Debating India

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Manufacturing saffron support

Praful BIDWAI

Wednesday 9 June 2004, by BIDWAI*Praful

Each one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s claimed "achievements" is proving hollow, including in foreign affairs, security, the economy and democratic governance. It increasingly stoops to a manipulative managerial approach to electioneering.

ON March 18, United States Secretary of State Colin R. Powell unwittingly demolished a major claim made by Washington’s closest-ever political ally in Independent India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The claim was that its government’s greatest foreign policy achievement in six years was to seal an exclusive, yet dignified and equal, "strategic partnership" with the globe’s sole superpower, based on shared interests and mutual confidence; this helped raise India’s world stature.

Powell announced in Islamabad that the U.S. would designate Pakistan an MNNA (Major Non-NATO Ally), a status reserved so far for only 12 loyal partners outside the Atlantic alliance, such as Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia. (Pakistan will become the fourth Muslim-majority country to join the MNNA league, after Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain.)

Now, it is strange that a "strategic partner" should not disclose to its intimate ally that it is about to confer MNNA status upon a neighbour with whom the ally has had a relationship of strategic hostility and a hot-cold war for half a century (recent improvement in relations notwithstanding). This is all the more odd because Powell was on Indian soil just two days before he landed in Islamabad. He held a very cordial press conference in New Delhi, where he said that the U.S. was not considering the sale of F-16 war planes to Pakistan and that he would ask Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf to close down terrorist training camps permanently.

India’s stunned Foreign Office took a full 48 hours to react to the Islamabad announcement. It voiced its "disappointment" that the U.S. did not care to "share" its decision with it. Its acute embarrassment was hardly relieved either by Powell’s statement that the U.S. would like to have "the same relationship" with India, or by the State Department’s reiteration that Washington’s relations with New Delhi and Islamabad are not a "zero-sum game".

The U.S.’ decision to elevate Pakistan’s status as an ally just proves, if proof was at all needed, that no one can have an equal relationship with an arrogant superpower like the U.S. The BJP leaders’ self-congratulatory, self-serving claim to have raised India’s global profile by riding the partnership-with-the-U.S. bandwagon was essentially hollow. Apologists might try to explain all this by saying that the MNNA is a reward for Musharraf’s latest anti-Al Qaeda operation in South Waziristan and such other contingent factors. But it is largely contingent, short-term considerations of expediency that notoriously influence tilts in U.S. foreign policy.

The plain truth is that the U.S. treated India with complete and utter disdain. Powell knew that this government is so loyal and pusillanimous towards Washington that it would have gladly accepted the U.S. move if only it was told about it in advance. But he saw no need to be tactfully diplomatic. India could always be taken for granted!

The slight delivered to India is more or less on a par with the Chinese refusal to inform Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979 of the beginning of a war with Vietnam - when he was on a visit to Beijing as Foreign Minister. This was considered so insulting that Vajpayee aborted his visit. However, so grossly unequal and asymmetrical is the India-U.S. relationship as it has developed during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) years, that New Delhi will not even consider taking such symbolic action, nor even registering a protest, leave alone a major change of stance. Instead, it is "studying the details of this decision, which has significant implications... We are in touch with the U.S. government in this regard".

So much for "strategic partnership", which this government and the ruling coalition so desperately crave. A superpower that rides roughshod on its own close, long-standing European allies and wrecks the trans-Atlantic alliance over waging war on Iraq on concocted evidence is hardly going to respect the sentiments of a relatively minor Third World power.

It is equally predictable that the BJP will not draw the most obvious lesson from this episode - that you cannot have both a close and an equal relationship with the U.S. Either you have close "partnership" within a skewed, clientilist, framework. Or you have dignity with distance. Not both. The U.S. from time to time tilts towards India or Pakistan when that is expedient. Right now, the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another. Pushing it towards the centre is not quite in New Delhi’s hands.

If re-elected, the NDA will try to seek "recompense" by wooing the U.S. even more ardently for privileged access to U.S. high-tech weaponry and the Pentagon apparatus in general. India’s effort will probably impel Pakistan to seek yet more doleouts from Washington. This could begin a new phase in South Asia’s arms race. It might even jeopardise the India-Pakistan peace process - to our collective detriment.

The unravelling of the NDA’s claimed foreign policy "achievement" is part of a larger process. The Alliance’s economic record has been analysed to saturation point in Frontline. The NDA has performed no better in respect of national security - a "trademark" issue for the "super-patriotic" BJP. The party launched India on the disastrous course of nuclearisation six years ago, heightening danger and insecurity in an already troubled region.

Under NDA rule, India’s military expenditure has doubled, without any gains in security. In fact, India experienced intense insecurity in two nasty confrontations, at Kargil in 1999, and along the entire border with Pakistan following the Parliament House attack. Post-Pokharan-II adventurism brought India and Pakistan to the brink of an all-out war three times, with possible nuclear escalation.

The NDA has perversely tried to redefine security in purely military terms, by counterposing it to human security, which can only come with food security, income security, gender security, entitlement to other basic necessities of life, and a degree of social cohesion. It has drummed up sub-state terrorism as the prime threat to security, and then identified it with Islam - even more blatantly than George Bush.

This has meant depicting Indian Muslims as viscerally unpatriotic and as Pakistan’s Fifth Column, and victimising them both through vicious propaganda, and directly, through draconian laws like POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). It is no accident that all the 307 POTA detainees in Gujarat are non-Hindus: 306 are Muslim and one Sikh. Under NDA rule, millions of Indian citizens belonging to the religious minorities experienced virtual disenfranchisement - and extreme fear and hopelessness. And indices of human security declined for a majority of Indians.

The NDA’s record in respect of responsible governance is equally poor. Perhaps no other government barring the Emergency regime has treated Parliament as contemptuously as it did. It doggedly stalled and stonewalled democratic debate on issue after issue. The 13th Lok Sabha witnessed several important developments. The Kargil War immediately preceded it. Soon after came the "coffin scam" and the Tehelka expose. There was the stock market scam and Unit Trust of India’s meltdown too, which wiped out the savings of 50 million households.

Then came the Gujarat carnage. The year 2002 also witnessed the globe’s greatest military mobilisation since the Second World War, with a million troops eyeball-to-eyeball for 10 months. The 13th Lok Sabha’s life also coincided with a serious domestic agrarian crisis, and the invasion of Iraq.

All these issues deserved to be fully, honestly debated. They were not. The Gujarat carnage was a crime against humanity worthy of international trial. Refusal to investigate it through a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) will go down as one of the most despicable acts of the NDA. As thousands of citizens were being killed and raped in Gujarat, the government refused to adjourn Parliament - because the Budget was being presented.

It is another matter that two years later, the same government mocked at the Budget process through a "rolling" three weeks-long orgy of tax-breaks for the rich and announcement of all kinds of fiscal measures. The Kargil War - in which more Indian soldiers died than during the 1962 China war - was treated the same way. There was no JPC. Instead, the K. Subrahmanyam Committee did a whitewash job.

Ultimately, the 13th Lok Sabha set up only two JPCs - on the stock market scam and pesticides in bottled drinks. The first report indicted the Finance Ministry on 52 counts. The government could not answer these. Yashwant Sinha should have been sacked for ruining thousands of families. Instead, he was shifted to the Foreign Ministry!

This story, like George Fernandes’ Cabinet re-induction before he was cleared of Tehelka-related charges, is of a piece with the NDA’s disrespect for core democratic values. It bulldozed Parliament into a Joint Session just to pass the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. POTA was rightly opposed by most parties - and by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the thinking public. But "Iron Man" L.K. Advani was keen to ram POTA down the public’s throat. Soon, Parliament had to amend it because some sections of dubious legality led to the prolonged detention of an NDA ally.

THE BJP has done its utmost to cover up its egregious record and to capitalise on the upbeat mood of the metropolitan elite, comprising less than a 10th of the population, which admittedly has never had it so good. But the BJP knows it is electorally vulnerable, especially in States like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand and Haryana. Its potential gains in Uttar Pradesh might also be limited.

The BJP has forged three strategies to cope with its weaknesses: divide the Opposition through bribery, inducement and blatant manipulation; speak in many voices so as to spread and maximise its appeal; and practise constituency-wise managerial micro-management. The first has yielded some gains in U.P. and Jharkhand. The Congress(I) could not tie up with the Bahujan Samaj Party despite trying hard because the BJP blackmailed Mayawati on the Taj Corridor case.

In Jharkhand, the BJP has been trying to divide the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, again through inducements. In Bihar, Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav has unwittingly played into the NDA’s hands by refusing to discuss seat-sharing with his allies, especially the Left, in a clean, transparent manner. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, for his part, has a compromised relationship with the BJP. If the Congress(I) fails to build alliances in U.P., Bihar and Jharkhand, its score could fall really low in the three States which account for a total of 134 seats.

The BJP has deliberately adopted double standards and dual approaches on a range of issues: Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins (it now says it wants to bring a law banning such persons from holding high office), dynastic succession (why does it prop up its own Gandhis, Maneka and Varun?), Ram temple (Advani now says it is part of the BJP’s core-agenda), and "vote-bank" politics (it is brazenly cultivating Muslims only to get votes, without treating them as equal citizens). This strategy, like Advani’s rath yatra, is meant to target the party’s appeal to both the hardline Hindutva lobby and urban supporters whose sympathies lie more with neoliberal economics than communal politics. Whether it will produce results is unclear.

Thirdly, the BJP’s second-rung leaders have commissioned any number of expensive opinion polls and pre-election surveys, with varying sample sizes. Those are being undertaken to get marketing-style tips on the party’s strengths and weaknesses, and on caste preferences. BJP strategists will rely more on these surveys than on political assessments or on conventional democratic methods of mobilising popular support by taking up gut-level issues.

This speaks of unbounded cynicism and faith in manipulation. Such a marketing-oriented managerial approach to India’s complex election arithmetic and its multi-causal political dynamics may not work on a large scale, although it has its uses in specific pockets.

The BJP’s overall strategy is based on a gamble. It would be no surprise if the party loses 20, 30, even 50, seats. But whether the Opposition can mount a successful campaign and win enough seats to form the next government remains to be seen.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 07, March 27 - April 09, 2004.

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