Friday, April 27, 2012

TO UNTIE THE STRINGS - The debate on federalism is now focused on fiscal powers

By Swapan Dasgupta

Liberal and ‘progressive’ opinion has been inclined to view the question of states’ rights with both suspicion and distaste. To a very large extent this wariness has originated from the themes that divided the Union and the Confederacy in the American Civil War some 150 years ago. In the popular imagination, states’ rights is seen as a platform of bigotry and associated with either slave owners or politicians such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace who did their utmost to prevent the passage of Civil Rights legislation. By implication, the opposition to excessive autonomy for states of Union have become associated with forces intent on top-down social engineering to rectify local wrongs. Over time, the issue of states’ rights have also influenced the recurring disputes between big government and small government—an issue that has resonated in the grassroots activism of the Tea Party.

That India and the US have different experiences with Constitution making is not in doubt. The US initially came into being as a consequence of individual states joining the Union in a voluntary federation. The Republic of India, despite being a nominal ‘Union of States’, evolved as the successor regime of British India (minus the parts that made up Pakistan). To this was added the many hundred Princely States whose rulers signed the Instrument of Accession and were effortlessly subsumed into the new Republic. With the states being regarded as mere administrative units, there was a basis to B.R. Ambedkar’s assertion in the Constituent Assembly that the Constitution did not acknowledge any right of secession. If the Union had created the states, how could the states see themselves as founder members with a right to withdraw?

The Constitutional denial of secession is worth reiterating if only to set at rest the uninformed fear that the recent political battles over federalism in India are a precursor to the weakening and eventual disintegration of the Indian Union. Admittedly this was a lurking fear in the first two decades after Independence but following the creation of a national market, the rise in inter-state mobility and the unifying effects of the media, Bollywood and cricket, the fear of India coming apart has virtually become a non-issue. It would be preposterous to suggest that those in the forefront of the demand to review Centre-state relations harbour separatist ambitions. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the recent political strains between the non-Congress-ruled states and the Centre have not been accompanied by sectarian strains involving locals and outsiders.

The movement for more equitable federal relations has undergone a profound change since the last years of Indira Gandhi’s Government. In those days, much of the controversy centred on the powers of the Governor and the partisan use of Article 356 to dismiss state governments. It was primarily these political concerns that led to the appointment of the Sarkaria Commission to review the whole gamut of Centre-state relations.

The Sarkaria report and the Supreme Court judgment in the S.R. Bommai case succeeded in substantially preventing the misuse of the Centre’s discretionary powers. While many states continue to be unhappy with the Centre’s de-facto veto over state legislation—witness the fury of Gujarat over the Centre’s persistent refusal to approve its anti-terror bill—it would be fair to say that the debate has shifted to the more pressing issue of fiscal powers.

What has triggered this move is India’s economic growth. The rapid growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product since the process of liberalisation began in 1991. In recent years, the gross tax revenues of the country as a whole have increased exponentially. In 1960-61, it amounted to 7.8 per cent of GDP, and rose to 15.5 per cent in 1990-91 and 18.6 per cent in 2008-09. In the corresponding period, the tax revenues of the states was 2.6 per cent of GDP in 1960-61, 5.3 per cent in 1990-91 and 6.3 per cent in 2008-09. In short, while the exchequers of the states have swelled, their growth has not been commensurate with the phenomenal expansion in the tax revenues of the Centre. By 2010-11, the total receipts of the Centre amounted to 16 per cent of the GDP. The Centre has been the principal beneficiary of India’s growing prosperity.

The associated outcome of the burgeoning of the Centre’s kitty has been the United Progressive Alliance’s endorsement of mega-welfarism. Under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi the Centre did experiment with modest anti-poverty projects. On its part, the National Democratic Alliance threw its weight behind schemes to upgrade India’s creaking infrastructure. The Manmohan Singh Government, backed by the political clout of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, has shed modesty and embraced projects on a scale never witnessed before. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme covers the whole country and the proposed Food Security Bill is aimed at providing subsidised foodgrain to every family reckoned to be below the poverty line. In addition, the annual Plan outlay rose to Rs 5,92,457 crore in the Budget of 2011-12. Of this Plan expenditure, nearly one-third was meant for social services and rural development.

The Cabinet Mission proposal that the Centre should confine itself to defence, public finance, foreign policy and communications was never accepted by the Congress. However, today’s enlarged Centre is increasingly viewing itself as the only motor of state intervention, including involvement in spheres that are the preserves of the state governments. The Constitution-makers had envisaged that a redistributive Centre should aid the states through a revenue sharing process determined by the Finance Commission. Today, however, more than 60 per cent of the disbursement is being done through the Planning Commission, a body that was created outside the Constitution in 1950.

The growing powers of the Planning Commission have meant that expenditure by the states comes with strings attached and is in line with the priorities of the Centre. The MNREG scheme, for example, is thought to be superfluous by the state governments in Punjab, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. Yet, they are obliged to participate in it. Successful food security schemes are already operational in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Now both these states are confronted with the possibility of local initiatives being supplanted by a Central scheme based on the one-size-fits-all principle.

The move towards homogeneity is fuelling resentment in the states. India is a diverse country with vastly different levels of development. By attempting to mould development according to an architecture drawn up in Delhi, the Centre is creating distortions and fuelling waste and inefficiency. It is not that the states don’t want additional resources: they are seeking local controls over the pattern of expenditure.

Politically, the idea of a Federal Front has got a fillip with the steady decline of the two national parties. However, the opposition to an over-intrusive Centre is yet to be crystallised around definite demands. In the coming days this is bound to be rectified. It is possible to envisage a situation where the forthcoming debate on federalism is likely to be along two broad lines.

First, there is likely to be a demand for the primacy of the Finance Commission in the matter of resource allocation. By implication this will entail a considerable dilution in the powers of the Planning Commission and the emergence of empowered state planning bodies. Secondly, the distribution of powers between the Centre and states will sooner or later have to be renegotiated keeping in mind the growing importance of market forces.

The general election of 2014 could be the trigger for a shift of the political centre of gravity.

The Telegraph, April 27, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Congress, not allies,opposed to reforms

By Swapan Dasgupta

Speaking to a TV channel from Washington DC last Friday, the Government’s Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu expressed his bewilderment that his “mandane” comments on the Indian economy to a Carnegie Endowment-organised meeting had triggered a huge controversy. He wondered if he had unwittingly stumbled into a dull news day and helped keep the ticker rolling.

A part of Basu’s consternation is understandable. He will not be the first public figure to be concerned about what one senior politician once described to me in private as the “media illiteracy” on economic subjects. His erudite proffering on the likelihood of a European banking crisis in 2014, quite understandably, attracted little attention. However, since the talk was on “India’s Economy and the Looming Crisis Global Economic Crisis of 2014” and he occupies the post of Chief Economic Adviser, it is hardly surprising that the media reportage was focussed on what he had to say about India.

If Basu had decided to don the mantle of the Deputy Chairman of the Planning and act as the permanent defence counsel for the Government he is serving, he could have escaped unscathed. He could well have set intellectual honesty to one side and argued that India remains reform obsessed and that it all depends on what we mean by reforms. He could conceivably have taken a cue from Minister of State Jyotiraditya Scindia who haughtily told a TV channel that it was India which was complaining and that Bharat was delighting in the entitlement-based policies of the UPA.

Fortunately Basu has not been too long in sarkari service to completely disregard his formidable reputation as an economist and a man of letters. If media reports are correct, he told the gathering in Washington three things. First, that decision-making in a coalition had taken the steam out of reforms. Secondly, that it was unlikely that there would be any big-ticket reforms before 2014, the Goods and Services Tax being the only possible exception. And finally, he expressed the hope that a return of one-party government could be the biggest fillip to reform.

It is not necessary to be either a UPA-hater or a Congress lover to admit that what Basu said is conventional wisdom. Yet, what he said was only half the story. For reasons of tact, Basu left many things unsaid.

A closer scrutiny of what is meant by coalitional constraints is revealing. The fact that Mamata Banerjee has proved a very difficult coalition partner, preventing much-needed fare hikes in the Railways and helping to derail the opening up of the retail sector as a whole to foreign direct investment, is well known. It is also a subject that Congress loyalists aren’t wary of addressing in private and even in public. What the Government is, however, less enthusiastic about admitting is the fact that the opposition to reforms doesn’t come from obstreperous coalition partners and a cussed opposition alone. The Congress is split down the middle over the priority to be accorded to reforms.

It is worthwhile recalling that what clinched the roll-back of the retail sector reforms earlier this year was not merely the opposition of the Trinamool Congress and DMK, but the quiet but determined opposition from the Congress’ own backbenches. The average Congress MP, brought up on a diet of Nehruvian socialism where the state sector propels change, was suspicious of the very idea that large corporations (with foreign capital) can usher efficiency in agricultural change. To them, that initiative rests with bodies such as the Food Corporation of India and NAFED. The Congress is inherently statist in its orientation and will be unenthusiastic about reforms that involve opening up sectors to all-round, including global, competition. This explains its foot-dragging in reforms connected to pensions, insurance and banking. It even explains why a stupendous amount of public money is being expended on keeping a vanity public sector airline afloat.

Manmohan Singh succeeded in pushing through a large measure of deregulation between 1992 and 1995 for two reasons. First, because in 1991 India was confronted with an economic crisis that forced a change of direction. Secondly, he had the full backing of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who extended full political support to him.

Today, the feeling in the Government is that the GDP growth is healthy enough to not be coerced into doing things that go against the instincts of the party. Secondly, it would not be an exaggeration to say that neither Sonia Gandhi nor her successor see reforms as the priority. Their stress is creating a welfare state based on entitlements and they are least concerned with issues of affordability. The most discredited facets of the post-War European experience are being sought to be imported into India.

In 1992, India charted a new course with an entrepreneur-driven trajectory of growth. In the past seven years, an attempt has been made to turn the clock back and revert to state-driven stagnation.

The Government of Manmohan Singh is confronted with political schizophrenia. A minusculity wants to keep the faith of 1992 but the political forces that drive the regime would rather go back to the regime of high taxes, high interest rates, deficit financing and high government spending—bound together by the repudiation of the federal ethos. It is not the Manmohan spirit that is prevailing but the Sonia consensus.

Why are men of integrity like Kaushik Basu wasting their time on such a self-destructive venture?

Sunday Pioneer, April 22, 2012

United States of India doesn't need an Imperial Centre

By Swapan Dasgupta

The conference of Chief Ministers last Monday to discuss internal security was marked by a spectacular degree of discord between the Centre and the states. An explanation for this trust deficit may indeed lie in partisan politics. However, when formidable state leaders charge New Delhi of viewing the provinces as mere municipalities and question the rationale of the Centre’s intrusiveness in subjects ranging from internal security to environment and anti-poverty schemes, there are grounds to probe the likelihood of an emerging Constitutional breakdown. Has the “cooperative federalism” the Founding Fathers crafted in 1950 passed its sell-by date?

The question is neither heretical nor insolent. Political documents—and the Indian Constitution is a political document—are rooted in a context. In 1947, the members of the Constituent Assembly addressed their mission with multiple dreams but total clarity on two counts.

First, they were deeply suspicious of any federal scheme that advocated a minimal Centre and strong states. This wariness stemmed almost entirely from the Congress experience with the Pakistan movement and the stand taken by the Chamber of Princes in the debates on the federation that was supposed to take the 1935 Constitution to its logical conclusion. With Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Princes out of the way, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Government imagined that state’s rights were no longer a paramount issue. A strong, paramount Centre was the consensus of the political class in 1947.

Secondly, flowing from its earnest commitment to the unity and integrity of the new India, the Constituent Assembly was equally in love with centralised planning. This wasn’t exclusively an infatuation with the Soviet Union. Many Congress leaders were sold on President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US and the welfarist impulses of the Labour Party in Britain. They sought to replicate some of the achievements on both sides of the Atlantic in India.

In his seminal work on the making of the Indian Constitution, Granville Austin has documented the remarkable extent to which members of Nehru’s Cabinet were anxious to place all crucial subjects on the Central list. Jagjivan Ram wanted labour legislation to be dictated from Delhi; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur imagined that public health was too important a subject to be left to provincial politicians; and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was of the view that education should be a Central subject so that the “intelligentsia of the country will be thinking on similar lines.”

The centralising impulses of the Nehruvian Congress finally coalesced in the establishment of the Planning Commission in March 1950. Although this body wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution, it soon evolved into what Sardar Patel feared would be a “superbody”, dictating the terms of national development to the states. Apart from viewing states as subordinate bodies to the Centre, the Planning Commission was premised on the belief that a few well-meaning and politically driven experts could draw a blueprint for the whole nation.

Austin described Indian planning as ‘intellectual centralisation”. In hindsight he was guilty of understatement. Over the years, the Planning Commission has overshadowed the Constitutionally-approved Finance Commission and the National Development Council. It has repudiated diversity, marginalised entrepreneurship and become an instrument of political control. The sight of popularly elected Chief Ministers lining up before the Deputy Chairman of the Commission to get their state plans approved is profoundly humiliating and calculated to make states appear like beggars. The we-give-the-money syndrome has, indeed, become a hallmark of the Gandhi family’s speeches.   

There was a time when the same political party ran the governments at the Centre and the states. The Constitution-makers and the Nehruvian consensus never imagined a situation when this would not be so. Nor could they envisage a future when the intellectual fashions of the 1950s and 1960s would be junked and even placed among history’s bad ideas. The over-centralised features of the Constitution reflected their belief in their own infallibility.

It is time these fundamentals were questioned by a new breed of Indians who combine Indian-ness with an equally fierce pride in the vernaculars. A Constitution is not a holy book. As India becomes more self-confident and federal at the same time, it may be time to review the sanctity it has accorded to an Imperial Centre.

Sunday Times of India, April 22, 2012 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mamata goes the Left way

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are few politicians who have made the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous in so short a time as West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee. A year ago, as the well-entrenched Left Front Government floundered, the leader of the Trinamool Congress emerged as a Mother Goddess, hell bent on slaying the Marxist demons who had intimidated an entire people for three decades.

It is not that everyone regarded Mamata as the perfect avenger. Her temperamental ways, her inability to treat colleagues as equals and her determination to wage total war on her opponents regardless of the issues did arouse fears. However, since taking on the CPI(M) unflinchingly and unwaveringly for a sustained period required exceptional determination, Bengalis were inclined to allow Mamata an exceptional degree of license. After all, it was said, you had to be slightly crazy to take on the Left in an apparently unequal war.

A Bengal that elected Mamata with a staggering majority in May last year was always a bit wary of her ability to make the transition from rebel to Chief Minister. However, the fact that she came to power on the crest of popular goodwill, the blessings of the middle classes, the unequivocal support of the Muslim minority and even the endorsement of the over-unionised labour suggested that her ‘poriborton’ (change) journey would involve a balanced approach. Above all, the real expectation from Mamata was that she would put an end to the petty tyranny of the CPI(M)’s fabled ‘cadre raj’. In short, having experimented with quasi-radicalism for 35 years, Mamata would strive to steer West Bengal in the direction of normal politics. West Bengal was tired of being the permanent contrarian.

It has taken less than a year for disappointment to overwhelm the state. Far from abandoning reckless populism and getting down to the serious business of governance, Didi appears to frittering away her energies in trivial pursuits. Whether it is the curious decision to paint large parts of Kolkata blue, a silly prosecution of a middle class professor who had forwarded a cartoon on email and her diktat to her supporters to shun all social contacts with CPI(M) supporters, Mamata has focussed attention on her eccentric ways. Coupled with her peremptory treatment of party colleagues who dared to be a little different, she seems hell bent on making governance in West Bengal over the next four years a Mad Hatter’s Party.

The natural rebel in Mamata appears to have snuffed out her momentary inclination to emerge as a statesman, with one finger in national politics. It is true that the local media, particularly that section which endorsed her enthusiastically in her battle against the Left Front, has been merciless in the attacks on her. But far from viewing criticism as a wake-up call, a beleaguered Mamata has been quick to detect conspiracies. Why the rape of a girl in a posh area of Kolkata or the assault of a college principal in North Bengal should be evidence of a monumental gang-up to destabilise her government is a matter of mystery.

What is not bewildering is the fact that the Chief Minister has unwittingly borrowed the language and the imagery of the very Left she claims to despise. The incessant talk of conspiracies is so reminiscent of a Left which had grown up on a diet of counter-revolutionary paranoia. Conspiracy or ‘chakranta’ was a favourite term of the Stalin lovers who spent the first two decades of Left Front rule declaiming against a diabolical Centre.

Likewise, the social boycott of the CPI(M) that Mamata has begun advocating is borrowed almost entirely from her Communist foes. The cadre raj that was unleashed in Bengal by the CPI(M) did not always generate physical violence. The strategy of the comrades also consisted of enforcing social ostracism of a target, denying him labour, livelihood and community services till the point where the victim either left the locality or grovelled before the party Local Committee. For the Left, which believed in a total control of society, social boycott was a lethal and effective weapon. It yielded results but it was also responsible for the anti-Left backlash that found expression after the Lok Sabha election of 2009.

It is this unthinking drift to copy-cat Leftist politics that is at the heart of Mamata’s woes. Sometime in the early-1990s, Mamata arrived at the conclusion that the old-style blend of bhadralok and jotedar (petty landlord) politics would not suffice to oust the Left. Like the Congress of Siddharth Shankar Ray that matched Left-wing extremism of the CPI(M) and Naxalites with Indira Gandhi’s radical rhetoric, Mamata chose to beat the Left at its own game. It paid rich dividends and her unrelenting opposition to muscular land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur secured for her the support of Left-inclined intellectuals who glorify poverty and loath development.  

No doubt the CPI(M)’s loss of monopoly control over Leftist rhetoric played a role in the electoral transformation of Bengal. But where Mamata seems to have miscalculated is in believing that the cussedness and obstructive ways of the Left is a source of inspiration to Bengal. That may have been the case a decade ago but the poriborton people voted for in 2011 was meant to usher in liberation from economic stagnation and despondency. Mamata doesn’t seem to realise she is going the way of the Left.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, April 20, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

TIMELY MEDITATIONS - The SIT report clears all legal obstacles to Modi’s career

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are politicians who acquire fame because of the media; there are others who thrive in public life despite it. In recent times, few politicians have been the subject of sustained scrutiny and unrelenting media hostility as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Ever since Gujarat was gripped by large-scale communal rioting following the arson attack on kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya by the Sabarmati Express in February 2002, Modi has been relentlessly pilloried by an alliance of activists, leftists, liberals and the media for his supposed role in the disturbances. Indeed, in certain circles it has become obligatory to describe him as a ‘butcher’, a ‘mass murderer’ and to banish him from membership of the human race.

So it was last Tuesday when the findings of the report of the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigations Team were made known to a Magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad. No sooner was it known that the SIT had found no evidence to recommend the criminal prosecution of Modi in the Gulberg Housing Society killings than a vocal section of the media began giving full play to the activists who had doggedly pursued the case. The English-language TV which has taken paid-up membership of the jihad against Modi couched its indignation over the SIT findings with broad hints that the report had wilfully overlooked evidence.

The disappointment over this most recent failure to ‘nail’ Modi is understandable. Ever since he turned the tables on his opponents by equating the vicious personal attacks to the vilification of Gujarat, the opponents of the Gujarat Chief Minister have more or less abandoned serious attempts to defeat him in an electoral encounter. Instead, the anti-Modi campaign has concentrated its energies on getting judicial strictures passed against him and thereby disqualifying him from the electoral battle altogether.

The legal battles were complemented by a larger campaign to project Modi as an extremist, not only within his own party but in society. After the US decision to deny him a visa, the anti-Modi campaign sought to portray the Chief Minister as a narrow-minded and self-centred bigot. Even if Modi reigned supreme in Gujarat, he would be regarded as a pariah in the rest of the country and, indeed, the world.

The campaign yielded some results. In the election of 2004, for example, a subterranean mobilisation using the imagery of the riots in the Muslim clusters of northern and eastern India was responsible for the en-bloc minority vote against the National Democratic Alliance. Today, the argument that the presence of Modi would trigger a monumental gang-up of disparate forces opposed to him is preventing the Bharatiya Janata Party from giving the Chief Minister a larger role in national politics.

There was another unstated agenda. Writing in the Guardian in November 2005, shortly after President George W. Bush had appointed a number of conservative judges to the US Supreme Court, the American feminist writer Naomi Wolf had had argued that Washington society would blunt the rough edges of their proclivities. The judges, she wrote, “are people who live in and cannot help but respond to the bigger cultural shifts of their time. I believe in the power of this cultural shift around us to move even the judiciary: Institutions are made up of human beings, and no one likes being looked at with contempt at dinner parties.”

The fear of being shunned socially does affect professional decision-making. In a polemically astute study of “how the Left lost its way” published in 2007, British journalist Nick Cohen addressed a larger question: why is the media guided by the herd instinct? Citing a study by the Columbia Journalism Review on why reporters practice self-censorship, Cohen arrived at an interesting conclusion: peer pressure. “What matters to most people in work is the status accumulated by the approval of colleagues. If the pack is howling off in one direction, very few journalists want to break ranks and head off on their own.”

A reason why a recent Time cover featuring Modi (in its Asia edition) and favourable reports by the Sydney Morning Herald, Brookings Institute and Washington Post generated so much chatter was the domestic media outrage over foreign journalists defying the prevailing ‘groupthink’.

So sustained has been the political and media onslaught against Modi that lesser beings would have wilted. The irony is that far from destroying Modi politically and reducing him to the fringe status of, say, Alabama’s George Wallace or France’s Jean Marie Le Pen, he is being increasingly seen as the Indian equivalent of Vladimir Putin—loathed and despised by some but hailed as a necessary strong man by others. If opinion polls are any guide, his appeal outside Gujarat is steadily rising.

Modi’s ability to survive this sustained ordeal owes considerably to his ability to gradually shift the terms of discourse. There is little doubt that in the Assembly election of 2002, held barely nine months after the bloodletting, Modi projected himself as an upholder of an assertive Gujarati Hindu identity. However, since that election he has focussed single-mindedly on economic growth and improving the quality of governance in the state. His no-nonsense style, ruthless attachment to efficiency and his reputation for incorruptibility has been contrasted to a political class that has yet to fully grasp the implications of economic resurgence on public life. Without his tangible achievement in making Gujarat the fastest growing state of the Indian Union and his ability to translate that success electorally, Modi would have been a pushover in the face of the very powerful forces pitted against him.

Modi did not confront his detractors headlong over the 2002 riots; he chose to outflank them by creating a parallel constituency based on his awesome record in governance.

If the SIT report has the potential of ending all speculation over the personal culpability of the Chief Minister in the riots, its timing could not have been more opportune. The post-riots inquisition has not influenced the polls in Gujarat since 2002 and the Assembly election scheduled for the end of the year will probably be no different. Gujarati society is inclined to look upon the 2002 events as a nightmare that must not be allowed to recur. There is a perception that old wounds must not reappear and vitiate the atmosphere. By refusing to compartmentalise the Gujarati people into communal blocs, Modi has played to this general desire to move on and focus on livelihood.

However, the SIT report is calculated to play a role outside Gujarat. First, it is certain to lead to a clamour within the dispirited BJP to accord a greater national role to Modi after he once again proves his mettle in Gujarat later this year. Secondly, with Manmohan Singh floundering and Rahul Gandhi yet to demonstrate his leadership skills, the Indian Establishment has begun to scour the landscape for a leader with the capacity to check drift and address governance in a purposeful way. Modi’s name as the man India awaits is already being spoken in hushed tones. If it is now demonstrated that there are no legal obstacles to his political career, it is entirely possible that the whisper could become an echo—in the same way as Vajpayee’s did after 1996.

This is not to suggest that the formidable opposition to Modi will wilt. On the contrary, we may witness a hardening of positions and an increase in the decibel levels of shrillness—sure signs that those who once dominated the discourse are now threatened and vulnerable. Sooner rather than later, the media too will begin to hum a different tune.

Telegraph, April 13, 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The centre cannot hold

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is easy for historians, writing with the benefit of hindsight, to identify the roots of developments that subsequently evolve into a ‘crisis’. For contemporaries, however, long-term trends are more difficult to detect, and in the Made in Media age the inclination to equate individual trees for the wood is often irresistible.

In 2004, prior to a general election it imagined was already won, the BJP projected itself as the “natural party of government” and targeted 300 Lok Sabha seats. Today, after a long bout of incoherence stemming from unending factional battles, it faces the ignominy of being dubbed the Big Joke Party by a reputable international publication.

In 2009, the Congress emerged from an election few expected would yield a clear outcome, with a tally of 206 seats. The 2009 verdict convinced the party leadership it was on a comeback trail—one that would fulfil its grand dream of governing India with a clear majority of its own. Today, after a series of humiliating election defeats, it is shell shocked and blundering from one crisis to another.

For the commentariat, the two parallel developments signal the ‘crisis’ of the national parties, with no clear indication of what is to come in its place. For the parties, however, dejection hasn’t triggered soul searching. The Congress still believes that with Rahul Gandhi as its mascot, a bagful of mega welfare schemes and the magic of secularism, it will somehow crawl back to power again. After all, assert Congress loyalists cockily, the nation is always bigger than the sum of all its states.

An equally smug BJP believes that a generously-funded campaign centred on anti-incumbency will allow the NDA to be in a position to attract post-poll allies and cross the hump. The saffron generals aren’t needlessly bothered by their lack of a big idea, their inability to attract new talent, their wariness of their star leader from Gujarat and the sleaze factor within. In a two horse race, they believe, their pony will outpace the injured Congress stallion.

It is possible that either of these scenarios will play out in the summer of 2012 or even earlier. But that doesn’t negate the fact that both pan-Indian parties are in deep crisis for reasons they have not been able to yet comprehend.

Since the Crown replaced the Company in 1858, India has been taught to believe that a strong Centre is a precondition to peace and prosperity. A firm but benign dispensation in Delhi has been projected as the maa-baap sarkar. Earlier, this system of paternalism offered peremptory justice, famine relief and protection from thugees and marauders. Today, blessed with bewildering acronyms, it also promises 100 days of work, subsidised foodgrain and other ‘entitlements’. On the face of it, Incredible India has remained Timeless India—interspersed with Bollywood, cricket and mobile phones. Or at least that’s the caricature the babalogs fondly believe as they navigate their SUVs into their constituencies.  The rule is simple: smart casual in Delhi and meeting ka kapda—as a venerable Bengali barrister politician called it—in the boon docks.

But amid the timelessness, something else is also happenings. In just two decades, India has witnessed more encapsulated growth (albeit uneven) than the past century taken together. Prosperity, education, information, mobility and rising expectations have changed the Indian mentality profoundly. There is an air of impatience which has translated into a greater concern for the quality of life, not in abstraction, but in their localities. A strengthened democracy is witnessing a relative disinterest in the nation and a greater identification with the regions. Patriotism hasn’t eroded, but among the rising elites and local notables there is unconcern and indifference to Delhi.

This is what happened in the US, as prosperity strengthened localism. The phenomenon is being replicated in India. What is a ‘crisis’ today is waiting to become an opportunity.

There is a constituency anxious to express its exasperation with the remote control of the metropolitan elite. With their high commands and controlled leadership structures, the national parties are living in a make-believe Beltway. They have a choice: to either reshape themselves into loose coalitions of state interests or live out their unitarian fantasies in irrelevance.

Sunday Times of India, April 8, 2012 

Rahul has no big idea, so blames others

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Thursday and Friday, reinvigorated after nearly a month-long absence from public life, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi undertook a necessary chore: he presided over an in-camera inquest. Ideally, the hearings should have been held in Lucknow, the scene of the debacle. However, since the defeat was also viewed as evidence of the people’s perfidy, the choice of Delhi was inevitable. In this age of democracy where people rise above their station, it isn’t possible to denounce the underlings as “sacks of potatoes”, as Karl Marx did. But the snub to UP was there for all to see.

It is early to say whether or not the regulated bloodletting over two days served any tangible purpose. Congress politicians are astute beings. They know there is a Lakshman rekha they cannot cross. Like salesmen appearing before the top boss to explain their failure to meet sales targets, they can at best point an accusing finger at their zonal supervisors. They will not say that the overall marketing strategy was all wrong and, worse, that the product they were to sell was flawed and had few takers. The owner can never be wrong; he is invariably let down by unworthy underlings.

Consequently, if media reports are anything to go by, Rahul has promised to take firm action against the errant and redouble efforts to bolster the party organisation—to which Rahul had been devoting his unceasing attention since 2009. The template prescription is reminiscent of what Theodre H. White, the chronicler of US presidential elections had to say about Senator Barry Goldwater’s disastrous performance against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964: “The organisation of Goldwater’s campaign in Washington and across the country was absolutely first class, except that it reminded one of the clay mock-ups of the new models in Detroit’s automobile industry. It was meticulously designed, hand-sanded, striking in appearance—but it had no motor.”

In today’s context, the lack of a motor is the equivalent of not possessing a big idea. Apart from suggesting that young people should join politics, that good people should join politics, that Nandan Nilekani’s magic wand will do away with all the imperfections of the money ‘we’ dole out from Delhi and that the blood of Indira Gandhi runs through his veins, there is very little that Rahul has to offer either the country or the voters of any state. There may be a certain charm to saying the same thing from Kashmir to Kannyakumari but if the overall message is anodyne, it is hardly surprising that it falls flat.

Perhaps Rahul should start addressing some of the issues that agitate most Indians: the state of the economy, the problems of corruption, the pressures of federalism, the Naxalite menace, environmental concerns and India’s place in the world. He also needs to address questions about the UPA Government. He can hardly pretend that the Congress is detached from the Government it heads.

Rahul has been tutored on these subjects and more by some of India’s most famous Congress-inclined intellectuals. It’s time he unveiled the results of his learning. It may actually help Indians to assess the basis of the Congress’ projection of him as India’s next prime minister.

Yet, and to be fair, Rahul has at least tried in his limited way to address concerns arising from the Congress’ poor performance in UP last month. At least the crestfallen Congress candidates who travelled to Delhi last week can have the satisfaction of knowing that there was someone to listen to their tales of woe and, maybe, even do something about it. Allowing activists the space to let off steam is one of the functions of leadership. To that limited extent, Rahul has fulfilled an elementary obligation.

The same can hardly be said of the BJP leadership which has reacted to the defeat in UP, the setback in Uttarakhand and the loss of seats in Punjab by doing absolutely nothing. Even without the benefit of any organised feedback, the BJP appears to have blamed its failure in UP to the very same factors that the Congress identified: lack of organisational rigour, internal faction fights, uninspiring local leadership and the failure to emerge as a credible alternative. And like the Congress, it has also conveniently sidestepped the issue of the lack of a big picture.

If the electorate is clueless as to what Rahul stands for, it is equally mystified about what the BJP is all about. Like misguided Keynesians who imagine that digging holes constitute productive endeavour, a section of the BJP seems to believe that activity for its own sake constitutes good politics. An even more deluded section seems to further believe that generous funding alone can win elections—a belief that has blunted the edge of the party campaign against the Congress’ mega-sleaze. There is just no concern about the fact that there has been no consequential flow of new blood into the party (except perhaps in Gujarat and Goa) since 2004. Rahul has at least tried to get new people interested in politics; the BJP has been content being a self-perpetuating cabal.

For both the national parties, the crisis is not of organisation shortcoming and factional restlessness. These are the consequences of the failure to grasp that ideas (as opposed to doctrinaire ideology) have a role in politics.

In India, there is a new rule of politics that is fast emerging: Nothing succeeds like failure.

 Sunday Pioneer, April 8, 2012 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Man who stirred a hornet's nest

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are two terms the keep recurring in the chatter over the drama surrounding the recent actions of the Army chief General V.K. Singh: ‘sadness’ and ‘concern’ verging on ‘anger’.

There is the ritual expression of sadness that any controversy surrounding the armed forces and particularly the Army chief should have become a subject of public discourse. There is sadness that a Defence Minister with a reputation for saintliness should have become embroiled in a controversy that implicitly involves sleaze.

At the same time, there is concern over the fate of a national institution that must remain above partisan politics. Yet the concern spills over into outright anger at the mere suggestion that General Singh is at odds with retired officers and the civilian-controlled Ministry of Defence. “Does General Singh think he’s in Pakistan?” asked former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, articulating the rage of the High Church of the Indian Establishment, “He’s gone berserk. In a democracy the civilian authority is in charge.” Equally lofty concerns were articulated by sections of the media that charged the General with waging war on India and even plotting an extremely amateurish coup.

In a strictly Constitutional sense the anger of a high-minded Establishment is understandable. It would be a sad day if senior officers of the armed forces function without regard to the elected government. In the past, allegations of unilateralism were levelled against General Thimayya, General Sundarji and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. With the exception of Admiral Bhagwat who was peremptorily sacked, the differences involving Generals Thimayya and Sundarji were not allowed to come to a head. With a grasp of politics that is in keeping with contemporary realities, Defence Minister A.K. Antony too has preferred a more conciliatory approach than many of the hotheads who demanded General Singh’s head on a platter.

Antony’s cautious approach appears to have been guided by both pragmatic and ethical considerations. He knew, for example, that an already beleaguered government could not afford a fresh controversy, particularly one that involved charges of possible fiscal improprieties. With only a couple of months left for General Singh to demit office, he felt it far more prudent to grin and bear it.

But Antony is more than just a politician with a reputation for playing it safe. As one of the few practitioners of ethical politics in the system, he was aware of two things. First, that despite the unorthodox manner in which General Singh brought the Rs 14-crore bribe offer to the public attention, the Army chief was essentially a soldier with a fierce attachment to old-school values such as honour and uprightness. Secondly, the Defence Minister was also aware that General Singh’s misgivings over the army’s purchase of Tatra trucks were real. Finally, Antony must have come to know that the leak of General Singh’s letter to the Prime Minister on the lack of defence preparedness was not the doing of the chief Army chief.

Whether Antony is aware of the identity of the person who leaked the letter, hoping the blame would be laid at the door of General Singh, is a matter of conjecture. What is however curious is that even after Antony ordered a CBI inquiry into possible foul play in the purchase of Tatra trucks and began work to streamline and hasten the pace of decision-making in defence purchases, the intensity of the offensive against General Singh doubled. Why, for example, have various bodies rushed in to gratuitously offer certificates of good health to the Tatra? Why is there an attempt to suggest that General Singh is more than just a painfully self-righteous man? That he is in fact capable of attempting a coup?

There is an old Chinese saying “When the finger points to the moon, the idiot points to the finger”. When General Singh pointed to something strange about the pricing of military vehicles and the dependence on just one supplier for over 26 years, why was there a desperate attempt to shift the terms of the debate and focus on the supposed madness of General Singh? Has General Singh unwittingly stirred a hornet’s nest?

There is a section of a very rotten Delhi Establishment that has come to interpret civilian control over the armed forces as the freedom of the military and Defence Ministry to be completely outside the realm of public scrutiny. Since defence is a matter of national concern and accounts for the largest head of expenditure in the Union Budget, this is an unacceptable proposition. Operational autonomy should not be detached from an overall sense of budgetary accountability.

Equally unacceptable is the suggestion that the public intrusiveness that accompanied the purchase of Bofors guns in 1986-7 was responsible for the procrastination that has marked the purchase of defence hardware, particularly in the past decade. The problem with the Bofors guns was not about quality but centred on the issue of price. Did the Indian exchequer pay too much and was the mark-up a result of kickbacks? This question is also at the heart of the Tatra truck deal where the buffer role of a public sector unit deserves closer scrutiny.

By pretending that these questions are mala-fide, the Indian Establishment has demonstrated that it is unwilling to address the very issues that agitate civil society. General Singh has asked the right questions. We now await the credible answers.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, April 6, 2012 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Army Chief Has Done The Nation A Service

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is to the credit of India’s Defence Minister—the man who has earned for himself the lofty title of Saint Antony—that he resisted the clamour of many parliamentarians to either sack Army chief V.K. Singh or order him to take compulsory leave pending retirement in eight weeks. It is said that Antony told indignant Cabinet colleagues that he did not want “blood on his hands.”

Antony’s act of statesmanship plus his very belated decision to order a CBI inquiry into the accusations levelled by the Army chief against a retired officer and the associated murkiness centred on the purchase of heavy vehicles has at least lowered the temperature. At the same time, it has brought into the public domain another potential defence scandal which, if it plays out, may have damaging consequences for the government.

True, the controversy over the Army chief’s allegations have not yet reached the emotive heights of the furore over the Bofors artillery guns. But that is not because the charges are trivial or born out of self-centredness. When it comes to matters concerning the armed forces, the Indian political class still exercises exemplary restraint—even if some MPs broke that understanding and demanded General Singh’s immediate dismissal.

That restraint is complemented by the all-round acknowledgement of Antony’s personal integrity. Antony may well be charged with procrastination and even indecisiveness but few will argue that he is guided by base, pecuniary considerations. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi should thank their lucky stars that General Singh was reporting to Antony. Any other person in the Raksha Mantri’s chair and the muck would have well and truly hit the ceiling.

The chances of that happening cannot be entirely discounted, particularly if the CBI departs from its usual ways and actually applies its mind to getting to the bottom of the grave charges relating to the sale of Tatra trucks. Prima facie, there appears to be something odd about a Czech-based, NRI-owned company exercising a complete 20-year monopoly over the supply of trucks to the army. That the imports were routed through a public sector company does not lessen the suspicion: it merely suggests that the tentacles of the arrangement go beyond the army and embrace a section of the civilian bureaucracy.

A proper inquiry into the shadowy world of defence contracts may reveal a great deal that could even startle India’s already cynical citizenry. Certainly, emerging tit-bits of information about front companies claiming to be what they are not, supplies routed through bodies specialising in escort services, and compromised diplomats and babus serve to confirm the impression that General Singh did the nation a great service by making the charges public.

On his part, and despite his initial emulation of Gandhiji’s three monkeys, we should be grateful to Antony for at least acknowledging that there is some possible evil in the world and ordering an inquiry. Only relentless public and political pressure will now ensure that the inquiry is conducted with seriousness and doesn’t become an opportunity to fudge the real issues.

The desperation on the part of those who have something to hide to keep the focus on General Singh prompted the leak of his state-of-defence-preparedness letter to the Prime Minister. If the investigators are serious, it shouldn’t take them too long to narrow the suspects to a handful of individuals. This, in turn, should provide revealing answers as to why they were so driven to engineer a situation whereby General Singh’s continuation in office would become the central issue of the controversy.  

Yet, even a leak of this most privileged of communications has its upside. The country is now aware that India’s defence preparedness to meet external threats is abysmal, and that procrastination over the purchase of military hardware has made the country vulnerable. The fact that the Army chief’s assessment corresponds to what strategic experts have long been saying must not prompt a so-what-is-new response. There is a difference between a TV pundit saying that India is unprepared to meet threats and the Army chief asserting quite independently that this is indeed so.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Defence Minister can run away from answering this grave charge. Defence is the largest head of expenditure in the Union Budget and, so far, the unwritten political convention is that the budgetary allotment for defence is passed without any discussion. This implies that both the nation and Parliament have reposed blind trust in the Government to do whatever is necessary to protect India. If, despite this large expenditure, the Army chief complains about lack of ammunition and obsolescent equipment, it suggests that the Defence Minister has failed in his responsibilities. If, on top of these problems of hardware, there is evidence that the corruption that has sullied India’s attempts at governance has also started affecting decision-making in the Defence Ministry, there is every cause to question the legitimacy of the sainthood that has been conferred on Antony.

Every democratic country expects its ministers to live up the trust that has been reposed on them by the people. In his long political life, Antony has shown he is a good man and the country must admire his ability to remain good amid an overall climate of murkiness. But being good doesn’t mean that a minister should be content just being good. Antony has failed the test of effectiveness.

Sunday Pioneer, April 1, 2012 
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