Friday, June 20, 2014

DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR - Toryisms, old and new

By Swapan Dasgupta

Visiting India both as a celebrity and a state guest in the high noon of Empire, the British architect and designer of New Delhi Sir Edwin Lutyens made a curious observation that was only partially by way of a complaint. India, he wrote (and I am quoting from memory), tends to make the Englishman into a Tory, of a pre-modern kind. 

The sight of a few thousand Britons lording over many millions and being greeted with a mix of flattery and exaggerated deference was enough to generate self-delusions of grandeur. Lutyens may not have succumbed to it totally but his architecture certainly reflected the majesty of superiority. Even today, staring at the erstwhile Viceregal Palace from its imposing forecourt, it is difficult to shake off the impression that India remains a grand mission. Presumably, the guests from the SAARC region that attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony last moth, must have returned with an appropriate sense of awe and veneration. 

There was a time when both the architecture and the received wisdom generated a similar reaction about the Mother Country. Veterans of the long sea voyage from Bombay to Southampton will needless tell you of the overwhelming experience of the first sight of the chalky white cliffs of Dover, a state of mind produced by both an exalted 'idea' of Empire and the uber-patriotic films of Sir Alexander Korda. A subsequent generation (including mine) will tell you of the shock and occasional disgust on touching down at Heathrow and observing the sad faces of the elderly ladies who cleaned the toilets--all ladies from our 'Poon-jab'. 

Indians of a particular class and upbringing had crafted a mental image of the British Isles that emerged as an extension of a people we had learnt to both hate and admire at the same time. Yes, colonialism was undeniably offensive to the individual soul and to national self-respect. But this political distaste for the pith helmeted sahib and his patronising ways was nevertheless never at odds with the reverence for the sights, sounds and imagined customs of the Mother Country. For a class of Indians--particularly those with roots in the three Presidencies--Britain was always an imagined country constructed out of a curious blend of boxwallah experience, club life, the public school and George Mikes' 'How to be an alien'. This is what bound the West Indian CLR James and Sir V.S. Naipaul to a Nirad Chaudhury, Jawaharlal Nehru and 'Tiger' Pataudi. 

If India fuelled the Tory instincts of Lutyens, Britain (or England as many of still insist on calling it, quite impervious to the sensitivities of Scots) brought to the surface the Hindu partiality for a settled order. We couldn't entirely identify with all the quirkiness and eccentricities of Britons but we respected the fact that they were alive to their history, their institutions and their own inimitable sets of values. Enoch Powell, a man who should never have abandoned his true calling as a classics scholar, used to describe the relationship of India and Britain as a "shared hallucination". I doubt if anyone can better that description.  

Maybe it is the departure from a pattern which we hoped would be as enduring as the squat black cabs and the milky, disgustingly sweet and tasteless British cup of tea that triggers disorientation. Next summer, it will be 40 years since I first stepped into Britain and lugged a heavy suitcase from Hatton Cross tube station to a modest student accommodation in Paddington. To say that London has changed from Harold Wilson to David Cameron would be to state the obvious. In those days, London always looked a bit under the weather what with an inner-city that appeared to be boarded-up and slummy. Today, London is smarter, more gentrified, better dressed and a darn sight more prosperous. The plumbing is infinitely better and some establishments even have air-conditioning for summers that seems to be getting longer and hotter. And more important, London is getting more and more international in character. There was always an over-representation of the New Commonwealth in the 1970s but today's London seems like a slice of the United Nations. 

To the globaliser and the Davos set this is great news. From French tax exiles, Russian oligarchs, Chinese billionaires, dodgy Pakistanis and sundry others who have invested handsomely for their permanent residence status, London remains at the centre of global finance, just as it was in the days of Empire. Between membership of the European Union, free markets, low inflation and lower interest rates and the all-conquering English language, Britain, it would seem, has successfully reinvented itself for the 21st century. To be tired of London, we can still continue to say, is to be tired of life. 

Yet, underneath the surface all is not well. Actually, things appear to be going horribly wrong. It is not merely that there are as many black veiled women in the square mile between Edgware Road and Oxford Street as there are in Dubai. It is not even that the mobile phone conversations in the red double-deck buses are rarely conducted in a tongue that we would recognise as English. Cosmopolitanism involves not being judgmental of cultural and national differences. 

What seems to be happening in the United Kingdom is the exact opposite of what Americans celebrate as their 'melting pot'. In blunt terms, Britain is experiencing the novelty of social incoherence marching to the tune of economic purposefulness. In a sense this could be called the ultimate triumph of globalisation, when people don't become similar but try to superimpose variety on top of economic oneness. Alternatively, should we be concerned at the after-effects of allowing free market and economic freedom to be the sole determinant of public policy? 

In the end it depends on who you are talking to. For those who have created small boroughs of Birmingham that are forever Islamic republics and for those who believe that the British state is a fattened milch cow of welfare handouts, this liberalism is great involving lots of benefits and no national obligations, not even the modest one of learning English. But, as a government-funded British Social Attitudes survey found this month, there is deep public anxiety at the damage caused to British culture by unrestricted immigration of one form or another since the mid-1950s. Worse, the study suggested a growing disquiet between public concerns and the refusal of a 'liberal' political culture to recognise these as legitimate. In a massive indictment of the huge state investment in the multicultural project, the survey indicated that at least 51 per cent felt that being British also involved having British ancestry. 

The implications of this survey are very serious and not merely confined to one set of islands in Europe. It points to the pitfalls of forgetting that what we are can't always be manufactured or moulded but also shaped by history. More important, the survey tells us what some of us knew already: that ripples on the surface caused by the flutter of the deracinated often leave the depths unmoved. If Britain is showing the first signs of a cultural counter-revolution, it should be welcomed as long overdue. 

The Telegraph, June 20, 2014

Sunday, June 15, 2014

White House, 'blacklisted' Modi start on a cleam slate

Outside the gaze of an otherwise watchful media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is suddenly at the receiving end of some mild criticism from a group that has been among his most avid backers since his early days as Gujarat chief minister. The reason: Modi’s decision to accept President Barack Obama’s invitation to the White House after his speech at the UN General Assembly.

It is not that the clutch of self-professed ‘internet Hindus’ harbour a visceral hatred of Uncle Sam and all that he represents. Some may, but they would be a smaller fraction of this vocal group. Modi, or so the argument goes, can well get himself photographed with the US president and exchange pleasantries but only after the State Department has issued a public apology for earlier denying him a visa in 2005. Equally important, there is a demand that the US administration both name and disavow those interlocutors on whose advice successive administrations put Modi on the visa blacklist.

The demand is not as outrageous as the practitioners of ‘nuanced’ diplomacy who abound in India may feel. The unilateral denial of a visa to the then Gujarat chief minister -apparently at the behest of evangelical lobbyists -was more than simply gratuitous. It was a crude attempt by the US State Department to both interfere in India’s domestic politics and prejudge the judicial process. It was, to say the least, an act of utmost arrogance that lost the US considerable goodwill among a section of opinion that had earlier little reason to be antiAmerican. Indeed, had the Modi visa issue not vitiated the atmosphere, the endorsement of the Indo-US nuclear deal would have been far more bipartisan. The unfortunate visa spat portrayed the US as a political ally of the Congress and, by implication, as needlessly hostile to the BJP. The framework of Indo-US engagement ended up being punctured.

What compounded the US’s miscalculation was its persistence in cold shouldering Modi when all the evidence pointed to his playing a more and more important role in national politics. Whether this was due to the pig-headedness of the local US embassy or a consequence of inputs provided by Indian ‘friends’ in academia, media and, of course, national security pundits, will not be immediately known to the outside world. But it should make Washington ponder over the sheer worthlessness of their existing interlocutors and, even more, the detachment of their in-house consultants from Indian realities. Actually there was a bigger problem. It is hardly a secret that engagement with India, either for economic or strategic reasons, is not among President Obama’s overriding priorities. The White House is keen to disengage totally from the quagmire of Afghanistan before the president demits office, but it is unsure as to how events in that turbulent country will play out subsequently.

Certainly, it is in no state to assure India that the post-withdrawal Afghanistan will not affect India adversely. The unmistakable impression is that Washington doesn’t really care, as long as its homeland security isn’t jeopardized. Consequently, unless there is some serious re-thinking going on, the likelihood of the Obama-Modi meeting being devoted to an exchange of pleasantries and some appealing photo-ops cannot be discounted.

Yet, there is significance to the fact that among the 80 or so world leaders that will fly into New York in September for the UNGA, an invitation to the White House was extended to the newest leader on the block. Modi could have chosen to be petulant and spurn the gesture but that would have been graceless. The targeting of Modi the individual by the US was wrong and that misplaced grandstanding will always be symbolically as rankling as the USS Enterprise threat in 1971. India has no reason to be defensive.

When Modi walks into the White House later this year, he will not be harbouring any moral disability . On the contrary , Indians will read lots of meaning into the fact that a man who was barred from entering the country till May 16 is now welcomed into the residence of its First Citizen. It happened not because Obama developed a sudden fondness for Modi but because the force of Indian democracy is morally irresistible.

Sunday Times of India, June 15, 2014

BJP may be TMC's main rival in 2016

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are obvious limitations to banking on anecdotal evidence to detect larger trends. That may well be so but a rent visit to Kolkata drove home something very interesting. A large number of friends, acquaintances and, indeed, nearly all my relatives who lead a comfortable but cocooned existence in Kolkata openly admitted to having done something unique: almost all of them had voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. 

These, mind you, are people who in an earlier age had unfailingly voted for the Congress and, subsequently, after Mamata Banerjee walked out of the parent body to lead the good fight against the CPI(M), the Trinamool Congress. None of them had even considered voting for the BJP, not during the Ayodhya election of 1991 and not during Atal Behari Vajpayee's prime ministership. Indeed, the thought of being associated with the lotus had never crossed their minds. For the solidly respectable bhadralok classes, the BJP was the party of the Marwaris and those who are quaintly described as the Hindustanis. There was a seemingly unbridgeable cultural gap between Bengali sensibilities and the Hindi-speaking BJP. 

People with a sense of history may well contest this as an over-generalisation. After all, they will undoubtedly point out, two of the three Lok Sabha seats won by the Jana Sangh (the precursor of the BJP) in 1951-52 was from West Bengal. This included Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the former Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, a member of Jawaharlal Nehru's first Cabinet after Independence and the founder of the Jana Sangh, who won from Calcutta South constituency. 

Yes, the founder of the Jana Sangh was a rooted Bengali notable whose career was cut short by his death in mysterious circumstances in a Srinagar prison in 1953. However, that was a long time ago. Dr Mookerjee's death left the Jana Sangh orphaned and leaderless. The social constituency of refugees from East Pakistan which had backed the Jana Sangh went over to the Communist Party. The Jana Sangh and the BJP was reduced to a rump with a presence among the Hindi-speaking inhabitants in central Kolkata. 

Before Independence, the Hindu Mahasabha had a following in Bengal and even included Barrister N.C. Chatterjee (father of Somnath Chatterjee) and Modern Review editor Ramananda Chatterjee. It was the Hindu Mahasabha and Dr Mookerjee who insisted on the Partition of Bengal in 1947 to safeguard the Hindu minority of the undivided state. Without this division--ironically, very much along the lines of Lord Curzon's controversial Partition in 1905--Bengali Hindus would have found themselves a beleaguered minority in a Greater East Pakistan.  That West Bengal and Kolkata are in India owes almost entirely to the then leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, many of whom moved subsequently to the Jana Sangh. 

This is a facet of Bengal's modern history that has been brushed under the carpet, perhaps wilfully, by both the Congress and the Left. Maybe they feel that an appreciation of the trauma of Partition in the east would offend 'secular' sensitivities. Instead, the expedient theory that Partition in 1947 went against the grain of the Bengal consensus has been allowed to be popularised. But the grim truth is that the Hindus of Bengal insisted on the creation of West Bengal as an alternative to living in a united Bengal that owed allegiance to Pakistan. 

Invoking this history is relevant if only to contest the widespread belief that the land which nurtured Swami Vivekananda was traditionally Left-inclined in its politics. On the contrary, I would argue that it was the drift to the Left which began in Kolkata and its adjoining industrial belt in the mid-1950s and then spread to the countryside after the mid-1960s, was a hideous distortion of Bengal's natural instincts. Indeed, there is a remarkable convergence between the rise of the Left (in all its varied shades of red) and the decline of both West Bengal and the Bengali-speaking people. 

At one time it was believed that Mamata 'Didi' offered an escape route from this slow journey to irrelevance for Bengal. The poriborton slogan did certainly inspire Bengalis into facilitating her landslide victory over an entrenched CPI(M) in 2011. It is not that the TMC government hasn't notched up some achievements. But many of the gains have been offset by three factors. First, there are the erratic ways of the Chief Minister. Secondly, there has been a discernible (but largely unreported) communal tensions in rural Bengal. The role of the state government has also been said to have been partisan. And finally, the petty tyranny of the Left aimed at the middle classes and small business has been replicated by those who flaunt a TMC flag. In many cases the perpetrators of harassment and extortion are the same people who earlier swore by the local committees of the CPI(M). 

The net result is that despite having a lot of things going for it, Didi's rule hasn't been able to arrest the larger economic decline of a state that was just a notch below Maharashtra in the economic league till the mid-1960s. 

The 17.6 per cent or so vote for the BJP in 2014 secured only two Lok Sabha seats for the party. Disaggregated data suggests that BJP led in 23 Assembly segments (out of 294) and this included Bhowanipore in South Kolkata, a seat represented by Mamata in the state Assembly. 

The outcome may not seem spectacular. But the achievement must be viewed in the context of large-scale intimidation of BJP supporters, some straigh-forward rigging and the inability of the BJP to man more than two-thirds of the polling booths in the state. 

For the TMC it has been a nervous victory. The large-scale post-poll recriminations against BJP supporters are a clear pointer that the ruling party doesn't view the BJP surge as a passing show. On the contrary, the buzz is that the BJP may well become the main challenger to the TMC in 2016, overshadowing a very dispirited Left. 

Emerging as the main challenger to Mamata will require a lot of organisation, stamina and, above all, courage. Politics in West Bengal is inherently very violent. But the BJP can be reassured that the mood in the state is very conducive to its emergence as a player of consequence. For the BJP, reclaiming a lost inheritance should be a priority. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 15, 2014


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Let's switch off I&B

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is a sign of the times that there is as much news generated by a casual perusal of Twitter as by reporters braving the Indian summer to gather “human interest” tales from ordinary citizens. There is a place for both “high” politics and stories of ordinary folk and it is reassuring that social media has at least broken the editorial guilds that determined the collection and dissemination of political news.

It is, in theory at least, possible for a social media fanatic with lots of time on his/her hands to be as informed or uninformed in real time as a media person flashing the much-cherished Press Information Bureau accreditation card.

The growing importance of the social media in making news dissemination more democratic — not to be confused with accurate — is reason enough to begin this column with a tweet from Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, certainly a pioneer in this field. In a tweet on June 10 morning, Mr Tharoor wrote disbelievingly of the new information and broadcasting minister, the affable Prakash Javadekar: “Javadekar wants to abolish Information & Broadcasting Ministry. We heard the same thing from his predecessor L.K. Advani — in 1977!”

A 140-character message may be way too brief for Mr Tharoor to spell out whether he thought Mr Javadekar was bluffing or whether he believed that the commitment Mr Advani made in 1977 when the Janata Party came to power in a similar mood of optimism and expectancy was past its sell-by date. Needless to say Mr Tharoor will elaborate in due course, unless what he really believes is potentially too unpalatable to the Praetorian guards of the Congress.

There is, needless to say, a huge difference between 1977 and 2014. In 1977, the media was a relatively small industry made up of two parts: a state-controlled electronic media and a private sector-owned press. In reality, the control of the state on the private sector media was formidable. The newspapers and magazines had to depend on the State Trading Corporation (or its approved dalals) for imported newsprint; the public sector and the government were the biggest advertisers and the rates were set by a body called Directorate of Audio-Visual Publicity (DAVP); and even the pay of those employed in the media was determined by a government-appointed Pay Commission. In theory, Nehru’s India had a free press but in practice its soul was mortgaged to the government. Yes, there were the stray voices of dissent — promptly debunked as the “jute press” by the socialist ministers — but in the main, as Mr Advani expressed it evocatively, “when asked to bend, they crawled”.

In such an oppressive climate — now the subject of undeserved nostalgia from a handful of old-timers who were beneficiaries of the system — the I&B ministry was the all-powerful ministry of propaganda. Although old-timers in Nehru’s government obsessed more about the quality of Hindi and the use of the harmonium, I&B acquired a sinister reputation after Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969. With Communist fellow-travellers running the show, All India Radio began to be derisively referred to as All Indira Radio in the early-1970s, when I.K. Gujral was I&B minister. By the time V.C. Shukla became minister during the Emergency, I&B ministry became a Soviet-style bureau of propaganda and censorship. It was in this context that Mr Advani bravely suggested that a separate corporation — loosely modelled on the BBC — be established to insulate AIR and Doordarshan from intrusive government control.

It was an idea that was well ahead of its time. Thanks to the monopoly over TV channels, a situation that prevailed until 1997, governments (and particularly I&B ministers) were loath to relinquish control over what they erroneously imagined was the sole avenue of unpaid information and entertainment for the masses. Initially Rajiv Gandhi wanted an enlightened public broadcasting service but as the Bofors controversy ate into his political credibility, he fell back on crude propaganda and entrusted a buffoon to head the ministry.

I do not know what has happened in either DD or AIR over the past 17 years: the last occasion I was invited on a DD panel was in 2002! What can safely be said is that despite the pretence of autonomy Prasar Bharati is becoming increasingly irrelevant and will become even more so if the Modi government goes ahead with its plans to deregulate news and public affairs on radio. Apart from a few stations in the border states and outlying areas, the rationale for Prasar Bharati’s existence today is to serve its own employees.

Prasar Bharati’s control over state-run broadcasters has been further compromised by the arrival of TV channels run by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. There is a case for the live telecast of Parliament but these channels have developed ambitions of their own. Lok Sabha TV hasn’t got over the mindset of DD of the 1980s and is a misfit in the contemporary world; and RSTV seems to be a ready-made platform for every Left-leaning individual and dreary academic in the National Capital Region. There is a compelling case for Parliament to debate whether live telecast of proceedings of Parliament must be accompanied by an income-accretion scheme for a section of the ideologically inclined.

Mr Javadekar is absolutely right to begin a viability assessment of his own ministry. If the mandate of Prasar Bharati is increased to include all state-run broadcasting bodies and it is made answerable to a committee of Parliament, there is no earthly reason why the I&B ministry should be anything more than a bad memory. Technology and the government’s commitment to transparency should ensure that tender notices are put online, thereby dispensing with DAVP. The routine tasks of public information can be handled by the existing PIB that now has the additional help of a subscription-free but popularity-driven social media.

It is right that Mr Tharoor has reminded people of Mr Advani’s 1977 observation. The time is right for Mr Javadekar to prepare for the day when he can shut down the I&B shop in Shastri Bhavan and concentrate his energies on the real responsibility given to him: the task of rescuing environment protection from the Luddites.

India could do with a vibrant Prasar Bharati, not a moribund I&B ministry.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 13, 2014

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tharoor-Aiyar clash is just 'time-pass'

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are some clever phrases that stick in your mind for eternity. More than three decades ago, I heard the West Indian-born British academic Stuart Hall at a meeting in a dingy, disused church in Oxford in an abstruse discussion on Marxist politics. Referring to the twists and turns of Comintern policy that contributed to an unending series of purges and expulsions of those who deviated from the 'party line', Hall mocked the pretence that the deity called the "Party" was never wrong: it merely blundered from "correctness to correctness." 

As far as I am aware, my college mate Shashi Tharoor, one of the distinguished survivors of the May 16 massacre of the Congress Party, has never remotely flirted with Left-wing politics. As such, he may only have a nodding acquaintance with the hoary political tradition that maintains that the "party" can never err in its political judgment. Only lesser mortals let the side down on account of their various sins ranging from revisionism, individualism, splittism, adventurism, capitalist-roadism, etc. 

Tharoor, is very unlike fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar who will remain the last Communist standing, even after the two Communist parties have opted for voluntary dissolution. Aiyar may frequent the AICC headquarters at Akbar Road rather than the grim offices in AKG Bhavan and Ajoy Bhavan but that is only a matter of detail. In real life, he has merely replaced the portraits of Stalin, Mao and (hopefully) Kim-il-Sung with that of Nehrus and his heirs. And he has substituted 'dynasty' for the 'party'. 

A clash between Tharoor and Aiyar is a classic example of political 'time-pass': seemingly a relief from post-election boredom but ultimately totally irrelevant. Tharoor has maintained that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has allayed his worst fears, made an encouraging start with his "inclusive" approach and that the Congress would be "churlish" to say otherwise. Aiyar, whose electoral drubbing was far more conclusive than Tharoor's victory by a whisker, is, quite predictably, unimpressed. The man who announced in an article penned on the night of May 16 that fascism had arrived in Lutyens' Delhi, believes that Tharoor is politically wet behind the ears and too impressionable. 

I will not go into interesting theories explaining why Tharoor wrote and said what he did and why Aiyar felt compelled to express his disappointment that his "intelligent" colleague in the Congress Parliamentary Party (remember that Aiyar is a man nominated by the President of India to the Rajya Sabha) thought as he did. My only suggestion is that Tharoor should choose a more widely-read forum than the Huffington Post if he is anxious to address India rather than the US. 

On closer scrutiny, however, this clash of the Stephanians seems to be more in the nature of a friendly match rather than a disagreement over fundamentals. 

Let's first examine the context. Tharoor's expedient endorsement of the new PM comes at a time when, apart from the Congress candidates themselves and the functionaries of the party, no well-heeled and well-connected individual in Delhi is willing to admit they voted for the Congress  and rooted for that party till the afternoon of May 16. Judging by the social conversation, it would seem that every member of the middle class had decided that the future of India would be safe only in the hands of NaMo. It is a feature of India that everyone wants to be seen to have backed the winner. 

Secondly, not for a moment has Tharoor ever said that his entire reading of India's present predicament and his understanding of the Gujarat leader was flawed. Till the very last day of the campaign, as befits a spokesperson of the Congress, Tharoor had mouthed the usual platitudes about inclusiveness, divisiveness and, of course, the "idea of India". Intellectual pride prevents him from admitting that the alarmism over Modi was contrived and didn't resonate with an electorate that wanted change and believed that the record of the Gujarat government over the past 12 years was inspiring. At the same time, common sense couldn't get him to endorse Aiyar's crass comments about either Modi's self-made status or the bizarre parallels with the Germany of 1933. 

To escape this self-created labyrinth Tharoor has fallen back on a clever debating technique. He has neatly divided the PM into two compartments: the bad Modi 1.0 and the promising (if not good) Modi 2.0. This clever-clever approach is premised on the belief that he was never wrong and that, after his victory, Modi has embraced the politics of the vanquished and appropriated this as his own. 

The main fallacy of this schizoid Modi theory is that it is insufficiently mindful of the realities of the so-called Modi 1.0. Those who have observed Modi's record as an administrator will recognise that his maniacal hard work, fanatical attention to detail, his insistence on delivery and accountability and the functional autonomy to the bureaucracy are all carry over from his Gandhinagar days. Alas, and despite, three election defeats in Gujarat, the Congress chose to see Modi differently and cast him as an ogre. No wonder this demonology didn't cut ice with the voters. 

Today, a section of the Congress is humbled by its worst showing ever. They are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions to which dynasty die-hards have no credible answer. Another section has fallen back on old certitudes and are busy examining the minutae of Nazi history for unlikely parallels. In their own ways, Tharoor and Aiyar are guilty of intellectual self-abuse. Both are trying hard to appear credible and consistent. 

This is a game that isn't being played by two loquacious Congress supporters. The past three weeks have witnessed a whole lot of people, not least in the media, journeying from "correctness to correctness".  The commies of yore called it 'dialectics'; the simpler description is expediency. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 8, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Chipping away: A 'right wing' bhadralok's ringside view of change

By Swapan Dasgupta

In last week's Spectator, Hugo Rifkind, a distinguished journalist in his own right but also the son of a more distinguished Scottish Conservative and former Foreign Secretary, spelt out the travails of having a politician as a parent. Apart from the usual pitfalls of reflected glory or infamy, Rifkind was also exposed to the bizrre predicament of his father being a Jew, a Scot and a Tory at the same time--a novel combination in a part of the United Kingdom where Margaret Thatcher was seen with about the same fondness as Mahmud of Ghazni was in Somnath. Rifkind recalled the experiences of his mother --who held a normal job in the state-run National Health Service--meeting friendly strangers who invariably began a conversation with the statutory disclaimer: "I don't agree with your politics, but..."

Throughout much of my adult life, indeed ever since I branched out into writing political columns and proffering my sharply-held positions on TV chat shows, my experiences have resembled that of Rifkind's mother. Family friends and strangers have occasionally complimented me for my willingness to describe a spade as a digging instrument. Others have flattered me for my unceasing willingness to see contemporary parallels from some long-forgotten event in history. But, inevitably, there is the obligatory postscipt: "Of course, I don't always agree with your conclusions." 

Of course you don't and on the rare occasions you do, there is the rider: "For a change, I agree with you." 

This is not to say that I don't have a modest fan following. But they tend to be the techies with a passionate interest in a political cause and those who intervene aggressively on twitter. Among my peer group and those who I meet on social occasions or those who are regulars at, say, the Jaipur Literary Festival, I am an oddity: the right -wing bhadralok. 

Needless to say, it was far worse in the 1990s. At that time, being perceived to be on the Right of the political spectrum was the equivalent of swearing by Catholicism in Elizabethan England. No one was burnt at the stake and no heads were lopped off. But short of being declared a non-person, the full weight of social and intellectual derision was heaped on you. 

You could, at a stretch, be permitted the luxury of advocating market economics and criticising India's socialistic pattern of development. But since the Swatantra Party had gone into voluntary liquidation in 1973, this was an indulgence the socialist Establishment conceded to those whose only expression of organised opposition lay in attending Nani Palkhivala's annual Budget sermons in Bombay and Calcutta. 

There was a well-defined Lakshman rekha you could not cross, not if you were engaged in the English language and the intellectual professions. You could be a Communist of any abstruse shade of your choosing. In Calcutta, for example, left-of-centre was the default position. And in Delhi, you could either be an Establishment leftie or even nurture a soft corner for the Naxalites. What was unacceptable in 'respectable' circles was to believe that the Bharatiya Janata Party was also a force for the good. That was tantamount to crossing all bounds of decency and tolerance. 

At a time when the BJP has won a convincing majority in the Lok Sabha with the resounding backing of the middle classes, it is difficult to imagine an India when it was plain bad form to be saffron. In the citadels of genteel existence, the BJP was not only the stupid party, it was also the nasty party. It was the party of the Hindi chauvinists, the Hindu bigots, the pan-chewing lalas who adultrated cooking oil and, above all, the rioters who would suddenly emerge from the woodwork in their khaki shorts. It was electorally marginal and aesthetically unsound. As a throwback to a grim past,  the BJP, it was made sufficiently clear to those who wanted to progress personally, was anathema to 'modern' India. 

It was also the butt of jokes. I distinctly recall a 'progressive' notable of Delhi University chuckling merrily over the difficulties faced by the Sanskrit department: most of their teachers had been packed off to jail for real or suspected RSS leanings. That was in July 1975, the first month of Indira Gandhi's Emergency to save India from 'fascist forces'. And he thought this was funny!

The jokes didn't cease in 1990 when the reality of Ram Janmabhoomi hit the intellectual classes. But they were now couched with a tinge of alarm. In October 1990, having observed the mass upsurge that accompanied L.K. Advani's Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra, I wrote in that Hindu nationalism had finally come of age and that Hindus could no longer be the objects of secularist condescension. It became a controversial article for one principal reason: it was written in English and published in Times of India. 

Rebuttals by concerned academics were entirely in order. What, however, was unanticipated was a letter by about a dozen prominent academics (mainly historians) suggesting that articles such this had no place in the mainstream media. The principles of free speech, they implied, didn't extend to those who violated the secular consensus. 

That I survived this secularist rage owed to two factors. First, by 1990, it was clear that there was no longer a united phalanx of English-knowing Indians willing to accept every tenet of secularist orthodoxy. A significant section of modern India was discovering the delights of being "political" Hindus. Clearly, the editorial classes could not be entirely unresponsive to this churning and certainly not after the 1991 election established the BJP as an alternative ideological pole.  

The second factor was, doubtless to say, class. A Hindi-medium type could be brushed aside with a show of intellectual arrogance but it was harder to completely disregard someone who had been to the 'right' school and college and was familiar with Anglophone social codes. Expediency demanded that the editorial class preserved a tiny corner for the 'right wing' oddity. Of course, I was not alone: the battle against the consensus also included the likes of the redoubtable Girilal Jain and the crusading Arun Shourie. 

From the 1990s to the election of 2014 has been an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Old and dear friends have been lost and new ones made. Personal hardships have been offset by the professional achievement of having detected a trend that others were either too cowardly or disingenuous to acknowledge. Politicians have been friended and unfriended and hitherto 'unfashionable' causes have moved from the political fringe to the centre-stage. But these are incidental details in the larger ferment India has witnessed in the past 25 years. 

As someone who had a ringside view of this political and intellectual transformation, I can readily admit that an electoral victory is only a small (and, perhaps, necessary) step in the larger battle for hegemony. The real relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru and, indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi family wasn't merely that they governed India since 1947. Far more important was their role in shaping a Nehruvian common sense. Narendra Modi has won a decisive political encounter. But his role in history will be determined on the strength of one of two possible outcomes: either as the force that destroyed a dynasty or as a harbinger of an India that began to think differently. 

I would like to think that chipping away at the old consensus at a time when it seemed Don Quixote-ish helped in the creation of something better. 

The Telegraph, June 6, 2014

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Modi shouldn't stay Atal on Vajpayee's legacy


by Swapan Dasgupta


It is bad form to ask individuals which side they voted for. However , the answer to the question — What do you expect from the Modi government? — may give a clue to their political preference . If the answer is accompanied by the term “change” (either modest or radical), you can be near-certain that their vote was for Modi. On the other hand, if the answer is a little more long-winded and includes the advice to Modi to pursue the path or legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is often conclusive proof that their vote was for the losing side.


This may well be an anecdotal over-simplification that needlessly posits Vajpayee as a polar opposite of Modi. But the broad validity of this test is undeniable in an atmosphere where everyone claims to be relieved and reassured by the categorical mandate.


Those who supported Modi with flamboyant enthusiasm did so in anticipation of a decisive rupture from the way India has been governed. They expect the Prime Minister to grasp the awesome significance of a single-party majority, the first since 1984. Those who look back, somewhat expediently, to the legacy of a genial Vajpayee who played the “coalition dharma” game with deftness are in fact hoping that Modi the outsider is slowly co-opted by the system and merely focuses his energies on making government a little more efficient. In a country such as India, they believe, change must be gradual and full of adjustments and compromises so that the power structure is broadly undisturbed. The last thing they want is for the system to be disturbed by a bunch of newcomers with a sense of mission.


It is still too early to be completely certain which way Modi will tilt. The PM has quite clearly set some ethical norms that he expects his ministers and functionaries to abide by. Along with his distaste for cronyism and dynastic entitlement , he is also in the process of creating systems that will monitor the performance of the whole government. This is a marked contrast from the hands-off Vajpayee who left a bit too much in the hands of his very efficient but antiradical principal secretary Brajesh Mishra.


There was another feature of Vajpayee that endeared him to both the Press Club and the Gymkhana Club: his ability to manipulate coalition partners to tame the BJP. Undoubtedly some BJP hotheads needed tempering but Vajpayee’s political management went one step further. Between 1998 and 2004, there was an of veiled between those who perceived themselves to be Vajpayee loyalists and those who were derided as chaddiwalas. This contradiction was ruthlessly exploited by both the babus and the self-seekers that are attracted to the corridors of power. The result was a discernible emotional disconnect between the government and its political support systems. This partially contributed to the NDA’s unexpected defeat in 2004.


This is a facet of the Vajpayee legacy that Modi needs to guard against. In the 2014 election, there were three streams that contributed to the BJP’s amazing victory: traditional voters who will vote BJP whatever the odds, the RSS network that provided the organizational back bone to the grassroots campaign and the parallel efforts of a volunteer corps that were attracted by the idea of Modi — and this meant different things to different sections and regions. It was the synergy of the three that produced the awesome results.


Modi is fortunate that he has assumed power with such an array of political assets. There is a generosity in the determination of his backers that he must be given a free hand to translate their political impulses into reality. The 10-point list of priorities announced last Thursday sets a broad framework for governance. But apart from ensuring that the entire government marches in step, Modi has to ensure that the mood of optimism must also be an adjunct of the country’s journey to rapid growth and modernity This implies that hard politics and targeted governance can’t be detached.


The lofty expectations from the new government imply that the Vajpayee legacy can, at best form a part of his regime’s foundation. In the case of Modi, the more things change the more must not remain the same.

Sunday Times of India, June 1, 2014


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