Sunday, October 23, 2011

Much ado about 'Three Hundred Ramayanas'

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is nothing like a good culture war to excite the intellectual imagination. The decade of the 1990s was dominated by the slugfest over the shrine in Ayodhya. It became obligatory for anyone with any pretension of being a ‘public intellectual’ to take sides on this controversy. Neutrality or, worse still, supreme indifference was automatically construed by the dominant intellectual group as tantamount to an endorsement of ‘fascism’.

Then came the kerfuffle over M.F. Hussain’s contentious depiction of Ram and Sita that had the defenders of the faith screaming ‘blasphemy’ and reaching for their trishuls. Here too, India’s cultural community were encouraged to link arms against the vandals.

Now comes a wonderfully contrived dispute over a Delhi University decision to omit an essay on the Ramayana from the prescribed readings for its undergraduate History course. The decision has particularly agitated those with a penchant for progressive pamphleteering: it has been denounced as “academic fascism”—a conceptually intriguing proposition.

The essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by Indologist A.K. Ramanujan was never intended as an iconoclastic exercise. It spelt out the interesting variations in the Ramayana story in India and South-east Asia with a great measure of quiet reverence. In fact, Ramanujan concluded his essay with a tale of the mental and social elevation of a village dolt after he actually listened to a recitation of the Ramayana.

Yet, because some philistines had objected to the essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition—which they otherwise debunk—while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.

That such a puerile debate has come to dominate a discussion over the curriculum in a university may seem odd but not surprising. Over the years, the history wars have become a feature of the larger battle over national identity. A feature of this clash has been the tendency of the opposing sides to repose faith in something called the ‘correct’ view of India’s past. With their dominance in the history faculties, the ‘progressives’ have tried to fashion the curriculum in a particular way, using prescribed texts as the instrument of their ideological hegemony. Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.

A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists—not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R.C. Majumdar,  and not A.L. Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.

The problem, it would seem, arises from the dubious practice of listing prescribed texts. In the past, a history curriculum would identify broad themes for study, leaving teachers the independence to recommend readings for further study. A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject. With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount. They are expected to imbibe and parrot prevailing orthodoxies—a process that can hardly be said to be conducive for the training of the mind.

What we are witnessing in India is not an assault on free speech but something far worse, an attack on the spirit of free inquiry. There is something fundamentally skewed with a system of higher education that posits two stark alternatives: a compulsory reading (and, by implication, acceptance) of a scholarly work or not reading it at all. The space for critical discernment is fast disappearing and we are turning into a nation of slogan shouters. 

Sunday Times of India, October 23, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Protests fails, politics win

By Swapan Dasgupta

The only talking point the Congress had after its ignominious performance in the by-election to the Hissar parliamentary by-election was that the last minute campaign by Anna Hazare’s followers contributed little to the final outcome. For all its national impact during Hazare’s fast last August, the India against Corruption’s ability to influence electoral politics still remains untested—the movement curiously desisted from directly intervening in the by-election to the Kharakvasla Assembly constituency in Maharashtra. Consequently, the only definite conclusion that can be drawn from the Congress’ spate of by-election debacles is that anti-incumbency has benefited the principal anti-Congress parties.

The ferocity of anti-Congress feelings is something that should hearten the national opposition, particularly the BJP which sees itself as leading a future non-Congress dispensation. However, far from being encouraged by the trends, the BJP has given the impression of being exultant. So gung-ho is the mood in a section of the BJP that it is acting on the belief that the next general election has already been won and that the remaining fight is over who should occupy the Prime Minister’s post.

This strikes me as a classic case of irrational exuberance. If the political timetable remains unaltered, the next general election is due in May 2014, some 30 months away. In other words, there is still ample time for either the BJP to score self-goals and neutralise its present advantage or for the Congress to recover lost ground by providing the country with purposeful governance. Using analogy borrowed from the United States, what we are witnessing at present is just a run-up to the primaries, not even the primaries themselves.

Of course, the timetable could well be redrawn in the event of an abrupt collapse of the UPA Government. L.K. Advani has been making noises to that effect and, last week, even Mayawati joined in the public speculation over the longevity of a government that is lurching directionless from crisis to crisis.

Unfortunately for the Opposition, the scenario of abrupt collapse appears to be a case of wishful thinking. First, if the odds are heavily stacked against the ruling coalition, it is extremely unlikely that its MPs will be tempted to do anything rash. Secondly, and despite Sharad Pawar’s public criticism of the Government’s handling of the 2-G scandal, there is no evidence that either the DMK or Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (the two largest coalition partners) want to travel an alternative route. The DMK would prefer to keep its toehold at the Centre after the drubbing in Tamil Nadu; and Mamata, while fiercely independent in all matters concerning West Bengal, wouldn’t like to lose the considerable patronage powers the Indian Railways offer. Finally, and this is true for all entities going through a bad patch, the Congress is permanently hopeful that tomorrow. “Just wait for the Uttarakhand and Punjab polls” is a line frequently heard in Congress circles.

Barring an accident, a mid-term parliamentary election in 2012 looks extremely unlikely—and this is regardless of the outcome in next year’s state elections. By stressing the likelihood of an abrupt collapse some BJP leaders are ending up looking desperate. The hunger for power is regarded as a positive attribute for politicians in the so-called advanced democracies. In India, however, thanks to the distorting effects of Gandhian thought, the craving to be in government is perceived as something perverse and immoral. The anti-politician mood generated by Anna Hazare’s movement, particularly in the youth, has only served to heighten the revulsion for ‘power-hungry’ netas.

Advani failed to read this particular graffiti on the wall before embarking on his Jan Chetna yatra—a reason why the venture lacked punch. However, more important, by putting his prime ministerial ambition on public view, he made the one mistake an opposition party must avoid: shifting the gaze from the government to itself. Unless there is a profound ideological point that is being made—as happened during Advani’s Ram rath yatra in 1990—it is prudent for any ‘centrist’ opposition to keep the spotlight firmly on the government.

This may seem heretical to those in the saffron ranks intent on creating a Hindu version of the Tea Party movement by courting the outrageous. However, the sheer complexities of India and the uneven presence of the national parties throughout India negate the virtues of a conviction politician. Coalition politics is not necessarily a fig leaf for venality—as has happened in the UPA—but it is a trigger for the politics of aggregation. The major shifts in policy orientation by governments have rarely happened as a result on a resounding electoral endorsement. The people have been inclined to elect a government and then leave them alone to exercise the wisest policy option. Electoral politics, as opposed to the process of governance, has rarely been ideological.

At one time it seemed that the shortcoming of the BJP (and NDA) could lie in not projecting a leader to counter Rahul Gandhi. Today, as the heir apparent too struggles to overcome the anti-incumbency against the Congress, the inability or unwillingness to make the next election a presidential contest well turn out to be a significant advantage. The lesson from Hissar is that the traditional mould of Indian politics is broadly intact, despite Anna Hazare and a shrill electronic media. For the opposition, the real challenge is to keep its nerve for the next 30 months. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, October 21, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Who's bigger in the Advani yatra: Message or Messenger?

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the solitary purpose of the Jan Chetna Yatra being undertaken by LK Advani was to demonstrate that the India of 2011 is markedly different from the India of 1990, it could be described as an unqualified success. Whereas in 1990 the Somnath to Ayodhya yatra was cut off in full flow at Samastipur on the orders of the Bihar Chief Minister, Advani’s fifth yatra had the satisfaction of being flagged off from Bihar by a friendlier Bihar CM.

In an ideal world, major political undertakings — irrespective of the loftiness of the cause — should not be pursued casually. For the BJP, there were other, less exacting ways of demonstrating that Nitish Kumar has been extricated from the clutches of the evil Lalu Prasad, and that 21 years is a long time in politics.
Advani must have kept in mind the experience of the Rashtra Suraksha Yatra of 2006 which was a casualty of mass indifference. The yatra had been suggested as an angry response to the blasts in Dasashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, an issue that agitated the public mind in 2006 just as corruption does today. Yet, the yatra was a monumental flop not least because it lacked focus. Its objectives were five-fold: to safeguard national security; to defend national unity; to rescue governance from corruption and criminalisation; to save parliamentary democracy; and to protect the aam aadmi, garib and kisans.
So generous was the embrace of the yatra that an adventurous soul may well have smuggled in the demand for a Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar. No one would have noticed it, and least of all party functionaries who approached the yatra with the same sense of foreboding as the soldier who rode in the charge of the Light Brigade. But at least, it would have resonated with the “youth”—a slippery commodity that refuses to be re-inducted into a party it deserted sometime between the capitulation in Kandahar and the images of Bangaru Laxman extending his hand towards a wad of currency notes.
On this anti-corruption yatra too, the organisers have tried to inject a youth quotient by recording a theme song that had the party leadership wanting to emulate Herman Goering and reach for their guns at the mention of the word ‘culture’. Even Advani was compelled to concede during his gush-gush interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt that the song was best kept away from the ears of rural India — an indication that the messaging was wrong yet again.
The BJP, it would seem, has not taken sufficient care with the larger messaging of the ongoing Jan Chetna yatra. There is no point complaining that the media has been wilfully mischievous and has highlighted the footnotes rather than the central theme. During the 1990 yatra that redefined the ideological agenda for the next 15 years, the media also tried its utmost to focus on trivia.
Those with memories may recall how the offer of a bowl of blood to Advani made news for a day or two. Others may recall the suggestion of erudite Left-wing columnists that Advani’s focus on Ayodhya, rather than Mathura and Kashi stemmed from caste prejudice: Ram was Kshatriya, whereas Krishna was a Yadav and Shiv was possibly a tribal.
None of these sneering asides made the slightest difference to the central thrust of that yatra against ‘pseudo-secularism’. The question therefore arises: why has the anti-corruption theme of this yatra been subsumed by trivial issues such as the bus getting stuck under a bridge and cash incentives paid to the media in Satna? Most important, why has the central question of the yatra been transformed into the likelihood of Advani becoming the NDA candidate for Prime Minister in 2014?
The answer lies in the undeniable fact that the yatra resulted from a unilateral  initiative by Advani. It is no secret that there were many reservations over the yatra within the BJP and its larger ideological family. The party feared that the yatra would highlight the unresolved issue of leadership for 2012 and point to Advani’s determination to have another throw of the dice.
None of these fears appear to be unfounded. During his travels, Advani connects with a large number of people but the people who observe the yatra or attend the public meetings associated with it are still a small drop in the ocean of humanity in India. Most Indians derive their perception of the political programme from the media, and the message from the media is unequivocal: this is Advani’s comeback yatra, calculated to force a sceptical BJP into acknowledging his primacy. Worse still, Advani appears to have done very little to put an end to the speculation. His interviews are largely focussed on his career as a yatri and he has kept alive the speculation by refusing to rule himself out as a candidate for the top job. The impression therefore persists that the yatra is a facet of a vicious leadership battle in the BJP, not least because the focus is on Advani and not on the BJP as a brand. The public reaction, consequently, is one of amusement, if not wariness.
There was a time when the BJP earned a reputation as the master of spin and a party that is able to dictate its agenda to the media. Alas, the party has lost its sure-footedness. Its messaging for this yatra has been self-defeating.
Sunday Pioneer, October 16, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Common Bond

By Swapan Dasgupta

After the obligatory visits to the waterfront to see Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, tourists in Sydney are encouraged to walk up George Street to the imposing Queen Victoria Building—a stylish shopping arcade where you can also treat yourself to English tea in the basement. What particularly caught my attention was a bronze statue of the old Queen at the adjoining Bicentennial Plaza. Apart from the never-amused Empress of India looking a shade younger and less grim than she does in the forecourt of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, the bronze is significant in one respect: Sydney is its third resting place since it was commissioned at the beginning of the previous century.

Till 1949, the bronze had occupied a pride of place outside the Legislative Assembly of Ireland in Dublin. Following the Republic’s departure from the Commonwealth, the statue had been uprooted and presumably dumped in a bronze necropolis—like the ones in Barrackpore and Coronation Park, Delhi. In 1987, Dublin offered the forgotten relic to the Government of New South Wales which, gratefully accepted, and recorded its gratitude to Ireland in a plaque on the plinth.

It is tempting for South Block, always in need of inspirational ideas, to consider whether the cause of India-Australian friendship will be enhanced by gifting a discarded imperial bronze or two to cities in Australia that missed out on some of the grander commemorative symbols of the ‘mother country’. The well-meaning gesture, unfortunately, is bound to be misconstrued in a country that continues to agonise over the Union Jack in a small corner of its national flag. What was perhaps a casual decision in 1987, dictated as much by aesthetics as a sense of history, will rekindle a debate that Australia seeks to avoid, but which resurfaces periodically in some form of another.

That Australia has been engaged in what someone once called “endlessly coming of age” may seem surprising to those who nurture stereotypes of hard-working, hard-drinking but essentially stupid and bigoted Bushmen dominating the landscape—a carryover from its origins as a penal colony. When former Prime Minister John Howard once described Sir Donald Bradman as the “greatest living Australian”, he created a problem for the PR professionals entrusted with the responsibility of selling modern Australia to the world. A sportsman could be an entertainer, an icon of popular culture but the description “greatest living Australian” was, they felt, a commentary on Australia’s unwillingness to go beyond the frontier spirit. To the cosmopolitan mindset, harking on the Don, or for that matter, on Rod Laver and referring to the Opera House irreverently as “nuns in a scrum” are about as archaic and distracting as associating modern India with maharajas, fakirs and Mother Teresa.

Since the 1970s, when Britain’s membership of the European Union and a succession of immigration laws put the Commonwealth connection in jeopardy, Australia has been mindful of the need to evolve a distinctive identity—something more meaningful than being the Britain of the southern hemisphere. The bid to grapple with what the journalist James Cameron in 1971 detected as “an identity void” often had farcical consequences: a competition to create a national anthem, a bid to create a national dress and even a serious bid to inject something called ‘mateship’ into the Australian Constitution. In 1961, on the occasion of Australia Day, a well-meaning attempt to depict authentic Australian values led to bizarre tableaux: “This had been achieved by putting up a stuffed kangaroo and emu on the right, a stuffed Aborigine on the left, and a coloured portrait of the Queen in the centre.”

Additionally, there have been attempts to rewrite history by stressing the autonomy of the Australian experience. A former Prime Minister Paul Keating who had a way with words and who was obsessed by the ‘identity’ question, tried to supplant the importance of the Anzac Day commemoration of the massacre of Australian forces in Gallipoli (in Turkey) by shifting focus to the defence of Kokoda against the Japanese invasion of then then Australia-held Papua in 1942. To Keating, the Australians who fought in Kokoda died defending not “the old world but the new world—their world.”   

Nor should these attempts to recreate a nation to correspond with contemporary priorities be mocked: India too is forever engaged in battles over history and identity and generating contested perceptions of nationhood. In coping with post-imperial realities, Australia has travelled a very long way.

First, the White Australia immigration policy that a former Prime Minister Alfred Deakin justified in 1901 as driven by a desire to create a community “inspired by the same ideas…of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought—the same Constitutional training” has been well and truly junked.  It is not that the process was without hiccups but the point to note is that in 25 years, Australia has been able to create a truly multiracial society. The debate today is not over Asian immigration but the integration of the New Australians with the rest—a battle between multiculturalism and common sense.

Secondly, along with jettisoning the White Australia policy has been an acknowledgment of the wrongs perpetrated on the Aborigines, the Old Australians. Even a casual visitor to Australia will be struck by the very conscious attempt of both state and society to include Aborigines as being crucial to the Australian experience.

Thirdly, Australia has taken important steps to make its economy more open, globalised and competitive. It is fascinating to note the similarities between the protectionist Australia of the 1980s and the India of the same period. It is even more instructive to follow the career paths of Sir Robert Menzies (Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964). This comparison may be offensive to Nehruvians who are inclined to view Menzies as a reactionary Anglophile. However, the rich debates on political economy in both countries would suggest had Nehru been as receptive as Menzies was to combining protectionism and welfare with encouragement of the private sector, the post-Independence India story would have been more dazzling.

Finally, Australia has emerged as a middle power of consequence and seems determined to make its mark in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. For long, India viewed this with suspicion, seeing Australia as an appendage of Anglo-American interests. This view has changed but not changed sufficiently to facilitate genuine trust. There is still a wariness centred on accumulated baggage from another age.

Australia’s muddle over its national identity has not helped matters. In seeming over anxious to establish its Asian credentials, Australia has often projected a contrived image of itself. The Anglo-Celtic and Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of Australia are acknowledged in India and respected. Indians are not disoriented by the symbolic role of the Queen, the English street names in cities, the passion for cricket, the absence of a gun culture, voluble parliamentary democracy, federalism and the rule of law. It reminds them of a common past and, in some cases, an ideal.  

There has been a spate of big ticket Indian private sector investments in Australia—mainly but not exclusively in the mining sector. This owes considerably to Australia’s favourable business environment and its non-turbulent political culture.  But it is also complemented by the fact that this is a country whose institutions and culture they are familiar with. Indians are among the largest investors in the United Kingdom for precisely these reasons. Australia can become a parallel attraction.

The Empire may be a contested legacy for both countries, but it is also a bond.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Seize the moment in Afghanistan

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, exactly 26 days after Osama bin Laden’s jihadis destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon. It was an occasion marked by umpteen “Troops out” demonstrations in Western cities and campuses—a testimony to how easily the steely determination of 2001 has yielded way to the hopeless despondency of 2011.

Yet, there were the proverbial loose ends in evidence. In a letter to The Times (London), the time honoured way of drawing attention to an issue, 19 women urged world leaders to ensure that “women’s rights are not traded away in any political settlement with the Taleban.” “You cannot make peace”, they wrote, “by leaving half the population out.”

At a time when the dominant discourse within the British establishment centres on drawing a distinction between the malevolent extremism of the Al Qaeda and the conservative traditionalism of the Taleban that basically wants to be left alone to do its own thing, it is heartening that there are people around to remind governments of the civilising mission that formed the sub-text of Operation Enduring Freedom. Just because the war hasn’t gone according to a hastily written script, does not necessarily imply that it was along a misadventure.

Today, it is only the military establishment on both sides of the Atlantic that argues against a policy of instant disengagement from Afghanistan. The so-called “gains” from last year’s “surge”, they say, must not be frittered away by any hasty withdrawal and the troops must stay in that country till 2014 at least. Predictably, this military assessment goes against the tide of popular feeling in the West. The overall consensus is that this is an unwinnable war and, as such, it is prudent to leave Afghanistan to God and anarchy.

Recent developments in Afghanistan have bolstered the arguments of those favouring a unilateral disengagement. The back channel talks with the Taleban have, quite understandably, made little progress. A Taleban convinced the West has lost the will to fight won’t be terribly accommodating; it can afford to prevaricate. More important, the Taleban has demonstrated through this year that it has the capacity to strike at will and penetrate the deepest security walls: the assassinations of Ahmad Wali Karzai and former President Rabbani and the attack on the ISAF headquarters and US Embassy tell a grim story.

The only positive outcome of the military slide is that the US has finally been forced into open acknowledgement of the fact that the preconditions of positive engagement with the Taleban won’t be possible as long as Pakistan persists with its double game. What India used to say about Pakistani sponsorship of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed is now being said by the US in the context of the Haqqani network, a group also said to be responsible for the attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. In the past, when President Karzai used to point an accusing finger at Pakistan and charge it with harbouring Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, a sanctimonious West used to hurl counter-charges of corruption and nepotism at him. Now there is a subdued realisation that the concerns of the Afghan Government should also have been taken on board.

Over the past few years and more precisely since President Obama entered the White House, the importance of a Taliban-free Afghanistan has been lost sight of. The Karzai administration has a long list of shortcomings which are well known. However, it is a marked improvement from the darkness that enveloped Afghanistan from the Communist coup in 1978 to the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. These 23 years saw a once vibrant society regress into medievalism.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has come a long way, and it is important to not lose sight of the progress. The sight of nervous, sometimes trigger happy, foreign troops patrolling the streets and highways offends Afghan pride and often gives the Taleban resistance a nationalist flavour. But this is offset by the medievalism of a movement that equates women with chattel and treats ethnic minorities as targets of purification. A second Taleban government in Kabul may refrain from hosting those intent on bombing Spanish trains and the London Underground, but it will not display a similar restraint when it comes to India or, for that matter, Pakistan. The generals in Rawalpindi imagine that they control the Taleban and, therefore, by implication, will regain the strategic depth in Afghanistan. In the process, they may find that Pakistan too is a very different place.

Hitherto, India has played a modest role in Afghanistan and concentrated on good works and institution building programmes. New Delhi was always wary of overdoing things for fear that the West would see it as an attempt to replay the Indo-Pakistan game in a third country. Now with the West in retreat and Pakistan having overplayed its devilish hand, there is an opening for India. Last week’s pact with Afghanistan opens up a window of enhanced cooperation, particularly, the training of its army and police. Afghanistan wants a greater Indian role and, perhaps, a measure of involvement.

The problem isn’t India’s willingness to do its bit. It is a question of India’s ability to respond imaginatively, efficiently and, above all, discreetly. Above all, it is a question of prioritising a friend over a hostile neighbour.  

Everyone loves a good poverty business

It is bad form to see the farcical side of an issue as grave and distressing as India’s poverty line: the grim Jacobins of the National Advisory Council would promptly call for the tumbril. Yet, there are two inescapable conclusions from last week’s angry debate over the Planning Commission’s affidavit identifying the poverty line as a spending capacity of Rs 26 and Rs 32 for rural and urban India respectively.

The first, which is likely to be seen as absolutely heretical for a country that has become the world’s foremost supplier of economists, should be obvious: managing the economy is too serious a matter to be left to economists.

It certainly didn’t need a familiarity with complex econometric models and either Keynes or Hayek to realise that the Planning Commission’s extrapolation from the Suresh Tendulkar method of poverty measurement was just another example of economists living in a make-believe wonderland. The wise men of Yojana Bhavan had once again demonstrated to the public’s satisfaction that after lies and damned lies comes statistics.

The second conclusion is one that should, ironically, give enormous satisfaction to the beleaguered Montek Singh Ahluwalia who has been charged by irate NAC members with harbouring notions of the infallibility of World Bank economics. Why, it needs to be asked, does India need a Planning Commission? The question is not necessarily related to the obvious redundancy of an institution that was empowered to implement India’s transition from colonial backwardness to a ‘socialistic’ pattern of society. This becomes more relevant in the context of tell-tale evidence that the empirical basis of planning is horribly flawed.

Many years ago, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati—a refugee from the stifling left-wing consensus in the economics departments of Indian universities—had argued that “any elementary mistake in economics can be turned into a profound truth by ingenuously making the right assumptions to deduce what you want.” India, he went on to suggest, “suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises.”  In plain English this meant that India was practising voodoo economics.  

Those with long memories may recall the curious debate that preceded the introduction of colour TV to coincide with the 1982 Asian Games. The Planning Commission questioned the wisdom of apportioning Rs 300 crore to a “low priority” scheme. The scepticism was based on the assumption that the initial demand for colour TV sets would not exceed 10,000. However, Yojana Bhavan underestimated the initial demand by more than 1,000 per cent—a testimony of its understanding of popular aspirations.  

What the country has been witnessing over the past week is an elaborate ideological game aimed at putting brakes on the growth of a market economy. Never mind the patent absurdity of the Planning Commission’s poverty line, what is equally unseemly is the competitive poverty hunt involving economists, NGOs and politicians. Concern for India, it would seem, is being measured by a grotesque head count of the “poor and vulnerable”. The more you count, the better for the soul.

Subscribing to the Planning Commission’s 26-32 measure is, of course, the ultimate proof of heartlessness, since it assumes that poverty has actually been declining, from 48 per cent in 1990 to 32 per cent in 2011. At the midway point of the index of radicalism is the estimate by a committee headed by NAC member N.C. Saxena that suggests 50 per cent of India lives below the poverty line. Finally, for those completely unreconciled to the dismantling of the pre-1991 regime of controls, there is the report by the late Arjun Sengupta, a Congress econocrat of the socialist variety, that damns the retreat from the licence-permit raj by putting the numbers of the “poor and vulnerable” at a whopping 77 per cent.

It is a commentary on the claims of economics to be a “social science” that estimates of the poor in India range from 32 per cent to 77 per cent. The scale of inexactitude isn’t surprising and can be explained by the social entrepreneurship potential of the poverty business. It is soul destroying to be poor but it is criminal to keep people in poverty because it suits the permanently aggrieved. 

Sunday Times of India, October 9, 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

NAMO: Muscling His Way In

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a curious mismatch between India’s fiercely argumentative national temperament and its corresponding wariness of robust inner-party democracy. The boisterous celebration of diversity and competitive politics are inexplicably combined with a yearning for disciplined parties and decisive leaders.

This penchant for autocratic democracy may explain why last Thursday’s contrived truce between warring ministers was hastily choreographed and flaunted as evidence of Sonia Gandhi’s firm grip over the party. It may also help decipher the frantic attempt by a shaken BJP leadership to de-politicise Narendra Modi’s absence from last week’s national executive session, while simultaneously stressing the importance of party unity to confront a tottering regime.
On the face of it, the BJP may also be inclined to repeat the ‘all is well’ quip of a Congress minister, but only if it values self-deprecation. Modi’s factional detractors have cast him as a petulant regional satrap — with the implication that he is an interloper on the national stage. On his part, Modi has maintained a characteristically imperious silence. Overall, there is profound unease in the BJP that unless the issue is managed with tact and wisdom, it may explode in the party’s face and unsettle the journey  back to power. 
What was witnessed last week was not an ego battle involving Modi and LK Advani over some proposed anti-corruption yatra. Modi isn’t in competition with Advani who in turn isn’t any longer seriously in contention as the BJP’s public face in a future general election campaign.
The decision to stay away from last week’s meeting was over an issue that may strike people as very trivial: it was a protest against BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s decision to quietly rehabilitate former organisation secretary Sanjay Joshi. The Modi-Joshi spat dates back to the politics of Gujarat in the mid-1990s when Modi was packed off to Delhi and made to feel unwelcome in his home state, where Joshi ran the organisation. Following Modi’s triumphant return in 2001, Joshi was hastily shifted out of Gujarat, elevated to a national post in Delhi and then abruptly removed in 2006 following an unsavoury sex scandal.
In the context of national politics and, indeed, the future of the BJP, Modi’s expression of displeasure may seem trivial and unworthy of the attention of someone with an eye on the top political post in India. This may well be true but, carefully pre-meditated or otherwise, Modi’s protest has also drawn attention to two larger questions that the BJP has so far carefully sidestepped.
In questioning Joshi’s resumption of an active leadership role in the BJP, Modi was doing more than questioning Gadkari’s judgement. Joshi, after all, wasn’t just any other apparatchik; he was an erstwhile RSS pracharak (full-timer) from Nagpur whose return to political life had been authorised by the RSS top brass. In questioning Joshi’s return, Modi was simultaneously questioning the right of the RSS to decide political appointments in the BJP.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Modi has pitted himself against the RSS. Since 2002, his relationship with the parivar leadership in Gujarat has been tense, if not outright antagonistic. In the 2007 Gujarat assembly election, the top brass of the Gujarat RSS kept away from the campaign. Their aloofness didn’t make the slightest difference: almost every ordinary RSS member campaigned for Modi energetically. 
In coping with Modi, the RSS has been faced with a dilemma. The Gujarat chief minister has guarded his political autonomy zealously, and even more fiercely than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To an RSS accustomed to obedience and deference from politicians, Modi is viewed as a difficult customer: highly individualistic and fiercely argumentative. No other BJP leader would have survived the sustained hostility of the RSS, but Modi has grown and grown in stature. At the same time, his unquestioned mass following in Gujarat and his charismatic hold over the political Hindu imagination have forced the RSS to swallow its pride and tolerate Modi. Seething with rage at his high-handedness and impetuosity, the RSS has, at best, only succeeded in slowing his national ambitions.
There may be good tactical reasons why a more centrist approach may yield better returns for the BJP than Modi’s aggressive nationalism. The RSS, however, can’t be seen to be embracing such assumptions. It can’t repudiate Modi but is wary of embracing him.
Modi’s open defiance of a RSS whip is calculated to throw Nagpur into a tizzy. There are whispers in the Sangh of the need to prevent Modi from holding a strategic veto. A bitter war of attrition between an over-bearing Parivar and a mass leader could be in the offing, with ominous consequences for the BJP. Modi, after all, is questioning the RSS claim to be more equal than the others.
The conflict is likely to crystallise over the leadership question for the next general election. If the BJP had a system of primaries, there is little doubt that Modi would win convincingly. Unfortunately, the BJP (like the Congress) hasn’t institutionalised inner-party democracy and selecting the leader has become the prerogative of a cabal of ‘wise’ men. This is how both Rajnath Singh and Gadkari were appointed BJP presidents. In such a situation it is extremely unlikely that Modi will be able to bulldoze a decision in his favour using the adulation of the committed as his weapon — not unless he wants to emulate Mao Zedong and urge the faithful to “bombard the headquarters” and reinvent the BJP.
Temperamentally, Modi is at his best when taking on the enemy. However, with an ongoing no-holds-barred war against a formidable liberal Establishment out, can he risk opening another front? The history of Modi suggests that he loves springing surprises.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Congress 'crisis' is a tamasha

By Swapan Dasgupta
If ‘crisis’ is exclusively a media invention, as many Congress stalwarts have insisted over the past week, India’s ruling dispensation has demonstrated that it takes amateur choreography to demonstrate normalcy.
What was witnessed on the forecourt of the Finance Ministry in North Block last Thursday afternoon should have put a rookie event manager to shame. There was a visibly angry Finance Minister (whose fuse keeps getting shorter with each passing day) reading out a terse statement, flanked by three extras in white apparel who weren’t sure whether they were meant to look amused or sombre. Just as he had finished bawling out his lines, out stepped the Home Minister in white and said his pre-rehearsed two sentences about accepting the Finance Minister’s statement. Then it was quick about-turn and no insolent or stupid questions please.
By evening, the scrolls on news channels were proclaiming that the ‘crisis’ was over and that the civil war in the Congress had ended, without a single head rolling — thanks, predictably, to the wisdom and perspicacity of the Congress president whose wish is her servants’ command.
There are important lessons from the Indian farce enacted on top of Rasina Hill.
First, that despite the great advances in the so-called science of ‘spin’ doctoring and choreography, political management remains embedded in improvisation or ‘jugaad’. This is true for the entire political class. The BJP, for example, spent the first day of its National Executive session last Friday trying to explain the absence of Narendra Modi in terms of his dietary preferences during Navratra.
Second, the political class finds the whole business of having to be accountable to TV viewers and, by implication, to the electorate, an unwanted intrusion into the world of parlour politics. The underlying message of the amateur theatrics last Thursday — Kapil Sibal would certainly have livened things up more had he been given a speaking role — was simple: ‘Crisis is over because we say it is over. And that’s that.’ I doubt if the intention of the Pranab-PC duet was to reassure Indians that governance is back on track and that they could slay Ravana on Dusserah day with a clear mind. The one-point objective was to drive the ‘Notegate’ controversy out of the front pages and headlines.
Finally, the spectacular ease with which this limited objective was achieved — by Friday afternoon the excitable media had deemed that 2G belonged to the ages —should call into question the editorial judgement of much of the Fourth Estate. It is not necessarily that there is a conspiracy theory to explain such exemplary mindlessness. By next week, the 2G scam and the fate of the Home Minister may well be back as the subject of shrieking bouts — if the prognosis of lawyer Harish Salve is anything to go by. The point to note is that the media suffers from a huge Attention Deficiency Disorder and can be easily beguiled by amateur dramatics into losing sight of the big picture.
Fortunately, the country is inhabited by ‘normal’ people, as opposed to activists and newshounds — an important distinction Tony Blair made in his autobiography. For them, the issue is not really about the emergence of a mysterious note that came into the public domain following a RTI application but that an already crippled Government was rushed into the ICU because two of the most senior Ministers were seen to be involved in a slugfest. It provided further evidence of incoherence in a Government that for all practical purposes has stopped governing.
To gauge the extent of disarray does not demand an intimate knowledge of rocket science. The Congress leadership is as aware of this as the harried Man from Matunga struggling to cope with soaring inflation and crippling interest rates for his EMI. The question, therefore, arises: Why isn’t the Government able to get its act together? Why is it blundering from one crisis to another?
The questions are worth a thought because non-performance isn’t an attribute any Government likes to be burdened with. In similar situations in the rest of the democratic world, ruling parties have sought a way out of the impasse by a leadership change. A new leader, it is generally assumed, will create a wall of separation between the past and the present.
After 2009, the Congress also believed that sooner or later the Regency of Manmohan Singh would end and enable the monarchy to once again come into its own. The chatter about the ‘youth icon’ and opinion poll findings about the most popular choice as Prime Minister were aimed at setting the stage for a non-contentious transition from Singh to Gandhi. What is remarkable is the rapidity with which a sense of anticipation has evaporated after the Anna Hazare fasts and the non-role of the heir designate in the crisis management process.
The ensuing silence is revealing. It suggests escalating scepticism over the viability of any transition at this juncture. At the same time, there is a realisation that for all his other attributes, the Prime Minister is losing his grip on the situation. To the Congress, a change is clearly desirable but there is no one who looks like being an effective successor. In any case, an effective non-dynasty successor would put dynastic claimants in the shade. And that isn’t acceptable to the party.
It is this conundrum that is at the heart of a ‘crisis’ that resembles a tamasha.
Sunday Pioneer, October 2, 2011

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