Friday, July 31, 2015

Unlikely allies - Mourning Kalam, hanging Memon

By Swapan Dasgupta


The news of the terrorist attack on a police station in the Gurudaspur district of Punjab last Monday morning was to a very large extent overshadowed by two parallel events: the death of former President APJ Abdul Kalam in Shillong and the legal-cum-political controversy over the imminent execution of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. Both events produced different reactions, but each highlighted the different impulses that are in play and jostling for primacy. 


Kalam’s death, following a heart attack during a lecture in Shillong’s Indian Institute of Management, moved middle class India deeply. A measure of sadness blended with a heartfelt appreciation of the man and his work. The social media was flooded with photographs and anecdotes posted by ordinary individuals—almost all non-celebrities—of their meetings with the former President and his inspirational role. I can’t recall another individual whose death has generated such an outpouring of respect from ordinary people in recent times. 


In the coming days, there will be endless discussions on the Kalam magic. That it wasn’t remotely political is certain. In the five years he occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam did or said nothing that could be regarded as contentious. He played with a straight bat and on the few occasions he was called upon to exercise his independent judgment, he acted with copybook propriety. There were whispers over his apparent role in ensuring that Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” prevailed in May 2014, when she turned down the offer to become Prime Minister. The conspiracy theories were further bolstered when the Congress refused to consider him for a second term in 2007, in favour of someone who turned out to be India’s least respected President. However, at no point was there even a remote suggestion that Kalam had any hand in making life difficult for either the Congress President or the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Partisan politics and Kalam were never joined at the hip. 


Kalam, in many ways, was a throwback to the traditional Indian scholar—a man who combined his single-minded pursuit of knowledge with an austere lifestyle and selflessness that was the hallmark of nishkama karma. What added to his appeal was his rootedness, so unlike the lofty professors whose cosmopolitan made them a bit too formidable for Indian tastes. His entry into public life after he moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan was marked by one shift: he moved his gaze from missiles, rockets and bombs to the larger question of nation-building. From the day he became President till the last day of his life, Kalam was a relentless publicist of education, innovation and development. Whether it was vision of a developed India by 2020 or his dream of extending modern facilities to rural communities, Kalam’s fresh approach to nationalism made him a cult figure for a youthful population that sought a place under the sun for India.  Kalam’s broad concerns may have coincided with the governance strategies of Prime Minister but it was a convergence that was never spelt out explicitly. He was a rajguru who was not concerned with the actual workings of the raj. He entered the space that politics could not permeate. 


In the days following his death, rich tributes have come pouring in, some of them sincere, others contrived. The sheer scale of the public appreciation of the man even forced the media to pay attention to a man most journalists loved to treat as either an oddity or, worse, the BJP’s trophy Muslim. That he didn’t blend his Tamil authenticity with the outward symbols of an Islamic identity and steered completely away from all sectarian concerns made him suspect in the eyes of the aggressive promoters of Indian secularism. 


One of the facets of the post-July 27 commemoration of Kalam’s life that I personally found revealing was the broad lack of convergence between those who recalled the former President with fondness and those who were active in trying to prevent the hanging of Yakub Memon. True, there were occasional references to the fact that Kalam was his doubts over the efficacy and moral validity of capital punishment—an interesting position given his contribution to the development of India’s indigenous weapons systems. But this was more as an expedient aside. In the main, Kalam represented an Indian dream that had very little in common with those who felt that Memon’s death sentence should be commuted, maybe to enable him to get parole after another two or three years in prison. 


The debate over the sentence handed out to Memon has centred very nominally over the ethics of capital punishment. There are many Indians who have genuine misgivings over the state playing God and having the power to settle questions of life and death. This objection to state-sponsored executions go well beyond the nature of the crime or even questions of war and peace, and are grounded in either personal philosophies or attachments to global practices. However, the outcry over the death sentence for a man whose guilt in the massacre of over 250 people has been upheld by the different courts hasn’t been based on principles. The plea for clemency sent to the President of India, for example, is, signed, among others, by the leaders of the three Communist parties whose commitment to class war—invariably involving a spectacular degree of violence—has remained undiminished.  


The robust, last minute defence of Memon has, in fact, relied on two sets of people. There are, of course, those who want the death sentence to be either removed from the statutes or kept as a mere decorative item, never applied. Far more vocal are those who wish to locate Memon’s involvement in the Mumbai blasts in the larger context of the post-Ayodhya violence that rocked India in 1992-93. Memon’s participation in the conspiracy masterminded by the Pakistan ISI, Dawood Ibrahim and his brother “Tiger” Memon is being packaged as a political act of retribution. The likes of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi have quite openly suggested that Indian justice is discriminatory and targets Muslims while leaving Hindu communalists to escape either unpunished or with lesser sentences. The theme of Muslim victimhood is a recurrent theme of the pro-clemency lobby, to which has been brought the alleged perfidy of the Indian intelligence agencies. 


The linkages established between Memon’s defence and Muslim identity politics isn’t going to cease after this particular case is settled. Kalam epitomised one India that saw its future in terms of rapid economic development, national capacity building and a nationalism where divisive identities were submerged in a larger sense of cultural rootedness, be it regional or pan-Indian. Against this is an alternative vision that emphasises an Indian future based on a combination of entitlements and a disaggregated sense of nationality. One implicitly advocated a politics where the thrust was on empowerment based on knowledge, opportunity and commitment to values; the other highlighted the virtues of protest, although it glossed over the social costs and the unholy means to secure an end. 


In a curious and unintended way these alternative perceptions were put on display this week. That both Kalam and Memon were Muslims added another (largely unstated) dimension to these alternative quests for a better and more wholesome India. However, while Kalam would have been tickled that his death became an occasion for a larger deliberation on the future of India, Memon (not to mention his erstwhile mentors in safe houses in Karachi or Dubai) may well be genuinely surprised that the retributive rebellion he tried to instigate in 1993 has attracted a clutch of unlikely allies. 

The Telegraph, July 31, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Abolishing the death penalty & the Yakub Memon case

By Swapan Dasgupta


I do not envy the judges of Supreme Court who will decide on July 27whether or not Yakub Memon, a prime accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, will hang for his crimes on July 30. The death penalty, everyone recognises, cannot be handed out casually. Indeed, the Supreme Court has decreed the “rarest of rare” principle for awarding this most extreme punishment. The judges will have to decide whether Yakub’s crime fits the bill, whether there are mitigating factors and whether the due process of law has been followed in its entirety. 


Yet, awarding the death penalty involves much more than following the letter and spirit of law—the job entrusted to the judiciary. There are larger questions of ethics and statecraft that go beyond the statutes. As a believer, I feel that the power of life and death doesn’t entirely belong to Man. Can Man assume the responsibility of God? And, at the level of statecraft, there is the troubling question of whether an-eye-for-an-eye principle is ethically sound, even though it meets the needs of natural justice and has endless theological endorsements. Yes, I happen to be in favour of Parliament voting out the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment without parole in the rarest of rare cases.


But all that is in the future. The law as it exists today, and existed at the time the serial blasts in Mumbai killed more than 250 innocent people, is quite clear about what punishment a convicted mass murderer should expect. There can be an understandable measure of sympathy for Yakub’s wife, daughter and parents but there is no question that the man in death row knew exactly what he was doing. His crime was not a consequence of hot-headedness; the mass murder was meticulously planned and clinically executed. Worse, it was undertaken with the full backing and logistical support of a country that is unequivocal in its hatred of India. Yakub isn’t therefore just a criminal; he is guilty of treachery too.  


It is necessary to spell out the magnitude of Yakub’s crime—now established in a court of law—if only to underline the fact that a debate on the virtues or otherwise of capital punishment is ill served when conducted in the context of the present case. 


One of the most compelling arguments against capital punishment stems from the fear that an innocent person may be put to death—a step that rules out any remedial action if innocence is subsequently established. In Yakub’s case, his deep involvement in the conspiracy to commit mass murder is not contested even by those who are pleading for leniency on the ground that he has written an essay in prison upholding the Indian Constitution. The case for commutation rests mainly on the fact that Yakub entered into some sort of plea bargain with Indian intelligence operatives in Nepal. No doubt the court will take this into account and the fact that he did reveal crucial details about the larger conspiracy—involving his brother Tiger Memon, the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and the Pakistani agencies. But this can affect a final verdict on the extent of punishment. As to the fact that he has his hands covered in the blood of hundreds of innocent people, there is no second view. Even those spirit-of-Mumbai types who were loud in proclaiming the innocence of Dawood in March-April 1993 are no longer suggesting that there was a monumental frame-up of Muslims.


It is the nature of the case that prevents the ethical issues surrounding the death penalty from assuming primacy. In the past fortnight, the issue has become deeply politicised. The MIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi and the Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi have travelled the TV studios suggesting that Muslims are being singled out for the death penalty. They have implied that an entire community is being targeted by a state policy of selective indignation. 


Owaisi’s larger agenda of building himself as a pan-Indian Muslim leader using a blend of lost glory and victimhood is pretty transparent. He has jumped into the Yakub controversy, not least because Maharashtra has emerged as a new recruiting ground for the MIM. And he has found unexpected support from those Lenin’s once mocked as ‘useful idiots’—liberals who connive in their own self-destruction. 


Owaisi has positioned himself in a potentially win-win situation. If Yakub is indeed hanged, he will go to town claiming that the Indian state has wreaked vengeance on the Muslim community and is hand-in-glove with all those who want “Hindu terrorists” targeting Muslims to be let off leniently. In the emerging mythology of Muslim neo-separatism, Yakub may even be portrayed as some sort of martyr and a message will be sent to all young Muslims to never trust a communally tainted state. 


In the event, Yakub’s punishment is commuted to life imprisonment; the crusading liberals will interpret it as a victory for justice and good sense. Some may even see it quite fancifully as an indictment of Prime Minister Modi. However, for Owaisi it will become a victory rally aimed at telling the Muslim community that it pays to espouse a ‘Muslim’ cause aggressively and without inhibitions. Owaisi is playing to get into the big league of politics and slowly and steadily he is getting there. The Yakub case will be just one more step up the ladder for him.


The fate of Yakub Memon is important at the human level—both for the Memon family and for the families of the countless victims of the butchery he was a part of. But, unfortunately, the case has a deep political significance. The surcharged environment leaves little room for the minusculity that would rather treat issues of life and death on a more rarefied level. The choices are impossibly difficult and we can only pray that the Supreme Court takes a view that upholds both justice and the national interest. 

Sunday Pioneer, July 26, 2015

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Closed-door diplomacy is best

By Swapan Dasgupta

The oft-repeated charge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi likes nothing better than a foreign jaunt, which, alas, he does not like sharing with an accompanying media contingent, may not be heard in TV discussions over the coming week. This isn't because the antipathy of the content providers has diminished in any meaningful way, or that the obsessive over-dissection of Lalit Modi and the Vyapam scam has contributed to a bout of over-exhaustion of the desi Jabberwocky.

When it comes to Pakistan and anything to do with India-Pakistan bilateral relations, a sense of earnest sincerity-often missing when it comes to other departments of statecraft-is likely to subsume the shrill frivolity that is dished out daily to the gullible. Somehow the packaging of news as entertainment doesn't extend to Pakistan, although this mock seriousness doesn't extend to the ex-military masochists from the other side who have supplemented their pensions with a lucrative trade in abusive exchanges.

Since the silly belief that all foreign policy equals Pakistan (and, by extension, China and the US) has a strong following among both the ultra-nationalists and those who can't discard their Mughal nostalgia, the India-Pakistan joint statement from Ufa is certain to be scrutinised very closely. For those of whom the love of Lahore is matched by the hatred of the vegetarian Modi, the significance of last Friday's meeting and decision to resume security-related interactions constitutes a classic rollback. For the gung-ho Bomb-Islamabad brigade, Modi has not fully gauged the extent of Pakistani perfidy-but he will learn soon enough. And finally, there is deep disappointment in the conflict-resolution industry that the K-word isn't mentioned in the joint statement. How will Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sell this omission to the very faithful?

How the Pakistani Prime Minister explains this omission and the common resolve to fight terror in all its forms to those who till only the other day were threatening to unleash nuclear weapons on India will be interesting to observe. However, from the Indian perspective this can hardly be a matter of concern. What seems equally interesting is that the joint statement-which, admittedly, is never the full story-also omits any reference to the so-called composite dialogue and the associated hierarchy of concerns that accompanies its mere mention.

What this implies is simple: India hasn't let down its guard and is merely taking a few elementary steps to ensure that the tensions along the border are contained and doesn't cross a threshold.

I am almost certain that domestic compulsions will not allow the Pakistani Government to inject the investigations and judicial process surrounding the Mumbai attacks of 2008 with a booster dose of purposefulness. But it is doubtful whether the Indian Government believes otherwise. It is a grim reality that the leaders of the LeT, including those responsible for remote-controlling the Mumbai attacks, possess a certain political clout within Pakistan and also enjoy close proximity to the more shadowy institutions of the State. This reality won't change, regardless of any commitment by Sharif to ensure justice. For India to believe that the Pakistani establishment has had a change of heart and is overwhelmed by the flame from candles at Wagah would be simply ridiculous.

As far as Delhi is concerned, the wait-and-watch policy towards Pakistan is certain to endure. Modi may indeed make the journey to the SAARC summit in Islamabad next year but this by itself means nothing. At present, Pakistan is caught in a profound existential dilemma over the very basis of its nationhood. There are just too many conflicting pressures on the State, ranging from the wildly sectarian to the moderately liberal, to allow the proverbial "idea of Pakistan" to acquire any coherent shape or meaning. Many of these pressures are in turn linked to events outside Pakistan's national boundaries.

 At a human level we can be deeply sympathetic to 'modern' Pakistanis trying to cope with ISIS terror, Taliban terror, religious bigotry, regional movements, military deviousness and the short-sightedness of politicians. But there is little India can do to influence Pakistan's internal agonies. Maybe China, US and even Britain feel otherwise. Indeed, all attempts to do so will prove deeply counter-productive. Pakistan must first try and come to terms with its own crisis of nationhood before it can enter into any meaningful dialogue with India. On its part, India must learn the lessons of Manmohan Singh's sincere but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to put too many foreign policy eggs in the Pakistani basket.

India's priority is to acquire economic and military capacity, endeavours that have no bearing on the present state of bilateral relations. For the moment, the limited objective is to hold the peace.

There is a final point that is worth stressing. The Modi-Sharif talks and the joint statement are a modest step forward from the stalemate that resulted from last year's faceoff over the Hurriyat Conference. This modest gain was achieved in the backdrop of confidentiality and the deft management of expectations.

The Ufa talks weren't preceded by a media circus that-however well-intentioned and in keeping with the norms of transparent decision-making-often acts as extraneous pressure points on both Governments. This has proved deeply inimical to diplomacy, particularly the management of India-Pakistan tensions. It is reassuring that some functionaries of both Governments will keep lines of communication open for the future. But to manage the delicate process in future, it is best that diplomacy remains confined to closed rooms, as was wont before the public space was swamped by sound bites and grandstanding.

Sunday Pioneer, July 12, 2015

The idea of Europe is still Greek to many Europeans

By Swapan Dasgupta


Every great event of consequence holds out larger lessons. Arguably, the big takeaway from the Greek monetary crisis that may yet (if not today, certainly in the foreseeable future) destroy a central pillar of the European project is something that should have been only too obvious: that the nation-state remains the principal arena of politics. By implication it reinforces the importance of national sovereignty in an increasingly globalised world. 


This may be a restatement of the obvious to a large country like India where everyday engagement with the world remains woefully patchy and is principally confined to the financial and services sectors and culture/entertainment. However, for the Eurozone countries, blessed with convenience of a single currency that is as valid in Athens and Milan as in Hamburg and Dublin, the scope of national politics is seriously circumscribed by decisions taken by anonymous apparatchiks in Frankfurt and Brussels. 


Even for European Union countries outside the Eurozone this is a source of profound dissatisfaction. A section of the British Conservative Party is, for example, miffed over the fact that in large areas of everyday life, European regulations take precedence over those approved in Westminster. This has forced Prime Minister David Cameron to try and negotiate a sensible accommodation of national sovereignty before a referendum on EU membership promised before the end of 2017. 


The growing linkage between assertions of national sovereignty and democracy is certainly at the heart of the Greek crisis. Having won an election earlier this year on an anti-austerity plank, the Syriza Party led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has successfully mobilised public anger against the presumptuousness of national pension payments and the rates of the Value Added Tax being decided by its German creditors. The anti-IMF sloganeering that often defines the Indian Left’s fulminations against the “neo-liberal” consensus is now the dominant political theme in Greece, and one that ‘pragmatists’ haven’t been able to puncture. The emotive question—“Will Greece be run from Athens or Berlin?”—has resurrected memories of the Nazi occupation and rekindled nationalist passions.


In Greece, this question is being asked by a ruling party that is, by European standards, on far-Left spectrum of the ideological gulf. But similar questions are being asked in France, Holland and the UK by those on the far-Right. As a sentiment, national sovereignty seems to easily outweigh the cosmopolitanism that is at the heart of the European project. And even in Germany and France—the main co-promoters of today’s enlarged EU—the social disruption caused by mass immigration has dampened the enthusiasm of the more rooted who are asking politicians a simple question: were we consulted?


Germany and its doughty Chancellor have, unfortunately, been painted as the real villains. This seems a travesty as Germany has, in effect, used its economic success and prosperity to subsidise less successful economies like Greece. It has absorbed the gratuitous taunts of fellow Europeans over its past with a great deal of equanimity. It is only after it has declared its further unwillingness to throw its hard-earned money down a bottomless pit and subsidise the over-indulgences of Greek politicians that it has become an object of derision. But Angela Merkel too has her domestic constituency to address, the constituency that is loath to allow taxpayers’ money to be used to bail a country that has got used to lifestyles built on other people’s money. Worse, in an insolent display of his sense of entitlement, the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has dubbed those who have bankrolled his country “terrorists” because they insist on debt repayment. 


Greece is banking on the fact that Germany is too heavily invested in the European project to allow the surgical removal of a diseased branch. This gamble may well work because no one wants a ‘humanitarian disaster’ in Europe. But there is a time bomb ticking and unless Europeans voluntarily relinquish national sovereignty for the sake of prosperity, an explosion is imminent. Europe, to misuse Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on Western civilization, “would be a good idea” if only there is a greater measure of political union. Yet, asking people to be Europeans first and Greeks or Germans second involves a mental shift that most EU residents are still loath to accept. 

Sunday Times of India, July 12, 2015

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Greek Gamblers

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those who experienced London of the 1970s may recall Collet’s, a Left-wing bookshop run by a wing of the Communist Party, on Charing Cross Road. A distinctive feature of the bookshop was an anteroom that used to be referred to as the ‘cave’. This small room, marked by a square table at the centre and fragile shelves running along the walls was a treasure trove of cottage industry publications of the various Left-wing sects in Britain. From reprints of polemical tracts of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg and fierce denunciations of each other by rival claimants to the mantle of the Fourth International to erudite essays on the Kurdish national question produced by an exile’s group, the ‘cave’ provided countless hours of fun to some of us who delighted in the passion with which the Marxist sects not only hated capitalism but loathed each other.

That, of course, was another age—when the Soviet Union still loomed large in the public consciousness, when the Euro existed only in the imagination of German think-tanks and before globalisation was a lived reality. Buoyed by the counter-culture of the Sixties, the Left still believed there was a world to win—if only perfidious revisionists didn’t fall prey to theoretical errors and succumb to the short-term lure of capitalism, as the Social Democrats in Europe had done. It was a fantasy world in which the impatience of the much-romanticised working class to these lefties was blended with the preoccupation of the sects with ‘correctness’, doctrinal purity and fascination with battles being fought in Asia and Latin America.

Capitalism, needless to say, didn’t collapse; but the Soviet Union did, and China reinvented itself as the world’s most successful market economy. On the contrary, the system fuelled by moneybags and fat cats got a fresh lease of life and expanded its reach through a combination of globalisation and new technology. The Marxist sects in turn lost their sense of certitude and their concerns shifted to other themes such as environmentalism, feminism and, above all, lifestyle politics. Those who hated each other with greater passion than they despised capitalism also mellowed with age and the survivors of the ‘cave’ experience even learnt to tolerate each other, particularly after the Moscow or Beijing-sponsored Communist parties opted for voluntary dissolution. Instead of the ‘party’ the new buzzword was either ‘alliance’ or ‘coalition’—umbrella outfits that subordinated doctrinal scepticism to activism.

As crisis in Greece approaches a possible climax, it is instructive to understand the social and ideological ambiance that nourished and sustained what is arguably the most successful experiment in post-Marxist political mobilisation. The Syriza party that has been at the helm in Athens since the beginning of this year is a strange animal that can be said to be an aggregation of all the tendencies on offer in the ‘cave’. It is the ultimate grand alliance of all the disparate—and they are truly disparate—elements that so occupied the fringe, far-Left space in Europe. Whether it is the tie-less Alexis Tsipras, the former civic activist who is now Prime Minister or the grandstanding, insolent former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis whose “absence” from formal meetings of Eurozone finance ministers became an urgent necessity, there is a discernible political pedigree: anti-capitalist disdain blended with the virtues of entitlement.

A scholar well versed in the internal byways of the Syriza government can inform the world of the extent to which the suspicion of the European Union is motivating the regime in Athens. From a distance, however, certain trends are becoming increasingly apparent.

First, it would seem that the negotiating strategy of Syriza is governed by the belief that neither Germany nor the EU as a whole will allow Greece to become a European Zimbabwe and slide towards chaos and bankruptcy because it will have a knock-on effect on the stability of the global capitalist order. If the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US could trigger a recession that the world has barely recovered from, the argument is that Greece is too big to be allowed to slide towards bankruptcy. Consequently, Tsipras and his new Finance Minister, the posh-speaking, public school and Oxford-educated Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos may well believe that it is for the EU to secure a bail-out package rather than Greece drawing up the contours of a survival strategy. This was only too apparent from Tsipras’ speech to the European Parliament last Wednesday.

Secondly, behind the apparent intransigence is the doctrinaire conviction—familiar to many political parties of the Left in Europe—that deficit financing and unaffordable public debt is a perfectly legitimate way to run a country. Apart from the conviction that the more prosperous EU countries, notably Germany, owes the Greek people their livelihood, the Tsipras government doesn’t acknowledge the right of the lender to have any say in how the borrower manages its national affairs. Despite being from the Left, the essential question raised by the Syrzia government in last Sunday’s referendum was one of national sovereignty. It contested, as have other nationalist parties in Europe, the right of Eurocrats and the regime in Berlin to dictate national policy. In other words, it believes that Greece must be saved from financial collapse by other people’s money but without preconditions. For long there has been scepticism over Greece’s willingness to actually fulfil its ‘reform’ commitments. With the Syrizia Party in charge, this scepticism has been reinforced.

Positing democracy against the power of unelected oligarchs may make sense when there is a domestic political battle. However, the battle Greece is waging at this point is against another sovereign and democratically elected government. Just as Tsipras has his own voters to answer to, so does German Chancellor Angela Merkel who cannot be seen to be pouring money down a bottomless pit.

Maybe the whole issue indicates the unviability of a monetary union without a corresponding degree of political integration. But that is a mismatch that can’t be immediately resolved. And certainly not when the problem stems from the attitudes of a Greek leadership nurtured in the political culture of anti-capitalism. Even if a compromise is hammered out—albeit in the guise of humanitarian assistance to beleaguered fellow Europeans—it is bound to be temporary. To stay in a club, all members must adhere to the basic rules. 

Asian Age, July 10, 2015

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

His silence is golden: Why Modi won't speak on controversies

Image Title
By Swapan Dasgupta
Public memory in India tends to be woefully short-lived. Political buffs may, however, recall an incident during the Gujarat assembly election campaign of 2007 when, during the course of a TV interview aboard the campaign bus, chief minister Narendra Modi was asked a question about the carping noises made by his former mentor Keshubhai Patel. Modi heard the question and stared impassively into nothing. The reporter repeated the question and Modi sat coldly stone-faced and expressionless. There was a long, awkward pause after which the flustered reporter moved to the next question.
Prime Minister Modi is not usually prone to long pauses, unlike, say, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When he does indeed opt for stony silence, it isn’t because his mind is feverishly searching for that devastating one-liner: His silences are premeditated and born of calculation.
Ever since the controversy surrounding former cricket czar Lalit Modi’s relationships with Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje hit the TV screens three weeks ago, the prime minister has been under pressure from both the media and the Opposition to comment. Despite incensed anchors coming precariously close to bursting a blood vessel and the Congress’ Jairam Ramesh taunting him as “Swami Maunananda”, he has chosen to not speak on the issue. He also appears to have also succeeded in ensuring that no one in his council of ministers has spoken a single word more than strictly necessary. The task of explaining or defending has been left to lesser BJP functionaries, with mixed results.
Modi has been lucky that the flood of Lalit Modi emails came under scrutiny during the summer break of Parliament. Had the storm erupted during the monsoon session beginning July 21, the prime minister would no doubt have been obliged to speak, even before the attacking side had exhausted its ammunition. Now, when he speaks in Parliament — as he will be obliged to — it will, presumably, follow the necessary political fine-tuning. The contours of the government’s defence shield are as yet unknown but it may not be rash to hazard one guess: Every effort will be made to delink the crisis management strategies from the controversy itself. The calculated silence that Modi maintained on Keshubhai’s almost-rebellion eight years ago may well be replicated, at least in essence.
A possible recourse to symbolism to address a political problem may offend the sensibilities of those attuned to the more direct ways of western democracies. However, apart from the grim reality of a boisterous parliamentary culture where the arguments have little place, Modi is keenly aware that any forthright prime ministerial intervention is a double-edged sword. While it has the virtue of taking the bull by its horns, there is the corresponding danger of the government losing its grip on the larger political narrative.
This is something that Modi has always sought to avoid. In Gujarat, he faced a sustained storm over his supposed culpability in the 2002 riots. However, while his friends and political associates confronted a viscerally hostile media with counter-arguments, the man himself refused all comments on the subject, particularly after winning the 2002 election. He even walked out of a TV interview on being pestered with questions on the riots. There was method in his obduracy: He wouldn’t allow the media and his opponents to divert attention from his set themes of Gujarati asmita and economic development.
It is this trait that has been on display over the past three weeks. Despite the sustained provocation and the adverse headlines, Modi has stuck to a script over which he has complete control. Therefore, World Yoga Day was all about India’s cultural inheritance and soft power; the Mann ki Baat radio address was devoted to the empowerment of women and the dignity of the girl child; and the Digital India Week speech was centred on securing a “digital push” and M-governance. 
During his ongoing eight-day visit of Central Asian countries, his gaze will be firmly on India’s footprint in the region, energy security and terrorism.
Undeniably, the political traction from this energetic pursuit of themes linked to national pride, social reform, technological excellence and foreign policy may well be somewhat diminished by the Lalit Modi-linked controversies — the powerful social message of the Mann ki Baat broadcast suffered a transmission loss thanks to the media determination to bring the prime minister down a notch or two. But Union finance minister Arun Jaitley wasn’t necessarily speaking in a personal capacity when he told reporters on Thursday that, “Some people may be of relevance to television channels; they have no relevance to governance as far as the Government of India is concerned.” Jaitley’s comments may appear uncharacteristically petulant, but compared to the feverish display of political evangelism on TV screens they seem a model of understated restraint.
Modi’s unbending reluctance to either respond or succumb to a magnificent display of political outrage — some real, others contrived — carries a measure of political risk for both him and the BJP. Having become accustomed to prime ministers who combined geniality with a suppleness of political will, many in the political class view Modi as an aberration. In his refusal to buy a short-term peace that could lead to the loss of political momentum, he is certainly different from anything India has seen for a long time.
There are ethical questions that the Lalit Modi controversy has raised. The prime minister will probably address these in a time and manner of his own choosing. 
For the moment he has asked a question that many leaders in his place have been afraid to pose: Who governs India? The elected government or a combine of the self-anointed and blackmailer?
The answer will have a bearing on the future course of politics. 
Hindustan Times, july 7, 2015

Friday, July 3, 2015

Least resistance - A question about the Emergency left unaddressed

By Swapan Dasgupta


At a function in New Delhi to mark the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recounted a conversation he had with the former Supreme Court judge H.R. Khanna—the dissenting judge in the infamous Habeas Corpus case—during the course of a leisurely morning walk sometime in the late-1990s. Justice Khanna apparently told him that Attorney General Niren De’s astonishing admission that the Emergency regulations meant that the right to life was at the mercy of the state was prompted by a leading question he asked from the bench. 


To drive home the point that natural justice was above the suspension of Fundamental Rights, Justice Khanna asked the government counsel whether the Emergency could deny someone the right to life as also mentioned in Article 21. The question was as much aimed at the Attorney General as the brother judges. However, as Justice Khanna lamented, the rest of the bench headed by the then Chief Justice A.N. Ray, sat there stony-faced and expressionless. “It was at that point I knew which way the verdict would go.” 


The 4-1 judgment of the Supreme Court in 1976 legitimising the suspension of all human rights during the term of the Emergency has often been described as the “darkest chapter” of India’s judicial history. The alacrity with which the Supreme Court went out of its way to ingratiate itself to the political executive was shameful, and may explain why the institution has subsequently been so anxious to bend the stick in the other direction as an act of atonement. That this was a bespoke judgment has been confirmed by the subsequent, post-retirement admissions of grave error by formers Justices Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati, the luminaries from whom a show of spinelessness was not expected. 


The question that inevitably arises from the conduct of the judges in the Habeas Corpus case has often been asked in the context of the larger national experience with the Emergency. Why did India cave in so easily? Why was there no meaningful resistance to the complete subversion of democracy for 20 months? 


The admirers of Indira Gandhi believe that the overall experience with the Emergency wasn’t entirely negative. Apart from the trains-ran-on-time and era-of-discipline arguments that were translated into slogans, the sweeping victory of the Congress in the southern states and a mixed performance in western India in the 1977 election are cited as evidence that the Emergency wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, as is now made out to be. The electoral rout of the Congress in northern and eastern India is sought to be explained by a combination of two factors: the en masse desertion of the Muslims and Dalit voters as a result of the excesses of the sterilisation programme and the consolidation of non-Congress votes. The moment the non-Congress votes fractured once again in 1980, Indira Gandhi was back in power with a conclusive majority. 


There is an associated belief, internalised by the ‘progressive’ intellectuals in the pro-Soviet ecosystem that still feel that India was in the cusp of a counter-revolution led by the forces of “right reaction.” The political and social turbulence in India between 1974 and the declaration of Emergency on June 26, 1975 has been linked to a global offensive that led to the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975. The Emergency, by this logic, was a pre-emptive strike to safeguard the gains of Indira Gandhi’s post-1969 socialist turn. Debunking the Jayaprash Narayan-led movement’s “rhetoric of revolution and of extra-legal and extra-constitutional and often violent agitational methods”, the Left historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee in India After Independence (1999), for example, have concluded that “Historically, such a mix has been the hallmark… of a counter-revolution, as the history of the rise of fascism in Europe and dictatorial regimes in Latin America indicates.”  


Yet, for the moment and convoluted Marxism notwithstanding, the Emergency apologists have few takers. The Janata Party may have squandered the mandate it received in 1977 in a remarkably short time through internal feuding but the euphoria that was evident when the election results were declared in March 1977 still persists in the public memory. Despite the somewhat inchoate fears expressed by the BJP veteran L.K. Advani, Emergency has been deemed a ‘Never Again’ moment for India. With time and India’s overall disinclination to imbibe history, the details of the tyranny has receded from public memory but, like ‘British rule’, ‘Emergency’ has come to be equated with the unpalatable. 


There is, however, a question that is tantalisingly left unaddressed. Why was the public mood marked by either acquiescence or passivity? Why, for that matter, did the entire Indian Establishment (with few exceptions) genuflect at the altar of what has now come to be recognised as tyranny? 


Fear, quite obviously, is one explanation. When he courted arrest in the Delhi University campus on June 26, 1975, Jaitley felt that it was one of those routine arrests. No one had a clue as to what Emergency implied. Once this was clear, many of the Opposition activists either retreated carefully into private life or even signed the 20-point programme as a declaration of surrender. Others, less political, chose to stay away from trouble. Aware of the high-handedness of Congress activists who now walked the streets with a swagger, individuals devised their own strategies of survival. IAS officers expediently forgot the rule book and signed blank forms to be used for arrests under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act, editors forgot their dharma and meekly adhered to the censorship guidelines and the more artistic took refuge in the self-serving conviction that high-minded devotion to culture implied a detachment from low-brow politics. Most people just looked the other way. 


The phenomenon wasn’t specifically Indians although, historically, India has a richer experience of surviving in the face of awkward statecraft. Any honest history of the German occupation of France between 1940 and 1944 will reveal that the Resistance was a fringe phenomenon and that most French citizens accorded a grudging welcome to Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, at least till mid-1943 when it was increasingly clear that German defeat was only a matter of time. The options exercised by ordinary citizens—many of whom looked the other way as the deportation of Jews got underway—were determined by the choices available: active collaboration with Vichy, passivity and resistance. Only the very brave, the very motivated and those personally singed by a venal regime could afford the last. 


There is a disconcerting conclusion that flows from experiences with authoritarian or illegitimate regimes: the people in general are respectful to authority. Occasionally, and only occasionally, there is a tipping point when inhibitions are shed. In democratic societies, elections are an in-built safety valve that allows for pent-up feelings to be expressed with a measure of passion. However, it is not automatic. Most of those released from jail when Indira Gandhi announced elections in January 1977 believed that the Congress would be defeated. At best they wanted to put up a fight. It was only after Jagjivan Ram’s defection that simmering discontent over petty, institutionalised tyranny became a surge of anger. 


The people, it is romanticised, saved Indian democracy. But it was by no means pre-determined. Had it not been for a few missteps of those intoxicated by unchallenged power, the voters may well have legitimised authoritarian governance. In the end, politics is less about heroism than human frailties. 

The Telegraph, July 3, 2015

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