Sunday, March 31, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The silly blow-hot-blow-cold games involving the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have, perhaps naturally, agitated the political class and prompted endless speculation over the timing of the next general election. The political turbulence has affected the capital markets and given rise to fears that the sense of drift which has affected economic decision-making will make a mockery of Finance Minister P.Chidambaram’s attempts to talk up the economy and prevent a further loss of investor confidence.

The concerns are real but the Congress-SP spat pales into insignificance compared to the larger implications of the one-upmanship games that are beginning to plague Tamil Nadu. The past week has witnessed a deliberate attempt by both the AIADMK and DMK to up the ante over the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The Tamil Nadu Assembly has passed a resolution pressing the Centre to harden its stand against Sri Lanka, view it as an unfriendly country and insist on a referendum in the Tamil-dominated provinces. A spate of orchestrated demonstrations throughout the state has led to Sri Lankan cricketers having to opt out of the IPL matches in Chennai; and the MDMK leader Vaiko has demanded the prosecution of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India on charges of sedition for a purported email that suggests that the island nation has historical links not merely with the Tamils but with the people of Orissa and Bengal.

To view these developments as bouts of seasonal madness that affects different parts of India at the onset of summer is, of course, tempting. In a more serious vein, however, the developments in Tamil Nadu are more ominous and need to be viewed far more seriously.

For a start, there is a blurring of lines between human rights and political aspirations. I don’t think there is anyone in both Delhi and Colombo who can deny that the last phase of the civil war in 2009 was particularly grim and bloody. However, it is also conceded that excesses were committed by both sides, and not least by the LTTE which gambled on being able to extract a cease-fire by using Tamil civilians as human shields. The meddlesome human rights industry in the West may like to paint the civil war as a one-sided offensive by the state but those familiar with Sri Lanka know that the real forces of darkness were led by V.Prabhakaran.

Whether four years after the conflict, a so-called independent inquiry into human rights abuses will resolve anything is a matter of debate. If such an inquiry helps in the larger process of ethnic reconciliation it would be welcome. However, if it becomes an instrument for the surreptitious political rehabilitation of the fascist LTTE, it must be avoided.

In any case, the issue of “war crimes” is about the past. What is more relevant at the moment is the larger question of the political accommodation of the Tamil minority in the Constitutional structure of Sri Lanka. This is a problem that has dogged Sri Lanka since its Independence in 1948 and has been complicated by the somewhat irrational paranoia in the Sinhala community over a ‘federal’ Constitution. Equally, there has been a lot of intransigence on the part of the Jaffna Tamils—a privileged community during British rule—which has veered from provincial autonomy to secessionism. The Jaffna Tamils have pressed for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as the ‘Tamil homeland’, something that it totally unacceptable to the Muslims and Sinhala people of the Eastern Province. Today, they are pressing for the full implementation of the 13th amendment which gives the Northern and Eastern provinces exceptional autonomy, including control over education and land. Colombo’s hesitation is based on its reluctance to transfer full police control to the provincial governments.

The wariness is understandable since there is still insufficient confidence in the ability of the Tamil National Alliance to prevent the LTTE from regrouping. Four years is still too little a time to be absolutely certain that the one-party Eelam the LTTE espoused and even succeeded in translating into reality for some time, has been totally uprooted.

What is clear is that the debate over the 13th amendment is an internal debate of Sri Lanka. It is of no business of either India or other members of the UN. Yes, New Delhi can privately encourage the Sri Lankan Government to hasten the confidence-building process. But ultimately it is for a democratic government in Colombo to grapple with the problems posed by differentiated citizenship.

The recent agitation in Tamil Nadu, bankrolled in many cases by those who earlier sponsored the LTTE, have a clear purpose: to transplant the remnants of a defeated secessionist movement in Sri Lanka into India. There is a calculated attempt to suggest that the rest of India doesn’t care about Tamil interests and that Tamil Nadu must chalk its independent foreign policy route, if possible with the Centre’s help and if necessary independent of New Delhi. Those who made Eeelam their life’s only mission now see opportunities to link Jaffna and Chennai in a common endeavour.

We are witnessing, for the first time since the Dravidian movement abandoned separatism after Independence, an attempt to sow the seeds of a new separatism that links Northern Sri Lanka, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the overseas Tamil diaspora. The threat can’t be left to acquire a menacing dimension. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 31, 2013

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burning Lanka doesn't always work out well

By Swapan Dasgupta

Diplomacy, it has been said, essentially involves lying for your country. By that logic, there is likely to be widespread sympathy for the complete loss of face for India’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Just about a week ago, India’s envoy was busy engaging with the US and other countries on the draft of a resolution which, while paying token obeisance to Tamil victimhood, would not trigger a ferocious xenophobic reaction in the rest of Sri Lanka. The objective was laudable: to soften the blow on Colombo while accommodating some of India’s domestic concerns.

When he returned to Geneva for last Thursday’s crucial session, he was armed with a new brief: to impress upon the DMK and the global Tamil diaspora that India’s sympathies lay with those who have trying unceasingly to secure the partition of Sri Lanka.

It is fortunate that procedures prevented India from rehabilitating the LTTE before the international community. Yet, this cynical grandstanding, aimed exclusively at preventing Congress stalwarts from losing their Lok Sabha seats at the next election, made India a laughing stock in the region. The ire of Colombo will not be directed at the US which sponsored the resolution. Washington is too powerful and too remote for Sri Lanka to even attempt any meaningful retribution. The blow will fall on India which, ironically, was more than happy when the fanatical Tigers were militarily decimated in 2009. India’s economic and strategic interests in Sri Lanka will suffer and the beneficiary will be China. More to the point, India’s foreign policy will be perceived as wildly erratic and susceptible to sectional pressures, even of the disreputable variety.

It is mildly reassuring that this self-defeating misadventure in Geneva wasn’t accompanied by a resolution in Parliament pillorying Sri Lanka for “human rights abuses” and “genocide”. Mercifully there were enough MPs who prevented this needless bullying of a small country with which India has a deep civilizational relationship.

Nor are these links confined to the Jaffna Tamils and Tamil Nadu. The Sinhala people too look up to India as a pilgrimage centre for the land of the Buddha. And, to stretch the point further, the Sinhala people also trace their ancestry to Orissa and Bengal, the home of the legendary Vijaya who established the first Sinhala kingdom around 543 BC. Sri Lanka’s India connection is clearly not confined to Tamil Nadu.

And, if civilizational links determine diplomatic posturing, would the Government have dared contemplate a resolution attacking China for its assault on Tibetan identity? Why did Parliament contemptuously repudiate the Pakistan National Assembly’s gratuitous resolution on Afzal Guru? Consistency may be the virtue of small minds but wildly erratic conduct doesn’t behove a country that has pretensions of emerging as a global player.

There are times when it is politically rewarding to rise above sectional pressures and do what is in the larger national interest. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did precisely that in 2008 when he called the Left’s bluff over the Indo-US nuclear agreement. It was his resolute stand for a larger purpose that gained the UPA considerable goodwill and was a factor in its re-election in 2009.

That the UPA leadership chose to unsuccessfully placate the DMK which used the Sri Lankan Tamil issue as a ruse to sever an alliance that had otherwise become a liability is revealing. It suggests that there already weak central command structure of the Government has become almost non-existent. The Government gives the appearance of being a replica of the later-Moghul Empire where a nominal badshah in Delhi lacked authority and was buffeted by different regional pressures—a situation deftly exploited by the East India Company.  This incoherence has, quite predictably, affected India’s foreign policy—a field that is the sole responsibility of the Centre. Our think-tanks can pontificate endlessly over a foreign policy ‘doctrine’ and dissect the nuances and calibrations but the reality is cruel. India has lost its capacity to be a meaningful global player. Today, national security merely implies a game of transfers and postings.

Elections may be a year away but more than ever India needs a government with a mandate. And, if possible, a Prime Minister with clout.

Sunday Times of India, March 23, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The British Empire, it has been suggested by at least one historian, was built on the principle of “Ornamentalism”—an innovative euphemism for pomp, splendour and pageantry. When it came to rewarding the distinguished men (women rarely featured) who served the Empire, the authorities were more than mindful that India is extremely status-conscious. One of the perquisites of loyalty, apart from Knighthoods and Rai Bahadur/ Khan Bahadur titles, was the privilege of being exempted from personal appearance in the civil courts.

Independent India has often made a fetish of repudiating the legacy of Empire. There is a sneer that invariably accompanies the invocation of the ‘colonial legacy’, despite the endurance of Lord Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code. In practice, however, our present-day rulers appear unwilling to dispense with the more iniquitous facets of Empire, particularly when it comes to privileges for the well-connected and the loyal.

Nothing highlights this more than the contrived outrage in rarefied circles of Delhi and Mumbai over the conviction of actor Sanjay Dutt under the Arms Act by the Supreme Court and his consequent five-year jail sentence (of which he has to serve some 42 months).

That many Bollywood producers whose films starring Sanjay are at a midway stage will be deeply upset by the apex court judgment is understandable. There is also likely to be considerable sympathy for his family and the deep embarrassment to his sister who represents a Mumbai constituency for the ruling Congress Party in the Lok Sabha. In addition, there are those who lament the misfortune that has hit the son of Sunil Dutt and Nargis, both highly regarded public figures. The case of Sanjay Dutt is indeed tragic.

Appreciating and sympathising with a personal tragedy is one thing but extending it to the realms of public policy is altogether different. This crucial distinction, plus the principle of ‘equality before law’ appears to have escaped the understanding of stalwarts such as Press Council chairman Justice Markandeya Katju and some other political and personal friends of Sanjay. With his penchant from going from the sublime, Katju has even suggested that Sanjay’s stellar role in popularising Gandhi-giri through a popular Bollywood film should be taken into consideration in judging the quantum of punishment. Sections of the political class have cited Katju’s pseudo-judicial opinion to argue for a pardon.

And the Law Minister Ashwini Kumar who, strictly speaking should not be commenting on individual cases, has let it be known that the Governor of Maharashtra K. Sankaranarayan “will use his discretionary power when there will be an appeal to him. He has the power to pardon”. Since the Governor is a political appointee who has served the Congress Party well in the past, the Law Minister’s use of the term “will” (as reported in Indian Express of March 23) assumes enormous significance. There is an inescapable suggestion that a pardon for Sanjay Dutt is pre-determined.

The law, as Mr Bumble famously said, “is an ass”. It may also be unmindful of the “quality of mercy”; but the scales of justice are held blindfolded. There can’t be one standard for Sanjay Dutt and another for the others convicted in the same case. If Sanjay is to be spared the ordeal of serving time in jail, a corresponding degree of generosity must be the norm for the others, including the 10 who have been awarded life imprisonment and Yakub Memon who is to hang.  

It is important to recall the magnitude of Sanjay’s offence. He is not being punished because he happens to be a star and the son of famous parents. His offence is grave because he used his privileged position to arrange a safe venue for a cache of arms and explosives that had been received from Pakistan by the underworld to organise the serial blasts in March 1993 that killed 257 innocent people and seriously injured another 713. What Sanjay did was not merely brandish an AK-56 assault rifle and a 9mm revolver before a mirror and pretend he was Rambo. He directly facilitated a massacre of monumental proportions, an offence that was no less serious than the massacre by Pakistan-trained terrorists on November 26, 2008.

In fairness, as the Public Prosecutor has pointed out, Sanjay should have been prosecuted under the stringent TADA. Instead, the CBI, for reasons that don’t need too much probing, dropped the charges under TADA and prosecuted him under the Arms Act where conviction involves a lesser quantum of punishment. Now that the punishment has been sanctioned by the highest court, there is a clamour to spare him all further punishment.

In 1994, shortly after Sunjay had first been arrested for his role as a facilitator in the Dawood-organised act of terrorism, I met Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray who told me ominously of an impending “civil war” in India. Having heard him out, I gently asked him why, in that case, was he pleading for leniency for Sanjay. In his inimitable style, Thackeray retorted: “What that boy needs is three tight slaps.”

In a normal case of truancy, three tight slaps delivered by the Tiger himself may have done the trick. But Sanjay wasn’t guilty of bunking school or whistling at a passing girl. He knowingly participated in the logistics of mass murder. The Establishment may see this as akin to rash driving, but are we obliged to forget? 

Sunday Pioneer, March 24, 2013

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Scapegoat for Political Games

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since issues and ‘causes’ are most often a fig leaf for other hard-nosed calculations, there is an understandable reluctance to take the formal pronouncements of political parties at their face value. This is particularly true of the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu. Although the main Dravidian parties trace their political ancestry to the pre-Independence Justice Party and the anti-Brahmin social movement launched by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, there is precious little in their present day actions to suggest that they are guided by lofty ideas. Having alternated control of the state government since 1967 and having become stakeholders at the Centre since 1996, Dravidian politics has conveyed an unmistakable impression of being guided by venality alone.

Given this backdrop, it is hard to completely discount the suggestion that the DMK’s dramatic withdrawal from the UPA last Tuesday morning—a move that has left the Congress completely at the mercy of two Uttar Pradesh-based parties who can barely tolerate the sight of each other—was guided by a touching concern for the plight of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Had that indeed been the case, the DMK (which always had a soft corner for the separatist Eelam movement) would have exercised its clout to force India to join other Western countries in 2009 and press for a cease-fire across the Palk Straits. True, DMK chief M.Karunanidhi did go on a symbolic fast to highlight his concern over the military elimination of the dreaded LTTE. But it is an open secret that despite nominal appeals for restraint, New Delhi was not unhappy that the LTTE was roundly vanquished and its leader V.Prabhakaran eliminated.

Yes, there was some concern at the high civilian casualties during the final stages of the bitter civil war. At the same time, New Delhi, through its bitter experience of the IPKF misadventure, knew very well that LTTE showed scant respect for the Geneva Convention and other rules of military engagement. The use of civilians and particularly children as a human shield was a recurring feature of the LTTE’s military strategy. Indeed, the reason Prabhakaran’s last stand turned out to be such a bloody affair was precisely because the LTTE had gambled on the fear of collateral damage forcing the Sri Lankan army to stall. If Colombo refused to blink, it was due to a corresponding realisation that it was confronting one of the most brutal and fanatical armies ever raised. Those familiar with Ian Kershaw’s The End, a masterly study of the final five months of the war against Nazi Germany in 1945, will see parallels with what happened in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka four years ago.

Of course, the term ‘human rights’ hadn’t entered the vocabulary of international politics in 1945—a reason why the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland and erstwhile Czechoslovakia has been erased from Europe’s collective memory. In any case, the application of human rights to a regime that organised the Holocaust would have been laughable.

Likewise, the invocation of human rights to a dispensation that combined brutality with unwavering fanaticism and which controlled the Tamil areas through efficient intimidation seems as out of place today as it would have in Germany 1945. There has been a brutalisation of Sri Lanka ever since the civil war began in 1983. But the hardening of the Sri Lankan military—which used to be a ceremonial force—is in direct proportion to the blood-thirstiness of the LTTE. The efficacy and wisdom of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka may occasion legitimate debate. But there can be no debate over the fact that the LTTE personified evil.  

The irony is that the pundits in New Delhi and the political class in Tamil Nadu are fully aware of the real face of the LTTE and even the danger it posed to India. It is relevant to recall the LTTE’s calculated, cold-blooded murder of Rajiv Gandhi during the election campaign of 1991. It is also pertinent to refresh public memory of the Congress Party’s dissociation from the United Front Government of I.K. Gujral in 1998 after the Jain Commission reported the cosy relationship between the DMK and LTTE. True, the imperatives of coalition politics may have forced the Congress to enter into an alliance with Karunanidhi’s party after 2004. But domestic expediency is no reason to forget the past entirely, particularly the unhappy chapters relating to the manner in which Prabhakaran did a Bhindranwale on a cynical regime.

There are a lot of forces and individuals who were responsible for Sri Lanka’s nightmare years. The Bandaranaike family cannot escape responsibility for triggering the process of ethnic polarisation in 1956; other Sinhala politicians cannot disown their roles in the marginalisation of moderate Tamil politicians; and even the Buddhist clergy had a role in stoking a regressive majoritarian outlook. But among those responsible was also India. Would the LTTE have emerged as a force had it not been for New Delhi’s covert support?

Finance Minister P.Chidambaram has sought to send a “resolute” message to Colombo. Perhaps President M. Rajapakshe could do with some softening. But will New Delhi show the same resolve in attacking China for its treatment of its Tibetan minorities? Is Colombo being targeted because it is a small player? Are the principles of ‘constructive engagement’ determined by the electoral calculations of Tamil Nadu? Let’s not make Sri Lanka a scapegoat for the political games we play at home. 

Asian Age, March 22, 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Who Governs India?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those familiar with the political history of India since the decline of the Moghul Empire in the 18th century will easily detect a common thread that runs through to the present: the weaker the regime the greater the levels of intrigue and conspiracy in the courts. In Bengal, for example, the levels of intrigue reached colossal heights in the courts of Siraj-ud-Doulah, Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim—nawabs who combined impetuousness with eroding authority. And in western India, the term “Peshwai intrigue” became a stereotype for displays of purposeless cunning so much so that Veer Savarkar lamented the great Vedantist Baji Rao II’s inability to distinguish between a kingdom and a pension.

It may seem far-fetched to extend the mystical charms of oriental intrigue to the India of Manmohan Singh. Yet, occasionally, such a temptation is irresistible.  

Last Wednesday morning—before the Prime Minister intervened in Parliament to inform Italy of “consequences” if it persisted in harbouring the two fugitive marines—a bizarre story began doing the rounds of the political towns of Delhi. The PM had, the previous day, met agitated MPs from Kerala and had placated them with the message that he too felt found the attitude of Italy completely unacceptable. The PM’s assurance soon found its way into the newsrooms and some of the next morning’s newspapers even had a mention of it. Yet, it seems that late at night some media people were contacted by a Race Course Road functionary and told that there was no need to over-interpret the PM’s displeasure.

When the PM got to know of this spin-doctoring the proverbial excreta, it is said, hit the ceiling. According to those who claim to be in the know of the innards of the system, he posed a fundamental question: who controls the Prime Minister’s Office? It’s a question many have privately asked and now, it seemed, the PM had stumbled on the same query.

It is a matter of some solace that the PM did not budge from his original displeasure with the proverbial ‘nation-in-law’. His intervention in Parliament may have lacked delivery but its larger message was quite forthright.

At the same time, the question persists: why was there an attempt to dilute India’s outrage over Rome giving a new twist to the concept of “most favoured nation”? Was this a unilateral gesture by a courtier who was trying to second-guess the ‘real’ power centre? Or, was there some basis to the thwarted revisionism? In that case, from where did it originate?

These are questions that will never be satisfactorily answered. When it comes to the intrigues of the court, no absolute verification is really possible. What is important, however, is not whether an attempt was made to underplay the significance of Italy’s hostile action—if it was, you can be rest assured that Indian diplomacy will not pursue the issue relentlessly and, instead, allow it to fade away from public memory. To my mind, the significance lies in the fact that even in matters that involve national sovereignty and India’s place in the world, the preoccupation of the court is factional one-upmanship.

Those who narrated the supposed sequence of events to me were gleeful that the PM had “asserted” himself. But the mere fact that the PM did what the occasion demanded invoked a celebratory mood among those who still retain a soft corner for him is itself revealing. It suggests that the mind of the government is in a haze and systemic dysfunction so deep-rooted that the movements of the left and right hands are wilfully uncoordinated.

India’s stock in the world has fallen so alarmingly in the past year that Rome doesn’t think twice before flashing two fingers at New Delhi and Islamabad is brazen enough to pass a provocative resolution on Afzal Guru in its National Assembly. Nor does it stop here. Even Maldives doesn’t feel that Indian counsels amount to very much. In the game of international politics, India is precariously poised to become the football—an object that can be kicked around merrily because its rulers are busy settling factional scores and its functionaries are gleefully taking advantage of a prevailing power vacuum.

It is wrong to believe that the state of drift we are witnessing today is a function of incoherent economic policies. That one wing of the government wants to end its term with a colossal display of fiscal profligacy while another wing is pondering over the judgment of history is only part of the problem. The unpalatable truth, that we as Indians must recognise, is that we are confronted with a lame duck government that has lost both the will and the authority to function.

One pillar of notional authority is concerned with the legacy question; another, and more formidable, pillar is preoccupied with the question of inheritance; and the third is self-absorbed with evolving management information systems. Last week, on Times Now, a belligerent retired Pakistan Admiral mocked India for its hollowness. It made a lot of us very angry but there was a ring of truth behind his sneer.

The question is: who governs India? This is a puzzle that is awaiting a solution. From yearning to be a regional superpower, we have been left celebrating that we are at least better off than Pakistan. Some achievement! 

Sunday Pioneer, March 17, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

BITTER HARVEST - The Italian marines’ issue could be damaging for the Gandhis

By Swapan Dasgupta

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often been mocked for his persistent refusal to speak on issues that warrant interventions at the highest level of government. It is a commentary on the potential consequences of the two Italian marines refusing to return to India for their trial on charges of killing two Indian fishermen on the high seas that he actually spoke on the subject in both Houses of Parliament last Wednesday. More to the point, he departed from his usual mealy-mouthed cautiousness and spoke sternly of “consequences for our relations with Italy” if the authorities in Rome persisted in violating a solemn assurance by the Government of Italy to the Supreme Court that the two accused would return to Kerala for their trial after the Christmas holidays.

The reason why the Prime Minister felt compelled to make an intervention, rather than leave it to External Affairs Minister Salman Khursheed, is obvious. For the Congress, Italy has always been a touchy subject—at least ever since the Bofors scandal broke in Sweden in 1988. Those with memories will recall that businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi fled India (or, rather, was allowed to flee) in haste on the night of July29-30, 1993, after the Swiss authorities had confirmed a Bofors trail to his bank accounts. And Quattrocchi was no ordinary Italian business representative of Snamprogetti; he was well-known in Delhi as a man who flaunted his social connection with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.

What the Congress legitimately fears is that any murky controversy involving either Italy or even an Italian citizen has the potential of being viewed in the bazars of India as—what former BJP minister Jaswant Singh slyly called—an “Italian Job”. The allusion was, of course, to the cult film of a wonderfully executed robbery of gold ingots. The 1989 election which saw Rajiv Gandhi’s steamroller majority crumble, for example, witnessed the explosion of evocative ditties alluding to the then Prime Minister’s special relationship with his sasural. Indeed, it became customary for Italy to be dubbed as the “nation-in-law” and for the mythical ideal of a Ram Rajya to be juxtaposed against the Congress’ Rome Rajya.

To be fair, there is very little to suggest that Sonia Gandhi consciously played up her Italian origins. Even Tavleen Singh’s best-selling Durbar which claims to provide a ringside view of Rajiv and Sonia from the time they were private citizens doesn’t dwell on Sonia flaunting her Italian-ness. Indeed, after the UPA Chairperson was badly singed for her association with Quattrocchi, she has taken exceptional care to leave her national origins far behind and project herself as an Indian bahu, a person who has imbibed the culture, traditions and ethos of her husband’s family. I have personally heard innumerable anecdotes from European journalists and diplomats indicating that she has invariably replied in English when addressed in Italian. Sonia can’t do much about her accent which continues to be decidedly Italian, but in everything else she has ensured that there is little overt traces of foreign-ness in her public persona.

It is this conscious attempt to Indianise herself that may explain why the ‘foreign origin’ issue has been carrying diminishing returns. In March 1999, the fact of her Italy-born status was certainly a factor behind her inability to muster the numbers to form a government after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Government failed the floor test by a single vote. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s reluctance and even the CPI(M)’s wariness to endorse a Sonia-led Government was in a large measure due to a larger national wariness over a “foreigner” occupying the top political job.

On her part, Sonia imbibed the lessons of the 1999 failure. Therefore, when she had the opportunity in May 2004 to become Prime Minister—despite Sushma Swaraj’s awesome threat to discard her hair in mourning—she allowed her “inner voice” to pass on the responsibility to Manmohan Singh. Today, Sonia remains the foremost political authority in both the Congress and the UPA Government. Additionally, Sonia has a keen sense of political calculation that is inspired by her mother-in-law: her political distance from Rajiv is marked. Yet, it is precisely due to the fact that she was born an Italian citizen that she has been unable to translate her status as head of the Congress dynasty to a Constitutional position.

Acknowledging this does not in any way undermine her pre-eminence in the present political Establishment. Nor does it diminish her responsibility for the overall performance of the UPA Government. In the public imagination at least, both the successes and the failures of the UPA since 2004 are attributed to her. In the more cloistered world of the political class, this extends to the UPA’s dismal record in controlling corruption. Even the controversial business practices of her son-in-law Robert Vadra have been pinned on her indulgence.

However, being a step removed from the day-to-day grind of governance has enabled Sonia to establish a distinct political positioning. In fiscal terms, the UPA’s expansion of the welfare net may well be grossly irresponsible. However, her pro-active role in establishing the MNREGA and getting the proposed Food Security Act passed has established her so-called ‘pro-poor’ credentials—something that appeals to Congress activists who believe in hand-outs as the route to electoral success. Although India is no longer a shortage economy bolstered by an inefficient public sector, Sonia stands out in the emerging market economy as the Lady Bountiful, doing ‘good works’ for the poor and the vulnerable.

If 2014 was going to be a ‘normal’ election with no apparent dominant theme and no star personality, this blend of Mother India and Mother Teresa may well have fulfilled the Congress’ desire to remain in the reckoning as the default party of India. Unfortunately, the slowdown of the economy, the well-publicised cases of mega corruption and the perceived sense of drift may well make the polls into something more significantly dramatic—especially if Narendra Modi emerges as the challenger. At this juncture, when the Congress appears so fragile and heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi presents himself as so uninspiring, the last thing the Congress would want is for some additional controversy to shake the first family.

The issue of the Italian marines seen in isolation would appear like an embarrassment. However, read with the investigations in Italy into the bribes given for the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters and the real estate greed of Vadra, there is every danger that the Gandhi family could suffer huge collateral damage. The mood in Italy is dead against any return of the absconding marines to India. But Indian national pride could equally come to the fore if New Delhi attempts a workable compromise solution. Already there are dark hints of a quid pro quo that would involve the Italian authorities going very slow on the inquiries into the bribes allegedly paid by AgustaWestland.

Most conspiracy theories can ever be substantiated by hard evidence. However, electoral trials are based almost exclusively on perceptions. People, as Modi rightly pointed out in a different context last week, tend to forgive the lapses of a regime that is otherwise seen to provide good governance. The Congress cannot at this juncture hope for such generosity. On the contrary, the UPA may well be a victim to the perverse habit of believing the worst of anyone who is down. Sonia has so far escaped this onrush of spite. But unless the Government can resolve the present Italian muddle, the Congress President could well be its unintended victim. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Modi Magic

By Swapan Dasgupta

The detractors of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have repeatedly asserted that he runs a personalised administration and is unmindful of both advice and criticism. These attributes, it is often said, may work in a state but is singularly inappropriate for running the Government of India where there are far more conflicting pressures that involve sensitive handling.

Those more familiar with his style of working disagree vehemently with the suggestion of imperiousness. Modi, they argue, has been unfairly portrayed for three reasons. First, because he has confined the role of MLAs to that of watchdogs of government-run programmes and prevented their involvement in the executive; secondly, he has sharply reduced the discretionary powers of the government and made decision-making more transparent in matters such as the transfers and postings of officials; and, finally, Modi as a man is firmly resistant to both corporate and political pressure and, having taken a decision, he sticks to it.

My experience of covering Gujarat politics for over a decade tells me that the Chief Minister is unpopular among two sections. There are, of course, those who loath him because he apparently contests their “idea of India”, a euphemism for not have grovelled for his administrative shortcomings during the 2002 sectarian riots. But equally, Modi is viewed with considerable wariness by the political classes, cutting across party lines. This is almost entirely because he loathes the idea of an administration being derailed by localised ‘dadagiri’—a problem that is rampant in most parts of India.

Modi’s approach, it may well be argued is well-intentioned. But equally well-intentioned politicians in the BJP have faltered politically for pursuing a similar model—the names of Babulal Marandi of Jharkhand and B.C. Khanduri of Uttarakhand come to mind. Where Modi has succeeded where the others have tripped up is on three counts.

First, his ability to reach the people over the heads of political intermediaries has meant that he alone can deliver the incremental votes for his party. It is significant that in the past decade the BJP has always performed better in the Assembly elections of Gujarat than in the Lok Sabha polls where he is not the main factor.

Secondly, Modi’s administration has paid inordinate attention to public communications and ensured that the news of its good works reaches the people. That Gujarat has progressed significantly under Modi is acknowledged, both grudgingly and enthusiastically. However, what is politically important is that the electorate of the state is constantly reminded of the progress the state has made. This in turn has nurtured a strong sense of regional pride that is easily offended when its real achievements are rubbished by ‘intellectuals’. Even the state Congress grasped this reality in last year’s Assembly election and concentrated on invoking caste identities and highlighting mohulla-level issues.

Finally, thanks to the barrage of criticism that Modi has faced since 2002, his role as a doughty fighter has been implanted in the public imagination. Just as the adulation for Indira Gandhi increased with the visceral attacks on her by the opposition, Modi’s reputation as a decisive, no-nonsense and development-oriented politician has grown in direct proportion to the attacks on him. At one time the phenomenon was confined to Gujarat but today it is acquiring all-India dimensions, including in states where the BJP has only a token presence.

In 1996, when he became Prime Minister of the 13-day government, Atal Behari Vajpayee was an inspirational figure in only northern and western India, areas where the BJP had a presence. However, after his dramatic resignation speech in the Lok Sabha (the first occasion that a parliamentary debate apart from the Budget speech was televised), he became an all-India figure. I recall my utter surprise when I found the Vajpayee factor coming into play in areas such as Telengana and Orissa during the 1998 election—a reason why, immediately after the election, N. Chandrababu Naidu switched sides. Today, with the penetration of TV having become far more intense, three of Modi’s speeches—his victory speech in Ahmedabad in December 2012, his address to the Sri Ram College students in February and his inspired oratory at the BJP National Council last week—have transformed him into an all-India politician and, possibly, the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Over the past 18 months, opinion polls have shown Modi’s national popularity rising. I would hazard the guess that after this month, his ratings will register a steeper jump.

The BJP leadership have been sensing this groundswell since Modi’s third consecutive election victory last December. There has been a creeping realisation that the incremental, positive vote in favour of Modi will considerably replenish the anti-incumbency vote against the UPA-2. The message is simple: by itself and with uncertainty over who is the leader, the NDA will probably be the largest formation in a fractured 16th Lok Sabha. However, a presidential-style election with Modi at the helm could enable the NDA to aim for outright victory. More important, the growing importance of Modi could add to the number of parties willing to associate with the NDA, especially if the Gujarat leader sticks to the promise of making India ‘great’.

Last week, Modi offered an olive leaf to the BJP and emphasised the importance of working as a team. This is precisely the assurance the waverers needed. By acclaim the party nominated him to the chair vacated by Vajpayee in 2004. We now await the Congress response. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 8, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Economy’s future is Ram bharose

By Swapan Dasgupta

Like most things Indians or, rather, Hindu, there is a great deal of ritualism that accompanies the annual Budget exercise. For Finance Minister P.Chidambaram, a seasoned hand in presenting Budgets, the predictable part of the choreography may lie in the mandatory recitation of a verse from Thiruvalluvar; for the writers of the Economic Survey it may consist of repeating last year’s assurance that darkness is inevitably accompanied by sunshine; and for those who are dubbed corporate ‘honchos’ it may lie in describing every Budget as ‘responsible’, ‘innovative’, or even ‘path-breaking’.

However, like the mantras that commits the worshipper to give generously to the Brahmin intermediary between God and the devout, the invocations need not be taken at face value. This is particularly so with a Chidambaram Budget. PC’s reputation for having a low threshold of tolerance and his self-projection as a most superior person have ensured that candid discussions of the Budget are behind closed doors. Apart from the political class who enjoy exceptional protection and a few economists who are mad enough to speak their mind, the predictable response to a PC Budget is about as mellifluous as the King of Basutoland’s tribute to Queen Victoria : “my country is your blanket, and my people the lice upon it.”  

I am naturally not referring to those corporate notables who were sceptical of the claim that the present fiscal deficit is 5.2 per cent of the GDP because some crucial items of expenditure had been conveniently overlooked but, yet, that the Budget was good or even excellent. I am not even contesting the belief that the Indian economy needs to be talked up, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to do when he feebly suggested that an 8 per cent GDP is not in the realms of a Bollywood fantasy. My simple assertion is that the orchestrated projection of PC as the perennial Superman (recall an India Today cover after the Budget of 1997) who, having ‘fixed’ the deficit, now deserves a role greater than being Finance Minister is a tad overstated.

Nor is this particular reading of the tea leaves too fanciful. According to the political grapevine of Lutyens’ Delhi which tends to get a little overshadowed by the Budget drama, there was a flutter of sorts in North Block last Thursday following an article in The Hindu that painted the Finance Minister as yet another lackey of corporate India—a Congress version of Narendra Modi who was being projected by an alliance of moneybags, ‘communalists’ and Middle India as the great brown hope. That it had been penned by a man whose understanding of the Congress is quite profound added to the consternation. The article was brought to my proverbial attention by a man whose understanding of the Prime Minister is equally deep suggested that something was brewing.

In public, the Congress will heartily endorse the Budget of 2013. They will point to the fact that PC has not curtailed expenditure, particularly on welfare schemes, has reached out to women albeit symbolically, has snarled at the 42,800 of India’s super-rich with a taxable income of over Rs 1 crore and even managed to set new norms for backwardness that could increase the wedge between Nitish Kumar and the BJP. To add to these achievements, he deftly targeted Indian SUV manufacturers, enhanced the tax burden on the futures trades in non-agricultural commodities and added to the woes of the diamond industry. On paper these may look random but there was an underlying hint of punitive action against those who have links to Gujarat and Modi.

In this Budget, the Finance Minister had little elbow room. That he made the most of the limited opportunities will endear him to a section of the Congress that believes the way forward is for Rahul Gandhi to find his own answer to his mother’s choice of Manmohan Singh as Regent. Only the wilfully obtuse can overlook the fact that the Budget has been accompanied by the first tentative demands of a ‘PC for PM’ campaign. At present, the hints of such an approach for the 2014 general election is emanating from a group that can be said to be headquartered in Race Course Road, a clutch of businessmen and industrialists who are based in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and, as such, have little or no dealings with the alternative superstar in Gujarat. It may even find tacit support from diplomatic missions who are uneasy at the thought of a familiar Establishment being replaced by unknown people.  

Ideally, for these sections, Rahul should have been at the helm of the ‘continuity with change’ strategy. However, for reasons well known, he has proved a disappointment. Hence, the importance being attached to Chidambaram and, equally, the rising opposition to what Congress loyalists see as a recipe for electoral disaster. “Mamnohan Singh joined the Congress to become Finance Minister”, a disaffected Congress MP told me last week, “but Chidambaram left the Congress to become Finance Minister.” The reference was to PC’s defection to the Tamil Maanila Congress in 1996.  

In India, few remember history. For PC, the real test is not whether his DNA is Congress but whether India experiences a bout of sunshine before voting day in 2014. At present, the future of the economy is in a state of Ram bharose

Sunday Pioneer, March 3, 2013
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