Friday, 30 January 2015

Gita, Gandhi and Godse

by Varghese K George in The Hindu

Both Nathuram Godse and Mahatma Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita but one became a martyr and the other a murderer

January 30 reminds us of the fact that even the holiest of texts can have subjective and differential meanings.

The sacred Indian verses of Shrimad Bhagavad Gita has been in the news for various reasons in recent months. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to United States President Barack Obama when he visited the White House last year and one to Emperor Akihito of Japan. He has declared that the Gita would be the gift that he would carry for all world leaders. More controversially, Union Minister Sushma Swaraj advocated that the Gita may be declared the national book of India. Most recently, the BJP government in Haryana declared its intention to teach the Gita as part of the school curriculum.

To say that religion and politics should not be mixed has not only become a cliché, but may be missing the point altogether. Many tall leaders found the reason for their political action in their religious faith. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are examples. President Obama mentioned in his town hall speech in Delhi last week that his faith strengthened him in his life. It is also true that many kings and emperors of the past used religious faith to justify killings and destruction.

Martyr and murderer

Many individuals and organisations advocate and indulge in violence today, and justify it on the basis of religious texts. January 30, the day Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma Gandhi, is the starkest reminder in the history of humankind of how the same text can be read differently. Both read the Bhagavad Gita. One became Gandhi. The other became Godse. One became a martyr. The other became a murderer. Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom the Gita was “a poem of crisis, of political and social crisis and, even more so, of crisis in the spirit of man,” wrote in the Discovery of India: “... the leaders of thought and action of the present day — Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose, Gandhi — have written on it, each giving his own interpretation. Gandhiji bases his firm belief in non-violence on it; others justify violence and warfare for a righteous cause ...”

What is curious is the fact that the two opposite interpretations of the Gita that Nehru refers to were responses to the same shared reality that their respective proponents encountered —  colonialism and Christianity. Two strikingly different responses emerge to the same situation. The divergence is evident from the debate between Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In 1920, Tilak wrote to Gandhi: “Politics is the game of worldly people and not of Sadhus, and instead of the maxim, ‘overcome anger by loving kindness, evil by good,’ as preached by Buddha, I prefer to rely on the maxim of Shri Krishna, ‘In whatsoever way any come to me, in that same way I grant them favour.’ That explains the whole difference.” Gandhi replied: “For me there is no conflict between the two texts quoted by the Lokamanya. The Buddhist text lays down an eternal principle. The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the eternal principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth can and must be applied.”

For Tilak, the Gita was a call for action, political and religious. He declared that the Gita sanctioned violence for unselfish and benevolent reasons. While Tilak’s interpretation of the Gita that he wrote while in prison inspired a generation of warriors against British colonialism, it also informed Hindutva politics. Godse used similar arguments to justify the killing of the Mahatma, and quoted from the book during his trial. For Gandhi, the Gita and all religious texts were not excuses for exclusion and bigotry, but inspiration for compassion and confluence. In The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi — incidentally, the book that Mr. Modi gifted Mr. Obama — the Father of the Nation wrote: “But there is nothing exclusive about the Gita which should make it a gospel only for the Brahmana or the Hindu. Having all the light and colour of the Indian atmosphere, it naturally must have the greatest fascination for the Hindu, but the central teaching should not have any the less appeal for a non-Hindu as the central teaching of the Bible or the Koran should not have any less appeal for a non-Christian or a non-Muslim.”

Challenged by Christian missionaries, Gandhi learned more about his own religion, but more importantly, he imbibed Christian values rather than rejecting them. “Gandhi integrated several aspects of Christianity in this brand of increasingly redefined Hinduism, particularly the idea of suffering love as exemplified in the image of crucifixion. The image haunted him all his life and became the source of some of his deepest passions. He wept before it when he visited Vatican in Rome in 1931; the bare walls of his Sevagram ashram made an exception in favour of it; Isaac Watts’s ‘When I behold the wondrous Cross,’ which offers a moving portrayal of Christ’s sorrow and sacrifice and ends with ‘love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,’ was one of his favourite hymns...” Bhikhu Parekh writes. Gandhi was accused of being a ‘closet Christian’ and ridiculed as ‘Mohammad Gandhi’ by Hindu radicals.

Support for Godse’s reading

Godse’s reading of the Gita appears to gather more supporters in contemporary India. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj knew what he was talking about when he praised Godse. Several individuals and organisations have become active in propagating the ideas of Godse. There is also a move to build a temple for him.

After gifting the Gita to the Japanese emperor, Mr. Modi wondered whether his act would irk secularists. The greatest of Indian secularists, Nehru, had this to say: “During the 2,500 years since it was written, Indian humanity has gone repeatedly through the processes of change and development and decay; but it has always found something living in the Gita...The message of the Gita is not sectarian or addressed to any particular school of thought. It is universal in its approach for everyone… ‘All paths lead to Me,’ it says.”

But then, it is all about reading it like Gandhi.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

‘Love jihad’ in India and one man’s quest to prevent it

Vijaykant Chauhan believes that, all over India, gangs of Muslims are seducing Hindu women and forcing them to convert to Islam – and he’s made it his mission to stop them. Aman Sethi reports on India’s rising religious tensions

Aman Sethi in The Guardian

Every few days, Vijaykant Chauhan WhatsApps me a photograph of himself. The photographs are invariably scenes of crowds gathered on a north Indiastreet corner. Chauhan is right in front: a thickset, mustachioed man in his late 30s, in faux-army fatigues, a camouflage-print baseball cap and sunglasses. He stands with his fists tightly bunched, arms upraised. Occasionally the police make an appearance – their faces creased by patient smiles, their hands held close to their chests, palms facing outwards, in gestures of pacification.

These are photographs of protests, celebrations, rallies and, most often, “cultural programmes”: neighbourhood events usually organised under the patronage of the local political representative to promote good values in society. Onlookers peer out from the margins, their faces inscrutable amid all the posing and scuffling, shouting and jostling.

Last week, I received a photograph of Chauhan posed beside a scooter laden with slabs of raw meat.

“What’s up, Chauhan-ji?” I asked, when I called him up that afternoon. “Why is a crowd gathered around a hunk of meat?”

Anyone who attacks the four pillars of Hindustan deserves to be put to death

“We found that meat secreted under the scooter’s seat,” Chauhan said. “Proof that cow flesh is still freely traded in these parts.” Beef, Chauhan reminded me, was an affront to Hindus. “Our strength, Aman-ji, comes from four pillars: our cows, our temples, our ancient culture and our girls. Anyone who attacks any one of these pillars should be put to death.”
* * *

I chanced upon Chauhan while on assignment for my newspaper, the Business Standard, in Saharanpur, a trading town in western Uttar Pradesh. In the summer of 2014, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and its controversial leader, Narendra Modi, had swept the general elections in a campaign that addressed the two presumed weaknesses of the ruling Indian National Congress – the faltering national economy, and the Congress’s alleged appeasement of minorities in the garb of secularism.

All summer long, Modi had dismissed accusations of orchestrating a communal riot that left more than a thousand dead in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. He said he was saddened by the loss of life, in the manner of a passenger involved in a traffic accident. “Someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind,” he said. “Even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.” He deflected attention away from the topic with rousing speeches about the need for jobs, progress and development. In the meantime, his lieutenants reached out to men like Chauhan to stage rallies, mobilise crowds and organise cultural events to consolidate the diverse Hindu spectrum against their Muslim neighbours.

If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the fifth most populous in the world. China, India, the US, Indonesia and then Uttar Pradesh, on a par with Brazil and some way above Pakistan, Russia and Japan. More than 200 million people live here, a fifth of whom are Muslim. The rest are mostly Hindu, and divided broadly between three mutually antagonistic caste groups: the upper-caste Brahmins and Thakurs; the lower-caste Dalits; and the “other backward classes” such as the Yadavs. While castes were once divided by hereditary occupations such as priests, warriors, traders, animal herders and manual scavengers, years of lower-caste political mobilisation and emancipation have blurred these hierarchies.

For the last two decades, Uttar Pradesh’s regional parties have formed state governments by promising state patronage to unusual social coalitions. As a primarily upper-caste Hindu party, the BJP has historically struggled to build broad alliances in Uttar Pradesh, but in 2014 the party saw an opportunity. In 2013, another communal riot had caused an outbreak of violence throughout the region, and the ruling Samajwadi party had failed to contain it. Most accounts suggest the state administration played one community against the other – leaving the Hindus alienated and the Muslims fearful.

A photograph sent to the author by Vijaykant Chauhan on WhatsApp of one of the numerous rallies he holds to promote Hindu values. Photograph: Vijaykant Chauhan

A year later, with elections round the corner, Amit Shah – Modi’s most trusted lieutenant – toured the riot-affected areas in the company of local BJP leaders accused of inciting rioters. Shah himself stands accused of ordering extrajudicial killings in his time as home minister of Gujarat. “This is an election for honour and revenge,” he announced at one point of his whistle-stop campaign tour. “A man can live without food or sleep … but when he is insulted, he cannot live. We have to take revenge for this insult.”

The strategy paid off; the BJP won 71 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh and 282 of 543 seats across the country. While the politicians were transparently opportunistic in their utterances and their aims, I was interested in the motivations of their followers. Who were these men? What were the lives they returned to when the elections ended?

* * *

“Cut my own throat if I’m lying, but I swear to you: around us, right now, all around us, are Hindu women held captive by Muslim husbands,” Vijaykant Chauhan said on our first meeting. “Islamic terrorists are using the sacred land of Hindustan, the wealth of Hindustan and Hindustan’s daughters to breed children who are sent to madrasas, trained in Pakistan and turned into more terrorists who want to destroy India.”

We had been discussing the Uttar Pradesh state elections scheduled for 2017. The BJP leadership had found a new issue to rally their Hindu voters. They called it “love jihad”.

“I coined the phrase. Everyone called me crazy,” Chauhan told me. “Now they listen to me. I have it all on record. I estimate over 20,000 Hindu women are abducted by Muslims each year, but their parents are too frightened to tell anyone.”

Chauhan describes himself as a foot soldier in the battle to save Hinduism from its enemies. His job, broadly, is to “spread awareness” of the evil designs of Hinduism’s many enemies. He said he had no ties to any political party, but offered “issue-based support” to formations that supported his causes. He said love jihad, or the practice of Muslims seducing Hindu girls with the aim of converting them to Islam, was an existential threat to India. “They want to make us into a Muslim-majority nation.”

They are using our daughters to breed children who are sent to madrasas, trained in Pakistan and turned into terrorists

Three months after the general elections, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a rightwing organisation with affiliations to the BJP, put love jihad on the covers of Organiser and Panchjanya, its English- and Hindi-language magazines. Love Jihad: Reality or Rhetoric?, the Organiser cover wondered; the article decided on the side of reality. Panchjanya went with a caricature of a clean-shaven man wearing a keffiyeh and sunglasses with red hearts stuck on the lenses: Pyaar andha ya dhanda? (Is love blind, or a business?) “It’s a big business, there are cash rewards.” Chauhan fiddled with his smartphone to pull up a pamphlet his friends had been WhatsApping each other. The image, purportedly made by unknown Muslim love jihadis, called on all followers to take Hindu wives.

“You are ordered and requested to bring more and more non-Muslim girls to our great faith Islam,” it read. “Here is the cash reward list.”

I noted that the author had a particular taste for upper-caste Hindus: bagging a Gujarati Brahmin girl could win a lucky jihadi six lakh rupees (£6,480), while a Buddhist girl was worth a mere 1.5 lakhs (£1,600).

“We have not made it ourselves, if that is what you are implying,” Chauhan said, putting the phone away. “I’ll WhatsApp it to you and you can read it at your leisure.”

* * *

Vijaykant Chauhan was born to a family of Punjabi artisans who crossed over from Rawalpindi in Pakistan to settle in a refugee camp in Saharanpur. In Rawalpindi, his grandfather had made ghungroo, tiny metallic ankle bells worn by subcontinental dancers, and in Saharanpur, his father learned the craft and set up a small business.

In his telling, Chauhan’s father was an impoverished and occasionally violent man, and so young Vijaykant spent a lot of time with his grandparents, particularly his maternal grandmother. “My nani told me stories about the partition, and how entire neighbourhoods butchered each other. When the mob came for my nani, she squeezed herself under a pile of fresh corpses that lay in the local vegetable market. That is how she escaped.”

Vijaykant claims he was an extraordinary student – “I was perfect” – but was forced out of school in grade seven on an administrative technicality. “My parents tried to reason with the school, but what did they have? No connections, no money – and so my father put me to work at the shop.”

When the mob came for my nani, she squeezed herself under a pile of fresh corpses that lay in the local vegetable market

Vijaykant Chauhan

Vijaykant hated it. He escaped to religious functions organised by the RSS and joined the Bajrang Dal, a particularly violent RSS affiliate implicated in everything from attacking young unmarried couples for holding hands to organising riots and building bombs. The RSS and its many affiliates work on what a friend of mine once called the “life insurance model”: the RSS puts out a policy – it could be an agitation against cow slaughter, or the need for a new temple in the place of an old mosque – and leaves it to individual agents to take the initiative, spread the word and find followers who buy into the policy.

“I began my career as a particularly aggressive enforcer for the RSS,” Chauhan said. “When the Bajrang Dal demanded that the markets close in solidarity with their causes, I made sure all shops downed their shutters immediately.” On the side, he did odd jobs; he worked briefly as an electrician and he helped out at his father’s shop. Still, there was always a tiny voice that said, “I don’t have a school degree, my family has no resources, but God has made me for a special purpose.”

In 2004, that purpose was made manifest. Rashid Masood, an influential Muslim politician from Saharanpur, publicly declared that he would not say Vande Mataram, as saying a prayer to a deity like Bharat Mata was against his religion.

Chauhan was incensed. Bharat Mata, or Mother India, is the personification of the Indian nation as a female, sari-clad, Hindu deity. She made one of her earliest appearances in Anandamath, an 1882 novel in which a group of Hindu sages rise up against Muslim overlords loyal to the British empire.

FacebookTwitterPinterestexpand Vijaykant Chauhan shows off his tattoo which says ‘Vande matram’ or ‘Hail thee Mother’ . He has the same tattooed on his arms and back. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

Chauhan is obsessed with Bharat Mata – she is a frequent subject of his WhatsApp messages. Vande Mataram, or Hail Thee Mother, a poem from Anandamath, was a rallying cry for the independence movement and has the status of India’s national song, separate from the national anthem. Chauhan has Vande Mataram tattooed on his chest, arms and back.

The morning after Masood’s refusal, Chauhan launched Mission Vande Mataram – the aim of which was to get as many people to say the words “Vande Mataram” as often as possible.

The following year, Chauhan organised a cultural programme to commemorate his Vande Mataram movement. When the programme sponsors pulled out at the last minute, he sold his house to pay for the arrangements.

“The programme was a super-duper success. We did a play about Bhagat Singh’s sacrifices to the nation,” he said. “Thousands of people came up to me to thank me for reminding them of their sacred duties as patriots. I asked myself, why do I need a house? Why do I need a job? All I need is two rotis a day, which God shall provide. I decided to devote myself to the nation.”

These days, Chauhan lives in a large open cow shelter in Saharanpur. He sleeps on a string cot and spends his time looking after stray cattle and fighting love jihad.

* * *

One day I visited Chauhan to watch him at work. The shelter is a large airy space with a temple at one end and a feeding pen at the other. A shipping container, sawn in half, serves as his living space, where, Chauhan said, a veterinary surgeon sometimes examines sick cows.

People dropped by in ones and twos; some brought fodder for the cows, and others put some money in the collection box. Reverentially they fed the assorted cows – healthy, injured and infirm – while their children gaped at two caged white rabbits. A middle-aged man walked up to Chauhan towing along a young girl dressed in a pink shalwar kameez. He shouted, “Vande Mataram”; Chauhan replied in kind.

“She was standing around the market as if she was waiting for someone,” the man said, pointing to the nervous young girl. “She won’t tell me why she’s out in the market on a Sunday afternoon.”

FacebookTwitterPinterestexpand Vijaykant Chauhan poses for a visitor’s photograph at his shelter for abandoned cows. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

“Muslim boys keep buzzing up and down this street on their motorcycles, looking for precisely such girls,” Chauhan said. “Hello, hello, what’s your name, girl? Does your father know you have come out to the market?”

The girl looked down at her feet.

“See, Aman-ji, she’s clearly waiting for a Muslim. This town is full of girls who claim they are going to school, and then go off to service Muslim businessmen who give them money and drop them back in time to catch the school bus home.”

“But she hasn’t said a word since you brought her here. How do you know?”

“I have studied this in great detail. Notice she can’t look me in the eye. She’s been brainwashed.”

Love jihad made its first appearance in Uttar Pradesh in the 1920s. “In June 1924, in Meerut, handbills and meetings claimed that various Hindu women were being lured and their pure bodies being violated by lustful and sexually charged Muslim men,” writes historian Charu Gupta in an article titled Hindu Women, Muslim Men: Love Jihad and Conversions, describing a time of intense communal tensions in pre-independence India. Since then, the idea has periodically regained currency when purveyors such as Chauhan are granted a fleeting moment of relevance.

My conversations with Chauhan suggested that, for him, love jihad is a game of deception that had to be countered by the same coin. After all, why would a Hindu girl willingly fall in love with a Muslim? In the past, Chauhan has stormed district courts to prevent Hindu girls from marrying their Muslim fiances. In one instance, he claimed he was already married to the girl and produced false papers to stake his claim. “It is true the papers were false, but the scriptures allow the righteous to adopt falsehood to do good.”

Most Muslim love jihadis, Chauhan insisted, disguise themselves as Hindus. A pamphlet doing the rounds in Saharanpur offers an insight into their methods: when girls go to recharge the talk time on their mobile phones, some stores pass on their numbers to love jihadis who seduce them via text messages. If that doesn’t work, the jihadis pose as electricians, car mechanics and vegetable vendors to gain access to middle-class Hindu homes and seduce their daughters.

The young girl before us at the cow shelter didn’t seem brainwashed; she just looked very scared. “Let’s drop her home,” Chauhan said. “Come along.”

We piled into a battered Hyundai piloted by one of his friends. “Me? I’m a farmer; actually I’m a farmer turned businessman. Make that a farmer turned real estate agent,” said the driver when I asked him what he did for a living. “But most importantly, I am a Hindu. I am an admirer of Vijaykant-ji and support him whenever I can.”

The ride takes about 15 minutes. The girl sits silently in the back seat, occasionally giving directions. We turn into an alley and stop before a woman sleeping in the doorway of a brick hut. “This your daughter?” Chauhan asked, awakening the woman. “Do you know where she was? She was waiting for her Muslim boyfriend.”

“I have a fever,” the woman replied.

“I will return in the evening to speak with her father.”

The girl ran to her mother; we got into the car and drove off. As we made our way back to the city I asked Chauhan if he wanted to enter mainstream politics.

“It’s not possible,” he said. “You need money, you need connections. I don’t even have a house any more. But I live on the love and support of the people. I am happy.”

Does he wish his life had panned out differently?

“When I was younger, I thought: If I hadn’t been thrown out of school I could have become a police officer, or joined the army, or risen to a position where I could serve my people better. But now I feel that God has always had a plan for me; he wants me to fulfil a special purpose.”

* * *

“The problem with Chauhan is that he will go back in the evening and speak with the girl’s father. And who knows what he will say,” said Shandar Ghufran, pulling on a cigarette. Ghufran, a boyish 40-year-old schoolteacher and activist, has been monitoring the communal polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh for some time now. “This love jihad idea has ruptured what remains of Uttar Pradesh’s social fabric.”

The campaign has imbued all contact between the two communities with the possibility of tragic consequences. In the city of Meerut, for instance, the police had to be called in to confront a mob of rightwing Hindus when a 15-year-old Muslim boy had run away with his 14-year-old Hindu classmate.

FacebookTwitterPinterestexpand Vijaykant Chauhan shows photographs of his Hindu rallies to friends. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

The two children were found in Jaipur, en route to Mumbai to become Bollywood singers. The boy, the son of a carpenter, told his friend of his plan to make it big in Mumbai, and she decided to go along with him. By the time the police brought them home, two Muslim-owned shops had been vandalised and a Muslim home was attacked. In Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, a Hindu woman insisted that the state’s women’s commission order a medical examination of her Hindu husband to ensure the foreskin of his penis was intact, when she learned that he had a Muslim lover.

Such incidents, Ghufran said, will continue until the 2017 state elections. Each party will consolidate its base at the cost of the others, ratcheting up the tension in a region primed for conflict. “Things appear peaceful, but I fear that any single incident could trigger a riot,” he said. “There is, of course, a history to this.”

* * *

In August 2013, three young men – one Muslim and two Hindus – were killed in the course of an altercation in Kawal, a village on the outskirts of the town of Muzaffarnagar. Some say the Hindu boys killed the Muslim in an argument that began as a traffic accident, and others say the argument began over the harassment of a Hindu girl, but all agree that the incident came at a time of rising communal tension.

In the weeks that followed, both the BJP and the Samajwadi party, then Uttar Pradesh’s ruling party, did their best to keep tensions alive by sending their representatives to deliver inflammatory speeches before angry crowds. In the course of the riots that swept the western Uttar Pradesh countryside through the end of September, at least 62 people had died, several women were raped and over 50,000 mostly Muslim villagers were displaced from their homes. A year later, the riot relief camps still dot the villages around Muzaffarnagar.

This love jihad idea has ruptured what remains of Uttar Pradesh’s social fabric

Shandar Ghufran

“We left our village the moment we heard news that a riot had broken out. That was the mistake we made,” recounted Mohammed Aslam, as he sat hunched on a string cot beside a tent. “We should have waited for someone to get killed first.”

The government, Aslam said, does not consider his village to be riot-affected and hence he is ineligible for the riot compensation of 500,000 rupees (about £5,000) per family. So far, 768 families have been granted compensation, and the supreme court has ordered the state government to compensate another 203 people. Yet the administration is in a bind: it needs a framework to distribute the compensation, without which it could be accused of distributing state money in return for political support. In a state as poor as Uttar Pradesh, living in the putrid environs of a riot relief camp is not sufficient grounds for state-sanctioned relief.

Most of those who received support have sold their homes in their villages and have purchased lands in Muslim-majority settlements. The countryside is slowly reordering itself into Hindu- and Muslim-dominated pockets. Those with nothing are stranded where they stopped running.

Before the riots, Aslam said, he sold plastic crockery from the back of his bicycle. In the late 1980s, his father had gone to Saudi Arabia to work as a labourer and had returned with enough money to build a house, a portion of which was inherited by Aslam.

Four years ago, the household was hit by crisis: two of his daughters, aged seven and four, fell sick when they drank contaminated water from a village drain. Aslam sold his house to pay for their treatment, but both girls died within hours of each other. After that, the family was kept afloat by a monthly loan from a Hindu neighbour, paid back at 5% a month or 60% a year. When the riots rippled through western Uttar Pradesh, Aslam and his family fled to this camp, leaving behind a trail of possessions and IOUs. It’s been a year since Aslam worked, let alone considered paying his dues. “I’m too scared to go back home and I have no money to buy a house anywhere else,” said Aslam. “I really don’t know what to do.”

* * *

The retired schoolmaster sat with his head propped up on his palms, his elbows balanced on his knees, his radio by his side. “It’s a year today, isn’t it?” he said. “No one has returned.”

We sat on plastic chairs in his tiny yard at the edge of the Hindu quarter in Lissad, a village in Muzaffarnagar district, and looked out at the abandoned homes around us. At least 13 Muslims were killed here and several homes torched in the course of the 2013 riots.

“This was once a very busy neighbourhood,” he said. “That building over there, that was my son’s school. He is Hindu, but all his students were Muslims. It’s shut now. There are no Muslims in this village.”

“Why haven’t they returned?” I asked.

“I don’t know, things have changed, I suppose, times have changed,” he replied, as a young man in a tracksuit came to sit beside us. “I hear some people from the village went to call the Muslims back, but they refused to return.”

Did he miss them?

“What is there to miss?” asked the young man. “They kept to themselves, we kept to ourselves.”

“You lived together for many years before the riot,” I said. “What changed?”

The old man stayed silent – I sensed there was something he wanted to say, an explanation he wanted to offer. Perhaps he too was trying to understand why his village had suddenly turned on its neighbours, or how a schoolteacher and his students could be pulled into opposing camps.

“I don’t know,” he said, turning his back to me. “My heart doesn’t accept it.”

His young companion looked up. “Ask the Muslims what changed. We are still here.”

I left the old man to his radio and walked down into the abandoned settlement. The homes had been stripped clean, doors ripped off their frameworks, cupboards broken open. The roofs had caved in in many places, but the walls were mostly intact; some bore telltale signs of fire.

Down an alley of broken homes, I spotted a group of four young Hindu men. “Come sit, sit, sit,” said one, as he cleaned out a stalk of marijuana and mixed it with tobacco. “Do you work for a television channel?”

“A newspaper. And what do you do?”

“We?” he said. “We get high.”

So here’s the real issue, they said, between bouts of hysterical laughter. “Think about it, here we all are, sitting around. And them? They’ve got five lakhs compensation per house. Do any of these homes look like they are worth five lakhs?”

“Some families? They claimed their sons were living separately. Five sons, 25 lakhs.” “They could buy themselves a BMW with that money.” More laughter.

“They’ve given our names to the police, though,” said another, a well-built boy in a striped shirt. “I knew the Muslim boy who did it. I said why have you put my name on the list of rioters? I paid him 30,000 rupees to strike my name off the report. He said the cops took 20,000 to do it.”

“My name is still in the police files,” said a third young man whose thick spectacles magnified his slightly dilated pupils. “The cops asked for a lakh to strike my name. I don’t have a lakh, but it doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter for him, because he’s not applying for a government job, you know,” said a boy who looked about 19. “We all want government jobs. You can’t get a government job if you have a pending case. He hasn’t gone to college. But wait, you came first in school, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” The boy with the spectacles frowned. “Yes, you could say that.”

The afternoon sun dipped and a mild, early-evening melancholia set in. I sat with them for a while, listening as they ribbed each other, but the fun seemed to have slipped away with the sunshine and everyone seemed preoccupied by the thought of going home to face their parents.

* * *

For years, the Muslim film-maker nursed the possibility that he would – one day – marry his Hindu girlfriend. We met at a dinner organised by a friend in Muzaffarnagar. When I mentioned my work, he called me over for tea the next day. Our conversation had prompted a recollection of love and riots at another time and place. “I saw her on a train,” he recalled. “She was travelling from Dehradun to Ahmedabad, where she lived, while I was going to Mumbai to try to break into the film industry.”

She gave him her phone number, and asked for his. “But I didn’t have a number,” he said. “I was living out of a cheap hotel room in Mumbai’s red-light district.”

So he decided he would visit Ahmedabad every few weeks to see her. “I would take the overnight train and wait for her at the temple outside her office. She would sneak out at lunchtime, and then again after work.”

They’d talk until she left for home and he’d take the train back to Mumbai. But when her sister found out, she wasn’t pleased. Loving a Muslim, the sister said, was a path to schizophrenia. “Their mother had schizophrenia – so her sister’s remarks hit home. The logic was that marrying someone outside the Hindu fold would cause some sort of psychic schism.”

In February 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat was set alight, killing 59 people. More than 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslim, were killed in the riots that ensued.

“She said it was too dangerous for me to come to Ahmedabad after the riots,” the film-maker said. He took off his spectacles and wiped his eyes. “We continued to meet, but it wasn’t the same.” Sometimes he is tempted to look back at the whole episode as a shared, youthful folly. “But it was love,” he said. “For what it was, for as long as it lasted, it was love.”

I once asked Vijaykant Chauhan if he thought it was possible for a Hindu and a Muslim, with complete knowledge of each other’s beliefs, to be in love. My fear, I told him, was that his campaign was fostering suspicion and fear rather than amity and understanding.

“We are not against love, Aman-ji. We are against deception and forcible conversion,” he said. He referred to Muslim Bollywood superstars with Hindu wives. “In most cases, the women are brainwashed and converted. Like Indira Gandhi.”

“Indira Gandhi?”

“Yes, she was married to Feroze Gandhi – but he was actually Feroze Khan, a Muslim. She was the first victim of love jihad.”

“But Feroze Gandhi was Parsi.”

“That’s what you think, Aman-ji, that’s just what you think. Everyone knows Feroze Gandhi Khan was a Muslim. It’s all over the internet.”

The emirate of Indian cricket and its subjects

Mukul Kesavan in Cricinfo

What sort of cricketing culture sees conflict of interest as normal? The answer lies in the history of cricket administration in India.

Long-time observers of the BCCI know that it used to be cricket's answer to the medieval city state. No Medici controlled Florence as comprehensively as the BCCI controlled cricket in India. The Board of Control was an independent principality, located in India, surrounded by India, but not of India. Its jurisdiction over cricket in India was as absolute as the Vatican's over Catholicism; it brooked no interference in its affairs, not even from the nation state that enclosed it.

Its last pope showed his cardinals that he was the god of most things by turning conductor and orchestrating a symphony of conflicting interests. His orchestra pit was crowded with cricketers, ex-cricketers, captains, captains of industry, consultants, commentators, cooing starlets, all on the same page, bobbing to his baton. During his reign most living things in cricket's jungle became the board's creatures, bound by contract, muted by money and sworn to servility. Not everyone: the Great Indian Bedi, never a herd animal, wouldn't be corralled, but he was an exception. Most errant beasts that held out were forced back into the fold by the threat of excommunication. In the context of the godless present this meant not the eternal absence of the Lord's grace, but the permanent loss of the board's cash.

The board's independence was secured not by defying Leviathan but by co-opting it. Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley, Rajeev Shukla, even Narendra Modi, have all helped administer cricket in India. Unluckily for the BCCI, the Supreme Court couldn't be squared, and so this cricketing emirate with Dubai's soul and Abu Dhabi's reserves finds itself in danger of being regulated like a public sector undertaking.

The recent Supreme Court ruling got one thing exactly right: Indian cricket's original sin was the amendment of the virtuous clause in the BCCI's constitution that barred its office holders from taking a financial stake in any matches or tournaments organised by the board. It was this (retrospective) amendment that allowed N Srinivasan, then treasurer of the BCCI, to buy an IPL franchise, Chennai Super Kings. The conflict of interest that this created - especially after Srinivasan rose to become the president of the BCCI - was so enormous, so brazen, so perversely exemplary, that people involved with cricket's economy felt free to wallow in their own, smaller, conflicts.

One of the board's many apologists, appearing on a televised discussion of the Supreme Court's intervention, ingeniously cited the many conflicts of interest that Srinivasan's example had engendered, to normalise his own. If men like MS Dhoni and Rahul Dravid could hold sinecures at India Cements while captaining teams in the IPL, why were people so exercised about Srinivasan's double role?

The short answer to this is that a) Srinivasan's position as Indian cricket's primate and CSK's boss made his conflicts of interest a systemic threat to the health of Indian cricket, and b) Srinivasan's conflicts created an actual, not theoretical, crisis of credibility for Indian cricket. But it's worth taking the apologist's question seriously and supplying a longer answer to understand the cricketing culture that allowed these conflicts of interest to seem normal, even legitimate.

While trying to understand Indian cricket's deafness to the notion of a conflict of interest, it's useful to bear in mind a historical fact: the BCCI transitioned from an oligarchy of patrons to an oligarchy of rentiers and entrepreneurs inside 20 years.

Nominally, the BCCI presides over a pyramidal system of cricket administration based on indirect election. In actual fact most electoral colleges are owned by local grandees. Often a business family will dominate the local cricket association for decades. The elections that legitimise the present system have more in common with the politics of rigged pocket boroughs in 18th-century England than the broad democracy of republican India. Elections to the BCCI, the apex body of Indian cricket, are often accompanied by a chorus of allegations about rigging, gerrymandering and accreditation.

The BCCI is run by a cabal of colonial-style patrons. This self-perpetuating clique struck oil less than 20 years ago. It recognised the potential of revenue streams created by economic liberalisation and successfully connected an opaque club of amateur administrators with real money. The coming of cable television and the consolidation of a national television audience created the revenues that underwrote the first generation of endorsement superstars: Kapil Dev, Azharuddin, Tendulkar. Once, Doordarshan telecast cricket as a kind of republican duty to India's cricket-mad citizens; then private television channels learnt it was a privilege for which they had to pay vast sums.

The game was so comprehensively monetised that the BCCI began demanding fees to permit the photographing of matches and the broadcasting of radio commentary. The idea that cricket was news or even that it was an event in the real world that could be reported on, gratis, gave way to the idea that cricket was proprietary entertainment that could only be captured in pictures or the spoken word for a fee. ESPNcricinfo briefly stopped calling IPL teams by their franchise names because it was advised that these names were commercial properties that couldn't be used without payment.

With us or against us: the BCCI had the last laugh when Kapil Dev chose to side with the rebel ICL © AFP

The monetising of cricket occurred within an administrative culture where the BCCI's officials still saw themselves as "honorary" patrons. Before the boom these men had leveraged their status as cricket's patrons into social standing as city grandees. For ex-rajas and aspirational businessmen - traditionally, big business didn't bother with cricket - cricket was a way of being someone on the regional or national stage.

N Srinivasan's back story fits the model. He ran India Cements, he was genuinely interested in sport and he was a pillar of Madras society. For him, as for the Rungtas in Rajasthan or Dalmiya in Bengal, cricket was a route to social consequence and the public eye. In Madras, Srinivasan was preceded as patron by two other industrialists, AC Muthiah and his father MA Chidambaram, after whom the stadium at Chepauk is named. It's important to recognise that men like Chidambaram, Muthiah and Srinivasan didn't make money out of the game before the boom. They actually spent their own money subsidising cricketers and cricket because this was what patrons did.

In this way the men who governed Indian cricket came to see themselves as benefactors and the men who played cricket in India learnt to recognise them as such. Through the long shamateur epoch of Indian cricket, cricketers were supported by sinecures in private companies and public sector undertakings, and socialised into the role of dependent clients. It was a recognition forced upon them by the need to make a living in a sport that had no business model and generated no money.

These patron-client relationships survived the monetisation of Indian cricket, which happened, it's worth remembering, with bewildering speed. Even after successful cricketers became rich men, members of a sporting super elite, they went along with being infantilised as clients. There were three broad reasons for this.

One, gratitude. They remembered the hard times and were grateful for the support that patrons like Srinivasan had extended to the sport. India Cements had dozens of players on its rolls. It supported league cricket in Madras and helped players - not necessarily international players - make a living. (It wasn't alone in this. Sungrace Mafatlal supported cricket generously in Bombay; Sachin Tendulkar joined its Times Shield team in 1990 after his Test debut. It is something of an irony that this fabric brand didn't survive the economic liberalisation that helped make both Tendulkar and the BCCI fabulously wealthy.)

Two, pragmatism. Players recognised that while the financial basis of the sport and their own financial standing might have been transformed by sponsorship, endorsements and television revenue, the men who ran this new money-spinning machine were the same patrons who had run the shamateur, shabby-genteel set-up in the earlier era. It made complete sense to say yes if a patron like Srinivasan wanted you on his rolls even if the money from the sinecure made no real difference to your net worth.

Three, fear. To annoy the BCCI was to be exiled from Indian cricket and its economy; it was much safer to acknowledge the power of these "honorary" patrons than to be your own man. Here the ruthless purge of the Indian Cricket League rebels was the cautionary tale. A board that could unperson Kapil Dev, arguably the greatest Indian cricketer of the television age, for daring to dabble in an unauthorised league, was not to be crossed.

Thus, administrators like Srinivasan, persuaded of their virtue because of their generosity as patrons, were consumed by a sense of entitlement that made the very suggestion of a conflict of interest an impertinence. And players, used to deferring to patrons who made their livelihoods possible, found it hard to break the habit of clientage even when they didn't need the money. The idea that a sinecure might constitute a conflict of interest must have seemed preposterous: how could something endorsed by Srinivasan, uber-patron and undisputed master of the cricketing universe, be wrong?

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that he was wrong, that there is such a thing as a conflict of interest and that the amendment of rule 6.2.4 was illegal, Indian cricket's supple auxiliaries have started airing their doubts about Srinivasan. The ex-player, the ex-IPL franchise manager, the marketing consultant, the sports management agent, the plausible commentator, have begun shyly sharing their long-brewed conviction that something was amiss. Shyly, because it isn't yet clear that the sheikh is dead, and given Srinivasan's past resilience who can blame them?

Will Indian cricket be regulated into virtue by the Supreme Court? It's hard to tell. But we do know that a precedent has been laid down by the court: the judiciary has stepped in and taken charge of the affairs of the BCCI. It has dismissed the BCCI's claim of being a private body. It has amended the BCCI's constitution, instructed Srinivasan to either sell CSK or withdraw from board elections, and assigned the reform of the board to a committee of three retired judges. It'll be a nice irony if the crony capitalism of this cabal becomes the proximate cause of a creeping nationalisation of Indian cricket.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens

LAMIAT SABIN in The Independent

Saturday 24 January 2015

Queen Elizabeth II would be evicted from Buckingham Palace and moved into a council house in plans to abolish the monarchy and build more social housing, as suggested by the Greens leader.

The party would move the royal family out of the 775-room mega-mansion, complete with tennis court, lake and heli-pad amid 40 acres of land nestled in the leafy St James’ Park area of Westminster.

However there are no plans that Her Majesty and Prince Philip would be turfed out in the cold, like the estimated 2,500 people sleeping rough in England alone, as Green leader Natalie Bennett said she would not be short of potential places to live.

She said in an interview with The Times: “I can’t see that the Queen is ever going to be really poor, but I’m sure we can find a council house for her — we’re going to build lots more.”

This would mean, under the Greens’ suggestions, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and the unborn baby would also be served an eviction notice from Kensington Palace and would have to shell out for private rent, buy their own house or join the chronically over-subscribed social housing register. 

Ms Bennett said that the party is planning to expand on the country’s dwindling social housing stock as “GDP is a lousy tool for progress” compared to people having a “better quality life”.

The housing crisis and lack of universally-affordable properties has been attributed to the Tory policy of allowing council and housing association tenants to buy their homes at heavily discounted prices. It has also been blamed on foreign investors buying up land for luxury developments while mortgages and private rents go through the roof.

Ms Bennett also criticised “parasitical” global companies who do not pay their fair share of tax by basing their businesses in tax-havens such as the Cayman Islands, even though they rely on public assets such as roads and the NHS to make a tidy profit.

The Greens, with branches in different regions of the UK, plan to “restructure society with the rich paying their way and multinationals paying taxes” with the top band of tax increasing to more than the current 50p rate.

Their rising popularity, as shown by rapidly increasing numbers of memberships, has catapulted Ms Bennett to being invited to take part in two televised political debates ahead of the general election on 7 May.

Prime Minister David Cameron had insisted that he would not take part unless Ms Bennett was included if Ukip’s Nigel Farage was invited, despite the Greens having announced a total of 43,829 memberships across the UK compared to the latter’s 41,966 members as of last week.

Ms Bennett said: “People are really hungry for something different. There is an element of us being fresh and new, but we are also talking about ideas, optimism and changing things.”

The Greens also plan to raise the minimum hourly wage to £10, with a guaranteed £71 a week universal basic income for all adults, with half of the £280 billion cost of the policy to come from tax, she indicated, with the rest made up of money already paid out in benefits like jobseekers’ allowance.

A tax of 1 or 2 per cent on people worth more than £3 million would also be implemented and the party suggested that the state could have powers to seize assets from the wealthy.

She said: “People say to me that the rich will dodge [the tax], but in some of the countries that already have it there is a simple rule that says if you haven’t declared something on your wealth tax, you don't own it.”

BCCI monopoly and judicial review

Suhrith Parthasarathy in The Hindu

By controlling competitive cricket in India, with minimal regulation, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has enabled itself to encroach upon constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties

The Supreme Court of India, in holding that the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India is bound by the rigours of public law, in a landmark judgment on January 22, may well have helped steer cricket administration in the country into a new age of greater accountability. In recent years, the BCCI has suffered an enormous loss of credibility. Its management has been riddled with several cases of egregious conflicts of interest. And the Indian Premier League, organised under the Board’s aegis, has become renowned for its wanton excesses. As a result, any trust that was reposed in the Board by the public has over the last decade been completely obliterated. Viewed intuitively, the Supreme Court’s intervention certainly seemed necessary to restore “institutional integrity” to the management of cricket. Counter-arguments, however, abound. In spite of the BCCI’s quite palpable maladministration, many appear to see the court’s verdict, which seeks to imbue in the Board a more onerous public responsibility, as an improper exercise of powers of judicial review. Although these arguments can appear pedantic, they also carry particular jurisprudential weight. Critics say, as the BCCI argued for itself, the Board is merely an exclusive society governed purely by a set of by-laws, which are in the nature of a private contract between an elite set of members. According to the BCCI, it owes an obligation only to those members that subscribe to its by-laws; and even these obligations are restricted by the nature of the responsibility imposed therein.
Outside statutory control

In the case of other private societies, such a contention would typically be valid, as most such entities generally derive their authority solely from contract. But concentrating only on the source of a body’s power can lead to gross distortions. This is especially so in the case of the BCCI, which operates in a nebulous space outside statutory and constitutional control, but nonetheless wields enormous monopolistic power. In completely controlling competitive cricket in India, with nearly no regulation whatsoever, the Board has appropriated unto itself a unique ability to make substantial encroachments into civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. It can certainly affect, for instance, free of all checks and balances, the rights of Indian citizens to participate in games of cricket, with a view to ultimately securing employment as a cricketer.
Public bodies in India are generally held accountable through a process known as judicial review. Originally, under English Common Law, principles of which have been substantially adopted by Indian laws, the Crown possessed a discretionary power to issue “prerogative writs.” These were extraordinary orders directing the behaviour of different wings of the government, including inferior courts and public authorities. Through this power, which was subsequently transferred to the judiciary, the courts sought to impose a high standard of transparency, reasonableness and proportionality in action on public authorities.
In India, the Supreme Court and the different State high courts have been vested with a similar power to issue writs through Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution. Article 32 grants a person the liberty to approach the Supreme Court directly when his or her fundamental right has been violated. Ordinarily, this relief is available only against the “State” (defined in Article 12 to include “the government and Parliament of India, the government and the legislature of each of the States, and all local and other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India.”) Article 226 affords a wider relief. It allows a person to approach a high court seeking a writ against any person or authority for any purpose.
Each of these articles has been the subject of substantial debate by the Supreme Court. In the case of Article 12, the court has held that it is only those bodies that are created by a statute, which enjoy their own lawmaking powers, and are pervasively dominated — financially, functionally, and administratively — by the government that can be described as a “State.” Practically, what this has meant is that private bodies, even if they were capable of invading fundamental rights, through acutely entrenched processes of discrimination, would not be held accountable for such violations. Even Article 226, which grants the high courts the authority to issue writs, has been circumscribed to include within its jurisdiction only those authorities that perform overwhelmingly public functions. But even these bodies would not be bound by many of the fundamental rights— such as the right to equality — but would be governed only by other constitutional and statutory rights specifically guaranteed against them, and the more general common law principles of reasonableness and fairness in administrative action.
Inroads into fundamental rights

The question of whether the BCCI is “State” for the purposes of Article 12 was already conclusively determined in 2005 by the Supreme Court in a case initiated by Zee Telefilms Ltd. Here, a five-judge bench found that the BCCI was not an instrumentality of the State, and was therefore not subject to most of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This also meant that petitioners aggrieved by a decision of the Board could usually not approach the Supreme Court directly for relief. What the ruling ignored however is the fact that some private authorities, such as the BCCI, which exercise public functions independent of governmental regulation, could use their monopolistic position to make critical inroads into fundamental rights, particularly by curbing access to livelihood or to a public resource that citizens are ordinarily entitled to use. The danger in such an approach was, in fact, recognised as far back as in 1787 by Lord Chief Justice Hale in his treatise, De Portibus Malis, where he wrote that when private property is “affected with a public interest, it ceases to be juris privationly.”
Therefore, in the recent litigation initiated by the Cricket Association of Bihar, the Supreme Court, although bound by its earlier decision in Zee Telefilms, is correct in holding that the BCCI is amenable to judicial review under Article 226. It now becomes incumbent upon the Board to act with a sense of fairness and equity, and to ensure that it does not abuse its dominant position.
Some fear that this decision of the Supreme Court would open up the floodgates, bringing a number of societies and other such private associations within the courts’ powers of judicial review. But, as the English barrister Michael Beloff once wrote, “It is an argument, which intellectually has little to commend it… For it is often the case that once the courts have shown the willingness to intervene, the standards of the bodies at risk of their intervention tend to improve.”
Common law has historically imposed a duty on those exercising powers of monopoly — whether self-arrogated or through governmental intervention — to act fairly and reasonably. Our courts must now extend this rationale to hold not only the BCCI accountable, but also other such private associations, which in exercise of monopolistic powers, impinge upon the citizenry’s most basic civil liberties.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Religion, Monarchism & Freedom of Speech. Password Ep. 63

Courtesy Rawal TV

Cricket: How to construct a one day chase

Michael Bevan in Cricinfo

All batsmen pursuing targets in ODIs are constructing a run chase but in different ways, while playing different roles.
My style was completely different to those of many other batsmen, particularly those higher up the order, but it suited my temperament, and I found a way to take the pressure off myself in highly charged situations. I believe there is no right or wrong way that batsmen need to adhere to to be consistently successful.
Playing to your strengths is of utmost importance in chasing and scoring runs in one-day cricket. There are many moments in a chase where a batsman feels compelled to try something different because of the pressure. Most batsmen prefer to try something different than to test their game and stay till the end. Committing to playing your way gives you two things: the best opportunity to score big runs and the opportunity to understand what you need to do to improve if it doesn't work out.
Taking the pressure off yourself is a paramount skill required by any batsman seriously considering being a successful run-chaser. You need to find ways to keep it simple and focus on achievable targets. Sometimes if you focus too much on the trouble you are in or look too far ahead, it can sap your confidence and make it tougher to help your team.
I found having small, achievable goals that I knew I could reach - such as a reasonable strike rate for the first 30 balls, or setting targets per over - helped. Rather than winning the match for my team, my ultimate goal was just to be there at the end, win, lose or draw. I never knew I could win the match but I knew I could be there at the end, and it's amazing how often you have an opportunity to win the match if you are there at the end.
Minimising risk by targeting the right bowlers, choosing the right delivery to hit and having a plan B helps batsmen score 50-plus, develop consistency, and ensure game plans work towards applying pressure on opposition attacks.

Andy Bichel liked to take charge of a chase © Getty Images
A key part of my game to keep things simple and reduce risk was to only have one boundary option for each bowler. This I would choose based on my strengths, pitch conditions, field placements and the match situation. If the ball didn't pitch in the right area I would remain patient and try to rotate strike until it came along. The downside to this approach is that sometimes you miss out on opportunities or a quicker scoring rate, and of course, once the rate gets above 7 or so, you need to make a move regardless.
Finally, my success as a No. 6 batsman was largely determined by the quality and batting abilities of the lower order. Without these guys, nothing is achievable. A clear focus for me in batting with the tail was to help them feel comfortable and clear about our approach to winning the match. Honest feedback as to how they were going also helped. Every tailender had a different approach and a different personality, so it was important for me to work at their speed and on their level. There was no point in me being very regimented and structured in a mid-pitch discussion with Brett Lee, who was a carefree guy who didn't like plans and preferred to stay in the moment. Andy Bichel, for instance, really liked to take charge, so I would give him the space and opportunity to do this and let him drive the partnership.
Chasing runs can be intimidating at times but understanding the fundamentals can help increase your chances of success.

Syriza stood up to the money men – the UK left must do the same

Just imagine: if Labour wasn’t so in thrall to economic bodies and their predictions, we might have a radical left of our own
'A leftwing party that cannot face down the risks raised by investors will never be credible.'
‘A leftwing party that cannot face down the risks raised by investors will never be credible.’ Illustration: Robert G Fresson

‘When you study the successful experiences of transformative movements,” said Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, the new party of the Spanish left, “you realise that the key to success is to achieve a connection between the reality you have diagnosed and what the majority actually feels.”
This statement is more than bleedin’ obvious. It is crying out for a response that includes an expletive and Sherlock Holmes. Yet that’s what Iglesias has built: a successful, transformative movement. And in Greece, that’s what Syriza has built too, as demonstrated on Sunday, when a country that only a few years ago saw the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party, went to the polls with a majority supporting the radical left. That, to a degree, is also what the yes campaign built in Scotland. So we know it is possible, to diagnose a reality that so many people actually feel. It should be possible, also, to decipher how these movements did it.
What they and others like them – the successful German campaign for free higher education, for example – have in common, first of all, is that they reject the prevailing economic verities. Conventional political debate in the UK has parties thrashing out positions, which they then justify and defend with reference to the International Monetary Fund or the Office for Budget Responsibility or the Bank of England. Economic projections, or rather the bodies who make them, stand as the final authority on what constitutes a good decision.
Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, provided a bland but elegant example of this on Sunday, when touting the election message – “Conservatives or chaos” – around the BBC. “The IMF says we can be the biggest economy in Europe in 15 years, but only if we stay on the road to growth.” Here, the IMF is presented as authority, godhead and visionary. It can see into the future. It cannot be questioned. In this worldview, party differences are simply practical, problem-solving ones: who can best do what the IMF wants? Who understands growth and how to deliver it? It is ironic that this has become the burning question for democracy, when history shows that growth is pretty unrelated to which party is in government.
Politicians are cast in a fairly minor role by this rationale. They take on a sort of valet position, there to arrange things the way the economy needs them. It is extremely difficult as this kind of politician to make any diagnosis of reality that people might recognise. The last thing you want to do when your hands are tied is to describe a situation – low wages for instance, high housing costs, unliveable lives – that demands action.
One of the fascinating things about the Greek election campaign has been listening to Syriza candidates reply to questions about what to do if the European Central Bank (ECB) becomes angry, or the markets panic. Miranda Xafa, a former IMF board member and supporter of the centrist Potami party, said in an emollient voice (in a Radio 5 Live interview), “I am sure the ECB will be patient.” The gulf between Syriza and all the other parties was suddenly, dramatically clear: the leftwing party no longer thinks of the ECB as its dad. It does not seek its patience. It will not take its terms at any price. This is the necessary precondition for credible leftism: a rejection of the bodies, mostly central banks and attendant forecasting agencies, currently in charge. You can’t build a new game to their rules.
The backstop position for centrists (I call it the centre, but many of its assumptions are what we once called hard right) is that any change invites instability, which is enough to undo the prosperity that all the sensible people are working towards. Whatever happens, money must not be frightened away; investors must not be threatened; job creators must remain secure. During the Scottish referendum this argument took the form of CEOs, standing in front of HQs, proclaiming their intention to leave Scotland forever should it fall into the wrong hands. A leftwing party that cannot face down the risks raised by investors will never be able to make a believable case for anything; their argument is a tinderbox, ready to ignite at the first fiery word from Alan Sugar.
PFI is a classic example of the failings of the UK left: every party agrees these contracts were a rip-off – the coalition is still signing them, while fulminating about Labour’s track record; Labour thinks radicalism means admitting that perhaps they weren’t a good idea. Nigel Farage (again on Radio 5) said to my face that Ukip would “get hospitals out from under the yoke of PFI”. This means tearing up the contracts, doesn’t it? What else could it mean? There is only one other group in the country with an idea so radical, and that’s The People vs PFI.
Why would Labour never dare? Because when people call it anti-business, it hasn’t got the apparatus to cope. Farage dares partly, I think, because he has no intention of carrying it out; but also because, in a bizarre twist to the new multiparty politics, Ukip is often saying something similar to the Greens: business interests aren’t everything. That’s a reality that the majority feels, but that you never hear described; that’s how the Greens overtook the Liberal Democrats, while all eyes were on Ukip.
Back in Greece, exit polls suggest Syriza is on course to form a majority government. We don’t yet know whether or not this spells Grexit, or what it all means for the eurozone. But we do now know, before anybody starts diagnosing anything, the most important thing about building a successful transformative movement: that it is possible. Eminently.