Sunday, April 27, 2014

Media bows to public opinion on Modi

By Swapan Dasgupta

The term 'gamechanger' has, unfortunately, been so generously overused that it has lost all meaning. This may explain why there is understandable hesitation to attach that label to Narendra Modi's three-hour roadshow in Varanasi on the afternoon of April 24. The extent to which this spectacular display of public support for the BJP's prime ministerial candidate is going to affect the outcome will be known by the afternoon of May 16. However, even before its impact on the voters of Varanasi and elsewhere are known, a few tentative conclusions are in order. 

First, the Varanasi roadshow is to date the only opportunity Modi has had to test the extent of his support among ordinary voters. Security considerations have so far ruled out Modi travelling in an open vehicle through the towns and cities he has visited in the course of his 400+ public meetings since September 13, 2013, the day he was anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. 

Maybe it is just as well that the high threat perception ruled out Modi doing smaller versions of a rath yatra and forced him to concentrate on getting his message across through public meetings. Had Modi replicated his Varanasi roadshow in other parts of India, including in places where the BJP doesn't have much presence on the ground, the 2014 election may have seemed to be entirely one-sided affair. The security agencies' reluctance to expose Modi to the high-risk public arena has, quite unwittingly, helped keep alive the pretence that this election will go down to the wire. 

The impact of the Varanasi roadshow on the political climate has been quite dramatic. Although some commentators persisted with their belief that Modi is entirely a creation of hype and that there is a sullen, silent majority that will troop to the polling stations and vote along caste and religious lines, those who were present at the venue--or those who saw the full broadcast on TV--had a very takeaway. The overall conclusion was that there is an amazing groundswell of support for Modi and that this election could experience a definite "Modi impact", if not a "Modi wave." 

The punters who speculate on the stock exchangers have for long concluded that Modi is the likely winner of the 2014 election. Yet, the media remained sceptical as were most of the so-called opinion-makers, disproportionately based in Delhi. After Thursday afternoon's show, even the sceptics appear to have grudgingly conceded that the momentum is clearly with Modi. 

The second consequence of the Varanasi roadshow is that commentators are latching on to every word of Modi to assist them in creating a mental picture of the philosophy that will drive Modi if and when he moves into Race Course Road. 

For years Modi has been stressing the importance of a non-sectarian and non-discriminatory and all-embracing approach to administration and governance. I can recall that in his speeches in Gujarat he used to say that a new or improved public facility doesn't have denominational barriers. When a new bridge or road is built, it is for all citizens and not exclusively for Hindus or partially for Hindus. The shift in rhetoric from  "six crore Gujaratis" to "100 crore Indians" was a natural, linear progression. 

Unfortunately, the persistence of a section of the commentariat with the 2002 riots meant that Modi's message of "sab ke saath, sab ka vikas" suffered from a huge transmission loss. A grotesque caricature of Modi as a Hindu supremacist who will do to Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews continues to do the rounds. It has found reflection in the alarmist appeals by non-resident intellectuals to Indian voters to somehow stop the Modi bandwagon from rolling into Delhi. So much so that last Thursday, one eminent Left-leaning commentator equated Modi's Varanasi roadshow to the Nuremberg rallies of the National Socialists. 

After the awesome scale of the roadshow began to sink in, the perception of Modi has begun to be modified. At Varanasi, Modi referred to the unique cultural traditions of Varanasi--the so-called Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. The importance of this simple acknowledgement of the richness and spread of India's "spiritual capital" was not so much that Modi had discovered the obvious. It was his way of forcefully dissociating himself from the extreme Hindu voices who have chosen this time to crawl out of the woodwork. 

In the past too Modi had made gestures but each time they had been spurned on grounds of insincerity. This time he was heard and there was a rash of media speculation underling Modi's audacious bid to refashion his image by suggesting that he wanted to embrace all Indians without those Indians having to change their lifestyles and beliefs. 

The 'changed' Modi makes appealing headlines and provides a subject for countless hours of studio discussions. But has Modi succumbed to the complex realties of India. The media would love to make us think that he has. 

However, there is another perspective. Is it Modi who has changed? Alternatively, is it the media that has stopped looking at Modi with a pre-determined mindset? Has the fact that Modi looks like being on the cusp of a famous victory forced a review of a media position that had remain unchanged for so long? These are issues worth considering. But in accepting that the Modi of 2014 is not the Modi who was painted as an ogre for the past years, the media has bowed to popular opinion. Naturally, the retreat hasn't been graceful and hence the assertion that the media wasn't wrong but it is Modi who has changed. 

Sunday Pioneer, April 27, 2014


Friday, April 25, 2014

THE WEST STRIKES BACK - The international media’s approach to Modi is an eye-opener

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, film-maker Mahesh Bhatt referred to an old advertisement which used to claim that four out of every five doctors recommended a particular brand of asprin. "I want to hear what the fifth doctor has to say" said Bhatt with passionate intensity. 

The Bollywood celebrity was, of course, alluding to the ongoing election campaign where opinion polls suggest that Indian voters are inclined to prefer Brand Narendra Modi over the competition. Bhatt, needless to say, is not a Modi supporter but was asserting his right to go his own way. Doubtless he had a point. It would be a sad day for democracy if the only voices heard in the public domain were one-sided and reflective of majority opinion. Mercifully, that is not the case in India. On the contrary, we are confronted with the bizarre situation of the intellectual establishment being dominated by the opinions of the dissidents. 

It is not that the voices of the so-called 'moral majority' have been driven underground, as happens in crude dictatorships. It is just that a small group has such a stranglehold over the levers of intellectual power that dominant sentiment is either deemed to be non-respectable or intimidated into occupying the fringe space reserved for contrarians. A thorough content analysis of the media (both print and electronic) for the past six months may be able to identify the quantum of bias. However, it is very hard to shake off the impression that the big guns have chosen to direct their fire at Modi. 

The international media's approach has been an eye-opener. Earthy wisdom would have us believe that what the Economist recommends to the Indian voter is going to have zero impact on the voting classes. At best, it could be a one-day talking point among bankers and diplomats and, at worst, was calculated to raise nationalist hackles. However, when adverse comments on a Modi-led India becomes the theme song of almost all the 'quality' publications of the West that can be bothered to devote editorial space to the world's largest festival of democracy, the groupthink is bound to have some effect. 

First, it is calculated to paint the picture of an electorate that is guided by raw emotion rather than enlightened self-interest, a proposition that is in direct conflict with the abiding global faith in the modernity of the Indian middle classes. Secondly, it has served to confuse foreigners who have an economic stake in India. Their personal experience, bolstered by inputs from their Indian partners, is that the advent of Modi is certain to give a boost to economic activity. But the unrelenting hostility of the editorial classes to any possible Modi dispensation has the potential of being translated into opposition from small shareholders who may have begun to believe that the gullible masses are on the cusp of electing a Hindu Hitler. What has added to this confusion is the numerous appeals penned by India-connected notables such as Salman Rushdie  and Anish Kapoor expressing grave fears at the likelihood of a Modi-led government. The quantum of alarmism can be assessed by a blog in the Guardian website where a Cambridge academic of Indian origin recommended that the British government scale down its diplomatic engagement in India if Modi comes to power. 

To detect a direct link between the alarm bells in the Anglophone world media over a possible Modi victory and the hysteria over impending fascism among India's intellectual elite wouldn't be far-fetched. India is too much of a rumbustious democracy for its historians and playwrights to be reduced to echo-chambers of Western liberal fashion. On the contrary, if the editorial classes in London and New York have developed a Modi allergy, it is because they have been guided by their counterparts in India. 

In the normal course, someone like Salman Rushdie would have found reason to celebrate the continuing vibrancy of Indian democracy rather than join a version of the International Brigade against Modi. I recall interviewing Rushdie, then in hiding, in London in the summer of 1997 on the occasion of 50 years of Indian Independence. At that time, he was a persona non-grata in India and had been deprived of his visa to travel to his beloved Mumbai. It was a terrible predicament for a writer who felt he was emotionally linked to India be in. 

In that interview, Rushdie spoke poetically of the "loss of India". However, when it came to politics, he stressed the need for an engagement with the Opposition BJP which was, in the aftermath of the Ayodhya demolition of 1992, regarded in the West as a wild bunch of Hindus. I don't believe that Rushdie desire to engage with the BJP stemmed out of some wishy-washy romanticism about India. It was grounded in a pragmatic calculation that the BJP was likely to be in power after the ramshackle United Front government collapsed and that it was only the BJP that had opposed the ban against Satanic Verses in India. The cynical would have interpreted his appreciation of the complexities of Indian politics as a visa application for the future. 

Whether it was or not, the fact is that among the first things that the NDA Government did in 1998 was to re-establish Rushdie's right to visit India. I would like to think that the interview he gave to me played a modest role in the government's change of heart. Indeed, the records show that the British writer was better able to speak, travel and live in India during the NDA rule than subsequently. Three years ago his invitation to the Jaipur Literature Festival resulted in threats by Islamic radicals and his non-appearance following broad hints by the Congress-run Rajasthan government. I doubt that unfortunate incident is likely to be repeated under a NDA dispensation. What is more I think Rushdie knows it. 

I don't expect Rushdie or for that matter other concerned Western liberals to desist from their condemnation of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Those riots were horrible and must not be repeated. But the general election of 2014 in India isn't being fought over the faultlines that reappeared in 2002. It is being contested on very different themes. And if, after a robust debate, where liberals had unrestrained rights to say their piece and broadcast their dire warnings of the future, Indian voters choose to elect Modi, should the proclaimed friends of India in the West turn their back on a whole people? 

There is a certain cussedness about the Western liberal over-reaction that many in India find deeply patronising and offensive. In the event Modi wins on May 16 we are likely to see two trends. First, the enthusiasm of business for a fresh start will rub off on the Western media. The Economist will be more circumspect than before. Secondly, the Modi government will be put on notice from day one and not be given the benefit of a honeymoon. Any trip-up will be mercilessly exploited. And finally, there is likely to be an unholy alliance between Indian liberals and the forces of anti-capitalism to thwart the revival of manufacturing. India will be painted as a crude practitioner of bandit capitalism. 

For Modi, the internal challenges may be formidable but far less daunting than the diplomatic roadblocks he will encounter. The enfeebled liberal establishment in India will organise its fightback from abroad. 

The Telegraph, April 25, 2014

Sunday, April 20, 2014


By Swapan Dasgupta

The period between now and the late-afternoon of May 16 will be marked by two very different shows: the calculated somersaults of the grandees and the wails of some people crying ‘wolf’.

To my mind the process began on September 15 last year after a rally in Rewari (Haryana) where Modi demonstrated his crowd-pulling abilities. It got a boost when, quite unexpectedly and egged on by his son Chirag, Ram Vilas Paswan embraced the NDA. Since then the procession of politicians seeking to climb on to the bandwagon has just got longer and longer. That’s also because, after the Shabir Ali fiasco, the BJP took a conscious decision to stop the entry of the ex-MPs and sitting-MPs. I don’t think I will be revealing a closely guarded state secret of the BJP by letting out that the rump of the Congress Party in the Seemandhra region—those who didn’t join the YSR Congress earlier—was ready to defect en masse to the BJP. Unfortunately for them, the BJP put a freeze on lateral entries (but not grassroots inductions).

To believe that all those who changed their tune had some inner voice telling them to come to the assistance of Modi would presume that politicians are blessed with a spectacular measure of nobility. Such a presumption can safely be discounted, although there could well be the odd individual who responded to a higher calling.   

The political establishment in India tends to be parasitic in nature. It is not that ideologies and belief systems are absent—and these often take the form of lifelong loyalties—but that intellectual considerations are invariably overwhelmed by the proximity to political power. The established political figures that belatedly discovered the virtues of Modi did so because at some around November-December last year, he suddenly looked a winnable proposition. If by some chance Modi fails to breast the tape at the finishing line you can be sure that most of the migratory birds will undertake another journey. 

I recall a senior minister of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government once referring to a common friend who hadn’t contacted him since May 10, 2004—the day the NDA was voted out—who re-surfaced four months ago to make a pilgrimage to Gandhinagar and formally join the BJP. It is even being said that he will be rewarded with an important post if the NDA returns to power.

The mercenary facet of the scramble for the loaves and fishes of office shouldn’t be mistaken for an insistence on a pre-entry, closed shop approach. Governing a country as large and complex as India necessitates the involvement of a circle that goes far beyond those who slog it out in political parties and endure both victory and defeat. Unlike the Congress that has tasted ruled for some 50 year and has the requisite networks to handle power, the BJP is by comparison well-meaning innocents.

The biggest disadvantage Modi could face if he wins on May 16 is that there is very little of the Vajpayee era legacy he can bank on. Despite the shrill cries of saffronisation that resonated at the time, the Vajpayee Government used notables from the old establishment as its main props. The so-called chaddiwalas became an object of derision. 

That there has to be continuity in the political establishment is undeniable. Democracies don’t permit radical ruptures and nor would a total break with every aspect of the past be desirable. Modi has to effect a judicious balance between old experience and new enthusiasm. In doing so, however, he has also to ensure that the deep-rooted culture of venality that comes with the accommodation of the old doesn’t infect the new.

It is a difficult task and errors are bound to be made. But if Modi is not distracted by the extraneous considerations that derailed the Vajpayee government—the rush for social acceptability and the over-importance of the hugely capable but politically insensitive Brajesh Mishra—he could yet put the human resources at his disposal to optimum and effective use.

If he becomes PM, Modi will enjoy a honeymoon. The electorate’s infatuation with him will last for anything between a year and 18 months. However, the media honeymoon won’t even go beyond four months at the most. This isn’t because the media sees things that are invisible to the naked eye of the reader. The wariness of a PM Modi will be on account of three factors. First, the media is dominated by individuals with liberal, Left-of-centre inclinations who are more likely to sing praises of AAP than Modi. Secondly, the top dogs of the Fourth Estate will hate having been proved wrong by Modi. Anyone who shows the media as Gods with feet of clay isn’t going to be toast of the bars that go by the name of Press Clubs. And finally, the local media will take its cue from the foreign media that, quite uncharacteristically, has ended up being cheerleaders for one side. Will the likes of The Economist and the self-righteous Guardian, not to mention the know-alls who advise the State Department and the French foreign ministry, ever let on that their reading of India was wrong and a consequence of meeting the wrong type of people?

Since this week, the cry of media-freedom-in-danger has already started doing the rounds. The intensity of this alarmism will rise over the next three weeks and reach a crescendo on the evening of May 16. If Modi fails, watch the liberals lick their chops and celebrate. On the other hand, be equally prepared for threatened departures out of India and accused rapists and embezzlers asking for political asylum in the West. 

Sunday Pioneer. April 20, 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Family for all seasons: - Congress culture is likely to stay the same whatever happens

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are occasions when a seemingly irrelevant piece of tittle-tattle assumes greater relevance than a thousand words of weighty commentary. An innocuous piece of news on the first page of last Wednesday’s Times of India on the selection of the Congress candidate to contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi was such an occasion.

The importance lay not so much in the fact that a local MLA who had unsuccessfully tried his hand in a Lok Sabha election on a previous occasion had been given the Congress ticket—thereby ending a fortnight of purposeless speculation over who would be Modi’s principal rival in Varanasi. For the beat reporter, the significance of Ajay Rai’s nomination was that he had been personally blessed by the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Vadra. Not only that, Priyanka had given Rai her personal mobile phone number and asked to get in touch directly with her if he needed help and facilitation. The reporter’s breathless conclusion was that Priyanka was increasingly calling the shots in the Congress.

Although purists may balk at the prominence given to this additional evidence that the brother-sister duo was now in control of the final leg of the Congress campaign, this piece of trivia was not inconsequential. Ever since opinion polls and anecdotal reports from the battleground pointed to the Congress performing far worse than even the party pessimists imagined was possible, Congress loyalists have been praying and hoping for a “secret weapon” which would improve the final tally that in turn would ensure that a future BJP-led government would be inherently fragile. In the past week, ever since Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi let the media in one of the party’s greatest secrets—that in 1990 Rajiv Gandhi had detected Priyanka’s instinctive feel for politics—the demoralised party had been hoping that Rahul’s leadership would be bolstered by the involvement of his sister. Indeed, there were Congress supporters who felt that Priyanka would be declared as the challenger to Modi in Varanasi. Such a symbolic move, they felt, would electrify Uttar Pradesh and reopen what was increasingly looking like a one-sided encounter.

The value addition that Priyanka might possibly bring to the Congress table need not concern us excessively. In a star-obsessed campaign, the injection of a lady who, it is said in some quarters, has the mass touch of her illustrious grandmother, would inevitably shift some focus from an over-exposed Modi and his insolent rival Arvind Kejriwal. In terms of dividing the media space a little more equitably, Priyanka’s entry into the 2014 campaign would certainly be of short-term benefit to the Congress. In 1998, when Sonia Gandhi made her political debut, she certainly did shift the spotlight a little away from Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indeed, Congress supporters were so buoyant that when I mentioned a particular rally where Vajpayee had drawn big crowds, a Congress groupie asked me incredulously: “Is anyone even listening to him any longer?”

However, what strikes me about the excitement over Priyanka is that even as the Congress stares at the possibility of winning less than 100 Lok Sabha seats, the only magic wand the party can think of is firmly located within the dynastic mould. Yes, Congress supporters grudgingly concede, Rahul Gandhi has proved a political disappointment. He may exude sincerity and even boast of an unwillingness to be derailed by narrow, tactical considerations but there is no getting away from his inability to connect. In the past, a presidential style campaign had always suited the Congress against a fractured opposition. Indeed, even for the 2014 campaign the Congress publicity campaign had been planned to project Rahul as the great white hope. Unfortunately for the Congress, the Modi juggernaut proved too formidable for those who felt that Rahul would encapsulate the necessary measure of change to offset anti-incumbency. In the direct Modi versus Rahul battle, the man from Gujarat was miles ahead. Rahul’s famed sincerity and earnestness came to be equated with naiveté. Rahul was not disliked; he became an object of mockery, particularly after his disastrous Times Now interview. With just a month left of the campaign, the only people who think that a Rahul-led dispensation can govern India with a measure of enlightenment are the editors of The Economist.

The widespread acknowledgment of Rahul’s inadequacies by the Congress hasn’t, however, triggered preparations for an upheaval in the party in the event of grim news on May 16. Past experience, especially of the years the party wasn’t in power at the Centre, has convinced the average Congress supporter that the leadership of the Gandhi family is a precondition for both survival and growth. There was a time, particularly after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term as Prime Minister, when it seemed that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had run out of steam. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to plunge into politics in 1998 was, for example, greeted with some scepticism and led to Sharad Pawar’s revolt. But the unexpectedly good performance in 2004 and the victory in 2009 established Sonia as a leader in her own right and set her up as the glue that binds the disparate Congress family.

A Congress failure in 2014 isn’t likely to shake that fundamental assumption and faith in the leadership of the dynasty is likely to persist. The belief that Rahul isn’t a natural politician isn’t going to disappear abruptly and neither will the culture of sycophancy. The indifferent 2014 results are certain to be blamed on the “non-communicative” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—Jairam Ramesh has already given an early indication of the post-mortem findings. On his part, Rahul will be applauded for selflessly leading a losing battle and persisting with management systems that should, hopefully, re-energise the party once the country’s honeymoon with Modi ends. Most important, the addition of Priyanka into the dynastic pantheon will definitely placate those Congress leaders who have doubts over Rahul’s ability to engage in combative politics. Far from breeding a sense of disgust with the party’s inability to look and think beyond the dynasty, the helping hand Priyanka is likely to give Rahul seems calculated to retain the family’s stranglehold over the Congress after the likely defeat in 2014.

There are definite indications that the Gandhi family isn’t working towards a new political culture that will guarantee there are no glass ceilings in the path of ability and mass appeal. Reports emanating from the wider durbar of the first family seem to suggest that there is a fear in 10 Janpath that a Modi-led government will engage in recriminations in pursuit of its dream of a Congress-free India. Certainly, the businesses of Robert Vadra are certainly going to be the subject of some investigations. Whether these fears are real or contrived is not known. What is important is that the Gandhi court is readying itself for difficult times in the event of a Modi victory next month. Between 2000 and 2004, the top BJP leadership had negotiated a non-aggression pact with Sonia. More than an act of magnanimity, it was based on the belief that Sonia’s leadership would ensure that the Congress would remain in the Opposition. It was a horrible misreading of her potential and it is unlikely this error will be repeated by a new BJP dispensation.

The Congress top rung, it would seem, has psyched itself into believing that Modi will repay the viciousness that was directed at him from 2002. This fear may well explain why the Gandhi family will ensure that its proprietorship of the Congress will not be modified after the election. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why intellectuals are running scared of Modi

TBy Swapan Dasgupta

In democracies, a change of government is no big deal. In India, however, it is a rarity at the national level. In the 66 years of Independence, the Congress has nominally been excluded from power for only 10 years. More interestingly, no prime minister apart from Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been free of any Congress association. Yet, even in the six NDA years, the larger power structure at the Centre was never entirely Congress-mukt. Under Vajpayee, his extremely competent principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, a former diplomat from a prominent Congress family, ensured that the old Establishment was only nominally dispossessed. 

It is instructive to be mindful of the past when engaging with the prophecies of impending doom that seem to be dominating conversations of the beautiful people with a stake in next month’s electoral outcome. 

The doomsday narrative has captivated an influential section of the Delhi-based intelligentsia and its global friends. They have interpreted the fierce desire for change that is resonating in India as the harbinger of a new authoritarianism that will pander to corporate greed and religious intolerance. In the immediate aftermath of the December 2013 Assembly election, this anxiety was translated into a gush-gush endorsement of the Aam Aadmi Party. However, ever since the white-cap crusaders got drunk on media hype and made a series of tactical miscalculations, concern has given way to visible depression. If the Modi-is-coming jingle on TV is sending the NaMo army into bouts of premature celebration, it is proving psychologically devastating to the Praetorian guards of the “idea of India”. 

Of course, not all better-off Indians are living in dread of a possible ‘regime change’. Sensing imminent change, the financial markets are witnessing an unwarranted bull run. Opinion polls also indicate that the surge in the support for Narendra Modi is being primarily driven by aspirational Indians in the 18 to 35 age group. The social profile of the average Modi voter is that he is educated, young and seeking better opportunities. Moreover, support for Modi isn’t confined only to segments where the BJP has a footfall. The polls suggest NaMo is the buzzword throughout India and among all classes and social groups, including Dalits and adivasis but not Muslims. 

The question naturally arises: why is a very powerful section of the Establishment, particularly in academia and the media, so utterly unresponsive to the larger groundswell from below? Why did The Economist, for example, shoehorn itself into a distant election battle with a anyone-but-Modi editorial aimed at amused Indians? 

Earlier there was a fear that the Modi campaign would exacerbate social tensions and leave India emotionally polarized. However, Modi appears to have stuck to his pro-development and anti-Congress script faithfully and not been derailed by identity concerns. Indeed, apart from stray examples of local politicians allowing rhetorical flourishes to get the better of good sense, the 2014 campaign has been fierce but civil. There are pre-existing faultlines but the campaign hasn’t made them sharper. 

Yes, there are sharp differences between the BJP and the Congress on economic manage ment, national security and, at a pinch, foreign policy. That’s only natural and it is the articula tion of alternative perspectives that give mean ing to competitive politics. Nor is it the case that Modi champions a voodoo economics that inter national capital finds unappealing compared to the noblesse oblige of the Gandhis Both Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 fought elections promising a break with ‘consensus politics’. At that time neither Britain nor the US witnessed agonized intellectuals threatening to go into self-exile if the voters chose discontinuity. So what’s unique about Modi? 

Part of the answer may lie in Modi’s out sider status. Over generations the Congress has nurtured and patronized an intellectual estab lishment that loosely shared its political as sumptions. These notables fear marginalization and consequent loss of social importance and political influence. They feared it in 1998 too but inveigled their way back, fiercely exploiting the strange desire of some BJP leaders to acquire social respectability. 

Modi, they believe, is cut from a very differ ent cloth. If elected, he may actually begin craft ing an alternative counter-Establishment and not give a damn for the prevailing wisdom in the boudoirs of Sujan Singh Park.

Sunday Times of India, April 6, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

A mighty fall from a moral high ground

By Swapan Dasgupta

No election, and certainly not an Indian election, is ever won on the strength of diplomatic despatches. Like most other pundits in the forecasting business, diplomats often get it right and occasionally wrong.

This being the case, the most that can be read into the explanations in the media of US Ambassador Nancy Powell’s premature resignation is that Washington has concluded that the next Indian government belongs to Narendra Modi. Whether or not this piece of political astrology was a the heart of the change of guard in Roosevelt House will remain a matter of conjecture till another Snowden releases a clutch of diplomatic telegrams or some future Senate hearing throws greater light on the matter. However, if we accept the version that the US State Department was wrong-footed by Modi’s dramatic entry into the national stage and took remedial action to smoothen Washington’s response to the succession, one question remains: why did the US get itself into such an awkward situation in the first place?

Those who are inclined to trace the origin of the problem to the 2005 decision of the George W. Bush administration to deny Modi a visa for possible travel to the US aren’t far off the mark. The cancellation of Modi’s existing visa didn’t happen because the Gujarat Chief Minister planned a grand tour to interact with his innumerable fans located across the Atlantic. The visa cancellation was a gratuitous and unilateral measure aimed primarily, it is said, at placating the Christian evangelical lobby that had developed a distaste for Modi.

Whatever the reasons behind dubbing Modi an international pariah and the subject of a diplomatic boycott involving both the US and the European Union member states, one conclusion was inescapable: it was a brazen attempt to pronounce judgment on the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Modi, after all, hadn’t been held guilty by for “mass murder” by an Indian criminal court. Indeed, there were no charges against him then or subsequently. Yes, the Gujarat leader had been pilloried mercilessly by both his political opponents and the human rights lobby that has formidable international links. A political aversion to Modi was translated into the diplomatic censure of a man who held a Constitutional position. It was a step too far and one that didn’t lend itself to an easy U-turn.

This is not to suggest that the US was obliged to facilitate a visit by Modi. Every sovereign nation has the inalienable right to determine who is welcome and who is not. Diplomats are routinely accustomed to informing host countries that the visit of a particular dignitary would be inappropriate. Tough messages are often delivered with discretion. Had Modi sought to visit the US in 2005, his office could have been discreetly told that the journey would be injudicious. Indeed, I am told that an European country with a better grasp of diplomatic niceties did pass on such an unpleasant message to Modi—in the light of the controversies surrounding him. However, it was done without a whiff of publicity.

The US, however, made a public show of its visa refusal and made it out that the action was part of the sanctions against those held responsible for human rights violations. The US chose to make a political point based on the understanding that it would also set the agenda for a wider debate on Modi’s political untouchability.

Maybe the idea was also to lessen Indian Muslim hostility to the Bush Administration then engaged in its War on Terror. Maybe it was aimed at bolstering Congress support for the nuclear deal, then in the process of negotiation. Whatever the calculations, the Modi visa controversy came to acquire a life of its own.

For nearly eight years, the US and its friends broke off all diplomatic contact with the Gujarat Government. This over-reaction also involved many informal academic advisers who fed the US Embassy and the State Department with weighty assessments of why Modi was a non-starter in national politics. I have met US academics, mainly of Indian origin, who even proudly proclaimed that they had advised the US Embassy to go slow on opening a consular office in Ahmedabad. For them, flaunting an anti-Modi badge ensured privileged access into the corridors of UPA power. And there’s no denying that until at least a year ago, the US remained the flavour of the season for both Congress ministers and a supplicant media.

Yet, the blockade of Modi warranted a re-examination after he won his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat in December 2012. By the time of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2013, many European countries decided that the time was opportune to re-establish ties with a state whose economy looked extremely promising. Predictably, the British were the most demonstrative with their proclamation of bi-partisanship but other EU countries weren’t far behind. The only real resistance was put up by France which too had invested heavily in the Congress establishment and in the skewed advice of its so-called India experts.

Today, the countries that had kept up a civilised relationship with Modi despite the US’s strictures—these include Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia, Israel and even China—are happy with the knowledge that their transition to a new regime will be extra smooth. Nor will the others who changed their tune midway feel disadvantaged. It is only the US that invested politically in the witch-hunt against Modi that feels seriously threatened.

Making Ambassador Powell the fall guy may not entirely resolve the larger issues raised by the US’s needless interference in India’s domestic politics. Nor will bonhomie be instantly restored if a functionary of Gujarati origin is despatched as the new Ambassador. Having exposed its fangs publicly, Washington will not readily admit it miscalculated horribly. If Modi comes to power, a working relationship with the US Embassy will be established. But let us have no doubts that the repair job will also be accompanied by surreptitious attempts to undermine him.

The US hates having to admit it was ever wrong. 

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