Monday, August 14, 2017

Time to ponder what happened to Independence. How the confidence of 1947 gave way to antagonisms


"August 15, 1947 will go down in history as one of the most memorable dates, not for India alone but for Asia and the world... For India it marks the beginning of a new age, a new outlook, a new future. For the world it gives a new idea and a new method..."

That was how the main editorial began in The Indian Express dated Madras, Friday, August 15, 1947. Seventy years and many ideological somersaults later, it is sobering to took at the sentiments that prevailed then and the reality today. As Freedom Day dawned there was great joy at all levels of opinion, and great excitement. The national mood was marked by confidence. And optimism. These were expressed in mature ways.

One reason was that there was no television in those innocent days. Which meant that news was purveyed with sobriety and a sense of balance. The shouting patriotism of modern-day anchors (the louder you shout, the greater is your nationalism) was alien to newspaper editors who covered news and commented on it with judicious moderation. This applied to what was then British mouthpieces such as The Times of India and to the nationalist press such as The Indian Express.

The Express, though a leading campaigner for independence, maintained editorial restraint on the day of its triumph. It did not go out of its way to make its independence day editorial a trumpeting piece; it was one of three editorials that day, the others being "Inter-American Conference" (on plans to set up a regional council independent of the UN) and "Cochin's Way" (on the Maharaja of Cochin's decision to give key portfolios like Finance to elected ministers). No self-applause, no bragging, no exaggerations in the name of nationalism. Only a sober assessment of today's achievements and tomorrow's challenges.

Seventy years later, where are we? History moved on of course. Regionalism in the Americas gained no traction and the UN is flourishing. Cochin has disappeared into Kerala where all ministers are elected. However, the confidence and optimism that lighted up the mood of the people at the time of independence has all but gone. The main reasons are (a) the hopes that the wounds of partition would heal in time proved wrong, and (b) the idealism of the Gandhi-Nehru era gave way to politics of opportunism.

Who today would believe that there were hopes in 1947 that partition would not last? There were serious people who seriously thought so and the sentiment found expression in the Express's own editorial. It said: "That this freedom is temporarily fissured and broken does not alter the fact that the heritage is common, that the future is yet to be made. Reconstruction and unity must be the aim... Just as the past belongs to India and Pakistan alike, the future too belongs to both". And today we have an officially designated global terrorist, Syed Salahuddin, flourishing under Pakistani protection and proclaiming that he can hit targets anywhere in India at any time.

On the domestic front, too, expectations turned into pipe dreams. The lofty spirit of the time was reflected in a sentence in the Express editorial: "While we should ensure good government for realisation of future destiny, we should also remember that self-government is not to be an instrument of power alone, but an opportunity for service".

Within a decade or so, democracy became an instrument of power and a means of self-aggrandisement. From panchayat members to prime ministers, everyone took to corruption as a routine right of public life. Criminals with jail records became MPs and MLAs, some even ministers.

Why did the early expectations dry up and unexpected forces take control? Perhaps the wholesale copying of Britain's parliamentary system was too much too soon. Perhaps our early leaders underestimated the influence of factors like caste and linguistic parochialism. Neither the generation of Indians who sacrificed everything for freedom nor the early leaders who did their best to strengthen the constitutional integrity of democracy's systems could have foreseen religious animosities overtaking civil life in the country. No one imagined that votes could be won by inciting communal hatreds among people. It is ironic that democracy and elections became instruments of generating intolerance and violence across the country.

The candle lit in 1947 burned out somewhere along the way. No one seems eager today to light a new one. Was V.S. Naipaul right when he wrote: "India's strength, her ability to endure, came from the negative principle, her unexamined sense of continuity"



Monday, August 7, 2017

A strong man gets his due, but BJP betrays a greed for one-party power. That's dangerous for India


D.K.Shivakumar is Karnataka's most formidable politician. He is also the most feared. There are many in Karnataka, including senior Congress leaders, who see him as a liability in public life. Currently the state's Energy Minister, he is recognised by all as a muscleman, fixer, campaign manager, crowd mobiliser, money bag and general go-getter who makes impossible things possible. He is actively into businesses unbecoming a political leader -- real estate, construction, jewellery, mining, malls, education, transport. It is said that Rahul Gandhi had named him as one of two Congress leaders who should be kept out of government. Indeed Chief Minister Siddaramaiah formed his cabinet without the two men. Within a few months, however, both men were handling key portfolios in the government. That was the power of internal manipulators in the Congress.

Shivakumar is so confident of his might that he flaunts his assets openly. His residence in Bangalore is made up of two outsized mansions, their pillars and parapets and windows and balconies glittering either in the sun or in the special decorative lights around. An ordinary citizen building such a residence would immediately attract Income Tax sleuths. In Shivakumar's case, there was also the tidbit that his declared income had gone up from Rs 75.5 crore in 2008 to Rs 251 crore in just five years. The BJP Government in Delhi had a good opportunity to net him in straightforward cases and thereby win the appreciation of citizens who were tired of a politician gone so wrong so openly for so long.

But they botched it. The timing made it clear that the raid on Shivakumar's premises was a case of the party in power using the agencies of the government to serve the party's political ends. By doing it so bluntly, the BJP helped Shivakumar achieve what would have been otherwise impossible -- an element of public sympathy.

The politics of it all is so clear. The Gujarat Rajya Sabha election on August 8 has become a prestige issue for the BJP. The Congress's sole candidate is Ahmad Patel, Sonia Gandhi's faithful follower and a Congress brand. In its all-out bid to get Patel defeated, the BJP already poached Congress MLAs in Gujarat. (The going rate is said to be Rs 15 crore per MLA). One of them was fielded in opposition to Patel. A worried Congress sent its remaining MLAs for safe keeping in Karnataka.


As it happened, D.K.Shivakumar was put in charge of taking care of the MLAs from Gujarat, presumably because a toughie strong man was needed to protect the MLAs from entrapment tactics by the BJP. The BJP, in its current mood of don't-care about the niceties of democracy, then went for the jugular.

There is no doubt that the raids -- five hours of questioning in the first round itself -- and the seizure of cash, gold and documents rattled Shivakumar who never experienced, and never expected, anything of the sort in his life. It must have rattled several other Congress leaders in the state also because their cupboards too are full of skeletons. There are skeletons in plenty in the cupboards of BJP leaders, too, but they will have nothing to worry. For this is a case where the ruling party is determined to do things its way. Conventions and legalities are for the birds.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's protestations of innocence sounded like jokes. The raid on Shivakumar had nothing to do with the Gujarat election, he said. The resort was raided only to check out Shivakumar, he said. Four of the Gujarat MLAs at the resort contradicted that claim and said they too were questioned. They sought the Supreme Court's intervention to ensure their safety now that CRPF men were at the resort.

Will the MLAs be intimidated and threatened into voting the BJP way in Gujarat? They are certainly scared. With the invincible D.K.Shivakumar threatened -- and feeling it -- will some Congressmen in Karnataka play safe by joining BJP as Karnataka goes to the polls in a few months? Winning Karnataka is a bigger prestige issue for the BJP than defeating Ahmad Patel -- and 15 crore for a head is chickenfeed. The BJP of course sticks to its line that its only aim is to end corruption. It does want to end corruption in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. Corruption in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh is of course not corruption, it is nation-building. Please note the new normal in India: BJP or nothing.