, tails you lose.

For the past decade Gujarat has averaged a GDP growth of 10 per cent, the highest in the country. Its agricultural growth has also been around 10 per cent—a stupendous achievement for a sector that is limping. Yet, the only Gujarat stories that make news are those supplied by Teesta Setalvad. 

As a news agency, Teesta has done wonders and even secured a Padma award. But let’s look at the parallel career of Narendra Modi. Nine years ago, his ability to withstand Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s opposition and remain Chief Minister was a matter of conjecture. This week the talk is of him emerging as a possible Prime Minister of India in 2014.  

In hindsight, it’s good that some people’s doors are closed to Modi. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 18, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

BEYOND NATIONAL INTEREST - The Teesta issue has driven home the importance of federalism

By Swapan Dasgupta

The idea that the nation is larger than the sum of its parts readily finds an echo in New Delhi, the archetypal Imperial Capital carefully planned by Sir Edwin Lutyens to inspire both awe and reverence. The present-day Republic, undergoing serious mid-life convulsions, may not quite fit the bill as the deserving successor to the mighty Raj, but its functionaries still retain all the mental trappings of an imperial power, especially when it comes to dealing with the provinces.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that India’s national embarrassment during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka last week generated much tut-tutting. There was horror over the subordination of something as pristine pure as ‘foreign policy’ to parochial interests by a Chief Minister who was said to fancy herself as West Bengal’s Joan of Arc. The grapevine suggested that Pranab Mukherjee had burnt a fuse after the mild-mannered Trinamool Congress member of the Cabinet indicated ‘Didi’s’ misgivings over the proposed Teesta waters agreement. On TV, a member of the Delhi commentariat pronounced sombrely that Mamata Banerjee should first learn to behave before she acquired the privilege of being taken seriously in the Imperial Capital. Among the retired members of the Indian Foreign Service, there was broad consensus that Mamata’s shenanigans shouldn’t have been tolerated and that a firm Prime Minister would simply have overruled all objections and proceeded to sign the agreement in the ‘larger national interest’.

If the version being put out by a beleaguered South Block and Prime Minister’s Office is to be believed, a cynical Mamata double-crossed Manmohan and facilitated one of the biggest diplomatic disasters in recent times. The reasons given for the Chief Minister’s alleged duplicity vary according to the audience. It has been said that Mamata is temperamentally prone to violent mood swings; that she wanted to take it out on the Congress, and the Finance Minister in particular, for the difficulties encountered in securing extraordinary financial accommodation; that she feared a CPI(M) resurgence in North Bengal; that she couldn’t countenance the idea of being a member of the supporting cast in the delegation to Dhaka; and that she probably expected a Union Cabinet Minister to fall at her feet or, as Jairam Ramesh did with the Land Acquisitions Bill, flatter her into submission.

A common thread that runs through these proffered explanations of Mamata’s awkwardness is that the Centre and particularly the Ministry of External Affairs were innocent victims of one woman’s volatility. The Centre says that Kolkata was always kept in the loop and ‘informed’ at every step. It has been said that the Prime Minister spoke to Mamata and secured her approval. Much has also been made of the trip by the National Security Adviser (accompanied by the Water Resources Secretary) to Kolkata after the TMC threw a spanner in the works at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs.

The Union Government’s defence has been broadly digested in Delhi, particularly by the so-called ‘strategic affairs community’ that views any interaction with the NSA as the high-point of any engagement. Yet, two issues are worth considering.

First, in the eyes of an elected Chief Minister with an eye to mass politics, the NSA is just another bureaucratic functionary. Shiv Shankar Menon may be an accomplished diplomat who, if Delhi’s bush telegraph is any guide, is both de-facto External Affairs Minister and Foreign Secretary. However, at the end of the day he is not a political functionary and is not empowered to take political decisions. That he enjoys the trust of the Prime Minister is undeniable. At the same time, his record of negotiating delicate matters of political importance is poor. His attempts to persuade the Opposition to support the original version of the Civil Nuclear Liabilities Bill, for example, came a complete cropper. It finally needed an empowered political veteran in the form of the Finance Minister to negotiate a give-and-take arrangement with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The final Act may not have been to the liking of the US State Department but it did reflect the broadest national consensus on the subject.

In the past, whenever the issue of river waters was negotiated with Bangladesh, successive governments at the Centre had taken exceptional care to accommodate West Bengal’s concerns. Indira Gandhi, for example, entrusted the responsibility of engaging with the then Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray to Jagjivan Ram. During the United Front rule, External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral met Jyoti Basu on a number of occasions and the Joint Secretary dealing with Bangladesh went on joint river visits with the Chief Minister.

Compared to past exercises, the approach of the MEA on this occasion appears remarkably casual. Whether this has got to do with the absence of a functioning External Affairs Minister or the presumption that an UPA ally could be taken for granted is something the Delhi Establishment needs to agonise over.

Secondly, the Centre appears to have been insufficiently mindful of the grim realities of a federal polity. Since foreign policy and international treaties belongs exclusively to the Centre’s domain, MEA officials are inadequately sensitive to the issue of wider consultations within India. The scope of India’s public diplomacy doesn’t extend to making the provinces feel a part of the foreign policy processes.

Whether the Prime Minister could have ridden roughshod over the objections of the state and negotiated the Teesta waters sharing with Bangladesh belongs to a grey area of the Constitution. But regardless of its superior rights in law, it is reassuring that the issue of conflicting rights was not tested. Perhaps this owed to the importance of the TMC as the Congress’ largest coalition partner in the UPA. Would the Centre have backed down had, say, the issue involved an agreement with Pakistan over the Rann of Kutch where the Gujarat Government was in firm disagreement? In the past, Rajiv Gandhi’s Government had not hesitated to dismiss the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu for actions that went against the grain of India’s Sri Lanka policy.

Arguably, there was no national security involved in the river waters agreement with Bangladesh to warrant precipitate action—although that itself makes the over-involvement of the NSA somewhat inexplicable. However, that is still no justification for what someone described as ‘MEA unilateralism’. The point to note is that the demand for sharing the Teesta waters downstream did not come from West Bengal. It was aimed at meeting a long-standing demand by Bangladesh for which it was willing to concede transit rights to Chittagong for the North-eastern states. In short, West Bengal was being asked to be accommodative for the sake of the larger ‘national interest’.

The Centre was acting in India’s best interests. Yet, since the whole arrangement with Bangladesh was premised on the principle of quid pro quo, Mamata was equally justified in implicitly asking what West Bengal would gain from the arrangement. Moreover, since the Teesta flows into North Bengal from Sikkim, it was only fair that the small Himalayan state should also be brought into the calculation. One of the shortcomings of the Ganga waters treaty of 1996 that Nitish Kumar has rightly drawn attention to is that Bihar was not consulted.

The diplomatic fiasco in Dhaka points to the complete unviability of any international agreement with neighbours before there is a broad domestic agreement on the subject. Mamata has been sufficiently vilified in the Imperial Capital but in the process she has successfully driven home the overriding importance of federalism. There has to be a mindset change: Delhi must reconcile to its new role as a service centre for the states of the Union. 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is the honeymoon with the Crown Prince over?

There are odd moments when apparently trivial incidents portend larger trends. In early 1989, the Patna station of All India Radio was at the centre of a bizarre controversy. During a live broadcast of a children’s programme, the presenter invited kids from a studio audience to recite a short poem. When it came to his turn, a small child, barely out of kindergarten, blurted out something that had caught his fancy: "Gali gali mey shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai."

Indignant loyalists were quick to detect a "sinister conspiracy" behind a child’s fascination with a slogan he had heard around his mohalla. But few dared to draw the obvious conclusion from the embarrassment: that questions over the Prime Minister’s integrity (badly affected by the Bofors controversy) had become a part of everyday discourse in households.

Last Wednesday, hours after the bomb blast in Delhi High Court, Rahul Gandhi encountered a hostile crowd as he made the mandatory political visit to a hospital. A crowd, waiting anxiously for news of their seriously injured family members, booed the Congress’ heir designate and shouted hostile slogans.

The regime did its utmost to underplay the incident and some TV channels even suggested it was the handiwork of "political activists". But as with the AIR broadcast, the implication of the heckling was glossed over.

That 2011 is fast turning into the UPA government’s annus horribilis is obvious. Yet, the Congress has comforted itself into believing that the steep fall in the government’s popular standing has not rubbed off on Rahul. It has been presumed that the Congress general secretary’s detachment from everyday governance would lead to a situation whereby the dynasty was perceived as the most obvious saviour in the country’s dark hour. The calculation was that any craving for change would be internalized within the ruling establishment.

At the risk of over-reading the implications of the hospital kerfuffle, it would seem that the strategy is not working out. Rahul’s "game changer" speech that he read out to the Lok Sabha last month failed to galvanize India. On the contrary, he was mocked by the pro-Anna Hazare crowd at Ramlila Maidan for his lofty aloofness and his unwillingness to engage with real issues on a sustained basis. At a time when people cried out for upright and deft political management, Rahul cast himself in the role of a not-terribly-profound pontificator.

In just over a fortnight, the popular mood has changed dramatically. Opinion polls that indicated residual faith in the Congress despite fierce dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, are now recording rising support for the opposition and BJP in particular. For the first seven years of his political life, the crown prince was showered with popular (and media) indulgence. They forgave his indiscretions and failures, ignored his all-too-frequent withdrawals into private life, boisterously celebrated his occasional successes and worshipped his ‘potential’, both real and projected. Congress cheerleaders painted him as the "youth icon" and foretold a future dispensation of young inheritors—well-spoken, well-groomed men and women from pedigreed political families, the proverbial babalogs.

The honeymoon seems to be finally over. There are still some 32 months before another general election, and 2014 could miraculously turn into annus mirabilis if a smug BJP decides to fall back on day-before-yesterday’s slogans, techniques and leaders. If Rahul continues to falter, the custodians of dynastic rule may even be inclined to whip out its secret weapon— Priyanka Vadra. In 2011, the plot is still unfolding and the conclusion is still many episodes away.

But 2011 is nevertheless an important landmark. Historians may characterize these turbulent months as the time India shed its deferential submissiveness towards the ‘first family’. The Gandhis will remain the adhesive that joins a disparate Congress family. At the same time, a mood of rebellious individualism is threatening to unsettle the cosy world of entitlement on which dynastic politics rests.

The boy who unsettled the airwaves in the final months of Rajiv Gandhi must be nearing 30. Did he unwittingly kick-start a new age of insolence in which ordinary people can raise their voices and talk back at those who imagine they were born to rule? We live in exciting times.

Sunday Times of India, September 11, 2011

9/11: Bin Laden, dead and smiling?

It is extremely unlikely that the six Serbian nationalists who pumped bullets into Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, were even remotely mindful that their adventurism would trigger a horrible World War that would last for 51 months and change the face of Europe, almost unrecognisably.
That an act of adventurism aimed at promoting a Greater Serbia would have such unintended consequences was also not realised by most contemporary observers.
What distinguished Mohammed Atta and the other followers of Osama bin Laden who embarked on their suicide mission on September 11, 2001, was their conviction that their “martyrdom” would change existing global calculations.
Of course, the precise nature of the change was always uncertain. It was one thing to hope that a frontal assault on the American way of life would somehow trigger a clash of civilisations and polarise the Muslim ummah against the “Great Satan”. But even Bin Laden must have known that life rarely follows pre-determined courses set by soothsayers, prophets and economists.
Ten years after 9/11, it is important to assess Bin Laden in terms of his own calculations and expectations. Did he broadly achieve what he set out to do that September morning? Alternatively, is his grand vision likely to suffer the same ignominious fate as its founder did in Abbottabad on May 2?
Like many other contemporary radicals, Al Qaeda’s Pearl Harbour was based on the assumption that a morally degenerate capitalist order was incapable of sustained self-defence, particularly when confronted by a fiercely motivated opponent. I don’t think that Bin Laden had any doubts that the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the massacre of nearly 3,000 people would invite fierce retribution — regardless of which individual was in residence at the White House. Those who charge President George W. Bush of being a warmonger appear to be unmindful that no President of the US could have avoided mounting retaliatory attacks on Bin Laden’s safe haven. A seasoned player such as Bin Laden had probably calculated on the US invasion of Afghanistan — although he may not have factored in the swiftness with which the Taliban regime crumbled.
In years to come, it is conceivable that his fan club will project him as the man who, at a great personal cost, over-extended the enemy and quite systematically exposed its vulnerabilities. Sadly, the assessment will not be entirely misplaced. The US retaliation against the Taliban was predictably hard, swift and even efficient. But waging war was the easy part. The US began faltering at the very next hurdle: the de-Talibanisation of Afghanistan.
There were three big miscalculations. First, unfamiliar with the challenges of empire-building (a phenomenon that the British too have erased from their collective consciousness), the US presumed that either a liberal democracy or at least a modern Islamic democracy could be recreated in Afghanistan by the teamwork of well-intentioned Americans and US-educated Afghan exiles.
The problem was that the institutions necessary for the creation of a functioning democracy were virtually non-existent in a country ravaged by nearly two decades of uninterrupted turmoil. The elbow room that Hamid Karzai needed to create a benevolent autocracy was never given to him by the US and its Nato allies. The result was a dysfunctional hotchpotch that was made worse by an understandable Afghan resentment towards armies of occupation.
Secondly, the military defeat of the Taliban within Afghanistan was always incomplete as long as Mullah Omar and other associated groups maintained a lifeline in neighbouring Pakistan. For reasons of expediency, Pakistan allowed the US an initial free run in Afghanistan while providing sanctuary to the fleeing Taliban. However, since Pakistani policy was dominated by its obsession with India, it soon redoubled its efforts to tire the West out in Afghanistan.
In hindsight, the decade after 9/11 will be marked by Pakistan’s remarkable success in clawing its way back into reckoning in Afghanistan. What is even more striking is that this recovery was almost entirely subsidised by the US which paid Pakistan billions of dollars of hush money. The problem was that Pakistan pocketed the money and then did precisely what it thought was in its national interests — to keep the conflict alive in Afghanistan.
From keeping Bin Laden under wraps in Abbottabad to maintaining Mullah Omar in Quetta, Pakistan ensured that militant Islamism was kept alive after its immediate post-9/11 defeat.
Finally, and this is where Bin Laden was remarkably prescient, it soon became clear that neither the US nor other European countries had the stomach to police a remote, unfamiliar and inhospitable part of the world.
The involvement in Iraq was, of course, the proverbial last straw. But even if President Bush wasn’t so intent on ousting Saddam Hussein, it is certain that domestic public opinion would have acquiesced in a long-term campaign of pacification. Recent attempts to distinguish between Islamic conservatives (the Taliban) and radical Islamists (Al Qaeda) amount to rationalising the reality of a tired West.
On 9/11, Bin Laden unleashed what he always knew would be a very long war. After a decade, and with the West beset by a larger crisis of capitalism, one phase of the war has concluded. The next phase, involving a blend of the Arab Spring, Islamist radicalism and a hatred of Israel is just about beginning. Only the reckless can hazard to guess its outcome. As of now, Bin Laden has reason to smile.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, September 11, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Compared to Rahul, Manmohan shines

By Swapan Dasgupta

 It has been an entire week since Anna Hazare broke his fast and ended the carnival of direct democracy in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. Yet, a week has proved to be a woefully short time for the message of the 12-day August upsurge to sink in. From Lutyens’ Delhi to Chanakyapuri, there is consternation and confusion over the impact of the stir. Will it be the proverbial Indian storm when people let the legions thunder past and plunge to sleep again? Or, will India never be the same again?

 The magnitude of concern can’t be underestimated. Over the past week I have heard pillars of the Establishment first express bewilderment over Anna’s appeal and then, as the evening progressed, seen tut-tutting give way to unrestrained fulminations. As for the political class, conspiracy theories centred on RSS involvement and the lavish use of ‘foreign money’ has evolved into a robust defence of what a quasi-political functionary described to me as “Constitutional fundamentalism”.

In practical terms, this has not involved a discovery of Edmund Burke but base recriminations: slapping privilege notices and tax demands on the infamous Team Anna. In diplomatic circles, the disorientation has been more pronounced. In the normal course it wasn’t cricket to repeat conversations with diplomats. But since conversations with American diplomats can any longer be deemed either privileged or confidential thanks to WikiLeaks, I may as well reveal that representatives of the world’s only superpower are about as confused and concerned as the neighbourhood whiskey-drinking real estate speculator. Their worries were hearteningly authentic. First, why was there such a mismatch between those notables they interacted with and the angry voices they heard on TV channels? Did the media (or, at least a section of it) have a collateral agenda? However, there was a bigger worry. How have recent developments affected the political prospects of the designated heir apparent? Was the scripted future of Indian politics going awry?

 The panic is understandable. Like the markets, foreign governments and their intelligence agencies hate unpredictability. None of them had factored in the possibility (not even after the Jantar Mantar street party last April) that the UPA Government would be jolted by a middle class uprising against corruption. Their calculation was that while the Congress was vulnerable at the state level, a disoriented and fractious BJP would be in no position to challenge the status quo nationally. Consequently, they had devoted all their energies in cultivating the young inheritors in the Congress and the Gandhi scion they believed would lead India after 2014, if not earlier. Over the past week, they are asking themselves a simple question: did we miscalculate?

 Diplomats, being relatively more transparent, are asking a question that, for Congress leaders, is a concern they dare not spell out openly. Instead, the alarm over the unexpected turn in politics is being concealed in an inoffensive we-miss-Sonia message. But the implication of yearning for the party president whose whereabouts and state of health is covered by the Official Secrets Act is obvious. When Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi told a stunned country that Sonia Gandhi would be out of action for some time, he also announced the Amar-Akbar-Antony team that would help Rahul Gandhi steer the Congress ship. The buzz in Congress circles at that time was that it was only a matter of time before Rahul was anointed Working President of the Congress, a prelude to the eventual assumption of complete political responsibility. The more gung-ho elements even suggested that it was only a matter of time before the unreal system of dyarchy was junked altogether because opinion polls had suggested that Rahul was the most popular choice for the PMs post.

 Unfortunately, no one in the Congress had calculated that the ship would run into choppy waters immediately. What they had also not foreseen was that in this moment of crisis Rahul would retreat into disoriented inactivity. The only evidence of Rahul’s involvement in the 12-day fire-fighting was the School Captain’s Prize Day speech he read out at Zero Hour in the Lok Sabha.

Very modestly, Rahul described his intervention as the ‘game changer’. Tragically for him, the game refused to change and it was left to Pranab Mukherjee and Salman Khurshid, with some help from the BJP, to try and salvage the situation. By then, Rahul was on a flight to some unknown foreign destination. The palpable disappointment with Rahul’s leadership potential—and the cluelessness of the babalog brigade that constitute his cheerleaders—has unnerved the Congress.

The Prime Minister may not have emerged from the August storm looking perfect but in a relative sense, compared to Rahul, he has emerged smelling of roses. Far from dyarchy being a liability, the Congress has to thank Manmohan Singh that the revolt of the middle class didn’t spiral out of control. Had an inexperienced Rahul been at the helm, it is entirely possible that spontaneous outburst of anger would not have been so regulated.

The Congress has become a private limited company owned by the Gandhi family. Confronted by the limitations of the heir apparent, it is in a state of denial. Yet the reality is apparent to everyone. The next few weeks will witness a determined bid by the Congress to salvage the reputation of its first family. This could trigger a bout of political adventurism at a time India can least afford it.

Sunday Pioneer, September 4, 2011
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