Friday, December 25, 2009

Turkey in translation (December 25, 2009)

Christmas acquires an entirely new meaning in the Orient

By Swapan Dasgupta

The growing traffic mess in Delhi — courtesy, it is said, the preparations for next year’s Commonwealth Games — may be infuriating to the man in a hurry, but it has provided fresh employment opportunities. It may be a sign of the capital’s growing prosperity that beggars (they double up as propitiators of Shani Maharaj on Saturdays) have been vastly outnumbered by an army of itinerant hawkers selling everything from mobile-phone chargers, magazines and pirated paperbacks to boxes of tissues. Last week, the magazine sellers appear to have switched tack and moved on to something extremely seasonal: red-and-white floppy Christmas hats and somewhat frightening masks of a very pink-faced Santa Claus.

Indians are very partial to celebrations of any description. Yet, the transformation of Christmas into a middle-class celebration in a new city whose connections with the raj are at best tenuous has surprised me. Even the ‘natives’ of Calcutta, a city created and nurtured by the last set of imperial rulers, took a long time to warm up to this seemingly alien tradition. As a child in the Sixties, I was always struck by the fact that most of my relatives and, for that matter, our ‘Hindustani’ drivers, never referred to Christmas: it was always burra din. Worse, childish implorations to gawk at the lights on Park Street and visit the makeshift shops selling Christmas decorations in the central circle of New Market were invariably translated as the expedition to the ‘shaheb para’ (sahib quarter). For the Bengali bhadralok, still nurturing a visceral distaste for the rulers who never acknowledged their erudition, burra din was synonymous with shaheb para — although I did witness the incongruity of the Ganguram shop in Gariahat market wishing its customers Merry Xmas.

It is one of the oddities of history that Christmas became an indispensable part of the ‘season’ only after the Union Jack had been permanently lowered. The boisterous Christmas parties at Firpo’s, Princes and the clubs that attracted the beautiful Indians of the 1950s and 1960s were a post-Independence phenomenon. For the burra sahibs of the raj in government, the boxwallas in Clive Street, the Anglo-Indian community around Free School Street and the handful of ‘native’ Christians, Christmas had a loose religious significance — the Church of England rarely went beyond acknowledging that god was a good chap. But its transformation into a secular bacchanalia had to await a time when race relations were on a more even keel.

It is not that the British in India never tried to spread the tidings of happiness to the other side of the bridge. In Curries and Bugles, a delightful cookbook of the raj, Jennifer Brennan, a daughter of the Regiment, recalled that both British and Indian children were invited to a party hosted in the Karachi garrison but with mixed results: “[The] high point of the party was always the arrival of Father Christmas. Sometimes he rode in on a camel, sometimes grandly on an elephant… Many of the Indian children didn’t know who he was but the English kids would rush up and surround him, dragging their nannies and ayahs behind them. I remember one time the red-clad figure with the white woolly beard called out ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ in a stentorian bass voice and a little Indian boy beside me burst into tears. He thought the figure was a demon.”

I was narrated the flip side of this cultural mismatch in London in the mid-1990s. An Indian banker was given the responsibility of being Santa Claus in an office party of a conservative financial institution in the City of London. One of his jobs involved plucking out a gift from his sack, calling out the name of a child and presenting it to him with the mandatory ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ It all went smoothly till he plucked out a present for a Scottish lad called Hamish. “Hamish!” he called out, pronouncing his name as a variant of the Indian name, Harish. There was no response. “Hamish!” he bellowed again. Again there was silence. The awkwardness was broken when he heard a mother whispering to a bewildered child, “Hamish, I think he means you.”

This year a well-known politician is negating the idea of Christmas as a family occasion and hosting a lunch for 200 of his “close friends” on Christmas Day. He is neither calling it a Christmas lunch (or even the politically correct “holiday lunch”) nor does he plan to serve cold cuts and the obligatory pasta; he is partial to Amritsari kulcha and many versions of chhola bhatura. But this politician friend is a wonderful aberration — he once nibbled at a lavish French dinner hosted by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and then feasted on daal-subzi at the Indian ambassador’s residence. To the discerning Indian, Christmas is a celebration of Western culture — its cuisine, including mince pies and Christmas pudding, its music, its made-in-Germany Englishness and its theology. The indigenization of Christmas may have taken place in evangelical outposts, but it may take the capture of the Vatican by Kerala before it becomes conventional wisdom.

What is even more striking is that this celebration of Occidental Christendom doesn’t follow a script. Once upon a time, while entertaining local Britons, Indian notables tried a bit too hard to provide “English fare” to their guests. The results were often as comic as the old Colonel’s suggestion of a spoonful of jam as an antidote to an over-spiced curry. In Dekho! The India That Was, Elizabeth Wilkin recollected a disastrous culinary experiment by an Indian: “The soup was too peppery, the fish too salty. A none-too-tender peacock, which the cook had failed to stuff, was served with a jar of strawberry jam which did proxy for the absent cranberry sauce…and an iced pudding which had refused to freeze made its watery appearance before a final indigestible savoury. Had our hospitable host but realised how much more we would have welcomed a good hot Indian curry, he would have spared himself trouble and us a very painful experience.”

Western civilization, which the Mahatma impishly thought was a good idea, lies in the eyes of the beholder. The old burra khana of the regimental mess tends to often get lost in translation or, perhaps, even acquire an entirely new meaning. So it is with Christmas in India—both for Christians and others.

Some years before the 1857 explosion, the dispossessed Nana Saheb invited some East India Company officials to dinner in Cawnpore. Its disdainful description by a guest is instructive: “I sat down to a table which was covered with a damask tablecloth of European manufacture, but instead of a dinner napkin there was a bedroom towel. The soup was served up in a trifle dish…I ladled it with a broken tea cup…The pudding was brought in upon a sup plate…The cool claret I drank out of a richly cut champagne glass, and the beer out of an American tumbler of the very worst quality.”

The sneers of the Company officials drove Nana Saheb into rebellion. Some 150 years later, his syncretic tableware would probably have been celebrated as an example of aesthetic audacity, if not multiculturalism. On Christmas Eve, I plan to tuck into New Zealand lamb, washed down with agreeable claret and the choral chants of the New College Choir. On Christmas day, it will be Amritsari kulcha and tandoori chicken. If only I could add the 3 pm Queen’s speech and a silly hat, my burra din would be truly gratifying.

The Telegraph, December 25, 2009


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate Change: India needs to be fearless (December 20, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week there was a flutter over an advert put up by a famous ice cream brand. A promo at its first Indian outlet proclaimed that access was "restricted only to holders of international passports." Predictably, people read "international passports" as code for 'foreigners only'.

A significant feature of the controversy was the sharply contrasting responses. If there was all-round outrage in blogosphere, it was offset by the attempt of many advertising professionals to insist it was a needless fuss. Indians, it was suggested by some pundits on TV, were, as usual, being hyper and the advertiser could at best be accused of clumsy prose.

The inept bid to distinguish between passport-holders and natives may have come a cropper, with the company issuing grudging words of regret. Yet, this little storm indicated the growing importance of a pre-existing national malaise: The desire to appear 'reasonable' to the foreigner.

In the bad old days of socialism and shortages when India led a proverbial "ship to mouth" existence, the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon practised an inverse snobbery centred on preachiness and prickliness — recall their pious sermons belittling "colonial attitudes" and "imperialism". The two, cast in the mould of upper-class English radicals, were particularly repelled by brash and insular Americans who imagined they owned the world. This revulsion was reflected in India's foreign policy, its anti-capitalist rhetoric and a culture of spurious austerity, which, naturally, never cramped the style of those who determined the public good.

Unlike China, where the disdain for "foreign devils" was indiscriminate, India's socialist xenophobia held some foreigners to be more equal than others. The India chapter of Vasili Mitrokhin's selections from the secret KGB archives in Moscow reveal the incredible extent to which decision-making in Indira Gandhi's India was manipulated and subverted. The lure of the socialist bloc was so compelling that the KGB even had to confront the problem of over-supply: There were just too many cabinet ministers willing to sing its tune for a holiday on the Black Sea.
Ideally, India's slow realization of its own potential should have led to a more even-handed approach to the world. Tragically, the ability to prosper in a globalized world has produced its own distortions. The standoffishness of the Nehruvian era was based on a perverse celebration of the daridra narayan principle. It was always unviable in an age of entrepreneurship. It had to go. But it's been replaced by an unwarranted degree of cravenness that involves putting national sensitivities and, at times, national interests, on the negotiating table.

In principle, there is some merit in allowing expediency to subsume taste. It never made sense and still doesn't make sense to let an aesthetic rejection of the American way of life dictate foreign policy. Over the centuries — thanks in no small measure to the colonial encounter — India and the West have acquired a familiarity, which can be leveraged for mutual gain now that India is on the cusp of an economic breakthrough. However, the extent to which a previously unequal relationship can be upturned for a more balanced approach depends on the ability to not be taken for granted.

China has turned this into a fine art. Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to be unflinching in upholding what it regards as its national interests and honour. This has included the ability to respond to perceived slights and transgressions over Tibet, Taiwan and text books with characteristic Middle Kingdom arrogance. China has leveraged its huge domestic market, its labour productivity and its awesome trade surplus to redefine its standing in the world. The West doesn't want to muck about with China. In India, unfortunately, an ice cream vendor can make apartheid a marketing gimmick and a pen manufacturer can merchandise Mahatma Gandhi.

India has sold itself too cheaply. It is said that one meeting with President Sarkozy before reaching Copenhagen persuaded the Ethiopian prime minister to scale down the developing nations' demand for $400 billion of Climate Change financing to a mere $100 billion. We don't know what meeting or which persuasive arguments propelled Jairam Ramesh to say one thing to Parliament and another thing outside. We can only speculate over the meaning of a White House note patting Barack Obama on the back for persuading India to quantify its emission cuts. And we can ask whether "flexibility" involves laying all your cards on the table knowing there is always pressure to concede more in the final round of bidding.

India appears to have been overwhelmed by a fear of being a "deal-breaker". But unless a country has the self-confidence to bare its fangs judiciously, it will never be a "deal-maker." 

Sunday Times, December 20, 2009

To succeed, the BJP must look to the future (December 20, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

On Saturday evening, the Breaking News brigade had to take a difficult and unenviable call: Either to prioritise the shenanigans at the Copenhagen conference on climate change or the scripted finale of a melodrama that began with the BJP’s defeat on May 16. Most channels ended up doing a balancing act that left no one entirely happy. The bleeding hearts lamented the casual treatment of a conference ostensibly aimed at saving the planet from ecological disaster. The desi political animal on the other hand thought it unworthy that air time should be expended on a useless jamboree that interested only the jholawallah minusculity. Far better, they believed, to concentrate on the drama in India’s main Opposition party.

It is not my business to ascertain who was right. Sitting in TV studios that evening, what struck me was the remarkable similarities between the frenzied search of a declaration in Copenhagen and the quest for a political settlement in the BJP. True, the climate change conference produced more drama because the end-game was capsuled into 10 days of hyper-activity. By contrast, the BJP drama has stretched for nearly seven months but there have been no unseemly though colourful street protests to celebrate the confusion. Compared to the Copenhagen bacchanalia, the BJP drama was as sedate as a 1960s love duet in a Hindi film.

And yet, there were marked similarities in the end-games. In Copenhagen, the outcome was a face-saving, non-enforceable declaration that didn’t even satisfy the signatories. The West didn’t succeed in getting the developing countries, but particularly China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BASIC group), to agree on international monitoring of its carbon emissions. The developing countries didn’t get the generous compensation package from a recession-hit West. And the clowns outside the conference venue were left convinced that the end of the world was imminent.

It was a similar situation in the BJP. The RSS was forced to accept the principle of an honourable exit route for LK Advani. The post of chairman which was given to the veteran leader fits uneasily into any organisational chart. If he plays his cards well, Advani could emerge as the primary moral authority in the BJP, almost rivaling the ideological ombudsmen in Nagpur. The belief entertained by those adept in the art of remote control, that Advani would retire and devote his energies reading books, watching cricket and enjoying Hindi films, have been dashed. The inventor of the modern rath yatra has publicly said that he is still in the game of politics, although he carefully avoided any mention of the Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew precedent. In recent years, the management of the BJP has certainly come to resemble a dyarchy; Saturday’s agreement formalised it.

If the “politicians” in the BJP scored a modest success by ensuring Advani’s exceptional status, they failed to establish the inviolability of the principle that ‘the BJP should be run by the BJP’. It is no great secret that Nitin Gadkari, like his predecessor Rajnath Singh, has been appointed by the Sangh and the “politicians” have merely endorsed a decision taken elsewhere. But unlike the transition in 2005 which was based on tacit understanding, the latest arrangement is based on the bizarre separation between ‘politics’ and ‘organisation’. The BJP will control its own politics but the RSS (through its full-time pracharaks) will run the organisation. Whether this curious separation — reminiscent, in a strange sort of way, of the separation between ‘mass struggles’ and parliamentary interventions in the Communist parties — will work or become the recipe for incoherence is something that bears close monitoring.

The affable and well-liked Gadkari has his work cut out for him. His ability to be an effective president will depend on his success in bridging this divide. The new president will be conscious that he owes his appointment to the RSS, not to speak of Mohanrao Bhagwat’s public veto of the so-called ‘Dilli 4’, but he has to realise that his appointing authority is increasingly being perceived as a self-serving faction in the BJP. The manipulative conduct of the ongoing organisational elections has left a bitter taste in many mouths and it will take an exemplary show of fairness by the new president to restore confidence in the BJP’s political processes. If Gadkari is seen to be controlled by a cabal of pracharaks, it will lessen his effectiveness and in due course lead to desertions from the party. If the impression gains ground that RSS membership is a prerequisite to a meaningful political career in the BJP, the party will lose its appeal as the principal opposition to the Congress.

Like Copenhagen, it has all boiled down to a simple question of how to save the world. The RSS believes that the BJP has strayed from its mission and has lost sight of its core beliefs. The RSS wants to focus on identity issues and conduct campaigns to uphold Indian heritage. The pragmatists in the BJP feel that India has changed in the past two decades and that a national campaign to save the cow and the village — the scarcely noticed Gau-Gram Yatra — leave a new generation bewildered rather than moved. They want to focus on bread-and-butter themes and want the party to make a special bid to connect with a new generation that is more cosmopolitan, more culturally adaptive and more impatient to get on in the world than their parents or grandparents were. They want to focus on contemporary issues and leave religiosity to the sadhus and sants. In short, the tussle is over the very identity of the BJP in the 21st century: A party preoccupied with the past or a party looking to the future.

As of today, the BJP is dangerously close to merely occupying the historical space.

Sunday Pioneer, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

India’s position on climate subverted (December 13, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
At the risk of sounding a complete killjoy, I feel there is a compelling case for making serious international conferences joker-free zones. The images of the Copenhagen conference on climate change illustrate the point. At one level, there are fractious, but nevertheless serious, deliberations involving sovereign nations and multilateral bodies. There are also non-official specialists, think-tanks and the media who are observing and reporting the proceedings. And finally, there are those who have landed up in Copenhagen for the sole purpose of providing diversionary photo-ops and making a spectacle of themselves.

It is tragic that some Indians — whose sojourn in Copenhagen must have been paid for by someone — have joined the carnival. One newspaper reported on Saturday that some of these visitors have joined exhibitionists who have stripped to their underwear to demand that the world be saved. There was also a report of a kisan who barged into a meeting and spoke eloquently in Hindi about the need for rich countries to subsidise agricultural research in poorer countries including, presumably, India.

This is precisely the type of sloganeering that detracts from the main purpose of the Copenhagen conference. More to the point, such apparently well-meaning kisans actually play the part of agent provocateurs. Why, for one moment, should taxpayers in the European Union or the US subsidise agricultural research in India unless, of course, they perceive a benefit for themselves? There is nothing called a free lunch any longer. Going to town with imaginary Third World grievances and guilt-tripping exercises end up hardening stands in a West that is unsure about how to deal with its own economic recession. Such idiotic demands actually serve to bolster the credibility of those who believe that the Copenhagen conference is aimed at punishing hard-working souls in Alaska and Texas and rewarding the corrupt in Zimbabwe and even India.

It is important to recognise that aid has become a term of abuse in the West. There is a growing body of over-taxed individuals, particularly in the EU, who believe that it is preposterous to transfer resources to fast-growing economies such as China and India because the Kyoto Protocol established the principle of non-reciprocity in tackling climate change. In an article in the Washington Post last week where she pressed on President Barack Obama to stay well away from Copenhagen, Republican poster girl Sarah Palin argued that “any potential benefits of proposed emission policies are far outweighed by their economic costs” for the US. She highlighted the apparent iniquity between Obama’s proposed carbon emission cuts and proposals in Copenhagen that allow India and China to actually increase their emissions. Since any US action has to be endorsed by the Senate and will confront grassroots fears of more economic dislocation, Palin’s outburst shouldn’t be viewed as merely the hunting call of those out to slaughter polar bears.

The principle of historical responsibility on which the non-reciprocity of the Kyoto Protocol is partly based is increasingly coming under attack by a West which is fearful of its long-term decline in the 21st century. American negotiator Todd D Stern told the New York Times “I completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations…For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect.”

Stern is right that those who created gas-guzzlers and turned the Earth into a less agreeable place were ignorant of the consequences of their action. But that is also true of tobacco companies who didn’t know that smoking causes cancer. It is also true that the manufacturer of thalidomide didn’t know that the drug would result in deformed babies. Yet the courts have made such companies pay hefty compensation for their miscalculations.

What is being attempted in Copenhagen is the complete negation of the architecture of Kyoto. But it doesn’t stop at that. The Danish draft, which was praised by the White House, establishes two classes of world citizens: Those from rich countries who can emit 2.67 tonnes of carbon per head and those from less fortunate places who will be allowed 1.44 tonnes. And yet, our very own Jairam Ramesh chose to ridicule India’s stand that the ‘per capita principle’ is fair and just.

For the past two years the West has stepped up its lobbying in countries such as India to overturn Kyoto and replace it with a new so-called level playing field that institutionalises the historical advantage enjoyed by it. The climate change business is only tangentially about saving the planet and preventing the island states from going under the sea. It is primarily about the emerging balance of power in the world.

For the West, the stakes are very high because it is attempting to reverse a larger process of economic decline. This is why there’s been a concerted bid to subvert India’s negotiating strategy and paint the national interest as obstructionist. A clutch of NGOs and individuals, many funded by the West, have sprung up to rubbish the national consensus and press for “flexibility”.

There is no persuasive evidence to show that India’s Environment Minister wasn’t a part of the subversion. He has attempted to shift our negotiating position through quiet subterfuge. Every move of his has been cheered by those who make no secret of their distaste for the Kyoto model. Indeed, had it not been for an alert Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the West would have been celebrating its success in getting India to be more “realistic”.
Ramesh has not been alone. It is scarcely possible that he could have got away with his wilful inconsistencies had he not enjoyed high political backing. This is why India’s attention must not be derailed by populist tomfoolery in Copenhagen. Our future is being negotiated by slippery politicians and we need to be alert.

Sunday Pioneer, December 13, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Beyond the old books (December 11, 2009)

Modern India and the discourse of faith

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the few quirky sidelights of the parliamentary debates on the maverick report by Justice M.S. Liberhan on the events in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, was the speech by the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Rajnath Singh. Opening for his side in the Lok Sabha, the MP for Ghaziabad, Singh was predictably outraged that the report had named the legendary Devraha Baba as one of the 68 persons culpable of spreading communal disharmony 17 years ago.

As someone with roots in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BJP president’s indignation was warranted. It was known that the Baba died in June 1990, well before kar sevaks turned the 16th-century shrine into rubble. To that extent, his inclusion in the commission’s rogue’s gallery was a travesty. Equally needless and unsubstantiated was the commission’s observation (para 69.22) that Devraha Baba issued “open threats by exhorting…dacoits to take to arms for Ram temple”.

A fierce reverence for Devraha Baba was among the few points of convergence between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in a debate that was otherwise polarized on familiar lines. The Baba, who commanded a wide following and was regarded as a living deity, was a legend in his long lifetime. According to his devotees, the Baba, who was normally perched on either an elevated platform or a tree and blessed his devotees by touching his foot to their head, had supernatural yogic powers and was 250 years old at the time of his death.

Regardless of his exact longevity, celebrities flocked to secure his blessings. As Rajnath informed Parliament, President Rajendra Prasad, accompanied by the Uttar Pradesh governor K.M. Munshi, chief minister Sampurnanand, Lal Bahadur Shastri and C.B. Gupta, conducted a puja of the Devraha Baba during Kumbh Mela. Indira Gandhi too met the Baba and was said to be a devotee. Before beginning his election campaign in Faizabad on November 6, 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by the home minister Buta Singh, UP chief minister N.D. Tiwari and K.Natwar Singh, spent 40 minutes with the Baba, a move presumably linked to his bid to gazump the BJP.

Having established the bipartisan appeal of the Hindu seer, Rajnath went one step further. He made the astonishing claim, on the strength of “old books”, that “King George V went for darshan of Devraha Baba in 1911”.

Whether the King-Emperor departed from his dreary routine of being showered with expensive gifts by the Indian princes and attending grand dinners to confer a Royal Charter on a holy man who, in 1911, was either 170 years old or a mere child, hasn’t been documented in detail. The “old books” that Rajnath alluded to must contain details that historians have been unwise to ignore for so long. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of George V’s darshan of Devraha Baba, Rajnath’s injection of this unknown and somewhat questionable factoid points to a larger malaise of a section of the BJP: the patent inability to blend the discourse of faith into a modern idiom.

To the BJP president who, by common consensus, had a limited target audience of his speechwriters and his “appointing authority”, a euphemism for the bigwigs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there was nothing unnatural in embellishing the documentation of the Devraha Baba’s spiritual and Hindu credentials with his transnational appeal — the paradoxical nationalist quest for foreign certification. To a less committed audience, it was further evidence of an inability to distinguish between legitimate history, conspiracy theory, mythology, bazaar gossip and plain banality.

This became somewhat more pronounced during his bid to debunk Liberhan’s suggestion that the mobilization for the kar seva was contrived and achieved through money-power and the misuse of state resources. What others would have substantiated by casually citing the election results of 1991, which elevated the BJP from a fringe player to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath tried to do with a foreigner’s certificate. In his speech, he went on to claim that in November 1990, BBC Radio had claimed that popular participation in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was greater than that witnessed in the 1942 Quit India movement.

The claim, despite its inherent heresy, wasn’t incredible. L.K. Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra of September-October 1990 drew spectacular crowds and certainly redefined Indian politics. It is entirely possible that the numbers of those who turned up to chant Mandir wahin banayenge were greater than those who took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s least successful movement in 1942. Yet, the belief that the mass appeal of the Ayodhya movement could be demonstrated by invoking a BBC programme was laughable. It was reminiscent of an earlier age when village tea-shops were abuzz with titillating news allegedly originating from the BBC. All of us who covered elections in the pre-TV age recall being told by local pundits that BBC had forecast a victory for such-and-such candidate. In rural India, BBC was often the shorthand for the bush telegraph — in an age when the official media lacked all credibility. For Rajnath to invoke the same BBC is very revealing. It is also a bit incongruous in the context of his declamation against the “colonial mindset” of the report.

Equally, Rajnath was quite unfazed and bereft of any squeamishness when he approvingly referred to “genetic engineering”, a term suspiciously reminiscent of eugenics, and to DNA tests to argue that the genetic pool of India differed from that of Central Asia. This sudden burst of science was aimed at demonstrating that Babur, a Chagtai Turk, had nothing in common, at least genetically, with local Muslims who were converts from either the Hindu or Buddhist faith.

Ever since Nazi Germany used race and physical anthropology to perpetrate some of the worst crimes against humanity, the invocation of race and genetics in history and the social sciences have been viewed with considerable suspicion. These sensibilities were absent from Rajnath’s speechwriters, who are still bound in a ghettoized world of like-minded individuals. Their detachment from a new India that has become cosmopolitan and more Western was marked. They have become a caricature of the celluloid Borat from Kazakhstan whose pathological aversion to Jews and unfamiliarity with the social mores of America made him both funny and unacceptable.

The Liberhan report presented the BJP a handy escape route from the embarrassment of a misadventure 17 years ago. The shoddiness of the findings, its blunders and howlers and the absurdity of its recommendations made it difficult for even the ‘secular’ parties to use the report as a weapon of self-righteousness. The BJP just needed to ridicule the commission’s clumsiness, indicate its lack of even-handedness and hone in on Liberhan’s record of freeloading to get over an event best left to history to judge. L.K. Advani wisely chose to stay out of the firing line; and Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha did effective demolition jobs of Liberhan without simultaneously provoking a secularist backlash. The two politicians blacklisted by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, discreetly signalled to the country that 17 years and two generations separated the past from the present.

Rajnath’s certitudes appealed to the fanatically faithful, but seemed comic to those for whom the Ayodhya years are a hazy memory. He showed quite conclusively why any BJP that chooses to be bound in ghettoized Hindutva will invariably hit road bumps in 21st-century India. Unwittingly, he also demonstrated why another BJP with a more contemporary idiom has a future as the rallying point of anti-Congressism.

The Telegraph, December 11, 2009

Was Rao a winner or loser? Let history decide (December 6, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In Alan Bennett's celebrated play 'Forty Years On', there is an amusing but poignant scene centred on the trial of Neville Chamberlain by the 'Court of History'. This court, the presiding judge informs the disoriented accused, is "not a 'Court of Justice'. We judge solely by appearances, and i don't like yours." In a court where the presentation of evidence follows the sentencing, Chamberlain is held guilty for his failure to recognise that Hitler was a "patent scallywag". He is handed out a two-word sentence: "Perpetual ignominy".

There may be unintended similarities between the procedural quirkiness of Bennett's 'Court of Justice', particularly its decision to ''judge solely by appearances'', and the lack of rigour that marked Justice M S Liberhan's pronouncements on the demolition in Ayodhya 17 years ago. Quite predictably, and not least because he converted a three-month contract into a 17 year pension, Liberhan has been mercilessly pilloried and ridiculed by both the political class and the media. What should have been the definitive post-mortem report of an event that left India both shaken and stirred, ended up resembling the shoddy dissertation of a plodder in a C-grade university.

The disservice that Liberhan has done to the standing of the judiciary is incalculable. But equally galling has been his role in disfiguring the public perception of the past. Since a great deal of the Liberhan report is clouded in sweeping generalisations, inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, purple prose and plain howlers, the inclination to rubbish everything in the 1,000-page offering has proved irresistible to the political and editorial classes.

The prime collateral casualty of the rubbishing of Liberhan report has been former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Whether out of a sense of gratitude to the man who facilitated a most agreeable superannuation or a desire to not displease the Congress Party, Liberhan was excessively understanding of Rao's compulsions and whitewashed his role with embarrassing cravenness -- a generosity he didn't extend to the other side.

Understandably, this partiality has provoked a backlash. In a fortnight of public debate, the role of Rao has been put under a partisan scanner. He has been painted either as a blundering fool who preferred his afternoon siesta to matters of state or a closet communalist who worked in tandem with the RSS. Even the Congress, which he served with great distinction, has been hesitant to come to his defence. Rahul Gandhi's facile observation that the Babri Masjid would have been intact had a Gandhi been at the helm has become the new correctness.

The transformation of Rao into a latter-day Chamberlain does a grave injustice to someone who, until the 1996 election, was seen as both a visionary and an amoral Chanakya. Interestingly, this was the case even after the demolition when the chattering classes went ballistic over the "perfidy" of the RSS and BJP. When, contrary to the triumphalism of its campaign -- "aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh" -- the BJP was defeated in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the 1993 assembly elections, Rao was hailed as the man who rolled back the tide of Hindutva.

The Congress also celebrated Rao's astonishing ability to quietly secure a majority for a government that had been sworn in as a fragile minority government in 1991. Today, the bribery of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs by the ruling party is viewed as an inglorious chapter in India's parliamentary democracy. At that time, Rao was feted for his political management, just as Manmohan Singh was in 2008 after winning the Trust vote in equally controversial circumstances. Politicians love winners and, until the 1996 debacle, Rao was seen as a winner.

There are obvious pitfalls in viewing the past through the prism of the present. Just as Chamberlain returned from Munich as a folk hero for averting a war few people wanted, Rao frustrated the BJP by denying it the privilege of a frontal conflict against "pseudo-secularism". The extent to which Rao exasperated his opponents by, first, opening up avenues of middle-class enrichment through economic liberalisation, and, subsequently, opening independent lines of communication with Hindu sadhus involved in the temple agitation, has not been sufficiently appreciated. Rao calculated that his "soft Hindutva" would undermine BJP designs of emerging as the sole custodian of Hindu interests, keep the Congress in the political game and somehow reduce the emotional polarisation. It was a high-risk strategy that was undone because a section of the VHP understood his game and wilfully jumped the gun on December 6.

Rao miscalculated the dangers of brinkmanship. But what if he had succeeded? Wouldn't the 'Court of History' have honoured him as a great prime minister who had the courage to take India along a different, non-Nehruvian trajectory?


Sunday Times of India, December 6, 2009

Ayodhya still a festering sore (December 6, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan may not have fulfilled the brief that was given to him by the PV Narasimha Rao Government way back in December 1992: To unearth the real story of what happened on December 6, 1992, and why. In finally submitting his report after an excruciating delay, he has, however, fleetingly focussed political attention on the act of demolition. This year’s commemoration of December 6 will be a little more spirited than has been seen for a long time. Without the Liberhan report, an anniversary which stood in real danger of being forgotten amid the hurly-burly of the present stands the chance of a momentary revival.

For many politicians who saw the mandir-masjid controversy as an irritating diversion from a brand of politics they were more familiar with, the focus on the act of demolition isn’t unwelcome. Despite the VHP’s bravado, most middle-of-the-road Indians, particularly those for whom the demolition wasn’t a lived experience, are disinclined to view the complete negation of the rule of law as something to be celebrated. The passions of 17 years ago have given way to more sober reflection and a changed environment.

Such a mood may not repair the tattered reputation of Liberhan but it isn’t going to secure brownie points for the BJP either. Today, the mood is decidedly inimical to sectarian posturing; even righting the wrongs of history isn’t seen an issue worthy of immediate action. In the parliamentary debates on the subject, it would be in the BJP’s interest to focus on the omissions and commissions of Liberhan, rather than engage in furious chest beating over the divinity and omnipresence of Ram.
Tactically, it is not a good idea for any political party to take pot shots at the judiciary. It is doubly hazardous for the BJP. First, it has to live down its inability to live up to the commitments it gave the Supreme Court 17 years ago. Second, it is unwise to target an institution that is still hearing the case of the disputed property in Ayodhya.

What is tactically imprudent for the BJP is one thing. What is of larger public interest is the fact that a suit which was filed in 1951, which was subsequently resurrected, bunched together and promised a speedy verdict, is still hanging fire. On April 26, 1955, the Allahabad High Court observed that “it is very desirable that a suit of this kind is decided as soon as possible and it is regretted that it has remained undecided for four years.”

It is pertinent to point out a 58-year delay in settling a property suit because of the persistence with which many unthinking politicians parrot the “let the courts decide” mantra. In appearance, the question of who owns the land on which the ‘disputed structure’ once stood is a property dispute. In actual fact, the judiciary appears remarkably disinclined to treat it as such.

In 1993, the Supreme Court said a flat “no thank you” to the Centre’s plea to determine whether or not a Hindu temple predated the Babri Masjid at the disputed site. However, in upholding the Centre’s acquisition of the disputed property and adjoining areas, it also approvingly referred to the Privy Council judgement on the Shahidganj Gurdwara case in Lahore. It negated the principle of “once a mosque, always a mosque” and, in effect, gave the Hindu litigants a post-dated cheque. The question is: When can this cheque be presented to a bank and when will it be honoured?

These are difficult questions to answer. For all practical purposes, Ram Janmasthan has seen uninterrupted worship of a Ram idol since 1949. Despite all the security bandobast and the Government’s obvious reluctance to encourage too many worshippers, the makeshift Ram temple built by kar sevaks on the evening of December 6, 1992 is functioning.

There are many Hindus who are unperturbed by the fact that a grand Ram temple hasn’t been built yet. Taking a long view, 60 years of inappropriate roofing doesn’t disturb the equilibrium of the sanatan dharma. The community can wait another 60 or even 160 years without demur.

Yet, there is a more pressing issue. It is clear that a favourable verdict alone will not guarantee a Ram temple and not by humiliating another community. Past experience suggest that some court verdicts are impossible to implement without a wider political sanction. Will such a sanction be easily forthcoming, given today’s balance of forces?

Probably not. It may have been a different story had the NDA won re-election in 2004 and had LK Advani used his good offices in North Block to arrive at a negotiated settlement. To be fair Advani did try very hard and even roped in venerated religious figures (including the Shankaracharya of Kanchi and the Dalai Lama) to give a helping hand. There was also the unpublicised participation of Muslim religious figures in the talks.

For the past five years the Congress-led government at the Centre has abdicated this role. Its political calculation is that Ayodhya can well fester and that it makes more sense to focus on regaining lost Muslim support. It is not that the Congress will ever try to implement Rao’s knee-jerk promise 17 years ago to “re-build what has been destroyed.” Even the Muslim community knows that is impossible. What is possible, however, is the political will to quietly chip away in the direction of a settlement that has the larger effect of burying the ghosts of history once and for all.

To resolve Ayodhya when passions are running high on both sides is an impossibility. To broach the issue when the country has accepted other priorities would be prudent. But that requires courage, a willingness to take risks and accept failures. All these are in short supply. This is why Ayodhya will remain a festering sore.

Sunday Pioneer, December 6, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Is there a Right space in Indian politics? (December 5, 2009)

Or, have the BJP’s successive electoral setbacks dashed hopes forever? Swapan Dasgupta searches for answers

Sir Julian Critchley, who served as a Conservative MP through the tenure of five British Prime Ministers without achieving anything remotely memorable, once narrated an incident in what used to be the Smoking Room of the House of Commons. Relaxing with a book after, presumably, a leisurely lunch, he was spotted by a party venerable. “Young man”, said the grandee sternly, “it does not do to appear clever: advancement in this man’s party is due entirely to alcoholic stupidity.”

    For a long time, and this was certainly the case till Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged the “counter-establishment”, the Right was equated with stupidity. The Conservative Party, which governed Britain through most of the 20th century, was, for example, treated as the Stupid Party by the intelligentsia. Conservatives were seen as mindless defenders of privilege, unthinking status quo-ists—in short, caricatured versions of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits. Conservative women were likewise dismissed as tweedy, giggly Sloane Rangers who cared more about their horses and Labradors than public life.

    The image of anti-intellectualism—such a contrast to the earnest, liberated, Left Bank intellectuals who dominated the Left—was, ironically, something the Right revelled in. Echoing (quite unwittingly) George Orwell’s observations on Englishness, Lord Hailsham, a man who occupied some of the highest posts in government, once wrote that “Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life, the simplest among them prefer fox hunting—the wisest, religion.” No wonder London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is such a darling of Tory party conferences. Despite his formidable scholastic achievements, Johnson has wilfully cultivated an endearing flippancy that distinguishes him from earnest busybodies.

    As someone whose political attitudes originated, not in Harrow but further south, down the Finchley Road, in trendy Hampstead, Jawaharlal Nehru mirrored this frightful image of the Right. Transposed into the dust bowls of Hindustan, the Right meant the over-dressed occupants of the Chamber of Princes, it meant arrogant Brahminism, it meant compador capitalists lusting after knighthoods and it meant indolent zamindars and taluqdars who spent their countless leisure hours frolicking with nautch girls and impressing the local district magistrate. To Nehru, the Indian Right was invariably prefaced with another loaded term: reactionary.

    Unlike the Left which could boast 57 varieties of doctrinaire nlightenment, the Right has always defied coherent definition. There were the Tories in the Anglo-Saxon mould that brought together land and industry in a framework of common sense; there were the Fascists who combined their loathing of the Reds with fearful xenophobia and authoritarianism; and, finally, there was what the philosopher Roger Scruton described as “a natural instinct in the unthinking man—to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” To add to this mixed bag, there emerged, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the economic Right which deified free enterprise, individualism and minimal government interference.

    In the India of Nehru and his daughter, India had its share of all these different tendencies. The feudal spirit, marked by deference and noblesse oblige, outlived the abolition of zamindari and uneven land reforms; Hindu resistance to the secularisation of society and the pampering of minorities flowered in small towns, among the dispossessed from Pakistan and followers of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar; and Nehru’s drive to enlarge government and the public sector to the detriment of private initiative encountered pockets of resistance from the notables of another era.
    Politically, the Right occupied fringe status. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was driven by the RSS but embraced other representatives of the cultural Right including the likes of Raghu Vira and R.C. Majumdar. It was ambivalent in its opposition to Nehruvian economics but was unambiguous in its pro-Hindi, anti-cow slaughter and anti-Pakistan thrust.

    On its part, the Swatantra Party, founded by C.Rajagopalachari, was more akin to a traditional Conservative Party. It was unequivocal in its denunciation of Nehru “prosperophobia” and espousal of free enterprise. Its ranks included the glamorous Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, farmer’s leader N.G. Ranga, former ICS officials such as the legendary V.P. Menon and pillars of industry like Sir Homi Modi. Its fellow-travellers included constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhivala.

    The Indian Right got a fillip in 1969 when the Congress split. The breakaway Congress(O), derisively dubbed the Syndicate, trained its guns on Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her marked pro-Soviet tilt but, in essence, it encapsulated the urges of earlier pragmatists such as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad who had been thwarted by Nehru. In alliance with the Jan Sangh and Swatantra, the Congress(O) forged the Grand Alliance to take on Indira.

    The enterprise proved an unmitigated disaster. Indira was able to paint the Grand Alliance as a front for the princes, the capitalists and Hindu communalists—hence the injection of “vested interests” into the political vocabulary. Her promise to eradicate poverty won the day handsomely.

    The 1971 defeat was a body blow to the very idea of an Indian Right opposed to socialism. State-sponsored development and curbs on the private sector became the basis of a new political consensus. Even the Janata Party, made up of the earlier Grand Alliance plus a clutch of additional defectors from the Congress ranks, didn’t dare depart from this path when it won the referendum on the Emergency in 1977. In the three years it was in power, it persisted with Indira’s regressive populism.

    The failure of the Indian Right in the 1970s owed to a multitude of factors. First, at the international level, socialism appeared as the idea of the future. The defeat of American power in Vietnam and Cambodia and the youth rebellion in the West rendered any critique of the Left singularly unattractive. Indeed, the debate now centred on which particular variety of socialism was most appealing. Secondly, the association of the Right with the defenders of archaic rights of the erstwhile maharajas, the opponents of nationalisation and discredited political bosses stood in sharp contrast to the youth power Indira unleashed. Finally, state-sponsored development and the continuous expansion of the public sector created a constituency of new beneficiaries and aroused expectations of more populist lollipops. Indira’s aggressive socialist evangelism transformed the mindset of a very large chunk of the electorate. A tradition of individual and community initiative was subsumed by a culture of entitlements: the state gave and the people received. For those with enterprise, cronyism was the only way forward. The creative impulses of India were channelled in what Dhirubhai Ambani used to describe as “managing the environment.”

    There were two pockets of resistance to this assault on India’s self-respect. The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, usually farmers belonging to intermediate castes, couldn’t reconcile themselves to the Congress’s patronage of those on the margins of society. They formed the backbone of opposition to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Secondly, the trading community rued the overdose of bureaucratic controls and shortages. Since this section already constituted the social base of Hindu nationalism, an economic grievance was complemented by exasperation with ‘secular’ politics. The early-1980s witnessed an epidemic of communal riots in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These in turn fuelled the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the leading party of the Indian Right. This time, and unlike the post-1967 phase, the opposition was not centred on economics. Cultural and religious symbols constituted the new Left-Right faultlines.

    The long road to the demolition of the “disputed structure” in Ayodhya established the BJP as the primary party of the Indian Right. However, although the battle against the Nehruvian consensus was fought over religio-cultural symbols, the conflict had a strong economic underpinning.

    By the time India entered the 1990s, the socialist experiment had visibly faltered. The economy was stagnant and unable to counter crippling shortages and deprivation. The labyrinthine maze of controls and regulations became an instrument of rampant corruption and by the time the Chandra Shekhar government sent out an SOS to the IMF, India seemed precariously close to becoming another failed state.

Internationally too the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union punctured illusions of a socialist utopia. India was faced with an existential dilemma and the Ayodhya movement encapsulated a growing anger and frustration with a bankrupt order. The Hindu rage was also a revolt against socialism.

    The course correction undertaken by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh proved too late to save the Congress from electoral rout in 1996. Yet, the liberalisation of the economy undercut the steady drift to extreme religious polarisation. The BJP didn’t junk Hindutva but it complemented it with a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development. In a span of some 15 years India witnessed a capsuled surge in economic growth, a feat unmatched in at least three centuries. The dismantling of the iniquitous license-permit-quota raj and a hesitant acceptance of globalisation produced newer opportunities and enlarged the mental horizon of the middle classes. With the breakdown of the joint family system and the atomisation of urban society, many of the older assumptions governing politics started disappearing.

    For the Indian Right, this transformation was momentous. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the material base for the emergence of a non-statist model was lacking, 21st century has established the primacy of the private sector. High interest rates and punitive rates of personal taxation which deterred entrepreneurship under socialism are no longer viable in a country where the quest is for rapid growth and better standards of living.

    Unfortunately, following two successive election defeats, the BJP has been engulfed by an unwarranted insularity. Rather than re-fashioning the party to take advantage of spectacular opportunities, it has abdicated the modernist agenda and fallen back on sectarian certitudes. Rather than allow pragmatic politics to determine its future course, the party has been hijacked by a small cabal whose understanding of contemporary realities is remarkably feeble. Any RSS takeover of the BJP is bad news for the Indian Right.

    There is an emerging space for the Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency. The Congress has reinvented its paternalism in the guise of welfare—a wasteful endeavour that may drag India into a needless fiscal crisis; it has expanded the bureaucracy without making it more accountable and efficient; and it has lauded modernity without embracing meritocracy. The Congress has prospered electorally by preying on the sectarian vote banks which have viewed the Right as the proverbial Nasty Party.

    The Indian Right has allowed the battle to be fought on terms set by the Congress. It must now redefine its political priorities to avail of an ever-expanding political space. The Swatantra Party failed because it was ahead of the times; the BJP may falter if it doesn’t move into the 21st century.

Times of India, The Crest Edition, December 5, 2009


Crest, December 5, 2009