Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Friendly Neighbour's Betrayal

By Swapan Dasgupta

From the late-1980s till the end of the long civil war in 2009, travelling to Colombo was both a joyous and deeply depressing experience. The happiness came from the warmth and generous hospitality of the Sri Lankans, particularly the residents of Colombo-7 who opened their doors to a Bengali. Legend has it that that Vijaya, the first king of the Sinhalese, came by sea from Bengal.

But this welcome was always tempered by sadness. Many of those with whom I had struck an instant rapport were dead—killed by an assassin’s bullet or a bomb explosion. Their faces still haunt me: Lalith Athulathmudali, one of the most erudite and clever politicians I have encountered; Ranjan Wijeratne, the fiercely outspoken ex-planter; the soft-spoken Tamil constitutional lawyer Neelam Tiruchelvam; and the genial TULF leader A. Amirthalingam whose blood-splattered residence I visited just an hour after he was gunned down. Although Lalith’s murder remains an enduring mystery, the others were all killed by the most vicious terrorist organisations ever created: the LTTE.

Those who haven’t experienced Sri Lanka of those days will never fully comprehend the colossal tragedy of an idyllic island being transformed into the killing fields. Nor will they gauge the horrifying extent to which the LTTE transformed large numbers of a hitherto docile, industrious and peaceable community of Tamils into carbon copies of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Under the one-party state envisaged by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces had two choices: acquiescence or death. The LTTE didn’t merely kill prominent Sinhalas and Rajiv Gandhi: it eliminated almost every Tamil opposed to it and hounded the Tamil middle classes out of its barbaric Eelam and, indeed, out of Sri Lanka.

Life in South Asia is said to be cheap. The LTTE made it worthless in Sri Lanka. By the middle of the civil war, brutalisation had become the norm in the island that once symbolised serendipity. Tamils killed Tamils, Sinhalas killed Sinhalas, and they both killed each other with a staggering degree of recklessness. When the civil war erupted the Sri Lankan army was essentially a ceremonial force. By the time it dispensed with Prabhakaran’s Tigers in 2009, it had become a redoubtable fighting force.

Of course there was spectacular brutality in the last days of the civil war and civilian casualties were staggeringly high. But ask any IPKF veteran and you will know that the LTTE never distinguished between its fighters and ordinary women and children. Indeed, many of those women and children in civilian clothes turned out to be hardened LTTE fighters. The suicide bomber was the creation of the LTTE well before the Al Qaeda had become a global menace and so was the human shield behind which the Tigers operated.

This is not to justify the trigger-happiness of the Sri Lankan in the last days of the civil when a reported 40,000 civilians were killed. It is merely to indicate that there was a context to the viciousness of the war—as vicious as the last months of the war against Germany during World War II. The human rights lobby that secured the condemnation of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission debate last Thursday cited civilised niceties and international law to pour scorn on a small country. They didn’t take into account that what happened in the summer of 2009 wasn’t military action against unarmed civilian demonstrators—as happened during the initial stages of the Syrian uprising—but an ugly war.

What is particularly galling is India’s effrontery in voting against Sri Lanka. If any country was secretly delighted and relieved that Colombo had finally put an end to the LTTE menace, it was India. India, after all, had nurtured the LTTE—one of Indira Gandhi’s most short-sighted and cynical moves—before realising that it had created a monster that was potentially capable of infecting Tamil Nadu with its poison. Yet, for the sake of his government’s survival, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meekly acquiesced in the condemnation of a country that had preserved itself against overwhelming odds.

India’s vote was a colossal betrayal of a country that is trying hard to forget the past and begin afresh. 

Sunday Times of India, March 25, 2012

BJP embarrassed by blabbering brat

By Swapan Dasgupta

The BJP has reason to be enormously grateful to its senior leader Yashwant Sinha for his outburst at the parliamentary party meeting last Tuesday. Without Sinha’s forceful protest, it is possible that the covert deal struck between NRI ‘businessman’ Anshuman Mishra and a section of the party’s national leadership would have led to Jharkhand electing another political carpetbagger to the Rajya Sabha, this time courtesy the BJP.

Over the past few days, particularly after an embarrassed BJP was forced to disown this backdoor arrangement and advise its MLAs to abstain from voting, a visibly upset Mishra has made numerous TV appearances. His utterances have been extremely revealing and have confirmed many of the whispers that have been doing the rounds of the BJP headquarters in Lutyens’ Delhi.
First, Mishra’s candidature as an Independent had the blessings and active support of the BJP national president Nitin Gadkari and a few others. Apart from his nomination papers being signed by BJP MLAs, Mishra was even accompanied by a full-time Sangathan Mantri for Jharkhand and Odisha. None of this would have been possible without a signal from the very top.
Second, Mishra’s candidature wasn’t approved by the BJP Parliamentary Board but was a private arrangement. This in turn raises the question: What was so special about Mishra that he had to be somehow accommodated, if necessary by stealth?
Third, contrary to Mishra’s initial suggestion that he personified youthful urges in the BJP, it now turns out that he was — by his own admission — a facilitator between businessmen needing political assistance and the BJP leadership. His claim of being asked to arrange meetings between telecom companies and the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee investigating the 2G scam is calculated to create a political storm. The Congress is unlikely to let go of a wonderful opportunity to target a top leader of the BJP.
Mishra has asserted that he is no paratrooper from London but someone who has apparently funded the BJP over the years. It is not clear whether the funds were for the party or for individual war chests — an important distinction.
What was the source of this funding? Far from running some self-generating enterprise with a large disposable surplus that permits him to indulge his ideological fantasies, Mishra’s area of specialisation (as evidenced by his true confessions on TV) seems to have been confined to bringing businessmen and BJP politicians together. In the West, such facilitators are called lobbyists or liaison men. In India, the vernacular translation of middlemen is the preferred usage.
The answers to many of these questions will forever be anecdotal, unverifiable and, occasionally, a bit fanciful. However, what could well be irrefutable is the belief that the quality of Indian politics isn’t enhanced if individuals such as Mishra are allowed by the national political parties to inveigle their way into the Rajya Sabha. It speaks volumes for the value system of individuals in the top brass of the BJP that they didn’t think that seats-for-donations constitutes a violation of the trust reposed in them by millions of ordinary people attached to the party.
Anshuman Mishra has exposed himself for what he is — a spoilt brat inclined to pursue a scorched earth policy now that he has been deprived of a club membership he imagined had been paid for. But those who have permitted the entry of individuals like Mishra into the world of politics are now disingenuously feigning innocence. As much as the NRI loudmouth, it is the sponsors of creatures such as Mishra who must be called upon to answer.
It should be recalled that a few years ago the BJP also covertly sponsored the candidature of one of its less wholesome members as an Independent candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh. The man reportedly spent a fortune trying to incentivise MLAs into supporting him. The endeavour failed but the gentleman remains in the BJP, occupying positions of responsibility during elections and cutting deals with top leaders.
The debasement of the political space isn’t a monopoly of the BJP. The Congress is still well ahead in the race. But the mere fact that the BJP is being spoken in the same breath as its principal opponent is revealing. There was once a simple-minded innocence about the BJP that made it very attractive for those who valued wholesome public life. The BJP was, as LK Advani used to say, the AK Hangal of politics.
In attempting to update itself, the BJP has fallen prey to amoral vulgarisation. Today, leadership brings with it certain privileges that many cannot do without. If they had paid for an opulent lifestyle through honestly-earned, tax-paid incomes, no one need have complained. But they expect someone else to bankroll them. Hence the importance of fixers in a system based on freebies and chartered private aircraft. But since there is never anything like a free lunch, the leaders shouldn’t be outraged when a bill is presented to them before Rajya Sabha elections.
One of the consequences of the fragmentation of political power is that dalals are no longer confined to the ruling party; the Opposition wields enough clout to make its presence felt. This is why an election defeat no longer leaves politicians shattered. This may explain why the hunger to reclaim political power is missing in the BJP. Being in opposition can be cosy too.
Sunday Pioneer, March 25, 2012

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Foreign affairs gone local

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, New Delhi witnessed the release of a quasi-official report entitled ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’. The report attempted to set out the broad contours of a foreign policy doctrine that would indicate carrying forward the contested legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and, for good measure, his foremost gladiator V.K. Krishna Menon.

Regardless of the understandable wariness of some members of the committee to be typecast and slotted into a compartment, the driving force behind Non-Alignment 2.0 was explicitly political. First, it was aimed as a soft answer to those, notably in the Congress and Left parties, who have aired their misgivings of a definite pro-US tilt in foreign policy. Secondly—and this is being spoken of openly by members of India’s rarefied ‘strategic community’—Non-Alignment 2.0 is said to provide an intellectual foundation for a post-Manmohan Singh approach to foreign policy by the Congress establishment. It was, to put it bluntly, aimed as a policy primer for the Congress’ designated heir apparent, an attempt to inject his candidature with a cerebral gloss.

According to the report, a future policy of India must be centred on three “core objectives”. “to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its development goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a just and equitable world order.”

It is unlikely that too many people will find the proposed thrust towards “strategic autonomy” and “national power” objectionable, even if they feel that linking common sense to the chequered history of Nehruvian non-alignment is gratuitous. That India must take decisions based on enlightened self-interest, rather than ideological grandstanding, is obvious but a point worth re-stating. Equally, it is crucial to emphasise that any visionary scheme to right all the accumulated wrongs of the world cannot be contemplated unless India lives up to its potential as an emerging economic power.

Perhaps India needs to remind itself that the preachiness of Nehru and Menon were often seen as presumptuous because New Delhi’s ‘national power’ was purely notional. It had become a euphemism for sloth, incompetence and flawed decisions based on “ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere.” A country that led a “ship-to-mouth” existence in the 1960s had no credible basis to pontificate on the immorality of US policy during the Cold War. Nor is the historical baggage associated with ‘national power’ enhanced by the revelation in the Mitrokhin Archive that there was a queue of ministers in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet outside the Soviet embassy offering confidential government papers.

The past history of Indian non-alignment, it is clear, does not inspire automatic confidence in the ability of this doctrine to serve as a guiding light for the challenges of the 21st century. But even if, for the sake of argument, we are able to disentangle historical baggage from the principles set out by the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0, a recognition of ground realities is necessary.

Till the Nehruvian edifice came crashing down following the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an unstated national consensus that drove Indian foreign policy. The consensus had as much to do with the dominant position of the Congress in domestic politics as with intellectual acceptance of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s legacy—even the short-lived Janata Government didn’t deviate from the consensus. However, today, despite the apparent lack of interest in the political class with diplomacy, Indian foreign policy has become far more contested.

The most significant impediment to the projection of ‘national power’ overseas is the emergence of regional interests in foreign policy. In the past few months, the assertion of regional power in a coalition led to the derailment of the Teesta waters accord with Bangladesh and a commitment by the Prime Minister to vote for a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning the excesses of the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians. In the Indian context, the assertion of regional interests in decisions governing foreign policy may seem unique. However, evolved democracies such as the US—with a diverse, multi-ethnic population—have a rich experience of keeping one eye on domestic politics in matters affecting foreign policy. The vocal Irish lobby, the powerful Jewish lobby and the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban émigré lobby in Florida have traditionally exercised their hold over the US State Department. To these can be added commercial lobbies and, in recent times, the vocal human rights industry that played an important role in shaping US attitudes towards the Balkans, Libya and, now, Sri Lanka.

The problem with India is that the assertion of ‘national power’ has been a rarefied, elite preoccupation and insulated from the larger political process. The mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs have been traditionally insensitive to domestic political impulses. They have seen diplomacy in a way reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. Their inability to handle democracy contributed to the mismatch of perceptions of Bangladesh with Kolkata. Likewise in the case of Sri Lanka, there was inadequate groundwork to secure an all-party consensus.

What Indian foreign policy needs is an attitudinal shift. Diplomacy is increasingly becoming linked to the political process and the ‘strategic community’ is unprepared to cope with it. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 23, 2012

Sunday, March 11, 2012

BJP has failed to mirror society

By Swapan Dasgupta

The results of the five Assembly elections have proved to be a major disappointment to the Congress. Far from bolstering the UPA Government at the Centre, the verdict of the electorate has eroded the already fragile self-confidence of the party, more so since Uttar Pradesh delivered a crushing blow to Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive bid to legitimise his family inheritance.

Yet, the Congress isn’t the only party that should be worried by the message of the electorate. The BJP which had banked on a discernible recovery in Uttar Pradesh has reason to be worried about the possibility of the Assembly results being replicated in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. If a poor Congress performance is coupled by the BJP’s political stagnation, it would put paid to the NDA hopes of staging an unequivocal come back at the Centre.

In a cogent analysis of the UP results, BJP leader Arun Jaitley has suggested that his party lost owing to the perception that it was not in a position to emerge as the principal opponent to Mayawati. The party, he believed, was squeezed into a poor third place owing to a sufficient mass of anti-Mayawati votes gravitating to the Samajwadi Party, the principal opposition to the BSP.

Jaitley has very correctly described the phenomenon whereby the BJP won just 47 seats instead of the 75 or seats the leadership expected. Yet, his analysis doesn’t touch on the more awkward question: why, despite being 10 years in opposition, has the party failed to be perceived as a credible alternative?

This question has to be asked in conjunction with the results of Uttarakhand and Punjab. In Uttarakhand, despite a valiant rearguard battle led by Major-General B.C. Khanduri, the BJP lost a government. And in Punjab, the party’s vote share fell sharply in the urban areas. If the BJP still managed to hold on to a dozen or so seats, it was thanks to Congress rebels and some deft election management. Indeed, apart from Goa where Manohar Parikkar steered the party into its best performance ever, the only reason the BJP has to celebrate is a negative one: that the Congress did worse.

For the BJP, there are certain broad lessons from last week’s results. The first, and most obvious one, is that the party has suffered on account of its indulgence of ministers whose integrity was perceived to be suspect. Uttarakhand is a glaring example of the rot that is allowed to seep into the BJP. In this season of introspection, the party must ask itself why it allowed itself to be bulldozed into removing Khanduri in 2009 and why it did not act earlier against a disreputable administration headed by Ramesh Pokhryal. It is one thing to say that the BJP believes in collective leadership. But if the obstinacy of two or three top leaders contributes to self-destruction, does it not suggest the overall failure of leadership systems?

One of the great tests of the BJP in the coming days will lie in the appointment of its ministers in Punjab and its opposition leaders in Uttarakhand and UP. If the party persists with tired and often discredited faces, it will send out the unmistakable message that it is contemptuous of the electorate’s verdict. As the Goa results demonstrated and as Khanduri’s brave rearguard action suggested, it pays to have a leaders with impeccable records of integrity. The BJP should realise that its voters have more exacting standards for the lotus than it does for the hand.

The second lesson is linked to the shrinking social base of the party. One of the main reasons—apart from the mobilisation around Ayodhya—the BJP was able to make a big headway in the 1990s was its ability to go beyond its traditional upper caste base. In UP, the incremental support from OBCs has been eroding since Kalyan Singh’s departure. Today, the BJP is getting some OBC votes but not in sufficient numbers to complement its urban base. The decision to induct Uma Bharti to try and retrieve lost ground was a step in the right direction. However, her acceptance in the party was so incredibly grudging that her possible impact was minimised. Unless the BJP can consciously get over its savarna bias—as has happened in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat—and present a more equitable face, its stagnation is bound to persist.

Indeed, one of the features of the BJP today is its inability to be a mirror image of society. It is unlikely that the party is going to secure Muslim and Christian voters in a hurry. But it has not taken enough pro-active steps to ensure that the party represents the Hindus in totality. This is both a political and social feeling.

The lack of inclusiveness extends to the insufficient appeal among the young. No one is asking for the BJP to become a babalog party like the Congress. But it needs to discard its fuddy-duddy face and give greater opportunities to those who are yet to touch 50, particularly women who don’t fit the stereotype of the traditional Bharatiya nari. The Congress sends its veterans to the Raj Bhavans. The BJP doesn’t have that luxury. But at the risk of being cruel, it has to find a way to ease tired veterans from its decision-making structures. The party looked young, energetic and bubbling with ideas in the 1990s. It now has a jaded look.

Sunday Pioneer, March 12, 2012 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Don Vivant

Tapan Raychaudhuri dominated South Asian studies at Oxford. Swapan Dasgupta reviews his memoir, which reveals the history behind the historian

The World In Our Time: A Memoir by Tapan Raychaudhuri (HarperCollins India, 364 pages, Rs 399)

To understand history, E.H. Carr had advised in his celebrated Trevelyan lectures in 1961, it helps to also understand the historian.

Over the past five years or so, the publishing world has witnessed a relatively new phenomenon: either historians writing about themselves or biographies of historians. There is Hugh Trevor-Roper’s celebrated Letters from Oxford, his wartime diaries and his enthralling biography by Adam Sisman; at least three readable accounts of the colourful life of the contrarian A.J.P. Taylor; a collection of Richard Cobb’s indiscreet letters to sundry dons; the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s erudite autobiography Interesting Times; and, of course, the late Tony Judt’s memoirs that have secured rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Apart from providing interesting glimpses into the cloistered and, often, petty world of the High Table and Senior Common Room, the historians’ literature has helped demolish a stereotype. The caricature of the grumpy medievalist poring tirelessly over forgotten manuscripts and waging purposeless departmental wars against equally obscure colleagues has been replaced by the figure of the glamorous, cosmopolitan, bon vivant historian, at ease in the city of dreaming spires, business class lounges and TV studios. As the soaring careers of, say, Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and even our very own White Moghul suggest, historians can be every bit as interesting as their best-selling narrative histories.

India, as happens most of the time, has been slow to cotton on to the trend. There is very little information, except by way of stray anecdotes that rarely travel beyond rarefied circles, of the lives, predilections and preferences of the old masters. Apart from their published works, do we know anything significant about the loyalism of Sir Jadunath Sarkar or the strong political views of R.C. Majumdar? Why does intellectual history not embrace the lives and experiences of India’s historians? Has it got any connection with the overall Hindu disdain with history and their bored bewilderment with a strange animal that goes by the name ‘scientific history’?

For some three decades, Tapan Raychaudhuri was the presiding deity of Indian (or, should we say, South Asian) history studies in Oxford. Erudite, intellectually alert, easy going and, most importantly in the context of the old university, clubbable, he guided many generations of students through their gobbets, the final year special paper and their D.Phils. His intellectual horizon was vast, and he was just at home discussion abstruse clauses of the Sunset Laws as he was with French cooking. Blessed with social skills—without which Oxford can either be a nightmare or a very lonely existence—he could negotiate his way through departmental committees and supercilious colleagues. Along with Hashi di whose cooking skills were legendary, Tapan da was the father figure of the Indian community in Oxford.

Yet, and curiously, it is not the accounts of his long stint in Oxford first as a research student at Balliol and subsequently as a don at St Antony’s College that makes his memoirs a must-read. There is an underlying sense of disappointment and bitterness with a community of otherwise enlightened scholars that refuses to acknowledge that empires by definition also personify evil. What distinguishes Raychaudhuri’s story of his life from similar accounts by more famous historians is the narration of a childhood spent in the district town of Barisal (now in Bangladesh).

Comparable in many ways to Nirad Chaudhuri’s description of the Hindu bhadralok way of life in the small town of Kishorganj in the early decades of the previous century, Raychaudhuri’s paints a vivid and sensitive picture of a zamindari class in decline. From descriptions of a joint family where indolence and fractiousness was combined with active intellectual pursuits and pen portraits of old family retainers, to accounts of the lavish but homely Durga Puja celebrations at the old ancestral house, Raychaudhuri captures the ambience of the lesser zamindars of East Bengal.

What makes the section compelling is that Raychaudhuri brings his historians’ perspective into the narrative. This enables him to move from simple nostalgia—important as that may be—to a clinical analysis of the untenable facets of noblesse oblige.  The point he drives home repeatedly that a system based on the collection of rents and cesses was insufficient to justify a lifestyle centred on pretentiousness.

At the same time, he is careful in indicating that a life based on fractured rentier income and weighed down by litigation wasn’t necessarily decadent but intellectually invigorating. Economic stagnation and decline did co-exist with the larger Bengal Renaissance. And, living alongside a deep desire to usher an independent India into existence was a corresponding fascination with western civilisation. Raychaudhuri brings out the many faceted complexities of a people that loved England and hated the Raj.

Equally revealing is the account of the nationalist movement as experienced in Barisal. The sense of composite nationalism and adherence to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was, in East Bengal, a Hindu bhadralok phenomenon. The failings of the movement lay in the disconnect from a Muslim peasantry which had begun harbouring very different ideas of the shape of post-Raj Bengal.

However, it is in the treatment of the underlying communal tension between Hindus and Muslim that Raychaudhuri takes evasive action. The reader gets a sense of the looming tensions in the outside world and a sense of the pain and despondency that engulfed the family as it left Barisal for the journey to an inhospitable Calcutta.  For most Hindu migrants from East Bengal, it was the final departure that was most traumatic. What triggered the final decision to move in Raychaudhuri’s household? How did they cope in the final days? These are questions that arise in the minds of the reader. Unfortunately, Raychaudhuri deals with the subject perfunctorily, as if he is unable to relive the pain.

The denial of the human tragedy of Partition is a feature of the ‘progressive’ Bengali intellectual. It is sad that Raychaudhuri, no doctrinaire Marxist, has succumbed to the same evasion, perhaps for fear that explicit accounts of experiences and true feelings are fraught with dangerous consequences. In his Forgotten Land on the monuments and memories of the expelled Germans from East Prussia, Max Egremont notes a similar sense of denial. As a historian, Raychaudhuri should have transcended the base considerations of contemporary politics.  His Oxford friend Nirad Chaudhuri did. Which is why, as even Raychaudhuri concedes, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian will always remain a classic.

This book came perilously close to complementing Nirad Babu’s work. If only Tapan-da had not been so guarded and diplomatic. Writing memoirs is implicitly hazardous: it invariably involves offending some people.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Royal battle of political dynasties

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were many battles that were simultaneously being fought in Uttar Pradesh over the past three months. The first was in the constituencies between candidates for the privilege of becoming a Member of the Legislative Assembly. The second was between political parties over the right to form a government in Lucknow. The third was a battle between different claimants to the post of Chief Minister. Yet, for a large part of the outside world, it was the fourth contest that caught the imagination: an unstated battle royal between the heirs of two political dynasties.

Last Tuesday, as the Samajwadi Party coasted to a convincing victory, recording the best performance by any political party since 1985, the unanimous verdict was that Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav, had easily trounced the heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi family. An impressionable (and, often, craftily gullible) media that had been detecting pro-Congress undercurrents in chai shop talks were quick to change their tune and proclaim Akhilesh as the more authentic representative of the emerging young India.

Rahul Gandhi, whose energetic campaigning had mesmerised the babalogs, and who was confidently predicted to secure at least 100 seats for the Congress was, for the moment, discarded in embarrassment. Sundry anchors and pundits who till the other day were ready to proclaim that India needed a break from the wooden style of the good Manmohan Singh suddenly discovered a hidden streak of insolence when interrogating dejected Congress stalwarts who, in turn, tried to balance political realities with craven dynastic loyalty. The Establishment of India revelled as the first family squirmed with embarrassment at the near-zero returns from a high investment scheme.

It is fair to say that had the shoe been on the other foot, the reactions would have been more subdued. Metropolitan arrogance would have compared a Rahul triumph over Akhilesh as natural and almost pre-ordained—akin to, say, India beating Zimbabwe in cricket. Falling back on defensive condescension, the suave Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh told CNN-IBN in all seriousness that Rahul, having a ‘national perspective’ could not be put on par with a ‘regional leader’ such as Akhilesh. Each had their place and when it came to the nation in its entirety, the likes of Akhilesh and for that matter Naveen Patnaik were to be found wanting. The implication was obvious: Rahul must rule India and the Yadav, Badal and Patnaik families should confine themselves to the states.

The point is not that Digvijay Singh was falling back on a disingenuous argument to firewall Rahul. It is my feeling that he was being deadly serious in his assertion. He didn’t mean to be offensive. He sincerely believed that the governance of the nation and the fortunes of the Gandhi were inextricably linked. One couldn’t do without the other.

What was put to test in UP in the just-concluded Assembly election was two very different mentalities. The Congress and, for that matter, a section of the BJP, are puzzled by the growing clout of the regional parties. They are unable to comprehend why an UP which, till just 15 years ago, imagined itself to be synonymous with the nation has now voluntarily chosen to be relegated to the level of the states.

To believe that India’s largest state has suddenly become narrow minded is to be unmindful of a very different phenomenon: the enlargement of the idea of India. The past three decades has witnessed a greater integration of India. There is now far greater mobility of population than at any point in India’s history; the insularity of village India has been shattered by better communications, access to the media and the emergence of a national market. Delhi may still be a long way from the district headquarters but it is less distant than it was 30 years ago. From Bollywood and cricket to terrorism, there are many more national concerns to the 25-year-old youth than confronted his grandfather.

By this logic India should also start behaving politically more like one nation and less like 25 different nations under one flag and Constitution. Yet, and this is the paradox, the political behaviour of the nation was far more composite when Indira Gandhi was at the helm than when Rahul Gandhi is trying to find his feet. Today’s political India speaks in a multitude of voices.

The explanation for this phenomenon is best left to the scholars. In understanding politics, however, what is important is the recognition that the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer inapplicable. The mega welfare schemes promoted by Sonia Gandhi and the do-gooder National Advisory Council have floundered precisely because they can’t fit Punjab, Bihar, Gujarat and UP simultaneously. Yet, this is precisely the point that is insufficiently appreciated by the Planning Commission, the pan-Indian cosmopolitan elite and, most important, the Congress’ first family refuse to comprehend. They are still stuck in the centralised legacy of the Nehru order. More to the point, this political pan-Indianism is convenient and an alternative to activism that is rooted in the regional ethos.

There was a time when federalism was resisted because it was believed to compromise the ‘unity and integrity’ of India. Today, an India more secure in its nationhood seeks governance that is less remote and more accountable. These impulses have implicitly challenged the assumptions that necessitated a national political dynasty. Rahul may be a victim of the impersonal forces of history.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, March 8, 2012 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

CAUSE TO CELEBRATE - Peace and prosperity after bloodshed in Gujarat

By Swapan Dasgupta

It may sound callous, but there was something patently disgusting about the way the media and activists colluded to turn a grim 10th anniversary of the 2002 Gujarat riots into a celebration of victimhood. From star anchors rushing to Ahmedabad to hug victims to the over-use of the photograph of the unfortunate Qutubuddin Ansari pleading for his life, every tear-jerking potential was cynically exploited. What should have been a solemn occasion of remembrance, perhaps leading to a pledge to make sectarian violence a thing of the past, was, instead, turned into an all-too-familiar Indian tamasha, culminating in riotous TV discussions.

The reason for this ugly turn of events should be obvious. Ten years after the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra became the trigger for murderous violence throughout Gujarat, the issue of ‘justice’ has been transformed into a political blame game. The activists who have doggedly kept the issue alive, despite the apparent lack of responsiveness in Gujarat, have shifted their priorities markedly. The issue is no longer one of securing punishment of the rioters and those responsible for inhuman conduct, but the political targeting of one man: Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The unspoken assumption is that justice will be served if Modi can be prosecuted for personally facilitating the carnage. As an additional bonus, the framing of charges against Modi is calculated to ensure his exclusion from the political arena and consequently bring to an abrupt end any possibility of him being in the reckoning for the Prime Minister’s post. In short, if you can’t beat him, disqualify him.

Had Modi shown himself to be electorally vulnerable, the need to fight him judicially would have evaporated. A Modi defeat in either 2002 or 2007 would have prompted the self-satisfied conclusion that “Gujarat has redeemed itself”—in the same way as, it is proclaimed, Uttar Pradesh redeemed itself by rejecting the Bharatiya Janata Party after the demolition of the Babri shrine in 1992.  However, the prospects of the clutch of activists moving on to the next available cause have dimmed following the realisation that not only has Modi strengthened himself politically but that the Congress in Gujarat lacks the necessary qualities to mount an effective challenge. Consequently, the only way they see to fight Modi is to remove him from politics altogether.

There is another factor at work. Over the past 10 years, Modi has transformed Gujarat spectacularly. After winning the 2002 Assembly elections in a communally surcharged environment, he has deftly shifted the political focus of Gujarat from sectarian identity issues to rapid economic development. Gujarat was always an economically vibrant state and entrepreneurship is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the average Gujarati. Modi has played the role of a great facilitator by creating an environment that is conducive to double digit growth of the state’s Gross Domestic Product. He has toned up the administration, improved the finances of the state exchequer, brought down corruption markedly and made every rupee expended on government-run schemes a factor in economic value addition. Modi has been the model Right-wing administrator pursuing the mantra of minimal but effective governance. His election victory in 2007 wasn’t a consequence of Hindu-Muslim polarisation; it was based on his ability to deliver good governance.

Secondly, Modi successfully shifted tack from Hindu pride to Gujarati pride. This meant that hoary grievances centred on sectarian hurt were subsumed by a common desire to take advantage of the dividends flowing from a prolonged period of high economic growth. The popular mentality of Gujarat has undergone a discernible shift in the past decade. In the 30 years since the Ahmedabad riots of 1969 which left nearly 650 people dead in just five days of mayhem, Gujarat had become a riot-prone state.

With its sharp communal polarisation, Ahmedabad epitomised that trend. After the 1969 flare-up, there were riots in 1971, 1972 and 1973. Then, after a period of lull, rioting resumed in January 1982, March 1984, March to July 1985, January 1986, March 1986, July 1986, January 1987, February 1987, November 1987, April 1990, October 1990, November 1990, December 1990, January 1991, March 1991, April 1991, January 1992, July 1992, December 1992 and January 1993. This chronology, assembled by US-based political scientist Ashutosh Varshney in his Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life (2002) tells a story of unending curfews, social insecurity and escalating hatred affecting the two communities. It was a story replicated throughout Gujarat, including the otherwise integrated city of Surat that witnessed fierce riots in 1993.

Since March 2002, Gujarat has been riot-free. Curfews have become a thing of a distant past. What has occasioned this exemplary transformation? The facile explanation, often proffered unthinkingly by secularists anxious to find fault with Modi, is that Muslims have been too cowed down by the sheer intensity of the post-Godhra majoritarian backlash. Such an explanation presumes that riots are invariably begun by a section of the Muslim community—a problematic proposition and not always empirically sustainable.

More compelling is the explanation that factors the larger administrative and economic changes in Gujarat over the past decade. First, both the civil administration and the political leadership have internalised the lessons from their inability to control mob violence in 2002. The police has been given a free hand to operate without the interference of small-time politicians attached to the ruling party. There has been a crackdown against the illicit liquor trade and the underworld that gained its muscle power from its proceeds. At the helm, there is an unspoken understanding that another riot, with its attendant TV coverage, would extract an unacceptably high political cost. That is why there is special attention paid to curbing Hindu extremism—a phenomenon that will affect Modi most adversely.

The biggest change has, however, been at the societal level. Gujarat today is a society that is obsessively preoccupied with making money and taking advantage of the economic opportunities that have presented themselves. With the end of boredom, a happy present and an appealing future, the belief that riots are bad for dhanda has seeped into society. This is not to suggest that the bitterness of the past has been replaced by idyllic bonhomie between communities. Far from it. Sectarian conflict persists in cities such as Ahmedabad, and less so in Surat. But there is a distinction that Varshney makes between sectarian conflict and sectarian violence. One need not necessarily lead to the other if contained within the parametres of economics and politics. The Muslims of Gujarat don’t possess the political clout they enjoyed earlier under Congress rule. But this has been compensated by growing levels of prosperity. Those who argue that the economic development of Gujarat has bypassed Muslims should look at the economic empowerment of communities such as the Bohras, Khojas and Memons.

To many, Gujarat’s obsession with economic betterment may seem an expression of denial for the larger societal involvement in the 2002 riots. This may be partially true since Gujarati Hindus view the post-Godhra troubles as something they don’t want to be reminded of incessantly—a point which the state Congress has grudgingly acknowledged. But it doesn’t distract from Modi’s undeniable success in changing the agenda dramatically in 10 years to the point where hardened Hindutva-wadis now regard him as an enemy of the cause.

The riots of 2002 were horrible. But the important thing to note is that 10 years after the butchery, Gujarat is basking in peace and unprecedented prosperity. Now, that is something to celebrate. 

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