Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: Mumbai Avengers

Thrillers or crime fiction as a genre has its own dedicated and faithful clientele that happily ignores other genres with scant remorse. I must confess that though I don’t really ignore the other genres, my addiction to crime fiction is worth worrying. 

While growing up, the only English thrillers available were predominantly by British or American authors. In that era of cold war, the villains were obviously rogue rascals (read communists), who wanted to dominate the world. Cold war ended and terrorism became the omnipresent and omnipotent villain. But just as ‘terrorism’ doesn’t have any specific identity, it doesn’t have any readymade villains. Some authors tried to paint Saddam (or some such desert lords) as villain, but it didn’t create much impact. India started facing the brunt of global (globally connected) terrorism from the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. But there were no credible or readable thrillers with India as a background. 

S Hussain Zaidi, an author who has painstakingly put together and beautifully presented the sordid underworld of Mumbai, has come up with ‘Mumbai Avengers’. I have already been a huge fan of his books (Dongri to Dubai, Byculla to Bangkok, Mafia Queens of Mumbai among others). So I started reading his novel ‘Mumbai Avengers’ with a lot of expectations. There is a co-author (Gabriel Khan), but I ignored that. The start is quite interesting. All the major characters are Indians. The villains are Pakistanis. Seems clichéd, but understandable. The effort to achieve a mixture of Forsyth and Higgins is very apparent. The plot is simple – Mumbai terror attacks of 26th November 2008 are to be avenged. And not by an official team, but by a voluntary, non-official team put together by people from RAW, Indian Army etc. The team starts avenging. But after an interesting start, the grip starts loosening. Instead of a Forsyth-Higgins cocktail, we are force-fed a Manmohan DesaiDavid Dhawan cocktail. The team is built and functions in such a clichéd way that after a while, it stops taxing your mind and starts tiring your eyes. In short, ‘Mumbai Avengers’ beats most of the C-grade Hindi thrillers effortlessly. Quite naturally, a Hindi Film (Phantom) was made out of this novel. I haven’t seen the film, but now I am wise. 

One keeps wondering – isn’t there a single decent soul in the entire India who can avoid the fatal attraction of stereo-typing and grow just a teeny weeny little bit above of infantile intelligence levels? Mr. Zaidi, you have wiped out your balance; the balance that you had painstakingly built through your excellent books till now. Please get back to some meaningful writing, or declare a ‘sanyas’. We would like to remember you for the right reasons, not as a nightmare.

Publisher – Harper Collins Publishers India
First Edition – 2015
Price – INR 199

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Can former PM Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti break the Nepal deadlock

The Indian media has habitually neglected the internal developments in countries that lie next door to us be it Nepal, China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Pakistan. The only exceptions are of course incidents involving the common borders. Nepal has been on the boil for some time now largely occasioned by the declaration of a new constitution that seems glaringly partial to what are called the ‘Hill people' from the north of Nepal. Traditionally, the so-called hill people looked down on the dwellers of the plains [terai] who call themselves Madhesis. With strong cultural links across the border in Bihar and UP, the Madhesis seen as pro-Indian have placed a blockade at the Indo-Nepal border at crucial points choking the supply lines for a landlocked Nepal.

Currently every other day the Nepali police, largely made of the hill people have been aggressively tackling the terai agitators leading to violence and continued deaths. India has not been much help in its failure to mediate and Nepal has lately turned to China for vital supplies like fuel and medicines. The regime in Kathmandu on the other hand has been surprisingly inflexible taking an enormous political risk in alienating the Madhesis for a long time to come. The Madhesis movement at its core has legitimate demands that cannot be ignored. So what we get is a deadlock leaving India mostly as a passive onlooker in an affair that should concern it on an urgent basis. Instead, India has chosen a confrontationist stance as a result of which Narendra Modi during his visit to the UK had to face angry Nepali protestors.

Left to themselves, some Nepali leaders keen to build bridges between the north and the terai have now formed a new front and may be seen as a new and promising force in a situation of impasse that seemed to be asking for such intervention. This report dwells at length on what could be a new beginning combining different groups and factions from all over Nepal and perhaps attracting more mid-level leaders looking for an end to the deadlock. The real danger of the Madhesi movement lies in its potential to turn into an armed struggle, something that neither the government in Kathmandu nor Delhi are prepared for.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Likely national scenarios after Bihar verdict 2015

by Ratnakar Tripathy  

Even those who may want to underplay the significance of the Bihar Assembly verdict and the crushing defeat of the BJP will perforce admit that it opens up new possibilities for the parties opposed to the NDA. This seems rather undeniable when you look at the line up of the top leaders present for the swearing in ceremony of Nitish Kumar and his ministry on 20th November. But let us admit exactly what those new possibilities may be is far from clear at this point of time. The leaders were in Patna not only to express their solidarity, but also to ensure they do not miss what may turn out to be the initial palavers over the formation of a front against the NDA. Virtually no region of India remains excluded from the list apart from the BJP ruled states. After all on the very day the results were announced Lalu Yadav spoke of his plans to visit Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency and the site of his adopted village. He even spoke of his intent to take the Bihar battle to Delhi. Nitish however was subdued and did not join Lalu in his bravado.

The question is how substantial and feasible such plans may turn out to be in the short and the long run and whether the rise of a ‘grand alliance’ is a real possibility at all despite the ring of grandness. Or is the ‘grand alliance’ just a vestigial hangover from a period of third fronts when the national political scenario was dominated by the Congress and the BJP. Is the talk of grand alliance in other words just a sign of a short-lived euphoria occasioned by the discovery that the BJP with all its bold talk has been found to have its own vulnerabilities?      

Was the Bihar Grand Alliance a Unique one-off Case?
First of all those who blindly presume the inevitable rise of a grand alliance as the only resolution to the present chain of events must make a note of the hurdles. For one the significant absences from the Patna jamboree must be noted. Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh, as well as Mayawati were not there. This does not rule out alliances in the future but it does indicate that there will be no plunging into a grand alliance by the major regional parties. There are several reasons why the grand alliance logic may not work anymore. The most outstanding reasons become apparent once you regard Bihar as a unique case rather than a rule to be replicated in the various state elections before being mounted in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Let us examine why Bihar may be a unique case.

If time and again, unlike Lalu, Nitish Kumar has made it clear that he has his eyes firmly set on Bihar and will waste no time in dreaming of a national level leadership despite the promptings from various quarters he must have very good reasons beyond a coy pretence at humility. He repeatedly used the Hindi word ‘aukat’, meaning ‘status or capacity’ denying any plans to heft himself into the position of a Prime Ministerial candidate. Ironically, during the election campaign Nitish was repeatedly attacked by BJP for ‘ahankar’ or hubris that allegedly made him dream of the top position in Delhi. Nitish a hardened realist knows he is lucky to get a third term in Bihar and must make the most of it. The fact also remains that even though Nitish’s alliance with Lalu turned out to be a great and decisive advantage, the fact remains that Nitish also lost votes among both the upper castes and the EBCs due to his association with Lalu. It is just that in retrospect the advantages far outweighed the drawbacks.

Once Lalu and Nitish decided to come together along with the Congress they put up what now seems a greater unity than even the BJP. They of course spoke in a single voice but more important they choreographed every move including division of seats and the selection of candidates in the manner of a monolithic party. This was made possible only because of a complete and unqualified surrender to the target of unity, the most significant reason behind their eventual victory. If there were disputes and wrangling, no one outside the coterie of the leaders came to hear about it. This delicate operation is not something parties can successfully execute and replicate time and again repeatedly in Assam, Bengal, UP or Punjab.  

How Bihar’s Grand Alliance idea may be replicated elsewhere?
If leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Omar Abdulla or Babulal Marandi show some keenness on making a common cause with Bihar, the reason may not be a desire for a grand alliance, but just a strategic alliance that would insulate them from the centre and the BJP and help them within the confines of their fiefs. The 2019 parliamentary elections are far off and even the Congress does not seem to be overly concerned with the distant goal so much as gaining some foothold wherever possible as partners in state governments. Similarly if a Mulayam or a Mayawati is not making a common cause with Nitish-Lalu, it may be because they don’t see how the Bihari duo will help them in the context of UP. Thus despite the qualifier ‘grand’, what these leaders may be looking for are ‘petty’, transitory but strategic and advantageous alliances that help them directly with votes or ward off the Union Government’s meddling in their day to day affairs. In brief then what we can see at this stage is a widespread attempt by the regional parties to bolster the federal spirit by keeping the hard-nosed and intrusive BJP at bay. In this sense, the grand alliance seems a feasible idea only as a defensive political mechanism with two clear targets – first to ensure that the BJP is kept out of the regional spheres of influence and control and second by constant needling and harassment at the centre through the members of the parliament, whether in the lower or the upper house. These two strategies are related intimately – if the BJP is unable to win enough seats in the state assembles its tally of Rajya Sabha members will remain short.

To conclude in the interim…
It would appear that this ‘limited’ grand alliance idea is far superior to reckless efforts at collaborations that may flounder and backfire during elections. As for the distant 2019 scenario, the NDA has achieved little so far to ensure a victory except for the fact that with a diminished Congress no other alternative has emerged in the past two years. Whether lack of alternatives is a good enough ground for BJP to bet on in 2019 remains an open question. Bihar has taught that alternatives can turn up like a rabbit out of a hat and hold their ground. Lest one forget, till a few months ago the one thing seen commonly as impossible in Bihar politics was the coming together of Lalu and Nitish. But they did and did so utterly well!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Commentary - Anti-body of RSS

RSS (and its affiliates/derivatives) have started cornering much attention now, thanks to a variety of acts and reasons. Earlier, RSS was known (or so the RSS people liked to believe anyway) for the 'social work’ that it did. So floods, earthquakes and suchlike calamities saw khaki shorts clad 'swayamsevaks’ carrying out the rescue work in an almost orderly fashion. 

The intolerance of any kind of opposition was RSS’s hallmark even earlier. But since they were not in/near power, their intolerance was considered harmless. Now the ‘intolerance’ is in with a bang. And what will it lead to?

The interview gives a very clear and very scary picture from the other side of the divide. The very fact that an NGO, AIMPLB (All India Muslim Personal Law Board) is not only active, but is considered a key player is scary. And if you read the interview slowly, only once, the scariness quotient increases. 

The super velvet kid-glove treatment by media is very much apparent. But for once, the super-objective and super-neutral stance actually helps to frame the cold viciousness of these statements. Even for straightforward and inert questions, Maulana Rahmani gives self-contradicting answers, happily asking rhetorical questions like “Are we supposed to ape Pakistan and Bangladesh now?” He further ‘complains’ that courts in Bangladesh are ‘hounding Jamaat-e-Islami leaders’. What is Jamaat-e-Islami? An organization that collaborated with Pakistani Army to inflict unmentionable atrocities on Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) citizens.

One must read the interview, because this is the other half of the ‘intolerance’ picture that the RSS and allied organizations are enriching. No point in waking up only after the polarization reaches frightening levels; one must travel with open eyes, even if the travel is a straight slide to inferno.

Will the Bihar effect spread to other assembly elections in India?

It was long understood that the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015 will have a far-reaching impact. But it now seems that the most exaggerated estimates of its impact fell seriously short of the actual echoes. Apart from the reverberations all over the global press, the ramifications within the country are perhaps more deserving of attention as they point towards somewhat long term trends in Indian politics. At this point, the Bihar verdict seems to be inspiring the young Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav, who is enthused enough to discuss a Bihar formula for the electoral battle in his state – the plan may be to form a SP-BSP alliance, as unlikely as the RJD-JD[U] or Nitish-Lalu alliance in Bihar that gave the NDA a decisive defeat.

This interview with Lalu Yadav the Bihar leader, commonly identified with faulty governance or ‘Jungle Raj’ is very telling in that it shows a new and reformed face of Lalu. That Lalu is an evolving leader with an open mind becomes amply clear when he seems to mouth the key slogans that have impressed the Bihari voter as well as the commentators all over India – ‘inclusive development’, and ‘good governance’. In what may seem a division of labour between the two Bihari stalwarts, Nitish is expected to take care of Bihar, while Lalu will devote more attention to the national politics, beginning with a trip to Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, selected by Lalu to blow the bugle for what may turn out to be the beginnings of a third front.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Terrorism - NATO's Challenge

Paris terror attacks make it clear that as Islamic State (IS) looses territory in Syria and Iraq, it would ratchet up its terrorist activities in Europe and rest of the world. The string of terrorist attacks in last few weeks - downing of a Russian airplane in Sinai, attacks in Lebanon and now mayhem in Paris - clearly establishes that IS has opted for organized terrorist activities as a war strategy.

Article 5 of NATO says, attack on one member country is to be considered as an attack on all. Friday's Paris terrorist attacks might not look like traditional armed forces aggression against France. But we cannot forget that IS claims to be Caliphat with sovereignty normally reserved for a state; unlike Al-Qeda, it commands a territory and has been deploying terrorism outside of its territory as a war strategy. Further, the danger of follow up attacks in UK and even possibly in USA is very much real. In other words, an enemy is actively engaged in war acts and intends to further damage Western population. No wonder French President is calling this as 'an act of war' and that means NATO and America cannot avoid a strong military response to these attacks.

American President George Bush, discredited the notion of 'to stop terrorism at home we have to fight bad guys in their homes'. But time has come for President Obama to overcome his political reluctance to get America more involved in Syria and Iraq. Sec. Kerry is trying to hash out a political transformation in Syria, but that is only one aspect. What is in the end needed is complete defeat and eradication of IS on the ground. Leaving that job to a singular credible force of Kurdish Peshmarga [1] or corrupt and deeply weakened Iraqi forces or rag tag multitude of rebel groups; that is unlikely to work. What we need is a quicker end of IS. Longer it takes to eradicate IS, more are Western countries exposed to terrorist attacks like Paris. Further, only depending on local forces to defeat IS would also result in splintering of Syrian Territory with the herculean task of unifying those factions after IS is defeated.

The scale of Paris attacks and specter of further such attacks would eventually move Public Opinion in Western Countries to commit forces on ground. It may not suit President Barack Obama's narrative that "he ended wars and brought American Troops back home"; but time has come for America to lead NATO in cleaning Syria and right the ship in Iraq. If that means sending American Troops back, so be the case. We all know defeating a rag-tag army of IS is not the hard part. Hard part, as Obama Administration is fond of saying, what happens afterwards. We all know Americans do not have much credibility as far as 'nation building' goes; failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are stark. President Obama is acutely aware of what happened in Libya when Americans only toppled Gaddafi but then let fester militants which ended in claiming American lives in Benghazi. America did not even bother to undertake any 'nation building' exercise there. That is where Sec. Kerry's UN brokered diplomatic initiatives come into the picture. While governance and political issues of Syria are sorted out through the UN brokered peace process; it is NATO which needs to lead the way to eradicate IS and establish durable peace on ground. [2]

Aside from softenning opposition of Americans and Western population in lights of Paris attacks, committing soldiers under NATO umbrella is going to be politically palatable for USA, France and many other countries. With UNSC backing obtained, NATO will be the legitimate force on ground to clean the stuff. Even Russia would favor working with NATO to defeat radicals rather than giving the sole operational space to USA. And with NATO, American military would still retain the operational freedom to pursue defeat of IS as how Pentagon deems it fit. As far as China goes, it understands that with it's globalizing economy and it's desire to play more constructive role at the world stage, it cannot afford to stay behind in blessing NATO operations by UNSC.

In the fight against IS, NATO does not need to shoulder all the responsibility. Continued partnership with regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Gulf states will help spread the burden of defeating IS and rebuilding Syria there after. All these nations have a stake in Syrian peace. There will be thorny issues like what role Bashar Assad should play, how would Russia retain its military base in Latakia [3], how to undertake military action without getting Iran involved but at the same time keeping Iran at the negotiation table [4] and finally how to undertake military action without having a side war between Turkey and Kurds [5]. Further, Paris attacks are bound to increase anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, especially immigration from Syria. Given that, quicker NATO frees Syria from IS, better are chances to stop displacement of Syrian people. Safe haven zone could be an intermediate step until whole of Syria stabilizes. But again, prerequisite for all that will be defeating IS in a military campaign and for that Obama Administration and European Governments for sure will have to adopt more strident and committed approach to fight IS. [6]

[1] Kurds will win battles where Kurdish population is present and Kurdish interests are involved. But naturally Kurds are going to be squeamish and definitely less successful, especially a day after IS defeat, in areas like Raqqa where Arab Sunni's are present. This sectarian dimension naturally limits where Kurds can win against IS and where they can sustain those gains.

[2] President Barack Obama will be able to run with the narrative that 'let local forces' sort out the mess in these distant places and it is prudent for America to stay away from these complicated situations; only so far. As more terror attacks like Paris start, that 'narrative' is not going to work. George Bush lost credibility because he picked wrong enemy in Saddam Hussain while the enemy IS in this case is nakedly open and identifiable. As IS sponsored terrorism piles, President Obama cannot hide behind difficulties of 'what happens afterwards' i.e. 'nation building' to avoid undertaking necessary military intervention in Syria.

[3] Syrian President Bashar Assad is the root reason why we have this chaos in Syria spilling all over the world. He slaughters his own people who started a peaceful resistance. There is no possibility whatsoever that larger Syrian population would accept him as the leader of all of Syria. However, Russian President Putin backs him because Russia sees him as the care taker of Russian interests in Latakia. What President Putin is not sure is when post-Assad government installs in Syria, whether it would back Russian Navy in Latakia or not. Having backed Assad so far, and having intervened Syrian Civil War on behalf of Assad; it is very unlikely that post-Assad political powers in Syria would allow Russian Navy presence in Syria. But given the composition of Syria along sectarian lines, Assad's Alawites concentrated in and around Latakai; there will have to be acceptance by rebels in Syria that security of Alawite population needs to be equally ensured as well. If such a security guarantee involves Russian involvement, even military presence on Syrian coasts; then so be the case. USA, UN and rebels all will have to accommodate such a Russian involvement in that case.

[4] Iranians are involved in Syrian internal matters to defeat IS and protect Shiite population. Iranian forces worked along with Shiite forces of Iraq to defeat IS. As Iranian entanglement increased in Syria, Iranian military officers and soldiers died in Syria as well. In a sense Iranian blood is shed to protect Assad. Given recent suicide attacks against Hezbollah and their Shiite supporters in Lebanon; Iran will feel compelled to remain involved. But if NATO and Americans commit soldiers in Syria, Iranian involvement needs to be curtailed. Iran would not accept that. But by retaining Iranian presence at the negotiation table - UN led political transition - Western countries can allow Iran to have some say. The trick is to convince Iran that in order to have an influence to shape Syrian future, it is not necessary to get involved militarily in Syria. Again Obama Administration needs to stop seeing Iranian involvement as the 'outsourcing of dirty work of defeating IS'; time of any such free ride is over. 

[5] Turkish President Erdogan started the war against Kurds to win his parliamentary elections. Now that he has achieved his objective, America needs to stop Erdogan from using the pretext of Syrian civil war to wage another parallel war against Kurds. A complicated issue here is to make Erdogan realize that his objective of removal of Assad and a peaceful Syria with stanched immigrant flow into Turkey, all that will realize only when he restrains his hyper sensitive aggregation against Kurds.

[6] Paris attacks have essentially created a political space for President Obama to maneuver and commit greater American military involvement. His traditional Republican opponents will criticize him for being so late in addressing the challenge of IS. But 'better late than no show'. Upstart Republican Presidential candidates like Trump, Fiorina, Carson or isolationists like Ron Paul will be completely pushed aside by people's anxiety about organized terrorist attacks and people's expectation to act. Same will be the fate of Bernie Sander's style isolationism advocated by American Left. Hillary Clinton will be deft enough to build on her hawkish policy prescriptions to exploit the political opportunity which will be opened here for her. In a sense, President Obama will not find any better successor than Hillary Clinton in carrying forward American policy of greater involvement in Syrian. If all this means Republican Party is shut out completely from White House the third time in row due to seceding foreign policy advantage to Hilary; that is just a collateral damage worth ignoring. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lessons BJP is unlikely to learn from the Bihar debacle

by Ratnakar Tripathy

A day after the crushing defeat of the BJP in the Bihar assembly Elections was announced on 8th November 2015, its parliamentary group met to discuss and dissect the disaster. We do not know what transpired amongst the gathering of the grim faces, but the version put out by Arun Jaitley in a press conference on 9th November indicates there was more ceremony than substance in the palaver. I say this because Jaitley presented what may seem like a PP by an undergrad student on a psephological case study.  With great detachment he argued step by step that the reason for BJP’s defeat lay in better arithmetic and strategy adopted by the Nitish-Lalu-Congress Grand Alliance. This is like a trounced tennis player admitting the obvious that the adversary played a better game. Jaitley had little to say about the ‘content’ of the BJP message that the Bihar voter rejected. He tried to argue that the delivery of the message was to be faulted. Does this sound like a supply chain glitch found in the field of human communication? 

Such is the language of politics today – you can get away all the way with talk about strategy without discussing political values, visions, ideals or policies which get trivialized through jarring repetitions. True, in times of instant communication, the difference between the content and its manner and effectiveness of delivery may often blur. Such blurring was made easier in Bihar because of the ‘war room’ team employed by Nitish. Nitish’s Grand Alliance campaign was planned and executed to a great extent by Prashant Kishore, the same talent who took residence in Modi’s house in Ahmadabad and backed him in the 2014 parliamentary campaign. No doubt a logistical and semiological genius, Kishore nevertheless decided on the fitting slogans, images, propaganda methods and of course the micro level logistics of it all – BUT he remained the carrier of the message, not its utterer or its origin. News reports on Bihar are now naively painting him as a sort of data science sorcerer just as the BJP chief Amit Shah was last seen as the ultimate wizard of the ballot box.

So the question is did the Grand alliance win because of better data management and the ability to act appropriately in response to the data obtained? It may seem like a commonplace but the voter is certainly not as easily manipulated and once you presume he is you are in great trouble. The kind of trouble the BJP got into by assuming that you can always goad the Hindu voter irrespective of caste into an anti-Muslim huddle – all you got to do is try hard enough. Such presumptuousness only reflects the fact that the anti-Muslim sentiment may be too deeply ingrained into the BJP-RSS itself to be shed even for opportunistic reasons. A good analogy here may be the fatal curse of the dynastic urge within the Congress that has stymied it but without which it will lose its identity and fail to hold together. Just as we often ask if the Congress will ever evolve and outgrow its dynastic inclinations, one may ask will BJP outgrow its slavish allegiance to the RSS seen in the post-Advani era. When Lalu Yadav claimed in his victory speech on 8 November that Modi is just an RSS pracharak [propagandist], he did not seem wide of the mark at all.

All the above is a prologue to what I want to claim here – BJP lost Bihar for two chief reasons – because it was seen as harshly divisive and because it was perceived as the platform of the upper castes with some co-opted lower caste leaders. The urban commentators may continue to paint caste sentiments as some kind of superstition or even Marxian ‘false consciousness’ but the Bihar voter in his daily life continues to face casteism as the most tangible form of oppression. There is also a reason to believe that the RSS should be seen more as a proponent of Brahminism rather than Hinduism as such or Hindutva.

Reacting to the bewildering tsunami of BJP stalwarts from Delhi, the Bihar voter thus recoiled and decided to take a conservative approach and play safe by rushing back in a ‘wave’ to a well-known Lalu, Nitish and even the Congress. This is a voter that knows the difference between sweet courtship and insistent stalking and molestation. Constant abuse and warnings from the very PM of a country in 26 rallies alarmed the cunning Bihari peasant who saw in Modi a taker rather than a giver. Nitish on the other hand rode the wave of positivity with his slogan of ‘inclusive development’, a phrase to which he had earlier lent solid content through the days of ‘good governance[ sushasan]’ and the empowerment of the extremely backward and the women in Bihar. The Bihar voter realized and remembered it is not a good idea to take Nitish for granted and take a crazy gamble.   

True, the next few days will see Lalu and the Congress seek their pound of flesh from Nitish - ministerial posts for Lalu’s sons and the victorious Congress candidates to be shepherded by Nitish of course. Soon after Lalu settles the bargains in Patna, he will be off to create ‘trouble [jhanjhat]’ as he put it for Narendra Modi through a tour to Varanasi and West Bengal. The idea is to stir up the political air in the country and create an ant-Modi front. It seems suddenly it has been discovered by all and sundry that the towering figure of Modi has feet of clay after all. What may now follow is a stampede of the tramplers, including the members of the NDA alliance and even the BJP.  Often in politics when you fail to take a critical look in the mirror others make sure to shove the facts in your face in the roughest way possible.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

BJP’s one-way road to communal politics in Bihar

by Ratnakar Tripathy

When Narendra Modi first started his Bihar election campaign in early October, the BJP certainly appeared to be the winner. The Laloo-Nitish – Congress combine seemed like a badly stitched up job, a valiant maybe but an unconvincing show to the Bihar voter. But by the end of the fourth phase on the 2nd November, my journalist friends were sure that the Grand Alliance is winning in Bihar by a small but substantial margin. How Modi-Shah duo brought about this reversal is a story to be told after 8th November when the Bihar Assembly elections results come out and there is no place for ambiguity and whatiffery.  But it is certainly possible to chart the course of the varying BJP strategies up to the last phases of the election.

The initial message of Modi was of course himself with the added potion of ‘development’. But this rhetoric was backed by a promises of endless manna from the heavens of the Centre. The crowds in Bihar were happy to receive the attention of the boss man of the nation. With no serious anti-incumbency sentiments against Nitish, Laloo was the chosen target. The voter was even willing to swallow the talk of Jungle Raaj in the initial days. Laloo is an easy target for ridicule but little did Modi bargain for a Laloo equally good at giving it back. In fact Laloo proved much better, much funnier and much more to the mark in his attacks that reduced Modi’s 2014 stature to an ordinary mortal who lands up in Bihar in a helicopter every other day and spouts nasty words against local leaders for reasons unexplained. This amounted to a trivialization of a charisma turning it into a plain piece of daily furniture.

While Modi-Shah duo turned all the NDA leaders into faceless pygmies instead of enhancing their status, the upper-lower caste divide deepened after the ‘anti-reservation’ talk by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. The news spread like wildfire in the Bihar countryside. It must be said for the quasi-literate Bihari rustic that he compensates very well for his isolation by using the social media to the full. By the end of the second phase it became clear that the Bihar election is about Mandal versus Kamandal – lower versus the upper castes. Even as the commentators cribbed about the inevitable and the annoying presence of the caste factor in Bihar politics, it became clear that the oppressed sections have no other language but that of caste to fight their ideological and organizational battles. By the end of the third phase, Shah-Modi duo were desperate for reasons most understandable.

It is however with the fourth phase that the BJP decided to scrape at the bottom of its armoury. By the fifth phase elections on the 5th November, Bihar had seen the whole range of rhetoric, ideological arsenal, conspiracies and rumours employed by the BJP. I will discuss only two examples here – one taken from a conversation with a journalist friend and another being the latest scandal over a BJP poster about the alleged support for beef-eating among the Grand Alliance members.  

My journalist friend told me of more than one IAS officer posted in the districts who confided in him – they had to work very hard to put a brake on communal riots as the Durga Puja and Muharram dates coincided this year. The local mischief makers tried to use an old formula for riot-making. They insisted on taking out their Durga Puja processions on the Muharram day but the IAS officers involved refused to budge. The Nitish government in Patna had given them clear instructions and even Nitish personally warned his audience at numerous rallies about the ‘kanphukwa’ [whisperer] likely to throw cow carcass in a temple and pork in a mosque during the election period. The riots that were hoped for never happened.

But just as the fifth and the last phase of the elections on 5th November drew close, the BJP issued an advertisement-poster alleging that the Grand Alliance members endorse the consumption of beef. As a result the Election Commission had to announce that all the ads by the political parties require prior approval before being printed/displayed. The timing for this ad was calculated as the last phase elections cover the north-east Bihar with a large Muslim population. The intent perhaps was to polarize the populace and garner votes from the stampeding Hindus. Of course nothing of the sort is likely to happen and instead BJP finds itself arrive at a finishing line it may not have wanted to reach under the full glare of the public gaze.  

Who will win the Bihar election remains to be seen but the BJP has entered a tunnel very difficult to get out of. Of course the tunnel seemed like a wide spacious highway to begin but this may be the end of all the manoeuvring space that BJP enjoyed in the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani.  

The Bihar drama seems like a clincher for the whole of India today but is really a small part of the grander question – after Bihar, what now? And much will depend on what path the BJP decides to follow out of conviction or convenience for the next three and a half years at the centre.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Commentary - Does Arun Jaitley plan to tolerate increasing intolerance?

Stripped of the verbal play, tolerance of intolerance of course would literally mean either intolerance or endorsement of intolerance! These days almost all the debates whether on the podium or the TV studios in India come split into two incommensurate sides. This is happening even as one side continues to protest against the increasing intolerance, the other continues to ensure a steady supply of the direst of threats and insults. The Indian Finance minister and one of the reigning trio in the BJP, Arun Jaitley sees no evidence of increase in intolerance in India and recently characterized Indian democracy as the most vibrant in the world – the exact statement is ‘Where’s the intolerance? You are the most vibrant democracy in the world. Everybody has a right to speak and live his life his way’…. Vibrant indeed! 

This cliche sounds more and more frightening every day. Even as Jaitley chooses to be blind to the happenings around him, the other day a BJP leader from Karnataka threatened to behead the Karnataka CM who dared the cow-protection lobby by declaring he will indeed consume beef just to make a point.  Chanabasappa the leader in question said ‘if Siddaramaiah has guts, let him come to Shimoga and eat beef. If he thinks we will spare him, he's wrong. Let him kill a cow and show, we will separate his head from his body and play football with it'. Thankfully the aspiring football player is now under arrest!

Another BJP leader, Kailash Vijayvargiya an MLA from Madhya Pradesh yesterday claimed that the film star Shahrukh Khan’s soul lives in Pakistan just because Shahrukh admitted that he feels concerned with the growing climate of intolerance in India. This came as an endorsement of what the fire-breathing ‘fringe’ Sadhvi Prachi’s statement that Shahrukh is a Pakistani agent.  

As against all this and more Arun Jaitley’s smug celebration of the Indian democracy sounds utterly hollow - this report however deserves the close attention of the well-wishers of democracy in India. That there are reasons to worry about the very welfare of the Indian democracy is becoming more and more apparent by the day. You can choose the day to cross the line of course and declare you have had enough.

Recently in an interview with the well-known TV personality Arun Shourie crossed the line and categorically claimed that all these extreme acts and verbalizations have the approval of Narendra Modi, the man on top. Both Jaitley and Shourie deserve our full and undivided attention as two polar readings of politics in 2015-19.  The question remains – are these two perceptions completely and decisively incommensurable or a bridge over them is possible?

Monday, November 02, 2015

Victorious Ending to Obama Domestic Inning

Ever since Democrats lost majorities in Congress two years in Obama's first term (2010 mid-term elections); President Obama has been engaged in a kind of trench warfare with Republicans in Congress as a response to Tea Party militancy. Annual show downs about increasing debt ceiling and threats of federal government shutdowns became the norm. Militancy of Tea Party brought President Obama to his weakest point in 2011 when he stretched his Democratic caucus to accommodate draconian adjustments to entitlement programs; but still John Boehner could not bring his raucous majority to accept the deal. Subsequently President Obama accepted the second best choice of sequestered budget deal and changed his tact in dealing with Congress.

The scale of 2012 victory and jaw dropping loss of Romeny from Republican perspective, brought President Obama his important domestic policy victory - roll back of highly regressive Bush Tax Cuts for rich and shoring up of the revenue for Federal Government. By then President Obama had yielded to the reality of recalcitrant Republican majorities in Congress and had decided to govern through executive actions. 

President Obama failed in corralling Democratic voter base of young, poor and black in 2014 Mid-Term elections and paid the price of losing Senate for Democrats. But what he proved by now is - so long as President's party has veto proof strength in Congress, Republican majority in Congress cannot impose the will on White House. This reality proved to be too hard for Tea Party base to accept. Resulting four plus years of Tea Party frustration claimed it's political sacrificial lamb in John Boehner's resignation. For Boehner to leave Congress without cleaning the barn would have simply meant to setup Paul Ryan for a guaranteed failure. No Republican Speaker, including Paul Ryan, would have been able to stick to Hastert Rule and get Debt Ceiling Increase passed through the current Republican Majority. Even Paul Ryan would not have been able to get any relaxation from brutal sequestering deal. Naturally, till end quintessentially the party man John Boehner, traded his position for these two deals; Democrats ensured they got something substantive in the process and that is how Obama White House scored a hit to liberate remaining Obama Term free of budget and debt shenanigans of Tea Party. People made fun of President Obama for ones and twos strategy, but he had grasped by now that he was going to prevail politically only by grinding without home runs but by keeping the scoreboard constantly moving with an incessant political fight.

So long as White House is occupied by a Democrat, state level Republicans would be always able to rally against White House; drowning out all the gerrymandering which keeps sustaining their Republican Majorities in Congress. Not that Red State folks do not see subversion of democracy in gerrymandered districts by Republicans at State level; it is just that when you have the pinata of Obama in White House; the whole fun of rallying against a Democrat is too much for Americans not to get carried away by that. Until that keeps  happening, quite possibly American Politics at Federal level is condemned to a divided government only; each party carrying its natural advantages in respective power centers - Republicans in chambers of Congress while Democrats in White House.

President Obama seems to have internalized this thinking to thread the needle here and score an emphatic victory in possibly last of his domestic policy political fight. For Paul Ryan to proclaim he will not cooperate with Obama for Immigration (in any case that is his down payment extracted by Tea Party members to accept him as the speaker) or for Media to speculate about similarities between Ryan and Obama approach to policy; that is all redundant. For all practical purposes, neither President Obama is likely to pursue any grand bipartisan deal in remainder of his term; nor Speaker Ryan is going to waste any of his political capital in working with President Obama. Immigration as an issue has safely been put on ballots of 2016 by Donald Trump. Meanwhile speaker Ryan has a task cut out in front of him for the remainder of 114th Congress - keep taking symbolic votes to shore his credentials with Tea Party, create less mess on Republican side as a background for November 2016 election (which John Boehner took care off in cleaning the barn reasonably) and wait for chips to fall in 2016 elections. While Paul Ryan keeps himself busy, President Obama can essentially wrap his term as far as domestic policy goes to fully concentrate on Foreign Policy problems - read Syria - in remaining 14 months.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Commentary - Old Interview of RSS chief

RSS – not so much of an enigma. Is RSS a ‘cultural’ organization as it claims? Is it a ‘social’ organization as some believe? Is it a ‘religious’ congregation as some like to believe? Is it a pre-cursor of a political party as most of the non-BJP parties claim? RSS is truly a ‘Hindu’ organization. Hindu religion is a curious and shape-shifting mixture of abstract and concrete. It doesn’t have a single prophet or a single holy book. But some of its rituals and concepts can put rituals in all other ‘concrete’ religions to shame. 

Now that BJP has been in power, the focus on RSS has increased. Let it be Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘anti-reservation’ remarks or a tacit justification of the Dadri lynching, all the RSS related news is pre-analyzed, analyzed and re-analyzed. People are seemingly very uncomfortable with the overall atmosphere. Some have taken the route of returning awards, some others are being more vocal in media, many more are just fretting. 

RSS was founded in 1925. And right since its beginning, it has been very clear about its mode of operations – be vaguely concrete. Does RSS support caste-system? Yes and No. Yes, because its second chief, Golwalkar was very clear about what the RSS could, should and would do. No, because RSS puts a fantastic twist to it – work-based caste system, not birth-based caste system! Rational as it sounds, it is completely impractical. Would everyone be born ‘shudra’ and then become ‘vaishya’, ‘kshatriya’ or ‘brahmin’ based on the work that one does? Then obviously everyone will scamper to become ‘brahmin’ and the other three compartments will be pure vacuum. 

The present RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has been in the news for a variety of reasons. When BJP was nowhere near power, he stirred the pot by talking about chemotherapy and obviously denied it later. But an interview that he gave some three years ago is very clear, entertaining and enlightening. One common complaint against media, especially print media, has been that oftentimes they unnecessarily treat personalities with super-cushioned kid gloves. This interview is a fine example of this. Bhagwat makes a grandiose claim, “A country's future does not depend on its leaders, political parties, government or establishments”. He follows it up by stating further “It depends on the quality and merit of the society and the extent to which it is organized”. So, quality, merit and organization of the society has nothing to do with leaders, political parties, government or establishments! This is a claim that should have been dissected then and there, and the newspaper was Indian Express, not ‘Organizer’ or ‘Panchajanya’.

RSS has a long tradition of preaching through ‘bauddhik varga’ (roughly translated as intelligent/intellectual classes). And the overall level of the ‘discourse’ there is the same as is reflected in this interview. ‘No Questions’ is the pre-requisite, the session and the take-away. In that sense, RSS beautifully complements the communists. 

One more article of interest is RSS chief’s annual Vijayadashami speech, which is supposed to be important, at least in the RSS circles. In this speech as well, the agenda is clear. Right from mentioning Ambedkar before RSS founder Hedgewar, and then immediately switching to ancient history (1000th year of coronation of Chola), Bhagwat has continued the RSS school of thought. So don’t be shocked when RSS starts ‘building up a prosperous, efficient and egalitarian Bharat’, albeit in its own way.