Sunday, July 29, 2012

Time to take off Nehru’s ceremonial straitjacket?

No discussion of history at the popular level is ever complete without the inevitable question: what if?

It is precisely this question that comes to mind on a small detail of the ceremony surrounding the advent of a new presidency in India. What if, it may well be asked, had Mahatma Gandhi not been felled by a bullet in 1948 and had gone on to witness India’s transition to a republic in 1950? What if a grateful nation in search of a moral compass had insisted that the ‘father of the nation’ should also be its first President? And what if the Mahatma had agreed?

In that event, would Jawaharlal Nehru have had the gumption to advise his mentor that wearing “a black achkan and white churidar pyjamas would be suitable for the inauguration ceremony as well as for any other official function”? Would the man who conversed with the mighty King-Emperor in Buckingham Palace in a dhoti and shawl have delighted the photographers by putting on something utterly incongruous? Would the ever-irreverent Sarojini Naidu have chuckled over a Mahatma in fancy dress?

The imagery of Gandhi in Nehruvian attire is deliciously wicked. However, behind the farce lurks a more profound question: does India need a dress code for ceremonial occasions? This was the question Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic, asked Nehru three days before he was sworn in. The first two occupants of the palace on Raisina Hill after Independence had, after all, assumed charge in markedly different clothes: Lord Mountbatten in the ceremonial uniform of an admiral of the fleet, and C Rajagopalachari in a white khadi jacket and dhoti. 

Left to himself, Rajen Babu would have preferred a variant of what Rajaji wore to the Durbar Hall on becoming governor-general. Dhoti, in its different regional variations, was the preferred dress of most Indians for formal and ceremonial occasions. Some Muslim communities in northern and central India, however, preferred the long achkan or sherwani with white pyjamas. In short, there was no single definition of formal wear. Just as the Scots never gave up their kilts in clan colours for the regulation dinner jacket, India’s definition of ‘formal’ has differed according to culture and geography.

In West Bengal, the home state of India’s 13th President Pranab Mukherjee, the Calcutta Club has, for example, deemed that lounge suits and dhotis are acceptable for the dining room, while the kurta-pyjama (whether of the Fab India or political India variety) is a definite no-no. This is quite a contrast from the Delhi clubs where dhoti is taboo but pyjamas are accepted. Yet, there is a visceral antipathy of the Bengali bhadralok for the pyjama. A Bengali notable once rebuked Madhav Rao Scindia for coming to dinner in kurta-pyjama. “The pyjama,” he informed his bewildered guest, “is what you wear between the bedroom and the bathroom.”

It is worth considering what the custodians of Bengali taste thought of the new President, abandoning the customary dhoti and assuming office in a Nehru-decreed uniform. The last occasion a Bengali had occupied a post of equivalent importance was Subhas Bose, the Congress President in 1938. Predictably, Bose was impeccably attired in white dhoti-panjabi, with a striped angavastram for colour. This was quite a change from the 1928 Congress session in Calcutta when he turned up in military uniform, complete with steel-chain epaulettes. A bemused Gandhi compared Bose and his uniformed volunteers to a Bertram Mills Circus.

The Mahatma found Bose’s militaristic pretensions amusing. In the same vein, rooted Bengalis found Nehruvian aesthetics suspect and pretentious. Writing in 1965 in The Continent of Circe, the Bengali gadfly Nirad C Chaudhuri described Nehru as “more a Muslim than a Hindu, so far as he is anything Indian at all…He is usually repelled by anything pronouncedly Hindu.” Nehru’s critics noted the alacrity with which he shed the dhoti after 1947 for a sartorial style that epitomised the adaption of Hindu elites to a Muslim court.

That such a style finds favour with both North India and Bollywood is undeniable. But why make some people’s preference the norm for all Indians? It is time to liberate India from Nehru’s flights of whimsy.

Sunday Times of India, July 29, 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Which way will the President swing?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The victory of Pranab Mukherjee in last Sunday’s presidential election has triggered a bout of speculation over how he will handle his new responsibilities. Unlike the distant past when the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan was condemned to a largely ceremonial role owing to the presence of a strong Prime Minister with a commanding majority in Parliament, there is intense interest about how the President will conduct himself in the event no single party or pre-election formation secures a majority in the next general election.

The speculation is warranted. Despite the fact that President Mukherjee has been a Congress loyalist for most of his political life—apart from a two-year stint as the unsuccessful leader of a breakaway formation, his selection as the UPA candidate was mired in some confusion and uncertainty. There are grounds to believe that the selection of Mukherjee was forced by the brief rebellion of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. It is entirely possible that had the threat of former President APJ Abdul Kalam also jumping into the fray not been there, either Hamid Ansari or Meira Kumar may have ended up as the Congress’ choice. It is fair to assume that Mukherjee, despite his high standing, suffered from a trust deficit with the UPA Chairperson.

The reason for this wariness is said to be located in the stand Mukherjee took in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. At that time Mukherjee proffered the view, based entirely on his understanding of precedents, that President Zail Singh should swear-in the senior-most member of the Cabinet as the interim Prime Minister. In both 1964 and 1966, after the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru, President Radhakrishnan had administered the oath of office to Gulzari Lal Nanda. It was after the funerals that the Congress Parliamentary Party met to elect their leader.

To say that Mukherjee was guided by personal ambition is a conjecture. Judging by his personality, particularly his obsessive fascination with history and precedents, it is equally fair to argue that he was merely trying to be correct. Looking back, it seems outrageous that an ordinary General Secretary of the Congress, a person with no administrative experience, was sworn-in as Prime Minister. Regardless of the fact that Rajiv Gandhi was unanimously endorsed by the CLP subsequently, the question arises: on what basis did Giani Zail Singh take his decision? By that logic, President Mukherjee will be within his rights to appoint Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh as interim Prime Minister in the event of an unexpected vacancy in Race Course Road. If that sounds preposterous, how can the President’s decision in 1984 be justified? A break from convention cannot, after all, be justified because the beneficiary is a member of a particular family.

What is clear from the extraordinary events of 1984—never adequately scrutinised because of the extraordinary circumstances of Indira Gandhi’s death—is that there are discretionary powers available in the hands of the President to shape the course of politics. Because of special circumstances, it is unlikely that there would have been a challenger to Rajiv Gandhi for the top job. Nevertheless, the President’s decision presented the CLP with a fait accompli. The MPs were left with just no other choice in the matter.

In 1984, Pranab Mukherjee was extremely courageous by putting propriety over reckless innovation. For this miscalculation he paid a very heavy price. Yet, now that he no longer has to answer to the Congress’ first family, are his priorities going to be shaped by this sense of correctness? The fear that President Mukherjee will not allow his personal preferences to allow any Constitutional subterfuge has been uppermost in the minds of those who see politics as the quest for power at all costs.

The problem, however, is that there are just too many conflicting precedents. In 1989, 1991 and 1996, the President invited the leader of the single-party to form the Government. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi turned down the offer because he did not command a majority. However, in 1996, Atal Behari Vajpayee formed a Government despite not having a majority. The BJP failed to muster the additional numbers in 13 days of office and the Government fell.

As a result of the 1996 experience, President K.R. Narayanan demanded to see letters of support from potential allies when he invited Vajpayee (who was head of both the largest party and the largest pre-poll alliance) in 1998. The President wanted to satisfy himself that the new government was in a position to secure a majority. However, it was this same principle that came in the way of Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister in 1999. There is little doubt that had the Congress formed the government, its natural resourcefulness would have enabled it to cobble together a majority. Indeed, President Narayanan went beyond the call of office and actually tried to persuade Mulayam  to extend support—an act which can be justified by the desire to avoid a second election a year after the previous one. But it didn’t quite work out.

Of course, the ultimate test of majority is in Parliament. But the President has a range of options to choose from to determine who will have the first throw of the dice. The next two years will witness endless star gazing to determine what he deems will be most appropriate. The President’s discretionary powers are adding to the nervousness in the political class.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, July 27, 2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee: Ethnically Bengali but politically man of the Centre

By Swapan Dasgupta

Selecting the greatest Indian since the Mahatma was always a daunting project in a pathologically argumentative country. But for the organisers of this exercise, there were two particularly awkward moments and both, predictably, were Bengali creations.

First, there was the legitimate query, as to why Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the ‘boson’ of the Higgs boson or “God particle” derives its name, was not considered. Secondly, there was the inevitable question: why has Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose been omitted? The organisers could hardly respond that Netaji died in 1945 in an air-crash because that would have resurrected the controversy over his death—a controversy not lacking in conspiracy theories.

Strange as it may appear to outsiders, a huge section of Bengalis are inclined to view the history of the past 100 years as a monumental conspiracy by first, the British, and then a Delhi-centric political class, to deny them recognition and justice. This colourful saga of unending victimhood that has created a permanently aggrieved people, personified by is the mercurial Mamata Banerjee.

When the diminutive Pranab Mukherjee, dressed hopefully in his hallmark dhoti rather than an incongruous achkan-churidar, takes his oath of office on Wednesday morning, will the Bengali sense of hurt be assuaged? Will the first Bengali in Rashtrapati Bhavan be seen as the Congress Party’s atonement for Subhas Bose’s removal as Congress President by a wily Mahatma Gandhi in 1939? That incidentally was the last occasion a Bengali made it to the very top.   

There are few reasons to believe that Bengalis will melt in gratitude at being finally offered this ceremonial lollipop. In an interview last month on TV, Mamata was asked about her views of Pranab—a “son of Bengal”—as the next President of India. “Son of Bengal?” she asked incredulously, “He is a son of the world.”

The message couldn’t have been clearer. To the rest of India, Pranab Babu with his unmistakable Bengali accent may be the quintessential bhadrolok. In a cultural sense he undoubtedly is. Politically, however, his roots have never been in state politics but in Lutyens’ Delhi. Ethnically he is a Bengali but politically he is a man of the Centre.

To Bengal this matters. The tallest Congress leader of Bengal was, by a long shot, Dr B.C. Roy who was Chief Minister from 1948 to 1962. His fame stemmed not only from his legendary skills as a medical doctor or his no-nonsense style. Dr Roy is regarded as the man who gave West Bengal whatever little post-Independence economic development it experienced. From the steel plant in Durgapur, the barrage in Farakka and the development of Salt Lake, most of the public investment in Bengal is attributed to Dr Roy.

The only person who came close to the legendary Chief Minister was A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury who, as Railways Minister, nurtured the development of his home district of Malda.  The reputation of Barkat Da, as he was affectionately called, has invariably been juxtaposed with that of Pranab Babu—and the results have not been edifying for India’s President-designate.

Politically, Mukherjee was always of greater significance than the portly patriarch from Malda. Yet, it has been suggested that he didn’t leverage his enormous clout at the Centre to do anything special for Bengal. In a phoney war between a proud people and a heartless imperial authority, Mukherjee has often been painted as a collaborator.

The dominant intellectual current in Bengal has never been separatist. Despite the endless of charges of discrimination by the Centre, Bengalis haven’t even considered a future outside India. Yet, ironically, the folk heroes of Bengal have invariably been upholders of local pride. Chittaranjan Das and Bose were hero worshipped for their sacrifice and, above all, their opposition to Gandhi; Dr Roy was admired because he kept Nehru (who he addressed as Jawaharlal) at an arm’s length; Jyoti Basu earned respect for being culturally detached from the Hindi heartland; and Mamata is indulged because she doesn’t care a fig for authority.  By contrast, Pranab Mukherjee has got where he is by playing by the rules set by lesser beings in Delhi. In Bengal, that makes him an oddball.

Times of India, July 23, 2012

Friday, July 20, 2012

WINDOW TO AUSTRALIA - Has cricket shaped India’s perception of its neighbours?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It has been a great fortnight for xenophobes and the champions of ‘Fortress India’. First there was the much-discussed Time magazine dubbing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh an ‘underachiever’, a description that produced bouts of hysterical over-reaction from the Congress Party. Then there was the bitter complaint by the Prime Minister of Singapore over the uncertain business environment in India—an observation that was greeted in embarrassed silence since the small city state can hardly be accused on nurturing a sinister political agenda. And finally there was President Barack Obama’s interview to the Press Trust of India over the obstacles in the path of foreign direct investment in India. Although what President Obama said was nothing that hadn’t been said inside the country by Indians, it led to a bipartisan assertion of Indian sovereignty. ‘We will do what suits us’ was the refrain of a political class that falls back on flag waving when expedient.

Amid this mood of prickliness that has engulfed a part of Lutyens’ Delhi ever since ratings agencies such as Standard & Poor’s began expressing doubts over the efficacy of the India story, it is heartening that there is some good news for the beleaguered nationalists. Ironically, it has come from a part of the world that does not figure very high in the Indian perception of the world. In its report Beyond the Lost Decade released earlier this week, a taskforce of the Australia India Institute of the University of Melbourne has spelt out concrete steps that both New Delhi and Canberra can take to make the bilateral relationship more meaningful.

The specific recommendations set out in this extremely lucid and erudite report—reading it was a pleasure—on issues such as business, immigration and the inner workings of the under-staffed Ministry of External Affairs will, hopefully, receive the necessary attention in both countries. However, what fascinated me were some of the intriguing observations made by the report (a joint effort of three Indians and three Australians) on the role of cricket in shaping perceptions of Australia in India.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that if Australia figures in India’s popular imagination, it is due to cricket. For most Indians, Australia is the land of Sir Donald Bradman, Richie Benaud, Steve Waugh, Shane Warne and even the much misunderstood Greg Chappell. Melbourne figures in the consciousness of Indian decision-makers not because of some brawls involving dodgy students but because of the Boxing Day test at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground. For Australians too and more so after the centre of the cricket economy shifted from London to Mumbai in the mid-1990s, the few times India figures on the radar are because of cricket.

In a revealing analysis of the Sydney Morning Herald between Sptember 2010 and August 2011, the report discovered that out of the 405 published stories on an India-related theme, 170 were on cricket—followed by (quite reassuringly) 100 stories on business. There were also 36 news items on geopolitics and only 9 on Indian politics. This is hardly surprising. A poll in parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union would have revealed that India is invariably equated with Raj Kapoor. Such are the vagaries of what is now glorified as ‘soft power’.

The Australia India Institute has recognised the importance of cricket in conferring on Australia “a name recognition that is astonishing in a country and a subcontinent most of whose 1.2 billion people are remarkably self-absorbed, with only a fleeting interest in the rest of the planet…(That its) top cricketers were Australia’s most identifiable faces in India was acknowledged as an opportunity in this narrow context.” At the same time, the report argues that the disproportionate importance attached to cricket has reinforced stereotypes of an Australia that has changed dramatically since the ‘white Australia’ policy was abandoned in 1973.

The reason given is curious: “As it happens, (India’s) window to Australia is the one Australian national institution that is the least multicultural and most prone to promoting an older, even outdated idea of the country: its cricket team. With few exceptions, Australian cricket remains largely an Anglo-Celtic preserve. When Indians superimpose the idea of the cricket team on the rest of Australia, they obviously see a very different country and society from the one that Australians themselves see, live and experience.” Consequently, the argument goes, “there is an instinctive uncertainty among the Indian establishment as to where Australia fits in Asia.”

If the objective behind this indictment of a traditional and time-tested relationship was to argue for a cricket-plus approach, it would be understandable. However, the problem with positing a theory rooted in contemporary academic fashion is that it ignores the fact that Indians, and least of all the Indian establishment, isn’t innately uncomfortable whites, as long as their whiteness isn’t complicated by cultural condescension. India, for example, has the best of relations with South Africa, another cricketing nation where the game is still set in the social mould of the apartheid years. Will that relationship be significantly enhanced if there were more blacks and Asians representing the South Africa Test side? Are Indians prone to viewing a Shane Warne or a Jacques Kallis with suspicion at the IPL matches because they are white?

Take the United Kingdom, with which India has had an enduring but historically over-burdened relationship. Why is it that Indian visitors to London—and their numbers keep multiplying each year—still prefer a visit to Buckingham Palace to a wander down Brick Lane? Why does the England of Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and Downton Abbey continue to fascinate English-speaking Indians? That England is old, class-ridden, exclusionary and on the retreat. But has the notion of Cool Britannia that the post-Thatcher generation has promoted so assiduously made the prospect of the ‘enhanced partnership’ more appealing? Or, are the two countries not assessing bilateral relationships through the prism of self-interest?  

Even a casual visitor to Melbourne and Sydney will realise that the stereotype of white Australia does not hold any longer. However, does the prevailing multiculturalism of Australia by itself enhance its attractiveness to India? The answer is mixed. Rigid social attitudes, especially those accompanied by a wariness of the foreigner, are a deterrent to good relations, both business and diplomatic. However, a diverse society by itself is of no incremental benefit. India is an open society which is socially conservative and, often, closed. But this has little bearing on its worth as a strategic or commercial partner.

There are many compelling reasons why Australia and India need to discover each other purposefully. Cricket and the English language are worthwhile foundations for the mutual exploration process to proceed. But in the long run, there are larger questions. Does India seek a worthwhile role in the Indian Ocean and is it willing to invest in it? How does Australia balance its business relationship with China with the yearning for a strategic relationship with India? How much is Indian business willing to invest in the natural resources of Australia? Can India provide a market for Australia’s farm and dairy sector? These are issues on which the future of Australia-India relations will hinge.

The role of people of Indian origin who have made Australia their home is a small, yet important, factor in the relationship. But whereas the diaspora has an understandable interest in demolishing the last vestiges of Sir Robert Menzies’ legacy, and even changing the demographic composition of the Australian cricket team, these are of little interest to India.

The Telegraph, July 20, 2012 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dara Singh: More than just a star

By Swapan Dasgupta

When I joined St Stephen’s College as a fresher exactly 40 years ago, we were subjected to certain rites of initiation. In the main these consisted of imbibing lewd songs—the exposure of mollycoddled public school boys to a crude, real world. One of these was a parody of the well-known patriotic song of the 1950s: “Aao bachcho tumhe dikhaye jhankee Hindustan kee.”.

The verses of this ribald variation of Pradeep’s legendary offering to a newly-independent nation hardly bear repetition. What was interesting, however, was the chorus. Instead of Vande Mataram, the genuflection to the motherland, the salacious version had inserted an invocation to the loin of Dara Singh, often with the added garnishing, “Jai, Jai Hindustan”.

Despite the obvious crudities of the exercise, the allusion to India’s Rustom-e-Hind was fitting. Till the macho heroes of an increasingly glitzy Bollywood began dominating popular culture, Dara Singh was more than a pehelwan who also starred in films: he was the personification of rustic, home-grown manliness. Like Milkha Singh the ‘flying Sikh’ who was synonymous with speed, Dara Singh became a generic term for strength. In mythology there was Hanuman and Bheem; in the contemporary world there was Dara Singh. To an India suffering from a deficiency of national power, the wrestling champion from Punjab personified muscular nationalism and associated saintliness.

This may not have been easily apparent to the cosmopolitan elite that gave the early films of Dara Singh—with evocative titles such as ‘Trip to Moon’ and ‘Tarzan comes to Delhi’—a very wide berth. However, to audiences in villages and small towns, both unfamiliar and suspicious of the trappings of secular modernity, the B-films screened in the rundown cinema hall next to the railway station, were the logical extension of the bioscope and the mela on festival days.

Viewed from a 21st century perspective, the early Dara Singh films were farcical, almost in the genre of a Monty Python skit. In ‘Tarzan comes to Delhi’, where Helen performs one of her early item numbers, Dara Singh is seen swinging all the way from Qutub Minar and landing on the ramparts of Red Fort. In ‘Trip to Moon’, made just two years before Neil Armstrong took a big step for mankind, the moon-based astronauts are shown with basic crash helmets and Converse All-stars (which was known to Indians those days as hockey boots). The robots under the control of the villain looked strangely like metallic variants of Rajasthani puppets.

The film-makers, it would seem, were always anxious to link fantasy with something familiar. The fight scenes invariably involved Dara and another pehelwan and were attempts to re-create the magic of real-life exhibition wrestling matches (attended by crowds of over 10,000). Therefore, instead of the dhishum-dhishum that became the hallmark of films after the 1970s, there was much thigh slapping and grappling. The bush telegraph had created a legend out of Dara Singh’s encounters with King Kong, as the Hungarian-born giant Emile Czaja was popularly known, and the fights on the screen became old-fashioned wrestling matches for tamasha-hungry people.  

Of course, there was the inevitable touch of the absurd. In ‘Trip to Moon’, after Dara had resoundingly knocked out the bad pehelwan and rescued the heroine clad in an incongruous ball gown, the villain unleashes his final weapon: a rhinoceros who staggers dopily on to the screen before being felled by the Rustom-e-Punjab.

Like the shows of strength in the mud pits of akharas, Dara Singh gave Bharat countless hours of wholesome entertainment. But he was more than just another popular performer. Much before he was exposed to a new generation as the Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, Dara Singh had already, in the popular imagination at least, become a force for the good. He may have played opposite buxom actresses and even appeared faintly romantic, but the values with which he was associated were distinctly traditional: strength of body, nobility of mind, commitment to country and respectful of the Gods. In an India that fought three wars in just nine years, Dara Singh epitomised the folk craving for both strength and goodness against the perfidious. He was more than just a star: he was a phenomenon.

Sunday Times of India, July 15, 2012 

Pranab didn’t trigger economy downturn

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is, it would seem, no place for gratitude in politics. It took the presiding deities of UPA-2 less than 48 hours after he left office to start the whisper that the ills of the economy are due to the man who will be the next President of India. For Pranab Mukherjee, the unkindest cut was the fact that the new revisionism seemed to be emanating from people close to the Prime Minister—a man whose job he saved on a number of occasions through his fire-fighting abilities.

Not that the calumny heaped on the outgoing Finance Minister is entirely unwarranted. Mukherjee didn’t trigger the economic downturn that is now contributing to the Government’s eroding popularity. However, his Budget last May certainly hastened the larger erosion of confidence in the India story.

Was Mukherjee, therefore, plain bloody-minded or still dreaming of the halcyon days of Indira Gandhi when the Government directed and capitalists bowed in submission? Alternatively, was Mukherjee the archetypal pragmatist who believed that politics was the art of the possible?

The past record seems to suggest that Mukherjee adjusted to the grim realities of coalition government far better than most Congress leaders who still imagine they are in a one-party government. In UPA-1, as External Affairs minister, he was berated for dragging his feet on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was then believed that he was just too dependent on the CPI(M) to win his Lok Sabha seat. It was also suggested that he was too stuck in old non-alignment ways to be enamoured of closer ties with the US.

Whatever the truth, Mukherjee always played cautiously. I have always insisted that the over-arching philosophy behind this year’s Budget was charmingly simple: to get it through the Lok Sabha without too much fuss. He paid lip service to fiscal responsibility, genuflected at the altar of the anti-corruption movement by promising GAAR, reiterated the assurance of a Food Security Bill next year and waved the populist sword at Vodafone. The Congress benches cheered, the private sector was muted in its criticism and the Opposition didn’t quite find a specific issue to mobilise opinion against the Government. Even Mamata Banerjee couldn’t find fault.
That the Budget was a monumental exercise in evasion was undeniable. Yet, judging by the yardstick of political expediency, it was a masterstroke and this is becoming apparent with each passing day.

For the past three weeks, there has been a frenzied attempt by the PMO to suggest that the bad days are behind us, and that with the PM at the helm the country can look forward to a bout of purposeful reforms—the return of the proverbial “animal spirit”. ‘Just wait until October’, the country is being told, presumably because the dust from the presidential election and the monsoon session of Parliament would have settled.

Maybe we should wait until October to be told that January 2013 will be more propitious because the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections will be over by then. Maybe we should wait for the next Budget in February for big bang announcements that will set the Indian tiger roaring.

But maybe, and just maybe, it is entirely possible that the PM is discovering to his cost that it is easier to talk reforms than undertake them. Take the small example of the Forward Contract Regulating Bill—permitting forward trading in specified agricultural commodities to ensure better returns to farmers—that was supposed to have been cleared by the Cabinet last Thursday. It was not even taken up for discussion because a Trinamool Congress minister had sent a letter of objection. By this logic, neither the Pensions Bill nor FDI in retail will be taken up because Mamata is opposed to both.

What, therefore, happened to the promised purposefulness? Why wait until Pranab Babu is ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan because the TMC is, in any case, unlikely to vote for him?

With 20 Lok Sabha MPs, Mamata cannot be entirely disregarded. But look at the alacrity with which Ajit Singh’s displeasure over an extension to the Director-General of Civil Aviation was met. And the Rashtriya Lok Dal has just four MPs and nowhere to go.

The reality which is gradually dawning is that the UPA-2 is such a leaky ship that it dare not risk a bout of turbulence. Reforms are not merely about getting more foreign direct investment and getting the foreign funds to remain invested in the country. It is also about managing government expenditure and lowering the quantum of subsidies. These involve decisions that are potentially unpopular to both a venal political class and to consumers, even if they contribute to the long-term good. Just look at the proceedings of the National Advisory Council to see whether these priorities are shared by Sonia Gandhi’s pet activists.

The over-politicised Planning Commission is trying to help the PM out by doling out largesse to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the hope of political returns. But put yourself in the shoes of Mulayam and Nitish Kumar. What earthly political returns can accrue by being seen to be associated with decisions that inflict short-term pain?

At the risk of crediting Pranab Babu will too much foresight, it is possible he knew the state of the wicket. Maybe the PM should tell his managers to temper expectations and on his part focus on baby steps to restore India’s confidence in India.

Sunday Pioneer, July 15, 2012 

Friday, July 6, 2012

PLOT OF A GROWTH STORY - Where Narendra Modi stands in relation to the Gujarat miracle

By Swapan Dasgupta

The mere mention of Narendra Modi evokes controversy. To his admirers, the Chief Minister of Gujarat is the type of no-nonsense leader India needs at this juncture. Decisive, single-mindedly purposeful, hugely popular in his state and with an uncontested reputation for honesty and personal integrity, he is seen as the leader who has steered Gujarat in the direction of efficient growth. To his detractors, Modi’s style of leadership is authoritarian, divisive and unsuited to a complex and diverse country such as India.

The debate over Modi and his style of leadership was hitherto centred on Gujarat. However, now that the Bharatiya Janata Party is very seriously considering projecting him as a possible prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 election, the battle over Modi’s credentials has acquired national importance.

To gain acceptance on the national stage as a serious claimant for the masnad of Delhi, Modi must first demonstrate his continuing hold over his home state. To that extent, the Assembly election in Gujarat scheduled for December this year has acquired a pan-Indian significance. If Modi prevails for the third consecutive occasion, it is more than likely that his burgeoning fan club will make it impossible for the BJP leadership to deny him the top slot in the hierarchy. A defeat, on the other hand, will reopen the leadership question in India’s premier opposition party.

In the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2002 and 2007, the opposition to Modi was focussed on two points: his handling of the 2002 riots and the so-called alienation of the powerful Patel community. Modi was able to brush away his opponents by invoking regional pride and, in 2007, pointing to his achievements in governance. For the forthcoming election, his opponents appear to have changed tack. Wiser with the knowledge that a Modi-centric campaign actually helped the incumbent, their approach is likely to be different.

Of course, the grievances of the Patel community are once again likely to feature thanks to the decision of the veteran Keshubhai Patel to forge a Third Front of sorts. However, the Congress seems to be gearing up for a very different sort of campaign: questioning Modi’s credentials as the new messiah of development.  

Judging by the intellectual test marketing of the new anti-Modi rhetoric, what is significant is that the old secular-communal issue and the riots of 2002 will not feature. There appears to be recognition in the state Congress that reopening the old wounds actually benefits Modi. Gujarat, it would seem, is anxious to forget the 2002 nightmare for two reasons: the lapse of a decade and a new prosperity that in turn has created an yearning for stability and good governance.

The assault on Modi is likely to be on two issues. First, it is being suggested that Gujarat, far from being the beacon of development in India, has actually under-performed on crucial fronts. The claim is that Modi’s reputation as a formidable administrator owes more to hype and slick public relations than to hard reality.

The second point of attack is more complex and aimed at reassuring voters that meaningful progress will continue in a post-Modi Gujarat. The development of Gujarat, it is being said, owes nothing to Modi: the Chief Minister has merely ridden piggyback on a pre-existing high growth rate which owes everything to location and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gujaratis. Modi or no Modi, it is being said, Gujarat would have developed anyway. As Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who regards Modi as an unacceptable feature of Indian politics, pointed out in a recent interview, there is no big deal in developing an already developed state.

The quantum of development in Gujarat can be measured by statistics. Using statistics culled from the Planning Commission, Bibek Debroy has shown that Gujarat’s average growth has risen since the 1990s but unevenly. The average growth was 6.1 per cent during the 7th Plan (1985-1990), 12.9 per cent during the 8th Plan (1992-1997), 2.8 per cent during the 9th Plan (1997 to 2002), 10.9 per cent during the 10th Plan (2002-2007) and an estimated 11.2 per cent during the 11th Plan (2007-2012).

What is more, the growth rate has been consistent across sectors, including in agriculture—India’s most problematic sector. Despite four years of drought, agriculture grew on an average by 10.7 per cent in the period 2001-02 to 2010-11. Most significant was the rise in cotton production from 16.8 lakh bales in 2001-02 to 104 lakh bales in 2010-2011. In the same period, industry also grew by 10.3 per cent and services by 10.9 per cent.  

Although jumping to instant political conclusions would be rash, statistical evidence would bear out the belief that sustained double-digit growth has coincided with Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister. Indeed, apart from Karnataka which equalled Gujarat’s 11.2 per cent growth during the 11th Plan, none of the big states of India has equalled Gujarat’s sustained growth over the past decade. Modi’s critics point out that Gujarat’s growth rate has been overtaken by Bihar (which began from a zero base), Delhi (which has a special status in Delhi) and Pondicherry. But that is like saying—as some politicians do—that India’s faltering six per cent growth is better than the United States’ projected two per cent growth.

The question therefore arises: is economic growth of the kind Gujarat has witnessed over the past decade completely unrelated to politics and governance, as Modi’s critics have maintained? If true, Modi, it would appear, has steered political economy in an entirely new direction by insulating economic activity from the dirty business of politics. Aspiring for this autonomy has long been the cherished dream of the Indian corporate sector. Are Modi’s critics crediting him for this unintended achievement?

That every state must act in tandem with the DNA of its people is a given feature of public life. In suggesting that it is not the job of the government to get too embroiled in business, Modi has been pursuing the goal of minimal but focussed governance. This corresponds well with the strong entrepreneurial instincts of Gujaratis, cutting across religions. The question, however, remains: is entrepreneurship alone a sufficient precondition of growth? Or, must the state act as the great facilitator of entrepreneurship for economic growth to go beyond individual success stories and touch the community?

In the past decade, Gujarat has focussed on the upgradation of infrastructure, particularly roads and ports. In addition, the Government has taken pro-active steps to attract enterprise aggressively by laying down attractive facilities and terms. This may explain why Tata Motors abandoned the troubled Singur in West Bengal and moved to Gujarat. And it was the Tata decision that had a multiplier effect and contributed to the creation of a new automobile manufacturing hub in Gujarat. Yet, none of this would have happened had the state not established a record of low corruption, quick decision-making and nurtured a civic culture that cherished entrepreneurship. True, Modi played to the pre-existing strengths of Gujarat. But had the Chief Minister been venal, unresponsive and mindlessly populist—as he so easily could have been—would India still be talking of the Gujarat miracle?

There are many in India who have genuine political objections to Modi. They believe, as Nitish Kumar does, that a future Prime Minister must be seen to be more compassionate and appreciative of the concerns of an India that can’t cope with a market economy. There are others who say that a Prime Minister must have a more consensual and collegiate approach. But these concerns have nothing to do with claims that Modi is a fake.

Telegraph, July 6, 2012 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Sonia weakens, but is PM stronger?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu is not your average technocratic hack whose political bias needs to be seriously discounted. Therefore, when he pronounced last Friday that India’s economic growth will be back on track by October, there was reason to feel hopeful. Unfortunately, thanks to the Government’s impressive record of bullish talk that is not complemented by realities on the ground—remember the talk of prices coming down within 100 days of UPA-II assuming power—Basu should not feel slighted if his optimism is not widely shared.

It is not that stakeholders are unreceptive to good news. It took the Finance Ministry, now under the direct charge of the Prime Minister, to promise a review of the more ridiculous facets of Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget for the Sensex to gain 439 points on a single day and for the Indian Rupee to appreciate in value. That it took so little effort to boost sentiment merely shows the extent to which the despondency over economic mismanagement was also accompanied by a feeling that many of the problems confronting India are self-inflicted. India is anxious for good news but the Government has given them so little to be cheerful about.

So deep is the dejection that the PMO’s tweet about the Government helping India to recover the “animal spirit” in the economy was accompanied by an innocent question: Is the mouse an animal?

It’s a question that will be uppermost in the minds of both Indians and all those with a stake in India. For too long, Manmohan Singh has given the impression that he has abdicated his larger responsibilities. He has watched passively as important Cabinet ministers took decisions and acted in a way that was inimical to the interests of the country. He probably knew that what they were doing was wrong and often unethical—the 2-G issue is a prime example. Yet, he did nothing to guide them into doing the right thing—thereby fostering the impression that he was too weak to intervene.

Are things different now that he is also wearing the hat of the Finance Minister? Is the troika of Manmohan-Montek Singh Ahluwalia-C.Rangarajan the equivalent of Douglas Jardine’s team that decimated an Australian side which included the legendary Don Bradman? With Bodyline bowling, Jardine displayed an “animal spirit” not hitherto associated with either the MCC or indeed cricket. Will Manmohan ruthlessly sweep away the bureaucratic inertia and the sanctions raj and make India an entrepreneur-friendly country? Will he complement the natural Indian desire to create wealth with purposeful governance?

The problem is that when the issue of ‘reforms’ is scrutinised for concrete details, last Friday’s stock market rally begins to look like a bout of irrational exuberance. There was a time when good politics and good economics meant government doing as little as possible and allowing market forces to do the needful. Unfortunately, that time is long gone.

The souring of the India story owes a great deal to malevolent governance. The fiscal deficit cannot be brought under control unless government expenditure keeps a healthy balance with revenues; the bottlenecks in production cannot be removed unless the government attends to the power deficit, speeds up work on the Mumbai-Delhi corridor, improves surface transport and improves the productivity of ports; and entrepreneurship cannot flower unless the number of official sanctions is sharply reduced, corruption is brought under control and environmental clearances stop being used as a political plaything.

There is, of course, another grave issue that the PM must address. For the past seven years, there has been a divergence of approach involving the political head of the government and the nominal head of the Cabinet. This has led to policy incoherence and drift. Sonia Gandhi wants to be India’s Lady Bountiful, doling out largesse to the poor and needy; Manmohan Singh wants to revive the “animal spirit” in the people. The two approaches just don’t converge—not even through the over-use of a meaningless phrase called ‘inclusive’ growth.

The issue that, therefore, has to be explored is simple: has the balance of power tilted abruptly against Sonia Gandhi after a series of embarrassments over the presidential election? Yes, there is no question that all the sophistry of Digvijay Singh hasn’t been able to dispel the belief that the Congress President is weaker than she was six months ago. More than being forced to select Pranab Babu over her preferred choice Hamid Ansari, it is the defeat in Uttar Pradesh and the decimation in Andhra Pradesh that have undermined the dynastic forces. Add to this the sorry spectacle of the heir apparent reduced to making sporadic appearances and performing item numbers that have no bearing on the main plot, and the demoralisation of the Congress will be apparent.

However, the weakening of Sonia hasn’t led to a corresponding enhancement of the PM’s political clout. That the PM still has to bank on Montek and Rangarajan to fulfil his economic agenda shows how clearly isolated he is in the political arena. Jairam Ramesh’s decision to both submit and publicise his job application as Finance Minister to 10 Janpath suggests that Manmohan’s continuation as Finance Minister is not a given. In any case, the PM will be loath to face up to insolent parliamentary interrogation in the Monsoon session.

To attend to India’s faltering economy, the country has to first address the political listlessness.

Sunday Pioneer, July 1, 2012
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