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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Asleep at The Wheel?

He drank heavily in his prime and still enjoys a nightly whiskey or two at 74. India's leader takes painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis) and has trouble with his bladder, liver and his one remaining kidney. A taste for fried food and fatty sweets plays havoc with his cholesterol. He takes a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor's orders and is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, then, would be an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal. But for four years the Indian Prime Minister's grandfatherly hands have held the subcontinent back from tumbling into war. Despite the fact that he heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituency stuffed with extremists, Vajpayee has ambitiously pursued peace with neighbor and rival Pakistan, even traveling to the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore in 1999, vainly hoping to bury the bloody animus of the past and start an era of good feelings.

With 1 million soldiers facing each other at high alert on the India-Pakistan border, those days seem long ago. At the same dangerous time, Vajpayee's stewardship is looking less and less comforting. The frail bachelor seems shaky and lost, less an aging sage than an ordinary old man. He forgets names, even of longtime colleague and current Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, and during several recent meetings he appeared confused and inattentive. After a meeting with a Western Foreign Minister, his appearance was described by one attending diplomat as "half dead." At a rare press conference last month in Srinagar, the Prime Minister tottered to the podium. Indian TV crews are asked to film him from the waist up to avoid showing his shuffling gait to find he had trouble understanding questions, repeatedly relying on whispered prompts from Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. Even then Vajpayee stumbled over his replies. "He is very alert when he is functional," says one BJP worker. "But there are very few hours like that." Adds one Western diplomat: "We have a lot of conversations about his health. Some of his mannerisms come down to his personal style. But some of it is definitely spacey stuff."

While no one questions that key decisions on national security and foreign policy are still made by Vajpayee, the focus is now turning to the two men behind the throne: Vajpayee's low-key National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, and Vajpayee's hard-line BJP colleague of 50 years, 72-year-old Advani. The consensus among observers and diplomats is that the hawkish Advani is preparing to succeed Vajpayee at the next national elections due by late 2004. "There is no doubt he is the Prime Minister in waiting," remarks a diplomat.

In the meantime, Vajpayee has undergone a sudden conversion from peacemaker to warmonger primarily in response to political pressures. This year's standoff on the border shows the dovish Prime Minister has accepted the argument that war or the threat of it works. In comments that set off alarm bells around the world, Vajpayee last month spoke twice of an impending "decisive battle" against India's "enemy." Although he has repeatedly said that he does not want war, the Prime Minister has sound strategic reasons for ratcheting up the rhetoric. Since Sept. 11, he has found the international community more sympathetic to the idea of India waging its own war on terror against jihadis in the contended state of Jammu and Kashmir, where many of them have been inserted by Pakistan. And it plays well for India to keep the pot boiling: New Delhi can claim a victim's solidarity with the U.S., avoid addressing the awkward issue of its heavy-handed rule in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and just possibly get Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to actually shut down the jihadi industry on his territory, ending what India calls a "proxy war."

Last week, Musharraf told visiting U.S Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that he was going to put a permanent end to terrorist incursions into India. Vajpayee's government promised in turn some de-escalation measures, though a withdrawal of troops from the border has been ruled out. The big risk, however, is that no matter what Musharraf does, there are enough jihadis already in Kashmir to keep hammering India with suicide bombs and death squads. Four people were killed by terrorists Friday night in Kashmir, even as heavy shelling continued at the frontier and an unmanned Indian spy plane was shot down by the Pakistani air force. Any small spark can still push Vajpayee to deploy his soldiers in some punitive counterattack on Pakistan, which can lead to full-scale war.

Meanwhile, Vajpayee's colleagues carp that he's still not being hawkish enough. "Any Prime Minister that takes action against Pakistan will sweep the elections, but Vajpayee is reluctant and that will definitely damage the BJP," complains BJP hard-liner B.P. Singhal. "As the Prime Minister, for him, national interest is above party interest."

Tellingly, Vajpayee was forced to give up his moderate stance and attend to his party in response to a domestic disaster, not an international crisis. On Feb. 27, a group of Muslims firebombed a train in the western state of Gujarat murdering 58 Hindus. The reprisals against Muslims in Gujarat were fierce, unpoliced, and went on for weeks, killing some 2,000 according to human rights groups. (The official death toll, widely disbelieved, is half this.) On April 4, Vajpayee reacted with revulsion, urging Hindu rioters to rediscover "a sense of unity and brotherhood." Asked the published poet: "Burning alive men, women and children? Are we human or not? Or has a demon taken over us?" His office briefed newspapers on the likely candidates to replace Gujarat state leader Narendra Modi, a member of the BJP who was accused of complicity in the violence, or at least, ineptness in containing it. But scarcely a week later, on April 12, Vajpayee changed his tune. Nothing more was said about sacking Modi. And speaking to an audience in Goa, Vajpayee shocked the country by declaring: "These days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence ... they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats."

In the subcontinental context, that kind of statement is a license for the killings to continue. According to diplomatic sources, the burden of the crisis made Vajpayee unwell. Adds Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the Indian weekly Outlook magazine, Advani and his supporters used the illness to gather the party's hard-line core and read him the riot act. "The party basically gave him no room to maneuver," says Mehta. "He knew he could have lost his job and he had neither the spirit nor the physical strength to fight back. So he just gave up his moderate stance and fell in line. Now he's just a party mascot, a puppet of the hard-liners."

With an enfeebled Vajpayee at the helm, the prospect of war with Pakistan becomes more real. "Advani would really like to finish this proxy war, and perhaps do a bit more," says one diplomat. India has none of the checks and balances designed during the cold war to prevent a nuclear launch in anger. (Although India's military is comfortingly professional, nonpolitical and obedient to civilian control. The country's nukes are controlled by government scientists, and deployment orders come from the Prime Minister's office alone.) For his part, Advani denies any undue influence, or even the tag of "hawk" although, characteristically, he describes communal violence under the BJP as "minimal," even after the shame of Gujarat. But asked about the possibility of attacking across the Line of Control in Kashmir, Advani answers that in his view India is already facing an "undeclared war" from the militants. His list of conditions that Musharraf must meet before peace talks can begin is lengthy. "As long as this undeclared war, this training, arming, financing of jihadis, and this infiltration and terrorism and sabotage continues," he says, "then any dialogue will be meaningless." And he hints that the international community has given tacit approval for action. "One major change in the last 10 days has been that the U.S., Britain and other coalition members have said publicly and forcefully that Pakistan should stop cross-border terrorism," he says. "Our Prime Minister took really radical initiatives in the past. There's no question of that now" in other words, of actively looking for peace. An Indian army source adds that unless India detects that promised shift in militant activity and capability in the next five weeks, the military expects an order to attack.

The body on the other end of the seesaw is Mishra, a 70-year-old career civil servant and diplomat, who functions as the equivalent of a White House chief of staff. The fact that Mishra has survived countless calls for his removal he's accused of wielding influence beyond his position is testament to his pivotal role, diplomats say. Mishra is considered to be the brains behind the peace overtures of the past. His influence with Vajpayee these days waxes when the two men get away from the capital and the rest of the BJP. At a regional security conference in the Kazakh capital of Almaty last week, the Prime Minister made a rare and unexpected conciliatory gesture when he proposed joint Indian-Pakistani patrols along the Line of Control to ensure an end to infiltration. All week Mishra was briefing India's national newspapers that the government had decided to tone down the rhetoric. And significantly, when Vajpayee returned to Delhi on Wednesday night, Mishra stayed behind for further talks. But, warns Outlook editor Mehta, Mishra is just an appointed government servant, however close he is to the boss. "Mishra's influence is directly proportional to Vajpayee's position. He has no party base. When Vajpayee goes down, Mishra goes with him."

Observers say that the BJP is hoping to use Vajpayee through the next general elections, but no further. The party currently rules in a coalition, with Vajpayee as the glue that holds it together. If it manages to win an absolute majority, it won't need him any longer. The Prime Minister has largely accepted this gradual decline. His great ambition on gaining office was to do for India-Pakistan relations what Nixon did for China and the U.S.: only a right-winger, went the argument, could take the country into a peace deal with the archenemy. And this Vajpayee wanted to do, to secure a place in the history books. Friends say this ambition is now dead. Much of the Prime Minister's energy is now devoted to the business of weight rather than weighty affairs of state. His staff coaxes the reluctant old man onto a treadmill for 10 minutes every day and encourages him to take short walks. His "family" longtime companion Rajkumari Kaul, who suffered a heart attack in March, and her daughter Namita ensures he is served only boiled vegetables and rice. But Vajpayee still insists on an evening drink or two. In the family cottage in the Himalayan foothills, says an aide, nothing can keep him away from deep-fried trout. "He promises to stick to his diet with doubled rigidity once he leaves," says an aide, "but the trout he must have." On a long flight abroad, Vajpayee compared his menu with other members of the government party. "He was terribly upset when he discovered he had been singled out for special treatment," says the aide, "and tried to browbeat the in-flight staff into serving him the general meal, which was spicier." Meanwhile, tension seems set to continue between India and Pakistan. But as Vajpayee's ability to steer a moderate course diminishes, he's spending the twilight of his political life where he wants to be out to lunch.

This article appeared at Time.com on June 10, 2002.
Asleep at The Wheel?

Friday, July 6, 2012

‘I’ve maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct’

PM Manmohan Singh tells HT that never before have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency. Here’s the full text of his written replies to an HT questionnaire.

On economy: We will bring clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
On charges of corruption: ...Bills such as Whistleblowers Bill, Lokpal Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill etc, which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

On his legacy: I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live and work in ...We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.
Q1. How do you see the economic situation today and why have we come to this pass?

We are certainly passing through challenging times economically. This did not happen overnight. A lot of it was due to developments in the global economy. The developments in the Eurozone have been a major dampener of global economic sentiment, till the Eurozone leaders hammered out an agreement a few days ago. Europe is the most important destination for our exports and any turbulence there will certainly affect sentiment here. We then had the oil price rise. For a country which imports nearly 80% of its oil, this badly hurt our trade balance. In fact, a major portion of our trade deficit is accounted for by oil imports. There were domestic factors as well.

Q2. What are the top five challenges to the economy in the year ahead?

The India Growth Story is intact. We will continue to work, as we have been doing for 8 years, to keep the story going. Measures which I intend to focus on, in the short run, are:
  • Bring complete clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
  • Control the fiscal deficit through a series of measures which my officials are working on and on which we will build consensus in the government.
  • Revive the Mutual Fund and Insurance industries which have seen a downturn. Absence of investment avenues has pushed Indian savings into gold. We need to open new doors so that savings can be recycled into productive investments that create jobs and growth, not into gold.
  • Clear major investments in the pipeline awaiting FIPB approval. Investors should feel that we mean business. We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructous procedures and make India a more business friendly place.
  • Most importantly, we have given a major push to infrastructure, particularly through PPP. A lot of investment avenues are opening up in Railways, roads, ports and civil aviation. The doors are open for the world to strengthen our hands and contribute to these vital sectors which will give a further push to the economy.
Q3. How do you see coming elections in the states and the Centre affecting policies? How do you guard against populist measures, given the size of the deficit?

I am largely satisfied about the way we have progressed over the last 20 years. The fact that governments have changed many times in between but economic policies have continued means that the direction that has been set is seen to be the correct one by all parties. That is a source of satisfaction also.

However, there are a few issues that come quickly to mind when it comes to what else needs to happen. Firstly, we have yet to settle down to a stable institutional framework to manage an open economy. Our institutions are still evolving and it will take time till we see mature institutions in all sectors as we see them in advanced economies.

Secondly, the logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people.

Lastly, there is the issue of distribution. We have lifted millions out of poverty. But, I worry that the fruits of an open economy will be increasingly captured by fewer people. I worry that a large segment of our population will be left out of the benefits of economic growth. We need to correct that fast.

Q4. Foreign investors have been rattled by events such as the tax row with Vodafone. How do you intend to set their minds at rest?

The investor community had concerns on some tax matters. The finance ministry, over the last three months, has been issuing clarifications and working with the investor community to bring greater clarity on the matter. However, there has been a slowing down of capital flows which normally would have covered the current account deficit.

That does not mean things have turned very bad. Coca Cola has announced to invest $ 5 bn in India just a few days ago. IKEA plans to invest a billion dollars. The pessimism in the media and the markets is far more than reality. Consumer spend is holding up and this has not been affected by interest rates. The Chairman of GE captured the picture correctly when he said "the mood in the market is worse than the mood on the ground". I agree with that.

Q5. There is also a perception of drift, of policy paralysis. You have used the term “coalition compulsions” is this the main factor? How do you dispel the impression of drift? Do you intend to communicate more often with the nation?

I think it is a matter of perception. We worked under far greater constraints under UPA 1. However, there were a lot of things which had been done under the previous government which we had to undo. We had to bring a healing touch to the nation, make minorities feel secure and included, and give emphasis to the needs of the common man who had moved to the background in the Shining India of the NDA rule.

The biggest achievements of UPA 1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth. We did this with widespread support across the spectrum of parties supporting us.

But difficulties existed then as they do now. Parties are entitled to their differences then and now. There were differences on the US Nuclear deal and there are going to be some differences now also. I do not think that the political landscape is radically different now as compared to 3 years ago. What has changed is public expectation. Now that the immediate problems caused by the NDA government have receded into the background, other issues are coming to the fore. This is but natural. That is the way of democracy.

As for speed, look at the way we responded to the 2008 crisis. We rolled out a stimulus package which ensured that we came out of its effects rapidly. We are passing through a similarly challenging situation and I am confident, we will roll out measures to restore economic growth once again.

Q6. In your role as finance minister what do you see as the roadmap for key pending reforms such as pensions, insurance and banking reform, the goods and services tax and the direct taxes code?

Firstly, legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action.

More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that.

Q7. Can we expect some of the young ministers of state becoming cabinet ministers soon?

You have to wait for a while for that question to be answered.

Q8. When will you go to Pakistan? What are the ideal circumstances that would make such a visit possible?

I am looking forward to visiting Pakistan. No dates have been finalised for the visit. As you know there have to be suitable outcomes for such a visit.

Q9. How do you react to charges of corruption during your Prime Ministership?

Never before in the history of India have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency into the functioning government, make government accountable to the people for its actions and bring in measures to control corruption. The Right to Information is a landmark Act for which the Congress Party and its President will be remembered for generations. In fact, this single act has done far more to bring down corruption and bring in accountability than any other measure. It is the information flowing out as a result of this Act which is bringing a lot of corruption to light which would otherwise have been hidden.

We have introduced a Public Procurement Bill which brings in far greater transparency into government procurement and severe deterrents for wrongdoing. This would remove a major source of corruption.

A number of other bills are there such as the Whistleblowers Bill, the Lokpal Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, etc. which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party’s will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively.

My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.

Q10. What is that one thing that you would like to be remembered for?

I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live, work and lead a fulfiling life. In some ways, I contributed to this as a Finance Minister. As Prime Minister, I have had a larger remit. I have worked on the same lines but on a larger platform. We have tried to build a peaceful, harmonious, secure, friendly, prosperous India where every citizen can aspire for the best in life. We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.

This Interview appeared in Hindustan Times on July 08, 2012.
I've maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct'

Friday, June 29, 2012

Confusing consumerism with modernity

In a 2007 column, your correspondent worried about the confusion between consumerism and modernity and still remains worried.

Years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I sat across the aisle from a woman and her pre-teen son.
The son asked his mother if he could move to an empty window seat. “Just so long as you obey what the captain said: keep your seat belt loosely fastened at all times,” she told him. The boy sat by the window and fastened his belt as he stared out of the window, wonderstruck by fluffs of white clouds floating by and every now and then, another jetliner flying past in the distance.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced we were headed for turbulence. He instructed passengers to return to their seats and ensure their seat belts were fastened. The little boy quickly went back to the seat next to his mother and buckled his seat belt while I panicked silently at the thought of a bumpy interlude.
Cut to November 2007: On a flight from Goa to Delhi, I am sitting behind a family of four. The parents are engrossed in conversation while their two pre-teen boys run amok.
One of them stood right in front of me, noisily wolfing down a bag of potato chips while crumbs fell all over the aisle; when he finished, he blew into it, hoping it would pop, while his brother stood up on his seat, laughing at the older one’s antics.
They screamed and shouted with little regard for other passengers.
The boys’ behavior was irritating but they could be forgiven because they were both under ten years old; deeply offensive was the indifference of the parents. They mostly ignored the boys. The circus continued through the flight; the parents said nothing in admonition.
As the plane came in to land, the two boys got into a fight about the window seat. They raised such a ruckus that the parents were finally moved to do something: they asked the two to share the seat.
As the flight landed and the parents buckled up, the two sons shared the window seat, without seat belts fastened.
Observing such crass behavior, I began to understand why brats grow up to be boorish men lacking civic sense. They drive rashly, be it bicycles, motorbikes or cars; they cross the street anywhere they want; they urinate all over the place; they harass women; and generally make an all-round nuisance of themselves.
The literature says such behavior begins with the family and ends with the school. In India, both are dysfunctional.
The family is, by and large, a totalitarian setup in which children are made to conform to their elders’whims and fancies; schools reinforce conformism. There is no room in either institution for creativity.
Most children end up as nitpicking nerds or mindless conformists; above all, they become seekers of instant gratification.
Meanwhile, the media are pushing similar notions in which conformity is valued over creativity as is obvious from jewelry commercials; narcissism triumphs over civic values: just look at the motorbike commercials.
I once sat through a meeting wherein a senior adman made a presentation about the changes in India to an audience that consisted of senior executives of a global firm. He said India was modernising tradition; we were taking age-old ways and sprucing them up with glitz and glamour.
He confused rituals with tradition and consumerism with modernity.
The brats in the plane are victims of an emergent culture that emphasises narcissism; as long they conform to the family’s whims and fancies, children are in a curiously cynical manner, indulged and ignored.
Neither the family nor schools focus on socialisation, in which children are taught to balance their narcissism with respect for the rights of others.Not all the malls nor cell phones and fancy cars add up to modernity.
Not all the jewelry at Karva Chauth nor big fat weddings and expensive Diwali gifts add up to tradition. India has a long way to go before it gets the right definitions of tradition and modernity.
This column appeared in DNA, November 21, 2007.

Confusing consumerism with modernity

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Will they still need me?

NEW YORK: It is a brilliant Father’s Day afternoon and I am sitting at McSorley’s, the oldest pub on the buzzing Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my younger daughter lives. She has invited her friends to quaff a few beers with me. Focused on making a life for herself in “this city that never sleeps,” she works hard and makes the most of the vibrant metropolis; mind-ful, I suspect, of the old Frank Sinatra standard: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
My older daughter, on the other hand, has chosen to make Delhi her home, hanging out with friends from all over the world who happen to live in the capital. Both of them traverse the world with an easy sophistication that is enviable.
When my first daughter was born, my mother gave us a plaque, which read “You must give your children roots and wings. Roots will give them the strength to face any adversity; wings will help them soar above everything to explore new worlds and go farther than you ever did.” As I sat in the pub, with the group of bubbly twenty-somethings, I couldn’t help thinking of my mother’s plaque and marvelling at just how we may have got it right with our daughters.
The older daughter’s roots and the younger one’s wings are a perfect foil for my mother’s advice. They both make their way in the world. While I do draw a sense of satisfaction from their achievements, there is a nevertheless a disturbing arrhythmia in my mind. My thoughts go back to the cheerful holidays spent in our various homes in the US and in India: the warm Christmases, the lazy Sundays; the vacations we shared in Goa, in Europe and in the United States; the hysterical laughter while watching the bumbling antics of Inspector Clouseau in Pink Panther videos. These are comforting and pleasing memories; the sadness comes from knowing such togetherness will become less frequent in the years to come.
Such sweet and sour emotions are a luxury that today’s fathers enjoy. When I was growing up, fathers were remote persons. They inspired awe, sometimes admiration; most often fear but hardly ever love. Whether liberal or conservative, they just did not get involved in their children’s lives. The authoritarian ones ran their children’s lives according to their worldview; the more liberal ones simply accepted things.
If they couldn’t control their children or satisfy them with baubles, they pulled back and became even more distant. The distant father, the absent father, the authoritarian father, the indulgent father… these are classical personality formulations on which much of today’s psychology and literature are based.
This is the thing about Father’s Day: even in blasé Manhattan: it evokes teary reactions in grey-haired men, who are otherwise balanced and not prone to sentimentality. Ever since it was first observed in Fairmont, a small mining town in West Virginia in 1908, the day was “etched in sadness as well as thankfulness”.
The Fairmont event was a church service in remembrance of the 360 men, many of them fathers, killed in a mining disaster the previous year. However, it was not until 1972, when President Richard M Nixon proclaimed it a national holiday that Father’s Day became established and its observance began to spread around the world.
Father’s Day is when children honor and indulge their father. There is some amount of Hallmark Card artifice to it. However, for me, it has always been a pause; a chance to remember the wonderful times growing up with my children; to recognize that the relationship with them is always ambiguous. You love them and hope for nothing in return. Most times, you experience pure joy; other times, there may be sheer aggravation. Underlying it is a bittersweet taste: as involved fathers we try to move heaven and earth to smooth things for our children when they are dependent on us. The haunting question is: will they still need us when we’re 64?
On a brighter note, some day we will have grandchildren on the knee.
This column appeared in DNA, June 26, 2007.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reaping the Modi whirlwind

It is now clear that Narendra Modi is making an open bid to be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, your correspondent shares his analysis on the Modi phenomenon from a 2007 column.

Narendra Modi’s victory in Gujarat is an emphatic statement by the people of the state that they have no time for the Congress ideology of political correctness. A proud and entrepreneurial people, if somewhat insular, Gujaratis have historically embraced radical ideologies, starting from Mohandas Gandhi’s fight against the British in the 1930s to Jayprakash Narayan’s nihilist navnirman movement against the Congress in the 1970s.
In the 1990s, Gujarat embraced Hindutva, partly for primordial reasons, but also because they had no faith in the Congress.
The Congress held sway over Gujarat for nearly two decades after the state was formed in 1960. Then, slowly and surely, the Congress appeal diminished. If Narendra Modi survives the next term to 2012, Hindutva will have become the mainstream ideology in the state.
Many liberal Gujaratis have become disenchanted with the Congress; an editor told me: “We don’t want Modi, but where is the Congress? Gujaratis are not going to throw up a Mulayam Singh Yadav or a Mayawati because they want stability. We are rich and have good infrastructure, long before Modi got here.”
Modi has tapped into the Gujarati disillusionment with the Congress. To begin with, they have no time for socialism and nonalignment; in 2002, they challenged the Congress on its secular ideology. In handing Modi a significant electoral triumph, they have begun to question the idea of democracy, preferring an authoritarian leader. Gujarat has revolted against the four pillars of Indian nationalist ideology: socialism, secularism, democracy and nonalignment.
These are the norms the Congress propagated during the nationalist movement and then after Independence. Trouble is, socialism became an excuse for the license-permit Raj; secularism mutated into a pandering to a Muslim vote bank; nonalignment became an anti-American ideology and democracy became a family business. Gujaratis would have none of it; they turned first to JP; now they are willing to take their chances with Modi.
The people of Gujarat are decent and hard-working and try to get along; typically they would support a party like the Congress. Over the years, they came to see the Congress as an elitist and Stalinist organisation in which regional leadership was not encouraged. Instead, the party’s leaders in the state had to be anointed by the High Command.
Even today, young leaders in the state, as on the national stage, are sons and daughters of veterans of the party. This is not true of the BJP. Thus, even sensible people in the state chose to support the nasty and dangerous Hindutva ideology over the feudal setup of the Congress.
It’s not just in politics, but in business as well. The scions of the old mill-owning families in Gujarat are now reduced to living off their parents’ wealth; my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, who presides over the growing Arvind empire, is a notable exception. Gujarat recognises and rewards only entrepreneurship and hard work; while they respect the old generators of wealth, they have no time for their progeny. Today’s big business names in Gujarat were unknown a decade ago. Perhaps that’s why the Gujarati diaspora has done so well all over the world, despite their obvious and severely limiting insularity.
So we must realise that Modi’s success is a vote against the elitism of the Congress. And against the lack of new ideas in the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, the most revered icons of Gujarat politics. The general feeling in Gujarat is that the two were given short shrift in post-Independence politics.
The widespread belief is Gujaratis rarely joined the civil or the defense services because of their proclivity to business. On the other hand, many middle class Gujaratis believe they remained outsiders because of their problems with Hindi, English and Western ways. This is the cause of the dangerous Modi whirlwind we are reaping today.
This column appeared in DNA, December 26, 2007.

Reaping the Modi whirlwind