Friday, May 22, 2015

The politics of naming - Calling a region South Asia will not lessen India's importance

By Swapan Dasgupta

It was an innocent question by a gentleman from Norwich that finally set the cat among the pigeons. 

The setting was delightfully innocuous: a panel discussion at the formal opening of the South Asia Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The discussion had been preceded by a Tagore song by a young lecturer, a few speeches on SOAS and the new Institute by its Director and his colleagues and a soulful Punjabi song lamenting the tragedy of Partition (which immediately prompted a retort by Pakistan’s UN Permanent Representative that her country was proud of its nationhood). 

The question was short and snappy. The Narendra Modi government has increased India’s international profile and enhanced its global standing. How, asked the Norwich man, is this being viewed in the neighbouring countries? 

For the previous 20 minutes the discussion had centred on a common South Asian identity that transcended borders and conflict zones and how initiatives, such as the one in SOAS was contributing to it. Now, the fissures began to show. The Pakistani diplomat lamented that the hand of friendship extended by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hadn’t been met by Modi’s warm embrace. “ A big country”, she suggested “must have a big heart.” Pakistan, she indicated, was excited by the emerging Asian century which, to her, was being led by China and the South-east Asian nations. And yes, India and Pakistan would find a place in that brave new world. 

The editor from Nepal wasn’t so carping. He conjured up the familiar story of post-national identities and regretted that the multilateralism underpinning SAARC was being diluted by a with-you-or-despite-you approach of Modi. There was, predictably, no mention of the logistical and other assistance extended by India to Nepal after last month’s devastating earthquake. 

Maybe I am guilty of over-reading the significance of the panel discussion in SOAS or a slightly silly debate in a trailer version of the Jaipur Literary Festival held at the Southbank in London last weekend. At that debate on the efficacy and durability of the Westminster model in South Asia, there were no representatives from Pakistan or even Sri Lanka—the speaker from Bhutan didn’t get her visa on time and didn’t catch the flight from Delhi. But the distinguished British academic with his expertise of Nepali and Nepal quite rightly indicated the prolonged turbulence in the Himalayan state over a workable and acceptable Constitution. His argument was that while India had a loving relationship with the Westminster model, the experience couldn’t be generalised across South Asia. 

Since a public debate where the timekeeper starts to either bang on the drum or emitting strange noises from a strange hand-held clapper after four minutes can hardly be called serious, my response was suitably flippant. It is generally believed, I suggested, that Scotland was won quite conclusively by the Scottish National Party in the British general election earlier this month. However, such an assertion can just as easily be challenged by the fact that voters in the distant Shetland Islands where sheep outnumber electors had preferred a Liberal Democrat. Did this aberration distract from the larger point that Scotland did indeed vote SNP? I think not. It would be injudicious to overemphasise the role of exceptions in a democracy. 

Nepal is, of course, considerably more significant than the Shetland Islands. Yet, the fact that Nepal, along with Bangladesh and Pakistan, has a trajectory of its own is not without significance. To me it suggests that the term South Asia doesn’t signify anything much more than a geographical expression. True, there are cultural continuities that link each South Asian state with a neighbour: Bangladesh with West Bengal and Assam, Pakistan’s Punjab with India’s Punjab, Northern Sri Lanka with Tamil Nadu and Nepal with Uttarakhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh. However, when examined a little closely these cross-border cultural expressions are merely suggestive of the sheer expanse and range of the Indian Union. 

The term South Asia is utterly meaningless without India. Indeed, for a very long time the term Indian subcontinent was the preferred expression for the land mass that incorporated multiple nation-states. At one time, even in a political sense, it incorporated both Afghanistan and Burma but those connections have passed into history. 

For the past four decades or thereabout, the term South Asia has replaced the Indian subcontinent as the preferred description. British and American universities were the first off the mark, changing the nomenclature of Indian history with South Asian history. By the late-1970s, with the advent of multi-disciplinary Area Studies, university departments had replaced India with South Asia. Even Indology, the shorthand for the study of classical languages and religio-cultural forms was discarded and subsequently decried in sneering tones as Orientalism. 

To some extent this shift was an understandable response to the reality of post-1947 international relations and the undeniable reality nation-states that were not merely sovereign and independent but were also steadily departing from the orbit of Indic civilisation. The presence of large immigrant communities from Pakistan and Bangladesh also forced the issue, not least in a Britain whose diplomatic relations with India were frosty, at least until the mid-1980s. There was a distinct political motive to a shift away from any perceived India-centric approach. 

Today, unfortunately, the shift appears to have gone a bit too far. What I discerned in SOAS earlier this week, as I detected in Oxford’s Queen Elizabeth House in an earlier era, was an attempt at equivalence. Under the guise of a South Asian identity, both real and contrived, was an attempt to question the centrality of India in the Indian subcontinent. India was in effect being put on par with neighbouring countries whose collective experiences were riddled with shortcomings. There may certainly be misgivings in the subcontinent over India’s departure from passivity and its aggressive quest for economic parity with the advanced economies of the West. To, however, question India’s self-image by treating it on par with Pakistan where the “failed state” debate is not yet over, strikes me as being far-fetched. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening and why a discussion on a South Asian identity can be conducted without even a fleeting reference to the incompatibility of jihadi violence with democratic values. By putting the focus on South Asia as an entity, Pakistan looks better than it should and India worse than it actually is. 

There is an associated complication too. When South Asia becomes the reference point, the emphasis shifts to ‘development’ studies, a relatively new discipline that has been lavishly funded by both multilateral agencies, Western governments and even NGOs. By implication, the range of disciplines earlier under the protective cover of Indology are pushed to the margins—a phenomenon that, alas, has also engulfed India. 

Fighting the South Asian label is a challenging project and can perhaps even be seen as a diversion into trivialities. It would be a far better idea for India and the Indian government to push for the primacy of Indian or Indic studies in the Western academic environment. Institutions such as King’s College, London, have already effected this shift thanks in no small measure to donations from India-based corporates and even the Government of India. I believe it will also have the explicit support of serious Western scholars of India and its civilisation who feel hamstrung by a political agenda that generates certitudes based on slogans. Studying facets of modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal is entirely compatible under the protective cover of Indian Studies. It is time India becomes a little more demonstrative in asserting its strategic and civilisational centrality. 

The Telegraph, May 22, 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Modi govt's one year: Limbering up for the long haul

By Swapan Dasgupta

By the first week of May 2014, even before the last voter had pressed the EVM button, it was apparent to most Indians that Narendra Modi would become the next Prime Minister. What was finally settled on counting day was the scale of the triumph. 

The decisive outcome was inevitably accompanied by high expectations. The slogan 'achche din' may have been a copywriter’s brainwave that captured the popular imagination, but it meant different things to different people. These ranged from the realistic to the miraculous. Likewise, the triumph of Modi, a man dubbed a hateful, ‘polarising’ figure by both the media and the intellectual establishment, aroused a set of fears. Some of these apprehensions may well have been contrived, but the seemingly unending controversies over the ‘real’ saffron agenda did persuade some groups and communities that with Modi at the helm the very ‘idea of India’ would suffer a knockout blow. 

Nearly one year into the Modi government, the broad political values that have defined India for 65 years have not undergone any fundamental shift. Democratic rights haven’t been compromised, free speech is intact, the media is as shrill and rumbustious as ever and the Opposition hasn’t been put out of business. There have been the few stray communal skirmishes and even an orchestrated campaign to suggest that the Christian minority is in danger. But the rhetoric overkill notwithstanding, there is zero evidence to suggest that there is an emerging institutional bias against the practitioners of non-Indic faiths. Modi may not have personally commented on every expression of prejudice — and prejudices do exist in India, as they do in most countries — but he has reaffirmed the government’s larger commitment to post-identity politics on numerous occasions in Parliament and outside. 

The only discernible change is that the government is no longer squeamish about also celebrating and promoting facets of Indian cultural heritage that are connected to Hindu traditions — the Bhagvad Gita, the Ganga, yoga and Swami Vivekananda. In short, there has been a subtle but conscious bid to ensure that secularism isn’t undermined by an impression that it is defined exclusively by minority gratification. 

Cultural or even religious engineering may well be the overriding passion of some backbench MPs but it does not feature in the list of the Modi government’s priorities. The PM has been categorical in asserting both publicly and privately that he was elected on a development plank — to unleash India’s economic and human energies — and that extraneous issues will not derail him. The government may often have failed to control the headlines and shape media-driven perceptions but its focus hasn’t shifted from bread and butter issues to fire fighting. 

The subtext, however, do also suggest alternative patterns. When Modi assumed charge a year ago, the prevailing consensus was that the Indian economy had been hobbled by a combination of political indecision, regulatory cussedness and shortsighted legislation. To this list can also be added inflation, high interest rates and international capital’s loss of appetite for India. 

It is not that all these issues have been magically put right. At the time of writing, the amendments to the land acquisitions Act are still in parliamentary limbo and there is a race against time to ensure the Goods and Services Tax is operationalised by April 2016. Interest rates remain high and the tax authorities appear to be stuck in an adversarial relationship with individual and corporate taxpayers. Yet, the progress over the year has been quite impressive. From raising FDI in insurance, clearing the coal and mining logjam, the more purposeful and pragmatic handling of environmental clearances to a slew of measures to make business less cumbersome and daunting, the Modi government has crossed many of the hurdles in the path of India’s development. As of today, the Make in India initiative is still in its nascent stage but at least the appropriate business environment for both manufacturing and services is being put in place. 

Before he became PM, Modi was seen by different groups of supporters in ways that mirrored their own inclinations. In 12 months it is apparent that he cannot be easily fitted into a prefabricated ideological mould. He has combined business-friendly policies with a passion for efficient and corruption-free welfare programmes that don’t amount to the disbursement of freebies; he has sought to limit the government’s involvement in business and at the same time he has bolstered the public sector in infrastructure building; and he has promoted national objectives — Make in India, smart cities, bullet trains and Swachch Bharat — while empowering states to set a differential pace and factor in local sensitivities. 

In May 2014, the buzz centred on a government that lacked will and was in a state of drift; today’s criticism is that the government isn’t proceeding fast enough. Scams have disappeared from the headlines, although the collective delights over individual idiosyncrasies haven’t. The mood change is visible. 

Indeed, the big change brought about Modi in a year has been the shift from despondency to impatient anticipation of delivery and returns. The reality of an India blessed with soaring aspirations but dragged down by inadequate capacity — including skill deficits and the imperfections of both private and public sectors — and a strange unwillingness to rush things poses a daunting challenge for any government, not least one with a clear mandate. So far Modi is building the foundations and setting the pace for a long-distance run. In foreign policy he has set a searing pace but within India he has had to confront fierce headwinds — a status-quoist babudom, an unforgiving ancien regime and unrelenting media hostility. 

Given the challenges, he’s done remarkably well. But it’s just the start.

Hindustan Times, May 16, 2015

Friday, May 15, 2015

The tainted mirror

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

By Swapan Dasgupta

In an age where it is fashionable to be cynical or, to use its media euphemism, ‘critical’, good news is rarely headline new—unless it is a sporting triumph. In the hierarchy of values, national pride ranks pretty low among the chattering classes. As such, it comes as little or no surprise that the staggeringly rapid response of the Government of India to the earthquake devastation in neighbouring Nepal had a limited life cycle in the domestic media and was relegated to an incidental footnote in the international media. 

The indifference of the international media conglomerates to India’s rapid and generous response to the suffering of a country with which it maintains a near-open border was understandable. Despite the growing realisation of India being among the fastest growing economies in the world and the rising attractions of both the Indian market and Indian capital, some old stereotypes refuse to die. 

I happened to be in London when the earthquake happened and quite deliberately chose to be dependant on the local radio for information. Predictably, within a day, as the magnitude of the disaster became apparent, BBC broadcasters proclaimed in sepulchral tones that “aid agencies” were warning of an impending “humanitarian disaster” as supplies of food and drinking water ran out. Naturally, there was news of Britons, mainly adventure tourists and mountaineers, who were in Nepal. But not once—maybe I tuned in at all the wrong times—did I hear a mention of any significant Indian response to the disaster. That news I picked up from Indian websites and links in Twitter. 

Maybe I am guilty of over-prickliness or even harbouring an unwarranted sense of victimhood. But I just can’t resist the impression that in the Western imagination, India can at best be a hapless recipient of charity from the rich countries. The idea that India can mount its own rescue operation and possess a well-oiled and purposeful disaster management machinery on permanent alert is still greeted with incredulous disbelief. At one time, this image of pathetic hopelessness was also tagged to China but, quite understandably, China has successfully made the leap into the prosperous zone. India remains bogged down in the old stereotype—the haunting image of the starving child with an empty plate that guilt tripped people into donating to the aid agencies as an act of Christian charity. 

There are too many other pressing tasks in hand for India to attempt to consciously change international media perceptions. This is already happening in small doses in strategic sectors for the simple reason that money always talks. India, like China, is rising while the West is either stagnating or, as in the case of southern Europe, in a state of abject decline. With time, perceptions will also undergo a change. 

The rescue operation mounted in Yemen to rescue nearly 10,000 Indians caught in the crossfire of a bewildering civil war was a spectacular achievement for which the Indian military, the Ministry of External Affairs and General V.K. Singh in particular deserved full credit. It was a difficult rescue act since it involved both negotiating and sometimes threatening threatening the way through hostile and unfamiliar terrain. I think the Narendra Modi deserved far more praise for conducting this rescue mission than what domestic pundits were prepared to concede. And certainly the Minister of State who was given the operational responsibility deserved much better than the abuse hurled at him by professional nitpickers. 

After the Yemen and Nepal operations India has demonstrated a capacity to undertake responsibilities that were hitherto regarded as above its station. Much more than demonstrating professional competence and bravery, these missions have led to a transformation in the way the world—at least the more knowledgable sections—view India’s capabilities. The idea that a Government will go out of its way to ensure the safety and security of its citizens in difficulty overseas marks a wonderful departure from the indifference to ordinary citizens that was once the hallmark of Indian diplomacy. Yes, the process didn’t start with the Modi government—recall the earlier evacuation of Indian citizens from Lebanon and Libya. What Prime Minister Modi, leading from the front, has done is to institutionalise the process and inject it into the bloodstream of governance. India’s global image is undergoing a big shift and these two missions will strengthen the awareness of a new India. How the country’s interests can be promoted as a result of this perceptional upgrade is the challenge before Indian diplomacy. 

The process should, ideally, have been complemented by other institutions of civil society. However, just as the international media has proved to be a laggard in detecting emerging trends, our domestic Fourth Estate is still engulfed by a perverse, post- national mindset of permanent negativism. Much of it has got to do with its visceral dislike of a Prime Minister who is contemptuous of all brokers. But it may also have a great deal to do with the fact that for the media’s fashionable ambassadors, flying the flag is a vulgarity best left to those who pray in temples and fail the test of uber cosmopolitanism. India, it is clear, will have to march ahead minus this lot. 

Sunday Pioneer, May 3, 2015

Friday, May 1, 2015

The city and the carnival

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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