Monday, February 16, 2009

Saffron intact in BJP's pot-pourri

The Bharatiya Janata Party offers a confused mixture of policies, but anchors itself firmly on its Hindutva base on the eve of parliamentary elections.

Incoherence and posturing has always characterised the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP). Owing to the limitations of the exclusivist ideology that it depends upon, the BJP has tried to camouflage its Hindutva base, to win over alliances in the fractured polity that is India's. Such a strategy has paid the party dividends in the past as well as in assorted state elections across the country, wherever its adversaries have been lacking in governance/administration or ability in forming the right identity-based alliances. But every now and then, in order to keep its ideological mentors in the Sangh Parivar impressed and to foster the hard-line impulses of its activist base, the party goes back to the Hindutva theme.

One such occasion was its recently held national executive and council meetings in Nagpur. The party yet again performed its trapeze artistry of swinging between Hindutva and a modern vision for itself and the nation. In essence though, it offered no coherent alternatives and responses to livelihood issues of the day as a contrast to the ruling alliance's, beyond putting forth a string of grouses.

As an opposition party, the BJP repeatedly disrupted proceedings in Parliament on the slightest pretext. The meaningful oppositional space had been usurped by the left parties, even when they were supporting the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and after the withdrawal of support. After five years of rabble rousing and harping on agendas such as minority appeasement and “soft state”,the BJP had more of the same in its political resolution for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

There was therefore a return of the hackneyed slogans on Ram, “Ram temple in Ayodhya” and Ramarajya from its president Rajnath Singh, and which received some lip-service from its prime ministerial candidate L.K.Advani. And Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi stayed true to his hard-line image by alluding toward “inside help” for the Mumbai terror incidents. And while waxing eloquent on its strategy to fight terrorism at all costs, the party president dismissed the investigations to the Malegaon blasts' suggesting that Hindus are being maligned in the name of terror. All in all, the party chose the proximity of its national executive meeting to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's headquarters as an excuse to burnish its Hindtuva credentials, harping yet again on minority bashing and other obscurantist agenda.

The economic road-map chartered by the party promises a employment oriented policy of growth and a determination to address the agrarian crisis in the country. But beyond pointing fingers at economic mismanagement by the UPA, the BJP has little to offer on how it plans spur the economy through “recapitalisation of the financial sector” and “spend on infrastructure”. While the BJP criticises fiscal spending and suggests that this had resulted in high inflation in the country, it insists on “massive” infrastructure spending on a “war-footing” as part of its core agenda in the same breath in its resolution. Interestingly, Rajnath Singh in his address invoked Gandhian swadeshi economics as well to pitch in yet another economic vision in the resolution's hotch-potch of neoliberalism (pension reforms), Keynesianism (infrastructure spending), self-reliance and what not.

The situation that the BJP finds itself today is not encouraging for the party. Its insistence on retaining its Hindutva extremist fringe has seen it reap highly polarising gains in Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa. In other states, however, despite the rhetorical shift to an agenda of efficient governance, it has only got mixed returns, as the wins in the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh have been juxtaposed with losses in Rajasthan and Delhi. The party's polarising ideology has assured that the party stands bereft of an alliance partner and of a base in most states in the south and east of the country. And the language used by the party in it's run-up to the elections only suggests a further isolation on that count.

The rise of the BJP to the centre-stage of Indian politics and as one of the two biggest political forces, has had disastrous consequences on the nature of the Indian state. Be it in the weakening of the welfare state, or the vitiation and communalisation of the body politic,the rise in disenchantment among myriad sections (minorities in particular), the BJP's legacy has been malignant. That the party has stuck with Hindutva as a core and basic political philosophy even after years in opposition, suggests the threat that the cancerous influence of communalism continues to pose to India's polity.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly. Cartoon courtesy, The Hindu newspaper

Grand Alliance takes root

Competitive populism dominates the agenda for all political formations in upcoming elections in Andhra Pradesh.

The opposition parties, including the Telugu Desam party (TDP), the left parties and the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), in the state have formalised a grand alliance against the Congress party. This is a similar coming together of the opposition parties against the ruling incumbent, as had happened five years ago against the then ruling TDP.

In the 2004 assembly and Lok Sabha elections, the TDP had an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). And the seat sharing between the Congress and the TRS as well as between the left parties and the Congress helped these parties to collectively overcome the TDP, which received a trouncing, retaining merely 47 assembly seats and winning only five parliamentary seats. The broad alliance of the opposition was able to capitalise on the widespread resentment with the economic reforms followed by the TDP and also managed to win the support of large sections of the populace, particularly from rural areas with populist promises such as free electricity for farmers.

During the tenure of the Congress government however, a gradual withering away of the alliance took place with the TRS coming off it owing to the non-realisation of its goal of a separate Telangana state and with the left parties adopting confrontationist positions, particularly in the course of a land struggle. Within a few years into the tenure, the TDP disavowed any relations that it still had with the BJP, changed tack from its “reformist” past and adopted populist slogans, and soon enough found itself in alliance with the left parties. The TDP also managed a volte-face on the Telangana issue, endearing the TRS into the grand alliance as it stands today.

The Congress government led by Chief Minister Rajasekara Reddy has been successful in projecting a populist image of itself during its tenure. Owing to measures such as the free provision of electricity for agriculture, steps taken in building irrigation capabilities across Andhra Pradesh, or the Indiramma housing schemes for the homeless, the Arogyashree health scheme, the government has achieved a semblance of popularity and retaining of support base across the state. The opposition has duly adopted a strategy of scrutinising these schemes and protesting the deficiencies in them. And despite the opposition's legitimate criticisms of malfeasance by the government, the incumbent's success in delivering a populist message in comparison to the “reformist” predecessor has been there for all to see. And in that sense, there has been an instrumental reason for the coming together of disparate and erstwhile rival political parties such as the Left, the TDP and the TRS in coalition against the Congress.

The left parties reason out their political stance in the state as flowing from their national goal of preventing the Congress and the BJP from coming to power. Locally, they affirm that their electoral strategies would not affect their political campaigns and socio-economic struggles, which has seen an increase in support for them. Whether that is indeed the case is questionable as disparate alliances determined by electoral criteria have not helped the Left in retaining their ideological influence on governments formed after elections. Even if the success of the coalition is assumed, it is indeterminate if the TDP (as the largest party in the bloc) would be any different in its stances on socio-economic matters and development trajectories from the others in the ruling class segments.

What prevents the elections from becoming a two-horse race – the Congress versus the grand opposition (the BJP has been relegated to a minor presence in the state) is the dark horse presence of the newly formed political outfit, the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) anchored by the popular film actor Chiranjeevi. Despite overtures and discussions between the PRP and the Left, the latter decided to throw in their lot with the TDP as the PRP refused to join the grand coalition. With a purported support base of youth, and other marginalised sections of the populace, the PRP hopes to make a significant dent in its first attempt in electoral politics. Unsurprisingly the political language of this party also draws from populism and concern for the poor.

Electorally however, considerations such as identity, as in particular caste combinations still play an important role in determining the success or not of such coalitions. The PRP is expected to draw a good chunk of votes from the Kapu community, assumed to favour the Congress party traditionally. And in that regard, the relatively popular Congress party faces a formidable challenge posed by the grand alliance and the PRP.

The biggest loser even before the elections, seems to be the BJP. The party has been able to neither carve a presence nor befriend a regional ally in the state – a trend that resembles the situation in other southern states excepting Karnataka, surely affecting the overall prospects of the NDA in the parliamentary elections.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The rival knights of lawn tennis

"This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object" -- The Joker in the Dark Knight.

Two players who form a complete contrast in style of play, but adhere to the spirit of tennis and are paragons as gentlemen off court, fought yet another epic Grand Slam final at Flinders Park, Melbourne the day before yesterday.

The World Number 1, Rafael Nadal is a street fighter, who plies his game using top spin from the baseline and revels in an all-court offense-defense system. His game relies on wearing out his opponent through relentless intensity and aggression. The World No 2, Roger Federer, already an accomplished all-time great is a master of finesse, angles and the percentage game - i.e. always pinning on a high percentage of winners. The latter's game was what that made him invincible for a few seasons before the arrival and transcendence of the former from a clay court matador to a all-court workaholic. In short, Federer forms what is metaphorically acknowledged as the irresistible force and Nadal is the immovable (lets say im-passable in tennis terms) object.

So, what happened when these guys met yet again, evoking memories of their earlier contest at hallowed grass in Wimbledon (long five-setter resulting in a Nadal win)? Did the irresistible force gush past the immovable object or did the "object" withstand the "force" and ground it out? It was the latter that happened.

Why couldn't the greatest player possibly to play tennis, Roger Federer manage to overcome Nadal, despite Nadal having to play yet another grueling tennis match following his marathon 5 setter against Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals? It was obviously Nadal's indomitable spirit that triumphed in the end, but that is not a good enough answer to the question. One has to delve into parallels from history to answer it, in my opinion. And I will try to do that by focusing on the women section of tennis to answer this.

Around 19 years ago, Freulien Steffi Graf of Germany was having a most dominant life at the top of the tennis world. She had just won the Golden Slam in 1988 and 1989 was a cakewalk except for a blemish at Roland Garros against Spanish upstart Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. The dominance of Graf was built on the twin pedestals of exuberant finesse and power backed by precision, as she sliced her backhands and boomed her forehand cross-courts to simply demolish every competent opponent of her time, from Gabriela Sabatini to an ageing Navratilova and others.

Enter circa 1990 though and the irresistible force of Graf met up with immovable object of the Grunting Slav, Monica Seles. Seles' game was completely a contrast to Graf's. If Graf with her bangles and blond hair, pranced around on the tennis field as a gazelle, combining the prose of her forehand with the poetry of her backhand; Seles grunted and galloped her way across the court, relying on an ugly but powerful and effective double-handed play. Suddenly the wins for Graf were drying up. And soon, so was her dominance challenged, by Seles' complete antithesis of a game. And just about the time Graf was about to crumble in the face of Seles' relentless onslaught, a deranged fan (Gunther Parche) of hers dug in a dagger on Seles' works, injuring her enough to stop her on the tracks to great-dom.

Fate took a twist and Graf retained her dominance, settling down after 1992 to become one of the best ever. Seles had to get out of injury and out of psychiatric care, trudge onto court, but with the stabbing, she was never her old self.

Rafael Nadal's game is very much like Seles as much as Graf's was like Federer's. His reliance on grit, muscle, power and a never-give-up during a baseline rally has much in common with Monica Seles. Other players in the world have their own unique strengths; Andy Roddick with his booming serve and rasping forehand, Djokovic, who is a middle class Nadal; and others. None of them have been good enough to overcome the finesse laden excellence of Roger Federer. Much like, none of the rest during Graf's time being able to overcome her, before Seles came in, resisted her and was herself stopped by a Gunther Parche aided murderous and unsolicited assist for Graf.

Roger Federer dominated tennis like never before in the earlier half of the 2000s. He laid an easy claim over the tag of best ever and was poised to take that title to the bank. The biggest challenge he received though, was from a marauder from Mallorca, produced as if from an assembly line of clay courters from the hot fields of Spain. The world expected the inevitable conquering of the clay in Roland Garros by Federer; but that was not to be. Instead, the nephew of Miguel Angel Nadal adapted his game to all surfaces, much like what Seles did and even went on to win in his alien environment on grass in Wimbledon. Nadal laid out a layer of friction on the pathway to "forever great" for Federer; and steadily this layer of friction turned from a hurdle to a formidable obstacle, enough to wear Federer out, as was seen in the Australian Open finals. The mental fatigue that Federer has had to endure trying to overcome this obstacle, wore out his inner calmness to the extent that he was engulfed in a bucket load of tears at the presentation ceremony of the Australian Open; much like Batman losing his cool at the continuing and festering irritability of the persistent Joker.

The immovable object has finally got the better of the irresistible force. Men's Lawn Tennis of the 2000s has given an answer to this fictitious physics question. Can Federer re-invent and resurrect himself to once again commence the battle for overcoming Nadal at the Roland Garros. One certainly hopes so; for Federer is pretty much the "White Knight" of lawn tennis.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

Fresh state assembly elections can be an escape route from the present miasmal state of politics in Jharkhand.

If what is happening in Jharkhand in the political realm is the “will of the people”, then certainly it must be a case of suspension of disbelief. Ever since the election of a hung assembly in 2005, the merry-go-round drama centred on the chief-ministerial chair has reduced democracy to a farce in the fledgling state.

After the conclusion of the 2005 elections, a 10-day long government, led by the perennial actor in Jharkhand politics, Shibu Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), was followed by an 18-month administration under Arjun Munda of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But with the withdrawal of support by four independents, the Munda government fell, following which, strangely, an independent, Madhu Koda was elevated to the post of chief minister, supported this time by legislators belonging to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The Madhu Koda dispensation gave way to yet another concoction led by Shibu Soren as chief minister. The latter was the result of a quid pro quo for the JMM’s support to the UPA in the dubious trust vote held in Parliament on 22 July last year. But Soren’s loss in a by-election in Tamar constituency held on 29 December resulted in the fall of the latest government, inviting president’s rule and the “suspended animation” of the assembly.

Shibu Soren, who returned to state politics after being acquitted in a murder case, was a sitting parliamentary legislator of the JMM from Dumka constituency. His return to state politics was necessitated following a diminution of political capital after having lost his cabinet post (the coal ministry) owing to the criminal case, after which the JMM withdrew from the UPA.Using the expeditious circumstances that required the JMM to help the UPA to win the trust vote, Soren orchestrated the downfall of the Madhu Koda dispensation and “seized” power in the state. It is no wonder that his loss in the Tamar by-elections was emphatic – the people have indicated that they have had enough of his political shenanigans.

Keeping the assembly in “suspended animation” serves no purpose. Soren has suggested yet another nominee from the JMM for the post of chief minister, clearly wanting to prolong this farce and obviously to retain power and influence, despite his ignominious loss in the elections. The UPA could be enticed to do that in return for the JMM’s pledging of support, or to secure the alliance with the JMM for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. But in every sense, the continuation of this farce of governance by another literal flip of the coin in the choice of a new chief minister would surely be a travesty of democracy. The ideal course of action should be to immediately dissolve the assembly, call for fresh elections, and invite a new mandate. For reasons of convenience, these elections should be scheduled appropriately to coincide with the upcoming parliamentary elections.

That the eight years since the formation of the state of Jharkhand have seen six governments is an indication of the level of political instability that has characterised it. The situation of unreliability has given rise to all kinds of political manoeuvring, disrespecting the verdict of the people. Even after government formation, an elaborate system of patronage, pandering to corporate interests in the mineral-rich state, and poor governance have been the norm, irrespective of which dispensation is in office. Power, enabling cronyism and influence in high places, has corrupted every party which has exercised it in the state. The cunning, the scheming, the treachery, the double-dealing, and the various self-serving combinations have made politics so full of machinations over here.

Following the bifurcation of the erstwhile united Bihar, the new state of Jharkhand was carved out of the mineral-rich and predominantly tribal regions. This was done to address the deprivation and inequality in these regions and to allot a separate federal unit for the tribal population. Those objectives remain still-born, as the abundance of minerals has only attracted and encouraged regimes of cronyism, corruption, and all kinds of wheeling-dealing, to the detriment of the development-yearning tribals. Shibu Soren’s crushing defeat indicates how fatigued the electorate is with this brand of politics and suggests that a return to the ballot box may be an escape route from the miasma that has characterised government formation in Jharkhand.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly