Sunday, June 30, 2013

Give Rahul baba a break

Sunday Times of India, June 30, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta

A couple of years ago, I asked a very senior official a question that many people once asked: why doesn't Rahul Gandhi gain some real political experience by joining the Manmohan Singh government as a minister? A possible reason, he suggested, was that the Gandhis are not accustomed to working under anyone. But a more likely reason, he informed me, was that ministers come under the purview of the Right to Information Act.
Translated into plain English this meant that the travels of the heir apparent would be subject to possible scrutiny by the busybodies who have acquired control of Act. At present, Rahul is merely a backbench MP, albeit one who is protected by the SPG. This implies that all his movements are closely monitored and recorded. In theory, someone could move an RTI application for making these details public. However, it takes very little effort for the government to fob off inconvenient questions by citing security concerns.
After all, if the land transactions of Robert Vadra is presented as classified information, what chance that the aam aadmi will ever get to know the enthralling details of the air miles collected by the man who is apparently born to rule?
Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a national priority to unearth details of every short break or long vacation that Rahul baba has taken. As long as he has travelled on his own money and not used the Government of India's resources, what he does with his own time is entirely his business. For example, it is now quite apparent that Rahul doesn't like spending his birthdays in India. The reason for this annual flight from the fatherland to the extended motherland is a subject of unending speculation and each of India's professional Gandhi-watchers have their own version of the truth, some seemingly credible, others quite whacko.
Ironically, all this feverish speculation is actually fuelled by the Congress Party. In its anxiety to celebrate Rahul's birthday each year with needless fanfare and revelry, the mindless retainers of the family draw public attention to a birthday bash minus the birthday boy. Invariably the question is asked: where is Rahul? And invariably the speculation centres on which country of the European Union was lucky enough to receive his patronage this year.
Rahul was a bit unlucky this year that his annual birthday break coincided with the tragedy in Uttarakhand. The Congress vice-president didn't quite realize the enormity of the disaster - after all he isn't terribly familiar with religious tourism - and was missing from the photo frames when the PM and Sonia Gandhi did their mandatory aerial survey and Narendra Modi rushed in where angels fear to tread. When he finally returned - did he cut short his holiday? - Rahul did the mandatory aerial survey but he failed to dispel the impression that he is never there when his party needs him the most.
The point is that Rahul's periodic breaks from the heat and dust of India have begun to be noticed and commented upon. Every now and then he disappears from public view and social media goes ballistic when he is sighted at Singapore airport or a transit lounge in Dubai. I think this is unfairly intrusive but it is also very Indian. The average Indian is not attuned, like Europeans are, to the idea of a getaway-from-it-all holiday. For the average desi family, a holiday is invariably a journey to a relative's house for a marriage or a religious pilgrimage. The idea that a politician who is already pampered with privileged housing and fast-track services should need another vacation to chill seems bizarre and is inevitably interpreted as a rich guy's indulgence. More so, when it is shrouded in excessive secrecy.
Recall the fuss some 27 years ago when Rajiv Gandhi took his extended family and friends for a Christmas break in Lakshadweep? It was said that he saved a whale but what people remembered was a PM in party mode, with the Indian Navy at his beck and call. The only other PM in recent times to take the odd break was Atal Behari Vajpayee. But even he had to pretend it was a busman's holiday by getting some ghost writer to pen some pretentious 'musings'. Contrast this with the US President who has a ranch at his disposal and the British PM who has a grand country house for both entertainment and reflection. And despite a gruesome murder of a soldier by a crazy Islamist in a crowded Woolwich street, David Cameron still went off on a private holiday where he was photographed sipping coffee with his wife, soaking in the sun and perhaps even under-tipping the waitress.
Presumably Rahul's shortbreaks are also full of such innocent pleasures - so important to keep one's sanity. Such a shame India doesn't understand him and his European sensibilities.

Who's the Rambo? Modi or media?

Sunday Pioneer, June 30, 2013

By Swapan Dasgupta

The disaster in Uttarakhand was a national tragedy that resulted in loss of lives, human suffering and considerable damage to both private property and the public infrastructure. However, the partly natural and partly man-made catastrophe had a major collateral fallout in the world of politics. 

There is, of course, the inevitable impact on the fortunes of Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna who has been widely perceived to be lacking in purposefulness. But at the national level the impact may be more consequential: it has demolished the well-meaning, but naive, belief that the 2014 general election will be a clean fight involving the different formations and their projected leaders. Instead, the murkiness of the past week prompts the unfortunate conclusion that the Lok Sabha poll will be a no-holds-barred confrontation where the choices before voters will be distorted by vicious dirty tricks. Worse, the skullduggery will not be confined to the political parties for whom the stakes are naturally very high. There are clear indications that other institutions, not least the media, will also engage in sharp practices. 

A clear foretaste of what is in the offing was provided by the furious controversy over the so-called Rambo act of Gujarat Chief Minister that involved the rescue and evacuation of a large numbers of Gujaratis (a community that are intrepid travellers) from the disaster zones. Predictably, this claim, first publicised by an English-language national daily, has been bock mocked and ridiculed. It has been suggested that Modi is a habitual "liar" (an unparliamentary expression that found its way into the editorial pages of a well-respected daily), that he has hired a US-based public relations agency whose other clients are to be found in the rogues gallery of politicians and that he is so utterly parochial that he divides India into Gujaratis and others. 

At the political level, there is no doubt that this adverse publicity has not been to Modi's advantage. At this stage, he has no choice but to lick his wounds and prepare for the next round. 

A post-mortem of this kerfuffle over India's political Rambo may, however, prove rather revealing. It would seem that the figure of 15,000 people rescued from the wrath of the Gods arose from a 'sexed-up' version of a normal journalistic report. I don't say it was deliberate or part of a diabolical conspiracy but the problem arose when a simple assertion that the Gujarat Government provided "relief" to 15,000 people was conveniently changed to "rescued" this number. The casual substitution of one word changed the meaning of a ground report and made Modi appear as needlessly boastful and prone to hype--attributes that don't go down too well in politics. 

I understand that Modi brought this distortion to the attention of the publication but journalists being journalists don't like admitting their mistakes, especially if the offence involves colleagues up and down the line. So it was that when another newspaper, known for its consistent and pathological dislike of the Gujarat Chief Minister, attempted to examine the fantastic claim, the writer of the offending report pinned the entire blame on a lesser-known BJP functionary of Uttarakhand. Strangely in the original report this assertion wasn't attributed to him and he has subsequently denied making such a claim. That stands to reason. If Modi had indeed single-handedly rescued 15,000 people, why would the BJP in Uttarakhand have been so squeamish about claiming credit? Would this achievement have been given as an "exclusive" to just one publication or would it have been proudly proclaimed at a press conference? 

These are questions that naturally arise, except that it doesn't occur to professionals who have a self-image of infallibility and who can't let go of a nice big stick to beat Modi with. 

Whatever the real reasons, the creation of a counterfeit Rambo became the occasion for a flood of reports that broke the thin line between fact and fiction. A Hindi reporter having observed Modi put a shawl round an old woman and touch her feet, came to the imaginative conclusion that the frenzied rescue efforts of the Gujarat Chief Minister owed entirely to personal considerations: his old mother was among those stranded by the disaster. In the normal course, it wouldn't have taken much doing to find out if Modi's mother had indeed undertaken the pilgrimage from Ahmedabad. But when did facts ever deter a good story? 

The larger point that emerges from the coverage of Modi in Uttarakhand is something that should not be lost sight of. In the coming days, as the battle for the hearts and minds of India intensifies, we are likely to see an epidemic of reports that target Modi. Of course, there will be the odd report that also highlights the fact that Rahul Gandhi has not made a single meaningful intervention on a subject of national importance and that he is invariably away on holiday when he is needed the most by his doting party. But these will be few in number. After all, the editors will tell you a man's private life is his private life. 

There could be another less innocuous reason. In an intervention whose significance was perhaps not understood (not even by the otherwise hyper-active social media) the Managing Editor of Times of India penned an article that left the reader in no doubt that the UPA-2 Government is using a massive advertisement budget to browbeat the media into adopting an editorial line that is politically supportive of the regime. By implication this means that the more "difficult" sections of the media will not be beneficiaries of the government's largesse (paid for by taxpayers) if they choose to be recalcitrant. It is so reminiscent of the last days of the Rajiv Gandhi Government when the XP division of the Ministry of External Affairs was transformed into a special unit for managing the media. 

In 1988-89, a large section of the media resisted these pressures while others capitulated and grovelled. The difference this time is that the financial stakes for the media, at a time when India's growth is barely 5 per cent, is much higher. A generous handout from the Bharat Nirman budget can make all the difference between survival and going under. 

There is another factor. Rahul Gandhi may be both elusive and reclusive but the old Congress Establishment is known and all-pervasive. Decades of uninterrupted power has given the media a comfort level with the props of dynastic democracy. By contrast, Modi is the archetypal outsider whose connections with the ruling Establishment are tenuous. Moreover, the BJP has not been successful in building a counter-Establishment that has the intellectual capital and social self-confidence to take on those who believe they were born to rule. 

The implications of this asymmetry are obvious: to prevail, Modi has to adopt very different strategies. He has to outflank the Delhi Establishment by sustained pressure from below, using the only weapon at his disposal--the public yearning for change. The campaign of calumny around the Uttarakhand tragedy was only the starter. The main course will be even more poisonous. (END

Sunday, June 16, 2013

BJP should cash in on Goa enthusiasm

By Swapan Dasgupta

From the anointment of Narendra Modi in Goa and L.K. Advani’s Sunset Boulevard act in Delhi to Nitish Kumar’s notice of separation and divorce from the NDA, it has been a bit too much of a rollercoaster ride for the BJP. It is just as well that all the drama has been packed into one week of June, at least 6-7 months before the election campaign formally begins. There is nothing more disastrous for a political party than to be confronted with indigestion in the midst of an election campaign—as happened in 2009 when Naveen Patnaik parted ways during the seat-sharing talks. It is best to get over the inner rumblings before the blueprints of the campaign have been finalised.

That Advani and Nitish were party poopers and dampened the post-Goa celebratory mood in the BJP isn’t in any doubt. At the risk of floating a conspiracy theory, it can be said that the duo was acting in concert. The JD(U) was banking on Advani to keep the Gujarat Chief Minister confined to the Gir forest; and Advani in turn was leaning on Nitish and Sushma Swaraj’s personal equations with the Thackeray family to maintain his own primacy in the party. After the BJP tersely informed Advani of the difference between Formula-1 racing and a vintage car rally, Nitish was left in doubt Modi had prevailed inside the party. He was requested by those he would leave orphaned in the BJP to stick to his original December 31 deadline because Advani still commanded a majority in the BJP Parliamentary Board, but by then things had gone too far for the JD(U) to apply the brakes without completely losing face.

As it is, despite his grandstanding and his ability to retain control of the state government, Nitish remains in danger of being squeezed between a re-invigorated Lalu Yadav and a gung-ho BJP—a predicament that could even force him into an alliance with the Congress in 2014. Since the JD(U) departure from the NDA was packaged as a bout of ‘secularism’, Nitish will have to demonstrate to the community he is courting that he stands a better chance of slaying Modi than Lalu Yadav. That may only be possible if he has the Congress by his side.

That Nitish’s imminent departure from the NDA has led to some soul-searching within the BJP is also undeniable. At an over-simplistic level, the BJP is witnessing a curious battle between its heart and its head. A section of the well-established leadership who saw political power in 2014 as a low hanging fruit curse Modi for injecting new complications and making the BJP’s task challenging.

The Advani objection to the projection of Modi was centred on the belief that the sheer weight of anti-incumbency would decimate the Congress and result in the NDA emerging as the clear front-runner for power. In other words, neither the BJP nor its allies would have to do much more than get its caste sums right and work up the crowds with the same messages about corruption, economic mismanagement and the legacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In short, it would be the 2009 campaign again with, hopefully, a better outcome thanks to the extent of the UPA’s misgovernance.

The emergence of Modi and particularly the way his rise has been interpreted by a large section of people have upset those calculations. It is now clear that a conventional campaign that, at best, promises to substitute the strategic silences of the 80-year-old Manmohan Singh with the unending reminiscences of the 85-year-old Advani will not yield optimum results. Indeed, another insipid NDA campaign could even revive attractions for the Congress’ all-too-familiar strategy of sops and handouts.

For the BJP, the likely exit of the JD(U) has cleared the decks for a very new type of election campaign. Yes, the possible absence of regional allies in states other than Punjab, Maharashtra and, possibly, the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh and Assam, pose an exceptional challenge. If the general election becomes an aggregate of state elections, the BJP is unlikely to be in the driver’s seat of a new coalition government. And the impossibility of a BJP-led government being sworn in by President Pranab Mukherjee in 2014 is what the pundits and the media will hark on incessantly. Arithmetically, they will tell you, a BJP Prime Minister after the general election has been ruled out by Nitish, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy.

They may well be right. I recall in 1991, Atal Behari Vajpayee ruing that the BJP tally would be around 50 because it had no alliances. At a National Executive meeting, Kalyan Singh, the then BJP chief of Uttar Pradesh, indicated that the party’s popular vote in Uttar Pradesh would, at best, rise from nine per cent to 18 per cent. In the event, the BJP won 121 seats, including more than 50 seats from Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, had it not been for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination a day before the second phase of the three-phase poll, the BJP tally would perhaps have touched 160 seats.

The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) model that was used to forecast elections was demolished in 1991, an election where the Ayodhya issue dominated. This was entirely due to the fact that the BJP campaign was novel: it was unorthodox, strident and centred on the creation of a new India. Never before or since has a BJP campaign been so full of raw energy as it was in 1991.

The issues of the 1991 campaign have become history. Today’s India has changed far more than its politics. There is raw energy of a youthful population desperate for self-improvement and, by implication, national resurgence; and there is raw anger that periodically manifests itself in spontaneous explosions against corruption and rape. To this can be added the social churning created by upwards social mobility, urbanisation and regional pride. And, finally, there is waning faith in the ability of the existing political class to effect meaningful change.

In a nutshell, while the existing arithmetic is tilted against Modi, the emerging chemistry of politics favours an outsider who encapsulates this churning. It is Modi’s ability, as campaign chief, to harness these energies and social trends that will determine whether the enthusiasm witnessed in Goa is translated into parliamentary seats. There is no half-way house left for the BJP. To win it will have to reinvent its approach to politics. Fortunately for it, the sheer determination of its supporters to break the mould overrides the innate conservatism of its leadership. In the past week, hard decisions were forced on the party. Now it will have to take them voluntarily and with imagination. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 16, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Last Stand Against Change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since he signalled his misgivings over the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the first among equals in the BJP, L.K. Advani has acquired a clutch of new friends. However, just as his controversial pronouncements on Mohammed Ali Jinnah during his Pakistan visit of 2005, earned him the short-lived backing of notables who otherwise harboured a strong allergy to the wider cause he represented, his most recent revolt has delighted all those who froth in the mouth at the very mention of Modi.

Unfortunately, in winning new friends, Advani has inevitably triggered a strong backlash within the BJP. His convoluted paean to Jinnah provoked a grassroots revolt and finally led to his removal as party president and the strengthening of the RSS grip over the BJP. In 2005, Advani lost the larger emotional battle but somehow kept a tenuous hold on the levers of decision-making by remaining Leader of Opposition and head of the parliamentary party. Furthermore, by converting a battle over ideas into a loyalty test, he was successful in retaining a position of nominal primacy in the party. He rightly calculated that the second generation leaders, most of them mentored by him, would never allow their dissatisfaction to overwhelm their larger gratitude to the man who catapulted the BJP from the fringes to the centre stage of Indian politics.

The Jinnah controversy, however, also led to the emergence of a very different Advani. First, the implicit trust that existed between him and the RSS was broken. Increasingly, Advani came to view the RSS involvement in the BJP as over-intrusive. He was particularly resentful that he had ceased to be the last word on party affairs. Secondly, Advani equated the criticism of his Jinnah pronouncements by his erstwhile protégés as acts of personal betrayal. Ironically, this bitterness with an ungrateful world increased after the NDA’s resounding defeat in the 2009 general election.

Ideally, as is the norm in democratic politics, Advani should have hung up his boots after the 2009 defeat. Instead, he retreated into a make-believe world, surrounded by durbaris who saw him as their only protection against a party where new forces were rising and new equations were being forged. By the time he was removed as Leader of Opposition and elevated to a ceremonial role as chairman of NDA, Advani had for all practical purposes become a resentful faction leader. At the same time, his desire to regain his absolute authority never waned and this could explain his unilateral decision to embark on yet another yatra against black money in 2011. Tragically for him, the political impact of that punishing journey was negligible. It was clear that Advani’s attempt to demonstrate his mass appeal had come to nought. Both the BJP and the electorate were looking for new leaders who could better connect to the 21st century and the aspirations of a young and even impetuous India.

The tell-tale signs of Advani’s diminishing appeal were there for all to see. The requests by candidates during Assembly elections for a public meeting to be addressed by Advani shrank embarrassingly. The central office often had to browbeat BJP candidates into hosting an Advani meeting just to prevent the old war-horse from feeling completely unwanted.

The tragedy of Advani is that he has been living in complete denial of his waning appeal. He has been single-mindedly seeking, or has been egged on to seek, yet another throw of the dice in 2014. However, unlike 2009 when his prime ministerial ambitions were accommodated by a party that didn’t have another fully groomed alternative, this time the rank-and-file of the party has clearly made up its mind. Initially a section of the RSS was hesitant and, indeed, a little fearful of Project Modi. But after some delicate Track-II negotiations, Nagpur has thrown its weight behind the Gujarat Chief Minister. Modi, it is now acknowledged, is the only leader who connects with both the initiated and an aspirational India.

Whether it was the unflinching stand of the RSS top brass or the onrush of grassroots emotionalism that finally prevailed in Goa last Sunday is best left to posterity to judge. What can be said with certainty is that Advani didn’t endear himself to either the RSS or the BJP by first trying to create impediments in the path of Modi, then boycotting the Goa meeting and finally resigning from a few (but not all) party posts. Insofar as he has successfully converted the boisterous celebrations in the BJP ranks into what appears to the outside world as an inner-party war, Advani still remains a formidable strategist.

His moves are well thought out. First, he has openly signalled his displeasure over Modi’s emergence as the BJP face for the 2014 election. He has become the rallying point for those leaders who are a little afraid of the consequences of a Modi takeover. He has made what was a pretty clear decision seem terribly contested. Secondly, he has imposed roadblocks in the path of the BJP’s alliance partners being overwhelmed by the Modi machine. This, he hopes, will prevent the BJP from putting all their eggs in the Modi basket and tempering their projection of the Gujarat Chief Minister. And finally, by muddying the waters, he has sought to keep alive his own chances of emerging as a stop-gap, consensus choice in the event of a fractured popular verdict.

There is a problem with this carefully crafted plan to convert defeat into victory. Unlike the Congress which lays great store on calculation, the BJP is a party that is inordinately influenced by emotionalism. In the BJP’s eyes, Advani is not an honourable dissenter as Vapayee was in the Ayodhya years; he is being increasingly cast as a petulant veteran who can’t stomach change.  

Whatever the future of Modi, Advani today stands diminished in the eyes of those who once venerated him. His new admirers will use him, but as a human shield against the advance of the very party he served with distinction for so long. 

Indian Express, June 12, 2013

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Last week, I sent a twitter message from Jaffna town which I was visiting after 25 years. “There are more sandbags and police pickets in south Delhi”, I observed, “than there are in Jaffna town.”
This terse message based entirely on my observation provoked howls of protest. Various individuals responded denouncing me as “anti-Tamil” and a stooge of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha, the latest whipping boy of the morally indignant. It is entirely possible that a brief 24-hour visit to a town where it was once common to find gun-totting members of various para-military factions walking with a swagger, does not qualify me to pass judgment on the totality of the situation in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
Yet, it would be fair to say that the Jaffna I returned to was a very different place from the war-torn but sleepy town that existed in the late-1980s. What I encountered was a mid-sized town with good roads and lots of new buildings, bustling with activity. The Nallur temple looked as grand as ever and the Jaffna library whose burning in the 1990s had created so much tension was a picture of old-world serenity. The stadium named after Alfred Durriapah, whose murder was among the first of the LTTE’s ‘hits’ seemed well maintained and there is even an Indian Consulate in place in a carefully renovated bungalow. Yes, there were the occasional signs of the bitter war that had ended barely four years ago; but anyone who didn’t know that this town was once in the frontline of one of the most ugly civil wars of all times would never have guessed.
This is not to say that everything is hunky dory. At a gathering of members of Jaffna civil society, there were voices raised against the acquisition of “Tamil lands” by the Sri Lankan army in its security zone adjoining the airport. There were complaints about “Sinhala colonisation” of areas in the southern regions of the Northern Province. And in Colombo, MPs belonging to the Tamil National Alliance presented us (a five-member team invited by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies) with a well-written account of Tamil grievances. Its leader, the 80-year-old Rajavardayam Sampanthan, who resembles a majestic Roman senator both in appearance and eloquence spoke about the Sri Lankan Government’s underlying desire to make the Tamil people “extinct” from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Yet, at a lunch hosted by businessmen of Indian origin in Colombo, I asked a Chettiar businessman how many Tamils there are in the capital city. “About 30 per cent of the city” he replied. “And do you control 60 per cent of the business?” I asked smilingly. “Only 60 per cent”, he retorted with a tinge of disappointment. “It’s more like 70 per cent” he said with a hearty laugh. Clearly, the noble Sampanthan’s theory of Tamils being an endangered breed in Sri Lanka doesn’t have too many takers south of the Elephant Pass.
The ‘Tamil problem’ that provides livelihood to the global human rights industry and provokes indignation in some circles in India seems essentially a Jaffna problem, and should be renamed as such. At the heart of the problem is the term devolution which was recommended to the Sri Lankan Government as a possible solution to the problem by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Rajapaksha in the aftermath of his famous military victory over the murderous LTTE.
For India, which still takes a needlessly gratuitous interest in the internal affairs of a sovereign neighbour, ‘devolution’ basically means implementation of the 13th amendment which formed a part of the embarrassment called the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardene in 1987. This amendment promised two things: the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the so-called Tamil homelands, and the formation of Provincial Councils, akin to India’s State Governments.
But two problems have arisen. First, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was set aside by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on procedural grounds. Sampanthan calls it a “dishonest judgment” but the de-merger is now a reality. Secondly, it would seem that apart from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Sinhala areas aren’t terribly enthused by the idea of Provincial Councils. Yet, elections to the Provincial Councils have been held in all provinces barring the Northern Province. At one time it seemed that the Government was having second thoughts about holding Provincial Council elections in the Northern Province but President Rajapaksha has categorically announced that the democratic exercise will be undertaken in September. The TNA, which is certain to win the election, now says that the powers of the Provincial Councils are inadequate. It wants the local Government to control land and the police. The Government may concede the first point but there is no way it will relax its control over all aspects of security in the North.
Who can blame Colombo for its reluctance? It’s just four years since the LTTE was decimated and it’s just too early for the Central Government to let down its guard. It is not that there is a desire to militarise the province. The Sri Lankan Army is present in large numbers in the Northern Province but it operates well below the radar. Logistically, the army wants to insulate itself in the security zones, build strategically located cantonments and operate as a rapid response force just in case insurgency resurfaces.
Ideally, the TNA should have no problem with this arrangement because its members were also murderously targeted by the LTTE. Moreover, it has declared, perhaps under Indian pressure, that it is committed to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It may still believe in emotional separatism but it has formally abjured political separatism and abandoned the erstwhile TULF’s call for ‘self-determination’.
At the same time, its actions suggest that it wants to keep tensions and the ethnic conflict alive. It doesn’t make sense until you realise that Tamil separatist politics derives its main impetus not from the ordinary people of Jaffna who are desperate for a breather but by the Tamil diaspora, the ones who bankroll the seemingly respectable, ‘moderate’ politicians. With a view of the island that is frozen in time, it is the diaspora that is proving to be the biggest impediment to Sri Lanka getting over its troubled history.
Sunday Pioneer, June 9, 2013

Monday, June 3, 2013

Modi or no one, there is no third choice

By Swapan Dasgupta

During my college days when high intellectualism and profanity went hand in hand, there was a crude Hindi phrase that became shorthand for a phenomenon that can best be described as the hype-that-never. It is possible that the high-minded disciples of the venerable Dr Raghu Vira in the BJP have never allowed such disagreeable colloquialisms to sully their speech and thoughts. This may explain why this repository of high culture has titillated itself with unending foreplay—a perversity that is fast becoming a bore.   

The allusion is to the tortuous prevarication that has greeted the intense all-round pressure that the BJP end the uncertainty over the leadership question. The speculation over the role to be played by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the general election has been hanging fire for nearly six months. Now, as the political game enters the proverbial slog overs stage, the impatience of those who are demanding a formal decision is approaching boiling point. They want a decision, preferably at the meeting of the National Executive in Goa later this week.

The choices before the BJP leaders are simple: either they project Modi as the face of the general election campaign or they adopt a lofty stand that the party is more important than any individual. There is no third path. The suggestion, periodically mooted by sundry individuals, that the old war-horse L.K. Advani be given another throw of the dice amount to very little and would probably constitute an affront to an India that is demographically more attuned to the 21st century. Equally, the wild-card proposal to anoint the previous party president Nitin Gadkari as the chairman of the party’s campaign committee is just a transparently sly bid to stop Modi at all costs.

In reality, the BJP has no real choice but to bite the Modi bullet. Anecdotal evidence—which counts for a great deal in India’s political decision-making—has quite clearly indicated that the BJP’s natural supporters are enthused by Modi in the same way as they were by the Ayodhya issue in 1991 and by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s leadership in 1998 and 1999. More to the point—and this is privately conceded by the leaders of non-NDA parties—the Modi buzz has infected sections that, in the normal course, are not partial to the BJP.

The anecdotal evidence is backed by opinion polls that point to a significant Modi bulge for the NDA parties throughout the country but particularly in northern and western India. The findings suggest that if the downhill slide of the UPA-2 Government persists and the other side isn’t debilitated by self-inflicted wounds, a Modi-led campaign would enable the BJP and its allies to maximise its seat tally from its traditional areas of influence. This is particularly appealing to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh where it has been struggling to re-establish itself since 1999. It may even prove an attraction to parties who are still outside the NDA fold, as the Vajpayee factor did in 1998 and 1999.

In a country as vast, diverse and differentiated as India, there is no single explanation for the dramatic surge in the popularity of a regional leader without any dynastic claim. To a vocal minusculity, Modi is the standard bearer of Hindu nationalism. But beyond this fringe, his appeal rests on other factors: as the proverbial no-nonsense, strong leader who can check India’s drift, as a champion of economic resurgence and as an epitome of personal integrity.

To these perceived attributes is a curious addition: caste. Modi has never flaunted his social origins and that he comes from a small backward caste is still relatively unknown. But throughout northern India, the bush telegraph is resonating with the news that, for the first time in living memory, there is an OBC aspirant to the post of Prime Minister. The potential emotional appeal of this is incalculable.

These may explain why, if the BJP leadership persists in dithering, we may witness an Indian variant of Mao’s famous call in 1967 to “bombard the headquarters” when a staid leadership was upstaged by raw enthusiasm of the Red Guards. For the BJP, Goa could witness either a celebration or an insurrection. 

Sunday Times of India, June 2, 2013
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