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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Gujarat election 2017: BJP rattled, Rahul Gandhi has one-upped Modi in his backyard



A spurious debate about the legitimacy of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation, undoubtedly fuelled by the BJP, did not play too well. The BJP’s star campaigner Narendra Modi sought to amplify it in a campaign speech in Gujarat. He certainly couldn’t have believed his intervention would influence the Congress party’s choice. In any case, it did not set the Sabarmati on fire.

Despite Modi’s futile name-calling, the issue is finally and firmly settled. Gandhi will become president of the Indian National Congress, the 60th person to hold the office.

Not content to have lowered the dignity of his office by giving credence to the legitimacy debate, PM Modi made another attempt to denigrate the election of Gandhi. In a dog whistle address seemingly directed at his Hindutva base, he compared the elevation to the coronation of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, whose very mention is a red flag to the bigots who have and have been championed by Modi.

As such, Modi unwittingly reinforced the Opposition’s charge that during his stint in power, he has never conveyed a sense of unifying India, never once rising above the level of a BJP partisan, a prime minister for BJP supporters.

For some reason, Modi and the BJP find it difficult to accept Gandhi as president of his party. Saffron loyalists may well cast aspersions and kick up a fuss, but it’s a done deal.

Meanwhile, Gandhi has shown his ability to lead the grand old party by running a spirited campaign in Gujarat. He sewed up unconventional alliances with grass-roots activist movements; he delivered powerful speeches criticising the BJP’s “development” story. He may have made a huge impact on the BJP’s fortunes in a state where most believed victory in the Assembly elections would be a cake walk.

His success has the BJP rattled in its fortress where Modi perfected his “Hindu Hriday Samrat” appeal and concocted the story of the “Gujarat model” of development. It was this latter story that seemed to appeal to a broader section of people than the Hindutva manifesto. This presumably enabled the BJP to increase its vote share in 2014 to 31 percent, and by virtue of the first-past-the-post system, emerge with the first-ever absolute majority in Parliament since 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi won 400-plus seats for the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi went hammer-and-tongs after the Gujarat model. He accused Modi of running a “suit-boot sarkar” that only catered to the needs of big business. Coming on the heels of the controversy over Modi’s penchant for luxuries, including prohibitively expensive monogrammed-pinstripe suits, striking watches and designer glasses, the charge had the impact of a right hook.

That’s not all: in an early speech, Rahul minced no words in a full-scope attack on Mr Modi, who spoke before him during the winter session of Parliament in 2015:

“...while I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech I could see how profoundly we differ in our thinking. For Modiji, the people he mentioned (Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar, Prasad, even Nehru) were intellectual heroes to be worshipped and placed on a pedestal. They had all the answers to India’s problems.

“For me what was heroic about the people he mentioned was their ability to listen to the people of this country. They are my heroes not because they had all the answers but because they had the humility to ask the right questions… to listen to what India was saying. They allowed India to speak.”

During the Gujarat campaign, he picked up on this theme to scoff at Modi’s “Mann ki Baat” radio addresses. He said he wasn’t here to tell people what he thinks but to listen to what they have to say.

In the event, he managed to strike a chord with diverse audiences: youth, women, backward castes, tribals, dalits, students, parents, professionals, traders and merchants. He talked about the need to offer, in addition to private options, government alternatives in healthcare and education. His message clearly resonated with audiences whether delivered in a speech or in townhall-style interactions.

Gandhi hit out at demonetisation as a cunning attempt to help cronies launder black money, calling it a “fair and lovely” scheme. He excoriated the government’s messed up GST scheme, calling it “Gabbar Singh Tax”; he offered examples of misplaced priorities saying the Rs 33,000-crore subsidy for the Tata Nano plant was the amount the UPA government had spent in an entire year of the national employment guarantee scheme that gave hundreds of thousands jobs and changed their lives forever. “How many Nanos have you seen?” he thundered.

Gandhi’s earnest exertions in Gujarat seem to be paying off. A recent survey has the Congress running neck-and-neck with the BJP. This was simply unthinkable a few weeks ago. The Modi-Shah duo was presumed unbeatable in their home state.

Now the game’s been thrown wide open and the Congress is in with a better-than-even chance in next week’s election. Almost as if in recognition of the effort, the Congress party nominated him president.

(This article appeared in Dailyo.in, December 7, 2017)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The ideology and politics of victimhood

Since Independence, Indians have been seduced by the ideology of victimhood, best summed up in the worst song ever produced by the Hindi film industry: duniya mein hum aayein hai to jeena hi padega, jeevan hai agar zeher to peena hi padega. (‘Having come into this world, we must learn to live life. If life is poison, we must learn to drink it’)

My first brush with it was when I was a small boy, listening to my grandmother (only half-joking) lament the woes of the Indian cricket team (pathetic in those days). Her take was that consumption of meat by foreign teams placed them way above Indians. Actually, it was much like the experience of the young Mohandas Gandhi, who came to believe, for the same reasons, in the superiority of his Muslim friend.

The widely-trumpeted Indian proclivity for vegetarianism is the foundation of the victim story. It persists to this day under the BJP government, which continues to condone mob violence against the meat-eating population, purportedly in the cause of cow protection. It’s the type of dog-whistle politics that has become the hallmark of public affairs in India.

But let’s not digress. Without going too far down the highways of history, it’s clear that for nearly two centuries, India was a victim of British colonialism. The majority of the population tamely accepted it as the yoke of fate. But the more progressive minded made the best of the situation: they took to British education, the English language, the professions including law and medicine. From them, as Macaulay had predicted in his famous minute, arose “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. 

While Macaulay found no favour with the political class in India, the fact remains that it was from this class of people that arose first the Home Rule, and later the freedom movement. The Indian nationalist movement broke the back of British colonialism in India with its innovative protests and charismatic leaders. No victim mindset here but instead, a confident assertion of a people determined to wrest freedom from foreign rule. Its success spawned copycat freedom movements around the colonial world and spelled the end of European manifest destiny: the white man’s burden, control over the non-white world.

Away from the heady sweep of India’s independence movement, proponents of victimhood nevertheless lurked in dark corners — grim and dour men steeped in caste and religious bigotry. These Hindu fundamentalists took no part in the struggle against colonial rule. Instead, they supported the British colonial government against the nationalists, afraid of their confident vision and inclusive prescriptions. Not for them the secular ways of the freedom fighters.

In the event, the nationalists fired the imagination of the Indian masses and the British were vanquished. But not before they played their last card of skullduggery: some diehards in the British government of India actively encouraged rivalry between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, hoping to delay the inevitable so they could enjoy the plush life of colonialists a little longer. This rivalry festered and led to a grisly aftermath. The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan had no precedent; the scale of dislocation and violence was pure evil. 

But it gave hope to unreconstructed Hindu fundamentalists harbouring deep hatred for nationalists. As such, they chose to back the colonial diehards who widened the chasm of religious division in India. The legacy of Partition was a pernicious animosity between Hindus and Muslims. This suited the bigots and fed their dark vision of victimhood. Opportunists as ever, they launched a whisper campaign among the victims of the India-Pakistan divide, pointing fingers at the secular nationalists as the cause of their tragedy and suffering. 

As India blossomed into a democratic republic, the Hindu victim movement kept religious hatred alive. Every now and then, it would boil over into what came to be called communal violence, when actually it was instigated mayhem. Over the years, the men behind communal violence realised it could be used to build a political constituency. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Hindu fundamentalists rule over India with a brute majority. They tolerate no dissent. They are flush with funds. They are seemingly unstoppable. Even so, they haven’t been able to exorcise the demons of victimhood. They still point to the diminished secular forces and hold it responsible for their inability to govern. They continue to feel embattled, especially now that things seem to be slipping out of control. Their narrative: for 70 years, we’ve been victims of this pseudo-secular movement that still exercises a grip over the public imagination; we won’t rest until India is wiped free of the influence of the secular liberal intelligentsia.
These victim victors still rail against the three ‘M’s’: Marxists, Muslims and Macaulayites. While they have managed to subdue the first two, they still have their hands full with Macaulay’s children, uncompromising liberals who have no time for what Jean-Francois Revel called “Marx or Jesus”.

(This article appeared in Education World, November 7, 2017)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who is Amit Shah to hold public meeting at Goa airport?

In 70 years, there has never been an incident quite like BJP president Amit Shah’s party conference in the terminal at Goa’s Dabolim Airport. Presumably, Mr Shah did it with Mr Modi’s consent. The alternative is equally worrisome; if the party leader commandeered a high-security platform for his meeting on his own steam, the number of questions multiplies.

Either way, the meeting at Dabolim airport is an unprecedented event. Clearly, rules and regulations were wilfully ignored or bent to facilitate it; worse, security was compromised. The civil aviation ministry, the airports authority, the home ministry, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Goa state government, the Goa police… all need to be held accountable for the violation.

The disingenuous response by BJP’s Mauvin Godinho, whose Dabolim constituency includes the airport, was that they had taken “all the permissions required to host the function.” The question is about these permissions being given at all. Today, given global terrorist threats, airports rate the highest possible security levels; the Goa airport doubly so because it is a military asset.

No matter how saffron sophistry plugs it, the fact is Mr Shah’s act is reckless, much like Mr Modi’s demonetization. He was on a two-day visit to Goa, the welcome event could have been staged anywhere but he chose to hold it at the airport. There could be a number of reasons for it:

One, Mr Shah now thinks he is beyond accountability, especially after he claimed responsibility for the BJP’s much-hyped victory in Uttar Pradesh. That is a dangerous dimension of power. To select the airport as a venue for a party meeting is to show he can do whatever he wants. He simply has to wish it and the forces at his command will browbeat the central bureaucracy, state governments, and the security establishment to make it happen.

Two, Mr Shah seems to treat Goa as a pocket borough like Gujarat. It would seem that way: since the Vajpayee days, the BJP and its various Hindutva offshoots have chosen Goa as a venue for significant saffron meetings. Also, according to the local grapevine, following its failure to emerge as the single largest party in the last election, the BJP lavished resources on the state to ensure the formation of a government.

As such, it may have been easy for his people to persuade the powers that his plan to hold the meeting in the high-security airport terminal was normal.

Three, if Mr Shah decided to do this on his own, without consulting anyone in the government, especially the prime minister, then the act is a flagrant abuse of power. He has no locus standi to direct government agencies; leave alone command them to transgress rules and regulations. There is no provision in the Representation of People Act of 1951 or its many amendments that extends such powers to the head of a political party.

Four, if Mr Shah did get an okay from the prime minister, then the questions extend to both. The thinking on display is that electoral victory determines the freedom to act without let or hindrance. It would appear they simply do not feel bound by the dos and don’ts of the constitution. Seen in conjunction with the fact that both are products of the RSS, a cultish organization that explicitly refuses to acknowledge the Indian constitution, Mr Shah’s airport meeting becomes even more questionable.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the ascent of Mr Modi on a 31 per cent mandate is his clear signal that India is now a Hindu rashtra in place of the secular nation envisioned in the constitution. Worse, all those who abide by the notion of an inclusive republic are dismissed out of hand, either as weak-kneed liberals or wild-eyed radicals.

Meanwhile, the prime minister and the BJP president have simply ignored instances of violent bigotry that are evident with increasing frequency. Beyond that, Mr Shah revived dog-whistle politics in a recent campaign speech in Gujarat, referring to Muslims as “alia-malia-jamalia.” The phrase was first used by Mr Modi during his communally-surcharged election campaign following the Godhra train burning incident.

Especially since the UP victory, the general assessment seems to be that under the Modi-Shah duo, the BJP will win the next general election in 2019. The RSS and the browbeaten and servile media have pushed that line as an inevitable outcome. But this assumes that the 69 percent of voters who did not vote for the BJP plus millions of citizens not on the electoral rolls will simply watch as cunning bigotry helps the BJP steamroller its way to a victory.

Actually, the recent hue and cry about Mr Shah’s Goa airport meeting shows that the duo may have misread the extent of their support, surrounded as they are by yes men and pliant media.

The Goa airport meeting may well have been the last straw. It comes in the wake of the #notinmynameprotests that have spread across the country. For the first time, we have seen a galvanized opposition in Goa besiege the airport director, who negated the BJP claim they had requisite permissions to stage the meetings.

An activist high court lawyer has upped the ante by taking his complaint to the high court. A television news channel known for its aggressive advocacy of the government featured the meeting on its broadcast.

Meanwhile, the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court has issued notices to senior officials in the central government, state government as well as the central industrial security force and asked them to provide a written explanation in three weeks to the petition by Goa lawyer Aires Rodrigues seeking a probe into the event. The BJP and its leadership is about to be cut down to size.

(An edited version of this post will appear in DailyO.in, July 13, 2017.)



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Converting science into obscurantism


The cult of hindutva first appeared on the political horizon in the 1980s as a movement to build a temple in Ayodhya where a mosque stood. Over the next decade, its leadership stoked the most primal of mankind’s urges, religious bigotry, and helped vault its political front, the BJP, to power in coalition with several other political parties. Finally, in May 2014, hindutva found utterance in the formation of a majority government headed by Narendra Modi, a self-described pracharak of the mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Now three years into its terms, the government is being shown up as inept and clueless about governance. There are many instances of its abject failures on the policy front as it tries to promote its hindutva agenda. What follows is the story of an attempt to paint science policy in saffron hues.

According to a report in The Hindu, the Modi government has directed the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) “to generate half of its funds and start sending report cards to the Centre on how each… laboratory (is) focusing its resources on developing specific lines of inventions which would contribute to the social and economic objectives of the Narendra Modi government for the poor and the common man”.

For the record, CSIR was established in 1942 to fund and develop original scientific and industrial research. Starting out as a testing and quality control unit, the organisation sadly failed to evolve to fulfil the grandiose dreams of its votaries, and has degenerated into an ineffectual bureaucracy that’s done what a bureaucracy does best: expanded its turf to affiliate 40 ‘research laboratories’. Unsurprisingly, its list of achievements in 75 years of existence is unimpressive.

At first glance, the government’s directive is not unconscionable. CSIR has grazed in the fields of public funding all these years to produce very little of consequence. To that extent, the June 2015 directive, announced at what the Hindustan Times dubbed a “chintan shivir (think camp) for scientists” in Dehradun was welcome.

However, nothing is uncomplicated or untwisted in the world of hindutva champions. The optics suggested that the Modi government wants to use the rod against CSIR and whip it into shape. In the so-called Dehradun declaration issued at the end of the summit, The Hindu quoted a senior official who attended the meeting as saying, “The most worrisome aspect was representatives from Vigyan Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), being part of this discussion. The idea was to ensure ‘indigenous science’ was promoted. But what was the RSS doing in this meeting?”

The plan seems to be to reward foot soldiers of hindutva with jobs and lucrative projects in RSS-favoured fields, especially research and development of ‘indigenous’ science, a thinly-veiled nudge for cow urine pharmacology and therapy. Bypassing the ministry of science and technology, the AYUSH ministry has taken charge of the project.

Thus, AYUSH minister of state Sripad Naik announced in Parliament, that “CSIR through its constituent laboratories has conducted research studies… on cow urine distillate for its anti-oxidant and bio-enhancing properties on anti-infective and anti-cancer agents and nutrients. Four US patents have been secured… and one pharmaceutical product containing cow urine distillate with anti-oxidant property is available in the market”.

In a scathing critique of “the government’s cow urine craze,” The Wire, a news portal, expressed concern about the AYUSH ministry promoting obscurantism. Since November 2014 when it was constituted, just five months after the Modi government assumed office, the ministry began to sprout saffron wings.

Intended to serve as a knowledge and resource centre for traditional medicine systems, it was set up in 1995 as a department in the health ministry, the outcome of a 1993 push by Sam Pitroda to incorporate traditional Indian systems of medicine into a holistic public health offering. To that end, Pitroda established I-AIM (Institute for Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine), whose major focus was on creating a database of medicinal plants. From there to the department of Indian systems of medicine and homeopathy (ISMH) was a short hop. In 2003, the BJP-led government attempted to burnish its hindutva credentials after four years of non-performance: it transformed the department of ISMH into the AYUSH ministry.

Now more than a decade later, the Modi government seems to have concluded that it needs to do more to woo the base; hence, its focus on the cow. To marry this to its ‘development’ agenda, it convened the chintan shivir of scientists in Dehradun. The idea seems to have been to impart a modern touch to its obscurantism, seeking to make cow urine a CSIR focus, an initiative that fits into its Make in India, Skill India, IT plus IT equals IT manifesto of acronyms that are a unique feature of this non-performing regime.

Lamentably, a commendable academic effort to document traditional medical knowledge has been subverted by hindutva obscurantism to a profound absurdity and object of ridicule.

(From Education World, June 2017.)