Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Modi fuels this bizarre convergence

The excuses the Congress and the BJP are making for the business dealings of Robert Vadra and Nitin Gadkari seem driven by a shared fear of Narendra Modi
Even before the brutal nature of the Stalinist regime was formally admitted by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, many well-meaning socialists throughout the world were aware that what existed in the Soviet Union was a travesty. Yet, a great many of these idealists chose to look the other way in the belief that criticism would weaken the socialist state, encourage “counter-revolutionaries” and weaken the bigger fight against fascism and imperialism.
Having to choose between upholding what the British philosopher Roger Scruton termed “common decencies” and endorsing the lesser evil has confronted political activists for long. In the past year, this hoary debate has surfaced in India following a spate of corruption scandals that have seriously undermined the credibility of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-2 government. Far from being celebrated as a mildly progressive dispensation concerned with nurturing socio-economic entitlements for the poor and the marginalised, the magnitude of corruption has created a widespread impression that the apparent concern for the aam aadmi is a cover for riotous crony capitalism.


Matters have come to a head following the flood of disclosures of the dodgy business practices of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Media reports indicate that Vadra leveraged his privileged relationship with the Gandhi family to circumvent rules and procedures and make a fast buck for both himself and DLF, one of India’s largest listed real estate companies. It is also alleged that Vadra cleverly anticipated crucial decisions by Congress-controlled governments in Haryana and Rajasthan to make windfall profits — what in common parlance is called insider trading.
The details of Vadra’s entrepreneurship are revealing for what they tell us about the realty business in India’s boom towns. Politically, however, the issue is far more consequential. For the first time since 1974 when the CPI(M) MP Jyotirmoy Basu infuriated Indira Gandhi by raising awkward questions about Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti project in Haryana, the Gandhi family has been directly hit by a money scandal. Sonia Gandhi may have reportedly brushed away the allegations by asserting that Vadra is a “businessman” but that hasn’t insulated her from the charge that she did nothing to prevent her exalted family name to be used for disreputable advantage. Since the tone of a government is set by its leadership, the first family of the Congress may well be accused of embellishing the architecture of India’s all-pervasive crony capitalism.
Without doubt, the business ethics of Vadra, not to mention his sneering sense of entitlement, has created a large hole in the moral edifice of the Congress. This, in turn, is certain to shape popular perceptions in the run-up to the general election unless, of course, the UPA is spectacularly successful in shifting the attention of voters away from sleaze.
For the Congress, unflinching loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family is an article of faith and, as such, it occasions little surprise that party leaders have fiercely protested Vadra’s innocence. For opinion-makers who are loosely supportive of Nehruvian values, the kerfuffle over corruption has raised awkward questions. While they are not inclined towards encouraging venality in public life, there is concern that the erosion of the Congress’ credibility will benefit the principal Opposition party. In particular they are petrified that the disgust over economic mismanagement and cronyism will trigger a fascination for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a leader who, at least BJP supporters believe, combines decisiveness with fierce personal integrity. Since, in liberal eyes, Modi personifies an “authoritarian” mindset, if not outright fascism, prudent politics demands that the fight against corruption — the proverbial lesser evil — be shelved till another day.


Paradoxically, this is a position that has cast a shadow over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which, as the principal parliamentary Opposition, stands to gain most from the erosion in the Congress’ support. The plethora of questions over the seed capital of BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s business empire, and the lack of credible answers to these, have both embarrassed and outraged his party. Since the BJP doesn’t have dynastic pretensions and still sees itself as favouring “value-based politics,” there has been less inclination to rush to Gadkari’s defence with the same passion that the Congress demonstrated in the case of Vadra. Even those who have proffered the template defence of Gadkari having offered himself to an impartial inquiry can scarcely conceal their disquiet over the “immoral” equivalence being drawn between the BJP and the Congress. It is significant that apart from L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj, few of the BJP’s front-ranking leaders and no chief minister have spoken up for Gadkari.
Yet, the scepticism in the ranks over showcasing damaged goods hasn’t succeeded (so far) in removing Gadkari. On the contrary, emboldened by the bewildered ambivalence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Advani’s mystifying distinction between business practices and public life, and Swaraj’s unequivocal support, Gadkari has taken recourse to brazenness — as was evident in his show of strength in Nagpur last Monday. To the outside world, Gadkari has successfully managed to convey the impression that, never mind the accompanying ridicule and potential loss of a political plank, the “parivar” and party are behind him. The BJP president has wilfully overstated the quantum of backing for himself. But he has been able to get away with this hype by craftily exploiting the prevailing uncertainty over what follows a possible resignation. Actually, it is more than uncertainty. There is considerable fear in a small but powerful section of the BJP that the failure of the Gadkari experiment will facilitate a hegemonic role for Modi — assuming he wins the Gujarat Assembly election conclusively. The Gujarat leader is unquestionably the man most BJP activists and BJP-inclined voters believe is best suited to both taking on the Congress and stealing the thunder of the anti-corruption crusaders. Whether unattached voters who are disgusted by the moral decline of the country also agree with this faith in his leadership is still untested. But what isn’t in any doubt is that Modi threatens the cosy somnolence of bipartisan deal-making involving the main political parties. For many in the BJP, Modi isn’t merely a challenge; he constitutes a threat.
There is an unholy convergence of interests between a Congress determined to put a lid on the corruption issue by simultaneously creating a hype over economic reforms and establishing moral equivalence between Vadra and Gadkari, and that section of the BJP which wants to deny Modi a national role. As of now, the battle lines are confined to the opinion-forming industry in which the intelligentsia and the middle classes play a disproportionate role. In the coming months, as the general election approaches, the issues are going to percolate the social ladder. Will the aam aadmi also choose to overlook corruption as something inherent in the Indian way? Alternatively, will there be an angry vote, perhaps even for a different way of doing politics? In that case, which is the lesser evil?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bharatiya Janata Purti?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Just as cinema viewers (or least they did so in the old days) clap and cheer the hero as he delivers devastating blows to the villain and his flunkeys, today’s TV audiences really get turned on at the sight of political leaders and their spokespersons squirming as they try and field embarrassing questions.

The past month has been great for TV anchors. They have competed with each other in hurling sharp questions at politicians and then smirking in triumph. The audiences have delighted at the spectacle of silver-tongued netas tie themselves up in knots trying to defend the indefensible and getting needlessly aggressive as credible logic evades them.

By and large it has been the Congress which has at the receiving end of the media’s politician baiting. But last week was open season on the BJP thanks to the innovative business practices of its President Nitin Gadkari. As someone who isn’t inimical to the BJP, it was painful to watch its representatives who, only the other day were thundering against the slippery practices of a Robert Vadra and Virbhadra Singh all flustered over seemingly incontrovertible evidence of dodgy practices of Gadkari’s companies—and yet doggedly insisting that it is best to reserve judgment until an inquiry.

It is entirely possible that Gadkari and his Purti group of companies have a convincing explanation for its investors providing dubious addresses and the source of their funds that were invested into the trust of a ‘social entrepreneur’. As of now the inquisitors haven’t been enlightened and have come to believe the worst. Yet, the obvious pitfalls of a trial-by-media apart, there is an issue that bothers me. When Gadkari took his business decisions on behalf of the Purti group, did he do so in accordance with a mandate given by the party? Were his investments an extension of his political responsibilities, as an MLC in Maharashtra, as a president of the Maharashtra state BJP or as the BJP’s national President?

If the answer is a resounding No, why is it incumbent on the part of the BJP to come to the defence of Purti’s business practices? That is the responsibility of Gadkari, his accountant, his chauffer, baker, astrologer and others who were pillars of the Purti group. Surely the BJP doesn’t believe that it should act as a protective shield for the private concerns of all its leaders. Will the party, for example, now take it upon itself to defend its Rajya Sabha MP Ajay Sancheti, a friend of Gadkari from Nagpur, who has been accused of many wrongdoings?

There was consternation in the country when Robert Vadra was put into an isolation ward and the top guns of the Union Cabinet were wheeled out to speak in his defence. The competitive rush to defend the Gandhi family’s errant son-in-law was attributed to the Congress’ slavish culture of dynasty worship. Was it really necessary for the BJP to emulate this disagreeable culture?  

The entire controversy over Purti’s sources of funding has done incalculable damage to the standing and reputation of its party President. Regardless of the meaningless speculation over who ‘leaked’ the story, the fact is there were some skeletons in Gadkari’s cupboard and thse have come tumbling out. In the public perception what matters is not whether or not there was a ‘conspiracy’ to defame the BJP but that he is now regarded as damaged goods.

Unfortunately for the party, the damage is not confined to Gadkari the individual and his business associates. There has been considerable collateral damage caused by the unthinking display of loyalty. Take the case of L.K. Advani who came out in Gadkari’s defence and tried to make a distinction between his role as a businessman and his public life. This is the same Advani who in 1996 resigned his seat in Parliament after it was suggested that he was a recipient of tainted money. Advani made it clear that he wouldn’t contest elections until he was fully cleared and he stuck to his word. This is the same Advani who undertook a nationwide yatra last year to highlight the distortions created by the black economy. What has occasioned this shift from an insistence on the highest ethical standards? Advani may have an explanation but these may seem less credible than Arvind Kejriwal’s insistence that the Congress and BJP are two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those who constitute the BJP’s loyal vote bank are disgusted by the leadership’s unwillingness to confront reality. The ‘informal’ BJP group that met last Friday night and backed Gadkari may have done so on the ground that the party must not be browbeaten into a decision. But that was only part of the story. A more pressing fear was the belief that Gadkari’s exit will facilitate a takeover of the BJP by Narendra Modi.

For once their fears weren’t misplaced. Recent events have reinforced the belief at the grassroots that it is only the Gujarat Chief Minister who can mount a credible challenge to the faltering Congress-led UPA. For the moment a cabal of the collusive may have prevailed but it is only a matter of time before the popular will breaks down the resistance. Till then, India’s principal Opposition force is destined to suffer the ignominy of being mocked as the Bharatiya Janata Purti.

Sunday Pioneer, October 28, 2012 

Friday, October 26, 2012

BLACK SHEEP IN ALL PARTIES - For the people, Vadra and Gadkari symbolize the political class

By Swapan Dasgupta

In this exhilarating season of allegations and counter-allegations against public figures and their relatives, there have also been a plethora of silly statements that have helped lighten the overall mood of disgust, despondency and cynicism. Union Minister Beni Prasad Varma has led the pack with his assertion that the charges against his colleague Salman Khurshid are ridiculous because the alleged misuse of some Rs 74 lakh of public is a piffling amount. A disoriented Virbhadra Singh added to the mirth by threatening to break the cameras of journalists who dared ask him about the remarkable coincidence of alleged payments to one ‘VBS’ by a corporate and his sudden fascination for high-value insurance policies. And even the otherwise suave, Oxford-educated Khurshid provided entertainment with his filmi-style dialogue about replacing ink with blood.

The farcical element apart, there are two statements that stand out, not least because they have been made by people who are at the very top of the political pyramid. The first was by Congress President Sonia Gandhi on October 5, a few hours after Arvind Kejriwal charged her son-in-law Robert Vadra of leveraging his privileged position to make windfall gains in the real estate business. Vadra, she claimed “is a businessman”, adding that he had not misused the name of the Gandhi family.

The second statement was by Bharatiya Janata Party leader and National Democratic Alliance chairman L.K. Advani on October 25. This came a day after the media carried detailed reports of the shell companies run from apparently fictitious addresses that had invested in the Purti group of companies run by BJP president Nitin Gadkari. To those familiar with business practices, the implication was that a significant portion of Gadkari’s businesses were funded through the black economy. This in turn raised questions about Gadkari’s role in mobilising this funding. Was this, it was asked, another example of ‘political equity’?

In his defence of his party president, Advani first claimed, quite predictably, that the BJP was victim of a Congress-sponsored conspiracy “to paint the entire political class with the same brush to minimise…and neutralise the unprecedented charges against the ruling UPA.” However, this was coupled with a curious assertion: that the allegations were about standards of business and not misuse of power or corruption.

There is a similarity between Advani’s expression of solidarity with Gadkari and Sonia’s defence of her daughter’s husband: both implied that sharp practices were part and parcel of business, and that somehow was a far lesser offence from unethical politics. In other words, if it could be demonstrated conclusively that Vadra’s cosy relationship with DLF and his ability to fast-track land sales in Haryana were unrelated to his political clout, the Congress would have nothing to answer. Likewise, by Advani’s logic, there was a Great Wall dividing Gadkari the BJP President and Gadkari the entrepreneur. If Advani is to be believed, for the allegations to stick, the ‘conspirators’ would have to demonstrate that Gadkari’s businesses grew and prospered owing to benefits he accrued as a politician.

It is understandable that Sonia would want to detach Vadra’s reputation as a flashy businessman with an astonishing sense of entitlement from the political image built up by her family over decades. At the same time, she was also fully aware that the assault on the tactless Vadra was a proxy attack on the entire structure of dynastic politics that has become the mainstay of the Congress. It is unlikely that she was unaware that the mere mention of Vadra opened many doors and fast-tracked transactions (including land transfers at prices below the circle rate) that would have, in the normal course, taken an inordinately long time to complete.

Sonia’s fire-fighting strategy was based on two calculations. First, it was absolutely imperative to prevent an official probe by the Department of Company Affairs and other agencies into Vadra’s businesses. Fortunately for her, both Veerappa Moilly and Finance Minister P.Chidambaram obliged with suo moto certificates of innocence to Vadra. The peremptory midnight transfer of IAS officer Ashok Khemka from a crucial land registration department in Haryana served as a warning to other conscience-stricken bureaucrats to come to the aid of the dynasty or face the consequences.

Secondly, the Congress calculated, perhaps quite cynically, that public memory is short and that unless Vadra himself did something silly like display his intellectual prowess on Facebook yet again, the issue would subside before the General Election. The Congress is also anxious to combine its faith in public forgetfulness with moral equivalence—the 21st century version of Indira Gandhi’s infamous assertion that corruption is an “international phenomenon”. In this endeavour, the BJP’s embarrassment over Gadkari has come as a bonanza.

In defending its President, the BJP appears to have got itself into an almighty jam. The initial revelations of Gadkari’s alleged corruption by Arvind Kejriwal in his much-publicised press conference last week left most people underwhelmed and there was a basis for Arun Jaitley to claim that India Against Corruption was making a mountain out of a molehill. Yet, by the time the time the media, taking its cue from Kejriwal, conducted its own investigations into the Purti group, the charges could no longer be dismissed as insignificant. Prima facie, Gadkari certainly had a case to answer.

If the logic of Advani’s contrived distinction between business and politics had indeed been pursued, the BJP should have left the defence of Gadkari to the man himself. Since the business dealings of Gadkari were undertaken independent of his party, there was no earthly reason why Sushma Swaraj and Jaitley should have appeared before the cameras to defend him. Most surprising of all was Advani’s intervention on behalf of Gadkari the politician. Popular memory may well be short but BJP workers at least may not have forgotten that last year Advani expended a huge amount of the party’s resources organising a nationwide yatra against corruption and black money. At that time Advani did not care to make a distinction between unethical business practices and corrupt politics. To him, at that time, both fed on each other. Why should the ground rules be changed for Gadkari?

This is a question that must also be addressed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh whose chief Mohan Bhagwat devoted a large part of his annual Vijaydashami address to attacking corruption. The RSS has long felt that its swayamsevaks had imbibed the necessary samskaras to become good citizens and emerge as leaders of a resurgent India. This is the reason why it has preferred the leadership of the BJP to vest with those who have a strong background of involvement with the Sangh. Gadkari was picked up from provincial politics and thrust into the national stage because it was felt that he had the right values and priorities. Now this belief has been called into question. Should the RSS go into denial and fall back on an individual’s long-standing loyalty to an organisation? Or should it be worried that the presence of Gadkari at the helm of the BJP will give a handle to the Congress and allow it to shift the agenda away from corruption and thereby sap the nation’s inner vitality?

Kejriwal and his associates may not get far in electoral politics but their contention that the entire political class has become venal has struck a chord. For the BJP, the political cost of Gadkari and Vadra being put on par will be more damaging than for the Congress.

The Telegraph, October 26, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fear of the enemy within

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the relatively innocent world of the early-1960s in Calcutta, a ‘treat’ for children invariably meant a meal at a Chinese restaurant. I truly looked forward to these family outings. Apart from the fascination with dragons, laughing Buddhas and strange hieroglyphics, my childish imagination also equated the Peipings and Nankings with something sinister.  

The reason had much to do with what my father, an incorrigible tease, furtively whispered to the children. “They have secret transmitters in there” he would say glancing at the restaurant’s kitchen door. We would be scared, very scared. The ‘enemy’ was on our doorstep.  

Some 50 years after the Sino-Indian war left India in a state of emotional devastation, it is useful to convey the panic that gripped eastern India as Jawaharlal Nehru’s heart went out to the people of Assam, a state he had abandoned to the advancing Chinese army. A favourite uncle told me quite nonchalantly while bowling his leg-breaks to me: “Soon the Chinese will be here in Calcutta”. I didn’t grasp the political implications of his warning but the illustrations in a Bengali children’s magazine of the advancing Fu Manchu with bayonets warned me that something very bad was set to happen.

The next day, the uncle returned with two air-rifles and two boxes of metal pellets. He fired at a tin can hung from a tree and readied himself to become a second line of national defence!

Meanwhile, Dadu (grandfather)—who only wore khadi and swore by the Congress—organised loudspeaker vans that toured South Calcutta blaring patriotic songs; Ma brought home bags of wool and began knitting frenetically for soldiers who had coffee percolators but no warm clothes for the Himalayan winter; and every unit of the joint family assembled solemnly one day with gold bangles to donate to the National Defence Fund.

This frenzied activity to save India from imminent disaster was also accompanied by something else: the denunciation of the fifth columnists. In my experience this meant taunting the unobtrusive Commie next door. Recently, however, I read a report published in Ananda Bazar Patrika of October 28, 1962: “Chinese spies and Communists are secretly active in Calcutta. Each day they keep watch on the troop movements in Howrah and Sealdah stations.” In fact, the report warned that “more than half of the 32,000 Chinese residents of the city are Communists.”

The Red scare had unfortunate consequences for the city’s Chinese community. Many restaurants, including the iconic Peiping Restaurant on Park Street, were closed down. Many of the local Chinese were interned as ‘enemy aliens. No wonder a seven-year-old began seeing spies and secret transmitters hidden in every bowl of sweet corn soup.

Was the Red scare mindless xenophobia whipped up local Congressmen who didn’t share Nehru’s fascination with ‘progressive’ politics? The answers can never be conclusive but there are indications to suggest that many Indian Communists saw the People’s Liberation Army in the same way as the beleaguered Communists of Eastern Europe viewed Stalin’s advancing Red Army in 1944-45: as the agent of liberation.

The evidence from contemporary records suggests that all the developments in the Home Front wasn’t reassuring. Most of India rallied behind an army that had been badly let down by an inept political leadership. But there were exceptions.

The personal diaries of I.A. Benediktov who was the Ambassador of the Soviet Union to India during the conflict reveal that prominent Indian Communists were deeply unhappy over Moscow’s initial hesitation over supporting another socialist country. However, on October 25, 1962, the Soviet Union did a U-turn and this prompted E.M. S. Namboodiripad to meet Benediktov and convey his thanks to the Comrades in Moscow. “The most typical mistake of many Communists is that they cannot clearly distinguish patriotism and bourgeois nationalism.” EMS apparently believed that true patriotism lay in supporting China!

Nor was he alone. During a by-election meeting in Calcutta, the legendary Jyoti Basu had this to say: “It is being propagated that India has been attacked by China. We don’t know what is happening in the snowy Himalayas…If the country has been attacked, how is this by-election being held?”

Was the fear of the enemy within such a childish fantasy after all? 

Sunday Times of India, October 21, 2012

Media, turn the mirror inwards

By Swapan Dasgupta

In normal times, in an environment not so replete with competitive denunciations of the ‘corrupt’, it is entirely possible that the sting organised by officials of Jindal Power & Steel Limited (JSPL) on some editors of Zee TV would have got greater attention. Yet, despite the perfunctory coverage, it is reassuring that the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) chairman Justice (retired) J.S. Verma has suo moto taken up the matter for investigation.

The case has a familiar ring to it. The channel had apparently done a report which showed JSPL in an unfavourable light. Instead of broadcasting it, it is alleged that two editors of the channel contacted JSPL and made it an interesting offer: the channel would junk the damaging report if the company agreed to provide some Rs 100 crore of advertisements. If the charge is true and substantiated by the sting, it would seem a clear case of you scratch my back and I’ll ride your Jaguar.

What may surprise the media’s consumers is the relative indifference with which this sensational counter-sting has been received in the media. This isn’t because journalists, like the politicians they love to hate, are inherently venal. Nor is it due to the media emulating the cosy indulgence of mutual wrong- doing  that Arvind Kejriwal believes is rampant in the political class, across party lines. The media didn’t react to the JSPL sting with the same measure of breathless excitement that greets every political corruption scandal because it is aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. A thorough exploration of the media will unearth not merely sharp business practices but even horrifying criminality.

It used to be said in the 1960s that an enterprising editor of a weekly tabloid in Mumbai had a simple revenue stream to supplement his income from advertising: ‘Rs 5,000 to print and Rs 10, 000 to not print.’ It was a very successful business model and many local politicians, foreign dictators and pompous monarchs were grateful to him for bolstering their ‘progressive’ credentials, for a reasonable consideration of course.

I guess that what may be loosely called the Blitz model has evolved over time and inflation to nurture a media that is a heady cocktail of crusading zeal and collusive criminality. Sometimes both go hand in hand.

Since the Press Council of India chairman Justice (retired) M. Katju is desperate to make a mark, he would do well to suo moto establish a working group to inquire into journalistic ethics. He could travel to a small state in western India where there persistent rumours that those who claim to be high-minded crusaders arm-twisted a Chief Minister into bankrolling an event as the quid pro quo for not publishing an investigation into some dirty practices.

The emphasis these days is on non-publishing. One editor, for example, specialised in the art of actually commissioning stories, treating it in the proper journalistic way and even creating a dummy page. This dummy page would be sent to the victim along with a verbal ‘demand notice’. Most of them paid up. This may be a reason why this gentleman’s unpublished works are thought to be more significant than the few scribbles that reached the readers and for which he received lots of awards.

In Britain, the public confidence in the media has been shaken by revelations indicating the extreme unethical and illegal ends to which journalists travel to get a story. In India, the problem is markedly different. Here, an equal amount of energy is expended in ensuring that there are rewards for non-publication.

Of course I am wilfully being vague because unlike the JSPL I do not have either documents or recordings to substantiate every anecdote. I am relying almost exclusively on my status as a media insider and the oral evidence of those who have been victims of media criminality.

There is little sympathy for the occasional discomfiture suffered by politicians, particularly in the election season. Over the years, however, I have come to sympathise with the predicament of aspiring MLAs and MPs when they complain that a significant proportion of their expenses above the statutory ceiling—in other words, their non-accounted, cash expenses—is used to pay the media. The reason is simple. Increasingly, political parties and candidates are presented with a fait accompli: there is a price that has to be paid for receiving coverage, particularly non-hostile or sympathetic coverage. It takes a lot of courage and enormous political resilience for a candidate to tell these blackmailers to go to hell. Most pay up and leave the rest to voters.

Over the years, critics of the media have focussed their attention on the political and other biases of the media. A free press is by definition partisan, and pure objectivity is an impossible dream. Indeed, most readers and viewers discount the subjective preference and the partisan editorial stands of media organisations. However, in trying to dissect which publication or channel is pro-Congress, anti-BJP and pro-business, attention has been diverted from the media’s rotten underbelly.

Most journalists are decent individuals, trying to be professional even as they have preferences. A small minority of them are however using journalism as a protective shield for their criminality. Like the rotten apples in the political basket, they too need to be named and shamed. The NBSA inquiry is a small step in the right direction. Let’s hope it isn’t derailed.

Sunday Pioneer, October 21, 2012 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Needed: Better Govt, cleaner Opposition

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, when the TV channels were buzzing with indignation and outrage over the financial peccadilloes of the nation’s most important son-in-law, my good friend Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University (USA) sent out an interesting tweet. Arvind Kejriwal, he wrote, “will soon learn a political lesson: that creating and sustaining a political party is tougher than a TV show.”

The observation may be gratuitous but is well taken. It is known that a big bang launch of a product doesn’t necessarily guarantee its success, not unless it meets a demand and is authentic. I don’t think Kejriwal and his associates who have chosen to blend crusading zeal with electoral intervention are unaware of their long journey ahead. They probably know that being the enfant terrible merely ensures recognition; it doesn’t automatically inspire trust.

The long-term future of Kejriwal’s yet unnamed political party is debatable. There is common ground among the activists on the question of a Jan Lokpal Bill. But apart from this there appears to be a cacophony of voices over larger questions of public policy. Indeed, some of those who have climbed on to the Anna Hazare bandwagon have done so in the conviction that it is possible to steer an impressionable, single-issue movement in particular ‘alternative’ directions.

The contradictions that are likely to emerge in Kejriwal’s movement are, however, matters for future deliberations. What is more relevant today is the reality that this wild card entry into the public sphere has created convulsions in the political class.

That the Congress stalwarts would be fluttering about like headless chickens was perhaps to be expected—witness Salman Khurshid’s touching offer to lay down his life for the leader and Renuka Choudhury’s extraordinary performances on TV. Robert Vadra, after all, was no ordinary businessman prone to sharp practices: he is a Gandhi by marriage and accorded a special status as a SPG protectee. Confronting him with very strong evidence of dubious business practices that stemmed from his special status is, by implication, a direct attack on the carefully cultivated Mother India image that Sonia Gandhi has crafted for herself. In any evolved democracy such revelations would have resulted in a spate of resignations and announcements of sannyas from political life. In the Banana Republic called India it has instead led to Vadra mocking his accusers, top Cabinet ministers issuing him certificates of good conduct and the Prime Minister decrying the onrush of “negativity” in public life.

That the Congress has reacted with characteristic brazenness to the emerging evidence hasn’t come as a surprise. What may occasion surprise is the fact that the revelations have also left the principal opposition party red-faced. A part of this may be explained by the resentment against an interloper into the opposition space—witness Vijay Goel’s puerile fulminations at being upstaged at a local protest against exorbitant electricity charges in Delhi.

Yet, Kejriwal’s gate-crashing into the cosy world of politics had a context. Ideally, the debate on Vadra should have begun in March 2011 after Economic Times wrote a cautious but suggestive report on his remarkable business success and his proximity to DLF. At that time, there were senior leaders in the BJP such as Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha who were willing to raise the matter in Parliament and outside. They had all the details Kejriwal divulged to the media in his first press conference some 18 months later. The question the BJP needs to address is: why did the leadership decide that the “children” of political leaders must be provided immunity from attacks?

This is not a lament about the BJP’s missed opportunity. There is a widespread impression that the principal opposition party has failed to take advantage of the UPA’s unending bungling on account of the questionable integrity of some of own leaders. The BJP has not fully succeeded in putting the government on the mat over corruption because many of its own people are equally culpable. They have developed a cosy arrangement with the Congress to share the dividends from ‘political equity’. In addition, others have gained from being persuaded to look the other way and abdicate their responsibilities as the main opposition.

Taking on Vadra involved taking on the Gandhi family. It also implied possessing the uprightness to resist the inevitable harassment from politicised investigative agencies. It would seem that many BJP leaders, tired of waiting for the good times to return, have acquired too many skeletons in their personal cupboards. They have been compromised to such an extent that their opposition to the misdemeanours of the Government have become perfunctory. Their stake in a rotten system has meant they lack the moral authority to challenge the rot. They have become a part of the problem itself.

Kejriwal may be wild and publicity hungry but he has emerged as a fearless individual, willing to challenge the awesome might of the first family. If he persists with his recklessness, his party may grab a sizable political space and even emerge as an effective spoiler in urban India. He will eat into a constituency that should be leaning naturally towards the BJP. If that happens, the BJP can only blame itself for being morally upstaged. It has allowed base considerations to dilute its commitment to the larger good. To recover a sense of purpose, it needs to dispose of its dirty linen.

India deserves a better government. It also demands a cleaner opposition. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 14, 2012

Friday, October 12, 2012

ONE MORE GATE - Popular perceptions troubling for the future of India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, when Arvind Kejriwal first dragged the son-in-law of the Gandhi family into public controversy, there was a facile suggestion that shareholders should ask DLF—the real estate company which is also in the eye of the storm—why it gave a generous unsecured loan to someone who had no business track record worth writing home about. This week, after the anti-corruption crusader-turned politician went public with ‘proof’ of the cronyism that marked the relationship between DLF and the Congress-controlled Government of Haryana, this question is unlikely to be pursued. If the ‘proof’ supplied by Kejriwal is to be believed, the top brass of DLF should instead be complimented on its farsightedness. In enabling Robert Vadra to multiply a Rs 51 lakh investment into a handsome Rs 300 crore in just two years or so, DLF could be said to have gained many times more. It was, by all accounts, a very satisfying, mutually exploitative relationship.

As political scandals go, what was instantly dubbed ‘Damaad Gate’ by excitable members of the twitterati, doesn’t belong to the same league as the 2-G rip-off and Coal Gate. There are no long series of zeros pointing to the notional losses suffered by the treasury. The charge is not short-changing the public exchequer but conferring a most-favoured –entity status on a company with which Vadra was associated. Using a historical analogy, the kerfuffle over Vadra, DLF and the Bhupinder Singh Hooda Government of Haryana belongs to the same league as the Maruti sweetheart deal involving Sanjay Gandhi and the Bansi Lal Government of Haryana which was exposed by the indefatigable CPI(M) MP Jyotirmoy Basu nearly four decades ago—and which many insist were among the factors that triggered the Emergency in 1975.

For the Government, the timing of Kejriwal’s maiden political intervention was singularly inopportune. Having partially succeeded—thanks in no small measure to an extremely obliging media—in diverting public attention from the coal scandal that even left the Prime Minister singed and having talked up the capital markets with the promise of economic reforms and fiscal responsibility, a beleaguered Congress now finds itself battling a fire that has reached its sanctum sanctorum—the private chambers of the Gandhi family. At stake is the very credibility of the family that has provided both the inspiration and the glue to keep India’s largest political party together. Damaad Gate has all the ingredients to become another embarrassing Bofors moment for the Congress. Certainly, the mood of disgust and despondency that has overwhelmed India after more than two years of non-governance has enhanced the likelihood of a wild card such as Kejriwal puncturing the pretensions of the high and mighty.

However, like cricket, politics is also a game of glorious uncertainties and it is impossible to be certain that this latest storm will set in motion an irreversible process of downfall for the fragile UPA-2. Yet, at the same time, Damaad Gate has the potential of unsettling some of the cherished assumptions governing public life.

First, the apparent ease with which DLF allegedly benefitted from its close association with Vadra has added to the prevailing exasperation with the crony capitalism that has prevented a genuine entrepreneurial culture from striking deep roots in India. The alacrity with which the Finance Minister, the Law Minister and the Corporate Affairs Minister jumped into the ring to do battle on behalf of Vadra, and issued him certificates of innocence are reminiscent of caricatured versions of corrupt dictatorships in faraway lands. India has always flaunted its credentials as the world’s largest democracy. The grim realities of the prevailing political culture don’t justify the swagger. From a distance India seems just another rotten egg in the international basket.

In the past, the Government of the day had often conspired to subvert inquiries into alleged corporate wrongdoing. Yet, the suo moto interventions of key Cabinet ministers suggested that there are areas of political life that are considered no-go areas by the Congress and deemed unworthy of both public intrusiveness and the ethics of corporate governance. To outsiders, not least foreign capital that is being so assiduously wooed by the Government, this behaviour has the potential of sending out an unwelcome message: that it is advantageous to view Indian capitalism through the prism of a Third World banana republic where cronyism opens doors and cuts deals.  

Secondly, Damaad Gate raises troubling questions of the quality of Indian democracy. It is by now known in relevant circles that documentary evidence of the cosy DLF-Vadra relationship had been in circulation since February 2011 and, indeed, formed the basis of a very cautious report by a financial daily in March 2011. At that time, there were at least two senior BJP leaders—Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha—who were prepared to raise the issue in Parliament and bring it into the public domain. They were prevented from doing so by the party’s all-important Core Committee on the ground that it would be wrong to target the children of political opponents.

This apparent act of high-mindedness has now recoiled on the party. It is now being alleged, not least by the politicians spawned by the Anna Hazare movement, that the BJP’s silence was proof of the complicity of the entire political class in perpetuating a system based on cronyism and corruption. The charge is not entirely untrue and is likely to generate a political cost. More than anything else, the BJP’s reluctance to hit the holy dynastic cow has ensured that the political benefits of the disgust against unethical practices won’t fully accrue to the principal opposition party.

The consequences of this immoral equivalence are ominous. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that mainstream political parties, including regional parties, are attracting precisely the type of people public life can do without. The bright young idealists who entered the political arena in the past via student activism are now increasingly shying away from the main parties and either opting out of politics altogether or drifting to non-governmental organisations and protest movements like the one headed by Kejriwal. The cumulative loss to Indian democracy is incalculable.

Finally, and equally troubling for the future of India, is the growing impression that the culture of Indian business is by and large rotten and that reposing faith in the private sector as a powerful engine of economic growth carries an unacceptable social cost. There was implicit arrogance in Vadra mocking the anti-corruption zealots as ‘mango people” which hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. It has reinforced a growing popular conviction—which the 2G and coal allotment scandals helped perpetuate—that ‘reforms’ are merely the pompous façade to hide an economic system based on organised loot. Till a few years ago, political parties undertook a fine balancing act between populist politics and sensible economics. With the anti-corruption epidemic hitting the country, it will be very difficult for mass politicians to argue that a market-oriented, liberal economic regime provides India the best opportunity to extricate itself from endemic backwardness. The growing ‘sab chor hai’ mood will make it virtually impossible for the reformists to convince the electorate that they need to pay more for power, fuel and cooking gas for the sake of a system that is tailor-made for the well connected.

Circumstances generate strange symbols of both affection and disrepute. In the past fortnight, the popular imagination has come to associate Robert Vadra with greed, privilege and arrogance—everything that Middle India has learnt to despise. As the imagery of a brat percolates down the social ladder, the Gandhis will have to some hard sell to redeem the family reputation.

The Telegraph, October 12, 2012 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why is ‘First Family' a hush-hush affair?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was one of the most outstanding politicians of post-Independence. At a time when the Congress was the dominant party he, along with other stalwarts such as Acharya Kriplani, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Minoo Masani, contributed immeasurably towards keeping anti-Congressism alive. Lohia was a profound and original thinker but his fame rested on the notoriety he earned as an unrelenting agitator and oppositionist.

In 1963, Lohia moved the first and only no-confidence motion against the Government of Jawaharlal Nehru. In his robust and flamboyant intervention, Lohia argued that the average citizen of India lived on three annas (roughly 18 paise) a day—a sum he compared to the Rs 25,000 spent on the upkeep of the Prime Minister each day. Nehru, otherwise a great one for the thrust and parry of Parliament was both livid and exasperated. Replying to the debate, he charged the Honourable Member of lowering parliamentary discourse to the “level of the bazaar.”

In the Nehruvian Establishment of the day, which, naturally enough, included the print media, Lohia was debunked as a lowly demagogue and even a vulgarian, abuses that Lohia took as compliments. So intense was his hatred of everything Nehru stood for that when the Prime Minister died in May 1964 and was accorded a grand state funeral, Lohia intervened with a cutting remark: “Nehru left his jewels to his daughter and his ashes to the country.”

In a week that has witnessed breathless talk in a section of the Lutyens’ Delhi aristocracy over “bad taste” in politics, it is pertinent to re-open the Lohia debate. Did Lohia indeed lower the level of political discourse by rubbishing the Planning Commission’s figure of 15 annas as the average earning and positing a three-anna figure? More to the point, was he guilty of astonishing bad taste by juxtaposing this paltry sum with the Rs 25,000 (a considerable sum those days) spent by the taxpayer keeping Nehru in the style he was accustomed to? Remember, in those days debunking Nehru was almost akin to cheering a bowler who had just taken Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket. Were those who debunked Lohia doing so because his imagery was stark or were they doing so because he had dared question the sincerity of a man who could do no wrong?

There is a grey area of subjectivity we must necessarily enter to find a credible answer. Was Mamata Banerjee completely out of order when she mimicked the whispering indecisiveness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—also a decent and honourable man—during the course of a TV interview? More to the point, was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi being crude when he hollered the allegation that Rs 1,880 crore of taxpayers’ money had been spent on bankrolling the foreign visits of Sonia Gandhi whose only official position is Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, a body that has no locus standi in the Constitution?

It is always possible to see Modi’s intervention through the prism of TV talk shows. But frankly, whether the Gujarat leader wanted to use the dramatic revelation to trap the Congress into some tactical indiscretion is not a very interesting angle. Nor is the air cleared by the revelation that a Central Information Commissioner had ruled last May during the course of a RTI hearing that Sonia Gandhi had submitted no medical bills relating to her month-long treatment at some unknown hospital overseas. Having made this the official version, it will be difficult for the Government to renege on this position. In this age of openness, cover-ups can be very messy.

There was always an official cost to every foreign visit undertaken by the Congress President in the past eight years. If it wasn’t Rs 1,880 crore or Rs 235 crore annually, as the press report Modi quoted, what was it?

Even if the medical treatment was free or paid for by either the family or some unnamed benefactor, the fact is that the Congress President is always accompanied by a large SPG entourage whose air tickets, hotel bills and daily allowances have to be paid for by the government. How much did that cost?

There is a larger question at stake here which goes beyond Modi and the Gujarat Assembly election. Does the citizenry of India have the right to know how much public money is being spent on individual leaders, purely as a matter of information? Or, as Nehru perhaps imagined, is asking the question in the first place indicative of insolence? Will it also be construed as an unwarranted invasion of privacy if someone asks: who paid?

When it comes to the ‘first family’ there is a spectacular degree of non-questioning. No one asks why the Home Minister, the Defence Minister and even the Prime Minister are forced to undertake visits so that one special passenger can be accommodated and the official bandobast made? Why does this passenger carrying facility also extend to the backbench MP for Amethi? Why does the Congress President never offer herself for a non-scripted interaction with the media? Why is everything relating to that family such a big secret? After all, they are not private individuals but public figures.

Lohia made a nuisance of himself by asking impertinent questions that others were too inhibited or too frightened to ask. Isn’t it time India produced many more Lohias?

Sunday Pioneer, October 7, 2012

BJP’s missed opportunity

By Swapan  Dasgupta

It’s a bit like the dog that didn’t bark.

Last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s principal opposition to the Congress, held its quarterly National Executive and annual National Council meeting in Surajkund, a part of Haryana adjoining Delhi. At a time when the UPA-2 Government is struggling to project a new purposeful identity and simultaneously ensure its own survival, it would be normal for the country to wait expectantly for what the BJP has by way of an alternative offering. Those with memories may recall the bubbling atmosphere of BJP sessions throughout the late-1990s when new ideas, new recruits and a mood of headiness prevailed. It was clear, except to those who chose to be wilfully blind, that the BJP was charged up and in readiness for a shy at political power in Delhi. “You’ve tried the others”, ran the slogan, “now try us.”

From all accounts, there was nothing particularly heady about the three-day gathering in Surajkund. True, there were no self-goals scored by the party leadership and the media didn’t get its usual quota of ‘Breaking News’ controversies that divert attention from the main business on hand. The only bit of sensationalism was provided by the deliberate absence of former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa from the meeting.

At the same time, the BJP’s relief on this count was offset by the fact that the Surajkund event generated very little attention. What should have been an occasion to showcase the party’s thinking and its future thrust became a routine affair devoted to nitty-gritty organisational issues that don’t require grand conclaves to settle. Cynics will certainly be forgiven for imagining that the only rationale behind the National Council was to approve the amendment to the party’s Constitution giving the party president the right to be in office for two consecutive three-year terms.

For the BJP, the Surajkund conclave was a missed opportunity. In trying to dispel the media-inspired impression that it is a horribly divided house, it presented its detractors with a new negative talking point: that it is body of tired men who have run out of energy and ideas. The discernible decline of the Congress all over the country (as suggested by successive opinion polls) has also bred the simultaneous belief that the BJP is in no position to benefit from the anti-incumbency and that the future belongs to regional parties. BJP loyalists believe that, as the principal opposition party, it is the natural beneficiary of the anti-Congress mood. Unfortunately, thanks to its perceived inadequacies, it has not been able to convert this self-assurance into conventional wisdom.

At the heart of the BJP’s listlessness is the old question: who will lead the party into battle in the next general election? A handful of leaders still cling to the belief that the BJP is an ideological party and, consequently, the leadership question is superfluous. ‘The BJP has a surfeit of talent’, they insist and just about any of the top leaders is capable of being anointed Prime Minister when the need arises.

This belief is based on two false premises. The origins of the BJP may have been ideological and linked to its connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. However, the exponential growth of the party since the late-1980s has ensured that ideology has taken a backseat to pragmatic, electoral politics. Where the party has grown, it has done so by virtue of its identification with a leader. Many of these leaders may have had their apprenticeship in RSS shakhas but as they have climbed the political ladder their perspectives and priorities have changed dramatically. More to the point, successive attempts to demonstrate that the party is bigger than the individual have nearly always come a cropper. The removal of mass leader Kalyan Singh led to the steady decline of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh after 1999; the attempt to ‘punish’ Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan triggered a grassroots revolt; and the recent bid to oust Yeddyurappa from the party may well witness the complete decimation of the Karnataka BJP. Regardless of its self-image as an ideological movement, the reality is that the BJP is as much dependant on a leader as other parties. It can only obfuscate the leadership issue at its own peril.

Secondly, in western democracies the leader of a party is chosen to complement programmes and policies. In India, the choice of a leader is determined on the strength of charisma, social identity and an overall impression of ability. The leader is presented to the electorate for approval and once that endorsement is secured the agenda for political action is rolled out. Atal Behari Vajpayee wasn’t given a thumbs-up by the voters because he stood for any ideology. His appeal was based on an aggregate of impressions. The implication of this fascination for the leader is that the BJP’s policy pronouncements will count for little unless the electorate knows who will lead the party. Repeated surveys suggest that while parties have a stable following, the incremental vote that decides the winner is on account of the leader.

Indian parliamentary elections are rapidly becoming a quasi-presidential race. In its heart of hearts the BJP leadership knows this. This is why most of the party faithful are looking expectantly to the outcome of the Gujarat election for the national scene to crystallise. What happened in Surajkund was a mere time pass.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, October 5, 2012 
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