Bihar: 2020 vs 2010

What a difference a decade makes. The five years from 2005 to 2010 were surely golden years for Bihar. Five years of stepping out from darkness into the light. The system of forced labor (called begaar) had been ended. In fact, one of the first orders of Nitish Kumar as CM was that all the crops that had been cultivated through begaar system should be harvested and the proceeds distributed among the poor villages.

Yes, forced labor used to be a “system” in India as late as 2005. That is how dark things were during Jungle Raj. And kidnapping used to be an industry. Over the next five years, the kidnapping industry collapsed. The so called “rangdari tax” (protection money) extracted from handful of businessmen came to an end.

Roads were built. The schools were reopened. Yes, reopened. The schools had been only on paper for years. Every now and then, the locals came to demand their rights under the midday meal scheme. Then, a bit of the rice sent by the government would be distributed. The villagers were happy with whatever they could get. A bit of rice was enough. They never thought of demanding an education for their kids. And so, the BJP JDU government had to “reopen” the schools.

Along with schools, the health centers had to be reopened. They had been closed for so long that few actually remembered their original purpose. People assumed that they had always been ruins and the horrible stench of stray dogs was the only thing there.

These badlands had been ruled by Lalu Yadav for 15 years. And even more terrifyingly, by Rabri Devi’s two brothers: Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav. Actually, it was not so much Lalu who was feared. It was his brothers-in-law.

When there were elections, every other village would be surrounded by goons. Then the booths would be captured. There was no question of going out to vote.

This was Jungle Raj. The elites in Delhi thought there was something charming, rustic and ultimately hilarious about it. That Lalu was a harmless comedian. And even those who should know better seemed like they were in on the joke. If you want to see Ravish Kumar at his bootlicking best, here is Ravish’s report from 2004 on the great popularity of Lalu Yadav dolls in the toy market.

Yes, this is the journalism of Ravish Kumar discussing “real issues” in the UPA era. Reporting on the popularity of Lalu Yadav dolls instead of the darkness of Jungle Raj.

The reopening and restoration of Bihar was one of the astonishing successes of India in the 21st century. The transformation was so far reaching that even Ravish Kumar could not have denied it.

Naturally, the pundits would not let the BJP take this credit.

In 2010, the big Lutyens pundits shook their heads and concluded : Nitish Kumar is winning for sure. But the BJP isn’t winning. The BJP deserves no credit. The BJP is “communal” and a burden on Nitish Kumar. The discussions went something like this: Nitish Kumar is contesting 141 seats. In a wave election, he might win 120 seats on his own and form the government with no need for BJP. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Then, the pundits could snatch all the credit for the transformation of Bihar from BJP and give it to Nitish.

It was not to be. The people of Bihar voted for BJP in astounding numbers, giving them 91/102 seats contested. When the results came out, the pundits mourned. You can’t take this away from BJP.

How things change….

It’s 2020. The topic is just the opposite. Now everyone agrees that Nitish by himself is pretty much over. And if he has any hope of winning, it is because of BJP support. In 2010, the BJP seemed forlorn and pathetic, repeatedly begging for assurances from Nitish Kumar that he would still keep them on board. In 2020, it is BJP assuring Nitish Kumar that he will remain CM. Nitish broke his promise. He did it in the worst possible manner. In 2013, not only did he break ties with BJP, he did not have the decency to allow the BJP ministers to resign. He sacked them.

People in politics always live for the moment, but they have long memories. Let’s see if BJP keeps its promise.

I know there is a lot of chatter about Tejaswi Yadav, his crowds and whether he could really win. I am not sure about Nitish’s chances and I’ve disliked Nitish Kumar since 2013, but I am skeptical about this whole Tejaswi buzz. Most of all, I remember something very similar from 2010. Back then, it was prince Rahul Gandhi who was making waves.

After sweeping Bihar by winning 4 out of 243 seats, Rahul went on to sweep Uttar Pradesh in 2012… I don’t remember the exact total in UP, but I think it was around 25 seats out of 404. I am sure some chamcha would have praised him for an improved strike rate in UP over Bihar. That’s how media was back then.

The thing with Nitish Kumar is that despite everything else, the BJP+JDU combination is something that works. It’s been average recently, perhaps even below average, but it doesn’t fall apart. And in the past, of course, it has been stellar, even life changing for one of India’s most populous states.

I find it doubtful that Bihar would leave behind something so comfortable for a Tejaswi government. The man had been Deputy CM for all of 2 years. He wouldn’t leave his official bungalow at the end of it. In fact, he fought an absurd legal battle to keep it, until the Supreme Court bundled him out in 2019. That’s Tejaswi. Same old RJD classic. Will people really want to go back to that?

Indian liberals just gave up all show of ‘secularism’

Indian liberals want people to learn Hindutva from RSS. Yes, you read that correctly.

At his traditional Vijaya Dashami rally in Mumbai yesterday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray put it clearly. One must take lessons in Hindutva from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. The “Hindutva” of the RSS is the same as the Hindutva of the Late Balasaheb Thackeray, he explained. And presumably, the Shiv Sena remains committed to the vision of Balasaheb.

So where is the liberal outrage? Where are all the liberals who would swear that RSS is against the “idea of India”? Where are those who compared Hindutva to Nazism? Where are those who chanted “Hindutva ki kabar khudegi” and insisted that it was not a hate slogan?

Are they comfortable with Uddhav Thackeray’s ringing endorsement of Hindutva? The Maharashtra CM left nothing to imagination and explicitly endorsed the RSS vision of India. Is the liberal crowd comfortable with this? And if they are not, where is their outrage?

Wait, because this gets even better. The Maharashtra CM went on to actually accuse the BJP of not being aggressive enough when the Babri Masjid was being demolished.

Where are those who always cry for ‘idea of India’ whenever the topic of Babri Masjid comes up?

If Uddhav Thackeray had not made himself clear enough, he went one step further. Due to Covid related reasons, the Sena rally had to be shifted from its traditional Shivaji Park venue. The new venue: Swatantrata Veer Savarkar auditorium in Dadar. The name of the venue was chosen very deliberately and the CM made a special mention of it in his speech.

RSS, Hindutva, Babri Masjid, Veer Savarkar : all the keywords that generally set off sirens from the liberal ecosystem.

Except this time they did not. How could they? After all, the government in Maharashtra has 10 Cabinet ministers from Congress. And that’s all the idea of India crowd cares about : approval from Madam G.

Imagine if a BJP Chief Minister had given a speech with these same ingredients : RSS, Hindutva, Babri Masjid, Veer Savarkar. Imagine how different the reaction would have been.

Now, politicians changing sides and changing views is nothing new. It is too common to be funny any more. But I am not talking about the politicians. I am talking about the great intellectuals of our nation. They have spent their whole lives condemning the RSS, the term Hindutva and Veer Savarkar in the worst possible terms. They have built entire careers in TV, newspapers and academia criticizing the RSS. What happened to them?

For Hindu right wing, this should be an important realization. Many of them see the same liberal class as an ideological opponent. Let me tell you: there is no ideological war. Because your supposed opponent has zero ideology.

Please rewind in your heads every time you have fumed at the intellectuals for comparing Hindutva and RSS to Nazism. In some ways, it was totally pointless. Your supposed opponent on screen did not believe a word of what they said.

Pick your favorite liberal historian or liberal media person. They never cared even a bit for principles. They had no ideology, just some interests that were served by pretending to hold certain views. The ‘idea of India’ stuff was always a joke. No intellectual actually believes in it.

They were beneath anger. We gave them anger when they only deserved contempt.

Bihar : That Gujarat feeling

The first day I wrote about Bihar elections, I admitted to an uneasy feeling. I did the arithmetic several times over. And it’s really simple:

BJP > RJD and JDU > Cong

So if you put BJP+JDU, you get more votes than RJD+Cong. This is what made LJP superfluous to the NDA.

But as the election day comes closer, there is the sense that NDA should win, but the uneasiness keeps growing. I’ve not liked Nitish Kumar since 2013 and I am not about to change now. And this time, it is being magnified by everyone saying Nitish is unpopular. How could he not be? He deserves every bit of his unpopularity.

This election reminds me of Gujarat 2017. Everyone knew BJP was ahead, but the anti-incumbency was both biting and visible. The results of Gujarat 2017 were perhaps the most emotionally draining for BJP supporters in the last 10 years. At least, I didn’t believe the results : not even when Amit Shah tweeted congratulating the party. Not even when the PM himself tweeted his congratulations. I kept watching the website of the Election Commission until it showed 92 seats for BJP in the “won” column. Then, I went over to FB and wrote weakly: Keh do sabko, Tiger Zinda hai…

There is of course some difference between Bihar 2020 and Gujarat 2017. The most important thing is that BJP deliberately chose to make Bihar this way. They could have chosen differently. They could have made Bihar a cakewalk election that puts everyone to sleep. If they had kept the LJP on board, there wasn’t a chance in hell that someone could beat NDA.

The second thing I notice in Bihar is the PM’s attitude. As yet, I have not seen any sign of despair. In Gujarat, you could feel it. The PM took to the stage and spoke of how he had been insulted by near unknown handles on Twitter. Of course, soon after the PM mentioned them, these people got the break of their lifetimes and now all have verified handles 🙂

So far in Bihar, nothing. The PM’s schedule is on very predictable lines and his speeches don’t show slightest panic.

And that’s where I get my final conclusion. The BJP would never have chosen such a risky strategy if there was a chance of losing. I trust Modi-Shah to have done their poll math correctly.

Another thing. You may not like it, but if there is one Lutyens “expert” I actually trust to predict elections, it is Rajdeep Sardesai. Whatever his politics, he is no fool. He is not Shivam Vij nor Yogendra Yadav. I read Rajdeep’s views on how the election is turning out. He is rarely wrong.

What we are witnessing here is a powerful thrust by BJP to finally claim its status in Bihar. To overturn a mistake made long ago in the Vajpayee era. The BJP had won 67 seats and the Samata Party (precursor to JDU) had won 34. With almost twice the seats, the BJP conceded the CM post to Nitish Kumar. His govt lasted only a few days before losing out on the floor of the House to RJD+Cong. But the mistake had been made. It’s 2020 and Nitish Kumar is still Bihar CM.

It’s been 20 years. It is time for BJP to get justice in Bihar.

Okay, so what about the all round reports of “huge crowds” for Tejashwi Yadav? I really don’t have a lot to a say about that, honestly. Bihar is a state with a lot of people and journalists see what they want to see. Go back to 2015 and see the crowds that even Kushwaha was getting, campaigning for NDA. And even in 2019, I remember a lot of patrakars nodding that “chirag ke bujhne ki khabar…” and all sorts of confusing stuff about Bihar. All nonsense. And we have seen this drama so many times now : secular dynast becomes universally loved youth icon in media … and ends up losing badly. Remember the hawa of Akhilesh in TV studios?

I should note one difference between Hemant Soren and Tejashwi Yadav. In Jharkhand, Hemant campaigned very sensibly, never daring to even utter a word against Modi. That’s one of the axioms of politics in the Hindi heartland today: don’t speak against Modi. Don’t speak against the most popular leader in generations. Hemant was very aware of Modi’s popularity and was even reverential to the PM.

(That has changed quite a bit now. Post election, Hemant has gone into the loving Lutyens embrace. He does press conferences now about some radical leftist called Stan Swamy and his champagne socialist cheerleaders can’t get enough of him now. He will learn his lesson, I’m sure. Akhilesh, Aditya, Hemant … all of them).

But Tejashwi does no such thing. He goes up vocally against the PM and gets loud cheers for that. Those cheers in themselves tell you that his crowds are core MY voters and little more. Like his father, Tejashwi is vocal about his hatred for BJP. See where it got his father. Let’s see where it gets him.

For me, the most abiding image of Bihar politics will always be Lalu Yadav waving from a campaign vehicle, telling everyone that “Bhajpa hatao.” That was some 15-16 years ago. They used to say, “Jab tak samose mein rahega aalu…

The samosa recipe is still quite the same. The politics of Bihar has changed completely.

The BJP chose this election to be harder than it was supposed to be.

Will Bihar be the first “tap water” election?

One of my favorite things about PM Modi is that he is the best student that Atal Behari Vajpayee has ever had. Let me explain what I mean by that. No person in India has learned so much from Atalji’s mistakes as Narendra Modi has.

If you ask me in a nutshell what is the difference between Vajpayee’s approach and Modi’s approach, my answer will be this: Do good for the country, but never lose sight of elections.

Today, almost everyone agrees that Atalji was one of our greatest Prime Ministers. Even folks like Raghuram Rajan admit that his legacy of economic reform was the best India has ever seen. But, Atalji still lost in 2004. His defeat ushered in the UPA government. At first the going was good, riding on Vajpayee’s reforms and a favorable global environment. Then, the crisis came and India collapsed in a heap. The scams that had happened in the good times tumbled out, one by one. Can anybody name a single piece of bold economic reform instituted by the UPA?

Atalji did a lot of good for India. But he lost sight of the politics. Under his rule, the BJP kept losing state after state. Regional allies were offered ridiculously lopsided deals, which were unfair to the BJP’s strength. Mistakes made in Bihar and Maharashtra have not been fully compensated to this day. In states like UP, the party let go of mass leaders like Kalyan Singh. The party has suffered for nearly 2 decades in Jharkhand for letting go of Babulal Marandi.

This is where PM Modi is different. While doing good for the country, he never loses sight of elections.

And no, that’s not a bad thing at all. India is a democracy. Unless you keep the public on your side, how are you ever going to do lasting good? In the 2012 US presidential elections, Joe Biden, then Obama’s VP and seeking re-election, proclaimed loudly about their achievements from 2008-2012:

Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

Is that politicizing national security? Probably. But so what? How is any politician in a democracy supposed to achieve anything unless they “politicize” the good they have done?

There is an old lesson in war, told by the formidable General Patton himself. You don’t win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other b***tard die for his country..

Harsh, but true.

Politics is a war of ideas. Unless your political party survives to take power, how do you do the things you want?

That was a rather long, rambling introduction. Here is what it was about. I have a feeling there is a silent factor in Bihar elections that nobody is talking about.


What is going on? It is the Jal Jeevan Mission. One of the least talked about projects of Modi government, started in 2019. And I guarantee you that everyone will hear about this by 2024.

As with so many other things about India, the statistics on tap water connections in India are frankly embarrassing. In 2019, as few was 10-15% of rural households in India had tap water. This is the legacy of all those Bharat Ratna Prime Ministers. In 2014, less than 40% homes had toilets… In 2019, barely 10-15% rural households had tap water.

In states like UP, tap water connections for rural households was below 5%!

This is why the Jal Jeevan Mission was started. But notice not just the mission, but how it is progressing in various states.

Bihar has raced ahead of everyone else, with coverage reaching 56%. The state of Uttar Pradesh is still far behind, struggling at barely 6%!

When is the expected date to finish the job in Uttar Pradesh? It is 2022. What do they expect to complete the task in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh? It’s 2023. No connection to election dates, of course 🙂

This is how Ujjwala started out, remember? Until 2016 or so, barely anybody had heard about it. It wasn’t a fashionable topic for media to discuss. But silently on the ground, a revolution was happening. By the time patrakars landed to check people’s mood in early 2019, every home had received a toilet, a gas cylinder and an electricity connection.

After 2019, I had spent a lot of time trying to understand if there is something called “Modi model” of winning elections. My guess was this:

(1) Identify something everyone needs

(2) Provide the tangible benefit on a large scale, making sure everyone gets at least one point of contact from the government

(3) Before the election, use the massive BJP cadre to knock on the doors of everyone and remind them what they got.

For 2024, my sense is that tap water is going to be the charm. The scale at which the delivery is happening is massive and literally mind boggling.

Nal se jal! How simple, how effective. And the amazing part is how this all happens under the radar. The media and opposition doesn’t even notice. Which actually works great for Modi. But silently, all across India, one lakh homes per day are receiving tap water connections from Modi sarkar. Silent revolution.

If you live in a home with running water, just think how you would feel if someone cut off your water supply … and told you to fetch water in pots from a nearby well. Just imagine …how much that would suck.

Imagine living like that for just 1 day. How about 2 days? A week?

Imagine how you would feel when the tap water comes. That’s happening in 1 lakh homes across India each day. There is no way the voter will forget this.

“Islam is in crisis all over the world” and all the other things the French President said

Earlier this month, the French President Emmanuel Macron took the stage at city hall in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his career. A series of policy pledges to tackle what he calls Islamic separatism.

Incidentally, the day that Macron chose for this announcement was Oct 2. It is not clear whether the French President meant this deliberately as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. However, two things are clear. First, the speech involves a level of plain speaking that is quite unusual for a head of state. Second, the speech completely changes the way France (and potentially the rest of Europe and even the West) looks at Islam.

The following is a collection of some of the upshots from the speech, translated loosely into English. We shall not go into details of his policy announcements, which are very specific to domestic governance in France. Rather, we will look at the introduction to the speech, where Macron explains what he has set out to do and why. The full text of the nearly hour long speech, in French, is available from the French Government website here.

“Who has put the Republic in danger?”

The French President lays it out thus:

There are two objectives for why I am speaking to you today. The first is to define the reality of our problems without any taboos. Who is it today, in our society, that has put our Republic in danger and our ability to coexist? The second is to share with you the decisions made by the government on how to tackle the situation. These decisions are the result of careful consideration of nearly 3 years.”

“The problem is not secularism”

The President laid this out firmly:

The problem is not secularism. I have said many times that secularism in France means the freedom to believe or not to believe and to worship however you want, subject to public order. Secularism means the neutrality of the state and does not mean that religion must be erased from the public sphere. Secularism is the glue that holds France together.

In France, secularism (in French: laïcité) is taken with overwhelming seriousness. The state maintains the strictest possible distance from religion, bans all religious symbols in government buildings including public schools and forbids public servants from wearing them.

A bit of historical context is needed here. The French Revolution saw religious authorities as part of the complex that supported the tyranny of the king. The 1789 revolution was followed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It explicitly rejected religion as the basis of government and laid the foundation for modern secular law. At the time, the US had just finished fighting the revolutionary war, in which France had been their ally against British colonial rule. The Declaration inspired the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution and was also the basis of the UN’s declaration of universal human rights in the 20th century.

Islamic separatism aims to form a counter-society

The President describes his opponent thus:

It is Islamic separatism that we have to attack. Islamic separatism is a conscious effort, a politico-religious one. It repeatedly breaks with the values of the Republic and aims to form a counter-society. This takes the form of taking kids out of school, developing sports and cultural communities that become an excuse for teaching principles that do not conform to the laws of the Republic. This indoctrination negates our principles such as equality of men and women and the dignity of the human being.

A “counter-society” that does not respect the dignity of the individual. Ouch!

First it forms a parallel society, but its ultimate aim is to take over

The President explains further:

The problem is this ideology which believes that its laws are superior to those of the Republic. I have often said that people are free to believe or not to believe, but every citizen, with or without religious belief, must absolutely respect the laws of the Republic. And let us name it and tackle it : it is in Islamic separatism that we find a desire and a methodical organization to destroy the laws of the Republic and create in its place a parallel system, based on different values and a different organization of society. At first, this is only a parallel society, but the ultimate aim is to take control of everything.

I warned you. This level of plain speaking is unusual for a modern head of state.

Islam is in crisis all over the world

The President gave his personal view

A lot has been written, said and analyzed in this regard, about what our country is facing right now. I have the humility to admit that I am no specialist, but let me tell you in a few words what I think. Islam is a religion which is in crisis all over the world. This is not just happening in France, this hardening of attitudes is happening all over the world, including in countries where Islam is the majority religion. Just see the example of our friend Tunisia, how different it was thirty years ago. And Tunisia is one of the most educated and developed in that part of the world….

And with this, President Macron went on to lay out his ideas for tackling the problem as he saw it. For instance, requiring that all kids must attend public school, instead of possible indoctrination via “home schooling.” Closing down places of worship that are suspected of spreading radicalization. A national effort to shut down establishments that have practices that violate core French values, such as gender equality, for example by having different times for men and women to use a swimming pool. He would also crack the whip on elected officials, who might “compromise” on these values in certain neighborhoods, due to pressure from the local public.

While Macron’s speech did not receive the kind of attention you would expect, possibly due to English being the language of global discourse, the usual suspects did cry out.

And then, two weeks later, came the public beheading of a school teacher Samuel Paty in a suburb of Paris. It touched something within the already alarmed French public and set off a public reaction that has become a mass movement. For days now, crowds have thronged public squares across France, holding up placards, banners and in mourning. This one reads : “I defend liberty against barbarism.

No leaders. Just people. Gathering to sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Below are the powerful lyrics of the song.

Is somebody paying the “experts” to spread spurious narratives on Atmanirbhar Bharat?

On May 12 this year, PM Modi addressed the nation and unveiled his vision for “Atmanirbhar Bharat.” The pandemic had shut down global supply chains and there was China snarling at our borders. Naturally, this required India to re-examine our dependence on other countries, especially China. A more self-reliant India, with a bigger industrial base, with lesser trade deficits was the need of the hour. Who could object?

Then, the spurious narratives began. “Experts” came out of the woodwork, many of them household names, with warnings. India should not go back to the era of license-quota-permit Raj, they argued. “Atmanirbhar” should not mean a return to protectionism. That would wipe out all the gains since 1991, they told us.

On the ground, in actual Indian government policy, there was little evidence of any protectionist instincts. In fact, the Modi government just pulled off an ambitious free market reform in agriculture, a sector that had not been touched since independence. India’s FDI regime continues to be one of the most open in the world. With the exception of curbs on Chinese imports, part of a strategic necessity, there has been no effort to close the Indian economy to outsiders. Just an emphasis on identifying sectors where India can become more competitive.

Who would misunderstand something so simple? Not common people with common sense. But only “experts.”

Here is the question to ask. Are those experts really so foolish that they don’t get it? Or are they pushing a spurious narrative on orders from someone else? A superpower, perhaps? A superpower that has something to lose from an Atmanirbhar India and wants to hurt India’s image in general.

What makes a spurious narrative? Here is the perfect example. On June 16 this year, a bloody clash took place between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Galwan Valley in Ladakh. As many as 20 Indian soldiers were killed in action. The Chinese side admitted to casualties, but refused to disclose the numbers. Coupled with China’s habitual aggression towards neighbors, known expansionist tendencies and secretive Communist state, this would look very bad for China. That too in a year when the world is reeling under the Wuhan Coronavirus. This latest act would confirm the world’s worst fears about China.

What would Americans think? How would the world think? Fortunately for China, the New York Times was around to help. In an article published the day after the clash, the New York Times reported that “analysts” had arrived at a stunning conclusion. The clash was not due to China’s expansionism nor aggression. They were merely reacting to a provocation from Indian Home Minister Amit Shah in August of the previous year.

Who are these “analysts” that connected the Galwan clash to Amit Shah’s speech? The New York Times did not name them. If Amit Shah’s speech was a provocation to China, can I see in public the work of any “analyst” who noticed this between August 5, 2019 and June 16, 2020?

Of course not. When Amit Shah spoke on Article 370, everyone knew he was talking on domestic matters of India. The reference to Aksai Chin as Indian territory is something on which India has been consistent for decades. How could it suddenly be a provocation to China?

That is a spurious narrative right there. The idea that India provoked China was created overnight on June 16. Over the next several weeks, this was repeated by experts, both Indian and foreign.

Again, observe that these experts didn’t even notice the alleged “provocation” for 10 months between Aug 2019 and June 2020. The day after the clash, they suddenly said it was the most obvious thing of all. You cannot help but ask: who paid for this sudden realization?

The attack on Atmanirbhar Bharat rouses similar suspicion. How could apparently intelligent experts misunderstand something so badly? Can you point to a single example of a newly protectionist policy created by India since the Prime Minister announced his intention in May? Then, who are you trying to warn?

Is it a spurious narrative.

Let’s explain spurious narratives like this, with apples and oranges. Suppose you decide to add more apples to your diet for health reasons. The next day, there are all these people warning you about the risks of not eating enough oranges. But you never said anything about oranges. Then, why are these experts suddenly giving all these warnings?

The answer is simple. Those experts don’t care about your health. Their warnings are not real warnings, but ads. Those experts work for the guy who sells oranges.

What I learned from reading the memoirs of George W Bush

If you asked me to name my favorite American President, it would have to be Bush W. Not that I think he was a great president or anything, just in a “personal” sort of way. Which is what his supporters always said. He is the guy you would have a beer with.

At the same time, if you asked me to name the worst decision made in this century, I would say it is the war in Iraq. No other moment has made the world so much easier for tyranny as that catastrophic decision from President Bush. It was the moment America started off on the path to bankruptcy and made it so much easier for China. Some 17 years down the line, both China and radical Islam are stronger than ever. On the contrary, America is a nation broken at heart. Donald Trump is a reflection of American grumpiness, more than anything else. He came from an America that was exasperated, tired of war and spending, nervous about the future and complaining that the world doesn’t give America enough credit for all the good they have done. While this last charge is true, obsessing over it is not the symptom of a confident superpower.

I recently finished reading “Decision Points,” which is Bush’s memoir about his eight years in office. The way he spoke and he wrote confirms my impression of the man. I like him even more now than I did before 🙂

But most importantly, the book helped me pinpoint exactly where Bush went wrong. And it wasn’t with intentions. He just isn’t your typical crooked politician. The problem definitely lay in his fundamental assumptions about the world.

For example, Bush lays out in his book the four steps that the US anticipated on the eve of the Iraq invasion:

(1) Special forces and commandos infiltrate Iraq, gathering intelligence.

(2) The Air Force carries out massive bombardment, dealing a hammer blow to Saddam Hussein

(3) The US military puts boots on the ground, flushing out the remnants of the Iraqi forces

(4) The country is stabilized and a free nation emerges.

I have to say I burst out laughing when I heard No. 4. A free nation?

See, that’s where Bush got it wrong. He kept assuming that everyone wants freedom. This is a recurring theme in the book. He talks about how Afghanistan wants “freedom” and how Iraq wants “freedom.” He points out that when WW2 ended, there were like two dozen democracies in the world. By the time he took office as the 43rd President of the United States, there were over a hundred. He kept talking about how the remaining few would be free as well. He spoke of how the arrow of history bends towards liberty.

But does it? Does everyone really want freedom? Just look at our neighbor to the west, born of the same nation, identical to us in a thousand cultural ways. Do they want freedom?

Some ideologies are just different from others. And Bush keeps getting this wrong. Though he never stops repeating it.

It is easy to be cynical about such things. You can talk about how the freedom thing is just a cover story for the American military industrial complex to make $$$. But the truth always lies somewhere in between. Nobody is ever completely unselfish. But you cannot take away the fact that America has freed other nations. Which other superpower can even claim to have done that? How many countries have ever been liberated by the British or the French or the Soviets or the Chinese?

In particular, Bush spoke about how his father fought the Japanese in WW2. He spoke of how the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was the son of a senior minister in the imperial Japanese government. The fathers had made war. The sons were allies, leaders of democratic, sovereign nations which respect and admire each other.

If Japan, if Germany, if Korea … why not Iraq?

I’m sorry, Mr. President. Not Iraq. Not Iran. Not Pakistan and not Afghanistan. Not everyone is ready for the same thing. And they might never be.

Perhaps the problem lay in Bush’s fundamental and simplistic belief in a moral universe. God’s children, he kept saying. Whether or not there is a god, there is no scientific principle that says all people want freedom. Ideologies vary. It’s awesome that over 100 countries in the world are democracies. Perhaps that is a sign that people in the remaining countries don’t want to be free.

This is one of the fundamental ways in which people, especially in the West, misunderstand the conflict between Israel & Palestine, or between India & Pakistan. It is easy to wonder why there can’t be a two state solution in the Middle East. When I two state solution, I obviously mean more than just lines on a map. Of course you could draw those lines. I mean, can there be two neighboring states, both democracies, with respect for each other? No, there cannot.

I am not saying that this means we should oppose a two state solution. All people have equal rights, no matter what their ideology. But do not fool yourself by assuming that all people want the same things from life. We would never assume that everyone likes the same flavor of ice-cream. So why do we make that assumption about ideology? Everyone has a right to buy ice-cream. Anything beyond that is just an assumption.

Ditto with India vs Pakistan. You can only blame the Army or the politicians over there so many times. The reality is that some people don’t like freedom as a way of life. People in one country like freedom. In another country, they hate freedom. That’s their ideology.

Give a billion dollars to help Germany after the war and they will rebuild and become your friends. Give a billion dollars to Pakistan and they will hate you even more. Ideologies vary.

If only Bush had understood this fact, the world would have been a much better place today.

If Congress comes back to power, it will be impossible to utter a word against them

Right now, the BJP is in power at the Center, with a massive 303 seats in the Lok Sabha. At the same time, media professionals seen as BJP-leaning, even household names, are being picked up for interrogation by opposition state governments or arrested on a whim. Their economic viability is being seriously threatened : one leg of the plan is to intimidate advertisers, another leg of the plan is to destroy the system of TRPs altogether.

In opposition ruled states, the secular ecosystem is able to follow up these tactics with extensive “direct action” on the ground. There is of course Bengal where high profile dissenters are shot in full public view. Workers from opposition parties are murdered and hung from trees and poles so that everyone can see. On their shirts, the death squads write clearly that this the punishment for joining BJP. In another state, storm troopers showed up in jackboots at the house of a Navy veteran who dared forward a cartoon.

An A-list Bollywood celebrity said a word against a secular government. The next day, they showed up at her house with bulldozers.

Again, this is when the BJP is in power. Imagine what would happen if the Congress were to somehow come back to power. Whether or not you would like that is another matter. The question is this: if Congress comes back to power tomorrow, do you think you as a citizen will be able to utter a word against them?

You might be wondering. So what if Congress comes back? They have ruled India so many times. With one terrifying exception in 1975, democracy has mostly been fine.

True. But this time it is different. Let me explain why.

Because technology. A decade ago, when technology took off as a medium of political communication in India, a senior establishment leader had remarked that the internet is an ungovernable sphere. Back then, the opportunities seemed limitless. Anyone could go online and say anything. And it could spread anywhere, depending on how much attention it got.

That’s changed. From this utopian vision of a free and ungovernable realm of ideas, technology has become a machine that can be used for totalitarian thought control. We are putting everything online: our shopping habits, our tastes in food, drink and travel. And of course our personal and professional communication. And the pandemic turbocharged this phenomenon.

For the first time in history, common people are talking to each other in writing. I remember that a hardcore leftist journo had observed this astutely in 2012. Each one of us now has a digital footprint, with all our thoughts on record. The personal has become public.

Take the case of that Navy veteran who was beaten up because he forwarded a cartoon. Ten years ago, the old man would have made the joke orally to a small circle of friends. And nobody would have known. But now, he posted it on social media. The storm troopers got to know.

Never in history, not even under the worst of dictators, has such targeted micro level action against dissenters been possible. Now, it is. Today, it is possible for a government to target literally every dissenter. Do you think Congress is not going to use it if they get a chance at power?

What does ‘targeting’ mean? Jackboots at the door? Not necessarily. Even though the dissenting Navy veteran was identified by the power of technology, he was targeted in a rather primitive way. This could never work on a large scale. In India, there would be literally hundreds of millions of dissenters. How many doors would the storm troopers break down?

Again, technology has a much more chilling solution to tackle this problem on a large scale. There’s no need to beat up dissenters individually. With one line of code, the dissenters can all be placed on a blacklist, accused of “spreading hate.” The next day, they will all lose their jobs and everyone from banks to mobile phone operators will refuse to do business with them. How would they survive without a job, without a bank account or even a phone?

Think it can’t happen? It’s already happening. The Chinese call it the ‘social credit system.’ If you fall out of favor with the government, your life gets progressively harder, to the point that you would not be able to buy so much as a bus ticket. You can then agree to “reform” by showing your loyalty to the government and slowly raise your “social credit score.”

You think the secular overlords will reject this technology if they get a chance?

Am I being too dark and too pessimistic? After all, China is China. We’re a democracy. They can’t do this here.

Fine, how about the United States? They are the oldest democracy in the world. Last week, the New York Post published an explosive story about business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of US Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Those who tried to tweet the story or plug it on Facebook found that it was impossible to do so. Even via direct messages…

They did this in the US. Still think they can’t do this here?

Okay, this time they got caught. But they still fulfilled their main objective, slowing down the story. Next time, their algorithms will tackle this even better. Next time, they won’t get caught.

Around 2010, the secular ecosystem was caught flat footed and complacent by the rise of social media. They mocked the medium because they didn’t understand it. A lot of real people began speaking for the first time. This collective voice played a huge role in destroying the UPA government.

Stung by the defeat, they’ve learned well. They turned their full propaganda machinery towards owning the digital space. They put up “news” website after website in quick succession, with massive funding, top notch production and media graduates swarming into the new space. They fanned out across Youtube and Instagram, building a massive coalition of influencers.

On the right, the resistance was patchy at best. Most were real people, with real day jobs, families and bills to pay. It is commendable that they held the fort for so long. But anyone who sees the internet space today will know that the resistance is rupturing badly. There was only so much that hobbyists could have done to stop a well oiled machine.

All other pieces are in place. All that remains is for their friends to get back in power. The moment they get that back, they will take ownership of most of their loudspeakers in the old media of TV and newspapers. Most of it still works for them anyway. The handful of right leaning media will be snuffed out quickly by government action, threatening advertisers or banning them under the excuse of “stopping hate.”

This time, they will have a third and most potent weapon: technology and dominance in the digital space. The legions of influencers and the brands are in place already. You will be blasted with propaganda at all levels. With the personal sphere becoming public, your reaction to each event will be under their scrutiny. The smallest show of dissent will be punished, not by jackboots at your door, but by a faceless algorithm that will destroy your life in a millisecond.

The old dictators were prone to creating martyrs. This time, there wont be martyrs because nobody will come to know. If a tree falls in a forest with nobody to hear, did it really happen?

No, BJP didn’t push allies away : Congress treats allies much worse

This was so long ago that I cannot even remember the face of the BJP leader who said this, probably around 2013. An eager reporter asked sarcastically why BJP has no allies left. Where is NDA now, she wanted to know. Where is the 23 partner NDA of Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

The leader replied that the BJP may have fewer allies now, but they are more “committed.” He was referring to Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal and Janata Dal-United. By the end of 2013, the “committed” JDU had left as well.

Sitting today, it is hard to even imagine a time when Mamata Banerjee and Omar Abdullah were ministers in a BJP led government. There were ministers from TDP and INLD and what not.

Recently, a lot of people have pointed out that now there is only one non-BJP minister in the Central Govt, that being Ramdas Athavale. While this is technically true, it doesn’t tell the full story. This happened because Ram Vilas Paswan passed away. After Bihar elections, the LJP is sure to get a berth in the Union Ministry.

But the overall point makes sense. The NDA has been replaced almost entirely by the BJP.

Who is behind this?

Well, many in the media have said this is sort of an imperial instinct playing out from Modi-Shah. But this is not true. The falling away of NDA has happened almost entirely by chance, for various reasons. Some were jealous of the BJP, some played all sorts of foolish games and fell “hit wicket.”

Let’s recap about how the BJP lost its allies, one by one. Start with the TDP. Sometime in 2018, the TDP lost nerve about the upcoming 2019 elections in Andhra Pradesh. Compared to his usual reputation, CBN had achieved very little in his new innings as Chief Minister. What was his big idea? That the underperformance was all BJP’s fault and all because the BJP didn’t give something vague called special status. He had a bunch of astroturf trolls pushing this aggressively on social media, but real people didn’t buy into it. He lost miserably. You might remember that until a day or so before the results, Babu was accumulating allies, discussing chances of becoming PM!

How was this BJP’s fault? This was an ally doing a cartwheel and shooting itself in the foot. Modi-Shah had no hand in this. Later, Babu admitted it was a mistake to break away.

Then, take the case of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Despite the SAD’s increasingly poor reputation in Punjab, the BJP stuck loyally with the old ally. Ultimately, it is SAD which left because they were opposed to a major policy initiative : farm reforms in India. That’s not pushing allies away. That’s just an example of not getting blackmailed. And this is exactly the reason the people gave a clear majority to Modi. So that he could not be blackmailed.

About Shiv Sena, the lesser said the better! Does anyone remember their resolution before 2019 elections to never fight another election in alliance with BJP? Before that, they spent 5 years enjoying power both at the Center and at the State level, but never once backed the BJP on anything. The BJP still held out the olive branch before 2019. And what they did after the state election is for all to see. What was BJP supposed to do? Make its sitting Chief Minister resign and give the CM post to Shiv Sena with 50 seats, while they don’t take power with 105 seats? And then Sena left, formed a govt with NCP and Congress. Who really played foul here?

Again, take JDU. They were offered berths in the Union government, but they wouldn’t take them! Time and again the people of Bihar have made it clear that they prefer the BJP to JDU, but Nitish Kumar insists that reality isn’t real after all. Even now, he is the CM candidate although everyone knows he will have lesser seats in the Assembly than BJP. Remember the BJP gave up 5 sitting MPs in Bihar to accommodate JDU. Hard to see what more they could have given.

So that is how the BJP lost allies: they had unreasonable demands and pushed the BJP to the wall. The BJP on the other hand, has made every possible compromise that could be imagined.

But for the narrative makers in Lutyens, the BJP demanding the most basic amount of respect feels like imperialism.

They should look at the other camp : at how Congress treats its allies. The Jharkhand CM spends half his time camping in Delhi, getting orders from 10 Janpath. Left on its own, the Congress would come 4th in Jharkhand, behind BJP, JMM and AJSU. Perhaps even 5th, if you go back to the time when Marandi’s JVM was a separate party. But the Congress has cut a superbly generous deal with the JMM in terms of seats.

In Bihar, the Congress has bargained for contesting 70 seats out of 243! This is a party, which at the peak of its power in 2010, won just 4 freaking seats in the whole Assembly. A fair seat distribution would mean not more than 20-30 seats for Congress to contest in an alliance with RJD. But somehow, everyone bows down to 10 Janpath.

Even all the way south in Tamil Nadu, you have the DMK handing over 10 Lok Sabha seats to Congress to contest. Even though the reasonable number would have been more like 1-2. Just wait and see how many seats Congress will wrangle in the Assembly polls next year.

The only time I have seen Congress actually give something up was in Karnataka in 2018, when they offered the CM post to JDS. But they took nearly everything else : a 2/3 share of ministries and a 2/3 share of Lok Sabha seats contested. For those with long memories, the BJP had long ago, as the single largest party, offered the CM post to H D Kumaraswamy on a rotating basis. HDK served out his share and quickly betrayed the BJP when their turn came. No other party has been so regularly been given short shrift by allies as BJP.

If we go further back in history, the way the Janata Party treated Vajpayee and Advani is pathetic and embarrassing.

The facts say that Congress treats its allies much worse. The perception is that BJP is looking down its nose at the allies. For me, this will remain a great mystery of Indian politics. If you ask me, the difference is because of attitude, with colonial undertones. Simply put, it is easier for members of the Indian political class (politicians and media) to bow down to the Congress dynasty than give Modi-Shah the respect they deserve. One feels like bowing down to a feudal lord who has ruled for generations. Another feels like accepting that someone who was once a commoner has now ascended to a much higher level. And we all know which is easier to accept.

BJP must step very carefully in Bihar

I don’t really know what to make of Bihar’s election this year. Beyond both a sense of assurance and a general unease. Perhaps in a Covid world, the only certainty is uncertainty.

It’s like this. Whenever you take paper and pencil, it looks like the BJP is virtually unstoppable in Bihar. Add up the vote shares any way you want, allow for some drop due to anti-incumbency and still it does look like BJP+JDU has a clear double digit vote share lead over the opposition.

But talk to any Bihari and they will tell you they are bored with Nitish Kumar. So, what’s happening?

The real threat is not from vote shares. There is another unknown. An unknown we do not understand at all and have no precedent for understanding. The real threat could be from turnouts. We don’t know how many people would be willing to go stand in line and vote.

The RJD’s voters are certainly motivated. Or at least more motivated than those who are supposed to vote for Nitish Kumar. One good thing is Bihar’s astonishingly high success against Covid. From the beginning, anecdotal reports say people in Bihar have not been very worried. And somehow things have gone very very well.

This could be a big factor. The BJP needs to make sure that Bihar is not hit by any second wave. We have no idea when it will come. But if Europe’s experience is anything to go by, there’s always a second wave. Right now, London and Paris are going back into curfews and lockdowns. There’s not much time left before voting begins in Bihar, but exponential curves can rise up in no time.

Seeing as there is an enthusiasm gap between the ruling party and the opposition, the BJP has to ensure that voting is as easy as possible. So that the BJP’s supporters turn out.

There is one more X-factor. Perhaps the turnout will be bigger this year. A lot of migrant laborers have returned to the state and they don’t usually get to vote. By all accounts, they have treated rather well on their return, receiving welfare and NREGA on time. But you never know how they are thinking. If the overall turnout isn’t bigger, the composition of the turnout certainly could change.

The BJP “sort of” going it alone on half the seats is certainly a way to keep the workers charged up. No matter how many times Sushil Modi insists that Nitish and only Nitish will be CM, it can’t possibly cut ice in so politically savvy a state. And it won’t put Nitish’s mind at ease. Maybe that’s a good thing. JDU workers also need to be charged up, needing a good show so that BJP can’t easily get rid of Nitish Kumar.

This is an unorthodox, Rockefeller type move: even though John D. Rockefeller monopolized almost 90% of US oil refining by the 1890s, he kept the spirit of entrepreneurship alive by making his subsidiaries compete with each other. In some way, the half split NDA was the only way to sow competition into the uncompetitive framework of Bihar’s current politics.

It is rather interesting that the passing away of a leader so towering as Ram Vilas Paswan is not expected to change political equations very much. The core Paswan vote will coalesce around LJP perhaps, but this remains very much at the 6-7% max.

Again, it is not easy to figure out a way for BJP to lose this Bihar election. But of late, the BJP has mastered the art of the near miss. Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand…. the mistakes are piling up. In each of these elections, something could have been done that would have made the BJP win outright (except perhaps Maharashtra). In Jharkhand, for instance, allying with AJSU would have given certain victory. In Rajasthan, a stronger push from PM Modi could have swung the 1% margin the other way. The BJP really under-estimated itself in Rajasthan until the very last moment. In Karnataka, if PM Modi had started his campaign 5 days earlier, the BJP would have got those last 6 seats outright.

Delhi was different. The way the numbers turned out, seems there was basically nothing the BJP could have done.

The advantage for PM Modi is that he is the only credible leader that the whole of Bihar can agree upon, including the Yadavs. And for the moment, he has with him Nitish Kumar, who even at his lowest ebb, is more credible than Tejaswi. Even Sushil Modi, though not a mass leader, has credible experience of governance.

So that’s what is going for NDA. Pretty much the 1,2,3 … even 4,5 slots for credible leaders go to NDA. If you are going to compare young dynasts, Chirag Paswan is any day more credible than Tejaswi Yadav. Then, there is the caste vote, which is also heavily loaded in NDA’s favor.

But, watch out. There’s just something out there about Bihar that is making me uneasy. I can’t put my finger on it.