Monday, September 28, 2009

In Rome, Durga is not welcome

By Kanchan Gupta

What does it mean to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome? It means to be humiliated, harassed and hounded by city officials who happen to be pious Christians. Alright, I could be utterly wrong in presuming they are pious since I have no independent confirmation of their piety or otherwise. But let’s get back to the question with which I began. Late Thursday night I was at the park near my house where the local Bengalis organise Durga Puja every year. It’s a raucous celebration of faith and culture. The food stalls are invariably hugely popular and there I was with my nine-year-old daughter, standing in a queue for kathi rolls. After what seemed like an interminable wait, it was our turn to be served. Just then my BlackBerry beeped. Balancing the piping hot rolls, dripping oil, tomato ketchup, green chilli sauce and lemon juice, in one hand, I tried to read the e-mail on my handset.

No luck. I got shoved around, nearly dropped both rolls and my phone, and decided to let the e-mail wait. Later, away from the crowd, I checked the e-mail and it was a fascinating story. Since the identity of the person who had sent the mail is not really relevant, let me reproduce the text: “The Municipal Police authorities of Rome have today withdrawn permission, granted three weeks ago, to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. The cancellation came a few hours before the Ambassador of India was scheduled to inaugurate the Puja at 8 pm local time. No acceptable explanation has been given. This has caused the local Indian community the loss of thousands of Euros spent in preparatory arrangements. The same thing was done in the same manner in 2008 also. Please monitor developments.”

Now that’s awful, I told myself, here I am having kathi rolls and there they can’t even celebrate their own festival. On Friday, I called a friend in Rome who provided me with the latest details. Our Ambassador, Mr Arif Shahid Khan, a feisty man who has in the past taken up the issue of Sikhs being forced to take off their turbans at Italian airports, campaigned throughout the day, calling up officials, including the Mayor of Rome, and contacting members of the ‘Friends of India’ group in the Italian Parliament, arguing with them why permission for the Puja should be restored. By evening, the authorities had reversed their order and permission was granted to celebrate Durga Puja, which will now begin on Saturday, Ashtami — a full 48 hours behind schedule. Provided, of course, there is no last minute cancellation, as it happened on Thursday. Mr Khan will inaugurate the Puja, an honour he richly deserves.

The story behind the cancellation needs to be told, if only to point out that Christian countries in the West, whose Governments so blithely criticise the ‘lack’ of ‘religious freedom’ in India, have no compunctions about trampling on Hindu sentiments at home. After last year’s experience, when permission for celebrating Durga Puja in Rome was abruptly withdrawn by officials who cited specious reasons to justify their grossly unfair decision, the organisers, led by Mr Rajesh Sahani, a Sindhi from Kolkata who speaks flawless Bengali, took ample precautions this year. They were given permission to organise the Puja at Parko Centocelle, a public park on Via Cailina, Torpignattara. Three weeks ago, permission was granted for the Puja at the park and necessary formalities were completed.

Early this past week, the Puja organisers were told they could not use the park as a crime had been committed there and the location posed security-related problems. The organisers agreed to change the venue. Another park was selected, permission was given to celebrate Durga Puja there, and the preparations began all over again in right earnest. Then, like a bolt from the blue, at 4 pm on Thursday came the withdrawal of permission by the Municipal Police. The organisers were bluntly told to pack up and leave hours before Durga Puja was scheduled to begin with Akal Bodhon in the evening. Why? No reason was proffered.

Some officials are believed to have told the organisers that the cancellation of permission at the eleventh hour, both last year and this year, was meant to be “retaliatory action against the persecution of Christians in India”. It may be recalled that the President of Italy, Mr Giorgio Napoletano, has been vociferous in demanding that Europe should do more in support of Christians in India and to help them ‘affirm their right to religious freedom’. The Government of Italy has in the past summoned the Ambassador of India to convey to him that it has “deep concern and sensitivity for the ongoing inter-religious violence... that has caused the death of many Christians.” The Pope has been no less harsh in denouncing India.

There could be another reason, apart from its “deep concern” about the welfare of Christians in India, for Italy’s callous disregard of the sentiments of Hindus in that country. Although the Italian Constitution guarantees religious freedom, under the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, Italy recognises only the three religions of Semitic origin — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All other religions are no more than paganism and are to be shamed and shunned. The Vatican would not countenance any open breach of the Lateran Treaty; Italy would not want to be seen as recognising Hinduism.

“It’s only natural that Italy should have a surfeit of churches. But it’s the rejection of any other faith than Christianity, Judaism and Islam that explains why there are so many mosques but virtually no temples in Italy although this country has a large Hindu expatriate population,” my friend told me while regretting the attitude of the Government and the local authorities. According to him, there are only three temples in Italy: One in a garage in Venice; another at Frescolo and the third at Reggio Emilia. These survive at the mercy of local zoning officials.

But for Mr Arif Shahid Khan’s pro-active involvement — most Ambassadors tend to stay aloof from community affairs — this year too there would have been no Durga Puja in Rome. (The picture appearing with this article is of the Durga idol used at this year's Puja in Rome.) Indians in Italy owe him a debt of gratitude. So do Bangladeshis who are equal participants in this annual celebration of dharma’s victory over adharma, of the triumph of good over evil. Cultural and linguistic affinities unite Bengalis, irrespective of whether they are from the west or east of Padma, during this autumnal festival celebrated around the world.

Meanwhile, let’s not get carried away by the West’s bilious and bogus criticism of 'lack of religious freedom' in India and indulge in self-flagellation. Let the West look at its own ugly, septic warts. If Christians can celebrate Christmas in New Delhi, Hindus have the right to celebrate Durga Puja in Rome. This is non-negotiable.

[This appeared as my column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on September 27.]

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tweeting is silly!

My Editor at The Pioneer, Chandan Mitra, disagrees with me on Twitter as the new platform for instant communications which could emerge as the medium of the future. I am grateful to Mr Mitra for sharing his views with the readers of 'Agent Provocateur'. I hope it will initiate a debate on tweeting, its significance and future.-- Kanchan Gupta.

By Chandan Mitra

I am rather amused by the huge controversy in India over twittering. India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, my good friend Shashi Tharoor, got into quite some hot water over an allegedly insensitive remark, for using the common term ‘cattle class’ to refer to economy travellers on aircraft. The Minister is entitled to his opinion but the question is whether people in high office should expose themselves to the risk of being quoted, sometimes out of context, causing acute discomfort to the Establishment. As of now, media reports suggest he is continuing to twitter although the postings have suddenly turned innocuous and thereby lost the fun element.

At the risk of being labelled grossly old-fashioned, I haven’t for the life of me understood why thousands should be interested in the daily itineraries of other people, which often contain utterly banal information such as “Had two eggs for breakfast today. Must keep watch on cholesterol level” or “Just had a cup of life-saving Starbucks coffee. Now to find a place to smoke”. These examples are second-hand because I am still not on Twitter despite considerable pressure from colleagues and my sons. I have only recently climbed onto the Facebook bandwagon. But it is obvious that a lot of people enjoy reading these inane posts. Social networking has acquired obsessive dimensions, often crossing boundaries of acceptable social behaviour. It has also begun to replace physical meetings and even verbal communication.

Arguably, sms and email has made life a lot easier and allowed people to maximise communication. A fair amount of official work gets done through text messages; saves time, cuts out on long phone calls and superficial exchange of pleasantries. The importance of emails in contemporary life is too big to merit reiteration. But I wonder what precise void social networking fills. Is it a fall-out of the immense loneliness of urban life particularly for young people? Is it because some people want to reassure themselves that there are friends ready to share joys and sorrows that maybe even their boy/girl friends don’t have time for? Or maybe it has opened an avenue to express thoughts and emotions to an entire community of known and unknown people and thus feel self-satisfied?

Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that social networking is here to stay. It has resulted in unanticipated changes in our way of thought and expression. Once we lamented the age of sound-byte journalism on TV, which forces people to say in 10 seconds what they would normally take three minutes. Twitter compels the user not to exceed 140 characters – a limit within which no meaningful idea can possibly be expressed. I have no issue with the proliferation of such forums, except that I fear they are increasingly acting as enemies of serious thought, adding to the insulation of the self from the real world and paradoxically intensifying the alienation of humans from humans.

[The impact of Kanchan Gupta's "cattle class" tweet exchange with Shashi Tharoor has been phenomenal. Check it out here.]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So, Congress wants to cut a deal with Taliban!

By Kanchan Gupta

The venerable Wall Street Journal, which still takes the business of journalism seriously, has carried an interesting news story in its Wednesday’s edition. Headlined “Indian Minister Urges Afghan Political Settlement”, it is based on an interview with Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna, who apparently spoke to the writer, Joe Lauria, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which is now in session. The opening paragraph of the story is truly attention grabbing: “India, one of the biggest investors in Afghanistan, believes there is no military solution to the conflict in that country and that NATO combat operations should give way to a political settlement with the Taliban, according to Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna.”

The newspaper quotes Mr Krishna as saying, “India doesn’t believe that war can solve any problem and that applies to Afghanistan also... I think there could be a political settlement. I think we should strive towards that.” According to the daily, Mr Krishna “dismissed suggestions that India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan is intended to encircle Pakistan, a fear prevalent in some circles in Pakistan. ‘I think that is a baseless allegation,’ he said.” Mr Krishna, in his interview, “charged that Pakistan’s disruptive role in the Taliban insurgency continued”, and said “the military situation in Afghanistan was complicated by the ongoing aid for the Afghan Taliban provided by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency”.

A full reading of the news story and the extensive quotes of the Minister published alongside would reveal that he has not suggested a “political settlement with the Taliban”, at least not in so many words. But it is only logical to deduce that this is what he meant when he talked of a “political settlement”. Given the political reality of Afghanistan where the Taliban are determined not to allow democracy and modernism to take root, and want the country to return to the joyless, dark days when a one-eyed monster called Mullah Omar ruled that benighted nation with ruthless force in the name of Islam, the only people you can strike a deal with and come to a “political settlement” are the Taliban.

“If India can work happily with Great Britain after they having ruled us for so long, it only shows that we can play the game,” Mr Krishna told The Wall Street Journal. That is an allusion which only the naïve would miss or misinterpret. In interpreting foreign policy, each word, especially when uttered by the Foreign Minister of a country, is dissected many times over. And the most casual reading of Mr Krishna’s comments would suggest that they indicate a major shift in the Government’s policy on Afghanistan and a break with the national consensus that has helped its evolution: The Congress-led UPA is now willing to “play the game” and cut a deal with the Taliban.

What Mr Krishna has also signalled is the UPA Government’s rethinking on American involvement in Afghanistan. Till now, although India has steered clear of the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, it has been a beneficiary of everything that has followed the fall of the criminal Taliban regime and the installation of the Government headed by President Hamid Karzai. New Delhi would not have been able to reopen its mission in Kabul and set up consulates elsewhere had Mullah Omar still been in power. Nor would India have been able to re-establish its people-friendly profile among the Afghan masses through infrastructure development and healthcare projects.

It would be foolish to believe that the ‘Indian presence’ in Afghanistan will remain untouched and undiminished if the US and NATO troops were to abruptly pack up and leave that country. A “political settlement” — or, to put it more bluntly, a deal with the Taliban — may please those in the UPA Government who believe Islamism is a benign idea and Islamists are the natural allies of ‘secularists’, but it will be disastrous for India and its national interest.

Since Mr Krishna is the Minister for External Affairs, we must presume that whatever he has told The Wall Street Journal, as well as the implied meaning of his statement, reflect current thinking in South Block. More important, since Mr Manmohan Singh unilaterally frames foreign policy these days, Mr Krishna’s comments must be taken to reflect the Prime Minister’s views — unless they are refuted or denounced by the Government’s drum-beaters in the media. It may not be entirely coincidental that the Prime Minister’s prescription for redrafting India’s policy on Afghanistan bears close resemblance to the current thinking in Washington, DC.

As US President Barack Hussein Obama watches his much-touted AfPak policy unravel, his strategists work overtime to convert the 21st century’s Great Game into a Grand Bargain. Mr Obama spoke of a ‘surge’ in the deployment of US troops, but there are as yet no signs of 40,000 more Americans being sent to win the war against the Taliban. And while policy-makers in the Obama Administration dither, Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has submitted a ‘confidential’ report — whose contents have been leaked to The Washington Post! — to the American President, underscoring the problems posed by “inadequate resources” at his disposal. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he has said.

While Gen McChrystal has made a case for the immediate deployment of additional soldiers to bolster the presence of 64,000 troops in Afghanistan, Pentagon appears to be divided on the issue. It would like Mr Obama to take a political call on whether to go ahead with the ‘surge’ or begin pulling out troops from Afghanistan, and then strategise on the next steps to be taken. Interestingly, Gen McChrystal is also believed to have said in his report that “while Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increa-sing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India”.

That’s an understatement, but it nonetheless accurately reflects the Afghan reality which is intimately enmeshed with the reality of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ policy that visualises Islamabad’s control over Kabul with the Taliban’s help and the imposition of Islamist absolutism. In such a scenario, it is amusing to think of the UPA Government cutting a deal with the Taliban.

[This appeared as the main article on the edit page of The Pioneer on Wednesday, September 25, 2009. The same day, alarmed by the possible fallout of SM Krishna's comments, the MEA spokesperson issued a statement, saying, "The Minister has been misquoted in his interview with The Wall Street Journal." A classic example of the adage -- What did the politician have for lunch? What he said at breakfast! A related news story of interest in The Wall Street Journal which appeared a day later: Dubious Afghan Vote Drove U.S. to Revisit Strategy.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Manohar Parrikar takes on Dilli4

Goa’s BJP leader and former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar is not given to making off-the-cuff remarks. He is a grassroots level activist who has an impeccable (and enviable) record as a party member, leader and commitment to good governance. His integrity quotient is exceptionally high. His commitment to ideology is unimpeachable. He is a technocrat who understands the pulse of politics and popular aspirations. (I have commented on him in an earlier post.)

Parrikar told a local TV channel (and I am quoting PTI): “At present Advaniji's innings is matured. It is like Sachin Tendulkar. However matured innings he may play, sometime he will have to stop playing. It is like a pickle which takes a year to mature. But if it is kept for two years or so, it gets rancid.” He also said: "Advaniji's period is more or less over... Another couple of years and after that he should act as a guardian or mentor for the party. He should be available whenever we need him. His capability and experience should be available for BJP."

I presume Parrikar spoke in Konkan. And the reference must have been to a local idiom. But the gist of what he said is clear to all: Advani has had his innings; he should now retire; and, a fresh, young lot should take over the leadership of the BJP at the national level. He has stated the obvious, but he is the first to articulate it in so many words. By doing so, he has exhibited integrity and honesty. He has shown courage, which is now considered rare in a party increasingly consumed by sycophancy and factionalism.

Dilli4 will be most displeased with Parrikar. He has shown them up. Dilli4 worked the media all of Tuesday to give a twist to Parrikar’s statement and make him sound rancid. Dilli4 met with some success, which prompted Parrikar to issue a ‘clarification’ that is really a reiteration of what he said: "Advaniji is my icon. The media is distorting my comments. I only asked for a young person -- between 40 and 55 years of age -- to be the party president. I stand by my comments." To drive home his point, he added, "There is a lot of wrong projection about BJP which can be cleared with a new face."

Notice the emphasis on ‘young person’ and ‘new face’. He has been blunt and truthful. And absolutely right in his assessment. Dilli4 needed to be told where they get off.

But Dilli4 is not giving up without a fight -- not yet. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who is among those in the BJP who suffer from an acute manifestation of foot-in-mouth disease, was deployed for ‘damage control’. Rudy told media: "Manohar Parrikar has compared Advani to Sachin Tendulkar and said that just as Tendulkar is progressing by and by and his game is improving with experience.... He has used the same metaphor for Advani. If beyond this some other words have been used for analysis, then it is wrong."

Really? Since when has Rudy been appointed arbiter of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? By whom?

Meanwhile, two associated developments in the BJP which reflect the prevailing state of affairs in the party and therefore merit mention.

First, Bishan Singh Chufaal has been appointed president of Uttarakhand unit of the BJP. Bachi Singh Rawat has been sacked for the party’s electoral performance in the Lok Sabha poll. We are now told Chufaal will lead the BJP to greater glory. Let’s wait and watch. 2012 isn’t too far off.

Second, Jaswant Singh has questioned why LK Advani kept quiet for a month on his expulsion from the party before saying that he had disfavoured disciplinary action against the author of Jinnah’s controversial biography. "It is to be examined in what context or reference he (Advani) has said this and that too after a month,” Jaswant Singh told mediapersons in Jaipur on Tuesday.

Interestingly, Jaswant Singh also said his son Manvendra is no more in the BJP. Asked whether Manvendra, former BJP MP from Barmer, was in the party, Jaswant Singh said "No he is not.” He said no member of his family was with the BJP now. Rajasthan BJP president Arun Chaturvedi told PTI, “It has to be ascertained whether Manvendra renewed his party membership during the recent membership drive in Barmer.”

Manvendra has not said anything on the issue.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Twittering about Shashi’s tweet

It won’t surprise me at all if Mr Shashi Tharoor is hopping mad at me. But for my question, asked without any malicious intent, he would not have got into trouble with his party bosses and the Congress would not have gone into a tizzy. Let’s rewind to Monday, September 14. While scanning the Twitter-world from my TweetDeck I spotted our Minister of State for External Affairs exuberantly tweeting about his “fortnightly golgappas & chhole bature at Bengali Sweet House” and how he “was assailed by cameras”. Now that’s in keeping with party-dictated austerity in these hard times, I told myself, and dashed off a tweet addressed to him, which read, “@ShashiTharoor Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?” I must admit that I was quite surprised to receive a tweet from him in reply: “@KanchanGupta Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” I imagined him having a hearty laugh while typing out the tweet; I had a good laugh, too. And then forgot all about it.

On September 16, the tweets exchanged between Mr Tharoor and me were reproduced on the front page of Indian Express, although I was not identified as the person who posed the question. The newspaper also had an editorial on his seemingly casual comment on austerity made in a flamboyant, offhandish manner. Predictably, the Congress’s spokesperson — Ms Jayanthi Natarajan was briefing the Press that afternoon — was asked to comment on Mr Tharoor’s tweet and, equally predictably, she launched a broadside against him. The use of the phrase ‘cattle class’ had hugely upset the party, she told mediapersons, and such callous disregard for sensitivities was not acceptable. By then Mr Tharoor had left for an official visit to Liberia and Ghana, and couldn’t have possibly been summoned for an explanation. Sniffing for a story in an otherwise silly season, newspapers and news channels went to town with the Congress’s response to Mr Tharoor’s tweet. The rest is, as the cliché goes, history.

It is not for me to defend either Mr Tharoor or his party’s reaction; having knowingly stepped into what Amitabh Bachchan colourfully described as the “cess pool” of politics, he should know how to look after himself; if he doesn’t, tough luck. But I do get the sense, as do many other fellow journalists, that our ebullient first time MP-turned-Minister in a high profile Ministry has rubbed too many of his party colleagues the wrong way. Politicians who have worked their way up the ladder don’t take to paratroopers kindly, especially when the latter grab disproportionate media attention. What has also worked against Mr Tharoor is that he has been at the centre of a series of controversies which, for any other politician, would have proved to be disastrous. Not so for Mr Tharoor: On each occasion he has craftily used the media to portray himself as the innocent victim of malicious conspiracies and diabolical plots. Years spent at the UN have taught him the art of converting adversity into advantage.

What life in the UN, where top bureaucrats are constantly trying to trip their colleagues to jump the queue, has clearly not taught Mr Tharoor is that politics isn’t about cutting deals in committee rooms or playing little games of one-upmanship. It is, therefore, not surprising that he should find himself in splendid isolation within his own party, with nobody, including fellow Congress MPs from Kerala, standing up for him as he is pitilessly pilloried by Ms Natarajan who is incensed, as are other Congress worthies, among them Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, over his inclusion of the expression ‘cattle class’ in his tweet. Nor is anybody particularly pleased that he feels compelled to travel ‘cattle class’ out of “solidarity with all our holy cows”. On Friday evening, the Prime Minister tried to come to Mr Tharoor’s rescue by stating the obvious: The tweet was a joke and need not be taken seriously. When asked for his comments, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi pointed out that the party (as opposed to the Prime Minister) had already made its position clear.

In an effort to keep the story going till something else comes up, newspapers and news channels are now busy speculating whether the Congress will take punitive action against Mr Tharoor; if yes, then when. Much of it could prove to be no more than idle speculation. But it would be a pity if he were to be punished for a tweet, no matter how cheekily offensive it may appear to our home-grown politicians. Mr Tharoor has said and written far worse to merit retribution for something which is at best a sarcastic comment on dubious austerity.

Ms Natarajan and her bosses are perhaps unaware of the contents of Mr Tharoor’s book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, in which he takes a rather dim view of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He is particularly scathing about Mrs Indira Gandhi: “Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla (liquor trader) rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometimes wonder, might India’s political history have been different?” According to Mr Tharoor, “Mrs Gandhi was skilled at the acquisition and maintenance of power, but hopeless at the wielding of it for larger purposes. She had no real vision or programme beyond the expedient campaign slogans; ‘remove poverty’ was a mantra without a method...” For him, Mrs Gandhi’s “visionless expediency” was her “only credo”. And on Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency he wrote: “Indira arrested opponents, censored the Press, and postponed elections. As a compliant Supreme Court overturned her conviction, she proclaimed a ‘20-point programme’ for the uplift of the common man. (No one found it humorous enough to remark, as Clemenceau had done of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, that ‘even the good Lord only had ten’.) Its provisions remained largely unimplemented. Meanwhile, her thuggish younger son, Sanjay (1946-1980) emphasising two of the 20 points, ordered brutally insensitive campaigns of slum demolitions and forced sterilisations.”

The book was published in 1997. He revised it 10 years later. Between 2007 and 2009, his views on the dynasty may have changed radically. That’s for him to say and prove. But what remains on record would have been considered sufficient by the Congress ‘high command’ to shut the doors on anybody else. Let us not forget that Mr Pranab Mukherjee, a diehard Indira loyalist, was expelled from the party in 1984 for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about Rajiv Gandhi’s elevation as Prime Minister following Mrs Gandhi’s tragic assassination. Others have found themselves out in the cold for far less and have twittered miserably to crawl back into favour. In Mr Tharoor’s case such transgressions have been overlooked. A tweet is nothing in comparison.

UPDATE [22/09/09]
Tharoor meets Sonia, PM, Pranab: Party asks him to be cautious
Shashi Tharoor met Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give his explanation and was asked by the party to be cautious in his comments and actions. Soon after his return from Liberia and Ghana where he was on an official visit, Tharoor met Sonia Gandhi amid demands for his resignation as Minister of State for External Affairs.Later he met Singh and senior Congress leader and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He is understood to have given an explanation about his "cattle class" tweet. A glum-faced Tharoor did not speak to waiting mediapersons after his meetings with Sonia Gandhi and Mukherjee.Party spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed later said "any well-wisher of the party, Government and Tharoor will advise him to desist from any comments or action even jokingly that would hurt the sentiments of the common man." (PTI)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Modi is the future. Dilli4 is the past.

It’s been a great Monday for the BJP and the larger ideological Parivar. In Gujarat, the BJP has won five of the seven Assembly seats where byelections were held on September 12. All five -- Jasdan, Chotila, Dehgam, Danta and Sami-Hariz – were held by the Congress; these are traditional strongholds of the party. Jasdan has been with the Congress since the first general election. Congress has retained Dhoraji. BJP has lost Kodinar.

The byelections have changed the configuration of the 182-member Gujarat Assembly: BJP – 122; Congress – 54; Others – six. That’s three short of what Chief Minister Narendra Modi had aimed to achieve in the 2007 Assembly poll.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has wrested the Tendukheda seat from the Congress. It was considered a stronghold of State Congress president Suresh Pachauri. The Congress has retained Gohad. In the 230-member Madhya Pradesh Assembly, the configuration changes marginally: BJP –144; Congress – 69; BSP – 7; BJSP – 5; Others – four. One seat is vacant.

In Uttarakhand, the BJP has won the Vikasnagar seat, albeit by a wafer-thin margin. This gives the BJP a simple majority of 36 in the 70-member State Assembly.

[The ABVP has swept the MS University, Baroda, election. To get an idea why this is important, please read Defiling Christ is not art]

The most significant results, of course, are from Gujarat. In this summer’s Lok Sabha poll, the BJP won 15 of the 26 seats in this State; the remaining went to the Congress. Subsequently, the party lost the Junagadh Municipal Corporation election which was touted as ‘mainstream’ media as clinching evidence of Modi’s ‘declining popularity’. Some were bold enough to declare that the ‘Modi story is over’.

Not quite. People in the constituencies won on Monday had voted for Congress in 2007 and then again in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. They have now voted BJP. Modi says the people have seen through the Congress in 100 days of UPA Government. Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi has predictably waved away the results as inconsequential. Had the Congress won, austerity be damned, champagne would have been uncorked. Arun Jaitley says it was imprudent of the Congress to “sympathise with Ishrat Jahan and her accomplices” killed in a police encounter in 2004 on election eve. Reminds me of Sonia Gandhi’s “maut ke saudagar” speech during the 2007 Assembly election.

Modi, however, needs to figure out what went wrong in Kodinar. After all, the MLA who vacated the seat was elected to the Lok Sabha on a BJP ticket from the same constituency. Was it choice of candidate? Or was it poor arithmetic in terms of local party equations?

Some conclusions that can be drawn from Monday’s results:

. BJP still remains popular at the State level. Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan command support and endorsement.
. Modi has reaffirmed his ability to fight back odds, imagined and real. He has demonstrated that he can finesse the Congress in elections. (In this round he didn’t even campaign, though he personally strategised every move.)
. People who voted Congress in LS poll have voted BJP in State elections.
. Endorsement of BJP State leadership highlights rejection of party’s national leadership as it exists.
. Dilli4 can’t claim any credit for Monday’s spectacular win. They had no role (and thankfully so!).

In a sense, Monday’s results have once again proved that Modi is the future. Gujarat understands this better than the BJP’s central leaders do. Will the eventual waning of Dilli4’s clout lead to realisation that the choice for the party is clear? Or will I-shall-grab-all ‘leaders’ have their way once again?

What do you think?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Qatil-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah

[Review article on Jaswant Singh’s book, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. It appears as a full-page in Sunday Pioneer. Photos are of Jinnah's Direct Action Day, Calcutta, 16 August, 1946.]

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, we are told, cried in public only thrice in his life. The first occasion was at the grave of his wife, Ruttie, the day she died. The next time he was spotted weeping was on the train from Calcutta after Congress refused to countenance the Muslim League’s objections to Motilal Nehru’s 1928 report (known as the ‘Nehru Report’) proposing dominion status for India with a Constitution that provided for a unitary system of governance and equal rights for all citizens. The last time Jinnah was seen shedding tears, or so his friends recall in their memoirs, was during a visit to a Hindu refugee camp in Karachi in January 1948. Moved by the plight of the refugees, he is believed to have hoarsely whispered, “They used to call me Quaid-e-Azam; now they call me Qatil-e-Azam.”

It is possible that Jinnah, who is not known to have ever smiled, grieved over Ruttie’s grave. It is also believable that he wept bitter tears of rage after being given the short shrift by the Congress over the Nehru Report (he was to later come up with what is known as ‘Jinnah’s 14 Points’ which, under the guise of proposing that the “future Constitution should be federal with residuary powers vested in the provinces,” demanded that “in the Central Legislative Assembly, Muslim representation shall not be less than one-third”). But it’s rather hard to believe that the man who was unmoved by the blood-letting that followed his call for ‘Direct Action’ in August 1946 and continued till he had attained his “moth-eaten Pakistan” a year later would be moved by the sight of wailing women and orphaned children at a Hindu refugee camp in January 1948. If at all Jinnah was distressed it was because his vanity had been hurt — the ‘Quaid’ was being spat upon as a ‘Qatil’.

Like Jaswant Singh, I am neither a scholar nor a historian. But unlike him, I am the child of parents who suffered the horrors of Partition; my father arrived in India from East Pakistan with his widowed mother and four younger siblings, penniless and virtually with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He didn’t have the privilege of growing up in princely Jodhpur, nor did life afford him the luxury of pondering over the minutiae of the politics of Partition in the amiable surroundings of Nehru Memorial Library. Yet, I do not recall him ever expressing either rancour or regret. Even if he wanted to, my mother wouldn’t have let him. The struggle for survival rode rough-shod over any emotional struggle that might have peeked hesitantly in their minds.

And unlike Jaswant Singh, as well as many others who believe that Partition was a blunder, that India would have been one large happy family had the Radcliffe line not been drawn, that the Congress should not have persisted with its idea of India as one nation with a unitary system in which power would be concentrated at the Centre, that the Muslim League had a case when it argued for proportionate representation if not more for Muslims to compensate them for the loss of the power they wielded before the British took charge of India’s affairs, I belong to the minority which believes that Partition was the second best thing to have happened to us. The first was the failure of the ghazis to prop up a dissolute badshah in 1857. In his literally weighty tome Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence, Jaswant Singh obviously disagrees with this contention: “It was here in the middle of the 19th century that the symbol of our sovereignty was finally seized and trampled underfoot by British India.” Not everybody mourned that event, just as Hindus in Bengal were not terribly upset when Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah was given the boot in 1757.

But that defeat of presumed Muslim supremacy in 1857 was not without significance. Rudely stripped of their status as a minuscule minority ruling over India’s vast majority, Muslims discovered salvation in separatism in the subsequent decades — first in terms of faith and culture, and later with the formation of the Muslim League in 1906, in Muslim identity politics. Jinnah did not gravitate towards the League then, but it was his natural home and he couldn’t possibly stay away for long. The “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” thought he could bargain for a slice of power through exclusivist constitutionalist politics, which he thought was his forte, but when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi steered the Congress to mass politics, Jinnah, clad in Savile Row suits, scoffing whisky and munching on ham sandwiches, couldn’t quite see himself mingling with the unwashed masses.

Ironically, this is the man, who had little knowledge of Islam and even lesser respect for its core beliefs, who would emerge as the ‘sole spokesman’ of undivided India’s Muslims, or so he would insist on being known as; that was a platform he found convenient so as not to get pushed out from national politics by the Congress and its stalwarts, namely Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Yet, for all his rancid denunciation of Hindu majoritarianism, of Congress’s emphasis on centralisation of power, of everything that together shaped India and the Indian identity, he could never command cross-country Muslim support. Or else the Muslim League would not have to look for proportionate representation.

Much of Jaswant Singh’s book covers territory that has long been charted by scholars and historians, although its documentation is truly rich: Potted history is useful for non-historians and as a ready-reckoner for dates and events. Nor is there anything startlingly new about Jaswant Singh’s thesis spun around the idea of Jinnah as the ‘sole spokesman’ of India’s Muslims. Ayesha Jalal expounded this theory many years ago in her book, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan which, in a sense, provides the most comprehensive explanation for Jinnah’s politics. True, Ayesha Jalal’s is a Pakistani’s perspective; but is Jaswant Singh’s the Indian perspective? If yes, then which India is he speaking for? That which revels in lighting candles at Wagah border even as more lives are laid to waste to satiate the lust ignited by Jinnah’s rhetoric that became the recurrent theme of Muslim League politics after the Lahore Resolution of 1940? Would Jinnah have ever recanted had Nehru toed the line of least resistance? Jaswant Singh writes about the Cabinet Mission Plan, of the divergence in the responses of the Congress and the Muslim League, but that alone cannot be evidence of ‘majoritarian’ perfidy.

Nehru talked of conditional participation in the Constituent Assembly, of reserving the right to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan. Jinnah spoke a sharply different and sinister language: He recalled the Lahore Resolution and reiterated the demand for Pakistan; he threatened “direct action”. Thus was conceived, in the dark labyrinths of his mind, and given shape to in consultation with his Faustian colleagues, ‘Direct Action Day’ to be observed on August 16, 1946. “We shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed,” Jinnah thundered. Did the Quaid-e-Azam feel any sense of remorse when he saw vultures feasting on the dead after the Great Calcutta Killing? He didn’t. That is the Jinnah which Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence white-washes and presents as a man who was deeply wronged by Nehru and Patel.

Jaswant Singh’s book revolves around the contention that if only Nehru had been farsighted, had he and Patel not colluded to pass the March 8, 1947 Congress resolution asking for the partition of Punjab (and keeping the option of partitioning Bengal open), had they been more accommodative towards Jinnah, there would have been no Pakistan, no Bangladesh today, but a “magnificent edifice of a united India”. Jinnah’s opposition, Jaswant Singh argues, “was not against the Hindus or Hinduism, it was the Congress that he considered as the true political rival of the Muslim League, and the League he considered as being just an extension of himself”. Jaswant Singh oversimplifies the case for the Quaid-e-Azam when he says, “The Muslim community for Jinnah became an electoral body; his call for a Muslim nation his political platform; the battles he fought were entirely political — between the Muslim League and the Congress; Pakistan was his political demand over which he and the Muslim League could rule.” The recrimination is equally sweeping: Nehru was “one of the principal architects, in reality the draftsman of India’s partition” who “began questioning himself, his actions, his thoughts soon enough”. Does Jaswant Singh really believe that had the Congress accepted Jinnah’s conditions and created within an undivided India six separate ‘Pakistans’ — what the Muslim League called the “six Muslim provinces” (the Punjab, the NWFP, Sindh, Balochistan, Bengal and Assam) with near-total autonomy — there would have been a “magnificent edifice of a united India” today?

Jaswant Singh regrets that Jinnah died too soon “to re-examine what he had done… but he too had begun to recognise the enormity of this partition… His pre-1947 statements and the often quoted 11 August 1947 speech are in reality but indicators of his thoughts, not any definition”. This by no means detracts from the fact that Jinnah, who died 13 months after ensconcing himself as the Governor-General of Pakistan, sowed the seeds of his country’s break-up before he discovered that even ‘sole spokesmen’ are but mere mortals. On his first and only visit to Dhaka, he pompously declared that Urdu would be the state language; the Bengalis could either like it or lump it.

Bangladesh chose to lump it. So much for Jinnah’s ‘Muslims first’ identity politics.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

If only Advani had...

[For an expanded version, with insider details of Advani-Vajpayee and Advani-Jaswant relations, see my column Coffee Break in Sunday Pioneer.]
These are not happy times for L K Advani. Colleagues in the BJP who were in total awe of Advani and owe their rise in the party as well as in politics to him have turned bitter critics. Fawning journalists who would call Advani’s office incessantly for an ‘exclusive’ interview or felt privileged to be invited for a cup of tea with him are now busy writing his obituary or ridiculing him pitilessly. The South Delhi commentariat, which has arrogated to itself the task of thinking for the masses, would want us to believe that five decades of public life can be summed up in 33 minutes and 47 seconds of discussion as was witnessed last Monday on NDTV.

When I met him on Tuesday morning, he looked his usual affable self. But his eyes reflected a sense of pain and despair. For a while we talked about books. Advani is a voracious reader although, unlike many of his critics, he does not flaunt intellectual pretensions.

The conversation meandered to what’s happening in the BJP and Advani sounded both upset and pained. “This is not the party I knew… it has changed so much,” he said wistfully. It has changed in many ways.

Thirteen years ago, when Advani was party president, the BJP projected itself as an ‘alternative’ to the Congress not merely in terms of political ideology but also policy and programme. Few people would know about it, and fewer in today’s BJP would care to recall, that he and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were constantly thinking in terms of ideas to craft an alternative agenda of governance. Vajpayee was the big picture man – “We should change the system, otherwise governance cannot change” – while Advani would think in terms of nuts and bolts, the small details, of how to change the system.

Today those who aspire to take charge of the party have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in ideational thinking. Rhetoric has come to replace crafting of agenda. Any serious effort to engage them in discussing alternative policy ideas fails because they find it boring. It’s easier to outsource that task to lobbies and pressure groups: They come up with ‘alternative policies’ and these are then adopted as party objectives.

Advani was deeply pained about Jaswant Singh’s vituperative personal attacks against him. “He was in the party for 30 years, during which time for nearly 28 years he was an MP. He has held every possible post except that of party president and Prime Minister. Yet he now brushes aside his association with the party as if it does not amount to anything.”

On Kandahar, he sounded distraught that media was making a mountain out of a molehill. “I have merely said I don’t recall, I can’t recall a decision being taken on Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists.”

Actually, the Cabinet Committee on Security, as I have written in The Pioneer, did not discuss or decide the issue of Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists. What was discussed was his going to Kandahar and doubts were expressed whether it was the right thing to do as he could have ended up a hostage too and then the demands would have been spectacular. Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists was the result of last minute changes in travel plans. Pakistan gave over-flight permission for an Indian Airlines aircraft and not the Aviation Research Centre (a R&AW-linked agency) plane in which Jaswant Singh was supposed to travel. This resulted in his travelling on the same plane as the terrorists. Given the tight schedule, the CCS could not have possibly discussed this aspect all over again. In any event, a decade later, Kandahar is a bit of a non-issue.

Advani is equally pained by Yashwant Sinha’s criticism of him: “I have gone out of my way to help him… I have done so much for him... He owes a lot to me.” Sudheendra Kulkarni’s departure has not distressed him as much as his declaration that he was disassociating himself from the BJP due to “ideological differences”. Advani is not amused that it took 13 years for Kulkarni to discover these ‘differences’.

Contrary to popular perception, Advani said he would be more than happy to step aside and retire from active politics. “I could do so many things… read books, write. But there is always this issue of who will take over… There are enough young leaders. After all they have to take charge at some time.”

Each one of us has a fatal flaw. Advani’s fatal flaw, to my mind and reaffirmed after my chat with him, is that he could never assert himself. He admitted as much. Good men often suffer from the inability to force their way; or else Advani would not have succumbed to pressure to stay on, as he did after this summer’s election. Those in the party who persuaded him not to step down were concerned about themselves – not about Advani or the BJP. Advani could have stuck to his instinctive decision, but he did not.

Just as he failed to take a stand on the hasty and ill-considered decision to summarily expel Jaswant Singh from the party. Had he stood firm, the parliamentary board could not have gone ahead and done what it did. Nor could Gujarat have banned Jinnah - India, Partition, Independence. The ban is bound to be set aside by the courts, causing nothing but further embarrassment to the party all because Ananth Kumar clamoured the loudest for "immediate action" at the fateful parliamentary board meeting in Shimla and others thought it expedient to second his demand.

[Although, in all fairness, it must be said that Advani is not alone 'guilty' of letting down and abandoning Jaswant Singh. I have been witness to how Vajpayee was made to drop his name from the list of Ministers the night before the NDA team took oath of office in 1998. The then Sarsanghachalak, K S Sudarshan, did not want him included as he had "just lost the election". I carried the letter to Gopal Gandhi, then secretary to the President of India, an hour before the swearing-in ceremony. Jaswant Singh forgets that episode, just as he forgets that Advani did not forget to include him as Finance Minister in the 13-day Government, although he need not have done so.]

If only Advani had… But then, life is really about a whole lot of ‘if onlys’.

Which brings me to the issue of leadership change. The recent intervention by the RSS and elaborate consultations which took place in Delhi, apart from the comments by the Sarsanghachalak, Mohanrao Bhagwat, have helped bring about clarity on what needs to be done. These are:

. The old guard must step down and step aside. This cannot be delayed any further.
. The choice of future leaders cannot be restricted to those stationed in Delhi.
. The RSS will not interfere by way of micro-managing the party’s affairs.
. The BJP will have to decide for itself what is best for the party.
. The Sangh will provide any assistance that is sought.
. The RSS will play the role of moral compass: The BJP sorely needs this.

It has been decided, according to one of the senior leaders who was involved with the consultation process this past weekend, that the new president will be “young and energetic” with a high integrity quotient. Mohanrao Bhagwat has provided enough hint by saying there are “75 to 80” potential leaders in the BJP. This also broadens the choice for the party.

There will be two major changes in the coming days. Advani will step down as Leader of Opposition and become a party mentor, perhaps chairman of NDA or even chairman of the parliamentary party. Whether Sushma Swaraj will be elevated to the post of Leader of Opposition is anybody’s guess, although she would like to believe it so. I don’t think it’s a settled issue.

[Although not linked, I am curious about what qualifies Sushma Swaraj to head the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. It would be in order to mention that this committee was once headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The job requires an instinctive feel for foreign affairs, foreign relations and diplomacy, apart from more than passing knowledge of countries and continents. Political officers at foreign missions in Delhi are amused, although what they have to say is not funny.]

I have no confirmed information. But the new president of the BJP could be a proverbial ‘dark horse’. Two names have been mentioned in various discussions – Nitin Gadkari and Manohar Parrikar.

My vote would go to Parrikar. By making him party president, the BJP would signal a tectonic shift. Parrikar can come across as a soft-spoken man, but those who know him will vouch that he cannot be bullied nor will he allow anybody to ride rough-shod over him. He has organisational experience and a clean image; he is ideologically sound and enjoys high credibility with the Sangh; and his youth appeal could prove to be a huge asset for the party among both urban and rural voters.

A new president will also mean a new team of central leaders, a new National Executive and a new set of decision-makers, including organisational general secretary and secretaries.

What needs to be remembered is that the new president’s term will come to an end in the winter of 2012. That is also the time when Assembly election will be held in Gujarat. The result of this poll will be a big factor in deciding Narendra Modi’s future role in the party. The next general election is due in 2014. So, irrespective of whoever holds whichever post today, whether in party or in Parliament, what will matter is the line-up that will emerge in end-2012/early-2013.

During the interregnum, the BJP needs to stabilise and regain the initiative it has lost in the past month. The rest can follow.