Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Poll Results in Maharashtra and Haryana: Implications for the Future

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

It appears that the combination of Narendar Modi and Amit Shah will indeed succeed in making India, a Congress Mukth Bharath--India free of the Congress. In Maharashtra the BJP won 123 seats on its own and in Haryana it won 47. In both these states the BJP has been able to humble the dominant regional political party which played the identity card--Siva Sena in Maharashtra and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana. The support garnered by the BJP cut across the traditional fault lines of Indian polity--backward castes, tribal communities and Scheduled Castes have all voted for the BJP making it the most inclusive political force in the country. Further, the dynastic components of the polity like the Thackeray family in Maharashtra and the Cahutalas in Haryana stand humbled if not eliminated and this is a trend that began in the 2014 May Parliamentary Elections which saw the emergence of the BJP as a truly National force. Identity politics has resulted in the fragmentation of the political space and the resultant Governments were plagued with corruption and crime as what India witnessed during the 10 years of Congress led UPA rule.

In Maharashtra the BJP reluctantly broke itt alliance with the regional party, Siva Sena, over the issue of seat sharing. Surprisingly the Shiv Sena was unwilling  to concede just 3 extra seats over which the two parties parted company. Even though the Siva Sena put put candidates against the BJP in all the traditional regions of Maharashtra, Vidhraba, Mahratwada, and Konkan, the bJP was able to make dramatic inroads. The separation of Vidhraba from Maharrashtra is unlikely to be taken up in the near future as the Siva Sena will oppose any division of the state. The recent confusion over Telengana may lead to a rethink on the whole issue. Even though the Siva Sena used, as it is wont, extremely fiery and some would even say "gutter" language, a patch up is on the cards.

The Congress and its ally Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar was defeated because of the rampant corruption it indulged in. The Irrigation scandal in which the prime accused is Ajit Pawar, the nephew of the Maharatha strongman resulted in the defeat of the NCP though it has held on to its traditional strongholds of Baramati.

In Haryana, the INLD leader Om Prakash Chautala who is lodged in jail due to his involvement in the Teacher Recruitment  Scam won 20 seats. All the important leaders of the Party were defeated. Om Prakash Chautala himself came out of jail on bail to campaign, feigning medical grounds but the results showed that the people have no sympathy for corrupt politicians and this shows clearly that the Indian Electorate is changing. Jat identity politics made the BJP stitch a coalition of other backward castes including the dalits and has swept to power.

In Maharashtra the BJP faces a rather grim choice: it has to seek the support of the Siva Sena to form the Government and given the acrimony of the recent campaign it would be quite a task to repair the damage to the 25 year relationship. In a way the passing away of Gopinath Munde who would have been content to let the Siva Sena play the dominant partner inMaharashtra opened the door for the BJP's emergence as an important force.

The two are well and truly set to making India, Congress Mukth Bhrath.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lost, Stolen or Shredded: The elusive shadows in Art and Literature

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Lost, Stolen, or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature
Rick Gekoski
Profile Books, London, 2014

Rick Gekoski who is a dealer in rare books, manuscripts and art has written an interesting book which sheds light on the arcane world of auctions, art transfer and recovery/restitution of cultural property. With a D Phil from Oxford University, Gekoski certainly knows both the academic and transactional aspects of this quaint and should I say with a degree of trepidation, murky arena of literary auctions and acquisition of papers, letters, manuscripts and memorabilia. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the art world. Did you know that the Mona Lisa was once stolen by an Italian nationalist and then was restored to the Louvre where it hangs still. This book begins with that episode and in the course of 15 short, pithy essays the author has brought out unknown facts behind several famous collections.

The discussion relating to the Urewera Mural that evoked "complex and contradictory local sensibilities" is a remarkable exercise in coming to terms with the political identity of dispossessed native groups in White settler state such as New Zealand and Australia. Denied right--political and cultural--art became the terrain over which political identities were created. This essay raises the disturbing question: Did the genocide of the native population of these countries lead to the crisis of identity in which even memory remains as elusive as dreamtime. This particular essay records the mural and its afterlife in the imagination of the indigenous Tuhoe society of New Zealand.  Sir Winston Churchill is a character who remains extremely controversial and no wonder his portrait commissioned by his admirers in the British Parliament generated disturbing emotions. The destruction of the portrait by Graham Sutherland by the widow of Churchill is seen as an act of vandalism by the admirers of the British statesman. Or was it an act of redemption? Dealers are known to pursue their quest for letters and documents. The search for a lost poem by James Joyce is certainly interesting. But I wonder how such quets help us understand the poetry of Joyce better. There are however more serious matters in this book.

Do the dead have rights? Gekoski asks this question but does not provide a straight answer. This question is particularly pertinent when authors and other powerful cultural icons like poets and novelists instruct their literary executors to destroy their papers. Do historians have a right to claim the materials pertaining to the life of the people they study. Lord Byron whose life by no stretch of the imagination was an exemplary life in the service of his God, King and Nation, was a meticulous recorder of his "conquests"  and his publisher burnt the 3 think volumes of his diaries thereby depriving the future of ever understanding the mind of this great but elusive genius. As  a historian, I feel that the dead have no right to hold on to their secrets. After death the truth of their earthly lives must be told and therefore destruction of private papers, letters and the like must be strongly discouraged.

This book is an excellent introduction to the abstract questions of art, its ownership, and the like. Though the author does not address these questions directly these questions lurk just beneath the surface.      

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Narendar Modi in the USA: "May the Force be with you"

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Narendar Modi's trip to the US was a success in every sense of the term. There was great trepidation amongst the chattering classes in India about his seeming lack of exposure to the rarefied atmosphere of high diplomacy and statecraft. However, the wide knowledge and the intellectual depth at his command enabled Modi to not only make a success of the trip but also drove home to his audience in US that India is rapidly moving toward a more aggressive economy. He rightly emphasized the economic potential of India and did not really address issues that do not concern India directly. Perhaps he was the first major Indian statesman who resisted the temptation to play hero in a otherwise drab pantomime. We have only to recall the manner in which that absurd man, Jawaharlal Nehru used to strut about on the international state and was so taken in by the empty adulation of the Western world that he ignored the domestic scene entirely and India had to pay a very heavy prize. Narendar Modi has set out to remake India in the image of an Asian country and therefore his priorities lie in the economic sphere and in all the major speeches he gave in USA he dwelled on what he called the 3 Ds peculiar to India" Democracy, Demographic Dividend and Demand.

The cartoon on the left illustrates the dismal level from which Narendar Modi rose. For more than a decade he was denied visa to enter the USA because a handful of American busybodies like Martha Nussbaum, Howard Spodeck and others petitioned the US Congress on Mod's alleged involvement in the 2002 Riots. Even after the Supreme Court of India gave Modi a "clean chit" these liberal intellectuals persisted in their offensive and the State Department obliged them. I wonder why these intellectuals do not show the same outrage to the atrocities of US allies like Israel. Modi was given the reception which would be the envy of a rockstar and I must say that Narendar Modi enjoyed every moment of his 5 day stay in USA. Not once did he allow his personal predilection cloud his demeanor.

Narendar Modi touched all the right bases in USA. He paid a floral tribute at the 9/11 Memorial by laying a yellow rose on a black marble slab containing the names of those who died on that fateful day. I think he is the first Indian Prime Minister to honour the 9/11 victims and this goes to show the sophistication with which he had planned the trip.

The purpose of the visit to the US was to address the UNGA. Narendar Modi spoke like a true statesman. Speaking after Pakistan's Prime Minster, Nawaz Sheriff had spent nearly 10 minutes ranting and raving about India, Modi dismissed Pakistan with just a single line and went on to spell out his  vision for a New World Order in which India will have its rightful place. He said that the 5 victors of World War II are the permanent members of the Security Council and this does not reflect the reality of the 21st Century which Modi said belonged to Asia. He touched on the crisis created by International Terrorism and cautioned against using Terror as an instrument of regime change. As I predicted in an earlier blog, Narendar Modi refused to be drawn into a debate over ISIS/ISIL.

The Indian Community had organized a gala event at Madison Square. Before a crowd of 20,000 which included more than 20 Congressmen and Senators, Modi spoke about his vision for a new India. He did not dwell on Indo- US relations except to say that there were visa issues that bedeviled the relationship between the two countries and this of course was a reference to the H-1 visa on which US has put a cap.  Though there is no word yet abot the lifting of the cap, it is more or less certain that after Modi's intervention the number may be increased and this would certainly help the soft ware sector in India. He also announced that Indians in USA will be given a life time visa and obviously this was welcomed with thunderous applause. Throughout his speech, Modi spoke of his campaign of Clean India and Make in India and welcomed the Indian community in USA to participate in the Clean Ganga Initiative which Modi has launched in Varanasi.

 In the leading Foreign Policy Think Tank, Council for Foreign Relations, Narendar Modi spoke about the economic partnership between India and USA. He defended India stand in the WTO negotiations by stating that Food Security is not negotiable but hinted at flexibility on other issues. India has been promised 41 billion dollar investment by American financial  institutions and that is certainly welcome.

The visit culminated with a summit meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. Obama was certainly a gracious host and both the Prime Minster and he visited the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. Narendar Modi did what no Indian Prime Minister has ever done before. He handed over DVDs containing the speeches of the great African- American civil rights leader to the President. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit was short on specifics but it did contain enough to demonstrate the success of the Meeting. Modi did not commit himself to any strategic partnership with USA, but stressed the need for technology transfer.

The 5 day visit was a grand success. Modi was able to conncet with the youth even in USA which turned out in large number to greet him. I cannot remember any politician who would end his speech with a line from Star Wars: Let the Force be with you.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

HINDU COLLEGE, Delhi: A Peoples' Movement: A review

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Hindu College, Delhi: A Peoples' Movement
Ed Kavita A. Sharma and W D Mathur
New Delhi: Niyogi Books 2014

Hindu College is one of the leading Colleges of India and the India Today invariably puts this educational institution within the top 10 in the country. Being a student of the College, having studied there between 1972 - 1977, I found myself attracted to this  Coffee Table Book brought out recently. Though there is a lot of information about the History of the College and the struggles of Sir Shri Ram with Sir Maurice Gwyer, I was faintly disappointed upon reading the book. I left Hindu in 1977 and have not been back since and I still have vivid memories of the teachers who taught me and one of them was instrumental in inspiring me to be a Historian. I look back upon my days there when memory has made the picture of life and experience more complex. I remember Hindu College as a friendly and disciplined institution in which teaching was taken very seriously.  P C Sood was the Principal  when I joined and Dr B M Bhatia returned in 1973 and remained the Principal till I completed my MA in History.

The first two chapters of the book deal with the early history of Hindu College when it was situated near Kashmere Gate close to the bungalow of the Rajput soldier of fortune of the early Raj, James Skinner. It seems to have had the unstinting support of the merchants and traders of Chandni Chowk who put up their capital in order to establish the College. The editors have done a splendid job in tracing the early history of the college though there is little about the development of the College and its transformation into a major educational institution. I remember that even the Graduation Ceremony in the College was a very subdued affair.

Two names stand out in my memory as I look back on my life as a student at Hindu. The teacher who taught me Medieval Indian History in my IInd Honours, Dr Gita Banerji will forever remain a person who inspired me to take up the challenging profession of teaching and research. She was a gifted teacher with a sense of humour. I still remember her smiling and asking the class whether she can finish her breakfast, as she opened her bag to fish out a pan. Her classes were interesting and she took us to the Hunting Lodge of the Sultanate located close to the ridge to demonstrate the features of medieval architecture.  I also remember Dr Kotyal as a good and warm hearted teacher. D N Gupta and Suchitra Gupta had just joined the College.

Another person I distinctly remember is the Superintendent of the College Office --Kishenji as we called him.  He was a very kind and patient man. He took care to see that each student received his Hall Ticket for the University examination. Those were days before the Computer and all forms had to be processed manually. Kishenji ensured that all students received their hall tickets and I know of several students whose examination fees were paid by Kishenji so that their forms could be submitted on time. I can never forget this kind and gentle soul who was the very picture of seva in the true sense of the word.

More than 37 years have passed since I left Hindu and the Coffee Table book brought my stay in the College back to my memory.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Should India join Obama in his war against ISIS

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

It has been reported that during Narendar Modi's visit to USA, the President of US Barack Obama will request India's participation in the war against ISIS, a war in which India does not have any particular interest or desire. Sir Harold Nicholson in his great work entitled Diplomacy wrote: Do not waste your time in trying to discover what is at the back of the Oriental's mind; there may, for all you know be nothing at the back: concentrate all your attention upon making quite certain that he is left with no doubt whatsoever in regard to what is at the back of your mind (p. 111). I think if President Barack Obama feels that the Prime Minister of India is going to waltz into a war of USA's making, he is quite mistaken. The stranglehold of post colonial gibberish which passes off as wisdom has inured Indian academics and policy makers to the inherent racism in USA's global policies.

The war which is unfolding in Syria and Iraq stems from the criminal, illegal and wanton act of naked aggression launched by USA against Iraq in 2003. The sustained violence unleashed by USA in Iraq and the self conscious promotion of identity politics has led to the present situation in which the Sunnis feeling alienated from the Iraqi regime started striking back. USA made the mistake of believing that all those opposing US occupation of Iraq are al qaeda cohorts. As events have shown ISIS is a branch of the extreme Islamist ideology which has deep roots in the late eighteenth century  off shoot of Islam, the Wahabi cult. Charles Allen in his outstanding book God's Terrorists has shown that the Saud tribe of the Arabian desert used the austere desert religion of Wahhabism to capture power in Arabia and the Ottoman conquest of the region kept the more extreme forms of this religion under check. However, the British during World War I once again patronised the Wahabis and used them against the Ottoman Empire. The transformation of Wahhabism from a desert cult to a political ideology was the contribution of the British secret service especially T E Lawrence whose exploits are celebrated in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Against this historical background we have to see if it is at all possible for USA to succeed in reining in the ISIS.

USA started destabilizing Syria the last bastion of Baathist modernizing regimes in the region very early after the attack on Iraq. It is well known that both under Saddam Hussein in Iraq and under the Assad regime in Syria religious fanaticism has been kept in check, women's rights secured, public health widespread and education accessible to all. Religious minorities like Orthodox Christians were safe and there was a degree of what Ibn Khaldun called assabiya in these countries. USA put its own thirst for oil ahead of the social needs and progress of the region and started arming groups with sophisticated weapons and training. ISIS is an off shoot of the Free Syrian Army which has had a strong presence in northeast Hasakeh province of Syria. Now when the group has started beheading Americans, USA turns around and starts calling it names. Till less than four months back their Secretary of State was threatening to bomb Syrian Army positions, a strategy which would have immensely helped ISIS. The wisdom and sagacity of Vladmir Putin prevented this unholy mess from unfolding. In short, USA has made it a habit to arm and train militants and use the Arab League to provide a semblance of legitimacy for unleashing provocative actions as it did both in Iraq and Libya.

The American Administration is now in a quandary of its own making. It cannot fight ISIS alone and is recruiting countries like Jordan, UAE and Saudi Arabia to extend support for its bombing campaign and the world knows that it is these countries which financed the ISIS in the first place. Turkey is rather ambivalent and the restive Kurdish population of Iraq and neighbouring parts of Turkey may use the mayhem of American intervention to carve out an independent state. USA still wants to arm and equip the Free Syrian Army even after events have shown that ISIS owes its origin to that very formation. At the same time USA wants to keep the option of overthrowing the last bastion of decency in the region, the regime of Syria. Iran is also an interested actor and is extracting a huge price for its cooperation, the tacit acceptance of its nuclear ambitions.

GIven the complexity of the situation, it is not in Indian interest to join hands with USA in its war against ISIS. India has now begun to insulate the country even from al qaeda by starting negotiations with Afghanistan and there is no need fro India to pull American chestnuts out of the fire.

The bombing of Iraq and Syria


Thursday, September 18, 2014

The President of China visits India: A Diplomatic Breakthrough

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

China and India are the oldest civilizations of Asia and the tortured history of the twentieth century unfortunately tore the two countries apart.  Jawaharlal Nehru unfortunately mishandled the border issue in 1962 and provoked the India-China War which led to a comprehensive defeat for India. Since then there have been a few incidents in Ladakh  and in the Arunachal Pradesh region, but there is little possibility of war between the two neighbours. It is to the credit of the new Government headed by Narendar Modi that saw an opportunity to improve Sino-India ties and he seized the chance and China also realized that peace with India is in her best interest. Unfortunately, China is still viewed with suspicion by large chunks of the population and this is partly due to the fact that little is known here about that country.

President Xi Jinping arrived in India on 17th September, the birthday of the Prime Minister. Setting aside diplomatic protocol the President's plane landed in Ahmedabad where Narendar Modi personally welcomed the Head of State. The two seem to have hit it off well together and they enjoyed a cultural feast on the banks of the Sabarmati River. This morning the two delegations met in New Delhi for high level talks, even as the Media was reporting what it termed a large Chinese incursion. Since the border between the two Asia giants is not demarcated any movement along the border has the potential to disturb peace and tranquility along the LIne of Actual Control. India seems to have retreated a bit from the McMahon Line fixation that characterized the Nehru era and China too has shown great diplomatic wisdom in not allowing the border dispute to dictate the contours of Sino-Indian relations. Geographical features are now included as part of the elements that will help draw up the boundary between the two nations.

Twelve agreements covering important areas of mutual interest were signed on this trip: Educational and Cultural exchanges were of course part of the boiler plate of such diplomatic exchanges. More interestingly, China has agreed to send 500 teachers who will teach Chinese in India. This will be a huge step toward normalizing relations with that country. In India there is hardly any expertise on Chinese language and whatever we read here is based on English language sources and the analysis is usually by American scholars who twist the whole narrative to suit the political needs of USA. It is time that the world realised that China has made huge progress in Science, technology and Education and India is willing to learn and benefit from the Chinese experience. China will invest 20 billion US dollars in Infrastructure projects over the next 5 years and this investment itself will add 2 % points to India's GDP. Narendar Modi has taken the right decision and I am sure that he will deliver.

The visit of the Chinese Head of State marks a new beginning in India's relations with her biggest neighbour. Of course, the hangover  of the jaded Nehruvian past is not fully dispelled. Bt a good beginning has been made.


Thursday, September 11, 2014


A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

The Minister for Human Resource Development, Hon'ble Smrithi Irani has finally decided to take a giant step towards making Indian Universities have a better system of governance. Keeping in mind the principle Maximum Governance, Minimum Government The MInister has decided to take the Pathan Report out of cold storage and has called a Retreat at Jaipur to discuss the Common University Legislation with Vice Chancellors of all Central Universities. This issue has been hanging fire for some time and the UPA Government lacked the political will to even discuss the need for a common legislative framework. The principle enshrined in the Constitution of India is being violated everyday in Central Universities, each of which has its own Acts and Statutes, thereby violating the cherished legal principle of Equality Before the Law. While there is substantial parity between Central University staff in terms of pay, service conditions, and the like there are huge differences in the manner in which they are governed. For instance in the Statutory Bodies of some Central Universities there is provision for elected representatives of the Faculty in addition to cadre based nominations. There is need to introduce a common legal framework for the governance of Central Universities. The 18 new Universities started during the UPA tenure have  failed to take off the ground primarily due to laxity in the legal framework.

What is the need for a Common Legislation? This question is seldom asked because the stakeholders in the University prefer to leave large areas of decision making as discretionary entitlements and subsequently pressurise the Vice Chancellor to take decisions in their favor. A common Law governing Central Universities will necessarily act as a deterrent in this unseemly game of oneupmanship. In Central Universities Vice Chancellors have been "persuaded" to appoint unqualified people and there have been instances of meritorious faculty denied their due because of their reluctance to toe the line of the powers that be. Further, in terms of service conditions there needs to be uniformity both of procedure and norms of assessment. In the name of autonomy some Universities prescribe what they consider "higher norms" for promotion and even the higher norm is invoked selectively. The need for University Autonomy cannot be equated with the power of the Vice Chancellor and his/her ruling clique to act in an illegal and arbitrary manner. A common legislation will go a long way in reducing the number of cases that Universities routinely face in the Courts of Law. Arbitrary and illegal actions when contested before a Court of Law are fought at the expense of the university, while the individual has to bear the entire expense from his hard earned savings. I think the Hon'ble Minister for Human Resource Development will earn the gratitude of the entire teaching community if she successfully pilots the Common Legislation through the Lok Sabha.

The governance of central universities affords ample scope for abuse of power in the name of autonomy. Seldom is the issue of corruption discussed. The regulatory bodies such as AICTE and MCI have been exposed by the CBI for corruption and the Chairman of Medical Council of India, Dr Khetan Deasi was found to possess one metric tonne of gold in his house. I know that in certain central universities jobs are sold at the rate of 30 lakhs a piece. This is because in Southern Indian universities, particularly in Tamil Nadu the post of Vice Chancellor is sold for 10 crores and he/she is expected to recoup the investment through sale of jobs, contracts, building contracts, canteen contracts, security contracts etc. All these ills can be prevented at least in Central Universities by means of a common legislation.

There is also the academic side to this issue. The Common Legislation will naturally lead to a common Academic Calendar all over India and even perhaps a common entrance test. Students can migrate to take courses of their chice in a particular University in which there is specialized expertise. This kind of horizontal movement which will enhance the quality of education will flow from a common University legislation.

The Minister must be lauded for taking this initiative which will enchance the standing, worth and prestige of Indian Univeristies.