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Showing posts with label indira gandhi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indira gandhi. Show all posts

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The rise of righteous reaction

Mahatmas with a small m

Through my pre-teen and teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a medical doctor, a theosophist, a Congress party activist and a compassionate human being. He was my ideal.

One summer when my siblings and I were visiting his home in Surat, someone told him I had eaten meat. Grandfather wasn’t incensed or censorious; he simply said “We don’t eat meat.” I was in awe of this man who attracted eminences like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, George Arundale, among others to his home. When he said something, I listened, deferentially.

However on this occasion his comment rankled. Grandfather seemed to be suggesting that because of caste and religious strictures, our family was vegetarian. Having eaten a mutton samosa at a friend’s house, I thought to myself that his reaction was over the top. I knew he was tolerant and liberal; his extensive library included books by Bertrand Russell and other free thinkers.  Thanks to him, we were spared worst traditions of caste and religion.

This incident haunted me over the years. Since I admired him, I dismissed the episode as a one-off occurrence. Nevertheless, it came back to haunt me in the mid-1970s, when I was living in the US.  Our high-profile India Forum group in Chicago became a magnet for NGOs and activists of all types, looking at times for financial support but mostly to spread the gospel of the jholewala alternative.  I termed it “the rise of righteous reaction.”

The ascent of the righteous activist posing alternative, mostly woolly and impractical models, was like a riptide generated by the Navnirman wave.  Led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a Congress party dissenter, the movement was against the perceived corruption and, in a phrase cherished and propagated by the jholewala, ‘anti-people’ development policies of the Indira Gandhi government of the time.

Training his guns on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narayan called for “Total Revolution,” a Maoist-style leap backward into anarchy which prompted the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. Condemned worldwide as a dictatorial regression, the Emergency destroyed the government’s credibility. The Congress Party was defeated in the general election of 1977.

However, even before the first non-Congress government assumed office in Delhi, things had begun to go awry. During what he thought was a revolutionary war; Narayan had called on the armed forces to revolt against the government. That’s when the steady erosion of his vastly inflated stature began, helped in no small measure by the subsequent fumbling and ineptitude of the Janata government which came to power in 1977.

Narayan’s movement had its roots in the margins of the Gandhian movement. The Mahatma’s success with the independence struggle allowed him to exhume and propagate an anti-Western, anti-modernity ideology drawn from his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Mohandas Gandhi challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernization agenda, recommending simplistic notions like village republics, self-sufficiency, nature cure and vegetarianism as national alternatives.

Like many students who studied in the US after him, Narayan became a Karl Marx admirer. However, when he returned to India he found his position pre-empted by Nehruvian economic policies that emphasized central planning and nationalization of core industries. For him and his acolytes, it was a short step to the vituperative and impractical edicts of Hind Swaraj.

The Navnirman movement was confused at birth. It combined the anti-Western, anti-modern strains of Gandhian utopianism and the anti-market, anti-constitutional Marxist dogma. This weird and unsustainable campaign fell apart as casually as it was formed.

After the failure of Narayan’s movement, the role of righteous reaction became marginal. The protest against the Narmada Dam project led by a global coalition of NGOs gave it a second wind. Through the 1980s, the Indian jholewala brigade became involved with relatively benign campaigns against child labor, deforestation, and for employment generation, education, healthcare, among others.  

In 2004, the newly-elected UPA government, recognizing their contribution to social welfare and poverty alleviation, sought to co-opt the jholewala brigade into the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s deliberations focused on welfare and (Citizen’s) rights rather than the legitimacy of the government and the political system. But a more virulent strain of Jholewala activism surfaced with the appearance on the national stage of Anna Hazare and his disciples.

The Hazare protest went further than Narayan in challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution and the credibility of the political system. Sophisticated in the use of propaganda, the rural chieftain and his jholewala acolytes cleverly projected their protest as being against corruption when actually it is a political assault on the UPA government and its leading party, the Congress. Like Narayan, Hazare over-reached and today, his protest has degenerated into a media relations effort.

Is the tradition of smug righteousness so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it can only be contained, never eradicated? Who will be the next mahatma (with a small m)?

This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power, Not Principles

Anti-Congressism is the common plank of those motivated by short-term political gain.

Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have Hindutva rabble-rousers who held sway from 1998 to 2004. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the India-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat – which is difficult – or cause problems – which is easy – for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short term political gain. 

There are also 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Banerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamool Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic set-up of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalithaa and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive. 

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Anna has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about deja vu. 

The foolishness of the Anna band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement that they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, he said that India’s muchadmired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of depth on the national stage. 

Meanwhile, BJP leader L K Advani led a rath yatra against money in Swiss banks in a nonetoo-subtle bid to cash in on Anna’s storm in a teacup against corruption. Of classic RSS vintage, he believes no one remembers his other 1990 Ram temple effort which led to communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader. 

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else. 

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo. 

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the opposition put together a makeshift government that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. 

In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999. The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype. 

Since then, the Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’s approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue. Most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums. 

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the prime minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia is the real power. 

The truth is different: both Singh and Sonia are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The former pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth”. 

It’s ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate both leaders. Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and prime minister. Sonia, who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of prime minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government. 

The writer is a public affairs commentator.

Left and Right against the Centre

This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

From The Times of India, May 21, 2009

TOP ARTICLE The Decency Option
Election Result Is Key Step in India’s Political Evolution

21 May 2009, 0010 hrs IST, RAJIV DESAI

On Sunday, television viewers witnessed the denouement of the media's noisy and often distorted coverage of the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha.

Just an hour or so after counting began, it became clear the Congress was on its way to a renewed and enhanced mandate. Some saw this coming; indeed, it was there for all to see. The election had taken place under the most extraordinary circumstances: an acute global financial crisis and the aftermath of terror attacks in Mumbai late last year. It was fairly obvious that voters would plump for stability by providing a decisive verdict as they had in 1977 and 1984.

Like the one in 2009, those two elections were held at a time India felt its future was at stake. In 1977, voters decisively rejected Indira Gandhi after she suspended the Constitution, jailed political opponents and muzzled the press during her two-year Emergency. Seven years later, after she fell victim to the bullets of her Sikh bodyguards, the electorate gave her son Rajiv the biggest-ever mandate. These two extraordinary outcomes were useful in predicting the result of the most recent parliamentary election.

One of the most stirring moments in the post-result euphoria was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters assembled at 10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi's residence, "I urge all the political parties to forget their past disputes...We should stand one as a nation." The comment is important because it represents the return of civility in pairs. Unlike the triumphal note the BJP, the Left and various regional formations customarily sound on their various victories, Singh's sober tone signalled his intention to steer a conciliatory course in his next term. Under the new dispensation, public discourse would move beyond matters of probity to decency in public life. This is a major step in the evolution of the political system.

Sadly though, various self-important Congress factotums hit the high registers of arrogance in their dealings with former allies like Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav and with current supporters like the DMK.

This acrimonious beginning raises troubling questions about the future. The vindictive elements need to be reined in swiftly. Unchecked, their arrogance could undermine the new credibility the Grand Old Party has won. If the Congress is to implement what P Chidambaram called its "crisp" manifesto, it will need broad support from the non-Left, non-BJP members of Parliament.

So what's on tap? Take monetary policy. With the resurgence of investor confidence, the Reserve Bank is likely to cut interest rates to facilitate the flow of credit into the domestic economy. In the event, it must also provide incentives to banks to lend to businesses, especially cash-starved small and medium enterprises.

Concerning fiscal policy, huge investments are needed in surface and mass transport, civil aviation, sanitation, water supply, power generation and what have you. One obvious way to raise funds is to sell public sector assets. The railways, ports trusts and various other agencies own vast tracts of prized real estate that could fetch princely sums. The telecom department is widely known to have the biggest network of auto repair shops in India. The tourism ministry's crumbling hotels are obvious targets of divestment as are government-run airlines.

Hobbled by the Left and its fellow travellers in the Congress and its allies, the government hedged its bets on attracting foreign investment. Complex bureaucratic hurdles made FDI dwindle in sector after sector. In retail, insurance, pensions, civil aviation, you name it, opening up remained at best an unfulfilled promise. Ominously, the commerce ministry's Kamal Nath breezily told a television channel, "We already have a liberalised (FDI) regime." He followed that up with a clear no on retail sector reform.

On higher education, despite the National Knowledge Commission's recommendations, policy remained confused and corrupt, dominated by a venal bureaucracy (the All India Council on Technical Education comes to mind) and obtuse politicians. The sluggish human resources development ministry, by its acts of omission and commission, spawned the paradox of growing unemployment despite a huge demand for qualified personnel.

With trade, India adopted the spoiler's role at World Trade Organisation conferences, playing the victim of rapacious developed countries. The rhetoric employed was from another era, when India played a prominent role in the Group of 77, the commercial foil of the Non-aligned Movement. Without the Left calling the shots, its acolytes in the Congress-led ruling coalition will find themselves adrift. It is likely that India will pursue a more reasonable line.

On foreign policy, the strategic alliance with the US, embodied in the nuclear deal, achieved a long-standing objective: to overturn the discriminatory non-proliferation regime. In the neighbourhood, South Block welcomed US pressure on Pakistan seeking to curb its military's anti-India fixation and focus attention on domestic problems caused by a resurgent Taliban. In Sri Lanka, India supported Colombo's final assault on the LTTE ridding the region of a major terrorist force. In Bangladesh and Nepal, the approach has been somewhat mixed, lacking strategic focus.

Despite the show of hubris by vindictive apparatchiks in the Congress and nagging doubts about its leftist bloc, the overall message is that the election results are a game changer.

copyright rajiv desai 2009

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Halfway Point for the UPA

The Way Things Are Going…

When the Congress Party came to power nearly three years ago, middle class hearts were gladdened. Having supported the Neanderthal Democratic Alliance led by the BJP, many were dismayed by the 1998 nuclear tests, following which India became a pariah of the international community. In 2004, the Congress-led UPA won a mandate. Tragically, the Congress think tank, which consisted largely of people who played the role of the palace guard for 10 Janpath, interpreted the result as a vote against the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign.

The Congress continues to believe that Indira Gandhi was their talisman with her garibi hatao and her 20-point program. They see in Sonia Gandhi glimpses of Indira, when really she represents a continuation of her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of ushering India into the 21st century. Many of us who worked closely with him remember when he met Jack Welch, the head of GE, who started the first BPO operation. The rest is history. Today, we are not just the world’s back office; we are solving complex business problems on the basis of our information technology expertise.

Yet the Congress rank-and-file believes that the socialist nostrum is the way forward. They now talk about “inclusive growth.” There can be no denying that the fruits of India’s screaming economic success, led by the BPO industry, should also include the poor and that the government must play an active role in ensuring that they are equally distributed. But that’s not why the BJP-led NDA coalition was defeated. The middle class that voted it into power in 1998 deserted them, frightened by the communal agenda and more so by their incompetence in governance.

The BJP sees things in black-and-white: they propagate that the Congress is an anti-Hindu party and seek votes by raising the basest communal passions that were tweaked by the Partition. The Congress also takes a similar zero-sum view and pits the rich against the poor, stoking the fires of class conflict. It is unable to shake the Soviet mindset of state control over all aspects of human endeavor.

Both parties tend to ignore the middle class. In the old days, the middle class was small and easily forgotten; today it is a substantial, creative force that chose to oust the communal die hards of the BJP. And this is the very group against which the Congress seems to have taken up cudgels, with its divisive agenda of class and caste differences. It has increased taxes, squeezed credit and supported irrational quotas based on caste.

Neither party has taken into account the aspirations of this fastest growing segment of the population. There is something abroad in the world; it’s called the India story. No political party seems to understand it. After Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, scrapped Soviet-style controls on private enterprise in 1991, the economy boomed. Unfortunately, the sacking of the Babri Mosque derailed the reforms the very next year. The economy began to drift and that saw the comprehensive defeat of the Congress in 1996 and the emergence of carpetbagger politicians, who slept in different political tents every night.

In 1996-1997, there were two weak Congress-backed governments under whose dispensation the bureaucracy was able to stall any further reforms. In 1997, when it was clear that the Gujral-Deve Gowda regime had run it course, the bureaucracy unleashed a series of demand management measures including a rise in interest rates that reined in the growing economy. The recession that followed lasted until 2003. In the interim, BJP-led coalitions came to power but proved unequal to task of reigning in the demand managers. It resorted to ad hoc measures such as the poorly designed national highway program. In the event, the BJP-led NDA crashed to defeat in the 2004 election.

For two years, the UPA government focused on setting things right. But the internal contradictions in the Congress and the nihilism of the Left saw its goodwill erode. The Congress is losing elections everywhere but its sycophantic leaders believe that Rahul Gandhi will deliver them from the morass of ignorance and intrigue that is sapping the party. Such complacency will cost them dearly.

from daily news and analysis april 18 2007