Friday, November 23, 2012

THE TARGET STRIKES BACK - The rocket attacks on Israel may change the world’s attitude

By Swapan Dasgupta

In assessing events in distant places, it is often helpful to ask a simple question: what would we have done in a similar situation? Had India, for example, been confronted by a constant barrage of unprovoked rocket attacks from across the border aimed at our cities, would we have gone crying to the international community? Maybe we would have alerted our diplomatic missions and even presented a full picture of the happenings to the United Nations Security Council. But our first priority would have been self-defence. In concrete terms that would have meant military retaliation aimed at both damaging and neutralising the adversary. Having demonstrated our determination to not take attacks on civilian targets lying down, we would have been receptive to international concern over a possible escalation of the conflict. But without foreclosing the military option altogether.

The above scenario isn’t entirely hypothetical. Those who recall the short-lived Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999 when India was confronted by an audacious Pakistani offensive will know that this is precisely how the Indian Government of the day reacted. Of course, the mountains where the battles raged were largely uninhabited and there was no real danger of large-scale civilian casualties that would have excited the Western media. At the same time, let us not forget that the Kargil conflict wasn’t seen as just another India-Pakistan brawl because both countries possessed nuclear weapons. There were grave international concerns over the Indian subcontinent being transformed into the “most dangerous” region on earth, and it finally took direct US pressure for Pakistan to realise it was in a no-win situation. Yet, it is important to remember that President Clinton’s pressure on Pakistan to behave would not have happened had India not responded robustly to the aggression.

Arguably, international relations are not always governed by templates and long-standing conflicts such as the ones affecting West Asia are often governed by the principles of exceptionalism. This is particularly true of the unique problems and challenges that confront Israel, a state that has witnessed unending conflict since its formation in 1948. Yet, despite the strong feelings the mere mention of the ‘Jewish homeland’ arouses, it is a measure of some reassurance that the latest conflict occasioned by Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza has, by and large, produced relatively ‘normal’ responses.

President Barack Obama epitomises the trend. Unlike most occupants of the White House, Obama does not have a reputation for being a natural friend of Israel. On the contrary, his relationship with the doughty Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been so awkward that commentators have even speculated over the likely end to the special US-Israel relationship. Yet, his first reaction to the rocket war launched by Hamas was unequivocal and based entirely on common sense: “The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And so I can assure you that if… somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect the Israelis to do the same thing.”

Unlike the past where almost every Israeli move aimed at strengthening its national defences have been viewed as expressions of ‘Zionist imperialism’, the latest tension has not been blamed on Israel. Indeed, the only criticisms of Israel are that its retaliatory attacks have been ‘disproportionate’, have been accompanied by some rhetorical flourishes of its Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon to “blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages” and its threat to undertake a ground campaign if the attacks persist. The rush of dignitaries to Israel haven’t been accompanied by expressions of righteous indignation over Israeli recklessness but a concern that a ground war would be tactically imprudent and result in Hamas painting itself as the underdog. The principle of Israel’s right to self-defence hasn’t been seriously contested particularly when, as in this case, it is faced with an adversary that openly proclaims that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”

These developments mark a significant departure from 2010 when the Israeli raid on a ship allegedly carrying humanitarian relief to Gaza resulted in an onrush of anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world and in the campuses of the US and Europe, and contributed immeasurably to Turkey disengaging from its measured relationship with Tel Aviv. But thanks to its knee-jerk reversal of its earlier policy, Turkey also finds itself reduced to the role of a passive bystander in the region.

It is also noteworthy that the election of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, with deep ties to Hamas, in Egypt’s first democratic election has not succeeded in making Israel more vulnerable. On paper, Egypt has kept faith with its new ideological proclivities by withdrawing its Ambassador from Tel Aviv and charging Israel of aggressive intent. However, behind the scenes it is fully engaged in trying to cobble together a working cease-fire and not responding emotionally to Hamas’ appeal to join the good fight against Israel. The fragility of the Egyptian economy, its dependence on the US for both development and military assistance, and the delicate balance between the army and the civilian government has made it wary of rushing to the assistance of Hamas.

Overall, there appears to be a creeping realisation in the world’s capitals that, far from emerging as a slightly more rooted alternative to the largely discredited Fatah leadership of the Palestinians, the Hamas has shed very little of its fanatical determination to destroy Israel and drive out the Jewish people from the region. Hamas may have broken from Iran on the issue of support to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria, but along with the theocracy in Iran and the splinter jihadi groups in Gaza, it poses an abiding threat to a peaceful resolution of the problems that cropped up since the war of 1967. Like the LTTE which was destroyed by the Sri Lankan military at a terrible cost, Hamas has absolutely no hesitation in using civilians as human shields. It actively seeks more civilian deaths from Israeli strikes (and ‘friendly fire’) on the ghoulish belief that greater the number of ‘martyrs’ the more the resolve to fight Israel to the bitter end.

For the past decade, thanks to some misplaced humanitarianism, there has been a tendency to question Israel’s credentials on all counts. This has seen many countries wilfully turn a blind eye to the real nature of fanatical anti-Zionism. The latest spat in Gaza may not radically alter this gratuitous hostility to the only country in the region that combines a vibrant democracy with economic development. But even if it forces international opinion (including in India) to look a little more carefully at the larger agenda of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention the regime in Iran, it will be a step in the right direction. In the coming years, as many more authoritarian regimes struggle to cope with angry upheavals, the democratic world will be forced to acknowledge that Israel epitomises the values it is comfortable with. The alternatives presented by those who seek an Israel-free West Asia are too hideous to contemplate.

Incorrect as it may sound, the alternative to another organised ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Jews is the progressive Israel-isation—in terms of values and enterprise—of the region. Having demonstrated its hard face, Israel should now look to also marketing its soft power.

The Telegraph, November 23, 2012 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

India's NAMO dilemma

By Swapan Dasgupta

I don’t know if ‘secular’ mothers have acquired the habit of threatening their brats with the approaching presence of Narendra Modi if violate their bedtime curfew, but recent events would certainly indicate that the Gujarat Chief Minister is fast acquiring the status of a juju man—the political reincarnation of Dr No, Goldfinger and Mogambo, all rolled into one. His hidden hand has been detected behind every “conspiracy”, real or imaginary. Last week, he was charged by a venerable ideologue of the RSS of being the mastermind behind the plot to get rid of BJP President Nitin Gadkari—an accusation which, ironically, makes the media (which did a lot of legwork chasing the story) his pliant instrument. Six years ago, it was whispered that he had placed hidden cameras to expose the spurious claims of celibacy of a leading BJP functionary. Indeed, so intense is the Modi-phobia that Samajwadi Party expelled a former MP because he had interviewed the CM for an Urdu publication.  

The irony is that the ever-growing obsession with the Modi peril coexists happily with what every TV Breaking News periodically proclaims is yet another “Big blow to Modi”. This mindless template touched such absurd heights that impish sections of the social media began prefacing every seemingly sombre assertion with “In a big blow to Modi…”

Flippancy apart, there is little doubt that in the troubled India of today, Modi has become the main talking point of everyone concerned with the future of the country. From diplomatic parties and investor conferences to humble tea shop gatherings, Modi invariably intrudes into conversations. To his many detractors, particularly in the liberal intelligentsia, he is the personification of authoritarian evil. Such a man, we are repeatedly assured, can never reach the top because India abhors certitudes. To his fans—and they are very vocal on social media—NAMO is what India needs to realise its true potential and achieve greatness.

If it comes to finally making up its mind, India has a democratic way of conflict resolution: through elections. However, clarity is possible if a clear choice is presented to voters. The curious feature of the games being played out in the BJP and elsewhere is that they are carefully aimed at blurring the political options before the electorate. The pundits have proffered arguments about the pitfalls of coalition politics, the regionalisation of national elections and, above all, of the Hindu celebration of ambiguities. Within the saffron parivar there are said to be misgivings over an emerging personality cult and preference for a collective leadership that gives space and power to faceless apparatchiks with pious pretensions and strange ringtones.

At one time, the preferred argument against Modi lay in the poser: what will the world say? Of late, however, there is greater appreciation of the fact that for the West there are no permanent friends and permanent enemies, just oodles of self-interest.

Yet, there are two hurdles that remain to be crossed before India can get over this needlessly prolonged foreplay and confront the ‘Modi question’ head on. The first is the verdict of Gujarat in the Assembly election. Modi must win conclusively if he is to embark on a national journey. The second is the endorsement by the BJP. Here what will count is the momentum Modi is able to generate after the Gujarat results. If the BJP’s foot soldiers repose confidence in him as the best bet against the Congress, the resistance of Dad’s Army will be of little avail.  

It is hazardous to look into the future. Yet what can be said with certainty is that Modi will add a riveting dimension to the general election.  First, he will threaten a cosy, chalta hai consensus that has infected all walks of public life. His will, in effect, be an assault on the degenerate Brahmanical system of slipperiness. Secondly, he will personify the raw energy of an India that thinks big and wants to achieve big. There will be nothing mealy-mouthed about a Modi charge on privilege, cronyism and the status quo. He will offer decisive choices that could unsettle the faint hearted.

How India responds will tell us a lot about ourselves. 

Sunday Times of India, November 18, 2012

Saturday, November 17, 2012

BJP can’t afford to do a Romney

By Swapan Dasgupta

Unlike the Left that sees itself as an international tendency, the Centre-Right is inclined to be more national in its outlook. The conclusive re-election of US President Barack Obama was consequently an event celebrated by the Left and liberal forces world-wide, not least, in India. The defeat of his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, on the other hand, didn’t generate a similar solidarity of the despondent. In Britain, the governing Conservative Party, for example, had carefully detached itself from Romney and had shown a marked inclination to be supportive of Obama.

The national orientation of Centre-Right forces has, however, not been a deterrent to various commentators drawing parallels with their own countries. Some of this was, predictably, puerile and as laughable as those who imagined that the Indian general election of 2009 could be fought and won using Obama’s famous “Yes we can” slogan. In a more serious vein, there were scholars and commentators that gleamed similarities between the Republican failure to grapple with the emergent identity politics of minority groups in the US and the BJP’s over-dependence on the caste Hindus of Middle India. The implication was obvious: there can be no serious Centre-Right challenge to the Congress and its allies until the BJP go beyond what is referred in the US as ‘heartland’ politics.

Just because all the features of the US experience don’t apply to India is no reason for the entire argument to be rubbished. There are at least two features of the American landscape that are loosely mirrored in India.

First, demographic data suggests a definite “browning” of America. The proportion of white voters is gradually coming down and new immigration has led to the rise in the proportion of Hispanic and Asian voters, particularly in the urban clusters. It was Obama’s energetic mobilisation of these minorities, particularly the African Americans, which enabled him to see off a determined Romney challenge that was primarily based on ‘white’ exasperation with Obama.

Secondly, there is some evidence to suggest that US voters were divided in their attitudes to the social agenda of both candidates. Republicans were perceived to be excessively Christian, fanatically opposed to abortion and even contraception, and generally illiberal. These attitudes are believed to have repelled women, including white women, and prevented the election from becoming a referendum on Obama’s performance.

Both these themes from last week’s US presidential election resonate in India and have a relevance to the management of politics by the BJP.

To begin with, there is now enough demographic data to indicate there is a rising importance of the minority vote across India. There are approximately 150 to 160 Lok Sabha constituencies where the Muslim community account for 20 per cent or more of the voters. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that Muslim turnout in elections is significantly higher than other communities. This implies that the Muslim community exercises an influence far greater than their actual numbers would suggest—a situation that was true for the African Americans who voted in large numbers and resoundingly for Obama on November 6.

The BJP receives less than five per cent of the Muslim vote and this figure is unlikely to improve in the immediate future. More important, in many constituencies the Muslims vote strategically by which is meant that the community focuses its primary attention on ensuring the defeat of the BJP candidate. As the main ‘secular’ party, Congress is the principal beneficiary of this tactical voting, although there are regional variations. 

There is a suggestion that the BJP should secularise itself more and remove misgivings from the minds of Muslim voters. As the Congress found out between 1937 and 1946, this is easier said than done. The alternative suggestion that the BJP should embrace strident Hindutva and forge the unity of all Hindus belongs to the realms of fantasy. In today’s climate nothing would be worse for the BJP than contrived religio-political nationalism. The party runs the risk of focussing on issues that are not uppermost in the minds of Hindus.

Romney may have failed to fully capitalise on his better credentials for running the economy. That does not mean the approach was flawed. In today’s India, economic management, anti-corruption and development are the issues that concern the electorate. These are the issues the Congress is most vulnerable. The BJP has no choice but to focus on these.

Yet there is a risk of derailment. Just as Romney lost out among the young and women by being to be on the side of social regression, the BJP is invariably distracted by irrelevant issues that touch on social and religious attitudes. The objection to some suggestive song in a Bollywood film was the latest of these. What this loss of focus does is to weaken the party’s already tenuous hold on women and young voters, in sharp contrast to the late-1990s when the BJP was fired by youth support.

To prevail against the powerful forces of sectional mobilisation the BJP has to be single-minded in its focus on the economy and governance and complement it with organisational rigour. In effect this means achieving the maximum unity of every group that doesn’t have a theological allergy to the party. The finer points of contested social and religious agendas need to be consigned to the cold storage.

What was powerfully demonstrated in the US was a simple truth: without securing the ‘swing’ vote, the ‘core’ vote becomes valueless. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 11, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

QUESTIONS OF LUCK - Obama’s victory needs to be put in historical perspective

By Swapan Dasgupta

In any contest involving the top political job, there are no prizes for the guy who comes second. On the contrary, the post-mortem exercise often leaves the runner-up even more bruised since the focus is invariably on his personal shortcomings, the strategic miscalculations of his team and his misreading of the electoral landscape. Moreover, there is an unending preoccupation with missed opportunities and the what-if questions.

Historians who have studied presidential elections in the United States have often thrown the what-if teaser to their readers. What if, it is often asked, Richard Nixon had cared to remove his six o’clock shadow and been a little more careful in choosing his suit for the legendary TV debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960? If nothing else, Nixon would certainly have appeared a less ghostly personality than his Democratic challenger who cut a dashing figure on the screen. Appearances mattered because the majority of those who saw the encounter on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner, while the majority who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon had prevailed. The issue is relevant because the results revealed a mere 0.2 per cent difference in the popular vote between the winner and the loser.

There is certain to be a similar, big what-if question that future studies of the 2012 presidential election are bound to throw up. Was President Barack Obama the luckiest presidential candidate, with God on his side? Consider the facts. For the week before Superstorm Sandy created havoc in the east coast of US, Obama had witnessed Mitt Romney steadily closing the gap and, indeed, two days before the storm, overtaking him in most of the polls. Romney seemed to be on a roll and the President, far from being the silver-tongued inspirational orator, had become distinctly unfocussed. So much so that he had to summon the evergreen charmer President Bill Clinton to shore up his defences and rally the faithful.

Sandy halted the Romney momentum, allowed Obama to act presidential and bipartisan and, most important, reminded wavering voters that there are obvious pitfalls in taking the idea of less government to extremes. Sandy rehabilitated Obama both personally and ideologically. It is entirely possible that the Democrats would have won even without divine intervention. But the margin of victory would have been tantalisingly close. Sandy succeeded in informing many people who were disappointed by Obama’s performance but who were averse to voting for Romney to take a second look at the President, help conclude that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all and, therefore, worth the effort of a vote.  

If Sandy did indeed make the critical difference between a wafer-thin margin and a conclusive victory, it also calls into question the resulting over-interpretation of the implications of the President’s re-election. For a start, it is important to keep some elementary electoral statistics in mind. The margin of Obama’s victory (it may increase after the full Florida results come in) against Romney was 2.82 million votes (2.4 per cent). That this was nowhere near the awesome 9.52 million vote (7.2 per cent) margin separating him and Senator John McCain in 2008 need not be held against him. An underperforming presidency was lucky to just register a victory on November 6 and limit the loss in electoral votes to the states of Indiana and North Carolina. To my mind, what is more significant is that Obama polled nearly 9 million votes less than what he did in 2008.  It may also be worth noting that the Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives and confined their net Senate loss to just two seats—including that of the bigot who made the bizarre comment about a conception from rape being a gift of God.

Ever since the exit polls suggested that Obama’s re-election was made possible by focussed mobilisation of African Americans, Hispanics, students, sexual minorities and women (particularly single women), there has been a clamour to suggest that the President has ridden the crest of a social revolution. Elated by a victory they never imagined would be so conclusive, a section of the commentariat has argued that the 2012 election marks the death of social conservatism, fiscal conservatism and the so-called moral majority. In 2004, at a time the George W. Bush administration was on a high and scholars were describing the US as a ‘Right nation’, Samuel Huntington had warned of a steady erosion of the Judaeo-Christian values that had hitherto set the tone for America. Was his prophecy now unfolding?

The statistical evidence indicates a compelling need to be cautious about rushing to judgment. Over the years, some occupants of the White House have certainly redefined politics for future generations. President Franklin Roosevelt certainly created a New Deal coalition based on active state intervention in the economy. On his part, President Ronal Reagan demolished the Democratic consensus of yore and put self-improvement, low taxes and Christian values on top of the agenda. Indeed, in seeking re-election both FDR and Reagan improved on their majorities (just as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush also did). This is the first occasion an incumbent President has been credited with a social revolution after actually losing votes.

Maps can often distort perspectives but a bird’s eye of the electoral map of the US doesn’t endorse the claims of a social upheaval. What the huge swathe of red states bordered on the north-east and west by blue borders point to is a deeply divided America. It is true, as the pundits in TV studios emphasised on election night, that states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and even Florida which should have been Republican, voted for Obama for two consecutive elections.

That new immigrants, particularly Hispanics who today account for nearly 10 per cent of the national electorate, perceive Republicans as less sympathetic to their interests and aspirations is undeniable. An emerging bloc of minority voters comprising Blacks, Hispanics and Asians may also, in time, become a reliable support base for the Democrats, particularly as the overwhelming white dominance of the country is diluted. However, those with a sense of history will readily admit, that voting blocs have never remained constant. Till the election of 1964, for example, the South, particularly the old Confederate states, was overwhelmingly committed to the Democratic Party so much so that Republicans didn’t even bother campaigning there. Yet the convulsions created by the Civil Rights legislation passed by President Lyndon Johnson resulted in the South become solidly Republican after 1968.

A historical perspective is necessary as a corrective to the impression that President Obama has crafted a new Democratic majority that will, in time, make Republicans unelectable to the White House. Certainly there are many lessons for the Republicans, not least of which is the need to tap the social conservatism of Hispanic voters and address the mismatch between gender and community. The Republicans also need to seriously deliberate on the wisdom of incorporating contentious social issues such as abortion and contraception into the larger political platform.

Against this, however, there is an equal danger that an exultant Democratic movement may carry minorityism and social liberalism a bit too far and, in the process, project the metropolitan values of California and New York in places less inclined to appreciate the virtues of personal liberty over social cohesion.

In securing re-election against tremendous odds, President Obama has shown himself a crafty strategist. But has his victory turned existing politics on its head? The jury is still out on that question.

The Telegraph, November 9, 2012 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Oh, to be a Congress 'companion'

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the old Chinese saying about the finger pointing to the moon and the idiot pointing to the finger ever needed validation, it was provided by the Indian political class, cutting across parties.

Last Thursday, the Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy held a press conference about certain curious developments involving the Congress Party, the Associated Journals Limited which once published the now-defunct National Herald, and a newly-formed not-for-profit company Young Indians controlled by members of the Gandhi family. Swamy levelled potentially serious allegations of illegality against all three entities. A functionary in Rahul Gandhi’s ‘office’ dismissed the charges as bogus and threatened Swamy with legal action (presumably defamation) if he persisted with his campaign.

As if on cue, various Congress leaders sprang out of the woodwork and questioned Swamy’s motives and credentials. On TV, I heard Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tiwari suggest that Swamy expend his energies looking at the businesses of BJP President Nitin Gadkari who, by the way, has been alleging a media conspiracy to discredit him and his Purti group.

For the sake of argument let us assume that Swamy is a dodgy politician who in the past has hurled many charges against Sonia Gandhi. Certainly, there are grounds to believe that Swamy has cried ‘wolf’ on too many occasions in the past. This probably explains why there was initially a hesitation both among the media and the political class to take his claims seriously.

At the same time, Swamy has not been a consistent maverick. His Janata Party may well be just a letterhead but there is also no denying that it was his tenacity plus a great deal of relentless excavation of facts that led to the 2-G scandal getting the attention of the Supreme Court. Swamy has indeed miscued at times but there is no reason to believe that he has lost the right to make a serious intervention. And his intervention last Friday was indeed very serious.

It was grave enough for two things to happen. First, after a show of bravado in the late hours of Thursday, Rahul Gandhi’s so-called office quietly dropped all suggestions of slapping Swamy with a defamation case. Presumably, someone had alerted the boy scouts of the serious dangers of all three Gandhi shareholders of Young Indian, not to mention Motilal Vora and Sam Pitroda, being dragged before some Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court and subjected to insolent questioning under oath. On Friday, at the AICC briefing, party spokesman P.C. Chacko said that “If Swamy has the guts he should sue Rahul and Sonia Gandhi”. 

Secondly, again presumably on legal advice, the AICC General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi was compelled to admit that it had indeed given an interest-free loan of Rs 90 crore to Associated Journals Ltd. According to the report in Hindu, Associated Journals, he added, was “a companion organisation of the Congress, and it is the party’s duty to revive the institution and the newspapers under it.”

It is best left to the Election Commission and the judiciary to determine the legal status of a “companion organisation” and to assess the validity of the AICC claim that the Representation of People Act has “strict accounting rules about inflows but there is nothing on how you spend it.” But the Congress’ interpretation of statutes opens up fascinating possibilities.

Does it, for example, mean that it would be perfectly in order for the BJP to show an equal measure of generosity towards the “social entrepreneurship” ventures of its beleaguered President? Alternatively, will the Congress nod in approval if the BJP decided to bankroll RSS initiatives like the Vanvasi Kalyan ashrams and the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs? In value terms these bodies could well qualify as “companion organisations”.

Dwivedi has suggested that there is no bar on political parties spending their income in any manner they deem fit. The AICC once chose to loan—it seems more like a donation—Rs 90 crore to the publishers of National Herald. What prevents it from extending generous loans of varying sums to other media organisations that choose to apply for “companion” status? The EC has been expending its energies trying to put an end to the menace of ‘paid news’ during elections. They needn’t worry any longer. The AICC has come up with a perfect way out, which it claims is not only legal but operates by appointment to the owners of the Congress Party.

Why restrict the potential benefits to the media? The AICC-Associated Journal-Young Indian precedent has shown the way for anyone with a measure of dirty money to whitewash it. The method is simple: pay the cash to a political party and, by arrangement, ensure the party extends a zero-interest loan (which can subsequently be written off) to a nominated individual or company. It is so simple that I don’t know why politicians bother with shell companies and fictitious addresses.

The problem with Narendra Modi is that he is a rustic, out of his depth in the world of the bent and the beautiful. He did not know of the Congress’ ‘companion’ scheme whereby it takes only a Rs 50 lakh investment in a company that has had its liabilities met by the AICC to yield a commercial property on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg in Delhi many value at Rs 500 crore. As the crafty and politically correct copywriter may have said: “Congress ka haath, companion ke saath”. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 4, 2012

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cabinet Reshuffle and the Big Picture

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something in the air of Lutyens’ Delhi that makes its inhabitants heady over any real or proposed reshuffle in the Union Council of Ministers. During his five years at the helm, Rajiv Gandhi pandered to this yearning for unending churning by changing his ministerial team every six months or so. By contrast, Manmohan Singh has been partial to continuity. Maybe this has been due to the fact that he was never a complete master of his own destiny. Buffeted between coalition imperatives and the non-playing captains in 10 Janpath, he has operated under severe limitations. 

Last week’s reorganisation of the team was a little different from half-hearted exercises of the past. First, this time there were no coalition pressures. Apart from a solitary Minister of State from the Nationalist Congress Party who was quietly palmed off to his mentor Sharad Pawar’s ministry, the alterations were exclusively a Congress affair. Whether the Congress has the comfort of numbers to be able to confine its sights exclusively to the party is something that must await the course of the winter session of Parliament beginning later in November. However, to the outside world the Prime Minister and Congress President maintained the pretence that the party had a majority on its own. The real significance of the openings created by the departure of the Trinamool Congress and the reluctance of the DMK to fill its ministerial quota were quite deliberately understated. 

Secondly, this delusion of grandeur was further maintained by the special accommodation of Andhra Pradesh. That the late Y.S. Rajashekhara Reddy contributed disproportionately to the success of the UPA in both 2004 and 2009 is a matter of record. However, it is clear that the benefits that accrued to the state in October 2012 stemmed less from Andhra’s clout in the Congress than from its vulnerability. The elevation of Pallam Raju to the Cabinet, the inclusion of Chiranjeevi as a Minister of State with independent charge and the accommodation of other junior worthies may actually seem a desperate measure to somehow contain the pincer movement by the YSR Congress and the Telengana Rashtriya Samity. Recent opinion polls suggest that the Congress may find it extremely difficult to win more than five Lok Sabha seats in the event of a snap election. 

If the past is any indication, the mere induction of ministers doesn’t by itself change political equations in the localities. The Government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had some five Cabinet ministers from undivided Bihar at the time of the Lok Sabha dissolution in 2004. However, both the BJP and its ally did disastrously in Bihar at the parliamentary election. Likewise, when the V.P. Singh wave first hit Uttar Pradesh, Rajiv Gandhi tried to offset his estranged colleague’s influence among Thakurs by resurrecting Dinesh Singh from oblivion and appointing him External Affairs minister. This had very little effect on the ground.  

Inducting a politician into the ministry may, at best, give an individual enhanced status in the locality. But symbolic gestures rarely translate into the larger political goodwill the Congress craves for. What matters is the wider political message. 

To the extent that the Congress was desirous of packaging last week’s reshuffle as an attempt to give more responsibility to younger ministers the party was aware of the importance of the big picture. Although statistically the average of Manmohan Singh’s team has fallen marginally from 65 years to roughly 64 years, the Congress was successful in conveying the message that the process of generational change that was being demanded has begun, albeit modestly. 

More important was the emergence of another theme that the Congress, perhaps understandably, was not unduly anxious to over-emphasise: the domination of the economic ministries by those who have the reputation of being reformers and who share the Prime Minister’s broad economic philosophy. The injection of a measure of ideological coherence into the economic ministries is no doubt welcome. At least the coming months may see an end to the confusion over and resistance to market-based reforms. Manmohan may even take advantage of his nominee in the Railways Ministry to try and remove a major infrastructural bottleneck. Indeed, so high is the apparent optimism of being able to achieve reforms and ensure fiscal consolidation that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced the Government’s willingness to travel by the fiscal roadmap of the Vijay Kelkar committee. Chidambaram has also been less squeamish about putting political pressure on the Reserve Bank of India to cut interest rates. 

What this implies is something quite dramatic. Does the behaviour of the Prime Minister and Finance Minister indicate that the Congress has decided to go slow on Sonia Gandhi’s desire to expand the welfare net? Expressed in another way, has the Prime Minister decided to liberate himself from the shackles of populism for the remainder of his tenure?

The signs are confusing. At one level the Government has chosen to persevere with its in-principle decision to raise user charges in power, fuel and railway travel. At the same times, there is frenzied activity to ready the Aadhar scheme for direct cash transfers before the election. The Government, it would seem, is keeping both options ready. The outcome of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election and the course of the parliament session will us whether the regime will turn right or left. The state of the opposition will shape the final judgment. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, November 2, 2012

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