Sunday, December 29, 2013

After the exoneration: Modi's vision of India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Any judicial verdict, including one where investigations had been closely monitored by the Supreme Court, leaves some people disappointed.

So it was with the Ahmedabad trial court judgement that exonerated Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the grave charge of conspiracy in the horrible riots that gripped the State in March 2002.  In this case the disappointment was particularly pronounced because the attempt to rule Modi out of active politics through a judicial pronouncement had the fulsome backing of some of the most powerful and influential individuals throughout the world.

Modi may have secured the categorical endorsement of the people of Gujarat for three consecutive Assembly elections, but to those who set themselves up as moral guardians of Indian politics, he was forever the “mass murderer” who had to be prevented from assuming higher office at any cost. The trouble with Modi, as they saw it, was that far from limiting the question of culpability to an individual, he had enlarged the number of accused to include the six crore Gujaratis for whom he claimed to speak. In that sense, last week’s judgement didn’t merely exonerate the Chief Minister who was at the helm in 2002, it liberated the entire State of Gujarat from a heartless taint.

 The people of Gujarat, barring a small number of extremely motivated activists, had maintained a discernible silence for the past 12 years or so. This wasn’t because they were in a state of denial — a little probing reveals that the traumatic events that began with the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra haven’t exactly been forgotten. Yet, the reason why rekindling memories of that horrible week wasn’t appreciated — and let us not forget that even the Opposition Congress in the State stopped using the 2002 riots as a campaign theme — was because of an earnest desire to look ahead and rebuild the State after two back-to-back tragedies: the earthquake of January 26, 2001 and the riots of March 2002.

This was something that Modi understood and acted upon. Even the Chief Minister’s worst detractors will not deny that the post-Godhra riots have not been repeated. For a State where communal rioting was endemic throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and where daily life was all about water shortages, power cuts and incessant curfews, a riot-free 12 years has been a stupendous achievement. What is more, this social harmony has been brought about by a new form of politics — one where the State did not tailor its priorities to suit religious communities.

Contrast this unwillingness to view compartmentalise the province into religious units with States where the thrust of the administration is to shower particular communities with exceptional favours. Gujarat has not had a communal riot since 2002 but such riots have been endemic in Uttar Pradesh where Akhilesh Yadav practices the most perverse variant of secular-communalism. Contrast the prevailing social equilibrium in Gujarat with the simmering tensions that are being observed in States such as Assam, West Bengal and Bihar.

To the critics of Modi, the Chief Minister is said to be viscerally anti-Muslim. They have pointed to his opposition to special scholarships for Muslims and the fact that the term Muslim does not appear in the blog that appeared last Friday and even managed to temporarily overshadow the English-language media’s gush-gush coverage of everything to do with the Aam Aadmi Party — the flavour of the festive season.

I am heartened by this omission. This is not because there isn’t many Muslim self-identities. There is and a religious identity should be respected. However, there is a big difference between a socio-religious Muslim identity and its use as a political football. This would be as true of a Hindu identity or a Christian identity — a possible reason why the more menacingly vocal representatives of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad view Modi with deep suspicion, and even hostility. Modi has incurred the displeasure of the certifying authorities of Indian secularism precisely because he has shunned religious characterisation. In a normal place this would have made him too secular; by the logic of the Nehruvian consensus he is labelled majoritarian and, by implication, communal.

The great thing about these labels of abuse is that they are born of expediency. Arvind Kejriwal wasn’t debunked as a Hindu bigot for not including a Muslim and Sikh representative in his Cabinet. Nor has anyone with common sense questioned his use of aam aadmi because it does not accord a separate place to the religious minorities.

Of course, such intellectual generosity would be unimaginable when applied to Modi. When the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate writes in his blog that “my emphasis has always been on developing and emphasising a spirit of unity”, he is attacked for failing to highlight India’s social mosaic. This mosaic is, needless to say, a reality. The point of contention is whether politics involves disentangling each separate strand or positing the commonality of interests of all India. By suggesting a “vote for India” in the coming general elections, Modi is challenging the principle of divisive politics. He is also debunking the construction of aggrieved victimhood which formed the basis of the unrelenting onslaught against him for the past 12 years.

The professional tribe of ambulance chasers who propped up the distressed widow of a former Congress MP who was killed in the 2002 riots weren’t interested in securing the punishment of the real perpetrators of communal violence. They were in the business of creating resentful citizens. That project hasn’t succeeded but the larger challenge to the emotional balkanisation of India remains.

Sunday Pioneer, December 29, 2013

Our pride and the NRI prejudice

By Swapan Dasgupta

The fuss over Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's maid has had an immediate fallout on Indo-US bilateral relations. Given that this was an affair involving diplomatic protocol and even national sovereignty, this was only to be expected. Less anticipated, however, was the impact of this controversy on two very separate groups of Indians: the middle class Indians resident in India and their social counterparts now resident in the West. Far from acting in unison, circumstances have propelled both groups to turn on each other with a measure of hostility that was unimaginable. 

At the heart of the dispute is the vexed "servants" question. To the middle class Indians with a reasonable exposure to the West, the charges levelled by the nanny-cum-domestic help were easily explained. Sangita Richards' status in the US was directly linked to the tenure of her employer. If she wished to acquire a permanent right to live and work in the US, she had to carve out an independent status for herself. This was only possible by charging her employer with violating her human rights and depicting herself as a victim of servitude. This she successfully did by preying on the gullibility of do-gooders who are accustomed to viewing the Third World as an undifferentiated area of darkness. Indeed, by blending piousness with America's self-perception as the world's good cop, Richards was even able to secure the 'evacuation' of her family from Indian tyranny. 

This was the story most middle class Indians and the mandarins in South Block, including those slightly embarrassed by the dodgy track record of a member of India's Dalit aristocracy, chose to believe. To them, the domestic help was a street smart operator out to short-circuit the US immigration rules. If that meant levelling extraordinary charges against her employer, she was game. 

Predictably, in a battle involving the country of their birth and the land of their adoption, overseas Indians had to exercise an unenviable choice. There was, quite naturally, a large degree of envy at work. Many who earned much, much more than Devyani's modest relatively salary resented the fact that purported  diplomatic status allowed her to maintain a flat in Manhattan and import a maid from India who was paid less than the going New York rate. 

It didn't stop at that. The journey from envy to resentment involved frenzied breast-beating over how Indians habitually treated 'servants' disgustingly and how the relationship was deeply exploitative. Overseas Indians who were hitherto happy to enjoy the luxuries of domestic help during their holidays in India, suddenly woke up to the belief that privileged Indians lacked any form of social conscience. The subtext was also apparent: by emigrating to the First World, these sons and daughters of India had exorcised themselves of the accumulated sins of their families in the subcontinent. Judging from the visceral comments on social media, it almost seemed that those who had migrated westwards had so as a protest against an iniquitous social order. India, it was tacitly suggested, could redeem itself by transplanting the transactional social relationships of the New World into a society that is pre-modern, modern and post-modern at the same time. 

For many Indian-Americans, the Devyani Khobragade affair was akin to the Tebbit test of loyalty. There may have been some awkwardness with the high-handed treatement of a woman diplomat but, overall, there was vigorous nodding approval for District Attorney Preet Bharara's carping suggestion that the US wasn't accustomed to treating important people with kid gloves. In exercising choice, those who India likes to view as its overseas citizens, chose to spurn the old country. 

This is a lesson that won't be easily forgotten in India. For the past decade at least, the New World and even some European countries have proceeded on the assumption that ethnic Indians are better able to understand India and relate to Indians than the average white or black. The assumption has often been questioned by Indians. Anecdotal experience suggests that Indians with different passports have a monumental chip on their shoulder. After Devyani's Bharara encounter this prejudice is certain to turn into a conviction. It won't be a bad idea if the West acts on this realisation. 

Sunday Times of India, December 29, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Christmas Clubs of Calcutta

By Swapan Dasgupta

For a very long time--indeed, till I was well into my 20s--I was fanatical in my insistence that Burra Din, the way we natives used to refer to the festival the burra sahibs called Christmas, was best spent in the city we knew as Calcutta. The reason was actually absurdly simple: Christmas in Calcutta was not a private or even family occasion (as it is in the West, for example); and it was only perfunctorily a religious occasion that began and ended with Christmas Carols of uneven rendition and the midnight mass at St Paul's Cathedral. Burra Din in Calcutta was, above all, a good natured festival of drink and gluttony and possibly the only time its residents tacitly celebrated the good old days--a euphemism for the time Calcutta had not lost sight of its European moorings. 

As a member of the ever-growing club of the bred-in-Calcutta individuals who bought a one-way ticket out of Bengal, I no longer yearn to be jostled in New Market in the final days of December. Including this year, I have spent only four Burra Dins in the city of my birth in the past 25 years. Yet, each year, wherever I am in the world, my thoughts invariably drift to Christmas in Kolkata and which cousin is doing what. 

Actually, as things go, the options aren't all that great. Christmas in Kolkata is, and has been for as long as I can care to remember, all about deciding which club to go to. There was a time when each of the clubs had their own distinctive character and attracted distinct individuals. Bengal Club was for the European boxwallahs, Calcutta Club was for the Bengali professionals, Saturday Club appealed to younger, sporty types in the corporate world; the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club boasted the liveliest bar and a perfunctory interest in team sports; and the Tollygunge Club, situated on the southern outskirts, was quite definitely for weekend recreation. Yes, there were other clubs too including the Dalhousie Institute, an Anglo-Indian institution that, until the 1980s at least, served food that was so reminiscent of the old Bengal Nagpur Railway Hotel in Puri. 

Regretably, it is difficult to distinguish between the clubs these days because most well-heeled Kolkata residents are members of multiple institutions. My most enterprising cousin who hasn't lived away from the city in his 60 years is, for example, a member of Calcutta Club--a family tradition stretching back three generations, Saturday Club, CC&FC, Tollygunge Club and, as I discovered to my surprise this visit, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club which boasts the best view of the city across the maidan. Another cousin is this year's President of the Saturday Club. And a third cousin, a retired tea planter who once spent a harrowing fortnight in the captivity of Bodo insurgents, combines his Tolly and CCF&C cards with membership of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. 

There is a certain class of Kolkata that spends the bulk of its leisure hours in their clubs. Predictably, since I happen to have been born into such a class, the question of a family Christmas lunch boiled down to spirited disagreements over which club was most agreeable. And, as usually happens in Bengali families where there is too much leisure and too much boredom, there was no question of unanimity. The eldest cousin, a grand dame of the tea gardens, chose the rarefied splendour of the Bengal Club; my planter cousin chose CC&FC because he hated crowds; and my cousin with multiple memberships, into whose safe hands I had entrusted myself, booked us in the Tolly. 

It's a choice that I had absolutely no reason to regret. Having been away from the city for so long, I knew few people and could afford to concentrate single-mindedly on the wonderfully old-fashioned food. I call it old-fashioned because where in today's health-conscious environment are you going to get glazed ham where the fat hasn't been discarded or non-lean bacon? Or Shepherd's Pie where the oil from the keema rose above the potato mash? To people like me, this was a Christmas lunch that doubled up as comfort food--and particularly the soufflé and trifle puddings. 

This is not the way Europeans eat their Christmas lunch these days. Maybe they never did. But in the collective memory of Calcutta, particularly the kitchens that were dominated by the "Mug" cooks from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, this is what must be served for Christmas--at least in the clubs. 

It is so different from the family Christmas lunches. Three years ago, I was invited to an open house of a well-known Anglo-Indian family of the city. I had just returned from a club Christmas at the Tolly (where the fare was exactly the same as this year's spread) and expected to find a few roasted birds being delicately carved. Banish the thought. The Christmas lunch of this Anglo-Indian family, who may even have a superior claim on the city's European pedigree, was home-made chicken biryani and chicken curry. The only concession to the Occident was the ubiquitous plum cake or what the sahibs called Christmas Pudding. 

I loved the mismatch. It encapsulated the charming absurdity of our lives, the orphans of Macaulay who had clung on tenaciously to our few fragile certitudes. On December 25, there are tiny corners of the old imperial city that are forever draped in a mythical flag of nostalgia. There's no need to send in the bulldozers: in a few decades we will be nothing more than memory. Yet, for many like me on Christmas Day, it was good the Empire lasted as long as it did. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, December 27,2013



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Our investment in US has gone sour

By Swapan Dasgupta

The kerfuffle over the wages paid to the domestic help of Devyani Khobragade in New York may well have exposed the casual manner in which Indians in important posts sign official declarations. But what caused an individual dispute to a full-scale diplomatic conflict between India and the US was different.

Yes, there was outrage in the Indian Foreign Service that US authorities were picking on Indian diplomats and consular officials in furtherance of local political ambitions. The outrage was sufficient to nudge an otherwise sleepy Indian Government into reacting sharply to the US disregard for the Vienna Convention. But what tilted the scales in this case was the public humiliation of Devyani, particularly the fact that she was handcuffed and strip- searched.

In India, the convention, in similar cases of misdemeanour, was for the Government to request the concerned foreign mission to send their errant official home as soon as possible. There have been innumerable cases of diplomats misusing their liquor quotas or even the diplomatic bag to engage in antiques smuggling. Rarely, if ever, have such cases resulted in the errant diplomat spending a night in the local lock-up or being confronted with the complexities of a Patiala House court. Discreet conflict resolution has been the norm. 

The US has for long believed it is a case apart. Apart from believing, and often with some basis, that the single-minded objective of all peoples at all places was to immigrate to the New World, the US has also believed that it is both the moral guardian and the policeman of the world. Therefore, it feels it has the right to eavesdrop on the telephone calls of foreign political leaders,  prejudge the alleged human rights violations of Indian leaders, and decide which country has religious freedom and which country doesn’t. In the Devyani case, the US has displayed its belief that it is the sole arbiter of diplomatic privileges, and it has broadcast its right to ‘evacuate’ anyone from anywhere in the world, with scant regard for other people’s rule of law. 

While it may be comforting to know that US high-handedness is reasonably indiscriminate and not merely aimed at India, the Devyani incident has brought out the grim reality that Indo-US bilateral relations are not governed by reciprocity but tilted quite decisively in favour of the US. The much-publicised removal of barricades in front of the US Embassy may seem petty but it is an indication of the astonishing generosity India had shown in accommodating US concerns.

Showering the US with exceptional privileges was not an outcome of any special relationship India has with the US. Despite the special attempt made by former President George W Bush to upgrade Washington’s relationship with India, the past few years have seen bilateral relations become entirely an India preoccupation. India has invested disproportionately in bettering its relations with the US and allowed itself to be taken for granted.

In the past decade, US influence on critical areas of Indian life has grown exponentially, to the point where it appears distinctly unhealthy. From key bureaucrats who are only too keen to oblige American interests to senior generals who feel they can accept US honours without bothering to seek permission, the US today occupies a role in India that is akin to the hold of the Soviet Union in the India of the 1970s. Even institutions such as the media and academia are not spared from this over-weaning influence. And ‘strategic thinking’, such as it exists in India, has been completely mortgaged to US-based think-tanks. The ripple-effects of this can be discerned in our foreign policy.

The increasing hold of the US in public life could, arguably, have been justified if there was compelling evidence that Washington had thrown its considerable weight behind Indian concerns at a regional and global level. Unfortunately, this is far from being true. When it comes to India’s security, the US’s appreciation is significantly less than emphatic. In trying to extricate itself as painlessly as possible from Afghanistan, the US appears willing to overlook many of the transgressions of India’s neighbours. India, it would seem, matters to the US only as a business opportunity or as part of an unequal, no-question-asked friendship.

A possible reason why India has been taken for granted by the US stems from a belief that because India’s elite has too much of an interest in the US, it will not pursue national interests beyond a point. I fear the American calculations are right. The US has selectively obliged our decision-makers — through visas, green cards and scholarships to sons and daughters — to such an extent that it feels it can kick a diplomat or two or make them fall guys in a larger game.

Indeed the US and the over-zealous Indian-born prosector would have succeeded had it not been for the fact that Devyani was a Dalit woman, and that her prosecution coincided with some crazy judge sending Sonia Gandhi summons for a case relating to the 1984 riots. Belatedly, a supine Establishment felt it had to say enough is enough.

Sunday Pioneer, December 22, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

A MODEST PROPOSAL - Towards a pragmatic resolution of the debate on Section 377

By Swapan Dasgupta

Public life is replete with unintended consequences, particularly in a country where people live by their wits. Earlier this week, to illustrate the point, I was told by a distraught gay businesswoman of the experience of another entrepreneur who practices what one important politician has dubbed “unnatural sex”. A few days after the Supreme Court judgment restoring Section 377 to the Indian Penal Code, the businesswoman decided to terminate the services of a casual employee who was clearly underperforming. Upon receiving the marching orders, the angry employee told his employer in no uncertain terms that he must receive a hefty compensation package. Alternatively, he would go to the police and make a complaint that his employer was engaging in criminal misconduct by having gay sex, and thereby open the floodgates of humiliation and harassment.

It is entirely possible that the threat was all bluster. We have, after all, been reminded that Section 377 is hardly ever used, and that since its enactment more than 150 years ago, has been used in only 200 or so cases. Yet, ironically, as my friend pointed out, earlier this pre- Independence law was largely unknown and rarely enforced. However, after the huge publicity surrounding the Supreme Court judgment, there is widespread awareness that homosexuality is a criminal offence. Consequently, the scope for its opportunistic misuse is all that more.

Yashwant Sinha may have been guilty of overstating the absurdity of the United States of America making a fetish of local laws when he suggested that foreign diplomats could be made subject to the draconian provisions of Section 377. But that he chose this particular issue to drive home the absurdity of the harsh action by the New York administration against an Indian woman diplomat is revealing. As things stand today, gay persons in India potentially face greater harassment than they did before the Delhi High Court de-criminalized gay sex in the summer of 2009. That is because Section 377 is no longer a decorative and relatively unknown facet of the law.

Paradoxically, it is the over- exposure of gay activism that may have contributed to this dismal state of affairs. That the intolerance of homosexuality was imported into India by, first, the Christian evangelists and subsequently by orthodox Islamism is a matter of record. In traditional Indian society — there may have been local variations — homosexuality was no doubt treated as individual deviancy, perhaps an example of odd behaviour, but it was never subjected to persecution. In most families where an individual preferred to depart from ‘normal’ sexuality, it was covered up in a conspiracy of silence. People preferred to look the other way and not speak about it in polite society.

This contrived sense of denial was no doubt a deeply unsatisfactory solution and subjected countless individuals to emotional trauma. However, the mere fact that Section 377 became a public issue a mere 15 years or so ago, coinciding largely with the encroaching globalization of India, suggests that society was comfortable pretending that homosexuality was too fringe a matter to lose sleep over. Indian society neither condoned nor persecuted those who deviated from conventional, straight behaviour.

The option of the government acting on the recommendations of the Law Commission and removing consensual, adult gay sex from the list of criminality by stealth has, however, gone. Today, unfortunately, the debate over Section 377 has generated a social schism. There is a brewing conflict between social consensus and individual freedom.

There is a simmering disquiet — and this has gone largely unreported in the media that has quite unequivocally championed the individual’s right to choose his or her sexuality — over the in-your-face assertion of gay pride, particularly as shown on TV. Many politicians I have spoken to have privately suggested that taking up the gay cause would repel voters and even lose votes. In Haryana, for example, Congress functionaries are unhappy that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi went public with their criticism of the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377. There are few takers for the callow minister of state who told some MPs that since there are (by one estimate) some three crore of people who fit the LGBT definition, the Congress’s stand will influence some 30 crore votes in the coming general election — the assumption being that each LGBT will influence at least 10 more people.

The questions go beyond the imaginary numbers game. The Bharatiya Janata Party president, Rajnath Singh, may have been articulating conservative concerns when he argued that the law could not condone ‘unnatural sex’. Yet, he didn’t grapple with the question as to why the law should address any consensual act — no one denies that 377 has a role in punishing both involuntary sex and sex with minors — in the first place. Homosexuality may well be the subject of individual or even collective derision, but should the State be concerned with what happens in the privacy of a bedroom?

Alas, the State does intrude into what may seem to be private. There are restrictions on both food and drink that are born out of either custom (the ban on beef in many states) or invented tradition (prohibition in Gujarat). Institutions such as marriage are regulated and there are laws governing inheritance and adoption. For a statist, Section 377 could well fit the scheme and be attributed to the need to preserve what the philosopher Roger Scruton called “common decencies”.

For social conservatives who attach primary importance to family and other kinship ties, the great fear is that an extra dose of permissiveness will lead India mirroring some of the social dysfunctionality of the West. Interestingly, this does not always lead to a full-throated endorsement of Victorian morality. A very prominent BJP leader, who has maintained radio silence on the recent controversy, remarked to a colleague that, in the West, the state routinely separates minor children from their mothers and entrusts them to State-sponsored care. This, he suggested, would be unthinkable in India, except in the rarest of rare circumstances. The implication of his observation was clear: homosexuals are members of a family and cannot either be disowned or brutally criminalized for their sexual inclinations.

India may comprise of many conservative societies. But this wariness of swimming with the latest fashion is also balanced by accommodation and tolerance. To my mind, this is the key to a pragmatic resolution of the recent challenge.

The issue is not the legitimization of homosexuality by moving towards the recognition of gay marriages. Nor is it a question of conferring social legitimacy to gay sex. To some, same- sex relationships will always remain unnatural and sinful and no amount of persuasion will alter that view. To others, it will be value-neutral and a matter of individual choice.

Yet, what is deemed sinful or unnatural need not necessarily be criminal. At the heart of the Section 377 debate is the issue of criminality, and here it is indeed possible to distinguish between the legal and the social. In the past and even now, society has come to terms with morganatic relationships. Sheer pragmatism and an overriding sense of humaneness should also be allowed to prevail in society’s approach to gay relationships.

In today’s India, gay relationships embrace a wide social diversity. Indeed, there are creative professions where gay people rule the roost. Far from being disruptive deviants, they are very much in the mainstream of productive India. For such individuals to be harassed, humiliated and tarred as criminals is plain wrong. The social consensus depends on an ever-changing moral majority; the law, however, must be based on fairness and justice.

The Telegraph, December 20,2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe I am over-reading the boisterousness, but the Aam Aadmi Party’s coming-second party at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last week left me a trifle disturbed. The enthusiasm of the modest but jubilant crowd, most flaunting their by-now familiar headgear, was only to be expected. After all, it is not every day that a determined bunch of activists can alter the electoral calculus of a state, especially one that happens to be India’s Capital city, and come within smelling distance of an outright victory after polling nearly 30 per cent of the popular vote. No, the triumphalism was both understandable and expected.

Yet, I expected a measured show of humility by those who had emerged out of a popular movement against both corruption and political high-handedness. Instead, TV viewers were subjected to an astonishing show of cockiness by individuals, heady from their rapid elevation from relative anonymity to stardom. The Master of Ceremonies was particularly exultant and never missed an opportunity to direct his snide asides both on those who had lost and those who had performed better than the fledgling AAP. Although Arvind Kejriwal did make a show of inviting “good people” from the Congress and BJP to join his party, the overall tone was one of dismissive sneer: the AAP was the stage army of the good and all the other mainstream parties epitomised the rot of India.

It was this infuriating arrogance that also led to a AAP celebrity heckling former army chief General V.K. Singh at Anna Hazare’s fast in a village in Maharashtra. So much so that Anna had to personally intervene and ask the loudmouth activist to leave.

To attribute this unseemly display of triumphalism to the personal shortcomings of a few individuals may well be correct. But if success has gone to the heads of those who promised a new brand of “alternative”, much of the responsibility can be pinned on the editorial classes who have cast AAP in the mould of a La Passionara—the legendary figure from the Spanish Civil War who uttered the famous words “they shall not pass” directed at the advancing forces of General Franco.

There was always an extra gush in the coverage of the AAP campaign but if this impressionable folly of junior reporters has been transmitted up the hierarchy after counting day, it is due to two factors. First, there appears to be generalised consensus that the bottom has fallen off the Congress’ support base. This was most in evidence in Delhi and Rajasthan, but even the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh results reinforced the conviction that no great depth left in the Congress batting any longer. Secondly, there is an emerging groupthink that suggests the AAP is the only viable force that stands between Narendra Modi and victory. If the AAP, or so the argument goes, can replicate its Delhi performance in urban India, Modi will have to be content with his existing job as Chief Minister of Gujarat.  

The AAP euphoria is proving infectious among those who are exasperated by the sudden death of the Congress and are desperately in search of a force that can derail Modi’s journey to Delhi. An Indian-American academic who was earlier singing praises of Rahul Gandhi has, for example, detected that the dynasty is well past its sell-by date. He is now detecting an AAP surge in places such as Bangalore and Pune. Whether such individuals have actually detected something that is not visible to the naked eye or are merely clutching at straws will be known in a few months. Whatever the reality, the AAP is certainly celebrating its moment in the sun, its rise being equated to a tsunami and the Arab Spring that toppled various decrepit West Asian regimes and left the region in a state of confused turbulence.

Yet, while the AAP rise has many obvious lessons for a smug and complacent leadership of the national parties, its rise suggests various possibilities for the future. The most important—and by far the most reassuring message—is that traditional electoral calculations go out of the window if a big idea grips the popular imagination.

Contrary to media reports, this is not a new AAP contribution to Indian politics. The elections of 1971, 1977, 1980 and 1984 were decided on the strength of a big idea. In those elections, voters weren’t bothered about candidates: their preference was for the big picture. In an equal way, the BJP’s triumph in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 was brought about by a similar attraction to another lofty ideal that proved more appealing than local organisation and candidates.

Equally, the large network of volunteers that AAP was able to organise isn’t exactly new. Every worthwhile party has its network of kayakartas. What makes a crucial difference in the election season is a party’s ability to attract incremental support. In 1977, the Janata Party—born barely a month before the election—was completely dependent on unpaid enthusiasts. For that matter so is the NAMO campaign dependent on volunteers who have shelved other activities to campaign for what they see is a noble mission. Yet, the enthusiasm of these volunteers can only make a difference if they are integrated into the main campaign. The AAP succeeded in effecting that synergy and for that it should be credited. Now it is up to the others to do what is necessary to energise a campaign.

AAP has indicated that the mould of conventional politics can be broken. Mercifully, it is not the only force that can benefit from creative destruction. 

Sunday Pioneer, December 15, 2013

The curious case of convenient liberalism

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, liberal opinion that enjoys a virtual monopoly of the airwaves pilloried the Supreme Court for what some feel was its most disgraceful judgment since the infamous Habeas Corpus case of 1976. The decision to overturn the Delhi High Court judgment taking consensual same-sex relationships outside the purview of criminal laws has been viewed as an unacceptable assault on individual freedom and minority rights and even an expression of bigotry. Overcoming fears of a virulent conservative backlash, mainstream politicians have expressed their disappointment at the judgment and happily begun using hitherto unfamiliar shorthand terms such as LGBT.

Indeed, the most striking feature of the furore over the apex court judgment has been the relatively small number of voices denouncing homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and deviant. This conservative passivity may even have conveyed an impression that India is changing socially and politically at a pace that wasn’t anticipated. Certainly, the generous overuse of  ‘alternative’ to describe political euphoria and cultural impatience may even suggest that tradition has given way to post-modernity.

Yet, before urban India is equated with the bohemian quarters of New York and San Francisco, some judgmental restraint may be in order. The righteous indignation against conservative upholders of family values are not as clear cut as may seem from media reports. There are awkward questions that have been glossed over and many loose that have been left dangling.  

A year ago, a fierce revulsion against the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi led to Parliament amending the Penal Code and enacting a set of laws that extended the definition of rape and made punishment extremely stringent. It was the force of organised public opinion that drove the changes. Curiously, despite the Supreme Court judgment stating quite categorically that it was the responsibility of Parliament to modify section 377, there seems to be a general aversion to pressuring the law-makers to do their job and bring the criminal law system into the 21st century. Is it because India is bigoted or is there a belief that there are some issues that are best glossed over in silence?

This dichotomy of approach needs to be addressed. Conventionally, it is the job of the legislatures to write laws and for the judiciary to assess their accordance with the Constitution and to interpret them. In recent years, the judiciary has been rightly criticised for over-stepping its mark and encroaching into the domain of both the executive and the legislatures. Yet, we are in the strange situation today of the government seeking to put the onus of legitimising homosexuality on the judges. 

Maybe there are larger questions involved. The battle over 377 was not between a brute majoritarianism and a minority demanding inclusion. The list of those who appealed against the Delhi High Court verdict indicates it was a contest between two minorities: religious minorities versus lifestyle minorities. Formidable organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some church bodies based their opposition to gay rights on theology. Liberal promoters of sexual choice on the other hand based the claim of decriminalised citizenship on modernity and scientific evidence. In short, there was a fundamental conflict between the Constitutionally-protected rights of minority communities to adhere to faiths that abhor same-sex relationships and the right of gays to live by their own morals. Yet, if absolute libertarianism was to prevail, can the khap panchayats be denied their perverse moral codes?

The answer is yes but only if it is backed by majority will, expressed through Parliament. Harsh as it may sound, it is the moral majority that determines the social consensus.

There is a curious paradox here. On the question of gay rights liberal India prefers a cosmopolitanism drawn from the contemporary West. At the same time, its endorsement of laws that are non-denominational and non-theological does not extend to support for a common civil code. Despite the Constitution’s Directive Principles, the right of every citizen to be equal before the law is deemed to be majoritarian and therefore unacceptable by the very people who stood up for inclusiveness last week.

For everything that is true of India, the opposite is turning out to be equally true. 

Sunday Times of India, December 15, 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Time to send out friend requests

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something quite compelling about the what-if, counterfactual history that fascinates people. Would the bloody World War of 1914-18 have been averted if the chauffer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand not taken a wrong turn in the town of Sarajevo? Would Partition of India have been averted had the Congress leadership known that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was suffering from a deadly cancer and was living on borrowed time?

These are interesting subjects for intellectual mind-games on a winter’s evening in the hills. However, there is no percentage in the BJP lamentation that victory in three more seats in Delhi last Sunday would have made the party’s forward march appear even more emphatic. Equally, there is little credibility in the assertion made by beleaguered secular crusaders from Barkha Dutt to Nitish Kumar that Narendra Modi’s contribution to the BJP victory was zero because the party’s vote fell in Delhi. To the uninitiated observer, the overall winner of this round of elections was the BJP. And since Modi is the national face of the BJP, he has to count as an overall winner too, just as his political standing would have been affected had the Congress won any of the four states. The exemption clause that insulates the ‘dynasty’ from any responsibility for adversity and catapults it to the top of the credit-seekers’ queue in the event of a triumph does not, mercifully, apply to individuals with lesser pedigrees.

Fortunately, there is more to the just-concluded round of elections than the conflicting theories on the likely impact of Modi. What stares everyone in the face most starkly is the inescapable conclusion that a Congress-led UPA Government is very unlikely to be returned to power next year.

Admittedly, Sonia Gandhi has taken heed of the disappointing results and promised yet another bout of the mandatory ‘introspection’; and Rahul Gandhi has promised to attend to the structural shortcomings of the Congress with exceptional purposefulness. There has also been an announcement that the Congress will go into the 2014 general election with a pre-determined prime ministerial candidate. Yet, none of these grand proclamations can take away from the fact that the average Congress activist and leader is approaching the 2014 Lok Sabha poll dejected and dispirited. During confessional, the party may be coerced into admitting that it is fighting the Lok Sabha poll not to win, but to prevent a Modi-led BJP from winning.

In the coming days, we are likely to witness even more dirt being hurled at Modi by sting operations that bear the sponsorship mark of the Congress. We may even witness a last-ditch attempt by fanatical ultra-loyalists to dethrone the Prime Minister and replace him with a member of the first family. If the desperation to cling on to power proves too irresistible, the country could even witness some pretty adventurist schemes to trigger social polarisation that could be sought to be blamed on Modi or his associates.

The possibilities are endless but it is unlikely that they will produce the mythical “late, reverse swing” that fanciful Congressmen detected in Rajasthan and courtier-journalists gleamed in Madhya Pradesh. Actually, the experience of Madhya Pradesh is worth narrating, not least because an unnatural sense of deference by the media has prevented many uncomfortable facts from emerging. For two months it was propagated that the quasi-official anointment of Jyotiraditya Scindia as the Congress’ chief ministerial choice had made the race tighter. Scindia, it was suggested, would really make Shivraj Singh Chauhan sweat.

The results suggest that far from boosting the Congress’ tally against a 10-year-old government, Scindia’s leadership, the number of seats won by the party actually fell by 13. To be fair, this failure can’t be pinned on Scindia alone. However, it suggests that even a supposedly more energetic leader on his own can’t reverse a larger trend. Regardless of whether the Congress goes into battle with Rahul Gandhi or P.Chidambaram or even (as some suggest) a technocrat such as Nandan Nilekani at the helm, the party has to bear the full weight of the anti-Congress wave sweeping through much of India.

This has implications for the likes of Nitish Kumar who believed that an understanding with the Congress would boost his prospects. As things stand at present, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar must be wondering whether any identification with the Congress will involve inheriting a negative sentiment. Sharad Pawar expressed this quite openly after the results and the same thoughts must be going through the minds of the DMK leadership in Tamil Nadu. The Aaam Aadmi Party and its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal may be projected as the emerging third alternative by a section of the editorial class anxious to clutch on to any anti-Modi straw. But AAP’s ability to strike roots outside Delhi is doubtful and will be limited to linkages with the so-called ‘people’s movements’ against development projects in some states. In any case, it is still too early for AAP to dilute the purity of its mission by teaming up with either the established Left or with potential constituents of the mythical Third Front.

The outcome of the four Assembly elections, particularly the despondency in the Congress, has given the BJP its best opportunity for attracting new allies in at least Haryana, Jharkhand and Karnataka. Despite the opposition to each of these measures from within, it would be imprudent for the BJP to bask in majestic isolation and delay matters too much.

Last Sunday, the BJP took a few more steps in the direction of its goal of winning power in Delhi. A few more smart moves aimed at seizing the moment will see them tantalizingly close to their final objective. But, as the Delhi results revealed, to be within smelling distance of victory isn’t the same as winning. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age

Sunday, December 1, 2013

BJP has the highest stake in these polls

By Swapan Dasgupta

By next Sunday afternoon the country will begin the process of digesting the results of the Assembly elections in five states. Although the results will include the verdict of Mizoram, the greatest attention will be on the four states of northern and central India where the principal battle is between the Congress and the BJP. Since the Congress holds power in Rajasthan and Delhi, and the BJP rules Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, this is not an unequal battle. Despite the fact that there are differences in how people vote in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections—this is particularly marked in Delhi—the outcome will be a curtain raiser in the battle to decide which party/alliance will rule at the Centre in 2014.

The issue is more than a question of the final tally. The interpretation of the final results is more than a statistical issue: it is a matter of perception and expectation. The stakes are unquestionably the highest for the BJP. As the challenger whose geographical spread does not extend to large parts of southern and eastern India, the BJP has to demonstrate that it is in a position to maximise its yield in its stronghold areas. In other words, the BJP does not merely need to retain Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and regain Rajasthan, it needs to perform very well in a triangular contest in Delhi and, hopefully, even win.

For the BJP the bar has been set much higher for a very good reason: this is going to be first real electoral test of Narendra Modi’s popularity ever since he was chosen as the BJP-NDA prime ministerial candidate on September 13 this year. Maybe this is unfair since the ultimate verdict in the states will depend on local issues and the performance of the respective Chief Ministers and challengers. The Modi factor can, at best, have an incremental factor—acting as a booster or a depressant for the BJP.

However, the terms of the encounter has not been decided by the political pundits but by the BJP. In organising a punishing election schedule for the Gujarat Chief Minister and using him as a force multiplier, the BJP appears to have used the state Assembly elections as much a test of Modi’s appeal as the leadership of Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Vasundhara Raje and Hashvardhan. In a meeting in East Delhi on November 30 at which Modi was present, the BJP’s Delhi Chief Ministerial candidate Harshvardhan made it clear that by electing a BJP government in place of Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year tenure, the voters would also be facilitating Modi’s election as Prime Minister next year.

In 1993, in the aftermath of the demolition of the shrine in Ayodhya, the BJP had fought the Assembly elections in five states on the slogan: “Aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh”. It had deliberately linked the Assembly polls to its wider quest for national power. Indeed, at that time there was a belief that a shaky government of P.V. Narasimha Rao would have crumbled had the results been advantageous to the BJP. Unfortunately for the BJP, it lost Uttar Pradesh to a Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance and Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh to the Congress. The BJP won Delhi handsomely and Rajasthan narrowly.

True, it was a narrow 3-2 advantage to the Congress but since the BJP had hyped up its expectations and projected a 5-0 victory, the results proved a colossal disappointment. Far from adding to the fragility of the Narasimha Rao Government, the Assembly results strengthened the Congress and allowed it to rule for a full-term till 1996. In the 1996 general election the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha and the 13-day government did set the stage for a big win in 1998 and 1999. However, in hindsight, over-pitching the 1993 elections proved very costly for the party and delayed its triumph at the Centre for at least five years.

I am not suggesting that the 1993 experience is likely to be repeated next week: history doesn’t repeat itself mindlessly. Yet the BJP should be aware that linking its national fortunes and the political trajectory of its great hope to the Assembly polls carries a high element of risk.

The Congress just has to perform half-decently for it to slow down the BJP’s momentum. Whether this means ousting the BJP in Chhattisgarh  and clinging on to either Rajasthan or Delhi is something that will become evident on counting day. For the moment the Congress is definitely the underdog in the poll stakes and the bar it has set for itself is much, much lower than that set by the BJP for itself. Even a solitary victory will give solace to the Congress and reassure its dispirited troops that even if it can’t win in 2014, it can deprive Modi of a victory.

However, in the event the Congress falters in all the states and is unable to form a government in any of the four main states we are likely to see a dramatic change in the political chemistry of India. First, for all practical purposes India will have a lame-duck by the evening of December 8. Secondly, the stage would have been set for many small, regional parties to seek a pre-poll understanding with the NDA. And finally, we will see many rats deserting a sinking ship and discovering virtues in a man they had earlier decried as a living ogre. 

Sunday Pioneer, December 1, 2013

An empire that was built on the counterfeit

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe there will come a day when the National Capital of India chooses to have its very own coat of arms and a matching motto. The college of heraldry is best suited to design a crest appropriate to a city that a former Viceroy (who opposed the transfer of the Capital in 1911) described as the “graveyard of empires”. However, when it comes to the motto, nothing would please me better than the commonly-understood phrase: Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?

If there is a single phrase that defines the ethos of a city built to flaunt the grandeur of political power, it is the imperious assertion by the few to the many: “Don’t you know who I am?”

In most cases we don’t and so we have to be educated. How does a harassed parking attendant at one of Delhi’s celebrated hotels on a Saturday evening know that the rude 20-something who has blocked the flow of traffic is the favourite younger son of the minister who controls a formidable caste vote bank? How does Mr Ordinary Middle Class who protests against the queue jumping at airport security know that preferential treatment must be accorded to Mr Self-Important, IAS?

And how is a spirited young women brought up to repudiate patriarchy and the ‘commodification’ of women, believe in feminism, women’s empowerment and so on to know that when the high priest of progressive thought makes a crude sexual advance at her in a hotel lift, the answer has to be yes? After all, Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?

To view the ongoing saga of an individual who forgot where influence and self-importance ended and where ordinary decencies took over as an unfortunate aberration caused by an excess of drink is to misread the social context of the incident. Goa may well be a place where inhibitions are supposedly abandoned and where it all hangs loose, but this was no ordinary misreading of a situation. What took place was an act of brazenness brought about by the belief that power, influence and grandstanding generate exceptional entitlements.

It may have begun with fighting the good fight against the dark forces that were hell bent of taking India down the slippery slope of bigotry and hate. Even though the means may have been contested, that was a democratic right, guaranteed by the Constitution. However, from battling for so-called liberal values to embracing sharp financial practices and taking full advantage of political cronyism was a leap into another league, into the world of the Jaante nahin. It didn’t matter that this was not accompanied by the seedy and very vernacular social ambience of hard drinking and disreputable assignations in hotels with hourly rates. In essence, the assembly of beautiful people in festivals celebrating the cerebral but underwritten by dodgy liquor barons and victims of extortion also turned out to be a cover for an empire built on the counterfeit. Once values had been mortgaged to self-fulfilment, the descent to moral corruption was near-inevitable.

In a libertine world where anything goes, consent is somehow taken as implicit. But whether groping-gone-wrong was consensual or forced begs a larger and more disturbing question. What is the mentality of an individual who thinks nothing about making a lunge at a junior colleague who also the friend of his daughter? Did it stem from the licentious groupthink of people who flaunted their rejection of conservatism and moral orthodoxies? Or was the process also aided by a belief that in kaliyug the law is an ass, at least for those who, like the character in T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party can say:  “You know, I have connections—even in California.”

The ‘crime’ was despicable enough; even more sordid was the attempted management of its inevitable fallout. For some, the veneer of religiosity was a cover for preying on female devotees; for others, a damaging charge of rape can be debunked as a political frame-up. Rape, radical feminists used to say is always political. Now we are told it is an anti-secular conspiracy.

The hallucination doesn’t stem from the fogging of individual minds. It happens because some people have internalised Delhi’s overriding philosophy: Jaante nahin main kaun hoon? 

Sunday Times of India, December 1, 2013
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