Saturday, November 29, 2014

Modi-phobic Imam's social sleight of hand

By Swapan Dasgupta

At one level my sympathies are entirely with the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid for drawing up a personal guest list for the anointment of his son as the Naib Imam. Since there is nothing official about the function and, for all practical purposes, the Jama Masjid is run like a hereditary fiefdom, the Shahi Imam can invite whosoever he wants for his son’s coming-into-the-family-profession party. As far as my information goes, I don’t think his circle of friends and political ‘contacts’ extends to Narendra Modi who also happens to be the Prime Minister.

To the extent that the mandal head of a BJP unit in some corner of India will not be censured for failing to invite the National President Amit Shah for his son’s 18th birthday feast, I think it was unfair of Arnab Goswami to fire his Bofors howitzer shells on a guy who imagines himself as the equivalent of a Pope of all India’s Muslims. Incidentally, there is a self-appointed Jagatguru Shankaracharya who imagines himself a pre-Reformation Hindu Pope. Hypothetically speaking, had the Prime Minister received such an invitation he would have politely sent his regrets.

I don’t think anyone can contest the Shahi Imam’s Constitutional right to invite anyone from Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the ISIS “Caliph” Abu-bakr Al-Baghdadi to his son’s coming-out party. The guest list reflects his preferences.

However, it is an entirely different matter when the Shahi Imam decides to convert his personal choice into an instrument of political grandstanding. We are told that Modi wasn’t invited because he hasn’t done anything for the Muslim community.

I guess the charge is right because in the past five months the PM hasn’t done anything for Muslims specifically. His targeting has been wider: he has reached out to all Indians, a community that presumably includes a significant body of Muslims. The “make in India” initiative covers all manufacturing units, including those owned and operated by Muslims; the jan dhan yojana is aimed at introducing modern banking to all of India’s poor, an economic category that we have been repeatedly reminded includes a large percentage of Muslims; and the Swachh Bharat campaign does not, to the best of my knowledge, exclude areas (including Jama Masjid) where Muslims predominate.

Yes, the PM did not host an Iftar party in Race Course Road. But he didn’t host a Diwali party either.

The Shahi Imam doth protest too much. He may not be enamoured of the PM—and he is under no obligation to be. He may even advise his congregation to not vote BJP. That too is just about permissible in our democracy. However, he is totally in the wrong by insisting that governance should be compartmentalised into communal compartments. In the past, successive Congress succumbed to the sectarian pressures of those who acted as gatekeepers of the Muslim vote. Modi has the wrath of the likes of the Shahi Imam by shutting his doors to all types of power brokers. If the emerging growth of the Indian economy has left a professional sector untouched, it is Delhi’s power brokers, including those who flaunt “Press” stickers in their SUVs. Their hatred for the PM is unconcealed and they are plotting their revenge, waiting for him to trip up.

Actually, the Shahi Imam isn’t the only one who doesn’t want the shadow of Modi in his party. Earlier in October, a body that hosts Delhi’s oldest Dussera at the Ramlila Maidan overturned convention by not inviting Modi to the effigy burning ceremony. Instead, it invited Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to fire the ceremonial arrows. For that Congress-friendly body, time stood still since the morning of May 16.

Living in denial, it would seem, is rapidly becoming a unique Congress trait. On October 31, there was a great deal of fuss made among others by Congress’ Anand Sharma and Digvijay Singh over Modi’s non-attendance in a ceremony to pay respect to Indira Gandhi who was assassinated that day 30 years ago. While the President of India and the Vice President were present, the Economic Times heading was that “Modi shuns Indira event…” The inescapable conclusion: the PM lacks grace.

Maybe we should teach social niceties to all ministers but there seems to be a catch. Was the PM invited to the function in Akbar Road organised by the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust chaired by Sonia Gandhi? President Pranab Mukherjee didn’t drop in unannounced; he must have been invited. Was such an invite sent to Modi, even as a gesture of courtesy since he is, after all, the PM? I tweeted this question last Friday evening, and sought a clarification from anyone who could provide it. There was no reply and the silence suggested that my hunch was right: the Gandhis don’t like a Modi in their midst on a day they consider a private occasion.

As with the Shahi Imam, I respect the right of a dynasty to mourn (or celebrate) in the company of the like-minded. But, in that case, why make a song and dance over either a non-invitation to Modi or his reluctance to gate crash? You can’t have it both ways.

Confronted by a series of political disasters, the enemies (to be distinguished from political opponents) of Modi are seething with rage. They don’t have too many weapons in their armoury (as yet) and the ace in their pack is a social sleight of hand. In the coming days, other forgotten people will be boasting: “we didn’t invite Modi to our party.” For the moment, it is the theme linking a Madam and an Imam. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 2, 2014


By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, I spoke to a senior politician from another country who had travelled to India to attend the Congress party’s commemoration of the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. A keen observer of India that cuts across partisan lines, he was curious to assess how the Congress, once the country’s most formidable political party, was coping with the devastating defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election.
As a point of inquiry this was of legitimate interest. Victory and defeat are normal in democratic politics but what is of exceptional interest is how parties cope with both. His impressions were quite unflattering for the Congress. The Congress, it seemed to him, was unwilling and even unprepared to assess the larger concerns that stemmed from the victory of the BJP and Narendra Modi. The Congress, he felt, was basically playing a waiting game, waiting for the BJP to make mistakes and for popular disenchantment with the Modi Government to emerge.
In this context, the over-emphasis on the Nehru event was quite significant. Rather than use the memory of Nehru to assess how democracy and society has evolved in the past six decades, the Congress seemed intent on using Nehru (and, for that matter, Indira Gandhi) as a symbol of frozen principles. It is almost as if a modern Communist Party felt it necessary to deify Leninist principles of party organisation and the debates of the early decades of the Soviet Union to approach the modern world.
In particular, the foreign observer was struck by two examples of foolhardy certitude. First, despite the scale of the defeat, the Congress was unwilling to approach the vexed question of leadership with an open mind. As far as the Congress was concerned, there was nothing to discuss about a leadership that had failed to inspire. Secondly, rather than tap the creative instincts of Young India, particularly its restless desire to force the pace of change, the Congress was intent on basing its political appeal only on those who were yet to be fully drawn into a new world centred on entrepreneurship, self-improvement and opportunities.
The second observation was particularly significant. By its very nature the Congress was always a broad church party. During the national movement and notwithstanding the unquestioned moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress operated as a broad platform for divergent tendencies ranging from conservative and right-wing to the moderately socialist and the Marxist Left. Later, under Nehru and his daughter, the party veered towards statism and welfarist populism, and under Rajiv Gandhi it embraced a variant of confused modernism.
It is interesting that under Rajiv, PV Narasimha Rao and even patches of Manmohan Singh, the Congress did appeal to the modernising impulses of an India that was exasperated by the over-regulation of society. There are academic studies based on surveys that suggest that it would be imprudent to equate popular exasperation with the inefficiencies of the state sector with a full-throated endorsement of the free market. India, it would seem, is anxious for a deft balance between state regulation and the market economy. The importance of political positioning lay in knowing how much to tilt in which direction and the timing of the move. It was the unresolved conflict between the two tendencies during the UPA decade that explained the incoherence of the Congress during the general election.
Judging from the contrived nostalgia among Congress leaders over the Nehru commemoration, it would seem that the Congress has chosen to take two steps backward. The decision may have been influenced by the reading that the Modi Government is, in sloganeering terms, “pro-rich” and insufficiently mindful of an elaborate welfare net for India. Whether this is a fundamental misreading of the impulses that drive the BJP Government will be determined by subsequent events. What is important for the moment is the emerging reality of Congress non-cooperation towards all important ‘reform’ initiatives of the Modi Government.
During the Budget session of Parliament, an impression had grown that a demoralised and dejected Congress would, at best, delay the passage of important legislation such as the increase in foreign investment in insurance, the modification of land acquisition norms and labour flexibility. In a sense that is what Opposition parties are often expected to do: delay but not obstruct. However, it now seems that the Congress will utilise its strength in the Rajya Sabha and its growing proximity with the rump Left and the unity-seeking Janata parivarto prevent all reform.
The calculation is simple: if it can be demonstrated that much-needed reform legislation will face parliamentary turbulence, the investing classes (both domestic and foreign) will gradually lose their interest in India and once again look elsewhere. If this happens, the Modi Government will falter and may even become a victim to a backlash centred on disappointment.
The cussedness of the Congress is directly linked to the perceived indignities heaped on the “first family”. The Congress remains angry that it wasn’t gifted the status of the official Opposition and the loyalists are seething with rage at the Haryana Government’s “harassment” of “private citizen” Robert Vadra. As of now, the Congress doesn’t realistically believe it can stage any electoral comeback: the Punjab election of 2016 is thought to constitute its end of the beginning. But, meanwhile, it has declared war in the belief that all roadblocks in the path of India touching a 8.5 per cent growth rate is legitimate.
Modi is not one to disregard challenges. The next few months will determine the contours of both the BJP and Government fightback. It will be exciting politics but India could well have done without the excitement.
Sunday Pioneer, November 23, 2014

HANDSOME RETURNS - Modi’s mobilization of overseas Indians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Chinatown in London’s Soho is always a very agreeable dining venue for those on a tight budget. As a student in the 1970s, it was invariably the area many of us drifted to after the cheap beer at the college bar. The attraction was all the more since, invariably, there was always a student of Mandarin to negotiate the rude waiters and occasional dodgy bills.

One of my regular dining companions was an irreverent English Maoist—now middle-aged he has successfully transformed himself into a liaison man promoting China in business—who seemed to know most of the restaurateurs. Inevitably, he was partial to some establishments. One day, when I quizzed him over his over-fondness for one particular restaurant—which, alas, closed down two years ago—he explained the rationale: “It is owned by a patriotic Chinese.”

Those were the days when the strains between the People’s Republic of China (the mainland), the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Hong Kong were manifest. So, when my Maoist friend praised any local Chinaman’s “patriotic” credentials, he implied an attitude of non-hostility to the then wayward Maoist regime in Beijing or Peking, as it was then called.

The partiality was understandable. In the immediate aftermath of the debilitating Cultural Revolution and the rowdy Red Guards flashing Mao’s Red Book, mainland China was looked upon with intense suspicion, if not outright hostility, in the West. Apart from the small but dedicated band of fellow travellers, there were few who even feigned indifference or neutrality towards the happenings behind the Bamboo Curtain. The local Chinese community was not insulated from this partisanship and it was no surprise that the local Maoists clutched at straws, even if it meant something innocuous as preferring one restaurant over another.

Sharp battle lines, linked to either community solidarity or political stands, have always existed in diaspora communities. In the 1930s, the substantial German diaspora in the east coast of the US was sharply divided between those who perceived Hitler as a saviour and those who lamented the demise of old Germany. Many Hollywood films of the 1940s were based on the paranoia over a German fifth column operating within the US and subverting the war effort of the Allies. Likewise, the Irish community in the US tended to be fiercely anti-British and pro-Republican. Till as late as the 1980s, it was the Irish diaspora that bankrolled the terrorist Provisional Irish Republican Army, the perpetrator of terror attacks in both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

In recent years, the Tamil diaspora that came into existence in the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in being the propaganda arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and in financing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Indeed, even after the LTTE’s military decimation in 2009, there is a feeling within Sri Lanka that it is the Tamil diaspora that is standing in the way of a political reconciliation between Colombo and Jaffna.

Compared to these examples, the experience of the Indian diaspora has been relatively placid. The movement for Khalistan did undeniably receive a shot in the arm thanks to the efforts of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and the United Kingdom. However, after peace returned to the troubled state after 1993, the Khalistanis have become a fringe tendency within the Sikh diaspora, although their capacity for creating diplomatic hiccups for India shouldn’t be under-estimated.

A possible reason for the relative detachment from public affairs in India can be explained by the fact that the bulk of those bought one-way tickets out of India after Independence did so in search of a better life. The West and in recent times Australia did exercise a pull factor but there was no simultaneous push factor operating from within India. No doubt India’s inefficient economy and the inability of its institutions of higher education to cope with the middle class’ insatiable quest for knowledge did trigger the exodus of both labour and skilled personnel. However, since economic mismanagement wasn’t accompanied by an oppressive political regime, the post-Independence diaspora didn’t feel that forcing the pace of change in India constituted one of its pre-eminent extra-curricular priorities. As far as public life within India was concerned, the diaspora simply switched off. At best its so-called community leaders in the West were content with being invited to parties at the local Indian mission and getting themselves photographed with an Indian politician of their preference.

This is not to suggest that the Indian diaspora chose to be unengaged with India. Family and village ties ensured annual or bi-annual visits to the old country. More important, it was also accompanied by unending remittances of hard currency to India, either by way of investments in land and houses or by subsidies to ageing parents and less-fortunate relatives who didn’t or couldn’t escape India’s drudgery.

Following economic liberalisation and the easing of foreign currency regulations, a new pattern of outward movement from India began to be discerned. Increasingly, business families made it a point to nurture overseas-based business run by a younger son or a close relative. Gujaratis, Sindhis and Punjabis have traditionally sought opportunities outside national boundaries. A large chunk of the Tamil Brahmin community also moved to the US after Tamil Nadu’s draconian reservations policy made the state somewhat inhospitable for the upper castes. In recent years, we are observing the new phenomenon of Marwaris from business families and newly- prosperous Telugus establishing a foothold for themselves in entrepreneur-friendly, foreign climes.

There is a qualitative difference between the earlier and the post-1991 emigration from India. The exodus during the decades of the shortage economy was dictated substantially by the paucity of meaningful opportunities in India; the second wave, however, appears to have been prompted by India’s steady integration into a globalised economy. Yet what bound the two sets of Overseas Indians was a deep scepticism over India’s ability to realise its full potential. Before the 2007 crisis, there was a brief spurt in optimism but that disappeared and turned into dejection during the second term of the UPA government. Once again Overseas Indians readied to switch off India—the linkages narrowing down to family and faith.

It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rallies in New York and Sydney need to be located. The return of a charismatic leader to the political centre-stage explains the enthusiasm partially. However, far more important is the fact that with his aspirational and nation-building message, Modi is able to connect with Overseas Indians—particularly those who still feel emotionally Indian—on their own terms. For Modi, the diaspora is not made up of people who ‘betrayed’ India for the bright lights of the West—the 1971 Manoj Kumar film Purab aur Pashchim captured that ethos. He is viewing Overseas Indians as an extension of India, as individuals who are driven by the same set of motivations and values as resident Indians. For a change Overseas Indians are encountering an Indian leader who is not intent on guilt-tripping them for their Green Cards and change of nationality. He is including them in his national project.

The importance of his out-reach programme is profound. Modi has made the Indian tricolour more than just a national flag; he has made it a symbol of a global identity. Not since the state of Israel tapped into Jewish emotions throughout the world has diaspora politics seen anything so audacious—and minus all elements of controversy. The mobilisation of Overseas Indians has become a new facet of India’s public diplomacy. It could yield handsome returns. 

The Telegraph, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The dynamics of an unusual J&K election

By Swapan Dasgupta


The encouraging 71 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll plus the violence-free atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted is a thumbs-up for Indian democracy. Whether the active engagement of voters with the democratic process was a result of widespread anti-incumbency will be known once the votes are counted on December 23.


In the absence of opinion and exit polls, the analyst is obliged to rely on media reportage and anecdotal evidence. These indicate three broad developments. First, it is likely that the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his feisty daughter Mehbooba will be the principal gainer in the 46 seats of the Kashmir Valley. It is entirely possible that the National Conference led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his Congress ally may experience a total rout in the Valley. Secondly, it seems that the fear of an ascendant BJP and the possibility of a Chief Minister from the Jammu region have motivated many of those loosely associated with the parties of the Hurriyat Conference to break ranks and participate in the voting. Finally, it appears that the BJP has made huge inroads in the state where it won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the general election. The BJP gain in Jammu will primarily be at the cost of the Congress and NC. In addition, the BJP has forcefully registered its presence in Ladakh and may even be in the running in six constituencies in the Kashmir Valley. 


The spatial distribution of seats in the 87-member J&K Assembly does seem to negate the likelihood of the BJP achieving its 44-plus target unless, of course, it wins every seat in Jammu and Ladakh and score surprise victories in the six seats of the Valley. However, regardless of the scale of its performance, there is no doubt that the party has injected a new dimension in state politics. A reporter from Delhi who toured the Kashmir Valley told me of her astonishment that BJP candidates were actually canvassing for votes in Muslim-dominated localities: “A few years ago they would have run the risk of being attacked, even shot.” 


There are some who attribute the non-hostility to BJP campaigners to the good work done by defence personnel during the devastating floods a few months ago. Others suggest that, like the rest of India, there is a willingness to give Prime Minister a chance to repair the economy and reinvigorate India. I personally found it interesting that Mehbooba Mufti chose to highlight the importance of smart cities in her campaign while berating the NC-Congress coalition for mis-governance. This is not to say that the familiar alarmism over the BJP repealing Article 370 and effecting a demographic transformation of the state were absent. Certainly the Delhi media did its bit to prey on imaginary insecurities. Yet, what is interesting is that the BJP’s all-too-familiar position on the complete integration of J&K in the Indian Union did not generate an outpouring of Islamic identity. 


For too long, J&K has been a hostage to political ambulance-chasers with spurious crisis-resolution agendas. Some of them are only concerned with the Pakistan dimension of the problem. This preoccupation, curiously, is not terrorism-centric but centred on multinational solutions to national problems. Others imagine that there will be a miraculous change if the process of governance becomes more sensitive to the violation of human rights. 


It is not that all their observations are spurious. However, it is important to bear in mind a few facets of J&K. First, the Kashmir Valley is neither underdeveloped nor poor by Indian standards. By contrast, the Jammu region is relatively more neglected. There is a perception in Jammu that the paucity of resources for development is entirely a result of Delhi taking the unflinching loyalty of its people for granted. Secondly, it is worth recalling that J&K is among the largest recipients of central subsidies in the Indian Union. The state has not generated any meaningful revenue from inside; its people are under-taxed and over-subsidised. 


This special status for a border state is written into the Finance Commission’s brief and the people of the state need not have fears of abruptly experiencing a heavy dose of taxation or withdrawal of development funds. What is necessary, however, is for both the Centre and State governments to insist on a rigorous audit of the quality of expenditure. For too long, in both J&K and in many states of the North-east, the approach to national integration has been based on perverted pragmatism. In essence, this amounts to a policy of coopting a local elite through an indulgence of corruption. The havoc this immoral statecraft has done to India is incalculable. 


This election, it is widely acknowledged, is different from other exercises in the past. It is the presence of the BJP and the absence of any meaningful boycott campaign that have made all the difference. The new government has a chance of building on a changed mood and walking along a different road. Yet, an extra push may well be required. To my mind, a phased withdrawal of the army from all policing functions and its gradual replacement by well-trained and sensitive central para-military forces could well be a step worth considering. The Indian army should be on active deployment only along the Line of Control. Counter-insurgency should be the business of other arms of the state. 


After the election results have been digested, the approach to J&K both from Srinagar and Delhi could do with some revision. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, November 27, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My letter to the Times Lit Fest

Dear Bachi, 

I am sorry that you didn't reply to my sms query or to my earlier requests for a programme schedule. 

It is your Life Fest and the guest list is your undeniable prerogative. I can only choose to voice a small ethical concern by choosing to stay away. Thank you for inviting me to Mumbai but I feel I will be a misfit in such a Festival. 

My apologies for accepting the invitation and then changing my mind. 

With regards.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

We are more French than British in our Nehru jacketing

O         By Swapan Dasgupta

Last month, Royal Mail issued eight postage stamps commemorating Britain’s Prime Ministers. Of the five more recent leaders portrayed, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were Conservatives, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson represented the Labour Party and William Gladstone was a Liberal. 


Those with an interest in British history can justifiably debate the selection. To my mind, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, both Conservatives, also deserved inclusion. Tony Blair was also missing—maybe because he lacks vintage. However, what is important is that the selection was bi-partisan and reflected a slice of Britain’s past. It was also interesting that the First Day Cover postmark had a quote from Harold Wilson—“The main essentials of a successful Prime Minister…are sleep and a sense of history”—that captured the essence of laid-back Britishness. 


A reason why Britain produces the best—and certainly the most readable—works of history may lie in the national appropriation of the past. In his lifetime, except during World War II, Churchill was both admired and reviled at the same time. In the 1930s, the mainstream Conservative Party regarded him as a wilfully awkward customer, not least for his views on Germany and India; and as the Prime Minister in the early-1950s, there was widespread exasperation over his insistence on remaining at the crease. Yet, he was given a state funeral by a Labour government in 1965 and one the best biographies of Churchill has been penned by Roy Jenkins, a man who was politically always on the other side. 


Unfortunately, this generosity of didn’t manifest itself when Thatcher died in 2013. Although she too received a state funeral, the news of her death was greeted by unseemly celebrations and chants of “the witch is dead” by those who intent on reducing history to political slogans and, worse, blood feuds that endure across generations. 


This unending partisanship over history is a French import. Maybe it was the unending turbulence from 1789 that made French politics more contested that explains the difference with Britain’s more gentlemanly view of posterity. The schism between the Napoleon-ists and the Royalists endured till the early-20th century; the Dreyfus affair institutionalised a schism between the progressives and traditionalists till 1944; and the divide between the Gaullists and the Petainists persist in different ways even to this day. 


A few years ago, for example, the Mayor of a French hamlet was prosecuted when it was discovered that the Town Hall hung a photograph of Marshal Petain along with other past heads of state. The French view of its past, as the novelist Allan Massie movingly captured in A Question of Loyalties, is governed by both denial and self-censorship. What is awkward is either left unaddressed or hideously caricatured. 


In India, unfortunately, and perhaps again due to past turbulence, there has been a tendency to emulate the French model and construct an idyllic past. These tendencies have come to the fore in the controversies centred on the commemorations of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary. 


No one can take away from Nehru’s role in shaping the contours of post-Independence. Whether in the economy, foreign policy and political institutions, the country is still grappling with the Nehruvian inheritance and debating it with laudable passion. Even his blunders and missteps—and there were many—continue to haunt India. No wonder the what-if questions have become a national obsession. Unfortunately, the discourse isn’t limited to good-natured debates where people disagree and thereafter exchange namastes. 


There is an inclination to view Nehru as the fountainhead of all post-1947 wisdom and a corresponding political determination to enshrine India’s first Prime Minister as an ideological role model for all times. The deification isn’t limited to the man himself: Nehru worship has been extended to the endorsement of Nehru’s progenies and self-professed Nehruvians. A legacy has become an entitlement. This explains why the backlash, often articulated in crudely visceral terms, is so fierce. 


India can countenance both sets of distortions if, at the end of the day, the collective appreciation of a disputed past comes to be better informed. To hope for agreement is neither possible nor desirable. The 17 years of Prime Minister Nehru doesn’t lend itself to a single narrative forged through a show of “scientific temper.”

Sunday Times of India, November 16, 2014

Internationalism's cursed legacy

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is unlikely that too many Nehruvians or even those that view India’s former Prime Minister with a sceptical eye will, during the year-long commemoration of his 125th year of birth, care to stress the colossal importance of the Spanish Civil War in the making of the man. As someone who had an insatiable appetite for contemporary fashion—be it political, sartorial and aesthetic—Jawaharlal Nehru was totally sold on the entire romanticism surrounding the battle of the Republicans against General Franco. 


In the heady atmosphere of the 1930s where the quest for defining ideologies that would reshape the world was unceasing, the Spanish Civil War became the stuff of both politics and poetry. It was more than just a battle against the Falangists and the traditional order. To the trend-setting arbiters of political fashion, which included a disproportionate number of British intellectuals (but not British voters), Spain became a metaphor for radicalism. George Orwell’s writings have disabused us of the so-called idealism behind the Republican side. It now transpires that both sides were equally guilty of being manipulated and used as proxies by other European powers: Stalin shamelessly (and quite brutally) moulded the priorities of the Republican army and Hitler used support for covert as a laboratory for his weapons of war. 


To be fair, Nehru may not have been aware of the ugly underside of this great romantic struggle—his ability to cull information and his indignation was always selective. What inspired him to join hands with Stalinists in the League against Imperialism and other dodgy bodies was the example of the International Brigade—the volunteer army of concerned citizens from other European countries that fought alongside their Spanish comrades. 


In the mythology of the European Left, a decisive influence on Nehru, there was a halo over the International Brigade. It is estimated that somewhere close to 35,000 non-Spaniards were initiated into the International Brigades and about as much as one-fifth of the volunteers died in the Civil War. The high casualties were on account of the complete lack of training and poor military strategies. When Franco finally prevailed, the surviving foreign volunteers returned to their homes. Some ended up dispirited, others became hardened Communist cadres and a third lot became the “useful idiots” that Lenin believed were so important in the spread of his ideas. 


Some eight decades later, the Spanish Civil War is distant memory and with the deaths of Franco and Salazar, democracy has returned to the Iberian Peninsula. However, there is one facet of the Spanish legacy that has endured: the belief that national boundaries are no barriers in fighting the good fight. Internationalism was always a catchword of the Marxist Left, to be used expediently: Fidel Castro used it to despatch an inconvenient Che Guevara to Bolivia to spread the revolution. But it wasn’t confined to the Left alone. In recent times, the principle of internationalism was resurrected by Pakistan, with financial backing from the United States, to create an Islamic mujahedeen to wage jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan for a decade. It was a classic case of ideological blowback. 


A momentum, especially one laced with adventure, romance and a touch of fanaticism, once created cannot be plugged by command. Pakistan deliberately allowed the ‘international’ remnants of the Afghan jihad to spill over into Kashmir. Throughout the mid-1990s, it was fairly routine for India’s forces to discover an international community of jihadis waging war for Kashmir’s “liberation”. Apart from Pakistanis, they included Arabs, Sudanese and Asian Britons. 


Today, this perverse legacy of the Spanish Civil War has come to haunt the whole world. I am, of course, referring to the international warriors that buy one-way tickets to Turkey and then disappear from the gaze of their families to become both cannon fodder and valuable operatives for the grandiose Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to one estimate, foreigners make up as much as 20 per cent of the ISIS army and they are drawn from more than 100 countries. 


The cases of bored, football-loving Muslim teenagers living in some nondescript town of northern England suddenly upping and joining the ISIS and, in many cases, getting themselves killed have received widespread media attention. The cases of their Indian counterparts have been relatively less documented—perhaps understandably. What they add to is the undeniable reality of ISIS exercising a perverted but at the same time emotional appeal to a section of Muslim youth. 


It is an international phenomenon—a reason why the East Asian leaders meeting in Myanmar have devoted so much attention to it. However, what remains understated are the two contributory factors for ISIS’s macabre appeal—and it has nothing to do with either Palestine or national boundaries of the Levant. 


First, the radicalisation of Muslim youth is being organised by a set of very determined and motivated religious preachers. Their efforts are being complemented by internet networks reminiscent of a Fredrick Forsyth novel. Both these have to be tackled with relentless vigour and even mercilessly. 


Second, the ISIS army depends substantially on kidnapping, extortion and oil for finances. But there are whispers emanating from intelligence communities of the covert involvement of at least one state in the Gulf. Choking off this financial lifeline is a must and can only happen if all the big powers act in concert. 


The importance of the ISIS is not confined to a corner of West Asia. It has the potential of having a multiplier effect throughout the world, including India. 


No wonder it is prudent to realise which facets of any great life is worth de-romanticising. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 16, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

The clever Panditji and the emotional Netaji

Review article

Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Penguin Viking, 265 pages, Rs 599)

It is by now a cardinal rule that wars over India’s history invariably erupt whenever a non-Congress dispensation assumes charge in Delhi. This was first evident during the short-lived Janata Party dispensation after the Emergency; it resurfaced during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s otherwise benign six-year rule; and in the run-up to the advent of the Modi sarkar, it has smuggled itself into the intellectual discourse through an abstruse debate on the Idea of India.

At the heart of the dispute are two pieces of conventional wisdom. The first, nurtured through decades of the Congress’ monopoly over political power, is the belief that the future of India must be shaped through adherence to what is loosely called the ‘Nehruvian consensus.’ By implication, this conviction attaches disproportionate importance to the legacy of India’s first Prime Minister and his contribution to the creation of the post-Independence nation-state. If Mahatma Gandhi is viewed as the ‘Father of the Nation’—the presumption is that India didn’t really exist prior to the Gandhian phase of the national movement— Jawaharlal Nehru is deemed to be the Father of the Republic.

The second belief is that those who opposed the Nehruvian project were either representatives of a feudal order or groups espousing crude xenophobia. In a recent article, Pankaj Mishra went a step further and endorsed a view that after Modi’s electoral victory India’s public life seems dominated by ‘sociopaths and criminally insane persons… whose lust for power poisons the very air we breathe.’ Mishra, of course, inhales the Indian air seasonally, but his intemperate rant is indicative. India’s dominant intellectuals—well ensconced in the social science departments of universities—are willing to seriously debate the critique of Gandhi and Nehru proffered by the Communist movement but they are unwilling to accord respectability to alternatives that were offshoots of more indigenous traditions. Thanks to this policy of intellectual exclusion, Indian conservatism was nurtured after 1947 as a protest movement.

Now that the anti-Nehruvians have found themselves in a parliamentary majority, their ranks replenished by those committed to non-statist economic policies, there is a sudden rush to re-discover and even appropriate political stalwarts whose views were at variance with those of Nehru. The old icons of Hindu nationalism such as Swami Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Madan Mohan Malaviya and VD Savarkar have been bolstered by the inclusion of the likes of Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. The long-standing complaint that the Congress’ political dominance led to India’s past being seen only through the prism of Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family has been sought to be addressed—to begin with, symbolically.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s study of the parallel lives of Nehru and Bose—Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives—was probably conceived without an eye to the larger political changes that engulfed India in May 2014. For the past two decades, Mukherjee has worn two hats: as the opinions editor of The Telegraph and as a historian. Few have managed to successfully straddle the two divergent worlds of history and contemporary politics. Mukherjee is a rare individual who has— perhaps by maintaining a detachment from the partisan pulls and pressures of ‘breaking news’. As such, despite his disclosure of inherited partiality for Nehru, he has approached the subject with good, old-fashioned empirical rigour, allowing the documentary evidence to do the talking.

The results are heartening. First, Mukherjee has written an eminently readable narrative history that should please both generalists and specialists. It is necessary to emphasise the smooth flow of his prose for the simple reason that India’s historians have recently been disinclined to place any premium on readability. The Marxists, neo-Marxists and post-modernists are most guilty. Together, they have reduced riveting tales of the past to jargon that can at best be understood by a small clutch of those Alan Bloom once described as ‘tenured cretins’. Mukherjee offers a refreshing break from the tendency of modern social scientists to massacre the English language.

Second, this study is focused on two individuals, their mental make-up and the choices they exercised in complex situations. Of course, their actions can’t be separated from the larger historical backdrop, but at least Mukherjee has refrained from delivering pompous sermons on imperialism and the so-called ‘final’ crisis of capitalism that has been upon the world since the time Communist agitators started penning manifestoes and political resolutions. The only criticism that can be made is that Mukherjee is over-reliant on the public speeches and private correspondence of both Nehru and Gandhi. A little more focus on how the two were viewed by contemporaries—and how these varied regionally—may have made the narrative even richer.

What emerges from Mukherjee’s exploration of the parallel lives is the paramount importance of Gandhi in making or breaking political careers. Nehru was fascinated by the mass appeal of the Mahatma and his ability to almost instinctively understand popular impulses and aspirations. Gandhi’s larger worldview, particularly his trenchant disavowal of modernity and Western civilisation, left him unmoved. But he sublimated these doubts cleverly and generously reciprocated Gandhi’s indulgence of him.

Bose, on the other hand, while appreciative of Gandhi’s mass following, viewed the leader as a drag on what he felt should be an uncompromising war against British rule. Influenced in large measure by the emotive anti-British strand among Bengal’s militant nationalists, Bose often overestimated the willingness of Indians to fight a no-holds-barred struggle against imperial rule. However, whereas Gandhi was indulgent towards Nehru’s flirtations with trendy socialist thought, he was less approving of Bose’s desire to develop an alternative radical current. Bose felt that Gandhi deliberately favoured Nehru as a clever ploy to split the radicals and he could never digest the Mahatma’s cunning. His natural impulsiveness led him to write many premature obituaries of Gandhi, something Nehru always refrained from doing despite expressing his private anguish in personal correspondence. In time, Bose began to see Nehru as someone who was willing to shed all beliefs and cosy up to the Mahatma to further his own standing within the Congress. Interestingly, even Patel and Rajendra Prasad—committed followers of the Mahatma with no socialist pretensions—shared these feelings.

In Mukherjee’s study, Nehru comes across as a cleverer politician. In identifying himself with the ‘left wing’ of the Congress, Nehru was very vocal—he even addressed Congress delegates as ‘Comrades’ and was (like most Communists) forever going on about the international crisis of imperialism. Bose, on the other hand, devoted as much energy to faction fights within the Bengal Congress as he did to positioning himself as an intransigent, pan-Indian, anti-imperialist. Despite radical posturing, he was quite firmly rooted to the regional base of the Congress. Indeed, Malcolm Muggeridge, employed as a leader writer in The Statesman in Calcutta, remarked on the curious mismatch between the radical pretensions of the anglicised Bengali Congressmen and their social preferences. ‘Our parts in history are allotted, not chosen,’ he wrote, ‘and their belonged to the Raj, which they hated, rather than to the Swaraj, whose coming to pass they sought.’ The same, arguably, could have been said of Nehru with one difference: Nehru never developed local roots.

The Cambridge historian John Gallagher argued that Bengal’s Congress leaders that included the Bose brothers, Sarat and Subhas, could never transcend their social status and were victims of it. It is doubtful if he would have extended the argument to Allahabad’s Jawaharlal. Nehru was the epitome of the deracinated and, ironically, this has come to be celebrated by Nehruvians as a virtue. Whatever rootedness he possessed was courtesy his status as Gandhi’s favourite son.

In hindsight, the simmering Nehru- Bose tensions have come to be located in Nehru’s distaste for Bose’s soft corner for the fascist regimes in Europe. It is true that Bose believed that Germany (and, subsequently, Japan) was India’s natural ally against the British Empire. It is also likely that Bose’s relationship with the Austrian Emilie Schenkl may have blinded him to the jagged edges of Hitler’s regime. However, in hoping for a confused synthesis between Communism and Fascism, Bose was merely articulating contemporary concerns. Nehru may have embraced Stalin’s Soviet Union uncritically—as many of his upper-class English contemporaries did. However, rather than view Bose as a closet fascist, it may be more instructive to view him among the many leaders from Europe and Asia who sincerely believed that the Axis powers were going to create a more equitable world order. It is worth remembering that the horrors of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ were not widely known until the end of World War II in 1945. Bose’s my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend approach was characteristic of his desire to put emotion above calculation.

In sum, Mukherjee’s study reveals that both Bose and Nehru were out of tune with the main body of Congress thinking that was personified by Gandhi’s gradualism. Perhaps it is because the battle against British rule was not totally uninhibited that India survived as a democracy after 1947. Bose rebelled against the mainstream and found himself as an unsuccessful De Gaulle in Japan. Nehru merely bided his time and came out trumps. However, once the checks were removed after the deaths of Gandhi and Patel and the marginalisation of Prasad, Nehru’s confusions became India’s long-standing national consensus.

Swapan Dasgupta
Open magazine, November 14, 2014
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