Monday, August 25, 2014

Modi has won respect for India abroad. Can he use it to solve problems with Pakistan -- and China, too?

Narendra Modi's India is turning out to be quite different from Manmohan Singh's India. This is borne out by America's shift in policy. If the old India often appeared like a supplicant before the US, the roles seem reversed now. Consider technology, for example. From the 1980s, the US was determined to scuttle India's space programme. It refused ISRO's request for assistance in cryogenic technology development. India then found Russia willing to help, but the US forced Russia to renege on its agreement. Thereupon P. V. Narasimha Rao announced, in 1993, that India would develop cryogenic technology indigenously. An angry US warned that its two-year ban on selling space components to ISRO would be extended. All this hostility was on the plea that India was actually after nuclear weapons development. Yet the US did not lift a finger in protest when China and North Korea equipped Pakistan with nuclear capability. Despite all the obstructionism, GSLV's advanced rocket soared into space last January, a triumph for India and a reproach to America.

It was a new America that sent its Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, to India a few days ago. Without the slightest embarrassment, he said that India and America must "transform our nations' defence cooperation from simply buying and selling to co-production, co-development and freer exchange of technology". This is what is known as epiphany. Hagel is used to it. Three years ago, as a Senator, he had criticised India for "using Afghanistan as a second front to fund problems for Pakistan from that side of the border". Now, in Delhi's fresh air, he said: "India has a critical responsibility in terms of Afghanistan's security". This is what is known as patriotic opportunism.

Clearly Hagel's chameleon act was meant to get America into Narendra Modi's good books. The new Prime Minister is seen around the world as a game-changer. His domestic agenda is still evolving though his associates have rushed through programmes that worry sections of the people. But in foreign affairs Modi has been firm. It's a tough field where victories can be quickly overtaken by setbacks. Nonetheless he has shown that he is not lacking in courage. He did not hesitate to make America angry by going against WTO's pro-Western definition of free trade. But America did not retaliate. Instead, on the Mumbai terror inquiry, having blocked linchpin David Headley's extradition to India and his interrogation by Indian investigators except under American supervision, the US now says that India's request for access to the terror mastermind is "under discussion".

Modi's readiness to stand up to American pressure has enhanced his standing with China and Russia. India is now seen, not as a Western ally, but as a power that will take independent decisions. This reading must be the reason for China's recent initiative to make India a full member of the important Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Known as Asia's NATO, the SCO has the potential to change the prevailing, West-centric economic and strategic structure of the world. Significantly, India is becoming a member against the background of a renewed American strategy of containment against China and Russia. No wonder that Russia, a member, is delighted by the invitation to India and predicts that the SCO will consequently become "a centre of power in world politics".

Such major international realignments, however, benefit those who know how to handle them subtly, astutely and even cunningly. China is adept at this and will be using India's, Iran's, Pakistan's and Mongolia's membership of the SCO to its diplomatic advantage every inch of the way. The latest Ladakh incursions could well be manoeuvres for future negotiations from a position of strength. Similarly Russia will gain considerably with oil and gas pipelines across the Asian landmass. What of India? The reality is that all our progress on all other fronts can be subverted by lack of progress on the Pakistan front. Last week's cancellation of talks between the two countries showed how abruptly things can go wrong for India. Modi, inexperienced in international diplomatic intrigue, now has warm relations with two masters of that game, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Will he be shrewd enough to talk them into cooperation under the umbrella of the SCO? This is a rare - perhaps the biggest - test of Modi's political skills. If he bargains cleverly, a border pact with China is not inconceivable. If China helps, an end to the Pakistani Army's hostility is not inconceivable. Is that level of diplomatic dexterity on Modi's part conceivable?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rajya Sabha seats, or Bharat Ratna, or Governorships, it's all politics & populism, not national interest

In itself, Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha treating Parliament as one of their trinkets is a non-issue. There are many in our vast and fertile country who have neither the civilisational range nor the intellectual calibre to understand the true meaning of Parliament. If such individuals are given positions they are not worthy of and they mishandle them, it is not their fault; it is the fault of the system that facilitates such mismatch. Indeed, the Tendulkar-Rekha controversy and the ongoing Bharat Ratna controversy and controversies around a constitutional position like Governor are all pointers to system malfunctioning. It may well have something to do with fault lines in the Indian character.

What else can it be but a flaw in the national character that only Indian millionaires crave for honours and favours in foreign countries? We do not hear of a Chinese-American cosying up to political parties in Washington and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. No Malaysian has "donated" his way to the British Parliament. Indians have. "Cash for peerage" is a scandal in Britain. The Labour Party in particular has taken generous donations from wealthy Indians and rewarded them with Lordship and other favours. Last year New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to US politicians. A longtime fundraiser for the Clintons, Chatwal received a Padma award in 2010 triggering off the bitterest disputation in the disputation-filled history of those awards.

That same Indian penchant for shortcuts to distinction has haunted our originally well-intentioned national honours concept. The nomination system for the Rajya Sabha was devised so that the nation could benefit from the wisdom of distinguished achievers who would normally be hesitant to fight elections. The first batch in 1952 underlined that noble intent, with illustrious figures such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Zakir Husain, Prithviraj Kapur and Rukmini Arundale gracing the upper house. Then the standards began to fall, as did the standards of politicians. Into the House went the likes of M.F.Husian and Lata Mangeshkar and Hema Malini who had no notion of their obligations as MPs. Alongside appeared another trend: Businessmen with spare cash buying MLA votes to enter Rajya Sabha. In a system so crippled by its own gatekeepers, why blame Tendulkar and Rekha who were victims of idolatry, not vehicles of nobility.

Idolatry was also behind Tendulkar's Bharat Ratna award for which he was eminently unsuited. A responsible state would have recognised cricket's deterioration into a business activity led by fixers and money launderers and tried to divert popular attention to less corrupting games such as football, hockey and tennis. But the decision makers went for cheap populist applause by picking a man who will, if it all, be a Ratna of cricket, not of Bharat.

Is the present Government any wiser? Atal Behari Vajpayee's nomination for the high honour will be universally welcomed for no living leader is more deserving. But Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Subhas Bose? They were among the greatest sons of India, no doubt. But they belonged to an era of sacrifice and service. To impose today's yardsticks of honour on them will not honour them. Should we give a Bharat Ratna to Kalidasa?

The worst impact of system malfunctioning has been on constitutional posts like Comptroller & Auditor General and Chief Election Commissioner. When some incumbents sought and were given post-retirement jobs, these posts lost their sanctity. Now an argumentative Army Chief has been absorbed as a Union minister immediately after retirement, an ominous precedent. In the case of governors, the early years saw some great personages such as H. P. Mody and K.M. Munshi, Sarojini Naidu and P.V.Cheriyan occupying Raj Bhavans. But that phase passed quickly. All parties joined hands to politicise governorship blatantly. The Gandhi dynasty appointed family retainers and loyalist police officers as Governors.

If the new BJP Government asked such appointees to quit, who can complain? In fact they should have quit on their own. In the case of Kamla Beniwal, the BJP Government went into a revenge mode. But again, who can complain? As Gujarat Governor she had obstructed Chief Minister Modi's moves wherever she could. When Modi got his chance, she got her comeuppance, a classic case of foul is fair. What made it ugly was the moral posturing -- the Congress accusing the Government of malafide and the Government proclaiming its adherence to constitutional propriety. Nonsense. It was political tit followed by political tat. Why are our parties dishonest even when they don't have to be?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Congress still cannot look beyond the dynasty, nor BJP beyond sectarian politics. Beware of the voter

It may seem too early, but the contours of the next general election are beginning to take shape. It will be the usual politics, played the usual dismal way. Those who saw in Narendra Modi's victory a turning point in history may have to revise their views. The size of its triumph had surprised the BJP just as the extent of its defeat had shocked the Congress. It was a message for the winner to try and earn the trust of all, and for the loser to introspect and change its ways. In just three months, though, both parties have made their intentions clear: They will learn nothing, change nothing.

The Congress has painted itself into a pathetic corner. Of the many factors that led to its downfall, the most obvious was dynastic dominance. What appeared tolerable in Indira Gandhi's days became unacceptable a generation later. Sonia Gandhi's extraconstitutional control of the Government, her chosen Prime Minister reducing himself to a nobody, and her son's handling of leadership as a part-time hobby combined to make voters realise that the joke had gone too far. Their thumbs-down to the Congress was a bid to save the nation's honour.

If the Gandhis really cared for the party that had looked after them and their interests for so long, they would have paid heed to the message from voters. Some Congress leaders found the courage to criticise Sonia by name. Voices in the Youth Congress rose against Rahul Gandhi. Ignoring it all, the family allowed sycophants to "persuade" them to remain at the helm.

Priyanka is proposed as the new mascot. She does have more mass appeal than her brother. But what else? She has said nothing to date suggesting any understanding of the economic, social or geopolitical issues facing the country and the world. She has often shown an exaggerated view of her family's sacrifices, indicative of a latent autocratic streak. Above all, she is a Vadra and thereby hangs a long shadow of business "achievements". Is this the future of India?

It is a factor in the future of the BJP, for sure. Another devoted mother has openly asked that Varun Gandhi be nominated for the chief ministership of UP, no doubt as a stepping stone to prime ministership. What this means is that, BJP or Congress, the leadership of India will remain in the hands of one Gandhi or another. This was not the objective of those who voted for Narendra Modi. Nor did the voters expect Modi to lapse into a phase of perceptible slowdown so soon after the elections. Perhaps the hype he created during the campaign is having a rebound, reminiscent of the hype the Aam Aadmi Party generated and later found impossible to sustain.

But the Prime Minister's associates are by no means quiet. Hindi partisanship, despite proving divisive, has been enforced on the IAS-IPS system as well. The decision to discount English in UPSC grades is the most short-sighted initiative by the Government so far. It holds up UP-Bihar as the standard for the rest of the country. It puts India at a disadvantage in a world where China, for example, is actively promoting the study of English among its people. It gives non-Hindi citizens the feeling that they are less than equal. It will create dissensions and will lead to resentments. All for what?

Meanwhile the prices of essential commodities have been rising. The Green Tribunal is being neutered so that hills can be levelled, rivers killed through sand mining and forests cleared for the sake of "development". Attempts are being made to hand agriculture over to foreign seed monopolies in the name of promoting GM food. What does the Prime Minister have to say about these developments? We don't know. Are some groups operating from behind? We don't know. We only know what he says in Brazil and Nepal.

Silences, too, have a role in politics. The calculation may be that the Prime Minister should stay above the dust and din of groundlevel politicking, that sectarianism is the surest way to win elections. This line succeeded in UP and Amit Shah, the strategist behind that victory, has since become party president. As an all-India strategy, however, sectarianism may cause more harm than good. Voters are basically in favour of inclusive growth, precisely what Modi offered. If that promise goes astray, the Indian voter is experienced enough to know what to do. The BJP lost three recent byelections in Uttarkhand. Never underestimate the voter.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bold new books on Chanakya and China, Rama and Shiva; Time for bold new action to get a few banned?

We all know that Chanakya was a genius at manipulating people ruthlessly for power. What fun he (and we) would have if he were reborn and got active in today's politics. Or, for a change, imagine Bengal as a protectorate/colony of China with Governor Wen finding it difficult to control the Maoists. Or, horror of horrors, consider the proposition that there is no evidence to prove the historicity of Rama. These are a few of the hair-raising visions awaiting attention in our bookstores. Among them are three new volumes by Wendy Doniger, the author India promoted by banning On Hinduism. The shelves are alive with the sound of letters, brilliant and daringly original.

Catalogues by publishers are usually humdrum affairs, providing lists of titles and trade details such as size, paper quality and release details. Not the Aleph catalogue. They don't even call it a catalogue; they call it The Book of Aleph 3. It also looks every inch like a book -- a hardbound, immaculately designed, beautifully printed book in the classical mould. Its approach to content is different, too. Of course it gives the usual information: A full list of 50 titles, including paperback editions of titles brought out earlier. But its 192 pages present a phantasmagoria of long and short excerpts interspersed with photographs, blurbs and author profiles. We can savour it like an anthology. To read extensive excerpts from Timeri Murari, Shoven Chowdhury, Romila Thapar et al is to partake of a feast.

Who is more devastatingly inventive -- Murari or Chowdhury? Chanakya Returns is so apt a theme for our upside-down times that it is surprising no one had thought it up before Timeri Murari. But then, no one had thought of Murari's The Taliban Cricket Club either. His newly minted Chanakya is a master of 21st century politics. He has a grouse or two, mainly about an Italian plagiarist called Machiavelli who stole Chanakya's theories and achieved fame. "This is the problem with death", muses Chanakya. "One thousand seven hundred and fifty-two years later your work appears under another man's name, granting him the immortality that is rightly yours".

But the plagiarist never got the opportunity that Chanakya got with his second coming. In his modern avatar, Chanakya began advising Avanti, heir to a family that has ruled the country for long, young and malleable and aware of her favoured position in life. "I began service as a humble clerk though not humble myself. I ensured I was loyal to her alone and to none else. She noticed this loyalty and confined her thoughts and emotions in me". Familiar?

Read about his advice on love. "The heart is not to be trusted as it is brainless. Love is a watery foundation. Like the flip of a coin, love can fall into hate. Power is an aphrodisiac, it is unending hot sex in 1001 positions, it is magical, it is miraculous. Your followers will worship you like an idol that can confer riches and miracles more than any god". No wonder Avanti was persuaded to believe that the love of power was better than the power of love. Familiar? Perish the thought. This is a novel where "any resemblance to any actual entirely coincidental".

Shoven Chowdhury has a disturbing habit. He covers the most outrageous subversions with the most innocuous titles. Last year he gave us an account of an India devastated by Chinese nuclear bombs -- Bombay obliterated, Bengal turned into a protectorate of China. And what was the title of that novel? The Competent Authority. In a repeat of that trick, he has come out with a new novel called, even more innocuously, Death of a Schoolmaster. Be warned. It is Bengal, the Chinese protectorate, revisited. Things are not very nice. Governor Wen is suffering grievously from a lack of concubines. The New Thug Society is trying to free Bengal from Chinese oppression. But "China ruled Asia now. They were all one big happy family. The Japanese were the sons, the Koreans were the brothers, and the Bengalis were the idiot cousins". Time for a Bengal Sena to organise a bonfire?

Better still, leave it to the banning expert, Dinanath Batra. He must get Romila Thapar banned for saying, in her The Past as Present, that doubting historicity (that is, saying that Rama is a mythical character) is not blasphemy. He must get Wendy Doniger banned again for her new study, Shiva, The Erotic Ascetic. How else can we keep India purified.