Friday, May 22, 2015
The politics of naming - Calling a region South Asia will not lessen India's importance
Friday, May 15, 2015
The tainted mirror
In the absence of government files whose transfer to the archives after 30 or 50 years is based on flights of whimsy, scholars of contemporary India — shorthand for anything dealing with the post-Independence experience — are disproportionately dependant on the media as a primary source.
This unavoidable approach creates its own set of problems. While historians studying Western democratic societies have often relied on the media as a barometer of public opinion, particularly in the localities, they have been able to balance findings with other inputs such as official documents, court records and the private papers of some of the main actors. In India, most of these options are either a matter of chance or absent. The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library has taken a lead in gathering the private papers of individuals and non-official organisations that played a role in public life before and after Independence. In addition, there are oral reminiscences of individuals who played a role. However, the resources available to chroniclers of contemporary history remain woefully patchy. As a society, India has not yet imbibed the habit of preserving the past for the future.
This problem of inadequate documentation is compounded by two additional complications. First, India remains, by and large, an oral society. Public figures, particularly politicians, are loath to put their thoughts down on paper. Strategies, tactics and instructions stemming from unstructured meetings are rarely recorded and, more often than not, suffer from distortions in transmission. This isn’t a uniquely Indian problem but it is more acute in India than in societies where putting pen to paper was more of a habit. Secondly, with the growing popularity of digital communication, communications have actually become more perishable. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, was in the habit of pouring his heart out in letters to his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and his colleague V.K. Krishna Menon. Most of these letters have survived and form a huge database for understanding both the first Prime Minister and his approach to government and politics. With emails (and, for that matter, telephone conversations) replacing the letter as an instrument of intellectual exchange, it is highly unlikely these will be preserved for posterity — unless they happen to be official correspondence.
The consequent media overweight in post-facto understanding of contemporary trends should naturally prompt a greater awareness of the nature of the beast. The media has an exalted self-image of playing a watchdog role and even being defined by its adversarial role with the government of the day. Unfortunately for it, this self-professed nobility of purpose is not universally shared. Right from the Nehruvian days when Krishna Menon was fond of declaiming against the so-called “jute press”, his shorthand for the media-big business nexus, to Indira Gandhi who had her own share of favourite journalists and media outcasts, politicians have protested against the political bias of the media. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s anger against a media that seeks to “destroy the Aam Aadmi Party” isn’t a new complaint; many others before him have complained of media-inspired political vendetta. In the late-1980s, just as the Bofors controversy was threatening to burn him politically, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced a draconian Defamation Bill and even got it passed in one House of Parliament before abandoning it following widespread protests.
To be fair, political partisanship has been a feature of the Indian media since the late-19th century. With the exception of the Times of India, Statesman and the Pioneer which reflected different shades of pro-British opinion, the other pedigreed Indian newspapers were established on the back of the nationalist movement. Nor was their commitment to Indian nationalism of a loose and nebulous kind. Many of the publications were essentially voices of a particular faction and linked to individuals. After Independence, factional alignments were replaced by commitments to political parties. Historians studying events from the Congress split of 1969 to Indira Gandhi’s election victory in 1971, will, for example, discover that the balance of forces in the media was firmly tilted against her. This may explain her subsequent antipathy to the Fourth Estate and her single-minded determination to reduce it to the status of a supplicant.
Revisiting the 1969-71 experience is instructive for a good reason: it shatters the belief that the media is broadly reflective of public opinion. That the opposition of media barons to her aggressive socialism may well be ideological, but specific corporate interests also governed some of the hostility. It was precisely to counter that impression that the Tatas, for example, divested their holding in the Statesman — one of the leading voices against the dynastic Congress.
In today’s India, corporate control over the media hasn’t shrunk but assumed a far larger dimension. Increasingly, particularly in the states, the media has become a vehicle to promote business interests in real estate, mining and sectors that are burdened with government regulations. The Saradha revelations in West Bengal suggested that chit-fund operators have systematically created media assets and courted journalists as a protective cover.
The element of distortion doesn’t merely extend to issues of ownership. Increasingly, over the past decade, the media is becoming more susceptible to “group think”. The left-liberal overweight, particularly in the Delhi media, was a major factor in the bulk of the print and electronic media failing to capture the popular mood in the 2014 general election. This political tilt is also a factor in the onrush of negativism that has greeted the economic initiatives of the Narendra Modi government.
Finally, there is a near-criminal dimension that future historians must factor in. In large parts of India, the media has become a byword for extortion with a price tag attached to the promotion or suppression of a story. Almost every politician has a horror story to narrate about media venality in the transfer-postings industry and during elections. So far the media has not acted to protect its professional integrity, preferring denial to corrective steps.
A historian studying contemporary trends in India has, therefore, a daunting challenge. He has to not only assess the information; he has to locate it within the media’s internal dynamics. A historian has the luxury of post-facto reflection. The consumer of media is simply left bewildered, confused and, often, angry. No wonder media preferences are often totally out of synch with people’s voting preferences. The media, it would seem, has its uses but reflecting public opinion is not one of them.
Asian Age, May 15, 2015
Friday, May 8, 2015
Doubts and divisions - Between prosperity and recklessness
By Swapan Dasgupta
Late last month, while waiting in the lobby of a Central London hotel, I was buttonholed by a Greek gentleman and asked whether I too was part of the St George’s Day lunch being held in the premises. He was in a very jolly mood after what appeared to be a high-spirited afternoon and we got talking. “I thought St George’s Day was an English celebration. Is it observed in Greece?” I asked, in what was a shameful display of ignorance. “It is a big day in Greece and Cyprus, a national holiday”, he informed me.
Despite its overt identification with England—courtesy, I guess, the football fans—St George’s Day is yet to be declared a national holiday in England. That could be because national holidays in the United Kingdom tend to be infrequent and, apart from the four days of Easter and the two days of Christmas, remarkably non-denominational—Bank holidays in May and August doesn’t offend the prevailing spirit of multiculturalism. Groups and communities celebrate everything from Eid, Diwali, Guy Fawkes Day, the Solar Solstice and the Queen’s official birthday. But national holidays tend to be seriously rationed.
When it comes to the United Kingdom—a curious mixture of a Heritage State and post-national cosmopolitanism—it is always hazardous to talk of new traditions. However, I would like to hazard the guess that very shortly, maybe even in a year’s time, St George’s Day may well become the newest of national holidays in England, celebrated with the same measure of joyousness as St Patrick’s Day in the Republic of Ireland.
The outcome of the British general election of May 7 is in some doubt. The number of seats won by the political parties will no doubt be known by the time this edition of the newspapers reaches readers but who will be Prime Minister and which coalition will endure the statutory five-year term of the House of Commons will, in all likelihood, take a longer time to determine. However, regardless of the detailed outcome, historians may well come to regard the 2015 poll as a landmark election—as significant as the Liberal win in 1906, the Labour landslide of 1945 or, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979.
The landmark elections of the 20th century were defined in terms of the social and economic legislation that flowed from their Parliaments. The Liberal and Labour governments elected in 1906 and 1945 created the modern British welfare state; and the Conservative ‘counter-revolution’ of 1979 re-established the primacy of the market economy and globalisation. In 2015, regardless of whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is resident of 10 Downing Street, the UK is likely to witness a new phenomenon: the regionalisation of politics that threatens its very survival.
To those familiar with late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, this isn’t as new as it seems. The Home Rule agitation led to a sizable Irish nationalist bloc in Westminster with priorities that were totally at variance with the assumptions of the Liberals and the Tories, then the two national parties. Accommodating Irish aspirations within the Westminster system that involved the pre-eminence of Parliament proved impossible and increasingly the separatist Irish MPs began to be viewed as a tumour that Britain was best rid of. What contributed most significantly to the exasperation of both the Tory leader Lord Salisbury and the Liberal stalwart William Gladstone was that a solid bloc of some 85 Irish nationalist MPs held the balance of power amid fierce competition between the two parties in the other regions of the UK. In 1892, Gladstone became Prime Minister on the strength of ‘outside’ support of the Irish nationalists. But far from integrating Ireland into the power structure, the inconclusive talks on Home Rule increased the gulf between Catholic Ireland and the rest of the UK. When Ireland finally went its own way, Winston Churchill wrote impishly: “The two supreme services which Ireland has rendered Britain are her accession to the Allied cause on the outbreak of the Great War, and her withdrawal from the House of Commons at its close.”
History doesn’t always repeat itself but it just may. Scottish nationalism, fuelled on tales of Jacobite valour, had always enjoyed folklore status in Scotland but politically it was insignificant until the Scottish National Party beat Labour into second place in the Scottish Parliament election of 2007. Since then it has been an upward journey, despite the resounding No vote in the 2014 referendum when Labour and Conservative joined forces, to the point where it is expected to win more than 50 of the 59 seats from Scotland. If this landslide does become a reality and the Conservatives fail to win 24 extra seats in England and Wales, the SNP will hold the balance of power. In a situation reminiscent of the 1890s, the UK government will be held hostage to a party that is limited to just one region and which has a clear pro-independence agenda.
On paper the SNP isn’t demanding another referendum: it is seeking to make governance impossible. At present, the differences between the SNP and the rest seem irreconcilable. First, it is quite firmly opposed to fiscal austerity and controlling the fiscal deficit. It wants a steep increase in spending on health and education that is beyond the capacity of the British exchequer. Secondly, it seeks a drastic reduction in defence expenditure and the scrapping of the Trident programme. Thirdly, it is firmly committed to enhancing Britain’s engagement in the European Union at a time when the mood in England is sharply opposed to the curtailment of national sovereignty. Finally, it has no intention of giving up its demand for an independent Scotland as the price for power sharing in Westminster. It is in fact seeking to create an emotional schism between England and Scotland to the point when there is widespread relief in both London and the Shires at the departure of Scotland from the Union.
So far Scotland has bred a nationalism that is a blend of “progressive politics” (a euphemism for hard Left economics and trendy social policies) and “civic nationalism.” There has been no countervailing reaction in England, although both Conservatives and Labour grudgingly acknowledge that English identity needs to be taken on board and rescued from mavericks on the Far Roght. However, if the SNP decides to force its agenda on a Labour that is under pressure from its committed grassroots to unsettle the legacy of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that has ruled since 2010, we are likely to see open warfare between a Britain that seeks to combine prosperity with stability and another Britain whose mood has become increasingly reckless.
During the election campaign the Conservatives have tangentially invoked English nationalism by invoking the larger threat posed by the SNP. However, if floating voters, in the belief that this is just another routine election, fail to accord this message any urgency, Britain could be in for turbulent times. As a major financial hub of international capital, any move to impose punitive taxes on the successful will see both a flight of capital and a run on Sterling.
Only two major countries in the EU—Germany and the UK—have staged a recovery from the financial crisis that hit the world of capitalism in 2008. In the case of UK, the turnaround has been more modest. The politics in the aftermath of today’s results will determine whether the forward movement is maintained or sharply reversed.
Celebrating St George’s Day in a dispirited London doesn’t look terribly appetizing. In a more normal UK it can be exhilarating.
The Telegraph, May 8, 2015
Sunday, May 3, 2015
Media's visceral dislike of Modi
Friday, May 1, 2015
The city and the carnival
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has every reason in the world to be ecstatic over the results of the municipal polls in the state. The conclusive victory of the Trinamul Congress in all the major urban clusters, with the solitary exception of Siliguri that gave the Communist Party of India (Marxist) some reason to believe there is life after a paralytic stroke, establishes a few obvious home truths.
First, it is quite clear that Ms Banerjee has politically recovered from the adverse publicity and the political scare she got after the skeletons from the Saradha scam started tumbling out in rapid succession. From the victory podium, the chief minister may well proclaim that the entire controversy was contrived and owed entirely to her spat with a major media group. However, discounting the hyperbolic excesses of political propaganda, it would seem that Ms Banerjee played her cards rather well. In particular, while denouncing the Central Bureau of Investigation as a political arm of the Bharatiya Janata Party, she simultaneously managed to send a signal that the investigators wouldn’t go the whole hog — not least because the Narendra Modi government could do with the Trinamul Congress’ support or, at least, its token opposition to various pieces of economic legislation.
The point is not so much how much of this dual track approach was based on reality but that the nudge-nudge-wink-wink politics was successful in confusing the local BJP. Ms Banerjee, it would seem, took a leaf out of the Left book. Throughout its tenure in Writers’ Building, the Left Front combined the pretence of strident opposition to the Congress with expedient adjustments in day-to-day governance. The result was that the Congress rank-and-file was confused and often demoralised. Ms Banerjee’s political graph during the Left Front decades can be located in her attempts to reverse this pattern of opposition politics.
Earlier this year the local BJP made a great deal of fuss over Ms Banerjee’s growing political disorientation — particularly after the easing out of her close aide Mukul Roy — and a new set of damning revelations by the CBI. When neither turned out to be true, the BJP’s forward march in the state was abruptly halted. Like the Congress of yore, the BJP too is over-dependent on how the national party moves. Its ability to be locally autonomous is, as yet, limited.
Secondly, it would seem that the quantum of urban discontent against Ms Banerjee’s supposedly whimsical rule has been exaggerated. The spectacular advances made by the BJP in the general election of May 2014 in the urban areas was, in hindsight, the mirror image of the national mood. While there was certainly a local basis to this endorsement of Mr Modi, there was, for example, less of an urban tilt towards the BJP in neighbouring Orissa where too a regional party held sway. Its importance shouldn’t be over-read.
A study of elections invariably reveals that the importance of local issues diminishes according to the level: it is lowest in Lok Sabha battles and highest in contests over local bodies and panchayats. A fleeting visit to Kolkata a week before polling clearly revealed that while the BJP had acquired a great deal of visibility in the past year, it was still lacking in social depth. The Trinamul Congress, on the other hand, had positioned itself as the dominant party of West Bengal, easing out the Left that is in a desperate battle to stay relevant and intact. Whereas the ubiquitous local committee of the CPI(M) controlled mohalla affairs with an iron hand, the Trinamul Congress was dependent on the informal network of local clubs that busied themselves with a range of activities, from organising the Durga Puja celebration to extorting money from contractors at building sites. Often swearing allegiance to rival factions of the Trinamul Congress, these clubs have been assiduously cultivated by the Trinamul Congress and even bankrolled by the state government. The class politics of the CPI(M) has been eased out by the Trinamul Congress’ carom board politics.
This celebration of idleness as a political virtue doesn’t probably augur well for the work culture of West Bengal — a principal reason why Kolkata is a great place to retire to but less rewarding as a job or professional destination — but the political returns are handsome. Ever since the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government faltered in its attempt to try and restore some of West Bengal’s industrial glory, the political class as a whole has given up the challenging project of economic regeneration. The quest for gross domestic happiness appears to have replaced the arduous quest for notching up gains in the gross domestic product. No wonder Kolkata has become a city of unending carnivals that cut across the religious divide.
Finally, there is a simple arithmetical dimension to the Trinamul Congress’ clean sweep in the municipal polls. After 2014, the opposition to Ms Banerjee was split between the CPI(M) that has historical roots in the state and the BJP which is yet to acquire a definite social profile. The contest in the local polls wasn’t merely to determine the quantum of Trinamul Congress dominance; it also centred on the Opposition space. The BJP’s principal objective was to achieve as the principal Opposition force, overtaking the CPI(M). Consequently, the results will not be up to its level of expectations since the CPI(M) has ensured patches of red in a sea of green.
It is often felt that the BJP’s lack of progress owes to its inability to acquire a bhadralok profile. I would tend to disagree for the simple reason that the old-style patrician leadership that defined both the Left and the Congress is now a thing of the past. A prolonged spell of economic stagnation and decline has led to the marginalisation of the old-style bhadralok from public life. What has emerged instead is a breed of local activists who are able to connect and identify with a new culture of plebianism — and I don’t use the term in any pejorative sense. In her style and persona, Ms Banerjee combines traces of a genteel past with an overweight of street politics and all that is associated with it. As much as its politics, it is West Bengal’s shifting social map that demands dissection.
Asian Age, May 1, 2015