Tuesday, July 28, 2015


by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Debate may be a sport but it is decidedly a way of communicating ideas. Buddhists did it in the past and so did ancient Romans. But with the ‘argumentative Indian’ having lately turned into ‘combatant Indian’, and parliamentary debates turning into such athletic feats as ‘rushing to the well of the House’, it is no wonder that the YouTube of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s fireworks at Oxford Union, will ‘go viral’, like an epidemic. In a debate, it is wit, argument and polish that count, but getting substance on one’s side is a long row to hoe. “Oxford debate is of a huge significance...it is good that Shahiji was there,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi complimented Tharoor.

It is another matter if Oxford debates are indeed of a “huge significance” but is it right, as Tharoor argued, that India could be a better place if the British had not occupied it? I am not sure if India’s political leaders have given the matter a thought as they must be thinking it a waste of time to ponder on what historians call “counter-facts”, or the study of the “what-if” scenarios. One doesn’t have to be a serious student of History at the DU where I studied. Even a cursory thinking could have shown the flimsiness of Tharoor’s logic, though his wit is overpowering, and his timing is like that of a Broadway actor. History is about the past which cannot be unmade, much as you cannot unring a bell. Things that are hideous monstrosities today were normal business in the past, like suttee or human sacrifice in our country. But a demand for reparation comes after a moral judgment. Could India be a better place to live if it were Clive, and not Seraj-ud-daula, who got slain in the 1757 battle of Plassey? There is yet another larger question; could there be a country called India if Clive hadn’t won in Plassey? Both these questions hinge on counter-facts.  

Such a situation would obviously have left much of India—particularly territories that subsequently emerged as the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay—in the dark Middle Ages, with the lives of ordinary citizens “nasty, brutish, short”, as philosopher Locke said it would be if there were no monarch. With the rule of later Mughals crippled by court intrigue, and invasion from the west, India was in a state of anarchy in the pre-British period. Regardless of who sat on the throne in Delhi, it was the local chieftain who fleeced the people with arbitrary laws and armies of thugs. The central highway of north India, made by Sher Shah Suri in another age, had almost disappeared by then due to encroachment and disrepair. What was left of it became unusable as thuggees, or highway stranglers, roamed around. Men were so afraid of burglary that storing life’s savings in underground vaults and all sorts of hidey-holes became customary.

If Clive had lost in Plassey, there would be continuous 
Muslim of Franco-Muslim rule and there would have been no 
Nehru or Modi to address from the ramparts

This gruesome existence is the fabric of India’s immediate pre-British past. And politicians with no clue to their own country’s history laud a talk-show artist, such as Tharoor. Tharoor indulges in sophistry when he says India accounted for 24 per cent of global trade at the time of its British conquest, and it became 4 per cent when the British left. Apart from pre-modern age economic data being highly questionable, it is also quite silly to boast of trade share when agricultural items alone were traded, and that too produced with only human hand and animal hooves.

The West rose to the top only after the industrial revolution moved apace. India fell to the bottom of the heap not because the British pulled it down but because Britain gave India railways and steam boats only to suit her purpose, not India’s. Would Seraj-ud-daula, or his progeny, have brought India enough rail engines and metalled roads and trucks to put the country at least at the same level where it was in 1947?

It is no-brainer that all Islamic powers on the east of Turkey were in an advanced stage of decay in the 18th century, and Seraj-ud-daula’s death following his defeat in Plassey was its coup de grace in India, delivered by the British. If it didn’t happen, or Tipu Sultan, for that matter, could escape death in 1801, maybe the French would have tried to colonize India, to be ultimately trumped by the British following Napoleon’s fall in Waterloo. But fifty years make too long a gap in history. If the British returned to India in the 19th century, it is doubtful if they would have bothered to rule over the entire country. For them, it would have sufficed to build a ring of forts on the coast to control the sea lanes and use the hinterland as plantation and its people as slaves.

It is nobody’s argument that the British landed in India to rule it as ‘benevolent dictator’ or ‘enlightened despot’. Tharoor is right in saying that India gave employment to Britain’s successive generations of youngsters who could not otherwise be employed. Growing automation of her domestic industry and high wages undermined the island nation’s capacity to keep its economy in full employment. But that does not imply that keeping Europeans out of India for two hundred years could be a good idea. Tharoor is of course justified in barking and yelling at Britain in a debating hall, but political leaders should be careful in expressing their approval, or otherwise, of views aired in a non-political arena.

A theory, for that matter, is afloat that Modi praised Tharoor to win him over after friendly noises he had been making for quite some time. For Modi, volunteering to be a jury on it is an existential issue. If Clive had lost in Plassey, there would be continuous Muslim of Franco-Muslim rule, and no Hindutva, no RSS, and, therefore, little chance of his addressing from the rampart of Red Fort. Isn’t he thankful to the British for making Hindus rulers again after a millennium?

(The author is National Editor, Lokmat group)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

It is taken for granted that the monsoon session of Parliament, commencing today, will be consistent with the season; in other words, it is waiting to be washed out. The bone of contention is as predictable as the players. It is BJP V. Congress, or, more precisely, Prime Minister Narendra Modi V. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. The theme of the battle is also old. It is Modi's struggle to remove from the UPA's law in 2013 an obstructionist clause that requires consent of 70 per cent of landowners, including tenant farmers, before the government can use the land to make roads, flyovers, new railways tracks, etc. The NDA says it is largely due to this law that infrastructure growth in India came to a standstill since last year, and private industrial investment suffered even more as that requires an even larger extent of consent, 80 per cent. The bill is stuck in the Rajya Sabha for obvious reasons. Modi tried to get the better of his rivals last December by pushing a series of executive orders, or ordinances, removing the consent clause. But ordinance is no alternative to law.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Federally Yours

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Indian politicians are obsessed with thinking of politics as a mere game of numbers- not one of parties gaining support, or losing it, due to the correctness, or otherwise, and how they're seen to be influencing people cutting across regional or caste lines. An alliance at the top, politicians love to believe, is spontaneously translated to addition of numbers at the bottom. It is not smart thinking as, with the spread of literacy, awareness and satellite television, voters and even lower-rung party workers are getting increasingly prone to draw their own road-maps. Instead, our politicians still talk of merger and alliance as India has remained fixed in the 70's, when the concept of a "front" or large alliance forged at the top and going down to the bottom gained currency for the first time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

The Times have come, Narendra Modi said, to talk of many things. Sure it is a spoof on the famous line from "Alice In Wonderland". But there is clearly a lot of reason why the Indian media must answer a barrage of questions, on what's the media's role in India's democracy and how credibly- or otherwise- has it conducted itself. With over 70,000 newspapers and 880 satellite television channels, over 100 of them focused on news, the Indian media is a behemoth by all accounts. The media, particularly the broadcast media, are singularly responsible for shaping public opinion. In the last two years of the UPA government, it went overboard in defining the government's policy aberrations, notably on harnessing of natural resources, as willful corruption. Two years of non-stop finger pointing by the media as corrupt and inept was more than enough to turn the government led by Manmohan Singh as a stretcher case much before its doomsday.

It has now got a new prey, Prime Minister Modi. As a political leader, he is the opposite of his BJP predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was perhaps the most media-driven PM India ever had. But Modi is indifferent to media except as an instrument to reach out to the electors. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election last year, he used television to turn it close to a presidential poll. His television addresses were carried on giant screens to almost every constituency across the country, creating a powerful illusion of omnipresence. The individual candidates of his party, the BJP, mattered the least as every contest seemed being between Modi and the rival party. It is true that the strategy did not prove much useful in states where BJP had no significant electoral presence, like West Bengal and much of South India. But the Modi factor, coupled with BJP's base strength made the saffron wave unstoppable across the Hindi belt. The Modi wave pitchforked the party to majority status in the lower House, a feat not accomplished by any single party after the 'Indira wave' following the late prime minister's assassination.

Of course Modi owes a lot to the media for his decisive win. But he proved to be a somewhat different animal after his victory, keeping high-power editors and anchors at bay and diligently avoiding situations where journalists could pose unwarranted questions. The only interactions he had with journalists was a series of dinner meets with them around the first anniversary of his government. The meetings were held at the Krishna Menon Marg residence of finance minister Arun Jaitley and not at his official residence on Race Course Road, which again is a token of his apathy to get too close to men and women whose job is to interpret him and his words to the people, and that too in any way which they like. In his tour of Central Asia this week, he has not even allowed the reporters of news agencies like PTI to accompany him. Only their photographers are welcome, probably because they don't ask questions. As PM, Modi firmly shut his access doors not only to journalists but also their employers, who had till the recent past enjoyed untold privileges. The UPA chairperson would visit their homes, and reading it as signal, government advertisements would flood their publications irrespective of their actual reach.

But it surely pushes the media to a point where it must 
make up its mind on how it wants to see itself as: a 
soapbox orator, or a provider of information.

Some media barons who began thinking that they had brought Modi to power were obviously seething in anger. Besides, there is a section of the media ideologically opposed to BJP. Together, they launched a furious campaign against Modi on the 'Lalitgate' issue, asking for the PM's head for every leak involving the improprieties of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, and detail of the doubtful nexus between Vasundhara Raje Scindia, powerful Rajasthan chief minister of the BJP, and former cricket IPL super-boss Lalit Modi who is now in the vortex of controversy. Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, had their axe to grind as the Modi government seemed serious about getting the two legislations- one on GST and other to simplify land acquisition- cleared in the impending monsoon session of Parliament, and that would give Modi a head start in the assembly elections for Bihar later in the year.

The shrill voices in the media were clearly backing the wrong horse as the Prime Minister could by no account be held responsible for the links his party seniors were maintaining with a cricket manager who had attracted the wrath of the previous government for offences never cogently stated before a court in the form of charges. The reasons for Congress' grouse against Lalit Modi are old, besides being shrouded in speculation. It can be because Lalit Modi cost former MoS for external affairs Shashi Tharoor, a confidante of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, his job by disclosing that his wife (now dead) Sunanda Pushkar had acquired a large stake in IPL's Kochi franchise. It can be anything else, except the criminal and financial charges for which two successive governments have been unable to produce any proof. But  the media could only get cases of impropriety against the two women leaders of the BJP to take on the PM.

It is obvious that the media too was not in search of the proof either. Instead, by raising the pitch of rhetoric against Modi, it was trying to rise above the irrelevancy to which Modi had pushed it. Beyond rhetoric, its coverage of the government is pathetic in its information deficit. The lone-ranger PM has substantially cut off flow of information within the government too, so there is not much news to emanate from BJP’s traditional loose cannons. Is it democratic ? Perhaps not, but it surely pushes the media to a point where it must make up its mind on how it wants to see itself as: a soapbox orator, or a provider of information.

To go back to “Alice”, the media now must choose between cabbages and king.