Friday, September 28, 2012

WHY REFORMS ARE BACK - A reforms agenda born of economic conviction has few takers

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a singularly purposeless battle being fought on television and the pages of the print media which can be given a simple title: ‘remember’. Remember what an approach paper of the erstwhile National Democratic Alliance said about foreign direct investment in retail in 2002? Remember the pronouncement of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vision Document on the same subject in 2004? Remember what the then Leader of Opposition Manmohan Singh wrote in a letter to a retail trade organisation in 2002? Remember what Arun Shourie said in Parliament around the same time and square it with what he is saying now? Remember the assurance given to Parliament earlier this year by the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee about ‘consultations’ preceding any move to permit foreign capital in retail trade? And so on.

Consistency being the virtue of little minds, the only discernible winners in the ‘Remember’ game happens to be Communists, Mamata Banerjee and functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who have kept away from electoral politics. Apart from them, almost every mainstream party, be it the Congress or the BJP, stands guilty of inconsistency or, as the Breaking News scroll on TV would have us believe, ‘doublespeak’.

‘There is no inconsistency’, those charged with the offence will doubtless argue, ‘there was a context to the earlier stand.’ That is stating the obvious. Every position and every political move always has a ‘context’. When the BJP cosied up to foreign direct investment during the NDA years they did so because they imagined the timing was right: India was on a high and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was dreaming of a sustained 10 per cent growth that would keep the alliance in power for the foreseeable future. When the Congress opposed the 2002 initiative, it did so because it believed it would expose the saffron party’s swadeshi pretensions and highlight its elitist orientation. Today, the Congress wants a rash of FDI initiatives because it seeks to reassure global investors that India hasn’t lost the plot. And the BJP is back to its swadeshi ways because it is convinced that ‘reforms’ are just a ploy to divert attention from the Congress’ record of corruption and fiscal mismanagement. Additionally, there is the BJP’s loyal base of small traders in the Hindi heartland to cater to.

There is one overriding message that flows from the transition from correctness to correctness: political parties (with some dishonourable exceptions) are not committed to non-negotiable economic philosophies. This by itself is not such a bad thing. India’s experiences with economic experiments based on ideologies that have ostensibly been adapted to Indian conditions have not been encouraging. The socialistic path, for example, had run out of steam by the late-1960s when India became a third-rate, shortage economy that lived a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence. Yet, the formal recognition that it was time to change course didn’t happen till 1991, although Rajiv Gandhi did make tentative moves in that direction.

Was September 2012 another 1991 moment, as the Prime Minister hinted in his bland address to the nation? The Confederation of Indian Industry and some other industry bodies seem to believe so, and they have extended enthusiastic support to the ‘reforms’ agenda. Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t so conclusive.

For a start, it is pertinent to ask why the UPA Government slept over much-needed reforms for a full eight years?  Mamnmohan Singh inherited an economy that was well poised to benefit from the business-friendly measures and the structural reforms, including fiscal consolidation, initiated by the Vajpayee Government. For nearly four years, the UPA-1 regime wallowed in the positive fallout of these steps. It shifted the Government’s priority from the creation of infrastructure to the creation of welfare net for the aam aadmi. The total quantum of subsidies, for example, rose from Rs 57,125 crore in 2006-07 to Rs 2,16,297 crore in 2011-12. The fiscal deficit rose from 3.3 per cent of GDP to 5.8 per cent in the same period. At the same time, the UPA halted and indeed reversed the NDA bid to roll back the frontiers of the state. Most important, the NDA Government’s attempt to facilitate entrepreneurship and make life easier for business was abandoned. The term ‘reforms’ disappeared from the official vocabulary and was replaced by a new word—‘entitlements’.

The shift in the strategic thrust of government was given a resounding thumbs-up by the electorate in 2009. A post-mortem of that election suggests that many of the UPA’s populist measures, notably the introduction of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the generous waiver of loans to farmers and the freeze on prices of petroleum products helped the Congress upstage a disoriented BJP which, in any case, had dialled a wrong number on the Indo-US nuclear accord.

The UPA’s re-election in 2009 also led to a strange consensus among the entire political class. While it was acknowledged that India had changed unrecognisably since the liberalisation process began in 1991, the political class arrived at the simultaneous conclusion that reforms and market-friendly policies don’t and can’t win elections. The lessons of the NDA’s failure to secure re-election in 2004 through its ‘India Shining’ theme were imbibed by all parties, as were the implications of the UPA’s victory in 2009 on a populist plank.

The BJP responded by shifting tack from aspirational politics to espousing ‘good governance’ which covered a multitude of approaches. These ranged from Narendra Modi’s relentless quest for higher growth through entrepreneurship and infrastructure-building to Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s perusal of efficient Keynesianism. An invitee to a recent conference of BJP chief ministers was struck by how difficult it was difficult to achieve a measure of consensus on national economic priorities.

On its part, the Congress which always carried the inheritance of an over-burdened state, thought of economic restructuring in two ways. First, it was justified as a measure of expediency to stave off a crisis. Alternatively, for the more cynical, a measure of extra space to the private sector was perceived in terms of cronyism. Just as the public sector had also served as a means of patronage and a nest egg for loyalists, the private sector and, indeed, foreign capital, began to be seen as a milch cow. The commodities boom and the sharp rise in the value of real estate fuelled these tendencies and turned growth into greed, as did the maze of clearances an entrepreneur had to negotiate.

Over the past two years, industry bodies, India-watchers overseas and the ratings agencies made ‘policy paralysis’ and the absence of reforms the focal point of their dissatisfaction with UPA-2. However, despite the prognosis of a crisis of monumental proportions, it is significant that ‘reforms’ had slipped away from the lexicon of the political class. Its abrupt reappearance a fortnight ago had as much to do with a fear of the fiscal deficit running riot, the rupee sliding further and corruption becoming a battering ram against the government. The Government needed a short-term agenda to talk up the market and pool resources to fund a Food Security Bill and a possible universal healthcare scheme in next year’s Budget. A reforms agenda born of economic conviction has few takers.

This, indeed, is the problem the UPA-2 has to confront. It needs to talk reforms to instil confidence among investors and the creamy layer of the middle classes. Yet, its understanding of politics indicates that only sops, hand-outs and populism are electorally viable. Unless the mind of India undergoes a miraculous transformation, Manmohan Singh has only the smallest window of opportunity before his reformism is subsumed by political common sense. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rousing a sleeping giant without moral authority

By Swapan Dasgupta

Reflecting on the spread of the British Empire to which he was passionately committed, Lord Curzon once remarked that “We have often blundered into many of our greatest triumphs.” Many Indians who cherish a vision of a vibrant India but were nevertheless disappointed by the prolonged drift in public policy could well be wishing that what Curzon held to be true for the Empire will also turn out to accurate for the Indian Republic.

Contemporary India has rarely conducted itself with a sense of mission. The economic deregulation initiated by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in 1991didn’t happen because the two were conviction politicians made by the same firm that created Lee Kwan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. India turned its back on an inefficient socialistic path at gunpoint. Likewise, the second wave of liberalisation was prompted by the NDA Government’s desire to offset the possible adverse consequences of the sanctions imposed on India by the West after the nuclear tests of 1998.

If Prime Minister Singh was indeed the great reformer he is portrayed to be, he would have unleashed India’s “animal instincts” immediately after his May 2009 victory when he had little to fear but fear itself. Instead, he waited till GDP growth had fallen below 6 per cent, the rupee was fragile, inflation soaring, the fiscal deficit out of control, politics vitiated by corruption scandals and business confidence at an all-time low. What would have been bold initiatives in 2009, grudgingly digested by a dispirited opposition and accepted by a people anxious for more of the good times, has become a last-ditch, cynical gamble three years later.

The public discourse in India cherishes boldness and decisiveness. To the extent that the Government has been propelled into a burst of activity, there is critical appreciation of the fact that there is more to the Prime Minister than the ridicule that was heaped on him for the past year. Industry bodies have rallied enthusiastically to his support, stock market speculators have given their thumbs-up, the editorial classes are awe struck and even a demoralised Congress appear to have convinced itself that it is better to have fought and lost than not to have fought at all. On the face of it, a sleeping and indolent giant appears to have been aroused.

However, as the old colonials used to remark, for everything that is true of India the opposite is also true. For the past 20 years, market economics has become the new consensus. With the exception of dinosaurs in West Bengal and Kerala and ideologues who nurture a visceral hatred of what they call ‘neo-liberal’ economics, mainstream India is committed to the idea of reform. However, like vocational education which is always good for the neighbour’s child, reform is also expected to be detached and morally uplifting at the same time. In the 1990s, reforms implied dismantling controls and opening up large chunks of a fortified economy to the private sector and global forces. This liberation from Nehruvian dogma unleashed entrepreneurship and put an end to the shortage economy. Some people got very rich but a larger number of Indians moved into the middle class and ceased to be impoverished. It was win-win situation.

Today, the situation is different. The Government is asking people to lower expectations, make sacrifices, to reconcile themselves to the erosion of subsidies and to tighten their belts—all for a larger cause. Unfortunately, for the past few years this larger cause has become both hideous and blurred. After repeated scandals, some involving unimaginable sums, the earlier mood of expectancy has turned to cynicism and disgust. The Government stands discredited; the political class is equated with venality and brazenness; and India Inc. is increasingly being seen as the nesting ground of cronyism and dodgy practices. Almost all the institutions associated with public policy have become objects of disrepute.

In an India overwhelmed by disgust and despondency, the Government’s plea for a sense of national purpose may well end up being viewed as a cruel joke. It has become necessary to refurbish the moral authority of the economic order first. Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of economists.

Sunday Times of India, September 23, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Burden of Survival

By Swapan Dasgupta

Posterity tends to be excessively harsh on losers. In the coming months, after the present political storm has either subsided or transformed itself into a fierce cyclone, the Congress will no doubt reflect on the course of events that led to Mamata Banerjee withdrawing her Trinamool Congress (TMC) from the UPA-2. Will the Chief Minister of West Bengal continue to be described as a maverick, unsuitable for the serious business of running the Government of India? Alternatively, will she be regarded as a canny politician who, despite her mercurial ways, had her finger firmly on the pulse of the popular mood?

Amid the clutter of the hour-by-hour developments in a Delhi that is salivating over the excitement provided by politics, it is difficult to predict the judgment of history. However, certain things are clear.

First, Mamata’s withdrawal from the UPA-2 last Tuesday after a three hour-long meeting with her senior colleagues in Kolkata was not an impulsive decision. For the past six months or so, the whisper from knowledgeable political circles in Kolkata strongly suggested that Mamata was convinced that the UPA-2 had run out of steam and that the Congress was heading for a massive election defeat in the general election, regardless of its timing. For Mamata, good politics dictated that she detach herself from the burden of the Centre’s rising anti-incumbency and move to grab both the regional party space and the terrain the Left threatened to occupy.

It wasn’t merely the opprobrium attached to being part of a regime that was burdened by both economic mismanagement and corruption that moved Mamata. What may have clinched her final decision was the unease in the state’s large Muslim population over the belief that the Congress Government in Assam shared the blame for the attacks on Muslim ‘immigrants’ in Kokrajhar.

The extent to which the events in Assam and coloured reports of an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar have contributed to Muslim anger all over India has been insufficiently noticed. It is still too early to be sure what political form these stirrings will take but Mamata has moved with great speed to ensure that the Muslim sullenness against the Congress does not rub off on her. By using both a regional and populist plank to justify her revolt against the Congress, she may have ensured that the 27 per cent minority votebank remains attached to her, but without any corresponding risk of playing the “Muslim card’ overtly. Observers of Bihar politics may find strong traces of Mamata’s approach in some of the recent moves of Nitish Kumar.

Many commentators mistook the 60 hours gap between the announcement of her withdrawal and the formal resignation of her ministers at the Centre as evidence that she was amenable to some last minute persuasion. The symbolic significance of using the day of Friday prayers to mark her go-it-alone strategy was not adequately understood.

Secondly, unlike the Left which chose the ideological issue of anti-Americanism to walk out of the UPA-1 arrangement in 2008, Mamata was careful to choreograph her grandstanding around livelihood issues. This has put the Congress in a serious quandary. Regardless of how much the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, the court economists and Corporate India see the fuel and cooking gas price hikes and the qualified opening up of the retail sector to foreign players as indicative of a fierce desire to usher a new wave of reforms, the political class isn’t convinced that market economics is electorally saleable. A section of the Congress may have taken heart that at least Coalgate has been relegated to the inside pages, but this is a small consolation prize. At the end of the day, the party knows that there are ominous implications behind the grand show of political unity for the largely successful Bharat Bandh.

In 2004, a copywriter in an advertising agency borrowed the term ‘aam aadmi’ for the political use of the Congress. It worked, beyond the party’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, in the business of selling reforms which involve pain, austerity and dislocation, it is the ‘aam aadmi’ slogan that has become a millstone round the neck of the ruling party. It is now being unceasingly taunted by what was once its most effective brand positioning exercise.

Finally, even if Mamata’s exit fails to dislodge a minority government from power, the TMC has more or less ensured that Manmohan Singh and P.Chidambaram will no longer be able to muster the political strength to push through another wave of reforms. Those who enthusiastically cheered the diesel and cooking price hikes as being bold steps in the daunting battle against a soaring fiscal deficit and a possible ratings downgrade by international agencies, may find that the big bang has culminated in the equally big whimper.

The full-page advertisements issued by the beleaguered Ashok Gehlot Government of Rajasthan promising generous state subsidies to mitigate the hardship caused by reforms tells the story of growing panic. The Congress can’t disown its own Prime Minister and Finance Minister but it can’t embrace their reformist zeal either. Therefore, since the political costs of the ‘reforms’ became apparent, the Congress endeavour has been to shift the burden of subsidies from the Centre to the states.

By the time the survival game gets over for the Congress, the R-word may be sharing a berth with the FDI retail proposal in the political deep freeze.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, September 21, 2012 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

TWO FACES OF CHANGE - The Congress’s decline means new positions on the other side

By Swapan Dasgupta

The paralysis of governance that began in August 2010 with the scandals associated with the organisation of the Commonwealth Games has lasted for over two years and is showing absolutely no sign of easing. On the contrary, with all the economic indices showing southward inclines, a crisis that was hitherto confined to the ruling United Progressive Alliance has spread to other sectors of national life resulting in national despondency and cynicism. The much-trumpeted ‘India story’ that aroused enormous expectations throughout the world appears to have run out of steam, if not derailed.

In parliamentary democracies, the time-tested method of breaking a big political deadlock is through a fresh election. Ironically, returning to the people in the next months for a fresh mandate does not appear to be on the agenda of either the Government or the Opposition. With successive opinion polls suggesting that a snap election will produce a horribly fractured Lok Sabha, the consensus in the Indian Establishment is that it is preferable to persist with a Prime Minister who appears to have de-facto abdicated until May 2014. The intervening 16 months, it is being hoped, will result in greater clarity over the shape of the alternative.

Of course, these calculations are premised on the fragile belief that the brinkmanship that is certain to be a recurring feature of day-to-day politics does not lead to unintended consequences. The Government, it is understood, is on shaky ground and could find itself deprived of its majority abruptly.

In times like this when an incumbent regime is waiting passively for the guillotine to fall, the temptation among stake-holders is to put their weight behind an alternative. After the election of 2009 it was widely believed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term would be followed by a smooth transition of power to Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, the efforts of the Congress in the period immediately following the 2009 general election was to regain its hold in the Hindi heartland and reduce the party’s future dependence on coalition partners. However, this attempt to restore Congress dominance at an all-India level has faltered horribly and Rahul has compounded the problem by being perceived to be lacking in application and seriousness.

A similar situation had confronted India in 1996. At that time, Atal Behari Vajpayee was the beneficiary of a quiet process of realignment during the two choppy years of the United Front Government led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. A BJP which was regarded as a pariah in 1992 at the time of the Ayodhya demolition, and failed to secure any worthwhile support in 1996 (during Vajpayee’s 13-day Government), was suddenly blessed with a multitude of regional party support in 1998.

There is a feeling in some circles that the coming months could witness a growing momentum in favour of Narendra Modi. Since 2009, Modi has emerged as the favourite son of BJP-inclined voters. In terms of popularity, he has eclipsed all other BJP notables. Opinion polls suggest that the Gujarat Chief Minister has broadened his appeal considerably to embrace a vast section of urban India, the middle classes and the youth. Today, Modi’s appeal is far wider than the support for the BJP, a development that both excites the rank and file of his party and leaves a section of its leadership deeply worried.

Whether or not Modi becomes the face of the anti-Congress mobilisation for the next general election will, of course, depend substantially on how he performs in the Gujarat Assembly polls scheduled for later this year. If he wins conclusively, it is going to be virtually impossible for Modi-sceptics in the BJP to resist the groundswell from below.

It is interesting to note that those outside the BJP who are inimical to Modi being projected as a prime ministerial candidate believe that his rise is unstoppable. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has issued enough public warnings to the effect that he will not remain in the National Democratic Alliance in the event of the BJP endorsing Modi. At the same time, Nitish seems to simultaneously believe that the BJP leadership will not be able to stop Modi’s rise to the top. As such, he has already begun preparations for life outside the NDA.

The simplistic view is that Nitish is too committed to ‘secular’ politics to even contemplate cohabitation with a Modi-led BJP. No doubt, Nitish has compulsions similar to Mamata Banerjee. In both West Bengal and Bihar, Muslims account for more than a quarter of the electorate, and there is a political price to be paid by parties who are seen to be supportive of Modi.

For Nitish, however, there is an added dimension to his anti-Modi politics. The Janata Dal (United) in Bihar appears to have concluded that a go-it-alone strategy in today’s environment would witness interesting shifts. It is likely that the BJP will wean away the bulk of the upper castes and a smattering of backward castes from the main regional party. However, this would be more than compensated by a general collapse of the votes which earlier went to Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. Nitish, in short, expects to recreate the social alliance that kept Lalu in power for 15 years.

An interesting facet of the calculations that are driving Nitish Kumar is the belief that by the time of the next general election, the Congress will be too discredited and demoralised to put up a worthwhile fight anywhere in India. The Bihar Chief Minister believes that the real challenger will be a Modi-led BJP. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Modi’s presence will galvanise the BJP throughout the Hindi heartland, not least in Uttar Pradesh.

Confronting Modi on the issue of ‘secularism’ alliance is not something that appeals to his political opponents. This is because the Gujarat leader is certain to make ‘development’ his one and only plank and allow identity politics to play a subliminal role. Instead, what could happen is a Nitish-led initiative to forge an alliance of ‘backward’ states, particularly in eastern India. Together, such a bloc has the ability to win nearly 75 seats in the next election.

In the next few months, Nitish is planning a series of programmes centred on the demand for greater accommodation by the Centre to backward states. Whereas, Modi has been proclaiming the virtues of the ‘Gujarat model’ based on creating an environment for entrepreneurship to flower, Nitish will be highlighting the need for regional equity complemented by good governance.

At one level, these competing visions may suggest an India-Bharat tussle involving the role of the state in the development process. One will highlight the state as a supporting plank for a rule-based, transparent market economy. The other will revive the call for a redistributive Centre to facilitate lowering of regional disparities.

However, there is a point at which both the Gujarat and Bihar experiences converge: the question of federalism. From different positions, both Modi and Nitish are asking for a fundamental review of Centre-state relations and the role of the Planning Commission in the country’s economic life. Whereas Modi would want the statutory, non-discretionary transfers to the states by the Finance Commission to become larger, Nitish would insist on a larger equalisation principle to confront backwardness. And both would be united on two points. First, that the planning process devolve to the states; and, second, that the size and scope of the Central Government be reduced.

As the Congress decline gets more pronounced, there are positioning games on the other side that warrant greater attention. 

China and India: Same to same?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Indian media, quite regrettably, doesn’t devote any time to China. Fortunately, the Western media is obsessed by it. And, in the past few days, impish Americans and European reporters are having quite a bit of fun—at China’s expense.

The amusement has been occasioned by the mysterious disappearance of Vice President Xi Jinping from the public stage. Xi, to the untutored, is not just any Vice President. In a few weeks he is scheduled to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the President of the People’s Republic.

Predictably, the web space—the only place where the irreverent can hope to smuggle in their subversive thoughts—has been buzzing with rumours suggesting, among other things, that he has been assassinated, that he is seriously ill with back troubles and that he has been abducted from a moving train. The official information-disseminators have put on their best inscrutable faces and have stonewalled. But that didn’t stop the Wall Street Journal from comparing Xi’s non-availability to Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary The Lady Vanishes. After suggesting that there could be a perfectly innocent explanation for Xi’s prolonged disappearance, the Financial Times observed, with just a hint of condescension, that “so opaque and anachronistic is the political system that people have nothing to fall back on but speculation. China’s leaders sometimes behave more like the imperial courts of old than guardians of a modern state.”

We in India, as we are so self-righteously inform every foreigner who complains about tardy decision-making and rampant inefficiency, are not China. We are, presumably, better. Our growth rate may no longer be anything to write home about. But as Amartya Sen has so often reminded us, we are a proud democracy, albeit an argumentative one. We have a free press that prevents cartoonists from being thrown into jail on charges of sedition; we have an activist press that hounds every minister who slyly conferred a coal block on a relative; and we also have a responsible media that doesn’t print tasteless photographs of a Prince Harry frolicking in the pink. Yes, we are superior—far superior than the self-righteous West and the over-regulated Chinese.

Or are we?

For the past week, the most important politician of the ruling coalition, the one who wields power without responsibility, has left the country on a health check-up. From all accounts, this is the fourth occasion in the past two years the supreme leader has left India for medical attention. In most democracies, such an occurrence would not have gone either unnoticed or unexplored. However, in a country where the notion of privacy just doesn’t exist, this absence is brushed away as a ‘private matter’, presumably as ‘private’ as Xi’s absence from the grand banquets in Beijing.

Maybe in matters concerning the health of an individual politician, squeamishness is in order—although this didn’t stop the Delhi Establishment from its bouts of endless (and quite non-informed) speculation. But what about the unofficially-designated heir apparent, the boy who was born to rule?

The Coalgate controversy has been raging for nearly three weeks. It has shaken the self-confidence of the Prime Minister and called into question the integrity quotient of ministers and politicians. Surely the event called for an intervention by the princeling who is expected to lead the ruling coalition into the next election. But where was the ‘youth icon’? Until he stepped into an IAF aircraft that took him to Kokrajhar—our armed forces have been reduced to the status of transport facilitators for the first family—there was little to differentiate our crown prince from China’s crown prince. Both were AWOL.

Yet, there was one crucial difference: in China, they asked “Where is Xi?” but in India leadership in purdah has become the new normal.

Last week, a book written by a young journalist trying to ‘decode’ the elusive icon was released. From all accounts she never got to speaking distance of the subject of her research. The farce inspired a venerable London-based weekly to attempt to decipher the man who doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t interact with the political class, who talks through his polished and polite minders and who is occasionally seen but rarely heard on matters consequential. The result was predictable: we know nothing about the man who may be king. Not even the number of days he stays in India.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, a large number of people built their reputations on the strength of being Kremlin-watchers. The order of precedence on the podium at the annual rally to commemorate the revolution, a cryptic reference in Pravda and even the music played on the radio provided the only clues to deciphering the workings of an opaque system.

It was the same in China. When Mao Zedong quite inexplicably smiled at the Indian Ambassador at some official function, it was taken as a powerful sign that Beijing wanted a thaw in bilateral relations. When the Great Helmsman suddenly launched into a bizarre attack on Beethoven, it was taken as a sign that Lin Biao was in disfavour.

What then are we to do in India to understand the minds of those who rule us from behind the shadows? Must we be reduced to finding out what they ordered for dinner at Wasabi? If it is Wagyu, it must mean …

Sunday Pioneer, September 16, 2012 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What a fall my countrymen!

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Moghul emperors, like many of the crowned heads of the late-medieval world, loved grand titles. It was customary for a Jehangir or a Shah Jehan to be ushered into court with a flunkey announcing the arrival of the “King of Kings”, “Light of the universe”, etc.

At the height of Moghul grandeur, when the House of Timur was truly a great player on the global stage, these pompous assertions carried credibility. What was incongruous, indeed laughable, was the persistence of these grandiose delusions during the reigns of, say, Shah Alam and Bahadur Shah Zafar. But persist they did, right till the last day in 1857.

It is remarkable how these ridiculous facets of ‘ornamentalism” has withstood the transition from Empire to Republic. In the 1970s and 1980s, no reference to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was thought to be adequately respectful unless it was preceded by the term ‘dynamic’. During the Emergency, D.K, Barooah equated Indira with India, and Kalpnath Rai, another Falstaffian Congress leader, equated Rajiv to a diamond.

For the past eight years, ever since Manmohan Singh was appointed Prime Minister by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, it has become mandatory for everyone, not least the media, to preface any assessment of the man with references to his learning, erudition and impeccable integrity. Not that these lofty testimonials were always contrived flattery. It would be fair to say that most Indians, particularly middle class Indians, held the Prime Minister in both awe and respect. In 2009, the BJP misread the public mood horribly and launched a strong attack on the ‘weak’ leadership provided by Singh. The electorate rejected the accusation resoundingly and re-elected the UPA.

The past three years has seen a significant shift in the public mood. The early Moghul rulers, from Akbar to Aurangzeb, cannot be equated with the later Moghuls who were either hostage to marauding chieftains or pensioners of the East India Company. Likewise, popular perception has come to distinguish between the architect of liberalisation who rose to be Prime Minister and the tragic figure who presided over the transformation of India from being the great hope to becoming the greatest disappointment.

We can still preface every reference to the beleaguered PM with allusions to his learning, erudition and integrity. But these terms of endearment carry about as much conviction as heralding the state entry of Bahadur Shah Zafar with cries of him being the “Light of the Universe”. This being a more democratic age, the allusions to the PM’s greatness is likely to be reviled and, worse, mocked. The contentious Washington Post report was actually being generous and respectful: Manmohan Singh is on the cusp of being laughed into the pages of history.

Just examine the Prime Minister’s sagging reputation since August 2010, the month that saw the Commonwealth Games controversy erupt. At that time the PM was merely singed and all the opprobrium was heaped on a professional politician who had made the Indian Olympic Committee his fiefdom. The charge against the PM was that he had failed to appoint an effective Sports Minister who would be able to keep Suresh Kalmadi in check.

After the furore over the CWG came the huge 2-G explosion. In this blast, the PM suffered second degree burns. The belief that the rigged first-come-first-served was essentially a DMK scam was widespread, although the likes of Kapil Sibal ensured that the Congress was not insulated from the ignominy. However, it was also clear that the PM was kept in the loop by A.Raja and that he chose to look the other way because of “coalition compulsions”. In short, it was established that the PM was not averse to letting expediency get the better of his otherwise fierce sense of right and wrong.

The 2-G scandal has been followed by ‘Coalgate’, involving a ministry where the PM was the minister in charge. The Government may have scored a few goals against the BJP by highlighting its disruption of Parliament. But these have been offset by the growing evidence that the Prime Minister’s Office cannot be detached from the calculated prevarication over shifting from discretionary allotments to auction-based lease of coal blocks. The most recent disclosures even suggest that the willingness of the Coal Ministry to shift to auctions was stymied by the PMO’s insistence on discretionary allotments to well-connected individuals. In other words, the charge of crony capitalism hitherto levelled against venal ministers who have had to resign and face imprisonment, has been laid at the doorstep of the PM.

In the case of Coalgate, the PM has suffered third-degree burns. Now, with the accused falling back on his right to silence, hHis reputation has been seriously disfigured, He is now on a political life support system.

The defenders of the PM can still try and make the case that it was a Chandigarh syndicate that pulled the wool over the eyes of a trusting leader. It may even be argued that the poor PM, an innocent when it comes to the murky world of politics, was merely ‘following orders’ from some mysterious higher authority. Unfortunately, such pleas are certain to prompt further questions whose answers could show the PM in a very unflattering light.

The curtain is coming down on the political career of the PM. The final act may well drag on interminably, but the audience now knows how the story will end.

Sunday Pioneer, September 9, 2012 

The India of today: Griping tiger, brazen swagger

By Swapan Dasgupta

To be a successful politician in India, an individual must be blessed with three attributes: the art of listening patiently, the ability to tolerate fools and the skin of a rhinoceros. Most of the successful practitioners of what has come to be a disreputable profession in India normally manage the first two—witness the career graph of Manmohan Singh. However, when it comes to the third, there are too many that falter.

Last month, Mamata Banerjee became a target of derision because she couldn’t countenance the insolence of a farmer who heckled her at a public meeting. He was dubbed a Maoist and spent a week or so cooling his heels in prison.

The man was lucky. On the evening of November 1, 1975, the Government of the day had organised a reception for delegates to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Delhi’s Red Fort. This being at the height of the Emergency, a group of young men suddenly got up from their seats, shouted a few slogans against the murder of democracy and threw leaflets in the air. The police and some Congress activists rushed in and began rounding up the demonstrators.

According to the Interim Report of the Shah Commission of Inquiry into the Emergency’s excesses, a reporter “saw that one of the demonstrators was caught by the wrist by a lady, who—he later came to know—was Mrs Ambika Soni.” The journalist, in a fit of misplaced meddlesomeness, is said to have told the all-powerful right hand woman of Sanjay Gandhi, “to leave the job of arresting the demonstrators to the police”. Upon seeing this exchange with Soni, “the then SP (CID) came running to the spot and after speaking to Mrs Soni briefly ordered the policemen to arrest” the journalist who was then led away to a police van.

It is said that Soni, on learning that the difficult individual was from the media, asked him: “Don’t you think it was your duty to help me arrest the boy instead of preventing me?” Pat came the reply: “…it was none of your business when the police are there in large numbers.”

This was no way to talk to the head of the Youth Congress. Soni’s reply was terse and to the point: “OK then you go in.” And in he indeed went, detained under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) for nearly nine months.

It is unlikely that the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Manmohan Singh’s Government would want to be reminded of this incident today. Much has happened in India in the intervening 37 years for anyone to seriously believe that the whimsical highhandedness of the Emergency can ever be repeated. Media insolence has become a feature of contemporary life, despite the consternation of the Establishment. Yet, at odd times the ingrained imperiousness that comes with a hierarchical society resurfaces.

Last week, incensed by a report in Washington Post detailing the falling stock of the Prime Minister,  Soni flew off the handle again. She called the report—which merely replicates what is being said in the domestic media on a daily basis—“yellow journalism” , demanded an abject apology and, failing that, a formal complaint to the US Government. The Prime Minister’s media minders also plugged into the outrage and, given the outburst of ugliness, there could even be a threat to cancel the reporter’s visa.  

There are two issues involved. First, there is an astonishing show of prickliness over anything critical that appears overseas. This suggests a deeply ingrained inferiority complex that most foreigners find deeply amusing. Whereas Chinese xenophobia stems from the country’s upward climb, India’s gripes are centred on either frustration or plain pig-headedness. Somehow we seem to believe that the rest of the world lives to undermine India, its beloved leaders and subvert our pre-destined journey to greatness.

Secondly, despite all claims of treasuring democracy and pluralism, the culture of public discourse remains grounded in assertions, conspiracy theories and sloganeering. The phrase “argumentative Indian” doesn’t imply Indians appreciate arguments. It merely suggests that the country is dotted with rival, unflinching beliefs. Democracy implies irreverence but India dotes on deference. Our politicians mirror society.

Sunday Times of India, September 9, 2012

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Media and the message

By Swapan Dasgupta

I was a student and not living in India during the horrible days of the Emergency. As such, I can’t speak with any measure of authority of the experiences of the experiences of those brave souls who had to encounter the red pen of pig-headed censors. However, the 17 months of press censorship between 1975 and 1977 did have a salutary effect on the Indian media: it made the Fourth Estate fiercely possessive about their democratic rights, enshrined in the Constitution. The attempt by the Rajiv Gandhi Government to enact an insidious law on defamation, for example, was spiritedly opposed by nearly everyone in the media.   

Maybe I am exaggerating in suggesting that everyone in the media opposed every attempt by the Government to impose restrictions on the media. During the Emergency, some powerful media owners went out of their way to oblige the authoritarian regime. They were backed by journalists who saw intrusive official control as a career opportunity. In his recently-published autobiography Beyond the Lines, Kuldip Nayar has supplied sketchy details of the back-stabbing that marked journalistic life in those troubled years. A no-holds-barred account of the media during the Emergency could destroy the reputations of many we have come to view as stalwarts.

Not that it always took an Emergency to put in place an informal but equally insidious system of controls. In the final year of Rajiv Gandhi, the Government tried its utmost to lean heavily on newspapers and journalists who were critical of the regime and who tried to chase up the Bofors story doggedly. Again, during the years of the Ayodhya agitation, a draconian Left-liberal intellectual establishment threw its weight behind a campaign to ensure that the leading newspapers displayed a ‘secular’ bias. I recall a letter to the editor of Times of India signed by a clutch of prominent academics of Delhi suggesting that my articles had no place in the newspaper. In a similar vein, another editor known for his pronounced Left leanings wrote that the writings of Girilal Jain (a former editor of Times of India) should not be published. The main reason why these outrageous demands were disregarded was not that the editorial classes were committed to pluralism—a small handful were—but because the so-called contrarian views were also echoed in the middle classes.

It is also fair to point out that the publications in the Indian languages didn’t always share the political preferences of their English-language counterparts. The vernacular media invariably had their ears closer to the ground.

In the days when the free media meant free press—TV was then a Doordarshan monopoly and internet hadn’t been invented—it was relatively easy for a nervous Government to get its way, even without imposing censorship. Today, the media has grown exponentially and the electronic media has overtaken the print media in many markets. Regulation, under the circumstances, has become more problematic, although the Government’s attempts to exercise control have been unrelenting. Rather than confront the issue with a sledge hammer, intelligent politicians have tried to tame the media with a carrot and stick approach. Obliging media is often preferred with generous government and public sector advertisements; and public sector banks have been known to shower the friendly media with special accommodation, especially in times of economic downturn.

In recent months, the Government has turned its focus on a troublesome social media. Following Anna Hazare’s successful mobilisation in Delhi last year and the exodus of North-eastern people from Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad last month, a section of the political class and officialdom has veered to the view that the destabilising potential of the social media is enormous. Alarmed by reports of the social media’s role in the Tahrir Square mobilisation in Egypt and the London riots of 2010, a shaky political establishment now sees danger in the free flow of information and views on Twitter and Facebook.

The Government’s wariness of anything they can’t comprehend or control is understandable. Less wholesome is the endorsement of regulation and control by a section of the established media.

To the extent that irreverent individuals are inclined to shower TV anchors and award-winning editors with mockery and disrespect and question their biases and motives, it is possible to understand the anger of a media that believes it has a monopoly over correctness. That some of the irreverence is raw, unstructured and built on dubious foundations is also true. But just as bazar talk cannot be regulated or sanitised, it is difficult to sanitise the raw emotions of those on Twitter and Facebook. However, just as they are not accountable to anyone, their rantings are inconsequential until they hit the right nerve.

What the state fears is that unfiltered news may percolate outwards and influence wider judgments. What the established media is afraid of is that their spin of events is too readily being called into question, and in real time. As the Indian media has grown, it has also become less professional and vain. It is this arrogance of believing that it has the monopoly of the public discourse that is propelling many notables into emulating China and endorsing curbs over the free spirit. What they seem to be forgetting that angry messages of anonymous Indians are having an impact because they seem more authentic than the sophistry of the compromised. Democratic rights, after all, can’t be selectively applied.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, September 7, 2012
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