Sunday, August 30, 2015

India's intellectual diaspora: When anti-Modi transforms itself into anti-India

By Swapan Dasgupta


The election of the Narendra Modi government in May 2014 has seen many changes in governance, the economy and even society. The question often asked is: how much?


Those who believe that the mandate was revolutionary—a vote to effect a radical break with the past—have often complained that the government is too wedded to continuity. There has, for example, been an interesting debate on whether the government should have opted for ‘big bang’ economic reforms—including the dismantling of the public sector and massive subsidy cuts—or pursued incremental changes that can be managed by an essentially status quo-loving bureaucracy. 


Likewise, there are Left-inclined individuals and those affected by the curbs on the foreign-funding of NGOs who feel that the India of 2015 is different from the one bequeathed to his successor by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Some have described the shifts as moves towards authoritarianism or even fascism, while still others have detected a creeping erosion of state secularism. 


The debate has inevitably spilled over into foreign policy where Modi’s aggressive global outreach with a strong economic underpinning has been favourably juxtaposed with the unending muddle over the nuisance along the western borders. That Modi is determined to use India’s economic potential to emerge as a major regional power (with a global footprint) has been obvious. This despite the cussed comments his foreign visits have invited from courtiers of the former durbar for who the history of Independent India is the history of one family. 


One feature of Modi’s global outreach has been India’s deepening engagement with its diaspora and a conscious bid to make Overseas Indians co-partners in the larger mission of nation reconstruction. Whether in New York, Toronto, Sydney and Dubai, the Prime Minister has spoken to packed gatherings of Indians elated by the knowledge that the Prime Minister acknowledges their importance. For many Overseas Indians, detached from home, Modi has created an environment that permits a deep emotional bonding with the cultural motherland. 


The response to the Prime Minister has been nothing short of overwhelming. After the Dubai event that touched a chord among Indian workers accustomed to being shabbily treated both by their employers and the country that benefits immeasurably from their remittances, it will be the turn of San Francisco and London. Modi will speak to the large, prosperous and influential Indian diaspora in the Silicon Valley on September 27. Then, just after Diwali, he will address Overseas Indians (including a large contingent of Gujaratis who came to Britain from East Africa but still maintain their India connections) at the iconic Wembley Stadium that can accommodate nearly 80,000 people. Both occasions will be an opportunity to simultaneously demonstrate the political clout of the diaspora in California and the United Kingdom. 


The linkage made between India’s economy and culture with a diaspora that, for a change, feels proud to be linked to India, is important in the larger diplomatic game. By making it clear to the world that it regards the diaspora as an extension of its soul, it is assuming some moral responsibility for their larger well-being. This, in turn, will enhance the stature of the Indian diaspora in their respective countries, not least because India now counts as a force for the good and a rising economic power. The image problem faced by Pakistan in the non-Islamic world doesn’t extend to India. 


The engagement with the diaspora has an additional dimension. By facilitating the emotional connect with India and, not least, the Prime Minister, India is preparing the ground for elevating the diaspora to the status of a permanent India lobby. It was Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government that first utilised the diaspora to offset some of the sustained pressure on India after the Pokran-II tests in 1998. The story of how the US sanctions were neutralised using the good offices of Overseas Indians is a story that needs to be documented and narrated. It is reassuring that Modi is building on this legacy and, indeed, enlarging its scope. 


It is in this context that a petition signed by various US-based academics to many Silicon Valley technology companies assumes some significance. Ever since the likelihood of Modi winning the 2014 general election sunk in, various petitions by the Left-liberal lobby to like-minded newspapers painting him as the Indian incarnation of Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler did the rounds. Earlier, some academics at the University of Pennsylvania forced the cancellation of a video talk by Modi to students. What marked these interventions was that the attacks were directed against Modi the individual. It was their visceral hatred of him that was paramount. 


This time it is different. The galaxy of historians, post-modernists, gender studies experts and sociologists—I didn’t detect physicists or other ‘science types’ in the long list—have basically called upon IT companies in the Silicon Valley to opt out of any engagement with the ‘Digital India’ programme of the Indian government. These guys are unhappy with the developments in Nalanda University, with the ICHR appointment and “constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.” Therefore, “these alarming trends require that we, as educators, remain vigilant not only about the modes of e-governance in India but about the political future of the country.” Their solution: US companies must shun business links with the Indian state. 


The academics-imposed sanctions on India will in all likelihood not even be seriously considered. But that is not the point. What we are witnessing is the willingness of an intellectual diaspora to actually wage war on India’s development. From political opposition to Modi they have moved to sabotaging India in the world. 


If I didn’t think their paranoia suggest a deep disconnect with Indian realities, I would have called them treacherous. In any case, it is always worth remembering the names of all those who are ready to subvert India because they didn’t like the way Indians voted. 

Sunday Pioneer, August 30, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

The new red line - Indo-Pak ties must be judged with exceptional stringency

By Swapan Dasgupta


Ever since President Bill Clinton decided that Kashmir was the “world’s most dangerous place”—a realisation that abruptly dawned after the nuclear tests of 1998—the quest for an India-Pakistan settlement has been transformed into a thriving cottage industry. Fuelled by a mixture of genuine concern and generous international patronage, an army of ‘strategic thinkers’, think-tankers, retired generals and diplomats and, of course, journalists have jumped into this 21st century variant of the Great Game. From international conferences to Track-II and people-to-people initiatives, a great deal of energy and resources has been expended in Aman ki Asha


It would be needlessly cynical to debunk the active players in the IndPak chatter league as sub-continental counterparts of those George Orwell once described as “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” There may be a small minority of romantics for whom the ultimate ‘high’ is a meaningful exchange of recondite Urdu shairis with the like-minded across the Radcliffe Line or even a dying breed who look back wistfully at a genteel culture corrupted by either commerce or even religious orthodoxy. In the main, however, the IndPak engagement is not entirely bereft of hard-headedness and even realism. 


The belief that 69 years of territorial antagonism, not to mention the longer period of political and cultural complications, will suddenly evaporate is essentially the prerogative of a shrinking generation that harbours happy memories of a united India. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s fond hope of breakfast in Amritsar and lunch in Lahore was essentially a generational response of someone personally affected by Partition; it was a vision that, despite its nobility of purpose, failed to excite the popular imagination in either country. Seven decades may be a blip in human history but it is sufficiently long for shared memories to fade away. 


Yes, there is a generation of young Indians and young Pakistanis who have shared memories of life in British or, more likely, American universities and friendships that are unaffected by cross-border tensions. Alas, a fraternity of cosmopolitans are powerless in the face of uninterrupted shelling across the Line of Control and terrorist attacks. 


To be fair, the people who have acquired a stake in the IndPak engagement aren’t woolly-headed romantics. Most of them, with connections in the larger ‘strategic community’ don’t envisage an instant dawning of peace. The Indian players, most of whom are regulars in TV studios and the editorial pages of newspapers, are only too mindful of the complications arising from the overweight of the military in the Pakistan Establishment and the autonomous power of terror groups committed to jihad. Yet, despite this grounding in realism, they appear to have a commitment to what can loosely be called “uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue”, even if these fail to achieve anything tangible. Like academic contributions that are aimed exclusively at a peer group, the wordings of joint statements and non-papers have a special autonomous appeal, often quite unrelated to larger realities. 


It is important to understand the exceptional importance attached to textual scrutiny by the ‘strategic community’, particularly those with a background of diplomacy, to get a sense of the fierce criticisms of the Narendra Modi government that followed last week’s cancellation of the talks between Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan. 


Broadly speaking, the attacks on the Modi government followed two streams. First, it was suggested that the Indian Prime Minister lacked any understanding or appreciation of the rules of diplomacy and was inclined to treat the IndPak game as an extension of confrontational domestic politics. The legacy of P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee was invoked to indicate alternative paths that Modi chose to not take. Secondly, it was argued that, unlike his predecessors, Modi reposed very little faith in the professional diplomats who are meant to conduct foreign policy. Instead, Modi was blamed for being intellectually over-dependant on the inputs of NSA Ajit Doval who, in turn, was decried for being a flat-footed policeman untutored in the ways of international diplomacy. Doval, in particular, was blamed for attaching needless importance to the Pakistan NSA’s planned meeting with an All Party Hurriyat Conference delegation—the same issue that had derailed the dialogue of Foreign Secretaries last year. 


Whether or not India should have been more indulgent towards any Pakistan-Hurriyat meeting is an issue that is likely to divide the so-called experts and public opinion. For those who attach a great deal of importance to precedents, the proposed meeting had become a part of the Pakistani drill and there was little point turning the clock back and jeopardising a delicate process of dialogue. The government’s response that talks on terrorism couldn’t be enlarged by surreptitiously enlarging the agenda to include Kashmir is, however, worthy of consideration and more so since the Ufa agreement centred exclusively on terror. 


However, at the heart of this divergence of views are two larger issues. First, the Ufa agreement was partially premised on the over-optimistic belief that India must do its bit in strengthening the hands of the civilian government vis a vis the military Establishment. As a general idea this may sound appealing but the reality is that the neither the Nawaz Sharif government nor India has the capacity to alter the balance of power inside Pakistan. Ufa was Sharif’s Sharm-el-Sheikh moment and there was an eerie inevitability that he would be tripped up by the military. Had India agreed to the subsequent terms set by Pakistan to include Kashmir in the dialogue on terror, it wouldn’t have strengthened the civilian government; it would have meekly caved in to the Pakistan military’s arm-twisting. 


Secondly, the IndPak stakeholders proceed on the assumption that their business is to untangle a bilateral mess between two normal countries that have a shared love of cricket. Unfortunately, it could be a folly to regard Pakistan as ‘normal’. From its theft of nuclear technology and its role in generating counterfeit currency to its encouragement and export of terror, Pakistan has violated every rule in the book. On top of that, as Vajpayee discovered in 1999, it has a strong perfidious streak. There can be no question of any asymmetric relationship with it; it has to be judged with exceptional stringency. This may be what distinguishes the Doval approach from the earlier government’s endeavour to bring Pakistan to normal existence. Accepting as ‘normal’ its right to engage with players inside Jammu and Kashmir carried with it a corresponding danger of conceding to it a right in the internal affairs of India. 


In the past week, the Modi government has drawn a set of new red lines for Pakistan. This by itself is not contentious—considering its shoddy record of waging both direct and proxy war. The real test will lie in India’s ability to persist with its new approach without either blinking or succumbing to pressure. In the coming months, Pakistan will redouble both military and diplomatic pressure to restore the linkages between terror and ‘self-determination’ for Jammu and Kashmir. By resisting this, India will have to be prepared for prolonged non-engagement. The combination of deterrence and ‘benign neglect’ may suit India but it will put the IndPak industry out of business for a long time to come. That, maybe, is the sustained internal pressure that the government will have to withstand. Hell hath no fury that experts spurned!     

The Telegraph, August 28, 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Modi Government is still work in progress

Since there is a large section of the editorial class, at least those who are voluble and visible, whose social and political attitudes were moulded by a blend of the US campuses and liberal Manhattan, an American example should suffice to drive home a point. If a set of local poll results—say for city councils—were compared with the outcome of the presidential election in the same area, the juxtaposition would be greeted with a large measure of derision. The reason is quite obvious: politics become more fractious and less prone to aggregation as we descend the ladder of representative democracy.

This is as true for India as it is for the US. In Lok Sabha elections, where the constituencies are mammoth, local issues play less of a role and ‘national’ parties enjoy a degree of advantage, even if they lack local organisational structures. The reason why both Lok Sabha and even Assembly elections are becoming increasingly ‘presidential’ in character has to do with the size of individual constituencies. The need for a larger appeal becomes far less in elections to village panchayats and municipal boards. This explains why the number of candidates, particularly independent candidates, proliferates in the lower rungs of competitive politics.

This elementary observation need not have been reiterated had it not been for the fact that in the past week some newspapers and TV channels have thought it fit to compare the results of the municipal polls in Rajasthan with the outcome of the Lok Sabha election of 2014. The purpose was obvious: to show that the BJP was on a steep southward slide and that it was only a matter of time before the Congress regained its lost primacy.

As an assertion of faith in the Gandhi-led outfit, this is a legitimate exercise but as an exercise in psephological analysis, the comparison is deeply flawed. What the results of the municipal polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh show is that the overall primacy of the BJP in these two states is relatively unimpaired. But more to the point, they suggest that the Congress (and, for that matter, the media) was wrong in believing that the shadow of the disruption in Parliament would be felt in the localities and influence voting behaviour.

The results indicate that the BJP is better organised at the grassroots than the Congress. Organisation doesn’t matter all that much when there is a fierce political gale blowing. It is of significance when there are few overriding issues that distract from local concerns. The results in MP and Rajasthan clearly indicate that what the media deems are issues of paramount importance, are not regarded as such in the localities. This is an important corrective that, hopefully, will be noted by those who have begun writing their political obituaries of the Narendra Modi government.

This impression of the electorate’s ability to disregard media-generated storms is further bolstered by the India Today-Cicero State of the Nation Poll published last week. This is an important opinion poll that, curiously, was remarkably underplayed—not least because its findings didn’t generate the sensational headlines the editorial class hoped for. The opinion poll indicates that popular voting preferences haven’t changed in any meaningful way since the summer of 2014 and that, in all likelihood, the NDA would be re-elected in the event of a snap poll. Modi’s personal popularity, the poll shows, has been unaffected by the storms in Parliament and the studios.

Of course, any mid-course opinion poll is at best indicative. Campaigning plays a huge role in determining the final voter preference. In the previous Delhi election, the initial advantage enjoyed by the BJP was decisively nullified by a combination of the AAP’s energetic campaigning and tactical voting by the minorities. Under the circumstances, the BJP would be foolish to gloat over the polls or even extrapolate its findings to Bihar.

The two sets of local elections and the opinion poll read together acquire relevance only if the appropriate conclusions are drawn. The first conclusion is that voters, unlike media pundits, don’t take snap decisions. Not being enamoured of political turbulence, the electorate is inclined to give governments a long and patient hearing. The Congress, it would seem, has been rash to undertake an all-out war at a time when the electorate believes the Modi government is work in progress.

Secondly, the opinion poll suggests that there are certain pressing concerns which, if left unaddressed, could signal danger for the Modi government. The most important of these is the economy. Although there has been no downslide, the optimism of a dramatic turnaround that greeted Modi’s election in May 2014 has dissipated. It hasn’t turned into discontent because there has been no all-round price rise—the recent hike in the price of onions being a possible exception. However, since the government was elected on the promise of ushering better days, the expectations from Modi are far more exacting. In other words, the government has to be mindful that unless its economic initiatives — most notably job and wealth creation— start showing results on the ground, it could become a casualty of its own rhetoric.

However, all that is in the future. As the two sides of the political divide approach the Bihar elections, the indications are that the outcome will be decided on the strength of local issues, local perceptions and local campaigning. At the national level, India is enjoying a period of calm—something you would never have guessed by switching on the TV.

Sunday Pioneer, August 24, 2015

मोदी सरकार की चुनौतियां

अपने यहां मुखर और सामने दिखने वाले पत्रकारों का एक बड़ा वर्ग ऐसा है जिनकी सामाजिक और राजनीतिक सोच-समझ अमेरिका से प्रभावित होती है। इसलिए उन्हें समझाने के लिए अमेरिकी उदाहरण देना ही उचित है। अगर नगरीय चुनावों के परिणामों की तुलना उसी इलाके के राष्ट्रपति चुनावों के आंकड़ों से करें तो वह बहुत हद तक हास्यास्पद ही होगा। कारण बहुत साफ है, प्रतिनिधित्व वाले लोकतंत्र में हम जैसे-जैसे नीचे के स्तर पर जाते हैं, राजनीति में ज्यादा गलाकाट स्पद्र्धा होती है जबकि केंद्रीकरण की बात कम होती जाती है। यह जितना अमेरिका के लिए सच है, उतना ही भारत के लिए भी। लोकसभा चुनावों में चुनाव क्षेत्र काफी बड़े होते हैं और स्थानीय मुद्दे काफी कम भूमिका निभाते हैं जबकि स्थानीय संगठनात्मक ढांचा न भी हो, तब भी 'राष्ट्रीय' पार्टियां लाभ की स्थिति में होती हैं। लोकसभा और यहां तक कि विधानसभाओं-दोनों के चुनाव 'राष्ट्रपति' चुनाव-जैसे होते जा रहे हैं, तो इसका संबंध चुनाव क्षेत्र के आकार से है। ग्रामीण पंचायतों और नगरपालिकाओं के चुनावों में ज्यादा पहुंच की जरूरत और कम हो गई है। यह बात इसको साफ करती है कि निचले स्तर के चुनावों में उम्मीदवारों, खास तौर से निर्दलीय उम्मीदवारों की संख्या आखिरकार क्यों बढ़ती जा रही है।

इस प्राथमिक आकलन को रखने की जरूरत नहीं होती, अगर यह तथ्य सामने नहीं आता कि पिछले हफ्ते कुछ अखबारों और टीवी चैनलों ने राजस्थान में पंचायत चुनावों के परिणामों की तुलना पिछले लोकसभा चुनाव परिणामों से की। उद्देश्य साफ था, यह बताना कि भाजपा की स्थिति तेजी से गिर रही है और यह सिर्फ कुछ समय की बात है जब कांग्रेस जल्द ही प्रमुख स्थान पर आ जाएगी। गांधी परिवार के नेतृत्व वाले संगठन कांग्रेस में आस्था के नजरिये से यह उचित ही काम है, लेकिन चुनाव विश्लेषण की दृष्टि से इसमें गंभीर खामी है। राजस्थान और मध्य प्रदेश के नगरीय चुनावों के परिणाम बताते हैं कि इन दो राज्यों में भाजपा का प्रभुत्व कुल मिलाकर यथावत है, लेकिन इससे भी अधिक ये परिणाम बताते हैं कि कांग्रेस (और उसी तरह मीडिया) का यह सोचना गलत है कि संसद में अवरोध की छाया विभिन्न क्षेत्रों पर पड़ रही है और यह वोट देने के तौर-तरीके को प्रभावित कर रही है। इनके परिणाम यह बताते हैं कि कांग्रेस की तुलना में भाजपा जमीनी स्तर पर संगठनात्मक रूप से अधिक मजबूत है। यह बात महत्व की है, क्योंकि कुछ मुद्दे हैं जो स्थानीय कारणों से प्रभावित होते हैं। मध्य प्रदेश और राजस्थान के परिणाम यह भी बताते हैं कि जिन मुद्दों को मीडिया बहुत तवज्जो देता है, स्थानीय स्तर पर उस पर ज्यादा ध्यान नहीं दिया जाता। आशा है, नरेंद्र मोदी सरकार का राजनीतिक मृत्युलेख लिखने की आकांक्षा रखने वाले लोग इस अंतर को समझेंगे।

पिछले हफ्ते ही इंडिया टुडे-सिसरो का वह सर्वेक्षण प्रकाशित हुआ है जिसमें देश का मिजाज बताया गया है। मीडिया किस तरह जनता की क्षमता को तवज्जो नहीं देता, यह उसका उदाहरण है। यह महत्वपूर्ण जनमत संग्रह है, लेकिन आश्चर्यजनक रूप से इसे दबे ढंग से छापा गया। इसकी वजह यह थी कि इससे वैसे चौंकाने वाले शीर्षक नहीं निकल रहे हैं जैसी कि संपादकों को आशा थी। यह जनमत संग्रह बताता है कि पिछले साल गर्मियों के वक्त वोटिंग के समय की प्राथमिकताएं बहुत बदली नहीं हैं और आज अगर अचानक चुनाव हो जाएं तो ज्यादा संभावना यही है कि राजग फिर से जीत जाए। इसमें यह भी बताया गया है कि मोदी की लोकप्रियता संसद और टीवी स्टूडियो में तमाम गुबारों के बावजूद अप्रभावित रही है।

असल में कोई भी मध्यावधि ओपीनियन पोल जनता का मूड भांपने का सबसे सटीक तरीका होता है। चुनाव के दौरान प्रचार अभियान मतदाताओं के अंतिम फैसले को प्रभावित करने का काम करता है। पिछले दिल्ली चुनावों में भाजपा की शुरुआती बढ़त आम आदमी पार्टी के जोरदार प्रचार और अल्पसंख्यकों की सुनियोजित वोटिंग की भेंट चढ़ गई थी। इन परिस्थितियों में भाजपा अगर सोचती है कि वह चुनावी वैतरणी आसानी से पार कर जाएगी या फिर चुनाव के ये नतीजे बिहार चुनाव पर भी पूरी तरह लागू होंगे तो यह उसकी मूर्खता होगी। स्थानीय निकायों के चुनावों और ओपीनियन पोल को एक साथ देखने की प्रासंगिकता तभी है जब इससे सही-सही निष्कर्ष निकाले जाएं। पहला निष्कर्ष यह है कि मीडिया पंडितों के विपरीत मतदाता आकस्मिक फैसले नहीं लेता। राजनीतिक उठा-पटक से प्रभावित हुए बिना मतदाता सरकार को काम करने का पूरा मौका देना चाहता है। वह धैर्य से प्रतीक्षा कर रहा है। लगता है कि कांग्रेस ने हड़बड़ी में सरकार के खिलाफ आर-पार की लड़ाई छेड़ दी है, जबकि मतदाताओं का मानना है कि मोदी सरकार का कार्य प्रगति पर है और उन्हें अधिक बेहतर काम के लिए और समय दिया जाना चाहिए। इस संदर्भ में दूसरा निष्कर्ष यह भी है कि ओपीनियन पोल से कुछ चिंताजनक पहलू भी उभरते हैं, जिन पर अगर समय रहते ध्यान नहीं दिया गया तो मोदी सरकार के लिए यह बातें खतरा भी बन सकते हैं और आने वाले समय में उन्हें नुकसान उठाना पड़ सकता है। सरकार के समक्ष मौजूद चुनौतियों में सबसे प्रमुख है अर्थव्यवस्था में सुधार और गति लाने की। यह सही है कि मोदी के नेतृत्व में राजग सरकार के सत्ता में आने के बाद भारतीय अर्थव्यवस्था में तेज गिरावट देखने को नहीं मिली है, परंतु भारी बदलाव की उम्मीद, जिसने 2014 में नरेंद्र मोदी को लोकसभा चुनाव में जीत दिलाई थी, अब धूमिल पड़ गई है और लोगों को चिंता के साथ बेचैनी हो रही है। लोगों की यह चिंता अभी हताशा में इसलिए नहीं बदली है, क्योंकि प्याज के अपवाद को छोड़कर महंगाई में अधिक इजाफा नहीं हुआ है। परंतु आम लोगों ने भाजपा को अच्छे दिनों के वादे के कारण चुना था, इसलिए मोदी से जनअपेक्षाएं कहीं अधिक हैं। दूसरे शब्दों में मोदी सरकार को सावधान और सतर्क रहना होगा, क्योंकि अगर उसके आर्थिक फैसलों से जमीनी धरातल पर सही नतीजे नहीं निकलते, खासतौर पर रोजगार और संपन्नता बढ़ाने के मामले में, तो इसका शब्दाडंबर ही इसे ले डूबेगा। 

हालांकि यह सब अभी भविष्य के गर्त में है। बिहार विधानसभा चुनाव में संकेत मिल रहे हैं कि इसका परिणाम स्थानीय मुद्दों, स्थानीय अवधारणाओं और स्थानीय चुनाव अभियान पर निर्भर करेगा। राष्ट्रीय स्तर पर तो भारत अभी शांति के दौर का आनंद उठा रहा है। हां, टीवी देखते समय शायद आपको ऐेसा न लगे, लेकिन आने वाले समय में भी सब कुछ ऐसा ही रहेगा यह नहीं कहा जा सकता। इसलिए बेहतर यही होगा कि मोदी सरकार आर्थिक दिशा में और अधिक तेजी से काम करे और राष्ट्रीय हित के साथ साथ आम लोगों की भावनाओं को भी ध्यान में रखे।

Jagran, August 24, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Loss of Character

The wild onrush of individualism and the vanishing sense of national purpose.

By Swapan Dasgupta


In 1945, perhaps to coincide with the Simla conference convened by the Viceroy Lord Wavell to discuss the post-War settlement of what was called the ‘Indian problem’, the Liberal Party leader Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru invited suggestions from like-minded Indians. Among those asked was India’s foremost historian of the time Sir Jadunath Sarkar—an austere Bengali scholar who, while, undeniably a patriot hardly had any sympathy for the nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.


Sarkar’s quixotic response to a pressing contemporary concern was entirely forgotten until historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his riveting book The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar & His Empire of Truth, published earlier this month in the US, resurrected it. Extending his disapproval of the “false sense of values” imparted by the “white-cap patriots” he had first made in a series of lectures in 1928, Sarkar felt that “a unitary legislature (and consequently ministry) in the provinces and at the Centre, elected solely by a general constituency proportioned to the population is theoretically possible in India…” However—as a sting in the tail—he added “it will do more harm than good if set up before Nineteen-hundred and ninety-five.”


To debunk Sarkar as a reactionary codger unreconciled to the passing of an Empire that had conferred on him the highest honour available to an Indian is tempting. Indeed, one of the reasons why Sarkar’s magisterial histories of Aurangzeb, Shivaji and the fall of the Mughal Empire fell into academic disfavour after Independence could be attributed to his unflinching defence of the Raj. Yet, his belief that India wasn’t ready for swaraj wasn’t based on blind loyalism to the Crown or even Anglophilia. “When the British resigned their trusteeship for India, they had failed to give the Indian people a political education which would enable them to stand on their own feet.” Despite putting in place an institutional framework, England had “failed to form a nation in India”—a project it had undertaken after it was interrupted since Aurangzeb and the derailment of Shivaji’s Maratha Empire. India, in his view, needed at least another 50 years of benign trusteeship or “a long course of preparation or practical education and a surging up of the masses in search of a new practical ideal” before it could attain “true nationhood.” 


Reading Sarkar’s grave prognosis of the future 68 years after Jawaharlal Nehru announced an alternative “tryst with destiny” prompts conflicting responses. 


At one level, Sarkar was horribly wrong—just as Winston Churchill was wrong—in seeing an unprepared India led by poseurs flaunting “a coat without a collar (as) the symbol of true patriotism” degenerating into the type of anarchy, chaos and political fragmentation that marked the final chapter of the Mughal Empire. Indian unity has not merely withstood all initial challenges; it has been strengthened immeasurably. More to the point, the past 26 years has witnessed more economic growth than the previous two centuries combined. Indeed, had he been around today, Sarkar would not have been entirely displeased, although he would doubtless have shed a tear at the relative marginalisation of his home state. 


At another level, however, some facets of India’s post-1947 encounters with freedom may well have suggested that Sarkar’s misgivings were prescient. The historian steeped in the Victorian values of intellectual rigour, self-discipline and austere living was a very proud India, even if he didn’t share the objectives of the nationalist movement. For him, the craft of history wasn’t merely an abstruse intellectual endeavour or even a fascination with antiquity: it was a relentless search for the “truth”, an exercise in chittasuddhi (purification of the soul). This implied that neither national pride nor attachment to the ancestral faith could compel him to paper over what he perceived as the imperfections of the past. The “truth” could well offend national sensibilities but revealing it was an inescapable dharma of the historian and, indeed, of the patriot. 


Nor was Sarkar alone in articulating clinical detachment. In a lecture on historical method in 1888, the pioneering Indologist R.G. Bhandarkar, one of the first Indian graduates of Bombay University, shocked fellow countrymen by saying: “It is no use ignoring the fact that Europe is far ahead of us in all that constitutes civilisation. And knowledge is one of the elements of civilisation.” 


Far from being the “truth”, Bhandarkar’s assessment may well have been subjective. But its importance lies in the fact that in the value system of a generation trying to reconcile ‘scientific knowledge’ with political subordination, national self-improvement couldn’t be achieved without an overdose of candour. 


In 1957, Sarkar was sounded out by his former student, President Rajendra Prasad about overseeing the writing of a “national” history of India. The historian was no doubt flattered but his reply was laced with revealing preconditions: “National history must be comprehensive, true, accurate and impartial…It will be national not in the sense that it will try to suppress or white-wash everything in our country’s past that is disgraceful, but because it will admit them and at the same time point out that there were also other and nobler aspects in the stages of our nation’s evolution. [The historian] will not suppress any defects of the national character but add to his portraiture those higher qualities which, taken together…constitute the entire individual…” 


This preoccupation with “character”, both national and individual, as an attribute of purposeful nation building was a widespread feature of the public discourse till fairly recently. In her study of historical memory in Maharashtra, historian Prachi Deshpande has noted the importance attached to charitra (character) in the late-19th and 20th century Marathi plays on historical themes: “In these representations, [Shivaji] embodied a moderate individualism that preached the necessity of individual action and enterprise and a healthy respect for religious and social tradition.” Against this, his son Sambhaji who was subsequently killed by Aurangzeb, was portrayed as hot-headed, overcome by bad habits and surrounded by dodgy friends. 


The depictions of the good Shivaji, unworthy Sambhaji and distrustful Baji Rao II could have been taken straight out of Sarkar’s histories. To Sarkar, the “dry rot” that overwhelmed the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb had much to do with the “weaklings and imbeciles” who succeeded him. Muhammad Shah, the hapless Emperor who succumbed to Nadir Shah was, for example, compared to a “country clown.” The derision was also extended to Indians who copied “the externals of European civilisation without undergoing a new birth of spirit…” Mindless imitation, he felt, “cannot produce a renaissance.” Perhaps over-extending the European experience of nation building into a universal principle, Sarkar identified an “eternal truth” from his study of history: “there cannot be a great or lasting empire without a great people.” 


Whether Indians had the necessary attributes to become great once again, preoccupied educated minds from the mid-19th century. With the rare exceptions of those who fell back on attributing the periods of darkness to the perfidy of the Jaichands and Mir Jafars, most of the conclusions were unflattering. 


Bankim Chandra Chatterjee—author of the iconic Anandamath and, arguably, the most over-researched public intellectual after Mahatma Gandhi—frontally addressed the question of prolonged subordination and came to the conclusion that Indians rarely had the urge or inclination to fight for their own liberty: “Hindu kings or the rulers of Hindustan have been repeatedly conquered by alien people, but it cannot be said that the bulk of Hindu society has ever been vanquished in battle, because the bulk of Hindu society has never gone to war.” 


In a curious sort of way, Bankim’s indictment of Hindu passivity was echoed by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj: “The English have not taken India: we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them… Recall the Company Bahadur. Who made it Bahadur? They had not the slightest intention at the time of establishing a kingdom. Who assisted the Company’s officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this… Is it not then useless to blame the English for what we did at the time? ... [It] is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost.” 


And how different is Gandhi’s assessment from that of Bhandarkar? In his presidential address to the Bombay Provincial Social Conference in Sholapur, 1902, he too said: “India has lived an individual life not a corporate or national life… Hindus had in all likelihood, no conception of a national existence, and therefore did not concern themselves with questions about the national weal… The effect of this indifference to corporate or national interests was that, from time to time, the country was governed by foreigners.”


The conclusions the three drew from this walkover conceded to the alien conqueror were different. Bankim stressed the need for national solidarity and even a national religion; Gandhi dreamt of pouring cement down the spine of Indians and helping them overcome fear through collective, non-violent satyagraha—a quest for the truth; and Bhandarkar would probably have agreed with Sarkar the upcoming Indian nation needed “to assimilate modern thought and modern arts into her inner life without any loss of what she had long possessed.” On his part, while emphasising a blend of spirituality and social activism—particularly a concern for the poor—Swami Vivekananda stressed the need for India to engage with the world on terms of equality. 


What unites these divergent assessments of national shortcomings is the importance all these stalwarts of the 19th and 20th centuries also placed on character—not merely the charitra of the rulers and the governing elite, but all the citizenry. John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith may well have made a deep impression on the early Indians who tasted English education and were intoxicated by it to the point of turning their backs altogether on India’s cultural inheritance. However, once the lived everyday humiliations of second-class citizenship began to be experienced, the intellectual focus shifted from wild individualism to collective self-realisation. It would, in fact, not be entirely inaccurate to suggest that the importance once attached to the traditional Hindu path of individual self-discovery of the Godhead, whether through sadhana or bhakti, was subsumed by a tentative collective quest that overrode other differences. 


Maybe it is the venality of today’s political class or maybe it is the unintended consequence of a particularly amoral variety of market economics or even the sheer rapidity of technology-inspired social disruptions, but it is undeniable that India’s success as a vibrant, if occasionally dysfunctional, democracy has been accompanied by the loss of national purpose. Worse, the very idea that India needs a national purpose to achieve its “tryst with destiny” is coming under attack from an intellectual vanguard that sees nobility in unregulated individualism. The sense of self-regulation that was a natural consequence of the joint family—an institution that insulated society from political upheavals of the past—has understandably eroded. So too has the sense of community—except in terms of electoral politics in rural communities—among the socially mobile and migrants. As Bankim noted with a sense of disgust of “self-seeking and greatly disunited” Bengalis some 120 years ago, “instead of the slogan Vande Mataram, let us cry Vande Udaran (glory to the belly). 


That the discounting of character as an attribute of good citizenship has also egged on an individualism that assaults common decencies is perhaps self-evident. Some of it may be an inevitable consequence of the sheer rapidity of change and the breakdown of traditional institutions. But its real tragedy is the growing disconnect between the purveyors of ‘liberal’ (mostly cosmopolitan) sensibilities—often mocked as #adarshLiberals in the social media—and those still grappling, if somewhat unsurely, with the disruptions of change. This isn’t unprecedented and there are parallels in other countries. However, unless the wild onrush of individualism is offset by a consensual national purpose that doesn’t compromise basic freedoms, India may well have to confront another form of decline-ology—maybe one that is morally, not economically, triggered. Some 68 years after India imagined it attained political fulfilment, it may be opportune to at least start revisiting some of those issues our forefathers grappled with. Inherited wisdom is always worth a second look. 

Open magazine, Independence Day issue, August 2015


Make in India’ and Medha Patkar: Can the twain meet?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The virulent outbreak of India’s “culture wars” prompts a return to a text that was once at the centre of a spirited controversy. In his 1959 Rede Lecture in Cambridge University in 1959, the physicist-turned-novelist C P Snow invoked The Two Cultures that were jostling for pre-eminence in post-war Britain.

At the top of the pile were the “literary intellectuals who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others.” Blessed with a classical or liberal arts education, and dominant in the church, universities, media and the arts, they were the U’s—to borrow Nancy Mitford’s telling description of the linguistic class divide—of the intellectual world.

Then there were the scientists and those dabbling in applied science that lived in a separate world, quite unrelated to the “traditional culture” of the literary notables. The scientists were preoccupied with the future and blessed with a sense of optimism and a fierce can-do spirit. The engineers tended to be more conservative and absorbed in making things for which the present social order seemed trustworthy.

For Snow, who had a foot in both worlds, this separation didn’t augur well. The fact that the literary and scientific worlds were not even speaking to each other and, indeed, “just making faces” constituted a great “intellectual and creative loss.” He imagined a future where both Britain and the US would soon be challenged by a rapidly industrialising Soviet Union, China and even poorer countries. This was because the “literary” lot had “never tried, wanted or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it.” The “literary intellectuals”, he declaimed, “are natural Luddites.”

Snow wasn’t terribly original. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote about “two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or… the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by… people of fashion.”

The details of the two conflicting worlds described by Smith and Snow have changed unrecognisably over the decades. In late-19th century, the heyday of Britain, the “austere” system came to be identified with robust “Victorian values”—that Margaret Thatcher tried to unsuccessfully rekindle a century later. The “loose system” found favour with the likes of Oscar Wilde and, subsequently, the bohemians of the Bloomsbury set.

Fuelled by the colonial encounter, a similar polarisation in the elite world was visible in India—although the composition of the traditionalists and the modernists kept rapidly changing depending on the context. In the early-20th century, for example, the pre-Gandhian swadeshi notables were both wedded to traditional values and science. They found inspiration in Japan. Subsequently, Mahatma Gandhi was to reject science but yet embrace swadeshi. And Jawaharlal Nehru obsessed over a “scientific temper” and wanted no truck with those championing indigenous values.

In today’s India, some facets of the intellectual-moral divide are resurfacing with both sides in a state of non-communication, even hostility. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam was an inspirational figure to those who see the Indian future in terms of rapid GDP growth, ‘Make in India’ and technological advance. He was less fascinating to today’s “literary intellectuals” whose priorities are centred on social entitlements and individual rights. To them, the likes of Medha Patkar, the social libertarians and even the boisterous students of FTII are more in tune with the ‘idea of India’.

What has complicated the ‘two cultures’ phenomenon in India is the sharp disconnect in the arenas of power. The vision of a political future is, under Narendra Modi at least, being shaped by a blend of technology and cultural rootedness. At the same time, cultural and intellectual capital is vested in the hands of a social cluster that is at odds with this vision and even regards it as ‘fascist’. It is this mismatch that is conveying an impression of an India rocked by social unease. Modi has secured political power; he is yet to influence the old elite whose values are less austere and more “loose”. The dissenters have contested the moral majority but remain politically challenged.

Sunday Times of India, August 23, 2015

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Modi draws up growth architecture

Sunday, 16 August 2015 | Swapan Dasgupta

Every citizen of India — or at least those who believe in the notion of a collective citizenship — has definite ideas of what a Prime Minister should say in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort. The expectations have also changed over the decades and also depend considerably on the individual delivering the message from the ramparts.
Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister in an India where the role of the Government was still evolving. His speech, or at least its message, was also disseminated to a relatively small slice of the population owing to the uneven levels of communication — how many Indians sat glued to the radio? As such, his speeches on Independence Day were largely reflective and invariably touched upon the awesome challenges before India. They lacked specifics. This, broadly speaking, was a tradition that Indira Gandhi maintained — although she took greater care to fine-tune the political thrust. Using the August 15 speech to unveil concrete programmes was a tradition that really took off from Rajiv Gandhi and, despite the unevenness of individual communication skills, has persisted.

Despite my own preference for the reflective approach that underlines the approach to governance, it is understandable that Prime Ministers find it difficult to depart from the temptation to be specific and unveil yojanas. The audience has come to expect it. Dwelling too much on contextual themes runs the real risk of being dubbed a gasbag.
Having begun the interesting practice of crowdsourcing ideas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have been aware of the issues that both interested and agitated India. I am sure that reflections of his first year in office wasn’t on the top of the list for an India that is in a tearing hurry to get to the promised achchhe din. Yet, despite this possible feedback from the ground, I do wish that Modi had devoted some time in his speech speaking on his experiences after 14 months in office — his surprises, his frustrations and even some of his self-doubts. Apart from adding a human touch to a political message, it would have set out a context to his larger development plans.
Yes, Modi did present a potted balance sheet of what Team India — a simple but effective way of describing the collective endeavour — has managed to achieve in just 12 months. At the risk of offending those who believe that the entire stretch from May 26, 2014 has been a wasted period because Modi didn’t appoint a ‘luvvie’ to head FTII, didn’t pardon Yakub Memon and didn’t put pornography in the Public Distribution System, I would say that results of the toilets for schools programme and the financial inclusion scheme have been quite encouraging. On the other hand, the impact of the Swachchh Bharat initiative has been uneven — the consciousness of the virtues of a muck-free India hasn’t been equalled by any purposefulness on the part of civic authorities.
But apart from his 2014 Independence Day announcements, Modi was absolutely right to stress the larger achievements of his Government in fighting crony capitalism and resisting pressure from unnamed (but hardly unidentified) vested interests. However — and this may well be nitpicking — I think he should have been even more forceful in flaunting his Government’s can-do credentials. It is the combination of detachment and purposefulness (including delivery) that distinguishes the Modi Government from the earlier UPA dispensation. The Prime Minister must find ways of effectively communicating this difference in orientation. This is probably the only way of confronting a media-inspired negativism.
The popular expectations from a Modi-led Government are different from the yardstick with which a Congress-led Government is judged. The relationship of the Congress with its loyal voter base is almost entirely transactional; the BJP supporters’ relationship with a Government it helped to elect is disproportionately emotional. In remaining an inspirational figure among his supporters, Modi has to constantly emphasise his credentials as an agent of change rather than a symbol of continuity.
One way of doing this is through mock and often-contrived ideological battles where the entire weight of the entrenched Establishment comes down heavily on those seen as interlopers. It is, for the moment, an unequal battle. Far more important and effective is for Modi to take up monumental challenges such as the promise to implement universal access to electricity in 1,000 days. Even if he achieves 80 per cent of the target, the spin off effects from this achievement could lead to a revolutionary transformation. Actually, securing electricity connections to households is easier that managing the debt-ridden, inefficient State Electricity Boards and the populist politicians that believe electricity is a luxury that doesn’t have to be paid for.
Slowly and often tentatively, Modi is drawing up the development architecture of an India that is hungry for growth. He is framing his agenda in terms of seemingly stand-alone yojanas. But there are obvious inter-connections. He should not hesitate from spelling out his larger message, keeping in mind the obvious fact that there is a social layer that will hate him regardless of whether it is Modi’s India or Team India. 

Sunday Pioneer, August 16, 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

Playing with fire - A 21st-century version of the non-cooperation movement

By Swapan Dasgupta


‘Crisis’ is a term that is used too casually and as a synonym for ‘problem’. Since the conclusion of World War I till the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist parties were habituated to beginning their proclamations with the assertion that capitalism was in ‘crisis’, even its ‘final crisis’. But the problem wasn’t limited to the champions of the proletariat. In a legendary put-down of a man he disliked, a former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour is said to have told friends: “I hear that Winston (Churchill) as written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Yet, since polemics depends in good measure on exaggeration, the overuse of ‘crisis’, though a shade common, is understandable. 


Taking needless liberties with the language of understatement is, needless to say, a part of the Indian tradition—an extension, some would say, of the hyperbolic underpinnings of vernacular discourse. In political conversations, ‘crisis’ easily overshadows two other, much overused terms of wilful exaggeration: ‘fascism’ and ‘Emergency’. Whether this refuge in familiarity stems from intellectual laziness or a disdain for the specific is worthy of discussion on a lazy afternoon. For the moment, it is sufficient to note that casual over-usage of loaded terms may well have contributed to a corresponding measure of non-seriousness among listeners or readers: the political equivalent of crying ‘wolf’ for a lark. 


Given its dodgy colloquial record, I am a little wary of suggesting that India is at present confronted with a full-blown political-cum-Constitutional crisis—or at least a potential crisis—stemming from the non-functioning of Parliament during the entire Monsoon session. The Congress Party’s declaration of total war on the Narendra Modi Government may, hopefully, be put on hold by the time the Winter session begins. In that case, the only enduring casualty of the sustained disruption of proceedings for nearly a month may well be the delay by one financial year in making the proposed Goods and Services Tax operational—this is presuming the Bill is approved by the Rajya Sabha in a normal vote and endorsed by the requisite number of state legislatures. If that happens, the political turbulence will be episodic and stop well short of becoming a systemic crisis. 


However, the portents are not very encouraging. In the course of the Monsoon session, an inflexible Congress Party clearly demonstrated that it is possible for a small, determined minority to prevent the functioning of Parliament for a sustained period and prevent legislation. The Congress has, in effect, been seen to obliterate the all-important distinction between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. The term ‘taking to the streets’ (or, in some cases, ‘mounting the barricades’) was hitherto the shorthand for trying to pressure a regime using the power of mass mobilisation. Today, by ‘entering the well’ of the House, a determined minority has shown that it can paralyse the normal legislative business of a legitimate government. 


The possibility of this extreme opposition to a regime having a multiplier effect and spreading to the states and becoming a routine feature of Indian democracy is enough to fill all citizens with dread. In 1923, the Swaraj Party led by Chittaranjan Das promised to destroy the legislatures “from within.” However, its subversion of the Government of India Act of 1919 was entirely constitutional: the Swarajist legislators voted down Budgets and Minister’s salaries in Council’s where it commanded a majority. Forcibly disrupting legislative proceedings using lungpower never entered its calculations. 


The Swarajists played by the rules of the game—once it chose to play the game in the first place—but today the Congress has flaunted its unwillingness to accept the ground rules of parliamentary conduct. Without going into the merits of the demand for the immediate resignation of External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj—the associated demand for the simultaneous resignation of the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is beyond the jurisdiction of the Union Government—it can be said that the Congress’ extreme position leaves it with no honourable exit route. If Swaraj remains a minister when the next session is convened, will it persist with its disruption? 


What has compounded the problem is the uselessness of present rules to deal with an abnormal situation. When the Speaker suspended 25 Congress MPs for their misbehaviour, there was a shrill charge of “murder of democracy” and an enlargement of the protest to cover a larger Opposition bloc. The larger political message that emerged was that no action must be taken by the presiding officer to ensure the House functions. India, it was deemed, must wait for the Gandhi family’s nod of approval before Parliament returns to normal functioning. 


The return of good sense may not happen in a hurry. The Congress appears to have seized upon a small opening provided by Lalit Modi to craft a maximalist strategy. In essence, it is premised on the belief that prolonged disruption of Parliament will put a question mark on the systemic stability of India, impair the economic recovery and trigger voter dissatisfaction against a Prime Minister who promised achche din. In the short-term, the Congress hopes that a climate of confrontation resulting from the washout of the Monsoon session will be followed by a BJP defeat in Bihar which in turn will further galvanise the opposition into making life more miserable for the Modi government. It is an audacious putschist strategy to transform the BJP Government into a lame-duck regime and, at the same time, restore the primacy of the Congress and the Gandhi family in the political milieu. 


In the coming months, the Prime Minister’s ability to regain the political momentum will be tested. The Bihar Assembly elections due in October-November this year is no doubt important in this context. However, far more significant will be the effect of the Congress’ total war approach on the political system. So far, unlike other periods when the government and opposition were at loggerheads, the disruption has been confined to inside Parliament. The Congress has failed to galvanise street protests against Modi. 


Equally, there is nothing to suggest that Parliament as a whole is a passive rubber stamp of the executive. The successful pressure put on the Modi Government to modify the terms of the Land Acquisition Bill and even the GST by regional parties and even a section of the BJP indicates that the role of Parliament has been diminished. Had the Congress’ disruption followed a prolonged spell of parliamentary atrophy, it may have struck a responsive chord. Indeed paralysing Parliament on the demand for Swaraj’s resignation for procedural impropriety may strike many as a gross over-reaction. 


A larger point to consider is the evidence of popular disgust at what has taken place in Parliament. So far the anger is focussed on the whole political class—the memories of the BJP’s disruption during UPA rule are still fresh. The danger is that if this pattern persists, it could have the unintended consequence of eroding the bi-partisan faith in the larger democratic process. The space for subliminal authoritarian impulses is likely to grow if the Congress chooses to confront the government with its own 21st century version of the Non Cooperation movement. 


In the Centre and the states, politics is becoming increasingly presidential and focussed on a strong leader—be it Modi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal or Naveen Patnaik. If legislatures are perceived to be an obstruction to governance, the demand for enhancing executive powers is certain to grow. In preferring adventurism to patience, the Congress is playing with fire. India may well be on the cusp of a real crisis. 

 The Telegraph, August 14, 2015

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Standing up for the ‘dirty’ picture? Get the big picture

By Swapan Dasgupta


The Government’s order to block access to 857 websites with pornographic content has attracted strong criticism and even provoked a measure of outrage. The attacks have centred on two points. First, it has been suggested that the ban is purposeless and can be easily circumvented by both the commercial peddlers of pornography and those determined to secure access to voyeuristic titillation. Secondly, the vocal section of libertarians have outraged over the cheek of the state to regulate the moral health of the nation. Morality, after all, is prone to very subjective definitions. 


That it is difficult, if not impossible, to block all pornographic websites and online access to other prurient literature is undeniable. Technology and the innovative skills of geeks have often made a mockery of censorship. China, a country obsessively preoccupied with regulating information and all forms of political dissent, has failed, despite pumping in huge resources into intrusive monitoring of the Internet. In Europe, where there is a growing moral revulsion against child abuse and child pornography, Internet policing has merely succeeded in driving perversion deep underground. That India’s regulations barring online pornography will be subverted by those determined to watch ‘dirty’ pictures and films is probably understood by even those who passed last week’s ban orders at the nudging of the Supreme Court. 


However, the critics of the blocking order seem insufficiently aware of the difference between erecting barriers and allowing untroubled access. Explicit pornography has existed in India for long—witness the lucrative trade in “Buttola” tracts in the pre-internet Bengal of the late-19th and 20thcenturies or the “Dr Mastram” novels did the rounds in an earlier age. But it is important to note that these lurid pieces of writing—often unintentionally funny—were quite self-consciously viewed as what they were: smut. 


Pornography was always something that was surreptitiously circulated and sold and never for public flaunting. Maybe this was evidence of Victorian double standards or even hypocrisy, but it corresponded to existing cultural mores. The Internet disturbed this equilibrium by making pornography available on demand. The sense of social awkwardness that accompanied the ‘consumption’ of pornography in an earlier age was removed by technology. The ban doesn’t put an end to pornography; it restores its deviant status.


Far more disturbing are the objections of those who have linked the ban to a supposed state-sponsored erosion of liberal values. Rather than examine the specific facets of pornography, the government directive has been juxtaposed against a libertarian ideal where the state leaves individual tastes outside any regulatory framework. 


At a simplistic level, the outrage against an intrusive state seems a consequence of the culture war involving cultural conservatives (perceived as supportive of the Narendra Modi government) and social liberals/libertarians (deemed as opponents). But this binary is contrived. In recent times, there have two main opponents of pornography: those concerned with the moral fabric of society and those who view the objectification of women and the sexual exploitation of children as distasteful. To lump both these categories as supporters of social conservatism—and thus, supporters of Modi’s apparently “evil design” is laughable. People cutting across the political divide see pornography as offensive, utterly distasteful and worthy of checks. 


The larger issue concerns the relationship between individual proclivities and social mores. While modern statecraft and social planning accords a huge weightage to both individual non-conformism and disruptive ideas, the battle is all about achieving an enlightened compromise between the existing social consensus and individual license. 


In the past 25 years or so, global influences, legislation and economic shifts have played a huge role in changing Indian society. The terms of the social consensus have altered significantly, although not without hiccups. However, there is a grave danger of transplanting the social culture of, say, San Francisco, into an India in transition. Some old values such as the attitudes to women in education and employment and cross-community marriages have changed dramatically but certain family values and notions of common decencies have proved far more enduring. Unsettling this delicate balance with an overdose of rootless libertarian implants necessarily invites social tensions and could even provoke a backlash. 


Pornography is a cause not worthy of standing up for.

Sunday Times of India, August 9, 2015

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Shaming The Empire

OPEN Magazine, August 10, 2015

By Swapan Dasgupta


Shashi Tharoor was unquestionably one of the best debaters that St Stephen’s College—an institution that, till fairly recently, modelled itself on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge—produced. I am reassured that even 40 years after both of us graduated from the College, those skills haven’t deserted him. On the contrary, complemented by the rich experience of international diplomacy and a second (albeit less fulfilling) career in Indian politics, his ability to charm English-speaking audiences has been honed to a fine art. 


In speaking to the Oxford Union, a social club that has served as a breeding ground for politicians in the Anglosphere, Shashi was batting on home ground. He used every debating trick in the book: linguistic flourish, charm, wit, the local touch and, of course, facts backed by argument. By the end of 15-minutes, he literally had the audience of discerning undergraduates eating out of his hands. It was a masterly display of old-fashioned debating in an age when sloganeering and earnestness has taken the fun out of the gentlemanly exchange of conflicting views. No wonder the YouTube clip of his speech has gone viral on the social media, registering some three million views. 


The impact of Shashi’s speech has been quite staggering. Cutting across party and ideological lines, he has received fulsome praise from Indians across the globe. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself a big player in the social media, has complimented him and triggered an unwarranted bout of speculation over the next step in Shashi’s political career. British newspapers have even wondered whether Shashi has somehow captured the groundswell of resentment that still exists over Britain’s legacy in India. I am also reasonably certain that at this moment there is some section head in the Foreign and Commonwealth carefully weighing the pros and cons of British Prime Minister David Cameron issuing something akin to an apology for imperial rule during Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom later this year. 


Good speeches are not a rarity in public life, and certainly not in India where hyperbole notches up brownie points. However, not every display of oratory captures the (online) imagination as Shashi’s 15-minute intervention in Oxford has done. There is inevitably a context that explains why something clicks and something is less popular. What, therefore, is behind the infectious popularity of Shashi’s speech? 


First, this was a speech delivered in the rarefied surroundings of the Oxford Union. In short, Shashi was speaking on the iniquities of colonial rule in one of the foremost bastions of what is generally regarded as the British Establishment. In India’s popular imagination, Oxford isn’t merely a citadel of academic excellence; it is also viewed as a repository of social elitism, an impression that some of Oxbridge’s Indian alumni may well have fostered. The association with social snobbery may be terribly unfair since a common complaint heard at the High Tables these days is that the University’s admission policy is more concerned with widening social representation than excellence. However, the average Indian perception of the dreaming spires and much else of Britain remains frozen in time. Despite the best efforts of British diplomacy to project a 21st century face of the Kingdom, the impression that life in Downton Abbey is unchanging has proved difficult to rub off. 


The political implication of this caricatured view of British society is curious. The conviction that today’s Britons wear the badge of imperialist honour with pride and look back wistfully at the civilising mission of Empire is sheer fantasy. Contemporary Britons know precious little about Empire, don’t necessarily empathise with the Empire builders whose magnificent bronze statues dominate Central London and, in fact, suffer from a deep sense of post-colonial guilt that in turn sustains a clumsy multiculturalism. This is most marked in the Universities where a sense of contemporariness involves disavowing the largest Empire in history. In the groves of British academe, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are distinctly un-trendy; Greenpeace and Gaza shape youthful sensibilities. 


Alas, the insidious reality of political correctness isn’t fully appreciated in an India where the popular image of Britain is still shaped by Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. I have little doubt that much of the online cheers for Shashi’s speech stems from the belief that he bearded the British lion in the beast’s lair. No doubt, Shashi good-humouredly—and in a plummy accent that would have invited derision had it come of the lips of a white man—delivered a few home truths on the contested legacy of the Empire over which the sun has now set. But it is worthwhile remembering that the disturbing truths were aimed at an audience that is grappling with a post-imperial future. The students at the Oxford Union didn’t really need to be shown the moral virtues of atonement for what Clive and Churchill did to turn India into a wasteland; their own sense of national self-loathing was already quite heartfelt. 


That Shashi’s achievement in Oxford didn’t also involve convincing a sceptical audience doesn’t undermine his 24-carat debating performance. The widespread jubilation over his speech in India indicates the unending importance we attach to beating the foreigner in his own game. This was akin to the pride felt by Indians whenever a ‘native’ cleared the Indian Civil Service examinations, the jubilation when Prince Ranjitsinhji wore the England cap and scored a century against Australia, and even the ongoing deification of Amartya Sen for being the only Indian to be made Master of a Cambridge college founded by Henry VIII. In Bengal, a province I am most familiar with, intense nationalism and emotional Anglophilia have always gone hand in hand, and this despite the fact that the worst depredations of colonial rule, not to mention racist taunts, are also part of the collective memory. Therefore, for Mamata Banerjee, the pinnacle of aspiration in governance is to turn Kolkata into a “second London.” She isn’t very different from the Communist Jyoti Basu for whom a summer holiday invariably meant a fortnight in dear old Blighty. 


But why single out the Bengali babu for lackeyism? Even 20 years ago, before the impact of TV became so pronounced, it was not uncommon for reporters to be accosted in the Hindi heartland with bizarre information masquerading as news that had apparently been heard on BBC. The end of imperial rule, Independence, the Constitution and the “idea of India” notwithstanding, the certification by the sahib hasn’t lost its pre-eminence in the hierarchy of values. 


However, despite these social angularities, Shashi’s speech struck a responsive chord in India for its deft packaging of history. In a few sharp, succinct sentences laced with asides, the MP from Kerala delivered a capsuled version of the “drain of wealth” theory that had agitated Indian nationalists from Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt right down to Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, he questioned the over-simplistic assertion that India should be eternally gratefully to British rule for the elaborate railway network that links the subcontinent and for the country’s post-Independence democracy. In general, as befits an exhibition debate where the grey areas are understandably glossed over, Shashi successfully painted a vivid picture of the colonial Dark Ages for which Britain should now have the grace to say sorry, by paying symbolic reparations of £1 annually for the next 200 years. 


The reparations bit was an add-on dictated by the motion under discussion. Even as he spoke, Shashi seemed a bit embarrassed about being a part of the global apology industry promoted by professional guilt-trippers. No wonder he suggested that it was the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, rather than the blood money which was important. 


As a debating performance, I repeat, Shashi’s performance in Oxford was exemplary. The problem, however, stems from taking this accurate but highly selective reading of the past as a definitive history lesson. As a history graduate who took his subject seriously, Shashi, I am aware, would probably be horrified by the mere suggestion. As a practising politician, however, he wouldn’t be averse to amateur online enthusiasts embracing it as a robust political statement. 


In India, the dissemination of history has unfortunately become an instrument of some very narrow and self-serving displays of partisanship. Part of this owes to the sheer drudgery and tediousness of school-level history—the only time the bulk of Indians are exposed to the discipline. The problem is compounded by the perverse thinking of the champions of something called ‘scientific history’—an approach that treats human experiences as a set of propositions that can be lab-tested for their correctness or otherwise. 


India has had an overdose of this pseudo-science, the consequence of which has been the tendency to reduce posterity to a set of either moral or political judgments. Thus, Mughal rule is deemed to be good, colonial rule horrible and the national movement the moment of liberation. Variations of this theme are played out along ideological lines, with conspiracy theories adding spice to the pot.  The history of British colonialism as narrated by Shashi in Oxford could be smugly fitted into this paradigm—as I fear may well happen given the growing importance of capsuled, instant knowledge in the social media-dictated ecosystem. 


At one level, it is difficult to fault Shashi’s overall assessment of the inherent venality of an economic order that empowered Britain and left India destitute and pulverised. What is, however, far more problematic is explaining why, despite this acknowledged pauperisation of India, so many Indians were willing to sing the praises of the Maharani across the seas, fight and die for the Empire and, after the Union Jack was lowered in 1947, migrate to the proverbial Mother Country and accept its citizenship. Why did the grim realities of economic exploitation, the unending tales of racial abuse and the high-handed suppression of all dissent not lead to the emotional estrangement of India from everything British? Indians were disarmed by the British through a series of conquests that began in 1757 and culminated in the annexation of Punjab in 1856. After the bloody suppression of the 1857 uprisings, any meaningful armed resistance to British rule was unlikely to succeed. Yet, why did the largely non-violent struggle for freedom couch its demand for Swaraj with non-antagonism towards the institutions of imperial rule and the civic culture of the imperialists? 


The contradictions are far too profound to be dismissed casually as the loose ends of history. British rule, for example, speeded up the marginalisation and eventual destruction of the traditional Sanskrit-based knowledge systems that had defined our civilisation—our post-Independence rulers unplugged the life support systems. Yet, from Raja Rammohun Roy to Jawaharlal Nehru, a galaxy of ‘enlightened’ India participated in the project to re-forge the Indian mind along Western, rationalist lines, sans the Christianity. Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi were possible exceptions.


Indians were helpless in the face of military defeats that led to political subjugation. But why did they acquiesce in negation of the intellectual and emotional systems that had helped a people survive earlier political upheavals? As late as 1921, echoing other writers of the late-19th century, Professor Radhakumed Mookerji could claim that “Hindu culture has had a continuous history uninterrupted by foreign domination to which a national culture would otherwise succumb.” Yet, by the first decade of the 21stcentury, the Indologist Sheldon Pollock lamented that “the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts and documents of the classical era… will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the custodianship of scholars outside the country: in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York; Oxford, Paris, and Vienna. This would not be healthy either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India.” Was this shameful loss of inheritance brought about by a British policy of cultural genocide? Or did it stem from our own grotesque notions of post-colonial modernity? 


In Oxford, Shashi referred to the full extent of India’s participation in the two World Wars—a history that has begun to be recovered. “Britain did not fight the … world war”, a recent history has observed, “the British Empire did.” There was no conscription and yet a total of 3.5 millions of Indians enlisted in the forces and fought, first the Kaiser and the Ottomans and, subsequently, Hitler and Hirohito.” Why? It wasn’t their war and yet—the minor hiccups involving the INA and the 1946 naval mutiny apart—they fought unwaveringly and with a sense of total loyalty to the King Emperor. There are complex questions that still need answering by both the defeated upholders of empire and the victorious post-colonial peoples. 


Some decades ago, in the course of a private conversation, the controversial Enoch Powell—a man who loved India, dreamt of becoming the Viceroy but had a grave foreboding of the consequences of a multicultural Britain—described the Indo-British encounter as a “shared infatuation.” Like most infatuations the relationship has always had a strong, irrational dimension—a possible reason why the jagged ends are so difficult to explain in a cogent way. In his contentious dedication to his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a book that attracted fierce Nehruvian ire, Nirad Chaudhury tried to balance the realities of subjecthood with the unfulfilled yearnings of citizenship and ended up with the tendentious conclusion that “all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.” Nirad babu’s delight was over the institutions of Empire, a transnational body that should (but alas didn’t) match up to the standards of the Roman Empire. But he was a colossal oddity as much as Lord Curzon whose dedication to the “sacredness of India” put him at odds with the basest idea of Empire—to serve Britain. Amid the daunting task of governing India, there was no space for nuances and subtleties. 


One day, when both countries have got over their sense of superiority and self-debasement, guilt and victimhood, and bilateral relations are conducted on the basis of a truly equal partnership, the process of identifying and tying the loose ends will perhaps begin. Till then, it is perhaps prudent to let the glibness of St Stephen’s prevail—so long as the polished rhetoric doesn’t end up being internalised as wisdom. (END

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