Friday, June 29, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
In the world of Punjabi humour, Nattha Singh and Prem Singh may well be the same thing (or Singh), but it was a cruel joke that Islamabad inflicted last Tuesday night when it clarified that Sarabjit Singh had in fact been mistaken for Surjeet Singh. The sheer insensitivity of this wilful mix-up apart, the incident, however, served to confirm once again—as if further confirmation was needed—that when it comes to the bilateral relationship with India, the last word doesn’t belong to either the President or the Prime Minister.
This unfortunate reminder of the quirks of Pakistani democracy is, however, timely. For the past year or so, an influential section of India’s foreign policy establishment has made the strengthening of Islamabad’s civilian government one of its main objectives. More than that, they readily believed that the war-like situation along the Durand Line and growing frostiness in US-Pakistan relations had actually helped tilt the balance against the military. Last Tuesday’s midnight clarification should help to inject a much-needed dose of realism into the official Indian perception of Pakistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari may indeed be a jolly fellow, a man who genuinely believes that cross-border trade is better than costly trench warfare. Unfortunately, neither he nor the well-meaning cosmopolitan set that frequently travel to India to preach aman ki asha, count for too much in Pakistan’s power equations. True, a military establishment that has been shown to be quite helpless against the repeated violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US Special Forces, isn’t quite what it was in the heydays of General Zia-ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. It has shown itself to be quite ragged round the edges. Yet, in a country replete with multiple power centres—that include the US-hating, India-loathing Islamist radicals—the cantonments still have a nominal upper hand. And when the military combines with the Islamists—as they did on the Sarabjit Singh issue—they become all-powerful.
This is a fundamental truth that India has been trying to impress upon world leaders from the day Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon in September 2001. Last May, after the Abbottabad operation confirmed the presence of Osama in the heart of the Pakistan military establishment, the US has come round to the view that what India and, for that matter, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, have been saying for so long is right. It is now recognised in Washington that far from being a part of the solution, Pakistan is central to the problem.
When President Barack Obama assumed power in 2008, there was nervousness in New Delhi that the cosy relationship established with President George W. Bush would be unsettled. Indeed, some of Obama’s early utterances triggered concern in India over the future direction of US policy in the region. Today, all those misgivings have been dispelled—at least as far as Pakistan is concerned. If President Bush, despite his long-term commitment to a rising India, was still willing to give Pakistan an extraordinary amount of leeway, President Obama has shown himself to be completely exasperated with Pakistan. The sheer ferocity of the drone attacks is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to a US declaration of war against Pakistan.
What has been witnessed in the past couple of years is the unravelling of a US-Pakistan alliance that had been forged in the early days of the Cold War. Having been made suckers for long, the US attitude towards Pakistan is distinctly vengeful. Washington, it would seem, is out to punish the Pakistan military for its duplicity and treachery. The quiet role played by the US in nudging Saudi Arabia to extradite Zabiuddin Ansari, alias Abu Jundal, to India earlier this week, would suggest that the pusillanimity evident in the A.Q. Khan controversy may be a thing of the past. The US now wants Pakistan’s dirty linen to be exposed to the world—even if that involves admitting the earlier gullibility of the State Department and CIA.
Even if it is bad form to gloat over the misfortunes of a neighbour, India can afford to take a we-told-you-so attitude. Yet, it is inexplicable that a section of the Indian establishment seems to be deeply embarrassed at Pakistan’s embarrassment. Having an independent foreign policy is always a noble goal. Keeping an arm’s length from the US and other NATO forces has earned India tremendous goodwill and secured some leverage in Afghanistan. Is there now an attempt to tell a worried Islamabad that India will keep its distance from the US-Pakistan divorce proceedings? That India will do its bit to prevent Pakistan from being engulfed in a siege mentality?
Obviously there is. Why else did the Cabinet Committee on Security feel obliged to repudiate yet another attempt to secure the demilitarisation of Siachen? What explains the concern in South Block that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s anxiety to visit Pakistan before 2014 with some grand gesture of reconciliation may result in some foreign policy missteps?
Fortunately for India, the scope for unilateral action on the part of a beleaguered Government is very limited. The UPA Government no longer has the capacity to take bold initiatives. Pragmatism should deem that India should confine itself to modest, baby steps in its Pakistan policy. Bold initiatives necessitate a Pakistan at peace with itself. That, tragically, is a distant hope.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Friday, June 22, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
There is something reassuring about the controversy centred on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s views on the qualifications necessary for an ideal Prime Minister of India. Although his interview to a financial daily has set the cat among the pigeons, its impact may prove to be salutary.
Instead of fudging the choices likely to be offered to the electorate in 2014 (or, perhaps, earlier), the main opposition party and the National Democratic Alliance are being encouraged to announce their preferred choice well in advance. Since India doesn’t have a system of primaries, the political churning likely to result from Nitish’s sharp intervention may well prove the most democratic way of parties and alliances arriving at an informed choice well before an election.
In the event of an outright NDA victory in the general election, the country may at least be blessed with a Prime Minister who, apart from enjoying a majority in the Lok Sabha, had also sought and secured the endorsement of the people. If nothing, the pre-election churning may well prevent a repetition of the Janata Party experiment between 1977 and 1979 when complications arose from a failure to blend a resounding mandate with a clear choice of leader.
Of course, it is unlikely that the enrichment of the democratic process was foremost in the mind of the Bihar Chief Minister when he gave his diplomatically-worded but yet very candid interview earlier this week. Nitish has never concealed his wariness of the man who, for all practical purposes, is now regarded by the Bharatiya Janata Party as first among equals: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. By suggesting that any future Prime Minister must have impeccable secular credentials and feel for the poorer states of India, as opposed to developing the already developed regions, Nitish was questioning the wisdom of upgrading Modi from a powerful regional leader to the highest rung of national politics. He also made it apparent that would have nothing to do with any formation that went to the polls with Modi at the helm. In effect, he issued an ultimatum to the BJP to either keep Modi confined to Gujarat or face the consequences.
It is almost certain that Nitish timed his intervention to take advantage of the churning within the BJP. Since the defeat of 2009, the BJP has been struggling to maintain a semblance of coherence which has led to its failure to take full advantage of the UPA’s wayward record of governance. What is referred to in shorthand as the BJP’s unending crisis was occasioned by its inability to throw up a leader capable of stepping into the shoes of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo. Within the community of saffron activists, Modi was unquestionably the person with the greatest personal popularity. However, his awkward relationship with the RSS prevented the party from translating his appeal into responsibility. Following prolonged back-channel negotiations, that issue was finally resolved at the Mumbai National Executive in May when Modi was, for all practical purposes, anointed as the successor to Advani. The formal coronation, however, was left pending till the outcome of the Assembly election in Gujarat. If Modi repeats his earlier victories, he will be thrust into the national stage, well in time for the 2012 election.
Yet, despite his cult following among activists, question marks over Modi’s ability to steer the BJP into power at the Centre persist. The sceptics can be divided into three broad categories. First, there is a group of RSS full-timers who are repelled by Modi’s fierce individualism and his disregard for a collegiate style of functioning. They are furious with Modi for totally bypassing the RSS in the conduct of governance. Secondly, there are some veteran leaders and their protégés who are mindful that Modi’s rise will involve their own eclipse. Finally, there are the pragmatists who are doubtful of Modi’s ability to build an effective coalition. Their concerns centre on the recognition that the BJP’s reach is limited by geography and that there has been no worthwhile expansion of the party (except in Karnataka) since 2004. Will a Modi-led BJP, they ask, be left friendless in 2014, just as Vajpayee was in 1996?
Nitish’s threat to walk out of the NDA in the event of Modi being named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was primarily aimed at the pragmatists in the BJP. With the party out of the reckoning in large tracts of the country, the possible loss of a valued ally in Bihar would further undermine its chances to be at the undisputed helm of a non-Congress government in 2014. In effect, Nitish has posed an uncomfortable question to the BJP: do you want to be in power or merely fly the flag?
This is a question that BJP pragmatists, including many who have no real objections to Modi as long as he can steer the party to a tally of 180 seats, cannot afford to ignore. The fact that RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat has come out in favour of the BJP’s right to choose its own prime ministerial candidate is likely to ensure that discordant voices in the BJP remain silent for the moment. Although Modi is no longer linked with political Hindutva, the RSS chief has let it be known that the Gujarat Chief Minister is back in favour with Nagpur. This implies that Modi has prevailed in the inner-party battle to secure for himself a pre-eminent national role.
This is not to suggest that Nitish’s intervention will fall completely on deaf ears and that there will be no option left for the Janata Dal (United) but to walk out of the NDA in the coming year. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the coming months will witness a serious attempt by the BJP to address some of the key concerns raised by Nitish.
On the issue of secularism, there are already indications that sadbhavna, particularly the need to rise above sectarian differences in a common quest for development, will be an important plank in Modi’s re-election bid in Gujarat. To what extent this approach pacifies his detractors is unknown. What is however clear is that the BJP does not propose to go into battle in 2014 flying the banner of assertive majoritarianism.
Likewise, the Gujarat polls may see Modi fine-tune his message of aggressive development to accommodate the concerns of those unable to cope with the vagaries of the market economy. Modi is unlikely to ever compromise on the efficiency quotient of government, but he will walk the extra mile to commit himself to a compassionate administration that actually delivers. Modi has consciously detached himself from the poverty glorification rhetoric of the socialists and this has prompted his detractors to see him as an Indian version of an American Tea Party activist. The Gujarat election may see him tweaking this message. He may well be inclined to link poverty alleviation with transparency and efficiency in government. Modi is one of the most effective political communicators after Vajpayee. The imagery he is likely to use in Gujarat will almost certainly also be aimed at a wider, pan-Indian audience.
At the end of the day, successful leadership depends on popular perceptions. Modi’s strength is charisma based on purposeful, no-nonsense leadership. Today, this style appeals to the middle classes exasperated by the government’s economic ineptitude. Repackaged with a dose of personal integrity, it has the potential of capturing the attention of a larger constituency.
The Telegraph, June 22, 2012
Sunday, June 17, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
Those looking for good news should keep their antenna pointed in the direction of Gujarat.
Sunday Times of India, June 17, 2012
Some 10 days ago, when the stock market was witnessing a momentary upturn on the news of the Prime Minister’s new purposefulness in decision-making, a senior executive of a reputable stockbroking firm telephoned me. What, he asked was the likelihood of the Samajwadi Party replacing the Trinamool Congress in the Government and facilitating the much-delayed FDI in retail?
That I responded to the suggestion with scepticism is incidental. What was revealing was the query itself. It seemed astonishing that stakeholders in the capital markets were basing strategic decisions on the strength of whispers.
On further reflection it didn’t seem all that astonishing. With the Indian economy in the doldrums and respected figures in the corporate world despairing of the country’s future, there is an understandable temptation of those with a stake in India to clutch at straws. Too many people have invested too much in India to readily allow a sweet dream to turn into a horrible nightmare. Hence the unending quest for light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Tragically, the attempts to talk up the India story have been constantly derailed by the intrusion of reality. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly results, where drawing room wisdom once deemed that the Congress would secure around 100 seats, put an end to hopes of a rejuvenated Congress with the heir apparent at the helm; the UPA’s hiccups over the presidential election have exposed the Government’s vulnerability and nullified its capacity for decisive action; and, read with the string of defeats in Assembly and municipal polls, the Congress’ decimation in the Andhra Pradesh by-elections has served as a curtain-raiser for the next general election.
India faces the grim prospect of a comatose government, determined to live for another two years in ICU.
Since politics abhors vacuum, it is likely that the coming months will be see the focus slowly shift from the Congress and UPA to the Opposition. The editorial classes which often determine the contours of chattering class wisdom have deemed that the state of the Opposition is as parlous as that of the Government and that it is a choice between two competing versions of ineptitude. Is that going to be the last word?
Following Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s anointment last month as the BJP’s favourite son—the proverbial first among equals—much air time and newsprint have been expended in detailing why the choice is flawed. All the perceived shortcomings of Modi have been lavishly detailed: his imperious personality, the controversies over his handling of the 2002 riots, the fear and loathing he invokes among Muslims, the wariness of a section of the RSS and BJP over his leadership style, and the likelihood of his projection leading to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar deserting the NDA. Few Indian politicians have been the target of much vitriolic abuse, and still survived.
If Modi indeed brings with him a wagon load of political liabilities, including European and American disdain, why do opinion polls indicate a steady rise in his popularity graph all over India? Why does the social media, which is otherwise fully exposed to the scepticism of the mainstream media, so lavish in his adulation of the man it calls NAMO? Why does he have seven lakh Twitter followers?
It is far too early to proffer categorical answers. However, amid the chatter of discordant voices, some early trends can be detected. There is indeed an emerging Modi phenomenon triggered partly by an acute sense of frustration with the incumbent Government. However, the elevation of Modi into a political icon of a section of the young, educated middle classes owes enormously to a larger impatience with a culture of underperformance. The mismatch between soaring expectations and politics-induced mediocrity is fuelling the demand for purposeful, no-nonsense leadership. As of now, this yearning for a radical break with existing styles of politics is confined to a section of Young India, but it has the potential of gathering momentum and experiencing modifications along the road. The rise of Modi is a commentary on the evolving mind of India and the breakdown of many assumptions governing politics.
Sunday Times of India, June 17, 2012
Friday, June 15, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
Among the more curious features of public life in this country is the disinclination of subordinates to pass on bad news to the boss. This stems from our natural inclination for flattery and a tendency to equate the messenger with the message.
In the 1960s, the generals gave the Prime Minister a misleading picture of our defence preparedness along India’s eastern borders; in 1977, intelligence agencies gave Indira Gandhi a very rosy picture of the public response to the Emergency; and earlier this year, self-serving Congress apparatchiks and participatory psephologists told Rahul Gandhi that he was taking Uttar Pradesh by storm. This week, after repeating ad nauseam that India would have a normal monsoon, the meteorological department (whose job is to provide accurate forecasts and not manage the economy) has grudgingly admitted that the rains are proving a bit disappointing but that it will be all right in the end.
A Churchillian determination to talk up national morale in times of war is understandable, and even commendable. However, its indiscriminate use, as recent events in India show, can be woefully counter-productive. Throughout this year, the government has been in denial over the state of the economy, pretending like in the film 3 Idiots that “all is well” and that only the envious are making awkward noises.
In January this year, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who, apart from being the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, also doubles up as the government’s chief pundit on economics, was telling gullible Indians that “the current downturn in economic growth due to developments in euro zone, had bottomed out”, that the “economy was on its way back to the high growth trajectory as the inflation was subsiding and the rupee stabilising against the dollar.”
Nearly five months later, on June 11, reacting to a Standard & Poor’s report suggesting that India could soon become a “fallen angel” unless the government woke up to its obligations, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee said that the ratings agency had got it all wrong. India, he asserted on a day when statistics recorded the country’s industrial production to be stagnant, was actually poised for a dramatic “turnaround” in 2012-13. All that India needed to get back to the nine per cent growth on which the Planning Commission is apparently basing its 12th Five-Year Plan calculations, was to hold its breath, undertake a modest austerity regime and pray that Greece doesn’t go bankrupt. To drive home the new purposefulness, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even held a proverbial “high-powered” meeting of ministers last week and, like a hard taskmaster, set targets that must be achieved.
The fact that in just two years India has made a transition from being the flavour of the season to a point where investments in the country are on the verge of being viewed as “speculative” is nothing short of remarkable. The question naturally arises: did the government not read the writing on the wall? If there is now a sudden flurry of activity to remove infrastructural bottlenecks, why was this not done earlier?
The answers, as the S&P report rightly notes, are almost entirely political. Ever since it was re-elected in 2009, the UPA-2 has proceeded on the specious assumption that the India story is divinely ordained, and that it fell on the government to merely manage the spoils of growth. It was this smugness that was responsible for the 2G fiasco, the scandals over the Commonwealth Games and the preoccupation with creating a network of entitlements aimed at ensuring repeated re-election. The implications of individual ministers doing their own thing and the regression into a complex regime of labyrinthine controls were overlooked. The government went into a denial mode, blotting out the bad news.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that until the precipitate slide in the value of the rupee earlier this summer and the grim data of industrial stagnation, the political class as a whole was blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the economic crisis. It was assumed that the real problem was inflation. Once that beast had been tamed — as the government was insistent it would — things would be hunky-dory once again. It is interesting that the issues which agitated the Congress until a few months ago was the career of Mr Gandhi, the proposed legislation on land acquisition, the sub-quota for minorities and the proposed Food Security Bill which would upstage the MNREGA as the new magic wand of electoral success. The report card released by the UPA-2 on its third anniversary dinner last month still spoke in terms of India being one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The issues raised by the S&P report were neither mentioned nor addressed. The regime had become a prisoner of its own make-believe world.
The move from denial to disaster management is always difficult to manage. In times of adversity, the Congress has responded in two familiar ways: by either retreating into despondency (as P.V. Narasimha Rao did in the run-up to the 1996 election) or falling back on shrillness (as Indira Gandhi did in 1975 and Rajiv Gandhi attempted to do in 1988-89). Dr Singh is temperamentally more inclined to following the course set by Rao but he doesn’t control a party that is itching to rediscover the “destabilisation” rhetoric. Consequently, India must brace itself for at least two years of cacophonic drift.
Monday, June 11, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
Like many kids of my generation who were encouraged at home and school to cultivate hobbies, I began collecting stamps at the age of seven. Unfortunately, like many childhood preoccupations, this interest didn’t endure. By the time I reached my teens, the stamp album was relegated to a bottom drawer and forgotten in favour of more exciting diversions. That is, until one lazy afternoon in the summer of 1995 when, strolling aimlessly down the Strand in London I stopped in front of the Stanley Gibbons shop and rediscovered my childhood passion. These days, no visit to London is complete without the mandatory visit to the Saturday Collector’s Fair in an obscure basement adjoining Charing Cross station and a nondescript shop off Trafalgar Square where an ex-policeman from Kenya with a fierce walrus moustache, a collector of Bhutanese stamps, holds court
As a child, I collected every stamp I could lay my hands on. These days, I try to specialise—but without losing sight of my amateur status. At the centre of my philatelic hoarding are two themes. First, there is the constant endeavour to fill the blank spaces of the four-volume Stanley Gibbons album of British and Commonwealth stamps issued in the 16-year reign of George VI—a time when the British Empire reached its apogee (and began its slow march to dissolution). Second, there is the far less demanding project of accumulating British First Day Covers—what I call my Elizabethan project.
Unlike the George VI collection which, alas, is destined to remain incomplete even if I decide to sink my life’s earnings into it, the Elizabethan venture isn’t marked by a quest for high-priced rarities—at least not yet. What is striking about the stamps embossed with the Queen’s head is their sheer range, spanning six decades. No other monarch in philatelic history can come close to rivalling the chronological expanse of Elizabethan Britain—in three years, it will have overtaken the Victorian age. My FDC collection began modestly with just one volume but, over the years, has grown to cover seven volumes. By the beginning of next year, I would have begun on the eighth. And, if the life of the Queen Mother is any guide, there is at least a decade of Elizabethan stamps yet to come. Or so I hope.
The institution of monarchy, rich with all its trappings and embellishments, may well appear an anachronism in a world where republicanism has taken hold. That it still survives and, indeed, is an object of frenzied adulation, may well be taken as confirmation of everything that is wrong with today’s Britain—a class-ridden country too firmly attached to its inheritance. Yet, apart from the wonderful pageantry that was on display earlier this week at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London and elsewhere, the attachment to the old Queen did serve to underline the monarchy’s role as the great unifier.
In the past 60 years, the British Isles have changed profoundly. The war-ravaged, austerity Britain that witnessed the Coronation of the young Queen still counted itself as a world power. The Indian subcontinent, Ceylon and Burma may have eased themselves from the bonds of imperial rule but in 1953, as my stamp collection testifies, the Union Jack still flew over parts of the world carrying exotic names such as Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Tanganyika. White settlers from Britain still tuned in to crackling short wave BBC broadcasts in their expansive farms in the outskirts of Nairobi, Bulawayo and Natal, and holders of Commonwealth passports had the automatic right to live in the ‘mother country’. In 1953, Britain was primarily an ethnically composite country. It was also a country, as the evocative, new BBC drama Call the Midwife reminded the new Elizabethans, also a country where a fierce sense of community prevailed.
All that has changed forever. In the past 60 years, Britain has experienced one of the most dramatic demographic shift known to settled societies. The Commonwealth exists in the far-flung places whose flags were on display at the Thames flotilla, but in reality it also exists in London’s doorstep. The Empire is history but its physical presence is all pervasive. The Union Flag still flutters defiantly over Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, over Gibraltar and on Stormont Castle. But, as is common knowledge, Whitehall wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it was compelled to replicate the dignified departure from Hong Kong, a decade or so ago.
Thanks to the City of London, Britain still remains at the centre of the global financial world attracting smart young fund managers, bankers and experts in abstruse financial instruments. However, as the serpentine queues before immigration counters in Heathrow and the fears of a breakdown triggered by the Olympics overload testify, its infrastructure is woefully inadequate. And, as last year’s vicious riots in London served to underline, the sense of community has given way to profound alienation and an overall disrespect for the British way of life. Binge drinking and loutish behaviour have elbowed out restraint. “Keep calm and carry on” is now strictly for coffee mugs and tea towels.
Even the idea of the United Kingdom has come under strain. Why, even a large section of Scotland now imagines an independent, idyllic future where the Union flag will no longer fly over Edinburgh Castle. In all probability, the Scottish Nationalists won’t win the proposed referendum but the mere fact that it will be held at all is ominous.
Britain often conveys the image of an unchanging society, as unchanging as the bus routes in London and the MCC member’s stand at Lord’s. Had he been alive, Harold Macmillan, the last custodian of the ancien regime, may even have appreciated the plethora of non-titled Etonians on the front bench of the Conservative Party. But these facets of continuity are superficial. In reality, Britain has transformed itself dramatically—much more than is apparent from the Letters columns of the Daily Telegraph where eccentricity and quirkiness continue to be celebrated.
Only one thing remains charmingly unchanged: the head of the sovereign on the postage stamps. It would not be wrong to say that with her quiet dignity and her frumpish ways, the Queen has emerged as the symbol of reassurance. Prince Charles may have overstated the point last Monday when, in the aftermath of the concert outside Buckingham Palace, he lauded the Queen for “making us proud to be British”, but he came closest to underlining the enormous sense of popular identification. Unlike Queen Victoria, the other Queen whose reign crossed six decades, Elizabeth Windsor will not have put her distinctive stamp on the national character. It is equally hard to conceptualise something that may come to be known as Elizabethan attitudes. The Queen has undoubtedly lived up to all expectations as a personification of dignity and duty, but her family life has been troubled. The Royal family as a whole never stood up to exacting scrutiny in the past, and this tradition has been upheld.
The Telegraph, June 8, 2012
Sunday, June 03, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
There were two stereotypes of Kolkata that jostled for primacy amid the huffing and puffing over the midsummer euphoria surrounding the victory of the Shah Rukh Khan-owned Kolkata Knight Riders in this year’s IPL.
The first were the voices of dismay from intellectuals and Leftists disgusted by the show of frivolity at Eden Gardens last Tuesday. What compounded the offence in their eyes was the enthusiastic participation of a Chief Minister in a party dominated by Bollywood and Tollywood stars. For those appreciative of a Jyoti Basu who rationed laughter and a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who found inspiration in revolutionary verse and subtitled films, a leader at one with popular culture was more than a departure: it was heresy. By facilitating a carnival on a humid May afternoon, Mamata Banerjee struck a devastating blow at the over-refined self-image of Bengalis. As one angry Communist MP spluttered on TV that evening, the celebrations had nothing to do with either cricket or Bengal.
Yet, the seemingly irrational over-exuberance also corresponded to a parallel stereotype: that of the excitable Bengali. In the rush to deify the effete Bong, the outsider’s perception of those who inspired Rudyard Kipling’s ‘banderlog’ (in Jungle Book) is often glossed over.
The cruel truth is that Bengalis have preferred collective assertion to individualism. The first Test match in India to experience a full-blown riot happened in Eden Gardens on New Year’s Day in 1967, and was marked—or so legend has it—by West Indian players making a mad dash from a tear-gas filled stadium to the Grand Hotel. In his day, Jawaharalal Nehru called it a “city of processions” and by the time his grandson ruled the roost, it was dying from enforced holidays, when traffic stopped and street cricket took over.
It is tempting to relate last week’s spectacle of a lakh of people gyrating to the rhythm of rock groups Bhoomi and Chandrabindu and celebrating KKR’s success to the Bengali penchant for hujuk—an evocative term that signifies infectious craziness. In the past, Kolkata has gone berserk over Pele, Nelson Mandela and—for those with longer memories—Nikita Krushchev and Fidel Castro. Was the spontaneous frenzy over Shah Rukh and his team in keeping with a tradition of excitability?
The answer is self-evident. From the five days of worship and gluttony during Durga Puja to Shah Rukh’s number with Juhi Chawla, Kolkata has loved street parties and carnivals. Why, even the annual Book Fair sees more food consumed than books sold. There is an inverse correlation between economic activity and collective frenzy, and Kolkata is living proof of that. Why then the feigned outrage over Mamata’s party for Shah Rukh?
The answer, it would seem, can be located in Kolkata’s institutionalised schizophrenia. Like Ireland, middle-class Kolkata is blessed with a diaspora larger than the resident population. The exiles, who look back wistfully at the city they grudgingly abandoned, have nurtured an image of a Kolkata that corresponds to their own self-image: gentle, cultured, idealistic, romantic and blessed with an innate sense of decency. It is not that such a Kolkata has ceased to exist, but that this constitutes a fragment of the many enclaves that make up the city.
In a wonderful novel Calcutta Exile set in the 1950s, Bunny Suraiya narrated the touching story of the intersection between the Anglo-Indian community of Ripon Street and the upper-class Bengali of Ballygunge. It was set in a city that was marked for its creativity, commerce and the good life. That Kolkata disappeared with the advent of the Reds. In its place are multiple ghettos of despondency, each bound by the feeling of having been left behind. For today’s Ryan family, the grand-daughters are in Melbourne and the Mookerjee heir is comfortably placed in a Manhattan job. An unchanging Kolkata is just a memory they want to cling on to.
Sunday Times of India, June 3, 2012
Saturday, June 02, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
In politics, timing is everything. In more normal times, L.K. Advani’s blog, written partially in response to my column last week, could have been viewed as an intervention on inner-party democracy or, more specifically, the BJP’s ability to respond to adversity. Unfortunately, the blog was uploaded on May 31, in the immediate aftermath of the BJP National Executive in Mumbai and on the day that the NDA (of which he is the Chairman) organised a reasonably successful Bharat bandh to protest against the steep hike in petrol prices. In other words, while the party’s foot soldiers were out in the streets on an unbearably hot day, Advani diverted attention to navel gazing.
Admittedly, playing spoil-sport, even if it was only to contest my assessment of the Mumbai National Executive meeting, may not have been uppermost in the mind of the BJP patriarch. But his unequivocal assertion that there was widespread popular disappointment with the party and internal disenchantment with some of its recent moves ended up suggesting one of two things: either that the party was deeply divided or that Advani himself was out of tune with the organisation he has so lovingly built over the past three decades.
In a mass party of the size and diversity of the BJP, it is near-impossible to believe that every functionary will be on the same page. Even in the heady days of the Ayodhya movement, it was hardly a secret that Atal Behari Vajpayee harboured misgivings of the BJP’s hyper-involvement in the agitation. Yet, it was also true that Vajpayee’s scepticism was not shared by the overwhelming majority of the party, and this was a reason why Advani, strongly backed by the RSS, was preferred over Vajpayee for the Leader of Opposition post in 1991. Of course, Vajpayee’s dissent happened in the pre-Breaking News age.
In today’s BJP, there are many shades of opinion jostling for attention. Consensus-building is tortuous and often involves leaving issues unresolved for longer than is strictly necessary—as happened in the case of Uttarakhand and as is happening in Karnataka. More often than not it also produces patch-work compromises that fail the test of wider political acceptability.
For the BJP, the exercise in collective decision-making has not always yielded satisfactory results for two reasons. Since the Jinnah controversy and the retirement of Vajpayee from active politics, the BJP no longer has a pre-eminent leader who can take a final call, even if it involves offending colleagues. Advani was unquestionably the tallest leader and a person who enjoyed wide respect of all. However, following the BJP’s failure to make the grade in the presidential-style campaign of the 2009 general election, his ability to get his way on different issues is carrying diminishing returns.
One of the reasons for this is a mismatch of perception over the veteran leader’s role. Whereas most of the party views Advani as a mentor occupying the largely ceremonial role of Chairman of the NDA, Advani sees himself as an active player in the day-to-day affairs of the party and a person who still calls the shots. It is not that his views are disregarded or that he is kept out of the party’s important decision-making bodies, but that his word is no longer final. It is a human problem. The world around Advani has changed but he has not moved with the times.
The consequences have been tragic. Advani may imagine that he is expressing his heartfelt anguish and echoing the sentiments of those exasperated by the delay in creating a viable alternative to a discredited UPA. However, to the party faithful he is increasingly appearing in the garb of a faction leader and a pliant instrument of those who have scores to settle with colleagues. Advani may reflect on the fact that while his blog has aroused fierce media interest, it has generated very little sympathy from within the BJP.
In Mumbai, the BJP moved one step closer to finding a new equilibrium. First, it took the first tentative steps in anointing a leader who can step into the shoes of Vajpayee and Advani. On his part, former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has identified the man explicitly and this was echoed in the public meeting at Mumbai. Secondly, in keeping with the enhanced importance of states in the polity, the BJP chose to formally recognise the importance of regional leaders in national affairs. There were many things the National Executive left unaddressed. The most important of these is the policy orientation of the party which is increasingly looking very ad-hoc. But at least a beginning was made in recasting the party to suit contemporary realities.
Sunday Pioneer, March 3, 2012
Friday, June 01, 2012
By Swapan Dasgupta
‘Curmudgeonly’ is a tongue-twister that, ideally, I would rather not use. However, I can think of no better and appropriate expression to describe the reactions of a Communist MP from West Bengal to the boisterous celebrations in Kolkata last Tuesday when the Kolkata Knight Riders and Shah Rukh Khan came ‘home’ with the IPL trophy.
At the best of times Gurudas Das Gupta sports a scowl and a sneer, and wears his Communist superiority on his sleeve. If Jyoti Basu had a reputation for never smiling, Das Gupta has made a career from being permanently disgusted. When most people say that “it’s not cricket”, they take refuge behind transparent superciliousness. When the CPI Lok Sabha MP said “not cricket” last Tuesday, his expression was sneering. The IPL, he pronounced angrily, was “not even sport”, and KKR “not even Bengal”. The whole thing was, in his expert opinion, a corporate tamasha (or words to that effect).
Whether it is the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, Kaun Banega Crorepati and the IPL, every manifestation of popular culture invites elitist and intellectual disdain. The Puritans, the biggest kill-joys produced by Western civilisation, for example, loathed bear-baiting—once a popular pastime of the drinking classes. But, as Macaulay was moved to observe, the disavowal didn’t stem from compassion towards the unfortunate animal; it was born from a disapproval of the joy the sport gave to the spectators.
Every society produces its own Roundheads. The only difference is that whereas aloofness from the hoi-polloi was earlier a private expression of taste, the made-in-media age has amplified contrariness into a public talking point. Indeed, judging by the shrillness of the so-called cricket purists who have made their mark on TV, it would seem that the IPL tournament is nothing but a tasteless and even criminal enterprise.
The aesthetics of the IPL festival is, of course, a matter of subjective preference. Undoubtedly there are individuals who prefer watching live cricket amid the grandeur of empty stands and a few rounds of polite clapping. To them, the pom-pom girls dancing boisterously each time the ball crosses the boundary is an eyesore. Maybe it is a needless distraction from the art of batting. Yet, at the risk of giving offence to the purists, it is necessary to point out that first the one-day game (which was similarly berated at its inception) and now the T-20 format have done more to enhance the popularity of cricket in India than the combined efforts of W.G. Grace and Ranjitsinhji.
This is not to undermine the worthy cricketers of yore who contributed immeasurably to the development of cricket in this country. It is only to stress that contemporary cricket can be neatly divided into three categories: five-day Test cricket, the 50-over game and T-20. Each form of the game has its own dynamics and requires different skills. Those who persist with the impression that T-20 is nothing but a few cross bat slogs and a few well-aimed yorkers ignore the spectacular improvisations that the shortened format has brought to the game, not least of which is the dramatic improvement in fielding. Whether it is M.S. Dhoni’s incredible helicopter shot—which matches Ranji’s leg glance in improvisation—or the stunning catches taken in the outfield, T-20 cricket has made the game far more energetic than ever before.
Beyond the technicalities, there is another feature of evolving cricket that is worthy of note: the shorter the game, the more its popularity. This has everything to do with the pace of life in the 21st century plus the fact that the T-20 games are timed to suit our leisure hours.
Yet, despite the growing international acceptance of the T-20 format, what can be said with certainty is that this form of cricket has flowered in India more than anywhere else in the Commonwealth. The IPL is unquestionably the most successful cricket tournament in history, generating interest levels and revenues that would have seemed inconceivable just three decades ago when it was being said that cricket is a dying game. For good or for worse, IPL is India’s most enduring contribution to sports. Nothing before it—not even the string of Gold medals won in hockey from 1924 to 1980—has surpassed its success.
In viewing IPL, we are not merely viewing the evolution of cricket; we are dealing with a great Indian success story. It is the enormous enthusiasm of cricket lovers in India—the breakthrough came with the World Cup triumph in 1984—that is responsible for the shift in the centre of gravity of the game moving from Lord’s to India. Much to the chagrin of England and Australia, the cricket economy of the world is now centred on India. And what is more, this shift has led to global spin-offs.
There was a time when cricketers all over the world hankered for a season’s contract with an English county side. Today, throughout the world, there is hunger for the talented to find a place in an IPL team and spend two rewarding months in India. It does not really matter that KKR had only three or four players who could have played Ranji Trophy for Bengal. The KKR is a private club which, like football teams in Europe, has now become identified with a city.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, June 1, 2012