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Anticipating India

A selection of the pieces from the book (HarperCollins Publishers India and Express Book Series) that foreshadowed the big changes.

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Seven years ago, National Interest said that Narendra Modi would define the BJP’s future, emerge as its unrivalled leader. One year into UPA 2, it heard the silence of a prime minister. The best of Shekhar Gupta’s weekly column — over 19 years — is being released on Monday, April 28. A selection of the pieces from the book (HarperCollins Publishers India and Express Book Series) that foreshadowed the big changes.

If Modi wins on Sunday 

Stage set for ultimate Sonia versus Modi battle. If he loses, the RSS he defied will get back. Either way, wait for the rise of a new politics.
December 22, 2007

If Modi wins on Sunday, the stage will be set for an ultimate Modi versus Sonia battle, even if Advani continues to be the BJP’s shadow prime minister. Modi will then be the key campaigner. His kind of politics, his style of mobilisation, his cryptographic saffronism and even his short-sleeved kurtas will then define the BJP campaigns in subsequent general elections. In the long run, too, he will emerge as Rahul Gandhi’s main challenger. He will unite against himself the parties that need the Muslim votes, thereby strengthening any Congress-led coalition. He will put under great strain the members of any BJP-led coalition, particularly those that still value Muslim votes. Nitish Kumar is a key example. Even his worst critics won’t deny that if he wins on Sunday, he will pretty much define the agenda for national politics in the future…

Modi’s rise will completely change the form, style, substance and essence of the BJP’s politics. In the 1990s at Ayodhya, Advani had given his party a certain direction. Modi’s rise will now mean that the use-by date on that politics is over. Most interestingly, he will change the second factor too. He may be an icon of aggressive Hindutva, but Modi has emerged as the first BJP leader ever to defy the RSS. He has not deferred to them. He has, in fact, defied them. He has even denied RSS boys and sympathisers the power of making money on the side, something they consider their entitlement in BJP states. The RSS and VHP are now returning the compliment by boycotting his campaign. If Modi wins, he will also be the first BJP leader ever to win in defiance of, and despite, the VHP and RSS. So come Sunday, you will see the rise of a new politics, one way or the other.

Also read: If Modi wins on Sunday

And then there were nine

That’s the number of states which hold the key to who will rule the Centre. So, farewell national leaders, welcome regional winners
May 24, 2008

National elections are now no longer “national” in the conventional sense but a net result of elections in different states. In a rapidly fragmenting vote base, a national election can now be more aptly compared to a best-of-nine-sets tennis match. The coalition that wins five of these nine will take the match, and the gaddi of Dilli. These nine “sets” are: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Kerala. Together, these nine states (or sets in our mythical tennis match) represent 351 seats in a House of 543. And while there are other large states, like West Bengal, Gujarat and Orissa, we are not considering them because there, radical change is unlikely. The nine on our list are states that can, and usually do, go one way or the other decisively.

The national party or coalition that can win five of these nine can be nearly sure of bagging power for its coalition, since this by itself will give it a tally of nearly 200 overall. In fact, if one of the coalitions wins a clear victory in five of these nine, it will be almost unassailable.

Also read: And then there were nine

The rurban mind 

The village and the city are increasingly thinking alike. The Congress, trapped in the old, ignores this idea of a new India
May 31, 2008

Increasingly now, numbers as well as political clout are moving from villages to cities. In any case, being more exposed to the media and other elements of change, cities are influencing the political agenda in villages as well… more and more villages are now thinking like cities. Or, more accurately, this is because cities and villages are increasingly thinking alike, because India’s political landscape is also being “rurbanised”.
The national party that acknowledges this least of all is the Congress. It has a deep anti-urban bias. You can understand the alienation leaders like Lalu or Mulayam feel with cities as urban areas breed anonymity of caste, language and ethnicity, currency of their politics. Cities are by definition much too diverse to support their kind of narrow vote-bank politics. But why the Congress?\
Almost all its leaders attributed their 2004 victory to Declining Bharat’s revolt against BJP’s Shining India. One look at the figures would trash that. The BJP, in fact, retained the majority of its rural seats, but was wiped out in the cities. Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad were all swept by the Congress or the allies… This is what made the difference in May 2004, a revolt of the cities against the NDA, not villages, as the Congress persuaded itself to believe. Because of this confusion, instead of sending thank-you cards to the cities, the Congress started to punish them. In its desperation to find favour for its rural schemes, it has strangled the urban voter with new taxes and cesses on goods, services, salaries, even stock options.

Also read: The rurban mind 


It thrives under UPA 2 — and is punished by the market
September 1, 2012

This decade of commodity and property price boom has seen the rise of a new generation of businessmen, or rather fixerpreneurs, with the unique talent and connections to work on that most lucrative cusp of finance, politics and natural resources. Many of these quickly got listed on the stock markets in boom times, and kept leveraging their balance sheets as if the train would never stop. But the underlying asset value was not that of their brands or products, but of land banks, political connections, mining leases and, in one specific case, telecom spectrum. That heady success story the markets have now sorted out, and brutally so…

The economy and markets have floundered not because UPA 2 is pro- or anti-business, but because it has been so hypocritical about the private sector. Because of the Congress’s internal political and ideological conflicts, UPA 2 decided to generally avoid even being seen in public with entrepreneurial India, while indeed working closely with them behind closed doors. It resulted in yet another fascinating contradiction: at an institutional and a policy level, Indian business has never been as uninfluential since 1991 as it is now. Yet, at “operative” levels, many of them have been able to work with government and the political class.

Also read: Fixerpreneurship


From Kapil to Kalpana, Karnal to Cape Canaveral: Hail the rise of middle India
February 15, 2003

The rise of Kalpana [Chawla] is one more example of the arrival of the new, small-town, modestly brought up but ambitious, hard-as-nails Indian to the forefront. For want of another label, let’s call this Indian the Hindi Medium Type (HMT, in short). The label is not to be taken literally. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this Indian should have gone only to a Hindi-medium school. It is also synonymous with small-town India, the dehati, local or desi, anybody who would have been considered an outsider in the upper-crust power structure till the other day…

Also, please do not celebrate the rise of the HMTs in a fit of boulder-on-the-shoulder liberal piety or as a revenge of the Bharatiya underclass on Macaulay. Celebrate it for the larger message it brings, that the system of upper-class patronage that the British built, and institutions left behind by them, is now unravelling under this assault of middle India. Further, it is being broken not by legislation, executive order, ideological Indianisation, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi’s end-of history textbooks or any constitutional amendments. It is happening because of forces beyond our control. Forces of free market, globalisation of our minds, worldwide competition and worldwide opportunity, access to the finest universities, the best employers in the world who do not care about which school you went to or your English diction, as long as your SAT scores were better than that of the others.

Nor who your father or your uncle was. It is not a perfectly fair situation yet — it never is, even in the most free economies. But the process is natural, inevitable, has a momentum of its own and is very much part of the larger medley of change: decentralisation of power, rise of the new rich, urbanisation and access to opportunity far beyond the charmed circle somebody’s parents gifted him.

Also read: The HMT advantage

Them versus them 

Why there’s a deepening divide between the two elites, ruling and governing
January 5, 2013

Let us call one the India of ruling elites, and the other of governing elites. Governing elites are the political and bureaucratic classes, the judiciary, the conventional (or rather institutional) intelligentsia and media, police and armed forces. The ruling elites, on the other hand, are the economically “arrived” Indians outside of the sarkari system. The businessmen, new professionals, particularly from IT and banking, the EMI-powered, young, double-income community and, of course, the conventional old rich and offspring of earlier generations of governing elites, NRI returnees and modern, foreign foundation-fuelled activists. These ruling elites and our traditional governing elites now have so little in common, so little shared ground that they have begun to look like two sovereign and hostile republics…

Today the ruling classes have nothing to share with their governing counterparts except contempt and anger. Their children pass their plus-two at the best schools, which are now factories that mass-produce fee-paying Indian students for foreign undergraduate colleges… These children return from college more or less alien to their country and its “system”, and join their parents’ expanding world of non-governmental power elites. Their social and professional circles are mostly PLU, where almost every other Indian they come across, security guards, drivers, cooks and domestic servants, taxi-men, even policemen, are all bhaiyyas… And this bhaiyya is usually sorted out with some cash. As the rest of the government must be. Then they compare this rotten governance with what they experience overseas…

And what about the governing elites? They have internalised the belief that all their problems, all the ills they are blamed for, are nothing but the imagination of these greedy, unreasonable, illiberal, arrogant new Indians, whom they dismiss as the non-voting class. But when these non-voters arrive at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar or Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, they don’t know how to deal with them…

Over the past decade, the governing classes have built a fortress. The ruling elites, conscious of their new power now, are determined to smash its gates. It is for the former now to throw open the gates instead and accept the new reality. Or condemn itself to a permanent siege.

Also read: Them versus them

One dynasty dimming 

The Gandhi family can’t swing India — and can’t challenge rising regional families
February 23, 2013

Dynastic politics is now on the decline, yet has acquired deeper roots. Dynastic hold on India’s politics has weakened and strengthened at the same time. These conflicting cross-currents have brought about a fundamental shift in our politics. They have hurt the Congress most of all.

Ask any Congress leaders who contest elections (unlike its star cast of privileged Rajya Sabha-ists) and they will admit to you, albeit in whispers and fearfully glancing left and right, that the days when the Gandhi family could win them their seats are over. Only those who nurse their constituencies or have local, caste-based or family vote banks win their seats. Of course, it helps if the Gandhis visit to campaign because that endorses them within the party. Otherwise, their ability to win seats beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave has diminished to insignificance…

Dynasties — at least 15 of them politically significant — have risen in key electoral zones. Each one of these now has a strong, proprietary vote bank, and total ownership of its party. A pan-national dynasty no longer has the ability to breach these fortresses. From the Abdullahs in Kashmir, Badals in Punjab, Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu and Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, Gowdas in Karnataka, Thackerays and Pawars in Maharashtra, Lalu in Bihar to Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and Sangmas in distant Meghalaya, all represent dynasties that may be limited by geography but cannot be challenged by a national party…

Inability to counter the rise of these dynasties is the Congress party’s biggest failure. This is the greatest game-changer in our politics. Each one of these dynasties is represented by a strong local leader who has tasted and exercised elected power. Each one has learnt the art of leveraging his regional power to grab a share of the national pie. Each has also learnt that real clout and money are now in the states.

Is anybody there?

Hard to make out, between a silent PM and his cross-talking party
August 14, 2010

How would you describe the UPA 2 government, as one that talks too little, or one that talks too much? Stumped? Don’t blame yourself. It is indeed a bit of both. Except that the parts of it that should be talking are so exasperatingly quiet, and the parts that should keep their mouths shut cannot stop blabbering. The result is a government that looks one of the most chaotic and internally divided in our history. First, the parts of UPA 2 that are not talking. Certainly, the prime minister isn’t…

India’s prime minister is not some kind of technocratic head of administration. Whatever the nature and background of the person occupying the job, it is essentially a deeply political one and is never insulated from public opinion, and vice versa. Just as no political arrangement, whatever its peculiarities, should ever undermine or weaken the position of its prime minister, no prime minister can afford to go into such a long phase of silence…

This remarkable conspiracy of silence and noise has created problems for many of the key issues today. Does the government have a policy on Maoists, or does Chidambaram have one, with others holding different views? Does this government have a bad conscience on Bhopal, and if so, why? Does it have a coherent plan on Kashmir besides systematic waffling? Has it dumped the Commonwealth Games and distanced itself from Kalmadi, or does it have a plan to save them? Who speaks to whom to bring back some coherence when the foreign minister gives the home secretary a ticking off in serial interviews on TV? What conclusion do you draw when so many cabinet members indulge in the game of Honey, I Shrank Montek (read, Manmohan)?

Also read: Is anybody there? 

Ears wide shut

The UPA still doesn’t get it; cities will stand up to ask for more, you can’t switch off
December 29, 2012

This is about a public transport-using, ordinary, but aspirational and modern Indian, and not some “dented and painted”, clubbing stereotype of an 18th-century mind. She is what this is about, first of all…
You can either wait for the rest of us to become more “mature” or, meanwhile, learn to deal in real time with such challenges that will now continue to rise. You do not expect Manmohan Singh to do an Obama wiping his tears after the Connecticut school massacre. But didn’t the entire Congress have anybody, just one leader, to show some empathy?…

And why do these outbreaks happen only in Delhi? Because India’s most improved city is also necessarily India’s most aspirational. Also, the most impatient and unforgiving. And it is the home of the national media, particularly news television. Some of us have been arguing that in cynically finessing rural against urban, the UPA has dangerously alienated the cities in a rapidly urbanising India, in spite of the fact that most of them voted for it overwhelmingly, twice. Yet, if the UPA’s arrogant and delusional message has been, our voters live in distant villages, so you city folk go fend for yourselves, it is being made to pay for it. The cities, particularly Delhi, have found a new voice. Television and social media are their new megaphones and force multipliers. You can’t survive in denial of this new reality. Nor can you squash it. If you do not upgrade your cities, modernise your governance, scale up schooling, colleges, jobs, housing, public transport, policing, more and more of this will happen.

Also read: Ears wide shut

The great Indian hijack 

It began with the NAC — and now five characters in fancy dress have brought the government to bended knee
June 4, 2011

The way UPA 2 has lost authority, or what is better described in a wonderful Urdu word that defies fair translation, iqbal, can only be called dramatic…

We must junk all pretences and face the truth. The original blunder of outsourcing law-making and governance is the Congress party’s. It invented the totally subversive and extra-constitutional idea of the NAC consisting of “civil society” activists and functioning as a super cabinet. Just like the Anna Hazare group, this consists of people incapable of ever being elected. All we do not know is if Sonia’s civil society dudes are also as contemptuous of elections as Anna’s. But the principle was no different. You need men and women of integrity from “outside” the system, not “tainted” by dirty politics, to keep an eye on a government of wretched politicians, even if led by an honest man. You need the NAC to make sure power does not go to even his head, and also to keep him off balance by attacking his government and policies and continuing to throw one idiotic law after another in his court. Why blame Anna Hazare when it is the Congress party itself that outsourced law-making to its darbari jholawalas?…

Laws apart, the idea of putting a non-governmental watch over your own government undermines the very idea of elected, constitutional democracy and the cue is being taken everywhere. By new Anna Hazares and Ramdevs, and by Congressmen all over the country.

Also read: The great Indian hijack

Out with our rage 

Corruption denies a level playing field, so basic to the idea of the new, aspirational India
June 11, 2011

If our people have moved so firmly away from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration, they will also not accept day-to-day corruption as a normal, chalta hai part of life. Second, aspirational people have higher self-esteem, so they are also less willing to swallow the daily humiliations they face wherever there is an interface with the government, whether to get a driving licence, passport, income tax refund, admission in a Central school, decent college for your children, hospital bed for your old parents and so on. One of the more profound statements Rahul Gandhi made some time ago (at the Congress’s Burari plenary in December) was the way he defined the aam aadmi: one who is left out of the system, who has neither the contacts to manoeuvre his way through it, nor the cash to pay his way out of it. It is a different matter that his own party’s government and its hallowed NAC have done nothing to ease the pain of the same aam aadmi, squandering money, energy and political capital behind populist yojanas and laws instead. That aam aadmi is out on the street now, with the cry of “enough”…

The recent burst of scams, particularly 2G and CWG, is playing in 2011 the role V.P. Singh played in 1989, by confirming the aam aadmi’s suspicions. And if these scams are the new V.P. Singh, in a manner of speaking, the media is their new megaphone. Those coming out on the street in Delhi’s 44-degree heat are not doing so because they have done any fine reading of Team Anna’s Lokpal bill, or because they believe it will eradicate all corruption, or that Baba Ramdev’s campaign will bring “400 lakh crore” rupees of black money from foreign banks. They are coming out because they are angry, they are finding no redress, not even the hope or promise of reform.



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