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The Hindu Notes for 05th October 2018

A manifesto of dissent

Dissent is the custodian of difference, giving voice to minorities and people on the margins

Dissent today is one of the most critical acts of democracy. There is an element of critical risk, and yet it is presented like a slice of drawing room behaviour. One almost senses that the next coffee table book shall be on dissent and its sheer affability. There is something textbookish about dissent, as if it comes from a handbook or a collection of recipes. Dissent is often thought to be divisive when, in fact, it is a search to return a whole, a desperate battle to keep the parts together. Dissent as a concept and an activity has to be differentiated from radicalism and from the inflated idea of the public intellectual. Radicalism is totalitarian while dissent is pluralistic. It acknowledges epistemically that it is one way among many ways of stating the truth.

Radicals, dissenters

Marxism was a form of radicalism. It created dualism and binaries but what redeemed Marxism from being a mechanical party ideology was the variety of dissenting imaginations that surrounded it. Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, Marxist revolutionaries, add not just to the romance of Marxism, but redeem it from the monolithic ideology of Stalinism. The danger of Stalinism lay in the fact that it ate up the future of these dissenting imaginations. Dissenting Marxism has been life-giving and creative especially for the margins. Liberation theology during the fishing struggle in Kerala gave the battle for equality a new dimension when political parties and churches found it difficult to transcend hierarchy or abandon power. A party or cadre-style Marxism had no place for the dissenting imaginations.

The idea of the public intellectual often degenerates to a drawing room concept of a creature we watch on TV. He is the successor to the salon intellectual who presents himself more as a performative rather than a substantive mind. One expects the public intellectual to get his hands dirty, ensure that while he is a media creation, he does not become a creature of the media. One senses all too often that his critique is cosmetic and rhetorical. There are exceptions. Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy was a brilliant example of an intellectual who loved the café, the vibrancy of storytelling, and meditated on the fate and ironies of socialism. His last book, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, is a good example of the creativity of dissent. Ananthamurthy would talk to the right and the left, engage with any group and yet create a separate presence. His critique of Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister and Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 was about his suppression of storytelling, the State government’s distortion of dissent, its labelling of environmentalists as anti-national. Ananthamurthy’s bilingualism allowed him a greater diversity of thinking. It expanded the poetics of differences and made democracy a panchayat of ideas. The government gave him his finest accolade when it decreed through BJP leader Giriraj Kishore that he should be put on the train to Pakistan.

Dreams of an alternative

The very confused state of dissent and dissenting imaginations today demands that we re-conceptualise dissent into a tentative manifesto. I remember what the scientist C.V. Seshadri once told me. Radicalism lives in the world of hyperboles but dissent unravels itself through ordinary language. Yet it is out of this everydayness of language that it invents the dreams of alternatives. Dissent seeks to articulate difference, celebrate plurality and attain a sense of diversity. The dissenter, unlike the ideologist or the radical, claims the whole truth. He is a custodian, a trustee of truths which are being lost in mainstream or majority debates. A dissenter is thus a representative of differences of marginal truths and in articulating this role becomes a custodian for the imagination of democracies. A dissenter thus protects or argues for ideas which belong to the margins, the minority, to what might be condemned as heretic or merely eccentric. He is a custodian of abandoned memories and an advocate of defeated ideas which are still life-giving.

A dissenter has to survive not just the ideologist but the very definition of expertise. Expertise is today virtually defined as a monopoly or an oligopoly of knowledge which assumes it knows a domain best. An expert always operates within enclosures but is rarely exclusive within it. In expert controversies, the dissenter is regarded as noise in a system. A dissenter sounds discordant because the music of his ideas is not appreciated. When a lay person challenges expertise using ordinary language, his becomes a lesser order of knowledge. A dissenter has to challenge the ontology of both statuses — an invidious notion of citizenship and a non-inclusive notion of knowledge. One sees this during debates on nuclear energy where expert language seems measured and certain while dissent sounds almost irrational and subjective. Here dissent not only has to broker between expertise and what is dubbed as ignorance, it has to challenge the very epistemology of knowledge which defines a layperson’s knowledge as a lesser form of existence. Dissent in this instance challenges not just the dominance of expertise but the dominant constructions of knowledge itself. Dissent within a plural frame has to renew the very definitions of mainstream knowledge.

A dissenter in that sense is a custodian of difference, of defeated and dominated ideas. He has to challenge hegemonic ideas without demanding such exclusivity for his own ideas or knowledge system. He operates on the cusp of the republic of tentativeness as a trickster, a shaman, bringing a different life force to ideas. A satyagrahi in that sense epitomises dissent and the life of dissent. He lives out an idea and his protest is always dialogic, non-violent. His lifestyle embodies his idea such that his autobiography becomes a life world for the idea. Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” represented a dissenting idea, where the dissenter also empathised with the hegemon and sought to rescue him. The Indian national movement was an attempt to rescue the British from their modernity. The dissenter rather than being factional or divisive was concerned with the health of the whole. He sought to be an exemplar of his own idea by living it. The satyagrahi in that sense embodied his idea linking life, lifeworld, livelihood, life style and life cycle. He experimented on himself and the body became a test tube for his experiments with self and truth, whether non-violence, diet, self-control. In that sense, satyagraha was a way of thought as a way of living and ashrams became experiments in thought, attempts to create an alternative world view. Gandhi added to an usually political and intellectualist idea of dissent, an experimental and ethical mentality. But in a truly satyagraha style, the experiment rather than being inspectional began on oneself — creating a connectivity with the world which was both ethical and political.

Dissent as an idea and an activity has to be placed within both a theory of democracy and a theory of knowledge. One begins with the critical role of diversity and a critique of hegemonic knowledge. One of the great exponents of such an idea was Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution with Charles Darwin. In The Wonderful Century, Wallace argued that a science at its moment of dominance becomes a threat to itself, to the creative dream of alternatives. He argued that science must invent alternative imaginations to sustain its dynamisms. His book was an exploration of such alternative ideas from spiritualism to critiques of vaccination to argue for the availability of both eccentricity and creativity.

An outsider, an outlier

Finally, a dissenter’s relation to power is liminal. I remember the political scientist, Rajni Kothari, once discussing a change in regimes. He smiled and said wryly, “Regardless of who comes to power, our place seems to be in the opposition.” At the level of power, we remain outsiders and outliers to the hegemony of any idea. Dissent in that sense is critical at at time when one’s citizenship in a world of knowledge is always in question. It becomes a ritual of trusteeship for the world of minorities, marginals, eccentrics, those dreaming of alternative ideas to sustain a vibrant democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

Next steps at Gir

A geographically separate population of Asiatic lions needs to be created

The magnificent Asiatic lion is under threat. Twenty-three lions have died in as many days in the eastern part of Gujarat’s Gir sanctuary. While mass mortalities in wildlife are always a cause for concern, this case is even more worrisome as the big cat population in Gujarat is the last of the Asiatic lions in the wild.

In 2013, the Supreme Court had issued an order that lions from Gujarat be relocated to the Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh as a check against the threat of epidemic. But even wild animals are subject to State politics. Gujarat has been unwilling to part with its lions, calling them “its pride” in an affidavit.

Following the series of deaths, preliminary reports said that the cats have been killed by disease, most likely to be infectious. Some others have died due to poisoning and infighting. On October 3, the Supreme Court, noting that the death of so many lions was a serious matter, asked the Central government to look into it.

New-age conservation

In its 2013 order, the Supreme Court had said: “Asiatic lion, it has been noticed, has been restricted to only one single habitat, i.e. the Gir National Forest and its surrounding areas and an outbreak of possible epidemic or natural calamity might wipe off the entire species. A smaller population with limited genetic strength are more vulnerable to diseases and other catastrophes in comparison to large and widespread population.” The court also noted how 30% of the lion population in Tanzania’s Serengeti was killed due to an outbreak of canine distemper, a viral disease that affects animals. Gujarat’s response to this was that lions are now spread over the Greater Gir region and this reduces the threat. It has also had an intense, managerial response to the disease — when ill, lions are routinely picked up, medically treated, and then released.

Wildlife conservation concerns itself with maintaining ecological processes and reducing threats to endangered species. It does not entail treating wild animals for disease (in the way domestic animals are) as this can go against the processes of natural selection. Treating wild animals appears to be a caring thing to do. But it is not conducive to the ‘natural’ process of life and death, and ultimately compromises immunity. Another celebrity example of this kind of management was Machli, the tigress from Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. Known as the world’s most photographed tigress, she lived for 20 years before her death in 2016. This is because she was treated medically, and often fed artificially.

To be fair to Gujarat, the lines of what comprises wildlife conservation are getting blurred. When wild animals go extinct locally, they are reintroduced — as in the case of tigers in Sariska, Rajasthan. When hungry, they are fed artificially, and even provided salts as supplements, an example being the Hangul (Red deer) population in Dachigam, Jammu and Kashmir. In other parts of India, wild animals are funnelled through artificial trenches, barriers and fences. This is wildlife conservation in the age of man, where protected areas sometimes resemble zoos.

Yet even the most flexible of conservationists would agree that intensive artificial medical treatment of wild animals does not augur well for long-term sustainability. The role of wildlife managers should be to reduce unnatural threats, not unnaturally prolong life. While Gujarat has done a good job of conserving its lions, it should also turn its attention to reducing the drivers of disease, which includes controlling feral dog populations.

On metapopulations

Gujarat submitted before the Supreme Court that one of the reasons it did not want to part with the lions was because there are metapopulations in the State. Metapopulations may be geographically separate but have interactions and an exchange of individuals. Gujarat had said to the Supreme Court, “Current Asiatic lion population is not a single population confined to one place.” It consists of “metapopulation spread over several locations within the Greater Gir Region”, adding that “good conservation practices and intensive wildlife healthcare, has lead to epidemic free regime”. Crucially though, these areas are connected to each other and this does not address the main concern of creating geographically distant populations.

Undoubtedly, after the lion deaths, Gujarat should work towards colonising new habitats outside the Gir landscape within the State. However, there are spatial limitations in this industrialised State. An option is the Barda wildlife sanctuary. But Barda is close to Gir, and this cannot be confused with creating isolated populations. It would simply mean increasing suitable lion range from its present, much smaller area.

Finally, there is no getting around the fact that a geographically separate population of Asiatic lions needs to be created. A good track record for lion conservation does not in any way preclude a good long-term strategy.

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist. The views expressed are personal

Has the Government lost the perception battle on Rafale?

Hard facts militate against the Modi government’s position on Rafale

‘L’affaire Rafale’ has become the Achilles heel of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The incontrovertible truth is that in August 2007, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government floated a tender for the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). The Indian Air Force found two aircraft technically equipped — the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The tender had made it clear that all bids were to be inclusive of cost of initial purchase, transfer of technology, licensed production etc.

On December 12, 2012, Rafale emerged as the L-1 vendor with a publicly disclosed price of ₹526.1 crore per aircraft. Out of 126 aircraft, 18 were to come from France in a flyaway condition, with the remaining 108 aircraft to be manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with transfer of technology. In addition, there was a 50%-offset clause requiring Dassault Aviation to invest 50% of the contract value by way of investment in India. On March 12, 2014, a ‘workshare agreement’ worth approximately ₹36,000 crore was signed between HAL and Dassault Aviation; 70% of the work on the 108 aircraft to be made in India was to be done by HAL and 30% by Dassault Aviation.

Unilateral move

On May 26, 2014, the NDA government assumed office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France on April 10, 2015. Two days before the visit, then Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar stated: “In terms of Rafale, my understanding is that there are discussions under way between the French company, our Ministry of Defence, the HAL… We do not mix up leadership-level visits with deep details of ongoing defence contracts. That is on a different track.”

Two facts are significant here — one, there were ongoing negotiations between the Defence Ministry, Dassault Aviation and HAL for the purchase of 126 Rafale, 108 out of which would manufactured by HAL, and two, Mr. Modi would not be involved in this as the issue was of technical nature.

However, during his French trip, Mr. Modi inexplicably, and unilaterally, announced ‘off-the-shelf’ purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft at a cost of ₹1,670.70 crore per aircraft. Dassault Aviation disclosed this price in its annual report for 2016.

The price was more than thrice the originally negotiated price of ₹526.1 crore and would involve an additional outflow of approximately ₹41,000 crore. HAL was dropped. Interestingly, all this was done without even cancelling the original global tender for 126 fighter aircraft.

No spin can change perception

The fact that the technical specifications were identical in both cases and therefore, there was no case for a price increase is evidenced by the joint statement of April 10, 2015, issued by the then French President, François Hollande, and Mr. Modi which read: “[A]ircraft and associated systems and weapons would be delivered on the same configuration as had been tested and approved by Indian Air Force, in clear reference to negotiations and testing process for the Rafale jets under the UPA government.”

The government proceeded to cancel the original tender only on June 24, 2015. Subsequently, the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2013 was retrospectively amended on August 5, 2015, in a very suspicious manner. Finally, the deal was signed on September 23, 2016.

The government refuses to disclose even the purchase price of the 36 Rafale aircraft, citing mythical ‘secrecy clauses’. Ironically, the said agreement nowhere prohibits disclosure of the commercial costs involved.

Since hard facts militate against the government, no amount of alternative facts, fake news and hallucinatory spin can transform the perception of it.

The premise of the allegations made by the Opposition is fundamentally flawed

There are concerted efforts to create a needless controversy around what was in effect decisive action taken by the Narendra Modi government to make good a critical shortfall in the country’s defence preparedness.

As the defence establishment applauded the government’s decision to go in for a timely induction of 36 Rafale fighter jets to bolster its strike capability, the Opposition looked desperately for scandals where there were none. That the direct government-to-government deal precluded Quattrocchi-type middlemen had further constrained the scope for any speculation on that count.

The deal’s timeline

First, a close look at the deal’s timeline to get a fair idea about the roles played by the UPA and NDA governments. As the country did a stocktaking of the lessons learnt in the wake of the Kargil conflict, the absence of a lethal air strike capability was direly felt and prompted the Indian Air Force to look around to fill a critical gap in its defence preparedness. However, the process to acquire a new set of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) began only in 2007 when the Defence Ministry was headed by A.K. Antony.

After a long-drawn process, bids were opened in December 2012, and the French company Dassault Aviation was picked. There were protracted negotiations between the UPA government and Dassault on the aircraft’s prices and transfer of technology.

The talks continued until early 2014. A deal remained elusive, apparently due to the reluctance of a scam-ravaged UPA government, hit hard by the revelations of corruption and policy inertia.

Unlike Bofors, no corruption was involved, no money was exchanged. An inter-governmental agreement ensured that middlemen were eliminated in an attempt to plug holes in India’s combat readiness.

Second, with regard to the price of the aircraft, it is clear that the deal struck by the Narendra Modi government works to be at least 9% cheaper than the one concluded by the Manmohan Singh government insofar as its basic price is concerned, and at least 20% cheaper after including add-ons, such as state-of-the-art weaponry and gadgets, which would make the Indian Rafale both fearsome and lethal.

Flawed allegations

In any case, the very premise of these allegations that essentially relate to the offset clause is fundamentally flawed. The two governments involved have nothing to do with the offset provision under which Dassault decided to partner with the Reliance Group, among dozens of other Indian firms such as BTSL, DEFSYS, Kinetic, Mahindra, Maini and SAMTEL.

Dassault Aviation was negotiating potential partnerships with over a hundred other firms, as stated in its official press release.

Moreover, as noted in the Ministry of Defence’s statement, media reports of February 2012 suggest that Dassault, within two weeks of being declared the lowest bidder for procurement of 126 aircraft by the UPA government, had entered into a pact for partnership with Reliance Industries in the defence sector.

In the present case, it is only right to say that it was Dassault’s prerogative to pick its industrial partner.

The government should formulate a coherent strategy to deal with perceptions

No sooner had the ink dried on the Inter-Governmental Agreement between France and India to procure 36 Rafale aircraft than the Congress Party raised questions on the procedures adopted and the massive increase in prices. To many of us, this initially appeared to be just one more attempt to politicise a perfectly good defence deal.

The UPA, while in power, had been painfully slow in meeting the strategic requirements of the defence services. The 126-aircraft Rafale deal had tied itself in knots and failed to get approval even after extensive trials had been carried out and cost negotiation completed. The Indian Air Force was diminishing in strength and struggling to maintain its fighting ability to combat two adversaries.

Modi’s decisiveness

In contrast to the sluggishness of past practices, Prime Minister Modi had moved decisively to fast track the procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft.

While this would not meet the complete requirements of the Air Force, it would provide a significant boost to its dwindling capability.

There was also no hint of corruption in the deal — of middlemen with foreign accounts or changes in specifications to favour a particular manufacturer. These facts should have been enough to ensure that the allegations of any scam faded away quickly and quietly. However, that has not happened.

We are living in a ‘post-truth world’. ‘Post-truth’ was named as the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries and is defined as “relating to circumstances in which people respond more to feelings and beliefs than to facts.” This reality was ignored by the government as it sought to counter the Opposition’s charges by haughty, factual denials. The Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman correctly identified the Rafale row as a ‘battle of perceptions’ but the tools used to fight this battle have been less than adequate.

Absence of transparency

The attempt to hide behind the a secrecy clause was clumsy and unconvincing, particularly, when many aspects of the pricing were already out in the open. The Finance Minister said that the Rafale deal negotiated by the government was 9% cheaper than the previously negotiated price, but in the absence of transparency, such statements lose the weight of authority.

There was a similar ineptness in dealing with the case of Anil Ambani’s company as the major offset partner of Dassault. In reply to a Rajya Sabha question in February 2018, Ms. Sitharaman stated: “Details of Indian offset partners have not yet been provided by the French industrial suppliers.” While this is factually correct, the answer appeared to be evasive. Evasion leads to speculation and doubts are generated.

Emily Thorne, a fictional character in the television series Revenge, says, “Truth is a battle of perceptions. People only see what they’re prepared to confront. It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see. And when different perceptions battle against one another, the truth has a way of getting lost.” This is what appears to be happening in the Rafale row.

The procurement of the Rafale is an essential requirement. It is inconceivable that the government would agree to pay exorbitant costs without due diligence. The Air Force is in urgent need of modern aircraft and Rafale would partially fill this operational void. If this deal is not to become a political casualty, the government should formulate a coherent strategy to deal with perceptions.