Sunday, April 26, 2009

Forget Prabhakaran. What about the Tamils?


What “Tamil cause” is the LTTE fighting for? Of all the horrifying TV footage of recent days, one was heartrending: Decrepit Tamils in their hundreds trying to escape from the war zone and a few LTTE cadres shooting at them to keep them hostage.

A lakh and half had already escaped. If a few thousand of the remaining population were retained as human shield, Prabhakaran could hope for international opinion to force a slowing of Sri Lankan military operations on humanitarian grounds. In his desperation he forgot that Mahinda Rajapakse was as ruthless as he himself. If the leader of the Tamils could cynically sacrifice a few thousand Tamils, the Sri Lankan President could do so with greater cynicism, international opinion or no international opinion.

Rajapakse may be answerable for a great many criminalities including the murder of Sinhalese public figures who criticised his dictatorial ways. But he cannot be faulted for seeking the elimination of the LTTE, for LTTE’s aim was to partition the country. In 1962, C.N. Annadurai asked in Parliament for “ a separate country for southern India”. A shocked Parliament passed the 16th Amendment (popularly called the anti-secessionist bill) which banned any party with sectarian principles from contesting elections.

Annadurai was statesman enough to accept the reality and adjust his party objectives accordingly. What would have happened if he had insisted on an independent Tamil Nadu, eliminated the leaders of all other Tamil parties and taken to arms and suicide squads? Prabhakaran harmed his own cause by asking for the impossible.

Prabhakaran’s end may give the Sri Lankan Government a sense of triumph. In fact, President Rajapakse’s challenge only begins now. If he rough-handles the Tamils as a defeated people, he will be proving himself no better than Prabhakaran. Of Sri Lanka’s 20 million citizens, as many as 18 percent are Tamil. They have legitimate rights. It will be folly to ignore these.

Language is too powerful a political factor for politicians to play with. Pakistan suppressed the legitimate sentiments of its Bengali citizens and the result was the breakup of Pakistan. The pulls of language were stronger than those of religion. Even in today’s Pakistan, the rivalries between Sindhis and Punjabis and Baluchis are serious enough to threaten the nation’s future. There were language riots in Karachi in 1972 when the Sindh Assembly made Sindhi the official language of the province alongside Urdu.

There were language riots in Nepal in 2008 over a silly issue. The new Vice President Parmanand Jha, being a native of southern Nepalese plains adjoining India, took his oath in Hindi. The highland Nepalese took that as an affront to their national language. The violence lasted a week.

Language patriotism can sometimes be stupidly emotional. Tarring English signboards is one example. A more sinister example was witnessed in Assam in the early 1960s when there was an agitation for the inclusion of Assamese in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. One of the methods the more radical agitators adopted was killing of Bengali settlers in Assam, often brutally.

Compared to the Assamese and the Nepalese, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have a strong case. For them it is their educational and job opportunities that are at stake. If these are wisely handled, the Rajapakse Government may yet gain a mention among the makers of Asia. If not, it will be a footnote among the wreckers. And Sri Lanka will become a duplicate of the Israel-Gaza calamity.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Film stars: Please keep off politics

Film stars caused their two-paise worth of nuisance in this election. A couple of them may win but it is clear that their appeal as netas is declining steadily. MGR and NTR meant something in politics. Hemamalini and Jaya Bacchan meant nothing.

Star MPs in the last Parliament in fact disgraced the parliamentary system itself. Govinda’s failure to attend even one session showed an attitude of contempt towards Parliament. Vinod Khanna, once trumpeted by the BJP, attended only 5.5 percent of the sittings. Dharmendra’s score was 1.5 percent. If these guys are so high and mighty, why did they become MPs in the first place? The parties who sponsored them must be held accountable by the people who elected them.

In the south things are somewhat better. Actually, film stars turning to politics is a South Indian phenomenon, more specifically a Tamil phenomenon. The reasons are historical. Cinema became an integral part of the Dravida movement and therefore a serious player in politics. It was not a case of roping in pretty faces to get votes.

The anti-Brahmin movement had started earlier in Maharashtra under Jyotiba Phule. But it was Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker who gave it an ideological sweep and a cultural (Aryan-Dravidian) dimension. The revolution he wrought was turned by C.N. Annadurai into a solid political platform. Because Annadurai was the most brilliant film writer of his time, Tamil cinema became a political instrument.

Fascinating details of this union between politics and cinema are marshalled in “History Through the Lens”, a new book by the greatest living authority on Tamil cinema, S.Theodore Baskaran. From the 1920s, he tells us, drama artistes were involved in the freedom struggle. In 1958 the legendary K.B. Sundrambal became India’s first film artiste to enter the legislature. After independence “film actors as a community, who had earlier been backing the cause of the Congress, moved on to support the Dravidian movement”. The Congress never recovered from that.

Dravidian assertion over Brahmins did not develop in other South Indian states as intensively as it did in Tamilnadu. Something else happened in Andhra when that amateur Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, publicly humiliated the then chief minister of the state, T. Anjiah. It was an insult to Telugu pride, but neither Anjiah nor the Congress party was in a position to do anything about it. N.T Rama Rao rose to the occasion and rode to power on the plank of Telugu atmagauravam.

That was a spontaneous response to a moment of challenge. NTR did not have the intellectual resources to turn it into an ideological platform. Even in Tamilnadu the inspirational pull of the Dravidian movement has lately been diluted by caste and sub-caste politics. Hence the ambivalence of wannabe netas like Rajnikant and the uncertainties of fresh entrants like “Black MGR” Vijaykant. In Andhra, Chiranjeevi has serious handicaps – dissensions in his personal circle, the absence of an ideological agenda. Whether he can do an NTR will depend on whether the people see him as a credible agent of change.

In Karnataka even a god-like figure like Rajkumar kept out of politics. The most glamorous Kannada heroine of all time, Jayanti, was defeated by the most unglamorous opponent of all time, Ananthkumar, in 2004. Ambarish is an exception that proves the rule that stars don’t shine in the politics of Karnataka. He is a strange exception – the only minister in the Union Cabinet who never attended office. That beats even Govinda.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How foolish can Madam’s Party be!


Never before has the Congress been so perverse in its selection of candidates. Tickets have been given to netas who should have taken to vanaprastha long ago, and netas who have no chance of winning, and netas who are too controversial to do the party any good. The shoe hurled at P. Chidambaram in Delhi merely dramatized the Congress’s appalling foolishness.

Was that shame necessary to bring the party to its senses? It is a fact that Congress leaders unleashed murder and mayhem against Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. It is also a fact that the Congress did nothing to atone for its sins in the 25 years since.

It did just the opposite when it gave tickets to Jagdish Tytler and an accomplice. A CBI certificate of innocence will not make these men innocent in the eyes of the public. As long as public opinion holds them responsible for the anti-Sikh atrocities, they are a political no-no for any party. Yet, amazingly, the Congress chose to add insult to the injury it had inflicted on Sikhs.

Is Jagdish Tytler such an important national asset that the Congress Party had to pick him at any cost? Outside a pocket or two in Delhi, he is a nobody. His omission would have done the party no harm while it would have done the country some good.

Why then did the Congress act so dumb? Everyone knows the answer. A small coterie of operators, on the strength of their closeness to Madam, manipulate everything in the Congress. Madam, very intelligent and very sharp when it comes to protecting her own and her family’s interests, is not so sure about the intricacies of India’s convoluted regional politics. So the coterie is left free to give full play to its egos and its vested interests.

Consider, for example, the tickets given to Margaret Alva, Veerappa Moily, Jaffer Sherief. Consider K.V.Thomas of Kochi who was not even in the list sent up by Congress leaders in Kerala. Are these personalities so outstanding that India’s future would be in jeopardy if they are not in Parliament? Don’t these veterans deserve some rest after serving the country for so long?

Omissions are as revealing as commissions. In the heart of Bangalore, the Congress’s original gut feeling was to field S.M.Krishna. That would have provided a badly needed boost to the lethargic Congress campaign. But petty rivalries were allowed to keep Krishna out. Now a leaderless, idealess, valueless Congress is poised to confirm its surrender of Karnataka to the BJP.

Coterie rule also prevents the Congress from using one of the most important tools in election politics – strategic manoeuvring. Ahmedabad is a good example. Against L.K.Advani there the Congress has put up a man called Suresh Patel, a remarkably unknown person although he is a legislator. What is the point of such a candidate against Advani? Instead, a smart strategist would have left he field clear for Mallika Sarabhai. She is a credible candidate. With some help, she could put up a reasonable performance. That would send a timely message to the country – and the Congress could derive satisfaction from it.

Alas, nothing of the kind works when small minds play with big issues. It is another matter that Madam’s Party may win enough seats to become a player in the next Government. That will be because Advani’s Party is in a more terrible mess. Are we condemned to choose between the worse and the worst?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

‘Good people’ vs liers and crooks


In the midst of all the religious provocations, the selfishness and the crude display of money power, there’s one positive feature in this election: A groundswell of public opinion against the vulgarity of politics.

Actually it began after the Mumbai terrorist attack when people spontaneously gathered to express their revulsion of politicians playing games with security. The politicians didn’t get the message as two incidents showed. Narendra Modi tried to score political points by attacking opponents in a speech before the Mumbai Trident Hotel and then by offering money to the police martyrs’ families who rejected it with contempt. Secondly, as if to show that politicians are the same whatever their party, Vilasrao Deshmukh visited the Taj, like a tourist enjoying the ruins, with another tourist from the film industry in tow.

In the ongoing election campaign, politicians are again taking the public for granted. Mulayam Singh distributes currency notes and says it has nothing to do with elections. Jaswant Singh also distributes 100-rupee notes and asks: “Is it wrong to give money to the poor”? The question is too contemptible to deserve an answer. But it definitely is wrong to assume that the people of this country are fools.

No wonder citizens are outraged by the calibre of candidates, the lies they tell, the double-standards of the parties and the reality that whichever party wins, it will be a victory for hypocrisy. That’s why a number of optimistic initiatives have been launched by individuals and groups.

At one level, actor Amir Khan is leading an awareness campaign with the slogan “Vote for good people”. At another level, good people like Mallika Sarabhai, Capt. G.R.Gopinath and Meera Sanyal, head of the India Operations of the ABN-Amro Bank, are standing as independents. Mona Shah, an ophthalmic surgeon, is the candidate of the Professionals Party of India in South Mumbai. In Andhra, the Lok Satta Party has fielded educated, worthy candidates for all 42 Lok Sabha and most of the 294 Assembly seats.

These men and women may not win this time around. That’s fine. That’s part of being nonviolent in the battles of democracy. History’s first people’s action victory was in the French Revolution, one of the most violent on record. Violent student power also succeeded in changing the course of history in Thailand and Indonesia in the second half of the 20th Century.

The most dramatic assertion of people power was in the Philiphines in 1986, and that turned out to be nonviolent. The massing of hundreds of thousands of protesting citizens on a Manila highway was enough to drive President Ferdinand Marcos into exile and enthrone the widow of the assassinated hero, Benigno Aquino.

We cannot afford to be violent in our campaign for change. The main reason is that any eruption of violence is likely to take on a religious character and that would be suicidal. This is not 1977 when an Emergency-wounded people yearned for change and Jayaprakash Narayan rose to the occasion.

Today’s leaders are petty people. They cannot think beyond dynastic controls on the one hand, and communal divisiveness on the other. The change we want must start with changing them. That is why the fight being put up by independents and idealistic groups is a sign of hope. The good candidates may not win, but they will take the movement for decency one step forward, and force the crooks and the goons to go one step back. That will be gain enough.