Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maharani's durbar and a blinkered view of history

By Swapan Dasgupta

Apart from newspapers that commemorated the event and an agreeable party on the lawns of Ambassador Hotel where the cultural elite drank to the occasion, the centenary of the transfer of the Capital and the foundation of New Delhi was largely unobserved. ‘Official’ India which otherwise loves to organise tacky commemorations by producing unappealing postage stamps gave this event a wide berth. And, while no one was forthcoming about the reason, the rationale was inescapable: the 1911 Durbar was a ‘colonial’ event and, therefore, only worthy of sneer.

The Hindu sense of history has at the best of times been rather feeble. However, when it comes to the 190 years of British rule, the disdain for a recorded past is coupled with a spurious political correctness and hypocrisy. Even after six decades of Independence and flamboyant assertions of national sovereignty, India has yet to develop the necessary self-confidence to view history as history. Instead, the past has been sought to be tailor-made to view the prevailing political fashions of the present.

It is not that the ignominy of being ruled by a ‘foreigner’ has weighed heavily on the national consciousness. In the past thousand years or so, predators from the west have repeatedly overwhelmed indigenous kingdoms, particularly in northern and eastern India, and combined ruthless vandalism with innovations. Turks, Mongols, Persians and Afghans made India their happy hunting ground, and ruled with a mixture of raw coercion and cultural co-option. The conquerors always took care to maintain a discreet distance from the conquered peoples without creating a closed system based on ethnicity and religion. Of course, post-Akbar many of these barriers broke down but never sufficiently for the hapless Dara Shukoh to become a trendsetter. Not enough of the conquerors went ‘native’ although enough of the conquered peoples appropriated facets of the Persian and Turkish ways of life.

Many of these changes stemming from conquest and subordination were also dutifully played out in the two centuries of colonial rule. The British steadfastly maintained their social distance from the ‘natives’, particularly after the uprising of 1857 and the influx of the memsahibs into the Civil Lines and cantonments. The Indians were socially wary of the British but there were enough ‘collaborators’ (as in Moghul times) who sought to bridge the cultural and emotional gulf between the West and the East.

More to the point, there were enough Indians that genuinely believed (particularly after the demise of the East India Company in 1858) that British rule constituted a significant advance on anything the country had hitherto experienced. At one level the 1911 Durbar was a spectacular show of imperial might—as evident from the grovelling genuflection of the Indian princes (barring Baroda and Udaipur) to the King-Emperor. But it would be imprudent to forget that until Mahatma Gandhi captivated the nation with his simple message of swaraj, the common Indian was genuinely enamoured of the “Queen’s peace”. The choreography of the 1911 Durbar was thrown out of gear when the Indian crowds broke the cordon to kiss the ground on which the King and Queen had walked. Were they victims of ‘false consciousness’?

“Maharani” Victoria wasn’t Indian and nor did she ever visit India. Yet, this diminutive frump became as much a part of India as any distant Moghul. In 1911, when the New Delhi project was inaugurated by George V on December 15, the British Empire was the most world’s most decisive power; by 1931, when New Delhi was finally ready to function as the seat of government, the imperial sunset was approaching.  

This is not revisionist history. It is the history that was itself cynically revised as part of the nation-building project of India’s post-imperial rulers. But history isn’t rewritten by removing the George V statue from its canopied pedestal opposite India Gate or by renaming Connaught Place as Rajiv Chowk. Unless India is overcome by perversity, there will be a Lutyens’ Delhi distinct from a DDA Delhi, a Kingsway called Rajpath, the North and South Blocks and a Parliament House built for an India where democracy was conceived of as the future.

The British Raj wasn’t quite the dark ages the sloganeers make it out to be.

Sunday Times of India, December 18, 2011 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

United we vote, divided let's shop

By Swapan Dasgupta

In one of the few meaningful interventions on the state of the economy in this disrupted winter session of Parliament, Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley imagined he put the Prime Minister in a spot by referring to his expressed opposition to foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail in 2002, when the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was in power. In stressing that Manmohan Singh is as governed by expediency as any lesser being Jaitley was undoubtedly making a powerful debating point. Yet, in his speech he deftly avoided a more obvious question: Why do politicians across the board behave one way in government and the opposite way in opposition?

The question is relevant in the context of both the Congress and the BJP. The idea of opening up India’s protected retail sector to some form of foreign competition was an idea that was first mooted by the DMK’s Murasoli Maran when he was Minister of Commerce in the NDA Government. It wasn’t an idea that found enthusiastic support from everyone: the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh led by the uncompromising RSS leader Dattopant Thengdi was vocal in its public opposition, as were politicians belonging to the ‘swadeshi’ camp in the BJP. But the idea was sufficiently attractive to be included in the 2004 election manifesto of the NDA—although not in the BJP’s Vision Document. If it was the coalitional imperative that scuttled the scheme this month, it was coalitional enthusiasm that put the scheme in the NDA manifesto.

The inconsistencies don’t stop here. Mamata Banerjee was viscerally opposed to FDI in retail and was even willing to vote against the government in Parliament if it came to the crunch. The Congress in Kerala was similarly discomforted by the government initiative.  At the same time, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has experienced the benefit to farmers from organised retail was enthusiastic in its support. So apparently was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who, however, bowed to the party line and put his preferences on hold. It also seems that many BJP MPs were dismayed by the party’s unequivocal opposition and preferred a more nuanced position. They were struck by the absence of any discussion within the parliamentary party before the BJP firmed up its position. Congress MPs would doubtless have the same complaint about its government’s unilateralism.

The point I am emphasising has, however, less to do with the lamentable secrecy and lack of consultations that surround most executive decisions—the retail liberalisation may well have gone through had it not happened in the midst of a Parliament session. What I find interesting is that, political considerations apart, the government’s decision had supporters and opponents cutting across the political divide. More significant, the broad support for corporatizing retail trade appears to have come from states which are either relatively better placed in the GDP—states such as Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra—or smalt gains from an efficient cold chain—as, say, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

For West Bengal, Mamata’s unrelenting opposition was quite understandable. Having lost its manufacturing base during the 34 years of Left Front rule, the unorganised retail sector is one of the largest sources of livelihood for a large range of people from the very lowest strata of the middle class to the rural poor. The relative lack of other opportunities has made retailing the only possible source of livelihood for many people. A shrewd politician, Mamata would not meekly have handed over such a large and vocal community to the Left. For her, opposition to organised big retail made a lot of economic and political sense.

The real problem that the government faced was a conceptual one. There was just no way in which a momentous decision over retail trade would have a uniform effect throughout India. In certain states the benefits to both farmers and consumers would far outweigh the threats to the local kirana shop or middlemen. In other states, however, there would be disruption of local communities which had the potentiality of triggering social unrest.

The question that needs to be asked is: should, say, Gujarat or Punjab be denied the opportunity of becoming more integrated with the world market for the sake of West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh? The concentration of power in the Centre makes this inevitable and forces absolutely local considerations to become pan-Indian impediments. Logically speaking it seems absurd that the decision to allow a Tesco to operate a chain of supermarkets in Delhi should invite a veto from a Tamil Nadu-based regional party. But that is how India has organised its politics and separation of powers. In a genuinely federal state, such decisions should be taken at the state level and be governed by mundane considerations such as municipal planning permission. Instead, it became a test of the Union Government’s credibility.

The simple truth is that the idea of a redistributive Centre which was at the heart of the socialist planning process has run its course. In today’s India, it is the centralisation of power on crucial issues such as labour, power, infrastructure and environment that constitute obstacles to growth.

Uneven development is a fact of life that cannot be controlled by bureaucrats and politicians. There is often talk of a twin-track Europe. In India, we need to acknowledge the necessity of a multi-track, federal India.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, December 16, 2011 

Friday, December 9, 2011

At a Moment of Change: The UPA Government is remarkably out of sorts

It is striking that economists have joined hands with politicians to practise sophistry. Earlier this week, a British Treasury official, Sir Stephen Nickell, expressed hope that this year’s so far exceptionally mild winter in his country turns out to be as severe as last year’s. Sir Stephen’s wish had a tangential connection with the High Street retailers who have been frustrated by the slow sales of winter wear this season. In the main, however, his calculations had more to do with statistical jugglery. A severe winter invariably leads to slowdown and disruption which tell on the quarterly results. However, the wintry bedlam also leads to a rapid catching-up process once the snow melts and the sleet is washed away. What Sir Stephen was thus really hoping for was that one dreadful month of depressed or even negative growth is followed by a much better performance the following month. As The Daily Telegraph helpfully explained, the Nickell logic was based on the jugglery that “[O]ne dreadful month and the next slightly positive don’t count cumulatively as a recession”.

The Indian economy, despite all its shortcomings, is nowhere as precariously poised as Britain’s. The awesome 8 per cent growth of the gross domestic product may have fallen to below 7 per cent, but we are far from uttering the dreaded R-word. At best, the effervescent deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, may have admitted to seriously miscalculating the persistence of high inflation, but hismea culpa was so discreetly buried in the inside pages that there was not even a token demand for his head to roll. Consequently, the need for economists and economic advisers to engage in statistical jugglery to show that they were right after all was less pressing.

In India, economists are rarely, if ever, charged with quackery; the fall guy for economic mismanagement is inevitably the politician. The commerce minister, Anand Sharma, who was looking terribly self-important last week and choosing his words with a great deal of thought, is a much deflated figure this week after the Bengali Brahmin duo comprising the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, decided that foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail could wait a more favourable constellation of stars and planets. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, emerged from the 10-day storm that exposed the vulnerabilities of his government with his maun vrat strictly intact.

India must be a novel democracy for a political crisis to come and go with the three key figures of the dispensation — the prime minister, the United Progressive Alliance chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, and the designated heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi — to emerge without saying a word on the subject.

Yet, lots of people said lots of things and the social media went viral with uncharitable remarks about the silent triumvirate that governs India silently. Was that the reason why the multi-portfolio minister, Kapil Sibal, entered the arena and, without any compelling reason, demanded that the anarchic social media be subject to political censorship?

To many economists the logic may have seemed flawless: if you can’t outdo China in the economic race, you can at least start emulating it politically. To the less intellectually endowed, however, the timing seemed characteristically Sibal-esque. During the brief storm over retail trade liberalization, the Congress (if not the UPA as a whole) appeared to be recovering its composure and getting over its state of rudderless inertia. There was evidence to show that a section of the alienated middle classes welcomed the move to liberate the consumer from the distributional inefficiencies that contributed to exceptionally high food prices. The media, unrelentingly hostile since the Commonwealth Games scandal broke in August 2011, also seemed in a mood to be charitable towards the reformist impulses of the government. Even the letter-writing Eminent Persons Group seemed inclined to be supportive. And, more important, the principal Opposition party which had backed retail reform in its 2004 manifesto appeared cussed and blindly obstructionist and too willing to obliterate the difference between itself and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

In such a situation, in stepped Sibal with his dossier of grievances against netizens who are naturally irreverent and insolent. The result is that the Congress is back to exactly where it was before the cabinet met last month to approve FDI in retail with the added stigma of intolerance attached to it.

Not since Charan Singh waged civil war against Morarji Desai and brought the Janata Party edifice crashing down in 1979 has India witnessed a government that is so utterly out of sorts. The problem stems only partially from an Opposition that is hell-bent on disrupting Parliament for the most trivial of reasons. At the heart of the growing dysfunctionality is the fact that the Congress no longer seems entirely convinced that the system of dyarchy that saw the UPA through in its first term is working. There is still personal respect for the prime minister. But his clumsy political management and his deadpan style of communication have convinced many of the party faithful that the next election is as good as lost unless there is a shake-up.

By instinct the average Congress activist is wedded to the idea of dynastic succession. In 2004, when Sonia’s “inner voice” told her to refuse the prime minister’s post, the party accepted it grudgingly and with the realization that the ‘Regency’ would facilitate the political apprenticeship of Rahul, the chosen heir. Since Manmohan Singh had no political base and was disinclined to create one for himself, the interim arrangement was accepted.

What has changed? First, the economic situation is no longer conducive to the mega-welfare style of governance that came with 9 per cent growth. The resources to fund Sonia’s lady bountiful act no longer exist, and the cost of uninterrupted profligacy is a mounting fiscal deficit, a declining rupee and a possible balance of payments crisis. The Congress is in a limbo between a preferred recklessness and the countervailing pulls of responsible governance. Its instincts favour rolling back the reforms initiated between 1991 and 2004, yet it lacks the political will to pursue the path of counter-revolution in a country where the majority of the electorate will be below the age of 40.

Secondly, Sonia’s health problems — still a State secret — are a source of worry. This is a subject that is still not discussed openly but Congress leaders are aware that the issue of succession can no longer be put off indefinitely. Earlier it was imagined that a good showing in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next summer — by which is meant the Congress’s ability to finish third in the four-cornered race — would be sufficient to catapult Rahul to the top job. Yet, as the election approaches, there is insufficient confidence in the Congress’s ability to break new ground in India’s largest state. A bad result will leave the Congress even more disoriented.

Finally — and this is the truth that dare not speak its name — Congress supporters are worried that there is nothing else going for Rahul apart from pedigree. His aloofness and unbroken banality has been masked by careful handling but doesn’t appear to be yielding the necessary electoral dividends —Bihar being a prime example. It is not that Rahul is without charm but he lacks charisma. His only hope in 2014 lies in the Bharatiya Janata Party scoring many self-goals and putting forward someone completely inappropriate as its prime ministerial candidate. Rahul can perhaps win but only by default. He is no longer the ‘youth icon’ as he is made out to be; he is merely the face of the dynasty.

The Telegraph, December 9, 2011
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