Readings for Sleepless Nights: Liberals, Tharoor and BJP
First, some excerpts from a piece by Gerard Alexander on Why are liberals so condescending?
Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.
Liberals have dismissed conservative thinking for decades, a tendency encapsulated by Lionel Trilling’s 1950 remark that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” During the 1950s and ’60s, liberals trivialized the nascent conservative movement. Prominent studies and journalistic accounts of right-wing politics at the time stressed paranoia, intolerance and insecurity, rendering conservative thought more a psychiatric disorder than a rival. In 1962, Richard Hofstadter referred to “the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind.”
This sense of liberal intellectual superiority dropped off during the economic woes of the 1970s and the Reagan boom of the 1980s. (Jimmy Carter’s presidency, buffeted by economic and national security challenges, generated perhaps the clearest episode of liberal self-doubt.) But these days, liberal confidence and its companion disdain for conservative thinking are back with a vengeance, finding energetic expression in politicians’ speeches, top-selling books, historical works and the blogosphere. This attitude comes in the form of four major narratives about who conservatives are and how they think and function.
The first is the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” a narrative made famous by Hillary Rodham Clinton but hardly limited to her.
…In this spirit, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman regularly dismisses conservative arguments not simply as incorrect, but as lies. Writing last summer, Krugman pondered the duplicity he found evident in 35 years’ worth of Wall Street Journal editorial writers: “What do these people really believe? I mean, they’re not stupid — life would be a lot easier if they were. So they know they’re not telling the truth. But they obviously believe that their dishonesty serves a higher truth. . . . The question is, what is that higher truth?”
…But, if conservative leaders are crass manipulators, then the rank-and-file Americans who support them must be manipulated at best, or stupid at worst. This is the second variety of liberal condescension, exemplified in Thomas Frank’s best-selling 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank argued that working-class voters were so distracted by issues such as abortion that they were induced into voting against their own economic interests.
…And speaking to a roomful of Democratic donors in 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama offered a similar (and infamous) analysis when he suggested that residents of Rust Belt towns “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” about job losses. When his comments became public, Obama backed away from their tenor but insisted that “I said something that everybody knows is true.”
Read it in full here
Next, read Vinod Sharma on Shashi Tharoor (excerpts):
…As per records quoted by Indian Premier League (IPL) boss Lalit Modi, it is more than evident that Tharoor is no innocent, selfless ‘mentor’ who has put Kerala on the cricket map by helping a consortium buy a new IPL team for Kochi. At least one individual whom Tharoor admits to ‘knowing well’, Sunanda Pushkar, has been given sweat equity worth approximately a whopping Rs 75 crore. As per reports doing the rounds, based primarily on Tharoor’s very public appearances as minister with Ms Pushkar, she is his lady love and is set to marry him. She has, quite expectedly, denied that she is acting as a front for Tharoor, as has he, feigning righteous rage. Only the very naïve believe that she is the only one through whom Tharoor will benefit; others involved too may have coughed up what is a straightforward ‘cut’ for services rendered by him to get their bid through.
Shashi Tharoor, a Stephanian, may have left Delhi and India when he was 19 and acquired impressive credentials in the US and UN. But, to take off from a cliché, the crafty desi politician – in the mould of the nearby badlands of Haryana and UP – could not be taken out of him. Still an infant in Indian politics, given what he has manifestly so cleverly ‘achieved’ in an absolutely ‘dry’ ministry in so short a time, one can only wonder what he would have done had he been given a ‘wet’ one. Even Dilip Cherian, a fellow Keralite, has been forced to admit that Tharoor has displayed political naiveté in the sordid Kochi IPL franchisee saga.
In 2005, the then Foreign Minister Natwar Singh was exposed for being a petty thief for helping his son make around Rs 75 lakhs through a dubious oil deal with Iraq. Natwar too was one of media’s PLUs. Initially he stoutly denied any wrong doing whatsoever on his part, just as Tharoor is now doing. But soon, despite his best efforts, he found himself thrown out of the government because it was impossible to cover the trail.
During those days, Vir Sanghvi had jumped to his defence. Natwar, Sanghvi wanted the nation to believe, was an honourable man because he was well-read, had a well stocked library, had devoured a large number of books, even authored some, and also had an ‘outstanding’ career in the Foreign Service. It was almost like saying that the real crime was not what Natwar had done but the fact that it had been alleged that an Oxbridge was corrupt, exposing the uncomfortable truth that, shorn of the sophistry that enabled guys like him to remain distant from and above Bharat, as far as integrity was concerned, the Natwars of the world were no different from the Laloos and Reddys.
Sanghvi is at it again, a bit mildly this time, though. He has tweeted that if Tharoor goes, so should Modi!
…When the Tharoor story first broke, the reaction of Rajdeep Sardesai was almost similar. The manner in which he questioned Lalit Modi on CNN IBN made Modi, not Tharoor, look like the villain for exposing the latter! How is Modi’s motive even relevant here? The stark issue is that a minister of the Union government has manifestly done something that can only be described as disgraceful and unacceptable. Journalists should have been focusing on that and asking for Tharoor’s resignation. Instead, some of them are still trying to make it appear as if nothing really serious has happened.
…It is more than evident from the interview that Shashi Tharoor gave to Barkha Dutt that when he got into the ‘mentor’ game, he figured that his real role would remain under wraps because of the confidentiality clause about the identity of the owners of a team; since no details of the ownership of other teams had been made public till then, Tharoor reckoned that the ‘hamam’ effect would ensure that the extent of his involvement and the ‘pay-off’ of Rs 75 crore worth of sweat equity to his girl friend and possibly future wife would not become public. That, and not naiveté, emboldened Tharoor to misuse public office.
…Surely, Tharoor, with his vast experience in the UN, will know only too well how lobbying and influence works, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, like it happened with his own bid to head the organisation. Did he write that almost demeaning piece in Time magazine in praise of Sonia Gandhi because he actually worships her or was it to win her favour and himself a ministerial berth? Just before he formally joined politics, he also wrote columns in The Times of India, some of which were skillful exercises to further his own political goals by projecting how India needed more politicians with his kind of background, his in-depth, though distant, knowledge of this country, his type of accomplishments etc, and not the groin-scratching, nose-digging, non-English-speaking, corrupt lot that India has in plenty. He never was a naïve babe in the woods, as he wants us to believe now.
Tharoor may have perfected the art of saying in 140 words or more of sometimes convoluted prose what can and should be expressed in 140 characters or less. But his skill with words, his command over the English language – the master key that still opens many locks in India – his ‘erudition’ and his Natwar-like arrogance cannot wash off what he has been caught with on his hands this time.
A couple of months back, in response to questions on Twitter about why he had joined politics, he had tweeted, briefly for once, that he had done it “to make a difference”. BRP Bhaskar had then tweeted back asking, “difference to whom?” Tharoor has not yet answered that question. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for India, Lalit Modi has.
And finally a long-ish first-hand account of the BJP convention in Indore by Chandrahas Chaudhury, excerpted from Caravan.
…The very look of the convention was an attempt by the BJP, in a time of crisis, to reconnect to its history. In its 30th year, and smarting from the reverses of the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the party had organised one of the ‘back to the basics’ gatherings it seemed to find attractive from time to time.
…“A convention is for people to meet, get to know one another, to improve unity in the party,” said Neeraj Yagnik, a BJP worker from Indore who had been closely involved with hospitality. “But in recent years, people would come to sessions and then go back to their halls or hotels all over town. This time everyone is together, like one big family. We’ve made the convention like a village, with farms and fields alongside where fresh produce is being grown. Everything is eco-friendly: CNG cars and bullock carts to take delegates up and down, bicycles if they want to get around by themselves.” The convention organisers’ riffs on a swadeshi theme were no doubt ingenious. Security guards at the convention wore yellow kurtas and turbans and carried lathis; vendors roasted channa and bhutta and served up nimbu paani with rock salt. There was no trace of a bottled soft drink—the symbol of an easy, unthinking, and untraditional consumption—in sight. But inside the convention hall, the delegates found themselves listening to an intensely serious disquisition on Coca-Cola.
Rajnath was not willing to concede, as some had argued after the failure of Advani’s campaign in 2009, the prospect of the exhaustion of the politics of Hindutva or a rethinking of the party’s self-definition. The BJP found itself today in a predicament, declared Rajnath, similar to that faced by Coca-Cola in the 1980s, when the company found itself steadily losing market share in the cola wars with its big rival—Pepsi.
Convinced that it no longer appealed to mass taste, Coke decided, fatally, to change its original formula. The company then produced and enthusiastically advertised a new Coke similar to its competitor—with more lemon oil and less orange oil— explained Rajnath, whose research on this subject appeared to have been very thorough. But, far from winning back those who had jumped ship, the new product was a disaster in the market, and Coke fell away even more. Only when, chastened, it reverted to its original formula and kept the faith in its original identity did it eventually make up its lost ground. For Rajnath, the BJP was now in the position that Coke was in the 80s. Learning from history, it had to avoid the temptation to abandon its ‘original formula.’
That original formula was, of course, Hindutva. The conundrum of how to balance communal mobilisation with a wider, more inclusive appeal based on socio-economic themes is, of course, the central dynamic of the BJP’s history (although no illustrative example could have been more anachronistic than Rajnath’s). Over the three decades of its political life these two themes have been mixed up in different proportions at different times, often by the same personalities, such as Advani himself, responding to expedient concerns. Or else they have run in parallel, aggregating their rewards, as when personified by the figures of Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the party’s heyday in the late 90s. Now Rajnath, while acknowledging that ‘development’ was the new buzzword of Indian politics, insisted that by hitching its cart too closely to such a general idea it would be squandering its unique selling point: a politics based on an appeal , first and foremost, to a “hindutva ka vichardhaara, sanskritic vichardhaara.”
…A charitable view of the BJP was to see it as a kind of safety valve, allowing voters to express their resentment democratically and peacefully. In this view, nationalism of the classic blood, soil and culture variety, as propagated by the BJP, inevitably contained within it the seeds of xenophobia, but could be moderated by democracy and the rule of law. A less sympathetic interpretation would note that the BJP not only channeled the agitation of a pervasive default setting in society but also stoked it, seeking to reinforce and multiply this suspicion and hostility, and, paradoxically, to boil down Hindu identity itself to a mirror image of the stereotypes of the other it generated.
At 30, then, I was more curious than ever to see and hear from up close the representatives of Hindutva, and to listen to the party in conversation with itself as an insider might. I was also curious to see first-hand how the party envisioned its own future direction after the chastening defeat at the hustings last year, and in a new time where the appeal of the colour saffron had begun to run dry. For three days I found myself wandering through the personalities, lexicon and imagery of an alternative, fully-formed universe very distant from my own: pracharaks and swayamsevaks, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, nationalism and pseudosecularism, Atalji and Advaniji, Hindutva and Bharat Mata, the cow and the Ganga, polysyllabic Hindi and Vedic advice for the 21st century, and green and saffron without the white in between.
…More persuasively than many leaders invested in ushering in a new era, Gadkari returns repeatedly to first principles, to notes of warning and self-restraint. “We should think: what kind of political culture do we want to be a part of?” he asks, enjoining delegates not to go around touching the feet of leaders, especially his own. Past mistakes should encourage reflection about the thin line between atmavishwas (self-confidence) and ahankaar (arrogance). The party is to make a conscious effort to reach out to scheduled castes and tribes, minorities, the lower middle-classes and the poor. After all, isn’t this the true meaning of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concept of Antyodaya, or reaching out to the last man? Without actually crossing his predecessor, Gadkari was taking issue with Rajnath’s more static view of the party.
It is no doubt an oration with some real thought behind it. Its idiom, too, is consistent with its message; Gadkari’s Marathi-accented Hindi, with the occasional burst of English, much more a language of the street than the party’s more ornate and Brahminical traditional idiom. Intrigued by the new president, I sit down that night under the flickering tubelight of my cheap hotel room—despite the tents, every room in town is taken—to read Politics For Development, a curious little book Gadkari published in English last October, before his elevation to high office.
…The word ‘development’ appears 112 times in this work of 86 pages, and ‘Hindu’ only once. Development, the book holds, is the primary good that must be delivered to society by politics. Politics itself “must never come in the way of development.” The book positions the writer, and by extension his party, as holding the imperative of good governance above ideology. “You have every right to decide your own political inclination,” the author writes to an imagined reader, as if to stir him or her out of a ‘let’s play it safe and vote for Congress’ reflex. “If however you observe that the party which you favour has pitched a candidate who is not seen chasing the development agenda, what’s the harm in electing a candidate who is not from the party of your choice but has the potential to drive development?”
…There was enough seen of Gadkari at the convention to take seriously the claim made by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Gadkari’s contemporary in student politics and now the director of a training institute for BJP workers in Mumbai, that the new president was “a non-conventional politician in a conventional politics.” It remains to be seen how Gadkari handles incidents like Varun Gandhi’s indefensible speech in Pilibhit during last year’s election campaign, one that generated a further set of disingenuous equivocations among the party high command. …Even so, to many kinds of watchers not enamoured of the BJP in its current avatar—whether it is the neutral observer hopeful of seeing the BJP fill the space potentially available for a broadly free-market, right-of-centre politics, or the sceptical one resigned to the BJP’s long-term presence as a revanchist force in Indian politics and wanting only its worst tendencies to be kept in check—Gadkari’s resume seems to promise a more moderate and liberal politics.
…What the BJP appears to need at 30—and what Gadkari seemed to be trying to do—is the articulation of a more flexible, inclusive expression of its core ideology, which is now the task of its second generation after the departure of the old guard. But even if the new president came as a moderate and modernising voice, the tribalism and inhospitability of the ‘original formula,’ now deeply embedded in the party’s psyche, were plainly on view in Indore, and seem sure to come seeping through even in its fourth decade.
Read it in full here.
Sleepless Nights: A self-induced affliction of the modern age precipitated by long working days, seemingly purposeless travel and endless phone calls; heightened by an irrational fear and anxiety of falling behind in the rat race. Other definitions and interpretations welcome.
Somewhat Related: Stuff to read in a travel black hole…