Sunday, April 28, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

Since the Indian Parliament is lucky enough to have a quizmaster among its members, it would be instructive if he posed a perplexing question to a Government minister, preferably one whose answer is likely to be taken seriously. The question is this: If 19km of Chinese incursion into Indian territory leaves both the government and society completely unruffled, how much territory does Beijing have to occupy before the country feels well and truly shafted?

Maybe this question need not be confined to representatives of the UPA Government and the presiding deities of the so-called “strategic community” that are so visible in seminars and international airport lounges. This Saturday’s Delhi editions of the English language dailies were conspicuous by their perfunctory treatment of this official admission by the Defence Secretary to the parliamentary standing committee on defence. Only one publication chose to place this news on its front page; the rest chose to give greater play to the newest version of a mobile phone produced by Samsung.

Whether the relegation of the border tensions have anything to do with discreet suggestions from (what are quaintly described in media-speak as) ‘sources’, is a matter of conjecture. But as I have long maintained, the newshounds on the South Block beat have for long adjusted to their new role as stenographers to the Ministry of External Affairs. No wonder readers are compelled to digest a lot of gobble about “perceptional mismatch”, “calibrated” overtures and “nuanced” approaches to an opaque and inscrutable dispensation in Beijing. Thank God the TV channels are little less squeamish.

China, to its eternal credit, has very successfully created a mystique around itself. India’s China experts—with some honourable exceptions—have, by and large, devoured the piffle that is routinely dished out by its post-Confucian mandarins and, in fact, added their own sprinkling of soya sauce. Those who were exposed to China studies in the Indian Universities in the 1970s may recall the gush-gush endorsements of crazy schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The post-Mao U-turn should, ideally, have left them red-faced by the inclination to be Sinophiles, rather than Sinologists, had struck such deep roots that the shifting sands of China had little impact.

I recall attending a lecture by the notorious fellow-traveller Han Suyin at the London School of Economics sometime in the late-1970s where she held forth on the treachery of the Gang of Four, particularly Mao’s widow Jiang Quin. It was all very erudite and convincing until an insolent Briton stood up to remind her that barely a year or so ago she was singing praises of those very people she was now denouncing with gusto.

Actually, for the China-watchers, it is a simple case of access. Their profession demands frequent visits to China and it just doesn’t do to get on the wrong side of the present dispensation. And remember, China isn’t just another country: it is the most powerful nation of Asia blessed with an unflinching determination to restore its place as the Middle Kingdom. To many of China’s policy makers, India is a upstart that must periodically be shown its place. Certainly, Zhou Enlai was miffed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s condescension and waited for an opportune moment to deliver a tight slap in 1962.

The irony is that the greater the rebuff, the more India seems to come crawling. Nehru was probably the intellectual originator of the silly ‘Chindia’ thesis that subsequent fellow travellers such as Jairam Ramesh have taken such pains to propagate. Nehru’s anodyne Panchshila was located in a romantic version of post-colonial Asian resurgence. The tragedy was that lesser Nehruvians who were involved in Sino-Indian relations took exceptional care to ensure that ground realities were presented in such a way as to fit a grand theory. Sardar K.M. Panikkar who served as India’s Ambassador to China at a critical juncture may have been an erudite scholar but his total misreading of the fledgling Maoist regime owed a great deal to dissimulation. He presented a picture of China that Nehru wanted to hear.

This tradition of tailoring the message to suit the recipient appears to be continuing and, as usual, being packaged within a so-called strategic doctrine. Some of those entrusted with safeguarding India’s national security appear to be more concerned with getting their Mandarin pronunciation right when ordering Shark’s Fin soup than in penetrating the political fog that is allowed to engulf the Chinese establishment.

Yes, India cannot afford a military misadventure against a country that has larger capacity and depth. Ideally, it should avoid a second front. But that is no excuse to turn a blind eye to the demographic transformation of Tibet, the cyber terrorism that is periodically unleashed and China’s encouragement of Pakistan. Worse, in today’s context, there is no logic to replicating Nehru’s casual dismissal of the loss of Aksai Chin on the ground that “not a blade of grass” grows there.

There are a lot of little things India can do: lending a shoulder to countries such as Japan, Vietnam and even Singapore who are fearful of China’s hegemonism is just one of them. Maybe India has done these things in fits and starts. But all half-hearted initiatives have been overshadowed by the fact that whenever the Chinese dragon breathes fire, we run for cover, tail between legs. In the past week, India has exposed itself well and truly as a paper tiger. 

Sunday Pioneer, April 28, 2013

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Modi under modificationMost analyses of Modi are rooted in the debate surrounding the Ayodhya years, but both India and the man have changed

Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay (Tranquebar Press, 2013, 410 pages. Rs 495)

Biographies of individuals who could end up as the Prime Minister of India have begun making their appearance in a pre-election India gripped by political uncertainty. In the past year, for example, there have been two attempts by three journalists to explain the life and politics of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s media-shy heir apparent. Both books were astonishing in one respect: the authors had never met nor spoken to the Congress Vice President!

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s political biography of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not short-change readers with such brazenness. Yet, the fact that the author met the subject of his study for just one lengthy session (he had, of course, interacted with him in earlier years when Modi was a functionary at the BJP central office in Delhi) in May 2012 and completed the back some nine months later suggests that ‘quickies’ are becoming the norm in Indian publishing.

To do justice to his subject, a biographer needs to certainly understand the wider environment in which the individual operates. He certainly needs to engage exhaustively with friends, family, associates and detractors of the person under scrutiny. But these are never a substitute for getting under the skin of and understanding the mind of the subject. For a person whose life is still a work in progress, this is a doubly complex exercise that requires patience, perseverance and doggedness.

It is not that Mukhopadhyay hasn’t tried. He has read most of the secondary articles and reports on Modi; he has spoken to those who dislike Modi within the RSS family; and he has touched base with most of Gujarat’s senior journalists. Indeed, like the reporter who is parachuted into unknown territory, he has followed the drill: first talk to the taxi driver and then imbibe the wisdom of local journalists.

There is only problem with this approach: the local media (with some exceptions) is usually the least well-informed about the Chief Minister. I have seen this in Orissa and I have experienced it in Gujarat. In 2002, for example, there were almost no takers for the couple of seats set aside for media in the leader’s helicopter during the campaign. The media had decided to boycott the ‘monster’, having convinced itself that he was going to lose—a perception bolstered by spurious polls. In 2007, an Ahmedabad journalist asked me to contribute an article on the theme: “Is 2007 Modi’s Waterloo?” And in 2012, Delhi journalists were routinely told by their Gujarat colleagues that the BJP would fall short of a majority.

Mukhopadhyay’s over-dependence on the local media has inevitably led him to replicate the facile conclusions on which the Delhi chatterati has depended in assessing Modi. I was struck, for example, by the complete absence of any inputs from retired or serving bureaucrats on Modi’s approach to administration. It was amusing to see the complete absence of accounts from entrepreneurs and farmers on the business environment of Gujarat. Rather than undertake rigorous groundwork, Mukhopadhyay has relied exclusively on reports that suggest that Modi is no big deal. Likewise, the absence of any discernible inputs from senior BJP figures, many of whom have a strange love-hate relationship with him, is very noticeable. There are umpteen stories of the years Modi spent in ‘exile’, dreaming of a return to Gujarat, and the way he handled the post-2002 assault by the Prime Minister’s Office that would have enriched the of the man. Equally, Mukhopadhyay does not provide any insights into Modi’s troubled relationship with the RSS establishment and how he prevailed.

The fundamental mistake of this biography lies in the belief that the Modi who was an important functionary during the Hindutva mobilisation from the late-1980s to the mid-1990s is the same man who now aspires to be Prime Minister. This is a common mistake of those who covered the Ayodhya movement and were convinced that fascism was round the corner in India.

The most interesting story to be told is how Modi clobbered the likes of Togadia, insulated himself from the RSS’ micro-management and coped with the unrelenting hostility of the Indian Establishment. The Modi who found himself thrust into the unlikely role of ‘Chhote Sardar’ in 2002, redefined the terms on which he would be judged subsequently. In believing, like many still do, that the rise and rise of Narendra Modi is a consequence of crude identity politics is to misread the man completely. Modi’s critics, it would seem, are still judging him on the terms of a debate that surrounded the Ayodhya years. Since then, India has changed, Modi has changed but his detractors are caught in a time warp.

In assessing the “The Times’ which shaped Modi, Mukhopadhyay overlooked the post-1991 economic transformation of India. The vicious 2002 riots were the last gasp of the old politics. What matters is subsequent events, themes that this book leaves under-explored.
---Swapan Dasgupta 

Business Standard, April 26, 2013

A MODEL APPROACH - What is needed is sustained focus on efficient governance

By Swapan Dasgupta

On November 16, 1905, two days before he left India for the last time—and in controversial circumstances—Viceroy Lord Curzon delivered a remarkable speech at the Byculla Club in Bombay. The popular expectations from a Viceroy, he suggested, were unbearably exacting: “He must be prepared to speak about everything, and often about nothing. He is expected to preserve temples, to keep the currency steady, to satisfy third-class passengers, to patronise race meetings, to make Bombay and Calcutta each think that it is the Capital city of India, and to purify the police…If he does not reform everything that is wrong, he is told that he is doing too little; if he reforms anything at all, that he is doing too much.”

Arguably, Curzon was protesting too much. As an unapologetic advocate of “one-man supervision” (to be distinguished from one-man rule) which he viewed as the best alternative to bureaucratic government—“the most mechanical and lifeless of all forms of administration”—this most “superior” of all Viceroys revelled in micro-management. Predictably, this insistence on the Viceroy being the fountainhead of governance and policy-making led to a clash with the India Office and forced his premature return to the far less glamorous world of domestic politics in Britain.

There is some merit in re-reading Curzon’s Byculla Club speech in the age of 24x7 news channels. Over the past few years, there has been an engaging debate over the role of government and governance in India. For many, the rapes in Delhi, the mushrooming of pornographic clips on mobile phones, the cheating of small investors by suspect chit funds and the persistence of malnutrition among children point to the need for more government and, perhaps, more intrusive governance. Conversely, the suggestion of cronyism in the allotment of telecom licences and coal blocks, the sheer incompetence of state electricity boards and the leakages identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the workings of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) has prompted the conclusion that the Indian state is not merely bloated but incompetent and venal.

A remarkable feature of this fierce debate that rages incessantly on TV screens, Parliament and other public forums is that they are invariably case study based. Those who are demanding the censure of the Government for depriving the public exchequer of rentier income in the sale of spectrum and allotment of coal blocks may well be those who were earlier in the year resentful of the controls the state sought to exercise on the social media. The middle classes are outraged that the Right to Education Act has resulted in state-sponsored hiccups in the admission procedures of schools. Yet the same middle classes pillory the West Bengal Government for doing too little to stop the proliferation of shady chit funds that invariably end up cheating small investors. In Punjab, farmers often seek an end to regulations that prevent the free movement of grain and other crops, but are active in their insistence that fertilisers be subsidised and electricity for farming be provided free of charge. And, finally, there are companies that have made a fortune from what passes for Information Technology—outsourcing and body shopping—that seek to combine complete deregulation with subsidised land to build sprawling campuses.

Given these contradictory and flexible impulses, it is small wonder that political leaders have consciously avoided elevating the debate to arrive at a meaningful conclusion on the role of the state in a market-oriented economy. There is incessant chatter about ‘good governance’ but relatively little concern over the ideal reach of the state.

Perhaps Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may the odd man out. Unlike his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party who have desisted from elevating their natural misgivings over an over-regulated economy and society into a coherent philosophy, Modi has actually tried to address the core issue. What has over-simplistically come to be described as the “Gujarat model” has, in Modi own words, come to mean “less government and more governance”. Whether this approach corresponds to the late Margaret Thatcher’s motto of a “small state but effective state” is an issue that will no doubt surface nearer the general election, but the common refrain of the editorial and chattering classes has boiled down to a simple assertion: ‘Gujarat isn’t India’.

That this is a truism is undeniable. The so-called ‘Gujarat model’ is an over-simplified journalistic invention that in popular parlance has come to imply a single-minded focus on growth and, by implication, a relative neglect of what is called ‘human development’. The extent to which there has been a conscious diversion of resources from ‘human development’ to infrastructure is debatable. Economist Bibek Debroy, for example, has suggested that this facile conclusion is the consequence of an inability to get the most up-to-date figures. The overall improvement in the quality of life in Gujarat, he maintains, has kept pace with its sustained double-digit GDP growth.

Regardless of the political debate over the nature of Gujarati capitalism, some tentative conclusions are in order. First, Gujarat operates under the same set of laws and regulatory regimes that in vogue in the rest of India. The Dholera Special Investment Region, for example, has been created out of an enabling legislation that is available to all Indian states, including West Bengal. Why, it may well be asked, has only Gujarat chosen to avail of the opportunities?

Secondly, there has been no discernible rollback of the state in Gujarat. Where Modi has succeeded is in transforming loss-making public sector units into relatively more efficient entities that show modest profits. The Gujarat State Electricity Board is a case of a PSU that has shown good results without having to travel down the privatisation route. Modi, for example, has been inflexible on the issue of reasonable user charges as the price for uninterrupted domestic power to both cities and villages—a price the consumers have been more than willing to pay. Power subsidies for agriculture haven’t been done away with. Instead, there has been a rigorous drive to segregate power for agriculture from ordinary domestic and commercial usage. In short, the subsidy regime has been sharply targeted.

Thirdly, there has been a conscious attempt to remove small irritants in the path of entrepreneurship. The scale of Inspector Raj—a problem that plagues traders in, say, Uttar Pradesh—has been reduced quite dramatically and there is a greater emphasis on self-regulation.

Fourthly, there has been a stress on bureaucratic accountability and a sharp reduction in the discretionary powers available to the state machinery. The process of transfers and postings that preoccupy so many of India’s politicians has been made transparent and almost entirely rule-based. Bureaucrats have also been given relative security of tenure as the price for accountability and efficiency. Likewise, the use of IT to access government records has improved the quality of service in areas that involve the interaction of citizens with the state. Add to these the small innovations such as the introduction of evening courts which have yielded dramatic results.

Finally, and this is important, the profound changes that have reshaped Gujarat in the past decade have been effected without the creation of a new, ‘committed’ bureaucracy. It’s the same set of people who have proved slothful and venal elsewhere who have delivered wholesome governance in Gujarat.

The debate over the role of the state, it is clear, has been overstated. A rollback of the state remains a difficult proposition considering the unevenness of India’s development. What is more relevant is a sustained focus on the efficiency of governance. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Why intellectuals hated Thatcher

By Swapan Dasgupta

When it comes to pageantry, the British continue to be unrivalled. The “Ornamentalism” that once made the British Empire an object of awe and even reverence was in evidence, albeit on a more modest scale, at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher last Wednesday.

Perhaps the event lacked the underlying glamour of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 when grandmothers wept and veterans saluted the coffin of a man who had acquired the legendary status of a Nelson and Wellington. Thatcher, by contrast, was not someone out of a G.A. Henty novel. The battles she fought were distinctly unglamorous: against dreary bureaucrats in Brussels over trade and currency, against a tin-pot Argentinian dictator, against a doctrinaire dinosaur miners’ leader and, more often than not, against upper-class patricians with cultivated stutters whose upbringings hadn’t included dealings with a pushy woman with steely determination. Like Churchill she too fought a war; but it was a long-overdue civil war.  

Future historians will remain divided over her legacy. To the sceptics, she was a deeply divisive figure whose policies devastated communities and destroyed the inner tranquillity of post-imperial Britain. Thatcher, it will surely be claimed, tried to refashion a people into what they were clearly not. It will be said that what mattered to her was drive and enterprise—attributes that bypass the great majority of plodders. The lady who won three consecutive election victories quite conclusively, it would appear, was always loath to pander to the average.

Thatcher, it would seem, was a creature after her time. She took her inspiration from a time when Britain nurtured generations of individualists hungry for success and adventure. The ‘Victorian values’ she admired and advocated weren’t merely about hard work, thrift, self-help, patriotism and a respect for ordinary decencies. For Thatcher, an individual’s station in life wasn’t determined by the accident of birth: it was shaped by energy and enterprise. To her, the state didn’t exist as a safety net or a cushion: it existed as a facilitator to help people better themselves. That could be done by lower taxes, less regulations and a state that concentrated on its essential responsibilities. She hated the idea of a society of haves and have-nots; she wanted a nation of haves. In a sense she was at odds with the notion of social stability which implied a static, hierarchical order. Having experienced the social derision of Tory grandees for being a grocer’s daughter, she loved the idea of unsettling the status quo. She was a Conservative by affiliation but a revolutionary by instinct.

It was precisely because Thatcher couldn’t be neatly pigeon-holed that she aroused the unrelenting opposition of the intelligentsia. The hostility was so visceral that she was snubbed by her alma mater Oxford University and denied a Honorary Doctorate.

In hindsight the magnitude of opposition was surprising. Thatcher was not an intellectual in the sense that she didn’t write book reviews for the Spectator or attended literary soirées in either Chelsea or Hampstead. Yet she was deeply wedded to ideas and had a profoundly common-sense understanding of economics. In that sense she wasn’t the personification of the ‘stupid party’—the familiar Left-liberal caricature of the Right. The real problem was that the ideas that appealed to her were profoundly unfashionable in the group-think world of the media and the Senior Common Room. More important, initiatives such as the privatisation of state-owned industries and the sale of government housing—both important steps in the creation of a “property-owning democracy”, a Thatcherite ideal—were regarded as complete blasphemy. To conformist intellectuals who claimed a monopoly over the gospel, Thatcher was indeed a witch.

Fortunately, Thatcher never lacked self-assurance and courage of her convictions. She could egg on the people of Eastern Europe to soldier on against the ‘evil Empire’ because she was convinced that godless statism was indeed evil. She could unreservedly claim that she was putting the “Great” back into Britain because she knew that there was nothing to be ashamed of.

Yes, Thatcher was a polarising figure. But as Tony Blair rightly retorted: “If you decide, you divide.”  For the generation that rejected the political assumptions of the swinging Sixties, she was the Madonna. 

Sunday Times of India, April 21, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

Judged by the lax standards of India where human life tends to be woefully cheap, the twin blasts in Boston that led to four deaths and many more injured, may have seemed relatively trivial. True, there was considerable admiration for the local police and the federal authorities that pursued the investigations with understated rigour and their success in identifying and apprehending the two unlikely perpetrators of the blasts, but this was offset by disagreeable comments that America “had it coming.” How the spectators of the Boston Marathon were responsible for the problems Moscow has with Chechnya, is a different matter altogether and unlikely to unsettle the pre-conceived theories of those who are relentless in putting their own spin on the so-called ‘roots of terrorism’.

President George W. Bush may well be the target of fashionable derision but it can scarcely be denied that his emphasis on Homeland Security has now become a bi-partisan goal, from which even the relatively more liberal President Obama dare not depart.

Compare this with the farce that was witnessed in India earlier this week over the sentencing of the perpetrators and facilitators of the devastating serial Bombay blasts of March 1992 that killed nearly 250 people and left countless others permanently disabled. The Supreme Court this week, accorded the film star Sanjay Dutt an extra month of freedom to surrender before the Mumbai. The ostensible reason was to allow the Bollywood star a little more time to complete his various shooting engagements, a move that will give a lot of respite to many film producers who had sunk in a great deal of money in films starring Dutt.

Not surprisingly, this generosity by the apex court didn’t go down too well with the great unwashed. It is a cruel fact of life that there isn’t enough justice to go round the world. However, conceding the element of iniquity in the administration of the law, there was outrage over the belief that class bias could be so openly and blatantly upheld. There may be sympathy for the film producers who stood to make whopping losses if Dutt was packed off to jail immediately, but there was little appreciation of the fact that a convicted criminal was being shown extra consideration, not to attend a sick relative or a moping pet dog, but to make some extra money.

True, the outrage over the leniency shown to Dutt resulted in some others convicted in the same conspiracy also getting some extra time to be with their families. But what I found interesting was the nonchalance with which India’s liberals and even representatives of the ruling Congress Party argued for all-round lenience. It was almost made out that some people were being punished for some youthful indiscretion that may have included stealing mangoes from orchards belonging to others. That Dutt and the others had been sentenced for their involvement in a case that resulted in a bloodbath was quietly forgotten. Equally forgotten was the fact that Dutt wasn’t a victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he knew exactly what he was doing in helping the underworld smuggle deadly weapons to wage against India. Sanjay Dutt was convicted under the Arms Act for possessing illegal weapons. In reality, his offence was more serious, almost treasonable. By modifying the sentence to suit his shooting schedules, the law displayed utter contempt for those who died in the blasts. There is generosity for those who sided with the terrorists and little concern for those who were victims of terror.

The Supreme Court doesn’t set the terms of the political discourse. As such, it cannot be blamed for the onrush of contrived sympathy for those who were convicted and still insist they were innocent. But it can be said that the show of indulgence has created the conditions for viewing the blasts of 1993 as a conjunctural misdemeanour that was now history. From an avowed position of ‘zero tolerance’ of terrorism, the liberal discourse is shifting to a forget and forgive approach. At this rate, Dawood Ibrahim may as well surrender and then approach the court to be given time to settle business affairs that haven unattended after two decades of absence from India. Maybe a Katju-type person may even oblige him and take into account the fact that he has no bank loan, speaks Urdu and probably loathes Narendra Modi.

I am not being facetious. Last week, I read in the papers that one S.M.A. Kazmi, said to be a journalist, who has been charged with involvement in the attack on an Israeli diplomat by Iranian terrorists two years ago, has used his bail period to start an Urdu newspaper that is ironically called  Qaumi Salamati (national security). I am not prejudging either the verdict of the court or the quality of the prosecution’s case. What I found revealing was that the inaugural function of Kazmi’s media venture was attended by the Chief Minister of Delhi, the Chairperson of the Minorities Commission and leaders of at least two political parties. What interests me is that a person charged with having links with terror groups that targets the diplomat of a friendly country, can secure political insurance with such ease.

In Boston, two blasts reaffirm the determination to stamp out terrorism; in India, life is all about connections.

Sunday Pioneer, April 21, 2013

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A sacrifice the BJP cannot afford

With the party’s rank and file squarely behind Narendra Modi, a parting of ways with Nitish Kumar may now be impossible to prevent

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past two months, India’s powerful Left-liberal Establishment has been in a state of dejection on account of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.  

First, following his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat last December, Modi’s tag of untouchability was ceremoniously cut off. Corporate India, diplomatic missions and particularly the media which had hitherto shunned him, now joined the aspirational classes in seeing him as a possible saviour, a leader whose steely determination could enable India to realise its full potential in a globalised community. For the past month, Modi has carpet bombed the country with his infectious ‘India can do it’ message. He has certainly found many new converts but, more important, he has aroused considerable curiosity in parts of India that hitherto had only a hazy idea about the man. In the process, he has galvanised the BJP rank-and-file and given them a new-found political purpose.

Secondly, contrary to a pre-conceived notion of what constituted Modi’s appeal, the Gujarat Chief Minister has focussed exclusively on the twin themes of economic development and governance. True, his quasi-Thatcherite message of a minimum but purposeful state has been contested. But despite the criticisms of the “Gujarat model”, Modi has set the terms of an emerging debate. He has carefully steered the focus away from his earlier reputation as an icon of sectarian politics and into bread and butter issues—themes where he clearly outscores the Congress’ would-be challenger Rahul Gandhi.

It is in this context that a nervous Establishment has breathed a sigh of relief at Bihar Chief Minister’s robust intervention at the Janata Dal (United) convention last Sunday. In devoting almost his entire speech to the importance of a Prime Minister with unblemished “secular” credentials and a more inclusive development strategy, Nitish Kumar unambiguously expressed his big ‘No’ to the idea of Modi as a prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance. In short, as a long-term ally of the BJP, Nitish resumed the debate on Modi as a possibly divisive figure, a man who couldn’t carry both the pugree-wallas and the topi-wallas.

That Nitish’s tirade against Modi stemmed from his long-standing belief that the latter’s presence in Bihar would be a liability is well known. With Muslim voters accounting for more than 16 per cent of the electorate, Nitish was mindful of the Muslim antipathy to Modi. A Modi-led NDA, he believed, would lead to aggressive Muslim voting to defeat anyone associated with the BJP, a situation that could potentially benefit his main rival Lalu Yadav. Nitish has also believed that if he was perceived as the man who punctured the Modi balloon, it would lead to Muslim voters seeing him (rather than Lalu Yadav) as the great champion of the community. And, if the RJD’s Muslim support was substantially eroded, it would make the JD(U) the dominant party in Bihar, much like the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa. Nitish was in effect attempting a socio-political realignment that would either nullify his dependence on the BJP or even allow him to break with it altogether.

In his private negotiations with the BJP, the Bihar Chief Minister has steadfastly maintained that he values the NDA and that he would have no problem if the BJP chose a leader who is more in the Atal Behari Vajpayee mould. Other JD(U) leaders have stated that the party is completely agreeable to L.K. Advani being given another throw of the dice in 2014.

On the face of it, this may appear to be a case of a coalition partner counselling the BJP against a decision that could potentially be inimical to his local interests. However, it is not as straight forward as it may seem. There are enough grounds to believe that Nitish’s public disavowal of Modi and his implied threat to quit the NDA was a consequence of his belief that his intervention would muddy the waters for the Gujarat Chief Minister and, in the process, leave the BJP deeply divided. It is a matter of conjecture whether Nitish was actually egged on by some BJP leaders to be assertive in his rejection. But there is no doubt that it was silently welcomed by those BJP leaders who are uncomfortable with the idea of Modi. The needle of suspicion invariably points to one individual.

In politics it is impossible to anticipate every outcome. Nitish, it would seem, grossly over-estimated the magnitude of the misgivings over Modi inside the BJP. The rapidity of the BJP’s sharp rebuttal of what it saw as gratuitous advice may well have taken him by surprise. Equally, it is unlikely he anticipated the sharp reaction of BJP karyakartas who are convinced that their best hope for 2014 is Modi.

A large part of the BJP rank-and-file anger against Nitish may well have been emotional, but it is worth remembering that the BJP has always depended on emotions for political motivation. In 2005, it was the emotional antipathy to Advani’s comments at the Jinnah mausoleum that led to the titan being displaced.

Nitish’s anti-Modi utterances have had the same impact. First, it forced the BJP leadership to overrule the do-nothing leaders and come out strongly in defence of Modi. In short, it once again reaffirmed Modi’s status as first among equals. Secondly, Nitish’s December deadline has egged on the more enthusiastic sections of the Modi fan club to demand an end to the ambivalence over the choice of the BJP’s public face for 2014. It is becoming increasingly clear to all the BJP stakeholders that any attempts to deny Modi his overriding role will lead to a grassroots revolt. Finally, Nitish’s Sunday speech which was preceded by many sniper shots directed at Modi, has vitiated BJP-JD(U) relations to the point of no return. It may prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent a formal parting of ways in Bihar in weeks rather than months. 

Maybe this is what Nitish actually desired, since it gives him a clear 10 months to forge a realignment of forces in Bihar. But no realignment can be one-sided. There are forces in Bihar that could make the outcome of a triangular contest in a Lok Sabha election terribly uncertain. The implications of trying to derail Modi on the strength of a sectional veto may have its own logic that could even override entrenched caste loyalties.

The Hindu, April 18, 2013

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Modi Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come

By Swapan Dasgupta

Vishwanath Pratap Singh may have ended up as a false prophet who disappointed many who reposed faith in his ability to emerge as a wholesome alternative to the dynastic Congress. However, it can hardly be denied that between 1988 and 1989, he was at the heart of a massive realignment that challenged Rajiv Gandhi’s steamroller majority.

Yet, it is instructive to remember that V.P.Singh’s position as the focal point of the rising anti-Congress sentiment had to negotiate many hurdles. Apart from having to accommodate the BJP and the Left parties which were intent on retaining their separate identities, the formation of the Janata Dal involved tortuous negotiations with the regional bosses who had their own egos and sense of priorities. There was Devi Lal the boss of Haryana; Chandra Shekhar who believed that the leadership rightly belonged to him; Ramakrishna Hegde, the darling of the editorial classes and Delhi chatterati; and Mulayam Singh Yadav who insisted on a hegemonic role in UP.  

I also remember George Fernandes, then living in south Delhi and driving his own small Fiat car, shuttling between the different groups trying to bring them together. There was a memorable political convention in Delhi’s Mavalankar Hall hosted by Devi Lal which threatened to be a washout until very Fernandes made a dramatic appearance escorting Mulayam by the hand.  

The formation of the Janata Dal was a consequence of many manoeuvres, compromises and deals.But if all the different anti-Congress forces finally pooled their strength to unseat the Congress in 1989, it was due to one factor alone: the recognition that V.P. Singh had captured the public imagination and was the real challenger to Rajiv.

There are other instances, dating further back that demonstrate the inevitable triumph of either an idea or an individual whose time has come. The emergence of Mahatma Gandhi, as the unchallenged leader of both the Congress and the nationalist movement, had to encounter bitter opposition in 1920-21. Those challenging him were not political lightweights: they included the supporters of the redoubtable Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the erstwhile ‘extremists’ who rallied behind C.R. Das and the liberal constitutionalists that included stalwarts such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah. By contrast, Gandhi’s followers were relatively unknown people from small towns and from the provinces where the Congress had an ephemeral presence—places such as Gujarat, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces.

What contributed to Gandhi’s anointment as the Congress and, subsequently, India’s foremost icon was not his ability to manipulate the nationalist machine—that happened subsequently. He epitomised an idea that enabled Indian nationalism to get out of the rut into which it had fallen since the Swadeshi movement faltered. In a recent book, Ananya Vajpeyi has called it India’s “Galilean moment”, a description hard to better.

The reason for delving into the past should be obvious. Over the past three months, India’s principal opposition party has been in the throes of a great churning caused by the emergence of Narendra Modi. The inner-party turbulence is understandable. Despite being a creature of the BJP and its so-called mother organisation, Modi represents a break not merely on account of what he has achieved in Gujarat but in terms of how he is perceived by those who are exasperated with two decades of UPA misrule. Modi promises not merely a new start but a new type of politics.

It doesn’t surprise me remotely that the idea of Modi has encountered a roadblock in Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (U). The Bihar Chief Minister has made it clear that he doesn’t find Modi to be adequately ‘secular’. Such a man, he believes, won’t sell to Muslim voters who constitute anything between 16 and 18 per cent of Bihar’s population. Some of the Chief Minister’s supporters even believe that by breaking with the BJP on the issue of Modi’s leadership, Nitish will effect a en masses movement of Muslim votes to the JD(U). Coupled with his existing support among a section of backward castes and a slice of Dalits, this, it is said, will see Nitish prevail in a triangular contest.

The JD(U) strategists may have got their arithmetic right. But an election (particularly a Lok Sabha poll) is fought and won on a combination of both arithmetic and chemistry. If Modi is just a flash in the pan or merely a Gujarat leader with national pretensions, neither Nitish nor for that matter the UPA has anything to worry about. In that event the 2014 general election will be an aggregation of different state elections and result in a truly mish-mash government, with the new PM being chosen by lottery.

Alternatively, if Modi does represent an idea that appeals to voters at a time of national drift, Nitish needs to pause and re-think. He must consider the consequences of opposing a campaign based on fulfilling India’s potential through rapid development with a sectarian question mark. The 2014 election will not be about identity politics. Is Nitish determined to make it so?

Nor can he overplay the ‘backward card’: Modi is not merely OBC but from a Most Backward Caste. Denying someone from such humble origins a shy at the top job on the strength of a minority veto offends a simple sense of right and wrong.

As a seasoned politician, Nitish should be wary of being led by people who aren’t adept at deciphering the writing on the wall.

Sunday Pioneer, April 14, 2013 

Friday, April 12, 2013

DAY OF THE IRON LADY - Margaret Thatcher’s influence has been primarily intellectual

By Swapan Dasgupta

The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death came minutes after I had completed a panel discussion for a TV channel on the theme “Less Government, More Governance” where Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had been the keynote speaker. To me, it seemed the most fitting tribute to an extraordinary woman whose most enduring contributions have been in the realms of ideas and policy-making. No discussion on contemporary themes such as privatisation, fiscal prudence, the ‘minimum state’ versus the megastate, and the relationship of values to entrepreneurship are ever complete without reference to the person who delighted in being called the Iron Lady. As someone wrote, in her lifetime Thatcher had become both a noun (Thatcherism) and an adjective (Thatcherite).

The real tragedy of Baroness Thatcher was that she was born in England and consequently had to confine her role as Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister. This is not to undermine our erstwhile Mother Country but only to suggest that had the accident of birth nurtured her as the citizen of the world’s most powerful country in the post-War world, her contributions would have been even more far-reaching. As a British Prime Minister, Thatcher’s long-term impact has been primarily intellectual; had she been a two-term occupant of the White House, the world would probably have been a different—and I daresay, a better and safer place.

The tragedy of Margaret Thatcher was that, despite giving her three consecutive election victories, Britain never appreciated her true worth. Throughout her political career, she was dogged by facets of British public life that proved unending irritants.

The first of these was the class-ridden and hidebound nature of British Toryism—to be distinguished from genuine conservatism. A self-made grocer’s daughter from the nondescript town of Grantham who clawed her way into Grammar School and Oxford University, she had to endure the social disdain of Tory politicians who ran the party along the line of a Gentleman’s Club in Pall Mall. True, they were eventually ‘hand-bagged’ into submission but their dogged resistance to all attempts to break the mould of competitive politics created the impression that Thatcher lacked compassion and that she favoured the creation of a Britain divided between haves and have-nots. The reality was a little more complex: Thatcher wanted a nation of haves which was only possible by enlarging the size of the cake. No wonder her biggest supporters were self-made men such as the pugnacious Norman Tebbit.

The second problem she encountered was the perception that Britons were ‘entitled’ to a certain standard of living. By itself this corresponded to the contours of an aspirational society. However, the route to constant self-improvement was no longer based on old-fashioned values that dated back to Calvinism and were later to be called Victorian values. By 1979, Britain had become excessively dependant on the state to cushion against individual shortcomings. The Welfare State that was introduced with such fanfare by the Beveridge Report on education and the creation of the National Health Service by Clement Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945 was based on lofty principles: as a route to equal opportunities and as a guarantee against pauperisation. However, the system as it evolved soon obliterated the distinction between the rewards of hard work and the benefits of voluntary or enforced idleness. The moment the Welfare State made it as rewarding for a person to take a low paid job as to stay at home, the British work ethic suffered. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for immigration from the former colonies, Britain’s low productivity levels would have been lower still.

In seeking to revive the work culture of a country that had become complacent and, consequently, uncompetitive, Thatcher had to break a mindset. She had to convince Britons that they were living far beyond their means and that the state had become bloated, over-burdened and inefficient. In subsidising a carefree society, the Government in turn was taxing too much and penalising success.

What is remarkable is the simple communications approach Thatcher adopted in getting her message through. In the run-up to the 1979 election when Britain was plagued by strikes, wage freeze, soaring inflation and a macro-economic crisis that required the intervention of the International Monetary Fund, Thatcher used the analogy of household budgeting to demonstrate the virtues of living within your means. Likewise, and perhaps more controversially, she invoked the Victorian values of thrift and self-help to indicate that Britain had ceased being “Great” ever since it abandoned these simple rules of life. “I came to office”, she told a gathering of business leaders in 1984, “with one intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society—from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.”

Predictably, this over-weaning thrust on individualism (which included her of-quoted remark that “There is no such thing as society”) attracted the ire of the entire intelligentsia of Britain. No other British Prime Minister of Britain faced such unrelenting opposition from the citadels of intellectual power as did Thatcher. Apart from a handful of economists and the odd historian such as Norman Stone, British intellectuals held Thatcher in deep contempt. Oxford University voted down a proposal to confer a honorary doctorate—an astonishing act of discourtesy to a distinguished alumni. To the occupants of the High Table, she was a vulgarian who distrusted mediocrity, celebrated money and rarely budged from her certitudes—values she had, presumably, picked up from these very dons themselves.

In Thatcher’s dictionary, ‘consensus’ was a euphemism for cop out. In her mind, Britain couldn’t afford the luxury of aggregation because its post-1945 fall had been so steep. If Britain was to punch above its weight and remain a global player, it would first have to set its own house in order. That meant shedding flab and even “selling the family silver”—the imagery attached to the privatisation of bleeding public sector companies. Interestingly, in her disinvestment programme, Thatcher wasn’t too bothered about maximising returns to the exchequer. For her, the sale of Council flats to tenants and divesting public sector equity to many thousands of small holders were part of a larger scheme to create a “property owning democracy.”

Maybe it was due to her experiences of seeing her father run a small shop that made Thatcher wary of Britain’s entrenched “gentlemanly capitalism”. Whether in the trades unions or the financial markets, Thatcher hated monopolies and restrictive trade practices. Just as she outlawed the closed shop and encouraged Rupert Murdoch to break down the high-cost guild practices on the shop floor, her Big Bang reforms in the financial sector opened up the capital markets to competition and globalisation. If Britain still counts in the capitalist universe, it is almost solely because of the importance of the City of London. Thatcher made that possible.

On the flip side, it was due to her aggressive anti-inflationary strategies which led to soaring interest rates that Britain ceased to be the ‘workshop of the world’. Thatcher is still derided for killing off British manufacturing that had ceased to technologically alert and financially competitive. But its demise also led to the decimation of entire communities in Scotland and the North of England. For many Britons, Thatcherism was a killer.

This may be why a detached and unsentimental assessment of Thatcher is best done by keeping the human costs out of the reckoning. “I can’t simultaneously develop an argument and appear like a human being”, a British philosopher who admired Thatcher once said. He was dead right: Thatcher belongs to the realm of ideas. 

The Telegraph, April 12, 2012

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The public reactions to Rahul Gandhi’s “beehive” speech to the CII last Thursday morning followed a predictable pattern. Those who are naturally charmed by him viewed it as another instance of his well-meaning earnestness; the more sceptical brigade saw it as vague, lacking in specifics and a trifle too anecdotal; and, in private, the stalwarts of Indian business lamented the Congress’ heir apparent’s inability to address any of the problems that have undermined confidence in India’s struggling economy.
The debate over Rahul’s success in rising above the level of a privileged rebel preoccupied with “changing the system, man” (echoes of a previous generation that wanted to break away from the stodgy values of their parents but grew up to embrace the same ethos) will, no doubt, persist until the votes in the general election have been counted. But at least it is reassuring that the Congress vice president has realised that there is more to politics than taking the milk train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai and engaging with fellow passengers.
But not quite. Just as there are party bores who make generalisations about the public mood by speaking to their chauffeur and cook, Rahul’s discovery of the ‘real India’ has involved an over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Add to that the obsession of wide-eyed MBAs from American universities who believe that success follows the implantation of the right ‘systems’, and you get a picture of the mental map of the 42-year-old man who has been told since childhood that he was born to be King. Just as economists are pretty awful in comprehending the real problems faced by businesses, Rahul’s vision of India is grounded in hands-off detachment.
I may sound cruel but he often reminds me of a mid-level functionary in a multilateral UN agency who wants to encourage ‘good works’ and encourage the ‘empowerment’ of people — but from a distance, from a position of tax-free privilege, and without getting his hands dirty. Politics is essentially about exercising hard (and sometimes unpalatable) decisions with a measure of transparency. Rahul has preferred to bypass real problems and dote on the loftiness of millennium goals. No wonder he has no known views about the fiscal deficit, interest rates, red tape and globalised competition — the problems his audience at the CII summit face in their daily lives.
Even his views on education and skill development are touchingly simple. That the curriculum in many of India’s universities and schools are ridiculously inappropriate hardly needs reiteration. But the conflict between reach, equity and standards that educationists face in their day-to-day operations seem to have escaped his attention. There is unanimity that India needs a big booster of skills enhancement if its economy is to be innovative and competitive. The debate is over the route map. Rajiv Gandhi, to his credit, took the hard decision to create a binary model — a variant of his mother’s thrust on developing many “centres of excellence”. The UPA Government has made a mess of the education sector by seeing education merely as an entitlement but detaching it from the larger process of economic regeneration. The result has been a slow process of dumbing down and the country’s inability to meet the mismatch between market demand and skills availability.
In any case, Rahul’s qualification to hold forth on education is questionable. But as a two-term MP who has been in active politics for nine years, it was revealing that his knowledge of Centre-State relations and the new challenges facing India’s federal structure is so feeble. Encouraging members of the CII to interact with gram pradhans is an interesting version of educational tourism — the type that the limousine liberals do during each election. But the real issues are more contentious. How is the tangle over the Goods and Services Tax to be resolved? How will the growing demand for “special status” by backward States be met within the present federal framework? Is there any role left for a national Planning Commission? Should the philosophy of a redistributive Centre be modified keeping in mind the demise of the licence-permit-quota raj? These were questions that Rahul never addressed. Worse, he didn’t even display any awareness of them.
It is not that people expect Rahul to have ready-made answers to every complex problem. Doctrinaire politicians have invariably done great disservice to their countries, as can be seen from Sonia Gandhi’s over-reliance on the NAC as her in-house think tank. What is expected from an aspirant to the top political job is both a sensitivity towards India’s problems, the display of political will geared towards solving problems and an overall vision. Rahul has so far focussed on the ‘vision thing’ with mixed results.
However, it is reassuring that Rahul has come out of purdah and revealed his mind to the country. The forthcoming general election may appear to be a very messy affair — a reason why the stock markets are running scared. But behind the clutter and the cacophony of sound bites, some clarity is slowly emerging. First, there are reasons to be optimistic that there will be a direct contest between Rahul and Narendra Modi, with others hoping their chance will come in the event of an inconclusive outcome. Secondly, much more than before the battle is likely to centre on divergent perceptions of political priorities and competing visions. In other words, the battle may end up becoming more presidential than local. And, finally, the outcome may well be influenced by the way in which voters perceive their own future and the future of their families.
India is essentially conservative and loathes radical shifts. But there is a simmering anger against a rotten political Establishment. Rahul has gauged this fact and is anxious to project himself as an outsider and rebel. But so for that matter has Modi who has risen from the lowest rung of society. Rahul is blessed with a fierce sense of noblesse oblige and Modi epitomises the aspirations of a young, assertive India. Rahul’s speech clearly demonstrated that these two India think very differently.

Sunday Pioneer, April 7, 2013

To win, Modi has to sell a dream

By Swapan Dasgupta

Leafing through a bundle of yellowed newspaper clippings of the 1984 general election, I was struck by the remarkable extent to which the editorial class failed to read the clear writing on the wall. Those were the days before the public was inundated with opinion polls and, consequently, were over-dependant on journalistic assessments. But in fixing their gaze on caste equations, factional rivalries and local grievances, they failed to gauge a simple fact: that a people traumatized by Indira Gandhi’s assassination had chosen to vote as a nation. 

The next general election is unlikely to be held under such fearful circumstances. But whatever is the mental state of India on voting day either later this year or in 2014, one thing is certain: the editorial classes are unlikely to capture the big picture. The media as a whole has shown a marked disinclination to distinguish between noise and music. 

A recent event will illustrate the point vividly. Last week, the BJP president nominated Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to the party’s parliamentary board, its highest decision-making body. The appointment was the clearest signal that Modi had been assigned a national role and had been raised to the status of first among equals. For all practical purposes, he is likely to be the face of the BJP campaign in the general election. 

Regardless of whether he is formally anointed the shadow PM, in the public perception he will be viewed as such. 

Ever since Modi won the Gujarat Assembly election for the third consecutive occasion in December, there was a certain inevitability about the elevation. Anyone with an ear to the ground would have detected the growing clamour for Modi, not merely among the committed BJP activists and voters but among a larger section of the electorate. There was a fierce groundswell from below which forced the hands of the BJP leadership. And yet, despite the sheer logic of the unstructured democratic process, there was a disproportionate media focus on those who tried to wage a losing battle. 

The details of this futile rearguard action are well known to those who are tuned to the political grapevine. First, it was suggested that a Patel revolt would put an end to Modi’s re-election bid in Gujarat. Secondly, it was authoritatively stated that the RSS would veto any attempt to project an individual over the ‘cause’. Thirdly, it was suggested that the BJP couldn’t afford to disregard Nitish Kumar’s public disavowal of Modi. And, finally, it was put out that LK Advani’s opposition to Project Modi would eventually prevail. 

The hurdles in the path of Modi’s journey into national politics weren’t all concocted. In normal times, these would have been formidable obstacles. In an election year, however, their importance was nominal, particularly since Modi was being propelled by an outburst of sentiment. In a democracy, the biggest attribute of a politician is popularity, and in the primary rounds Modi had that going for him. 

This is not to suggest that the road to Modi’s entry into the house on Race Course Road is pre-determined . Although an ‘outsider’ enjoys a natural advantage at a time when the Delhi Establishment stands exposed as inept and venal, he still faces many real challenges. 

The foremost of these is his ability to reconcile his personal popularity with the increasingly jaded reputation of his party. Trends since 1996 suggest that Lok Sabha elections are an aggregate of local, national and leadership contests. If Modi is unable to break this mould, he will find himself in a position similar to that of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1996: the leader of the largest party in a hung Parliament but unable to cross the 272-seat hump. Since the BJP’s footprint doesn’t extend throughout India, the only realistic course for Modi is to emulate what Indira Gandhi did in 1980: convert a parliamentary poll into a presidential election. The electorate has to be convinced that it is electing a Modi sarkar. 

Political messaging holds the key to a Modi campaign. There has to be a dominant theme that touches voters in every corner of India and overrides regional and sectional considerations. Modi has to both sell a dream and simultaneously invoke the fear of India turning into a land of shrinking opportunities. A nuanced campaign that appeals in part to aspirational India, in part to Hindu nationalism and in part to caste will be a disastrous cocktail. 

The personality of Modi and the national yearning for a strong leader demands an in-your-face approach with a strong positive message. A goody-goody Modi won’t sell. He is not a Vajpayee. 

Of course, it will be a gamble and will offend those who believe that India’s future lies in muddling through. But no wars are won without audacity and determination.

Sunday Times of India, April 7, 2013

Kolkata rises, shines

By Swapan Dasgupta

On April 2, Kolkata witnessed the spectacular inauguration of this year’s Indian Premier League. Like most opening ceremonies of sporting events, the celebration had less to do with cricket than with Bollywood and contemporary Western music. It had even less to do with the Tagore-centric high culture of West Bengal that Bengalis love to flaunt — although there was a ritual genuflection to the bard’s Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.

It was also an event where the politicians took a back seat. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee did press a huge red button to start the proceedings at the Salt Lake Stadium, which is better known for gala musical events and football, rather than cricket. However, the organisers, with an eye to TV audiences rather than the forthcoming panchayat polls, cut out all celebrity speeches, an omission that also deprived Union minister Rajiv Shukla and the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s point-man for the IPL, his moment of glory.
Having secured the privilege, courtesy a friend who is a big-wig in the BCCI, to get one of the best seats, I can vouch for the fact that the audience loved the show, not least the gyrations of Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif. And Pitbull’s music, though not to my taste, had the youngsters converting the latter part of the proceedings into an impromptu dance party. Overall, it was good, clean fun and an event that Kolkata will not forget in a hurry. Unlike last year’s hurriedly organised felicitation of Shah Rukh Khan and his victorious Kolkata Knight Riders, there was nothing tacky about this year’s professionally choreographed spectacle which, judging by the gimmicks on display, must have cost an absolute bomb — estimates ranged from `20 to `30 crore.

The important thing about the event was not merely its entertainment value but the fact that it was organised in Kolkata.

The decline of Kolkata from a bustling metro which was only second to Mumbai till the late 1960s has been repeated incessantly to the point where the people of Kolkata believe that the growth story of India has bypassed them substantially. The underlying sense of dejection that you encounter in Kolkata, particularly among the members of the old bhadralok families, is sad. An event such as the IPL opening jamboree helps re-establish some faith in the city.
At this juncture, the morale of the city is truly low. This has got very little to do with the physical state of Kolkata. On the surface, it gives the impression of a truly vibrant and bustling city. Unlike the 1980s, when the appearance of Kolkata was grim, there has been a spectacular measure of improvement. New shopping malls are opening all over central and south Kolkata, the New Town in Rajarhat looks promising and many of the old houses, built in the heydays of the 1940s and 1950s, have witnessed renovations and acquired a fresh coat of paint. And although anecdotal evidence suggests that the new wealth is largely concentrated in the hands of the Marwaris (a term that doesn’t always imply those who came from Rajasthan to seek their fortune in the city), Bengalis haven’t lost out entirely. Bengali-dominated suburbs such as Dum Dum, Jadavpur and Garia have shed the appearance of being erstwhile refugee colonies and natural bastions of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The modest revival of Kolkata can be traced back to the Left Front’s change of stance after the retirement of Jyoti Basu. However, to be fair, even Ms Banerjee’s wildly erratic style of governance hasn’t been able to reverse the process entirely.

At one level, the present chief minister conveys the impression of being a complete maverick who hasn’t been able to get over her long preoccupation with street politics. Naturally temperamental, and with an evolved belief in conspiracy theories, her real problem is that she is unable to transcend her abiding interest in the affairs of the mohulla. Whether it is an insensitive off-the-cuff remark on the Park Street rape, her comic intervention at a meeting of industrialists to invite investments and her confrontation with the state election commissioner over arrangements for the panchayat polls, Ms Banerjee has the habit of courting controversy over trivial matters. Burdened with a political organisation whose activists have long been accustomed to agitational politics (sometimes in the face of severe odds), she has systematically given the impression that her interest in the big picture is fleeting.

There is an additional problem that may land her in a big political mess. The Trinamul Congress’ resounding election victory two years ago owed a great deal to the en masse shift of the Muslim vote. This support still remains, but there has been a collateral fallout. For the first time since Independence, there is a growing recognition in the Muslim community that it can make or break governments. There has been a visible rise in communal Muslim politics for the past two years, so much so that last month witnessed a big rally in Kolkata in support of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who have been handed out death sentences for assisting the Pakistan Army’s war crimes in Bangladesh in 1971. Shadowy figures such as the firebrand imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque have suddenly acquired prominence and have made a habit of making sectarian pronouncements. Coupled with sporadic disturbances with communal overtones — such as the arson attack on Hindu homes in a South 24 Parganas village and the murder of a policeman in Metiabruz — there are growing fears that the pattern of pre-1947 politics may revive, leaving Ms Banerjee unable to buck the trend.

Many of these problems have their origins in the sustained low economic growth of West Bengal since 1967. The state needs a massive booster dose of economic activity to channel the frustrations of a people whose mental horizons are shrinking with each passing day.
Perhaps Ms Banerjee is aware of this, but her mercurial ways have ended up scaring potential investors who have other choices in eastern India. West Bengal isn’t stagnating, but its low growth cannot tackle the problem of Bengal’s impatience. The state needs a sustained spell of purposeful and predictable government. Tragically, Ms Banerjee remains a loose cannon, a reason why IPL tamashas provide a respite.

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