Friday, December 14, 2012

Outsourcing an election campaign: proxies, hired NGOs and snake oil salesmen!

The second most debated topic this chilly December is the Gujarat assembly election, (the first being the annual ritual about a demolition in Ayodhya twenty years ago) or rather its outcome and impact on national politics. The moot question is not whether Narendra Modi will win the election. Notwithstanding brave posturing by the Congress party and its proxies (in political parties, NGOs and the media) political pundits do not seem to entertain much hope for the party. The question that is endlessly debated is about the number of seats Narendra Modi will win and if he crosses a tipping point, will he move on to the national scene as a Prime Ministerial aspirant. The tipping point is set at 122+, 122* being the number of seats Narendra Modi’s party has in the present assembly. There are some feeble voices that bleat Narendra Modi may not even reach the tipping point but would end up with a simple majority in the 182-member assembly. But these are few and far between. A majority of analysts believes that he will (not would) cross the tipping point.

The putative tipping point for Narendra Modi is the TRP point for television channels. Therefore their endless debates centre on it. (See NarendraModi as Prime Minister in 2014 for a detailed analysis of his qualifications to lead the nation.) The anchors repeatedly ask various panellists about the possibility and implications of Narendra Modi being nominated as the Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP. They get stock answers in reply.

Can anyone imagine representatives of the ‘secular’ Congress party (which had disowned its most successful Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao purely based on vote bank calculations) ever saying yes? It would be in the Congress party’s interest if the BJP were to fail to form a government which, would give it a ‘TINA’ (there is no alternative) chance. Alternatively it would be in its interest if an unstable rag-tag formation formed a government. It can then support it from outside and destabilize it as and when it suited it. The Congress is past master in this game as Chandra Sekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral found out. Besides, a stint in the opposition would absolve it of all its sins. A strange feature of Indian democracy is that if a party sits out in the opposition even for a brief while the electorate forgets and forgives its gravest misdemeanours. Remember how Indira Gandhi was reinstated in 1980 after being thrown out in 1977. Could there be anything worse that anyone could do to democracy than what she did between 1975 and 1977?  

Can anyone imagine representatives of NGOs (to which the secular Congress party outsourced its hatchet jobs) saying yes? These NGOs have been carping at Narendra Modi accusing him of imaginary sins of omission and commission, for over ten years. It is their raison d’etre. Some of these were financed, certainly by the Congress. There are whispers that some religious fundamentalist groups in Saudi Arabia too fund some of them. One of the NGOs which has been doing a hatchet job for the Congress in legal battles has been asked to sit out this election; another took its place in the television studios.

Then there are Congress web-store operators. Sycophancy is their modus vivendi. Peddling Congress is their principal avocation. These snake oil salesmen often appear in TV debates. One wonders whether some of them pay their way into the debates, a la paid news! Their unctuousness in defending the most indefensible, has to be seen to be believed. Here is a case in point: Rahul Gandhi paradropped into Gujarat on the last day of campaigning for the first phase election. He addressed three meetings, all of ten minutes each. In one of them he elaborated on the sacrifices of long dead Motilal, his great-great-grandfather. In another he spoke about the economics of potato trade which instantly became the butt of dozens of jokes on Twitter (reason enough for Kapil Sibal to seek censorship of social media!). But for our snake oil salesman, Rahul unveiled his vision for the future of the nation!

Between the two hired assassins (the NGOs and the web-store operated by the snake oil salesmen) are the jokers in the pack, Kesubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and Swetha, wife of Narendra Modi’s bête noir and discredited police officer Sanjeev Bhatt. The 80+ year old Kesubhai, a veteran of the BJP and communal Sangh Parivar went into hibernation after he fell out with Narendra Modi some years back. Congress warmed him to life and propped up his GPP with the expectation that he would be able to cut into south Gujarat’s Leuva Patel vote bank. Jagruthi, wife of murdered former minister Haren Pandya has been fielded by Kesubhai’s GPP. Sanjeev Bhatt, the delinquent police officer against whom there were criminal charges has long been suspected to be a Congress mole in one of the NGOs fighting for it. Congress fielded his wife Swetha against Narendra Modi himself more to create media buzz than with any serious intention. Swetha agreed to be the sacrificial goat knowing full well that she would be eventually swept away in the dust storm raised by Narendra Modi’s chariot wheels.

And finally can anyone imagine representatives of the other avowedly secular, non-Congress parties (which have large stakes in Muslim votes) saying yes? (See SecularOpposition to Narendra Modi as P M for an analysis on the interests of possible alliance partners and their political compulsions.)

Even the BJP spokespersons are not very keen on answering the question, for obvious reasons. Firstly, there are many contenders within the party and nobody would like to be ruled out. Who wouldn’t like to have a stab at the nation’s top job? And who knows, in whose lap the coveted apple might eventually fall! Secondly at this stage of the game, nobody would like to tip his hand for fear of alienating possible allies.

Psephology is an inexact social science. Like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘black swan theory’, it tells us exactly why a political party performed as it did after the results are out. Sometimes, when a prediction is accurate or nearly so, the psephologist who got it right says, ‘I told you so’, looking suitably modest but with ill-concealed smugness. The received wisdom, tempered by a tinge of caution, after the huge 68% turnout in the first phase of the election was that ‘it gives Modi an advantage’. It is not yet time to stick one’s neck out and say he would sweep the election. The ‘I told you so’ moment will come on December 20!

* Newschannels conducting exit poll analyses have been showing 117 as BJP's (or to be more accurate Narendra Modi's) seat tally in the present assemby. But the party gained 5 seats in subsequent by-elections and hence its current tally is 122.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Does secularism mean Hindu subservience?

The two hot debating topics this December first week were the demolition of a disused building in Ayodhya twenty years ago and the current Gujarat election. The Ayodhya anniversary has by now become an annual ritual which (especially) the English language media religiously (pun intended) runs through, dusting its old footage or commissioning new quotes from old columnists. The debate such as it is, is like a restricted club whose membership is closed to outsiders. It is like the yarn about investigating a murder that occurred during an Italian card game in New York. The investigator asks the first guy, ‘who fired the shot?’ and he replies, ‘I dunno. I didn’t see it. I was sitting with my back to the door, you see.’ The second guy says the same thing and all others say the same thing. It was one card game in which everyone sat on the same side of the table!

As the debate could have only one side, any new columnists would have to conform by spewing old arguments of the old columnists, but if possible, in new a idiom. Or face ostracism from what is known as the mainstream media. Even the few columnists who have a contrary view would have to shroud their views in a lot of verbiage as to practically make them unintelligible or at least sound neutral. Or pass them as social science theories. Columnists with a Hindu moniker have to be doubly careful to pass the test of secularism. Others are not hampered by any such shibboleths. Thus, to be admitted to the club while a columnist with a name like a Misra or a Sarma would have to constantly invoke the dangers posed by the ‘Hindu right’ to the ‘secular fabric’ of the nation, a Manu Joseph could be brazen about his concept of secularism. Joseph first dismissed the notion that India is secular in his December 5 column in the International Herald Tribune (India Is Not A Secular Republic). To make matters clear even for the dimwitted, Joseph elaborated his concept of secularism in his column of the same day in New York Times (Secularism in Search of a Nation):
“…what it really meant, without spelling it out, was that Hindus, who make up the majority of the nation, would have to accommodate themselves to the ways of the other religions, even if this meant taking some cultural blows.”
In order to leave no one in doubt, as to what he meant by ‘taking cultural blows’, Joseph elaborates:
“So, Hindus would have to accept the slaughter of cows, which they consider sacred (some Indian states have banned cow slaughter); …”
For Joseph this was not enough.
“… the Muslim community’s perceived infatuation with Pakistan;”
Having demolished an oft repeated if clichéd ‘the idea of India’, shibboleth chanted by the secular intelligentsia, he comes to the nub:
“…the conversion of poor, low-caste Hindus to Christianity by evangelists; and the near impossibility of getting admitted to some prestigious schools and colleges run by Christian organizations because so many places are reserved for Christian students.”
The last bit about ‘the near impossibility of getting admitted to some prestigious schools and colleges’ is a placebo thrown in to mask his main demand that India be made a grazing ground for number-starved Churches in the west. There was a time when Christian run schools and colleges were in demand but there is no such mad scramble for them now as non-Christian (calling them Hindu might offend secular sensibilities!) institutions offer quality education comparable to or even better than them.

As Joseph was writing in an American newspaper read mainly in America would he consider tendering the same advice to the Americans? For instance, being a secular nation, America should have taken the cultural blow of ‘the World Trade Centre being brought down by a few misguided youth’ and not waged a war first on Afghanistan and then on Iraq. Or that America should really not bother about some of its jobs being Banglored. Or that twenty-first century America should really be not so conservative. If it were not so why would a Bobby Jindal or a Nicky Haley would have had to go to such great lengths to conceal their ethnic identities and fabricate new ones!  

After all this din, the Indian mainstream media would have redeemed a bit of its credibility if it expended a wee-bit of its energies in mourning a humanitarian disaster that is comparable only to the holocaust. None bothered (or dared) ask, ‘if the day on which a disused structure was destroyed is to be described a black day and commemorated every year, what about the day on which an estimated 450,000 Hindus were exiled in their own homeland?’ Why do lofty ideals like secularism and composite culture do not have the same connotation in India’s northern-most state? If December 6 is to be celebrated as a ‘black day’ every year why don’t we commemorate January 19 the day on which the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits commenced in 1989 and did not stop till virtually all of them were driven out? By not speaking about it if not against it are not our intelligentsia and media guilty of complicity?