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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Arvind Kejriwal is the only politician in India to wear shirts and trousers


Arvind Kejriwal is the only major politician in India to sport Western wear in public. What does this tell us about his politics?

A couple of days back, Arvind Kejriwal released a video titled “Samvaad - Arvind Kejriwal's message for all Indians”. Not having enough money to advertise on mass media (a fact that Kejriwal mentions in the video himself to gain sympathy) the Aam Aadmi Party is depending heavily on social media to make its case and this video is part of that.  The message delivered is standard and Kejriwal dishes out much of what the AAP has espoused since it started, mainly an end to top-down democracy and the cleansing of politics, especially with respect to corruption and criminalisation. What I found particularly interesting, though, is the way Kejriwal had dressed up it. He was sitting on a chair, had a neat side-parting, rimless glasses and a copstach moustache. Close ups of his face tell us that his moochh is turning grey and his chin sports an untidy, day-old stubble. He is dressed in a striped, pastel-coloured, formal button-up shirt with crumpled grey dress trousers. Notably, his shirt is untucked. He isn’t wearing shoes or, for that matter, any footwear, adding to the informal-yet-sincere tone of the message.

Amongst major politicians in the country (and yes, he is a “major” politician now), Kejriwal’s style of dressing is fairly unique. In politics, where symbolism is crucial, it might be instructive to see why this is so.

Most other politicians, in public, wear what the rural populace in their area does. Thus, Mamata sports a sari (suitably cheap and crumpled to suit her populism) and most male politicians in Tamil Nadu wear a veshti paired up with a shirt. Mulayam Singh Yadav, from the heartland, wears what could be called the national dress of India: the dhoti-kurta. The leaders of India’s two biggest parties, though, differ in this respect from their regional counterparts: they both wear kurta-pajamas.  The kurta pajama is, in terms of sheer numbers, not really a very popular combination across rural or, for that matter, even urban India. It does, though, have a certain pan-country appeal which suits the agenda of the Big Two.

This insistence on indigenous apparel is fairly unique to India, even controlling for size. China is a larger country (although we’re doing our best to close the gap) but its politicians prefer plain old suits. In fact, at summits like the G-20, you’ll find that our prime minster is the only one not wearing a Western suit.

In India, maybe more than most other countries, clothing has always carried a significant amount of political symbolism. When modern politics first started out in the country, though, the Anglicised “microscopic minority” that practised it, stuck to Western clothing. Two major Indian politicians at the turn of the 19th century, Dadabhai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta both have impressive statues in Bombay which have them dressed in trousers, button-up shirt and an overcoat (fairly unsuitable wear for a city as humid as Bombay, it might be noted). Ditto with Motilal Nehru, most pictures showing him in a three-piece suit as would befit one of Allahabad’s most successful lawyers.

The sartorial stuffiness of Indian politics was thrown out almost completely, though, with the induction of one Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, as a lawyer in South Africa had naturally worn Western clothing. On his return to India in 1915, though, he adopted in full measure the dress of the Indian kisan. Pictures from his first mass movement, the Champaran Satyagraha show him dressed in a dhoti-kurta. Later, he would dress “down” even further, moving about mostly bare-chested or with a shawl draped around his shoulders, in the common manner of the country.

There was a method, of course, to this abrupt change. Gandhi wanted to, for the first time in India, make politics mass-based. This included the use of vernaculars (Pradesh Congress Committees would use the region’s language), recruiting large numbers by reducing membership fees (to a piddling 2 annas) and the use of religious symbolism (mostly Hindu but also Muslim) in order to speak to the masses in tropes they would grasp easily. Gandhi was, of course, far from being a peasant and was an upper-caste, foreign-educated lawyer. The clothing was, therefore, part of his political symbolism to reach out to the Indian masses; assure them that he was one of them.

Gandhi’s influence, like in so much else, was pervasive in the matter of clothing. So much so that the Gandhian “look” became a sort of uniform for the Indian politician. Today, of course, this get-up might have lost much of the meaning it had when it was first bought in almost a hundred years back. In fact, unintendedly, the impact might even be an adverse one: wearing a white khadi kurta, once a sign of swadeshi, is one of the key constituents in how most urbanites stereotype a “corrupt neta” today.

This uniformity in political attire might be one of the primary reasons as to why Kejriwal has broken with the tradition of Gandhian dressing and taken to Western clothes instead. As a person whose primary branding is that of an “anti-politician”, this is an obvious way to differentiate himself from the competition. If every other neta is wearing dhotis or pajamas, he dons trousers. If everyone else wears bandhgalas or kurtas, he sports a button-up shirt. So sharply does he stick out, that his clothing actually came in for special comment on the occasion of Republic Day with the media clicking their tongues at this “casual dressing”.

While being different obviously has its advantages for an outsider like Kejriwal, this symbolism goes even further, speaking directly to Kejriwal’s core support base. As Srinivasan Ramani shows in this well-argued piece in the EPW, there are two characteristics of the AAP support base. One, is that it is mostly urban: the AAP did much better in the core parts of Delhi city as compared to the more semi-urban area in the north-west of the state. The other is that, overwhelmingly, its support base is drawn from the poor, mainly jhuggies and slums populated by people working in the informal sector (migrant labour, domestic help, auto drivers etc.).

This makes the AAP unique because it is the only major party which does not have a primarily rural support base. Of course, the urban poor do not wear dhotis, kurtas, veshtis or mundus. They wear trousers and shirts (often untucked). With his sartorial symbolism, Kejriwal, like Gandhi a century before him, is seeking to connect directly with his supporters.

And while the word “symbolism” might have a slightly disparaging, even “fake” ring to it, in mass politics that’s not really the case. Communicating your message to millions of people is a terribly difficult task and symbolism plays a crucial and legitimate part in that.

In grasping this, Kejriwal seems to have shown remarkable talent as is apparent given his success in the Delhi elections. That said, his performance in the Lok Sabha elections, in terms of seats, might be far less impressive, given his fragmented urban support base and the massive electorates for each parliamentary constituency. The real story, though, would lie in the vote share he manages to garner. According to the CNN-IBN-CSDS opinion poll, AAP’s national vote share would hit 4% in the 2014 elections. A number that, when compared to the 2009 election results, would put it at an impressive fifth place.

After the euphoria of the Delhi win, a number of commentators had stepped in and calmed things down by (correctly) pointing out that the AAP’s performance, while impressive, was not unprecedented: parties like the Telugu Desam Party and the Asom Gana Parishad had managed similar electoral debuts in their states. If these predicted vote shares are accurate though, the AAP’s debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections would be unprecedented.

Of course, opinion poll predications are fairly unpredictable things themselves. But at this stage, broadly speaking, Kejriwal’s rise, does seem rather impressive, a small part of the credit of which could maybe be attributed to his sense of fashion. To twist the old tagline of a textile brand just a bit: there are many things which make the complete politician. Clothes are just one of them.

First published on NewsYaps

Monday, April 7, 2014

Is Bengal’s Muslim vote bank headed for Mandalisation?

The AIUDF has decided to fight the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal. Given their success in Assam, this could point to the rise of a similar Muslim formation in Bengal, along the lines of the post-Mandal caste parties of the heartland. [Read my entire piece here]

Modi and the Looming Spectre of Authoritarianism

As Ambedkar had warned, Indians have a curious predilection towards bhakti and hero-worship in politics, one that has caused the country much harm. Given Modi’s iron grip within the BJP, we must guard against repeating old mistakes.

The last few days have been especially eventful for the always hectic Modi campaign. The BJP disciplined three of its patriarchs, Advani, MM Joshi and Jaswant Singh, imposing on them firmly the party’s diktat. Advani’s move to contest from Bhopal was scotched, being seen as an attempt to prop up a Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led centre of power, one that was obviously not to Modi’s liking. Joshi was made to contest from Kanpur rather than Varanasi, where he is the sitting MP, so that Modi could contest from the holy city, touted as a “safe seat” for the BJP. And Jaswant Singh was summarily expelled over the phone when he threatened to oppose the High Command’s decision to not nominate him as the BJP candidate from his home constituency of Barmer. All three incidents point to a significant strengthening of Modi within the BJP, as all other centres of power are either made to fall in line or removed. A more subtle indication of this power shift was provided by Rajnath’s Singh’s move of replacing the “Modi” in BJP’s official slogan, Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar, with the word “BJP”. The incident was sought to be papered over by claiming that it was an inadvertent mistake but by then tongues had already started to wag. Of course, all of this is small change compared to the popular slogan “Har Har Modi”, which raises Modi, literally, to the level of god (the original slogan, “Har har Mahadev” is a celebration of Lord Shiv). When the Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth objected to this “vyakti puja”, Modi hurriedly advised his supporters, via a tweet, to desist from the slogan. However, this literal deification of Modi was just one of the many indicators which point to his almost complete domination of the BJP.

The last time someone held such a sway on his or her own party was when the indomitable Mrs Indira Gandhi ruled over the Congress. Appointed as a consensus candidate after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, she soon ousted the Congress old guard and took full control. An authoritarian to the core, she went about methodically increasing her personal power at the expense of various systemic checks and balances. She tried to break the independence of the judiciary, discontinuing the practise of appointing the senior-most judge as chief justice, choosing her own candidate instead. The bureaucracy was made firmly subservient to the political executive, as her secretary, PN Haksar, pushed the concept of “committed” civil servants. She also significantly eroded the federal nature of India’s polity, concentrating power in the Centre. As Bidyut Chatterjee writes in his book, Indian Politics and Society since Independence, during Indira’s rule “centre-state relations were practically reduced to a state of near non-existence and unitarism triumphed under the aegis of a strong state”.

This is, of course, not to single out Indira. In the absence of checks, power corrupts everyone and anyone. Even her father, usually hailed as a pukka democrat, had a crushing hold on his party and his government and it was probably this dominance that led to the “Himalayan blunders” of 1962—surrounded by his lackeys, Nehru’s disastrous China policy just did not have the opposition and, consequently, the balance that was needed. To go even further back, in parallel with the deification of Modi, Gandhi was hailed as a saint and awarded the title of “Mahatma”. However, even he was not averse to misusing some of this power. In 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose won the elections for the presidency of the Congress, defeating a man, who as it so happened, was the Mahatma’s candidate. Rather than accept this democratic verdict, Gandhi used his iron grip on the leaders of the Congress to get 12 of the 15 members of the Working Committee to resign. Crippled, Bose was forced to quit and leave the Congress in disgrace.

This seems to be a particular Indian trait: we love to lionise our leaders, make them into gods, literally even. On 25th November 1949, Dr Ambedkar, in his famous Grammar of Anarchy speech delivered to the Constituent Assembly, had warned of exactly this. “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country,” he said, but also warned that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship. .” (emphasis mine)

India, unsurprisingly, seems to have ignored Ambedkar’s prophetic words. When Indira Gandhi first announced the Emergency, amazingly, India’s middle class actually cheered it on. Khushwant Singh wrote how it “was generally welcomed by the people. There were no strikes or hartals, schools and colleges re-opened, business picked up, buses and trains began to run on time.” Mrs Gandhi was seen as the “strong leader” India needed. Just like in 1975, even today, Ambedkar is being ignored and the Great Indian Middle Class is hankering again for a “strong leader”. This time that leader is Modi, who is to deliver India from her chaos and bedlam, ironically, by defeating Indira’s grandson at the hustings. The more things change…

Vijay Prashad, writing in The Guardian also acknowledged the authoritarianism inherent in the rise of Modi but argued that the fact that India does not have a presidential but a diffused parliamentary system of government is what will act as a check against Modi’s power should he win the elections. This, on paper, is correct. Our Westminster system, in theory, makes the government responsible to the legislature. For Modi to continue in office, he will have to have the confidence of at least 271 members of the Lok Sabha, not an easy task.

In practise, however, things are not that rosy. The peculiar way in which the executive is chosen in the Westminster system means that it must necessarily be one that enjoys the confidence of Parliament. In other words, while Parliament is meant to check the executive, given that both draw their power from the same organ, the ruling party, this is a weak check indeed. A conflict of interest is almost built into the system by default. This peculiar nature of the Westminster system was highlighted by Lord Hailsham in his now famous Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the BBC in 1976, where he memorably called this feeble arrangement of checks and balances an “elective dictatorship”. It also must be noted that the “elective dictatorship” of the UK becomes even more despotic in India, given that we have that most undemocratic of instruments, the Anti-Defection Law. In the UK, in extreme circumstances, governments could still be reined in by, say, a backbench revolt. Given that an MP in India is a slave of his party high command, such a scenario is, literally, impossible. The ruling party has full control of both the executive and the legislature, the latter farcically meant to provide a check on the former. In the US Presidential system, on the other hand, the complete separation between the executive and legislature means that even an extremely strong president can be held in check, as has happened multiple times in the current Obama administration.

It is, therefore, no surprise that this system has once allowed one individual, Indira Gandhi, to completely dominate the country, making Parliament and even institutions like the cabinet, completely subservient to her. One year before the emergency, DK Barooah had even gone so far as to proclaim that “India is Indira. Indira is India”, his sycophancy providing an apt expression of Indira’s iron grip on the government, even if not, as claimed, India. This time, Modi’s supporters and, indeed, many BJP leaders have gone even one step further, comparing him to Lord Shiv himself. And while, even if for appearance’s sake, Indira fought on the basis of slogans of development such as “gharibi hatao”, the BJP slogan is starkly Modi-centric: “Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar”, the absence of the BJP in its very own slogan being a stark reminder as to how personality-centric Modi’s campaign is.

Some might argue that Indira Gandhi is an extreme case and there is no way the BJP would even be able to get close to the number of seats the Congress held under the “Indira Wave”. This is a valid point and there is a good chance that the exigencies of coalition politics would hold in check many of Modi’s more authoritarian tendencies. Nevertheless, given his absolute power within the BJP and the harm authoritarianism has already done to India, we must keep Ambedkar’s warning in mind: “in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation”.

First published in NewsYaps

Friday, April 4, 2014

The UPA’s Rights-Based Approach and its Impact in India

The UPA, in the past decade, has introduced a new paradigm in India’s development story: the Rights-Based Approach. This article explores the origins of this strategy and evaluates its impact on India. 

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that the UPA is in a bad way. Large swathes of public opinion have turned against it, the media uses it as a punching bag and even its own leaders are convinced of the futility of the 2014 elections. All of this is for good reason, of course. The past 5 years have been a study in how not to run a government. Nevertheless, we must give even the devil its due. For all its ills, the UPA has, with its Rights-Based Approach, enacted a paradigm shift in the way development is thought of in this country. In a crushingly poor nation such as India, it has overturned conventional modes of thinking on development, the benefits of which have been and will continue to be significant.

The philosophical basis to the Rights-Based Approach has been principally provided by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum which is generally called the Capability Approach to development. As argued by Sen in his seminal book, Development as Freedom, development is a concept that should be directly and deeply concerned with the effective freedom – capability – of actual people to achieve the lives they have reason to value. Development, therefore, should be defined as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Some of the freedoms as enunciated by Nussbaum include being able to live up to one’s natural life span, having good health, having one’s bodily integrity secured (freedom from assault, having control of your reproductive abilities etc) and being able to make and participate effectively in political choices. 

Traditionally, though, development has been defined in far narrower terms, the most common being conflating it with the GDP or income growth. This lovely little illusion comes crashing down using two of Sen’s favourite examples: Kerala vs. Gujarat and India vs. Bangladesh. Gujarat has a per-capita income about 11% more than Gujarat. Yet in all real parameters of human development (see table below), Kerala is streets ahead. This comparison becomes even starker for Bangladesh and India. Our eastern neighbour leads us on a number of key human development statistics in spite of India’s GNI per capita being an impressive twice that of Bangladesh.






As is apparent from these two examples, incomes can hardly be used as a proxy for measuring development. A girl child would be better off in “poor” Kerala/Bangladesh than “rich” Gujarat/India. This, of course, does not mean that higher incomes cannot coincide with development. But as Sen has repeatedly pointed out, incomes are just one of the means towards development and in no way is it a necessary and/or sufficient condition. Of course, we tend to ignore this and mistakenly treat GDP numbers as ends to development and not means, as they are.

Given this false centrality of GDP/incomes in development, welfare programmes carried out by governments and aid agencies often functioned on a ‘basic needs’ approach in which elementary requirements of target groups were identified and then aimed to be fulfilled. Of course, given the fact that ‘development’ (i.e. GDP growth) was not directly linked to those needs, the needs were not given the highest of priorities. 

Enter, the Rights-Based Approach (RBA), which guarantees freedoms as a right.  Development now is meant to increase freedoms rather than push up a number such as GDP. Unlike the ‘basic needs’ approach which did not make it mandatory to fulfil needs, rights are justiciable. This approach allows us to keep our eye on the ball, letting agencies involved with development to actually focus on making lives better rather than be obsessed with figures such as GDP which are often not even directly related to actual human development.

The UPA has implemented the Rights-Based Approach using 5 acts: the Right to Information, the NREGA (right to work), the Food Security Act (right to food), the Right to Education and the Forest Rights Act 

The RTI has probably done more to change governance in India since 1947 than any other single measure. By making information a “right” (upgraded from being just a “need”), the act has made bureaucrats responsible for stopping it, thus remedying, to some extent, the huge imbalance in power between citizens and the government.  Citizens are using this new power to crack the whip and force the state to act. 

The NREGA has ensured basic livelihood security at a scale (in 2011, it reached 215 million households) which makes its impact almost revolutionary. The act has not only ensured income security but increased wages overall and has fundamentally changed the distorted relationship between farmers and labourers, giving the latter more of a voice. The World Bank (not the most enthusiastic supporter of the RBA, it must be pointed out) has hailed the act, noting that it “illustrates how good governance and social mobilisation go hand-in-hand”. It also commends the RBA of the scheme claiming that the “fact that the law is organized as a right motivates job seekers’ collective action to hold authorities accountable for supplying employment instead of siphoning off the allocated funds”.

Apart from income security, the tertiary effects of the NREGA on rural prosperity are also manifold: just to take one example, a University of Oxford study in 2013 has found that the NREGA has a significant effect on reducing child malnutrition.

The latest entrant to the UPA’s RBA showcase is the Food Security Bill which promises that most basic of human rights: food. The Bill expands the structure of the pre-existing PDS to ensure highly subsidised grain for “up to 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population”. This is critical in a country such as India which has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, worse than even most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries in which chronic malnutrition is less than India include Bangladesh, Tanzania and Niger. Even Rwanda, a country which has suffered the worst genocide on the planet since WWII, manages to ensure better nutrition for its children. Statistics such as these might explain Amartya Sen’s emotional plea, pointing out that the opposition and delay in passing the Food Security Bill was causing 1,000 child deaths per week.

In fact, the recent debate around the Food Security Bill (FSB) is instructive in order to observe the opposition to the RBA. This conversion of basics such as food or information from “needs” to “rights” has irked many supporters of “minimal government”. Their main argument rests around the issue of cost: is this extra financial burden sustainable?

At its core, this is a valid question: piloting schemes which bankrupt a government is not a very wise move. 

When we get down to hard numbers, though, fears that the RBA will have a significantly adverse impact financially remain quite unfounded. The FSB, as pointed out by Ashok Kotwal, Milind Murugkar and Bharat Ramaswamy, entails an extra expenditure which is less than 1% of the GDP. Similarly, the NREGA only involves a government allocation of 0.5% of the GDP. In contrast, military spending is 3% of the GDP. India’s fuel subsidy, benefiting its upper and middle classes is 1.3% of the GDP and tax subsidy to industry in the 2012 budget was a whopping 5 times of the NREGA allocation.

Clearly then, the money is there—the government RBA expenditure is a tiny part of its total expenditure and, given its impact, is money well spent—which makes opposition to these bills a bit of a mystery. 

Given its large scale impact, the UPA has clearly benefitted from its RBA approach. In 2009 the Congress won 206 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, a massive 42% increase from the 2004 results (the Rights-Based Approach Wave?). UPA 2, though, has paid far less attention to the RBA than UPA 1. It delayed the FSB significantly in contrast to the speed with which it passed the RTI and NREGA. Moreover, as Jean Dreze has pointed out, the FSB severely dilutes the RBA by allowing governments to select “eligible households” allowing for huge gaps in who does or does not benefit, thereby weakening the “rights” nature of the measure.

This, in fact, might be one reason why the UPA is so despondent about the next elections. Its forceful espousal of the RBA helped it in 2009; maybe its failure to do so during its second term will end up costing it the 2014 elections.

Given the approach’s success, it will be interesting to see whether the next government adopts it or not. Although given the UPA 2’s shabby treatment of the concept and the BJP’s ideological opposition to it, this, unfortunately, looks rather unlikely.

First published on NewsYaps

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Short History of the 1962 War and its Lessons


Cross posted on Tarikh Par Tarikh

On Tuesday, Nevile Maxwell, a former journalist with The Times, posted in Delhi, published sections of the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report on his personal website. The report was an investigation into the 1962 military debacle and is still classified as ‘Top Secret’ by the Government of India. Maxwell wrote that he was publishing the report on his website after efforts to release it to the Indian press had failed with editors backing out. “So my dilemma continued,” he wrote. “Although with the albatross hung, so to speak, on Indian necks as well as my own. As I see it now I have no option but, rather than leave the dilemma to my heirs, to put the Report on the internet myself.”

The release of the document, by itself, is no great addition to our understanding of 1962. Maxwell has had the report with him for many decades and uses it as one of the principal sources for his book, India’s China War. His account, already widely disseminated, would now be open to be scrutinised alongside its principal primary source thus adding more weight to his narrative. Till now, the report being classified, we had to take Maxwell’s word for it.

Nevertheless, the release of the report does raise some important points.

The first thing it does is lay bare the almost autocratic way in which the government in our country functions. The lifeblood of any democracy is information, on the basis of which the electorate can make decisions. This level of secrecy—the Henderson Report has been under wraps for more than 5 decades now—is odd for a country that calls itself a democracy. Most Western countries, even organisations such as the CIA, declassify documents after more than 30 years. This is just one example of the paternalism which the Indian state has inherited seamlessly from the Raj. Our government still has a tendency to rule rather than govern which is why it can so easily keep this report away from the prying eyes of its own citizens. With regard to 1962, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that communist China has been more open than democratic India.

The other thing this hullabaloo does is bring 1962 back into the spotlight. The renewed interest in India’s greatest military debacle would help shape India’s response to further conflicts, hopefully in the correct manner. Till now, with very little information available (and Maxwell’s views under heavy criticism), the debate around 1962 has been severely hampered. One half of the efforts have been spent in proving Nehru’s contention that China “stabbed us in the back”—the official Indian view of the war. The other half, critical of Nehru, have blamed his appeasement of China for the defeat. Surprisingly, even this half unquestioningly accepts Nehru’s version of Chinese perfidy, only berating Panditji for letting down his guard.  As luck would have it, both stances are largely incorrect.

In 1947, as India emerged as a free country, it saw that its borders with its largest neighbour, China, had been left largely undefined by the British. In the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh), the border was demarcated by the McMahon Line, an agreement formalised between British and Tibetan representatives at the Simla Conference of 1914. The Chinese do not formally recognise this line. They argue that the Tibetans were not sovereign in 1914 and hence did not have the authority to decide a border. In the western sector, things were even fuzzier. As late as 1950, India itself had produced maps marking the border in this sector as “undefined”.

Initially, this ambiguous border wasn’t an issue. China emerged from World War II a broken country torn apart by civil war. The power equation between the two countries can be judged from the fact that for the Bandung Conference, Nehru sent over an Air-India aeroplane to fly Zhou Enlai (China’s first premier) to Jakarta. This unusual aircraft lending was done because at the time, strife-torn China did not even have an airline.

However, in 1950, China invaded Tibet, bringing itself to India’s doorstep and very soon built itself up as a stable power. Around the same time as India and China committed themselves to the lofty (but, as time would tell, hollow) principles of Panchsheel, friction emerged between the two countries with regard to the border. Matters were more or less settled on the eastern sector. Even though China did not formally accept the McMohan line (and still does not), the area had been under Indian control for some time and Zhou Enlai had stated that “now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it”. In the western sector though, India, curiously, used a shaky treaty from 1842 to unilaterally claim a fixed boundary (the Kashmir-China boundary shown in Indian maps today). This is an area that the British has never really had any jurisdiction over, neither de facto nor de jure. China, on the other hand, claimed it had controlled the area for over two centuries and, most importantly, it had certainly been under Chinese control since 1950, ever since it invaded Tibet. When India first drew a definite border for Aksai Chin (articulated in Nehru’s letter to Zhou in 1959) China was already in control of Aksai China for almost a decade (roughly mapping to its present area of control).

This maximalist claim by India, the weaker side, might strike one as odd but starts to make more sense when taken to be a bargaining counter. India wanted China to formally accept its claims in the east in return for which it would accept China’s claims to Aksai Chin. This claim was therefore never meant to be an actual military posture—just a diplomatic bluff. The logic of democracy married with jingoism, though, put paid to Nehru’s strategy. Once the border in the west had been demarcated and put on a map, it took a life of its own. Public opinion staunchly opposed the idea of a barter, or even the ceding of an inch of Indian land—which now included Aksai Chin, a region which had never been in India’s control but was now a part of the country by the occult powers of cartography. Nehru himself acknowledged this pressure lamenting that “if I give them that I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India”. President Radhakrishnan also warned that the maps could not be changed “if only because public opinion will not tolerate this”.

The end result was that when Zhou Enlai flew to India in January 1960 (this time, presumably, in his own aircraft) he was ready to negotiate the border but Nehru was in no position to cede land from areas that had already been demarcated by his government as India’s. To further press home the public opposition to any ‘concessions’ to China, Zhou’s visit was marked by protests and demonstrations including a massive dharnaa staged by the Jan Sangh outside Nehru’s residence (it is therefore, ironic, that today the BJP criticises Nehru for 1962—a mistake he committed partially by giving in to pressure from the Hindutva wing). The east-west ‘barter’ first thought up to solve the problem—the ‘logical solution’ as per Neville Maxwell—was a nonstarter. India would not, could not, shift from its claims either in the east or the west.

In spite of these reverses, it still did not mean conflict was inevitable. In fact, the situation in 1960 is also the situation today—India holds the McMohan line and China holds Aksai Chin.

What eventually lead to war was something known as Nehru’s Forward Policy.

In November 1961, the Government, under massive public pressure, issued instructions to the Army to set up posts all along India’s claim lines and "especially in such places as might be disputed". This bizarre strategy, known as the Forward Policy was based on completely misplaced intelligence from the IB that the Chinese were unlikely to use military force against India even if they were in a position to do so. NB Mullick, part of Nehru’s coterie, supplied this fantastic assessment. At Army HQ, Nehru’s other two acolytes, Lt General BM Kaul and Army Commander, Thapar accepted this order rather than, as should have been done, protest it from a military point of view.  Valid and urgent objections from the Western Command (in-charge of operations in Aksai Chin) stating that it severely lacked forces to carry out the task (much less face the Chinese should they retaliate) were summarily overruled by Army HQ.

Matters reached a head in June 1962 as India established a post in the eastern sector at Dhola, which lay around 1.5 kms north of the McMohan line. As explained by Brigadier John Dalvi in his seminal war memorial, Himalayan Blunder, “the Thagla-Dhola area was not strictly territory that we should have been convinced was ours as directed by the Prime Minister, Mr Nehru, and someone is guilty of exceeding the limits prescribed by him.”

By September, China had attacked and taken over the post. Political compulsions now forced the government to act and attempt to evict the Chinese from Dhola—a move not short of suicide given the strength of the Chinese, the climate and the harsh geography of the area. When the army resisted this move, the government promptly replaced the intransigent General Umrao Singh (XXXIII Corps) with General Kaul, sweeping aside all opposition to its plans. The Indian force that was eventually sent to evict the Chinese from Dhola was heavily attacked by some 800 Chinese troops supported by heavy mortars. For the first time, the fiction the IB had spun, that the Chinese would not retaliate with force, came crumbling down. General Kaul’s first shocked reaction to the Chinese action is said to have been “Oh my God! You are right, they mean business.”

By 20 October, the Chinese had launched major offensives in the west as well as the east, citing “self-defence” against India’s aggression; ironic because India’s Army was in no possession to defend itself much less be aggressive. The false bravado of the Forward Policy had collapsed.

Within a month, the Chinese had swept through the west and east and, having achieved their war aims, declared a unilateral ceasefire. They withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as it existed in 1959 (and still more-or-less exists today), which maintained the McMohan line in the east but also firmly kept Aksai Chin with them. As might be noted, this is a compromise that, at one time, the Chinese were willing to do at the negotiating table. India’s Forward Policy had achieved nothing other than a humiliating defeat for its army. While 1962 laid bare the army top brass and political leadership, it must be pointed out that most Indian Army units showed exceptional courage in the face of almost impossible odds, fighting a far-more well equipped enemy as well as their own bumbling leadership.

India has a lot of lessons to learn from this debacle. One is the double-edged sword that media attention is in a democracy. Media and public pressure plays a remarkably important role most of the time but in 1962 it also forced Nehru’s hand, compelling him to take unsound decisions such as the Forward Policy. This lesson is as valid today as it was in ’62, maybe even more so given how much more stronger the media is as compared to 5 decades back. The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident is a case in point. Defence minister AK Antony protested the media reaction, insinuating that television news media overplayed the face-off by showing old footage of Chinese “incursions” on what is still an undemarcated boundary—a situation similar to 1962.

It also calls for a reappraisal of Nehru—something both his supporters as well as critics need to do. In 1962, Nehru’s position of being “stabbed in the back” was clearly a bit misleading. During the war, he flatly contradicted a lot of the qualities he is admired for: Third World solidarity, non-alignment (Nehru appealed fervently for US support in 1962 and was turned down) and democracy (removed all opposition to his 1962 policies, staffing every level with ‘yes men’). His critics, mainly from the Right, also seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick. For example, in his book Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese Taught Pandit Nehru But Which We Still Refuse to Learn,  Arun Shourie paints Nehru as a Sinophile, a Kumbaya-singing peacenik who was fooled by the wily Chinese, thus, ironically, buying into the Government’s excuse of being “stabbed in the back”. Of course, as we see, Nehru was hardly fooled by his own rhetoric of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. Nehru understood realpolitik very well, thank you, and could, be aggressive (in this case, over-aggressive) as and when needed.

But of course, given our ostrich-like attitude towards history—will the Henderson Report ever be declassified?—it remains to be seen how much we learn from this incident.

First published on NewsYaps

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Opinion polls are predicting a doubling of the BJP’s vote share in Bihar. Is that possible?

Opinion polls are projecting huge gains for the BJP in Bihar in 2014 with one survey even predicting a doubling of its vote share. I have a piece up on DNA which uses past voting and demographic data to show why such a windfall is unlikely.

Opinion polls are predicting a doubling of the BJP’s vote share in Bihar. Is that possible?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chicken "Biryani"

There are many signs of the decadence of our society. Signs that point to its slow but inexorable descent into chaos. Markers that warn of losing order, civilisation and all that is good.

Of those signs, there is none more obvious, more dire than the very existence of Chicken "Biryani”. BIRYANI! (strides up and down; voice booms); Biryani, ladies and gentleman is a dish which exploits the science of dum.  Meat and rice, stacked together, sealed in a sauna of masaala, zaafraan and ghee, the flavours intermingling, rubbing up against each other, fornicating.

Titillating, I know.

But in this if you drop chicken, wham, you kill it. The sex is gone.

Murghi has no libido. It’s limp. White meat, they call it. Skin and bones; no fat. Nothing to melt and snake its way up, spread all over the degh; infuse every kanni with its goodness.

It’s fake, put on, a CHARADE.

And it’s NOT Biryani.

This wedding being called off, it’s just the first, ladies and gentleman, in a long line of disasters that Chicken "Biryani" will lead us to.

Mark my words, this cancer will kill us all.