Monday, December 30, 2013

Indian maids and Indian spies move to US and vanish -- to live happily ever after

In one corner Devyani Khobragade, aglow with disarmingly oversize smiles. In the other, Preet Barrara, collector of celebrity heads as hunting trophies. The unequal match is so smartly manipulated that all we see is an explosion of righteous indignation -- indignation over a diplomat being provocatively humiliated, and indignation over a housemaid being exploited in customary Indian style.

How neat. But this clash of emotive issues defies logic. US-India relations are based on strong economic factors as important to the US as they are to India. Lately the US also began seeing India as a pivotal strategic partner in its new East Asia policy. It defies common sense that America would throw all this away just because an Indian consular official paid below minimum wages to her housemaid.

What then is it really about? Let's look at two known facts: America's consistent hypocrisy and India's continuous servility. The hypocrisy story is well documented. According to the Russell Sage Foundation, an independent research institute, 40 percent of American workers in apparel, textile and repair services are paid less than minimum wages. As much as 41 percent of minimum-wage violations in the US are against maids and housekeepers. Add to this the rampant racial discrimination against Latino workers.

Hypocrisy expands further at the international level. America is the only democracy in the world to not recognise the International Court of Justice at the Hague. This enables the US to do things that are illegal and still not be answerable. The US Government mined Nicaragua's harbours in 1984 in a bid to topple the Government there. The Hague Court found America guilty of violating international law. But America ignored it and blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing the judgment.

India, too, has tasted US duplicity. David Hedley, who played a crucial role in the terrorist attack on Mumbai, was protected by the US from extradition to India. And of course there is Bhopal. The gas-leak victims' voice was heard again last week. "The US is so worried about the rights of one maid, but it turns a blind eye to hundreds of deformed children who have been maimed by [Union Carbide's] greed".

Bhopal also throws light on India's long history of servility to the US. Indian authorities helped Union Carbide's culpable boss, Anderson, to escape from India. Delhi took it lying down when a former President was frisked by a US airline and when its Defence Minister was searched while on an official visit to Washington. Never once did India protest meaningfully against such insults, let alone subjecting an American official to the courtesy of a cavity search. Is it because many of our IFS/IAS officials crave for a posting in the US? And our politicians love American hospitality? Sure, Delhi showed some guts by cancelling airport passes and ID cards given even to US diplomats' families. But why were these given in the first place when America does nothing of the kind? US sees such servility as weakness.

These facts throw a different kind of light on the Devyani/Sangeetha case. The maid had good connections (her husband and mother also worked for US diplomats). She asked for permission to take up other work which would have been illegal and, denied permission, went missing. Perhaps Devyani knew what was going on. On her complaint, a Delhi court issued an arrest warrant for Sangeetha. Sensing trouble, US authorities surreptitiously evacuated Sangeetha's family to the US. Then they humbled Devyani, successfully turning the matter into a maid-exploitation cause celebre.

Very similar was the case of RAW officer Ravindar Singh who was spying for America. As soon as India was about to arrest him, he was smuggled out to the US. Clearly Sangeetha was, like Ravindar Singh, a high-value espionage asset for the US. They and the maid of former Indian Ambassador to the US Meera Shankar who also disappeared and remains untraced must all be safe and enjoying themselves under American auspices. How easily Indians have been fooled into seeing as a human rights issue what is really a spying rights issue.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Two popular Maharajas depart -- and we see that our republic is good for royals

The Constitution makes all citizens equal. But in the hearts of Indians the idea of royalty is entrenched and maharajas remain more equal than all others. It's like we are a genetically loyal people; where genuine royals are not available, we enthrone political families for us to be loyal to. In Karnataka and Kerala, there was grief of the genuine kind over the passing of Sreekanta Datta Wodeyar of Mysore and Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore; they were maharajas of the popular kind.

In a republican universe, these gentlemen had to accept power as a matter of sentiment rather than of right. Both faced it stoically, occasionally resisting without losing their dignity and more often yielding to the inevitable. Wodeyar toyed with politics for a while, then abandoned it. Marthanda Varma never went near politics. By avoiding that rambunctious vocation, they spared themselves the humiliations as well as the dubious pleasures of a political career.

Mysore and Travancore were also free of destructive family feuds. Baroda, once a glittering dynasty, was sucked into litigation around 1990 and got out of it only in October this year. That they struck a deal at all was remarkable considering that the quarrel was over a patrimony of palaces, diamonds, gold, exquisite jewellery and priceless paintings. Patiala's Bhupinder Singh was the most famous maharaja of all time who played first-class international cricket on the one hand and, on the other, would take two or three whole chickens for one of his simpler meals. Today the dynasty is reduced to Congressman Amarinder Singh who is no match to Akali tacticians.

Compared to luminaries like Bhupinder Singh, the maharajas of Mysore and Travancore were spartans. Sreekanta Datta's father Jayachama Rajendra Wodeyar was a composer of Carnatic music kritis, a promoter of industry, education and some 200 wrestling clubs. At the same time the mess that enveloped Mysore royal family's properties began in his time, climaxing during his son's "reign". There was a touch of pathos when Sreekanta Datta said one day: " I have vast properties on paper, but I have no money".

The reverse was the case with Marthanda Varma; he had unaccounted wealth on paper, but no property worth talking about. The discovery of several secret underground cells in the revered Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum was a worldwide sensation for the cells contained gold and golden artefacts of inestimable value. Marthanda Varma as head of the royal family was the formal custodian in his capacity as Padmanabha Dasa, but it was a presumed right that others questioned. He lived a frugal life, barring the rare cars, watches and cameras he collected in his younger days. His brother Chithira Thirunal, the last maharaja, lived like a hermit in the palace.

By the standards of Indian royalty, the Travancore palace was only a large bungalow, no comparison to Mysore's splenderous Amba Vilas Palace, a sort of Taj Mahal of the south. Baroda's (Vadodara's) Laxmivilas Palace, four times the size of poor Queen Elizabeth's Buckingham Palace, sits on a landscaped garden of 700 acres. But these are white elephants. Entry fees paid by 2.7 million visitors a year were insufficient for the maintenance of the Mysore Palace.

That was perhaps one reason some royals more daring than Wodeyar went into politics where one could become effortlessly rich. But one would have to be ready for risks as well. Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur won a seat in Parliament in 1962 in the largest landslide the world had seen. But she was opposed to the Congress, incurred the wrath of Indira Gandhi and landed up in Tihar jail where she was given inhuman treatment. Things have improved since. A maharani has just been sworn in as Chief Minister of Rajasthan, a true royal who suffers no fools, gets irritated easily, insists on European holidays and retires every day at 8 p.m. after which she is inaccessible to her praja. In Delhi a Crown Prince is getting primmed up for his coronation as prime minister candidate. Long live the Kings -- and the Queens and the Princes.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dynastic aura no longer impresses voters; and old-style netas have gone irrelevant

A week after the state elections shocked our entrenched parties, where are we? The results puzzled, frustrated and/or humiliated all netas, and scared some. They all said that they would introspect, a fashionable word among dissemblers. However, with all these days behind us, there is no sign of any introspection by anyone in any party. It is politics as before, with A blaming B blaming C blaming A. The reality of India is there for all to see: Today's politicians cannot be reformed, they can only be knocked out.

The incorrigibility of the political class is reflected in almost every pronouncement by every leader in reaction to the election results. Consider two representative examples: Sharad Pawar on one side and Digvijay Singh on the other. Pawar was accurate when he faulted the weak leadership of the Congress. But he showed how irrelevant he had become when he alluded to the victorious Aam Aadmi Party as elements with no connect with reality.

It was precisely the AAP's connect with the reality of young and modern India that helped it make history. It is the old-guard, preoccupied with fattening themselves and their families, that has lost all connect with 21st century reality. Sharad Pawar, for example. What has the country gained from his many decades in power? His Chief Ministership of Maharashtra was linked with the real estate of Maharashtra. His current stint as Agriculture Minister has seen the rise and rise of notorious US seed companies that seek monopoly control of our food supplies. He has also actively promoted the poisonous pesticide, endosulfan. A weak leadership without vision is bad. But worse is a strong leadership without patriotism.

Digvijay Singh is a different piece of cake. His Chief Ministership of Madhya Pradesh was such a flop that he has avoided facing an election in the last ten years. Yet he conducts himself like the authoritative voice of the Congress Party, a sort of Oracle of Del(p)hi. The Greek Oracle was of course the medium through which Apollo the God spoke. The Oracle of Delhi performs like the medium through which his Goddess speaks.

No sooner were the election results out than Digvijay Singh called for Rahul Gandhi to be immediately proclaimed as the official Congress Party candidate for prime ministership. In that one sentence he summed up the tragedy of the Congress and, through it, the tragedy of our country. His theory was that the uncertainty about the Congress's prime ministerial nominee was the reason for the party's electoral disaster. And so, if Rahulji were officially nominated, voters would come in hordes to the party. This is a pathetic mindset but it is what rules the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi is the problem, not the solution. The dynasty is the problem. The people, including the voters of Amethi and Rae Bareli have become disgusted with unqualified and presumptuous individuals automatically becoming high-commanders because of family lineage. Even illiterate voters know by now that this is the antithesis of democracy. Popular rejection of the Congress will continue as long as Congressmen remain prisoners to the dynastic system, subservient to their hereditary overlords.

The Congress seems vaguely aware of this. Hence the floating of alternate names for prime ministerial candidacy. But clearly the names are picked on the basis of allegiance to the dynasty. Two of them, A. K Antony and Sushilkumar Shinde, will serve as Tweedledum to Manmohan Singh's Tweedledee, minus the latter's saving grace of an international profile as an economist. P. Chidambaram, another floated name, will demolish all of Rahul Gandhi's claims of promoting the "clean" in preference to the tainted. And then there is Nandan Nilekani, an outside-the-box name no doubt, but a political babe in the woods who is likely to be devoured whole by the lords of the jungle.

The fact is that the Congress has no one to field under the non-negotiable qualification of closeness to, and trust by, the dynasty. The people of India have progressed beyond that stage. The Congress will survive only if the dynasty retires -- unequivocally and demonstrably. Otherwise, it's kaput.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Lesson from the last of the Trimurthis: Only the selfless reach greatness

Like M. K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela marked his century with his imprint. While each of them played a seminal role in the shaping of his country's history, all of them transcended their national confines to become statesmanly figures honoured around the world. Gandhi and King were felled by bullets of intolerance. Mandela remained a beloved figure without, as it were, a foe. Flights of angels sang him to his rest.

Mandela had his woes. Married thrice, his second wife Winnie got embroiled in charges that linked her with the underworld. Two of his daughters went to court, just as his health deteriorated, over rights to the trust fund he had set up. He had contracted tuberculosis from the stone-crushing job he was forced to do in prison. It was to that lung problem that he finally succumbed.

Through it all, Mandela triumphed on the strength of his humanity. The longest -- and harshest -- incarceration in Third World annals did not leave Mandela bitter. When he became his country's first black President in 1994, he was the very picture of moderation and tolerance. Among his first initiatives was the Peace and Reconciliation Commission which sought to avert sentiments of revenge and establish the official policy line that all people of all races would have equal rights in the new South Africa. This was the same idea picturesquely put by Martin Luther King when he said that he wanted the white man to be his brother, not his brother-in-law.

Like most nationalist father figures Mandela was conscious of his public image and its implications. The colourful silk bush-shirts he turned into a personal trademark were not just a style statement but a declaration of the difference between the Liberated African and the full-suited oppressor who reigned till then. His speeches and his books came from a thoughtful mind, careful about the impressions he made as a hero of the people. He did not offer himself for a second term as President though the job was his for life. That was a pointer to his awareness of his importance as an example to others.

That surrender of the self for the larger good was the core quality that distinguished Gandhi, King and Mandela from the usual run of leaders. They became cult figures because people could see that they were unambiguously selfless. None of them became wealthy from public life, none of them built dynasties. They gave more than they received. The gratitude and trust of the people so earned were the bedrock of their greatness.

Their immediate associates did not rise to that level of greatness. Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his qualities of heart and mind, fell short because he was sidetracked by a desire to ensure a favourable place for himself in history and by a weakness for family. The American black leader who came close to Martin Luther King in popularity, Rev. Jesse Jackson, fell prey to scandals and vanished from the scene. Mandela's successors proved no match to him.

It is interesting that, apart from selflessness, the dominant factor that sustained the greatness of the Gandhi-King-Mandela Trimurthis was the idea of non-violence. This virtually subversive concept worked in pre-Mandela South Africa when a classical imperialist like General Smuts acknowledged the effectiveness of a hermit-like Gandhi. Mandela took to violence for a while, perhaps driven to desperation by the irrationalities and excesses of Apartheid. But for this interlude and certainly in his capacity as President and as national icon, he was a votary of nonviolence.Gandhi was his hero.

In the end, did Gandhi succeed? The answer lies in his decision to detach himself from the affairs of state after independence was won. Did Martin Luther King succeed? The ganging up of Republican conservatives against the Black President Obama provides the answer. Nelson Mandela clearly succeeded in raising his country's standing in the world. A woman from the once riot-torn Soweto summed it up when she said: "Without him we wouldn't be what we are now". No leader can ask for a greater reward.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Only humans are able to deny the reality that we're hastening our own end

There is a tiny beetle that furniture makers dread because it severely damages old wood. It is called Death-watch Beetle because it makes a sound, like a clock ticking. This is actually a mating call, made by the creature knocking its head against the wood. But people in olden days believed that the unseen clock of life was ticking to announce impending death in the family. That superstition may have gone, but not the ticking of time. With continuous activities that threaten the entire planet, humans have become death-watch beetles, knocking our heads against Nature to announce our own impending end.

Look at the visible death of our rivers at the hands of the sand mafia. This lobby is so powerful that officials who occasionally try to stop illegal sand lorries are run over by the lorries. In no state has the sand mafia been controlled yet. Look also at the Western Ghats that stretch from Gujarat to Kerala. This is the lifeline of the south. The mother of rivers, this majestic mountain range tames the monsoon clouds and makes them drop the rains that keep the region lush and productive.

But the Ghats have been under attack and the consequences are grim. Rain patterns have changed, so have the seasons. Temperatures have been rising and winds that used to blow with clocklike precision have turned erratic. But those who attack the Ghats are undeterred. Forest trees, minerals, granite, resorts and land-grabbing are all that matter to them. A sumptuous mountain on the Malabar side is being surveyed by a Karnataka company preliminary to starting mining operations. According to published reports in Kerala, a former CPM minister gave rights to the company for a 5-crore bribe. If the company goes ahead with its plans, the mountain will disappear in no time.

Astonishingly, when two committees recently produced reports aimed at saving the Western Ghats, Kerala, alone among the six affected states, exploded into violence. A Christian priest went so far as to publicly warn of a Jallianwalla Baug massacre in Kerala. The protests were in the name of saving farmers from being evicted from their lands. No committee has proposed any eviction. Proposals only aim at stopping large-scale industries and businesses from opening afresh in the Ghats. So the aggrieved parties are miners, resort developers and the like. Obviously the "farmers" and their champions are fighting someone else's battle.

They may well succeed and the Western Ghats may soon become a barren stretch. The death-watch beetle is ticking away. Man, the only animal with the ability to make choices, is making choices that will lead only to one outcome: His doom. There are other intelligent animals around, the elephant for example. Why is it that only human intelligence developed to the point where Right could be distinguished from Wrong and the individual would consciously choose the Wrong?

A rather radical answer is provided in a new book, Denial: Self-Deception, Fake Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind (Hachette, New York). It is written by Ajit Varki, a medical doctor who went on to become a specialist researcher in Anthropogeny, and biologist-geneticist Danny Brower who postulated a theory but died before he could expound on it.

Denial asserts that man went beyond elephant by developing the ability to deny reality. This gave him optimism and the confidence to face problems. But it also emboldened him to take on unnecessary risks. "We smoke cigarette, eat unhealthy foods and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription to an early death...... We continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything, from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change". In short we put mind over reality. This may be all right, to some extent, with smoking and eating junk which are reversible. But "once we have set major climate destabilisation in motion, there is no margin of error. [For] there is only one planet, one biosphere and one Anthropocene epoch..."

Narrow it down and we will see there is only one Western Ghats. Lose it and the death-watch beetle wins.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Their highnesses, royal or not, are ready to serve the country again. Make way

There is no democracy like Indian democracy. Yashodhara Raje Scindia, BJP candidate in Madhya Pradesh, declared in her election affidavit that she had a dinner set worth Rs 1.54 crore. Was that worth mentioning in a country where a Sheaffer pen was announced for Rs 3 crore plus last week. But when an indulgent reporter asked about the dinner trinket, the candidate smiled indulgently and said, "what's the big deal, we are royals".

Well said, your Royal Highness. In the days of the Raj and Divine Rights, you had the power of life and death over your prajas. When the Republic came, Sardar Patel took that power away but left you with a comfortable privy purse. In 1971 Indira Gandhi took away that purse, but left you with your palaces, your jewels and your dinner plates. With these you went to the hustings and regained the political power the Sardar had snatched from you. Sweet are the uses of democracy, ain't they?

Can we do some arithmetic with the costing of that dining table knick-knack? According to Oracle Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission, an urban citizen needs only Rs 32 a day to eat reasonably well. That means a citizen who has Rs. 11,680 can eat reasonably well for a year. So, if he has Rs 1.54 crore, he can eat comfortably for 1318.49 years. Since he is unlikely to need food for 1318.49 years, there is going to be an enormous amount of surplus food around. Therefore, a reasonable solution to poverty is to have more jewel-encrusted dinner sets at the disposal of royals. Convoluted logic? But certainly patriotic.

This election proves yet again that dynastic culture, the curse of our democracy, has been spreading like an airborne disease. Parties have also become more audacious in the use of violence as a political weapon especially in communally sensitive areas. There is no concern about where these would take us tomorrow. All that matters is today.

As dynasties go, the Scindias were the smart ones. The men took to the Congress and the women to the BJP; so whichever way the toss went, the clan always won. Minister Madhavrao Scindia's son Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia's son Mahanaryaman, all of 16, is already into constituency tours in Madhya Pradesh. Yashodhara Raje, born in London and settled in America, returned to India only in 1994 to share the political pie. She demanded and the BJP agreed to issue a notice in 2006 saying that she should be officially addressed as "Shrimant" which in those parts means Your Highness. Her son Akshay has arrived from New York to let the voters admire him. All so nice and cosy -- and democratic.

Of course in our free-wheeling democracy even commoners can have the clout of royals. Union Minister Kamalnath's son, Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi's son, Himachal Pradesh Governor Urmila Singh's son, Digvijay's son, Ashok Gehlot's son and sundry MPs' and ex-ministers' sons are all vying for tickets. Ajit Jogi's son and wife and Motilal Vohra's son have already got tickets in Chattisgarh.

The BJP is not lagging behind. Madan Lal Khurana's son, Sahib Singh Varma's son are in the field in Delhi. In Rajasthan former BJP chief Ghanshyam Tiwari's son and Jaswant Singh's son are active hopefuls. Irrespective of parties, all sons claim that they are in the fray not because their fathers were beneficiaries of politics but because they are independently qualified to serve the nation. So are millions of educated young men and women in our country. Some even offer themselves -- only to be rejected. When dynasty works, democracy does not.

But then, dynasty and royals are better than communalism and riots. The BJP publicly "honoured" two of its MLAs accused of inciting violence in Muzaffarnagar. Mulayam Singh honoured a Muslim cleric known for communal provocations . His Government announced a relief plan for Muslims -- so partisan a move that the Supreme Court ordered its withdrawal. If we have spawned a democracy in which votes can be won only by pitting religions against one another, it's time to restrict that democracy.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Win or lose for the Kejriwal juggernaut? Either way, it could make a difference

Essentially Arvind Kejriwal is a political accident, the kind that flashes across the scene one moment and is forgotten the next. But his movement is making a buzz that no one can deny. While his ideas are a contributing factor, the main reason for the buzz lies outside his persona and programme. He has become a symbol of the general public's disgust with the reigning political class. For too long have the people been suffering at the hands of exploiters robbing and ruining the country with apparent immunity. To those drowning in the all-encompassing political mud, Kejriwal holds out a straw.

Whether he will get the numbers he needs is an entirely different matter. True, our electorate was vigilant enough to defeat the mighty Indira Gandhi after the atrocities of the Emergency. It was also angry enough to keep the Congress out of Amethi in the last elections and to throw out the BJP in Karnataka. But these were exceptional cases of public outrage boiling over. In general our electorate is so diverse and plagued by such disparate problems that anything like concerted action is difficult to emerge. Look at the bankers, IT professionals and other highly qualified, service-minded people who contested the last elections from Mumbai and Bangalore -- and lost.

Kejriwal has the additional handicap of looking like a one-man band. He had first come into the limelight under the halo of Anna Hazare. Inexplicably the grand old Gandhian publicly washed his hands of his one-time disciple. Kejriwal has two respected associates, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and scholar Yogendra Yadav. Inexplicably again, both have chosen to remain in the background, leaving Kejriwal to shine as the solitary leader of his party. How can this help?

The white-capped leader makes up by his organisational skill and his originality. Some 10,000 volunteers are working full time, taking a break from their studies and/or work. There are wellknown professionals, too, lending their services free. Sameer Nair, for example, who made some magic as CEO of Star TV some time ago. An unnamed person has placed his sprawling bungalow at the disposal of the party for a token rent; it is now the war room of the campaign. It is petty and typical of the Congress's defeatist mentality that Home Minister Shinde has ordered an investigation into foreign funding of Kejriwal. The Congress playing moral?

Some of Kejriwal's ideas show a freshness of approach. A session of the Delhi Assembly at Ramlila Maidan may be a bit too dramatic. People of each of 2700 mohallas deciding by themselves how to spend public funds may be a bit too romantic. But mohalla commandos helping with security in their areas sounds like a good idea. So is the perception that problems vary from area to area and each area should have its own tailor-made manifesto. However, if manifestos talk of subsidised electricity and free water, the new party is succumbing to the freebie tricks of the old parties. We have repeatedly seen subsidies working as an invitation to corruption.

Let's grant that overall the Kejriwal juggernaut is transparent, sees power to the people as an article of faith and is engineered to fight corruption. Is that enough to win an election? Sheila Dixit's demonstrable failure as Chief Minister will no doubt help; she could not even make an effort to address the problem of women's safety, confining herself to platitudes all the while. The infighting in the BJP ranks is another favourable factor. But are these enough to capture power?

The nature of politics is strange. The herd mentality often gets in the way of individual discretion. Habits substitute for deliberation. Party structures and long-established groundlevel networks cannot be easily overtaken by newcomers. The Congress and the BJP may lose some ground, but that need not necessarily mean Kejriwal turning victorious. If he wins, it will be, despite his minuses, a turning point in Indian politics. If he doesn't, it will still have been a worthwhile effort, carrying home the message that the people will continue to fight the political mafiosi until victory is achieved.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thanks to Modi, Sardar Patel lives again -- and 'true secularism' is discovered

Our scientists lift us up to Mars, our politicians drag us down to the pits. The cameras on Mangalyan will not make our dogfighting parties look any better. Not when Sardar Patel himself is turned into a battle axe to hit one another with. Narendra Modi's bid for the legacy of Sardar Patel is understandable. But trying to win it by erecting the world's biggest statue is condemnable. Size is not substance. More importantly, the politics of the Patel statue is divisive and it will diminish India.

We have become a statue-obsessed nation. Standing/sitting/waving Ambedkars, Gandhis, Nehrus and Indiras dot every town. The proliferation is mostly a triumph of commercial art. A statue of Kengal Hanumanthaiah, builder of Bangalore's famous Vidhan Soudha, was so unlike him that the authorities were forced to remove it from the Soudha's premises. The replacement had a better turban, but the face was still alien. Justice to sculptural aesthetics was done only by a few. Deviprasad Roy Choudhury's Dandi March at Delhi's Wellington Crescent, Triumph of Labour in Chennai's Marina Beach, Memorial to Martyrs in Patna are among the finest. Ram Vanji Sutar's bronze Gandhi opposite Parliament's Gate No. 1 throbs with life.

Narendra Modi and others in his political universe are not known for aesthetic sensibilities. So they go for the cheap alternative -- a monolith taller, larger, hulkier, more colossal than anything else on earth. Some 70,000 villagers are to be displaced for developing the gigantic project. They organised protests but were "silenced", according to their spokesmen in South Gujarat.

Modi underlined the politics behind the resurrection of Sardar Patel when he said that Patel was "truly secular" while the Congress was following "votebank secularism". That is true of all parties today. The BJP is following "votebank Hindutva" while the Muslim parties are following "votebank Islam". Ditto with Sikhs, Christians, Bhoomihars, Vanniars, Nairs. The Sardar, though as devoted a Hindu as Gandhi, never used religion for political ends. On the contrary, fighting communal politics was their life's mission. Therefore, if Modi wants to inherit the Patel legacy, he will have to become "truly secular" like Patel. Can he?

For that matter, can he comprehend the subtleties that lie beyond his simplistic thesis that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister than Nehru. We can debate this "if" of history till the end of time. Would C. Rajagopalachari have made a better Prime Minister? Would Rajendra Prasad? Any of them would have been more focussed as a consolidator of India because none of them had either the family weaknesses that made Nehru promote his sister and daughter and sundry cousins in public life, or Nehru's emotional linkages that led to the Mountbattens "advising" on Kashmir policy until it became intractable, unsolvable and a dreadful disgrace.

The real missed opportunity, however, revolved round the growth of a monolithic Congress in defiance of the natural laws of democracy. When independence arrived there was a clear ideological division between conservatives and socialists. The Congress Socialist Party had a galaxy of stars, from Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan to Rammanohar Lohia and Narendra Deva. They were thwarted by Jawaharlal Nehru's refusal to support them. He, a professed socialist, ended up with professed anti-socialists such as Morarji Desai, S.K. Patil and Jagjivan Ram, turning India into a madhouse of policies. If he and JP had headed an Indian Socialist Party and Patel and Rajagopalachari an Indian Conservative Party, a healthy party system would have developed. Now the monolith is in a shambles and India left to count its lost years.

Today's Congress does not even have the moral right to blame Narendra Modi for trying to hijack the Patel legacy. Where was the Congress all these years when that legacy remained neglected in the attic? The Congress, in its obsession with the Indira dynasty, tried to depersonalise men like Patel and Narasimha Rao. But historical figures of that stature cannot be erased. It is the dynasty that will eventually have to go, because in a democracy dynasty is an unnatural idea. As unnatural as Narendra Modi praising "true secularism".

Monday, November 4, 2013

Modi escaped, Chandy did not, Rahul erred; We may be in for a season of violence

Will this election be the most violent in our history? There has never been so much hatred among political rivals as we see today. There is also a now-or-never desperation among aspirants to power. The result is a volatile atmosphere in which anything is possible. Almost all political parties have professional killer gangs at their disposal. Many have killers and kidnappers in their cabinets. The virus has spread to society at large. Girls travelling alone, old people living alone, even pre-school children are attacked and often killed. India, proud of its tradition of tolerance and ahimsa, has turned into a theatre of brutality. Savagery in action is matched by savagery in thought.

Two incidents that made headlines last week are revealing. The bomb blasts that preceded Narendra Modi's rally in Patna showed not only the wrecklessness of present day politics but also how erratic the authorities can get. Given the animosity between Modi and Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the Bihar leader should have ensured foolproof security lest his intentions came under suspicion. What in fact happened dented his image while Narendra Modi got the benefit of a sympathy wave.

Similar was the outcome of an attack on Kerala's Chief Minister in the communist stronghold of Kannur. Oommen Chandy became India's first Chief Minister to be hit by a stone hurled at him by political opponents. He was inside a car which was surrounded by pilot cars, escort cars, Rapid Action Force and Ring Round Squad, yet the stone hit him. Either the stone thrower deserves to be sent to the next Olympics or the State Home Ministry must be wound up so that police politics will give way to police efficiency. For now, though, the attackers' purpose was defeated. Chandy won sympathy as he used the occasion to the hilt.

The unintentional effects of what perpetrators of violence do are sometimes matched by the unintentional effects of what victims of violence say. Rahul Gandhi is known for his serial references to his family's sacrifices. The latest tear-jerker is how it took him 10 to 15 years to overcome the anger he felt towards the Sikh bodyguards who killed his grandmother. He no doubt meant well and was speaking from the heart, as he said; a man whose father was assassinated as well as his grandmother. But he is a politician and should have known what his words would mean to others.

Jawaharlal Nehru's sisters, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesingh, did not endear themselves to the people by talking -- and writing -- about "We Nehrus". The same self-importance led Rajiv Gandhi to justify the pitiless massacre of Sikhs in retaliation to Indira Gandhi's killing. His infamous words, "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes", still rankle. Thousands of Sikhs saw their innocent family members being mutilated and burned alive by thugs led by Congress leaders. How many years will they need to get over their anger? How many years will it take for the average tax-paying citizens of this great country to get over their anger at the politicians who graduate from scam to scam without shame?

Pair this festering anger with the communal hatreds being fanned by votebank chasers, and we get an explosive situation. The Muzaffarpur rioting sent a chilling message. Hatreds are still on fire there. Incredible as it may seem, UP's Home Secretary issued a circular asking senior officials to think about building a temple at the Babri Masjid site. The Home Secretary was suspended, but that did not explain his conduct or the influences that propelled him. Unseen forces seem to be at work, inciting one section of people against another. They seem to forget that no Narendra Modi and no Rahul Gandhi can save an India that is at war with itself. Two facts cry out for attention this election season. First, violence will achieve nothing for nobody. Secondly, the cultural linguistic religious diversity of India can be a source of strength, or a means of destruction. The choice, alas, is not with us the people as of now. It is with the Devil Class that rules us.

Monday, October 28, 2013

India-Russia bhai bhai was working well. Is our US-leaning PM risking it?

Manmohan Singh, considered ineffective and unassertive, was noticeably effective and assertive on one issue: India moving closer to the United States. He succeeded so well that today India is seen as a strategic partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific theatre. This gives useful leverage to the US. What does it give to India? Certainly no leverage vis a vis Pakistan; the US has just re-started its massive economic aid to the country and continues to lend an attentive ear to renewed Pakistani pleas that it should mediate in Kashmir.

More worrying is the shadow India's newfound closeness to the US casts on its relationship with Russia, a long-time partner, and China, an ambitious hegemonic power with which India must necessarily have healthy working relations. Manmohan Singh, a much-travelled Prime Minister, has just completed a trip that took in both Russia and China in one go. The ceremonials were impeccable. But the hard facts remained: Russia now has reasons to wonder about India's directions while China will see India as part of America's policy of strategically encircling it. As for America, it only wants more from India (trade-wise, for example). We are losers at all ends.

If we lose what Manmohan Singh himself called our "privileged strategic relationship" with Russia, the consequences can be grave. That Russia has been our largest defence equipment supplier since independence is an interesting fact. Neither Britain as the retiring colonial master nor the US as the most powerful democracy of the time seemed all that interested in the new country's needs. But Stalinist Soviet Union considered it worthwhile to help India build its basic muscles.

The qualitative nature of the relationship that developed was more significant than its quantitative dimensions. Russia was always willing to share strategic military technology with India. With arrangements for joint research and development, the two countries are engaged in building fifth generation fighter aircraft and multirole transport jets. Already the Brahmos cruise missile, the T-90 tank and the Sukhoi fighter planes exist as living symbols of this cooperation. This was happening when the US opposed technology transfer and refused help even with cryogenic engines for India's space programme. It's a different matter that India's space technology advanced far enough to make it a leader in the field.

There were of course irritants along the way. The Gorshkov-Vikramaditya's delays extended from 2004 to 2013, the costs escalating from $ 974 million to $ 2.34 billion. India's insistence on civil liability clauses prevented a deal on Kudamkulam's third and fourth reactors even on Manmohan Singh's latest visit. But these are nothing compared to the way Russia stood by India on critical issues. When military defence had become impossible without satellite navigation system and it was clear that the US would never help in the event of an India-Pakistan showdown, Russia provided access to its Glonass system in 2011. India's military facilities in Tajikstan bordering Afghanistan would have been impossible without facilitation by Russia. Such are the advantages that are put at risk by Manmohan Singh's one-dimensional approach to global strategising.

China presents a study in contrast. With its ambitions to become the world's leading superpower, China would like to keep India tied up in local disputes. Its military buildup along the Himalayas, its all-out collaboration with Pakistan and its economic bridge-building with states like Sri Lanka have achieved this goal to some extent. However, China's ambitions are a cause for concern for Russia, too, especially with the increasing flow of Chinese migrants to Russia's far-flung eastern Siberian province. A politically savvy India would have used this factor to its advantage by forging new ties with Russia and Japan. Instead, we see China militarily strategising with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and through joint military ties with Central Asian countries. New Big Games are afoot -- and the signals coming out of Delhi suggest that it is unable to cope. It's a long way from the days when India led the non-aligned group that altered the way the world saw itself. When will we get a leadership we deserve?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Amid warped priorities and false Gods, the most political of all Presidents

This much is true: But for the media's competitive derring-do we wouldn't know how our politicians are plundering the country. But that blessing is accompanied by a curse. The media trivialises half the news and sensationalises the other half. The result is mayhem. People at home mistake the selfish for heroes. People abroad think India is immature when it is not belligerent.

Issues that impinge on the quality of life and the fortunes of the country get little attention from the print media and virtually none from television. For example, there ought to be more than passing mention of the seriousness of the economic setback under UPA-2 and the governmental ineptitude that caused it; even as they talk about reducing expenses, they increase wasteful spending on VIP security, funding of legislators, privileges provided to civil servants and so on. The spirit in which Raja Ram Mohan Roy helped eradicate cruel social traditions seems to have died with him; today Haryana's elected chief minister justifies the illegal Khap panchayat punishments while sectarian politicians instigate caste riots in places like Dharmapuri. Protecting minority rights has come to mean allowing Saudi Arabia, a "friendly" ally of India, to promote Muslim radicalism. Fundamentalist churches in America, another ally, fund Christian evangelism especially among vulnerable sections. Meanwhile, minority educational institutions function as a law unto themselves. On these issues, the media, like the Government, plays safe. Safe for whom?

All caution is abandoned when the media sees opportunities to whip up easy excitement. The perennial favourites, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, were joined lately by Sachin Tendulkar. It is a sad commentary on our culture that the mere mention of Tendulkar's name is enough to send sections of the people into raptures. Otherwise intelligent men write treatises and books on the man. Otherwise great newspapers write editorials on him. And who is he? He wanted his countrymen to pay the tax on his imported Ferrari which he later sold. He never paid even token respect to his Rajya Sabha seat. He did not put the weight of his prestige on the side of propriety when improprieties shook Indian cricket. He did not even retire when fading form and dimming lustre told him to; he clung on to score some personal points of glory. Tendulkar is a man who puts Tendulkar above the rest. By comparison Rahul Dravid conducted himself honourably.

Tendulkar symbolises the tragedy that marketing brought to cricket. England which invented it and Australia which exalted it did not lose their balance over cricket because they treated it as a sport. India turned it into a business. A lethal combination of politicians and business tycoons tickled cricketeers with easy money and converted the game into a profiteering racket. Cricket became an industry in India, a corrupt one. It was the media that made this possible. The cheer girls did not work the magic for Lalit Modi. Television did.

Amid this unbecoming melee, a sober note was introduced by the appearance of Pranab Mukherjee's name in some newspaper articles. (The channels were too shallow to do even that in any meaningful way). It appears that in some recent political developments Pranab was an active, if unseen, presence. He is of course the most political President in Indian history, having held every key portfolio in the Government. It is now a witticism that he was the best Prime Minister India did not have.

India did not have him because Sonia Gandhi did not want him. Sonia Gandhi did not want him because he was not a yes-man, although he ruffled no feathers as cabinet minister. Sonia Gandhi is used to implicit devotion. So she preferred Manmohan Singh and nonentities like Pratibha Patil. She tried to do another Patil job, but Pranab Mukherjee neutralised her by winning the support of non-Congress parties. Sonia was forced to suffer Pranab as President. Pranab is too seasoned a politician to seek vengeance. But he will be nothing like a rubber stamp if a hung Parliament emerges. What Prime Minister Pranab Mukherjee could not do, perhaps President Pranab Mukherjee might.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The General who won classic victories with barefoot soldiers and bicycles

Great military commanders have an aura unattainable by others. The last World War threw up a clutch of names that still reverberate in the halls of history -- Patton, Montgomery, Rommel (The Desert Fox), Eisenhower, MacArthur, even Tojo, Yamamoto, Yamashita. The Cariappa name glittered in the Indian sky because he was the first commander-in-chief. In glamour value, Thimmayya and Maneckshaw were the heroes. While acknowledging the grandeur of these legendary generals, we need to recognise that the grandest of them all was General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's most revered idol after Ho Chi Minh and a military genius who led his country to victory in both the Indochina War of the 1940s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. He died last week, aged 102.

How easy it is to say that he led his country to victory. We have to remember what the country was and who the enemy was to realise the monumental nature of Giap's achievement. Vietnam was among the most deprived countries of Southeast Asia, suppressed as a Chinese colony for a thousand years, then invaded by Chinese dynasties for another thousand years, then colonised by the French in the 1850s. During these centuries the country produced great heroes and heroines who resisted the invaders not only with courage but with imagination. The methods they used and the traditions they set were all that the Ho Chi Minh generation had to build on. Small wonder that American writers called the Vietnamese fighting forces the barefoot army.

And who were the enemies the barefoot soldiers confronted? The French, the Japanese, then the French again and finally the mighty American war machine. The Japanese disappeared when they lost the war. The French gave up only when they were humiliatingly defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the barefoot army that famously carried heavy artillery to hill tops on bicycles.

For the Americans the Vietnam war was the longest they ever fought. It was also the only one they lost. It was a war in which America used inhuman weapons like napalm bomb and Agent Orange, the chemical that destroyed forests and caused genetic defects among people. American decision makers like President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were convinced that the Vietnamese did not stand a chance. The American approach to war and Vietnam was crystallised in the personality of a Lieutenant Colonel named John Paul Vann, the central figure in a book on Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. "To Vann," writes Sheehan, "other peoples were lesser peoples: it was the natural order of things that they accept American leadership. He assumed that America's cause was always just... To him all communists were enemies of America and thus enemies of order and progress".

It can be argued that this mentality was the cause of America's defeat in Vietnam, and of its continuing defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt. Gen. Giap never underestimated the enemy. Like Ho, he came from Vietnamese aristocracy, not the working class. And, like Ho, he started out as a nationalist, not a communist. Giap was a college teacher who loved to read and write. His 1975 book Unforgettable Days is a highly readable account of the 1945-46 period when the French and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China competed to control Vietnam.

Giap's real success was that he built an army out of nothing. He had only 5000 guerillas to start with. In a little over one year he built a force of 100,000 men. He achieved a sort of miracle by training farmers in the countryside to function as soldiers when the need arose. The weaponry at Giap's disposal was an odd collection of left-overs from the French and the Japanese. He even devised ways to rummage the cargo holds of old Japanese ships lying at the bottom of the sea. It was ingenuity, tactics and above all the strength of will of an entire populace that helped Vietnam achieve the impossible. Vo Nguyen Giap faced heavier odds than the World War commanders did, so his triumph was greater than theirs. Giap will be remembered as the general of generals.

Monday, October 7, 2013

When the guilty do not see their guilt, dynasty culture and criminalities win

It has been staring us in the face and we never saw it. All the ills of our beloved country can be cured by simply reconstituting the top leadership structure. Something along the following lines. The Union Cabinet to consist of Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra. The party high command to comprise Sonia Gandhi, Robert Vadra, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. The Supreme Court to be made up of Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra. Television anchorship to be restricted to Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Newspaper columnists to be annihilated and replaced by Rahul Gandhi, Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. An India so reorganised will be sumangalam, subhadram, sushobhanam, helping us all to live happily ever after.

The great virtue of such a setup is that neither indiscretion nor even crimes will call for any regret. The whole country found fault with the manner in which Rahul Gandhi condemned the Cabinet-approved ordinance to protect convicted MPs. Was there any regret on his part? His only concession was to say that the words he used might not have been right. Was belittling the Prime Minister of the country right? That too when he was abroad? Was it right to make the Core Committee that approved the ordinance look like a bunch of fools? That too when his mother was in the committee? Clearly he did not face such questions, not because his wrong words expressed the right sentiments as his apologists pointed out, but because his parentage put him above common political decencies.

Indeed, we must ask whether he was at all identifying himself with the people's feelings against the ordinance. Or was he being part of an old Congress trick? In 1986 the Government announced, amid widespread public protests, a steep increase in petrol prices. Rajiv Gandhi presided over the Cabinet meeting that took the decision. Immediately after the announcement the same Rajiv Gandhi presided over a Congress Working Committee meeting which criticised the decision on petrol prices. It recommended reducing the price increase by half in order to "reduce the burden on the masses". There was some applause for the Government and the Congress.

Unfortunately what the increase-then-decrease petrol price trick could do in 1980s could not be repeated by the approve-then-withdraw ordinance trick in 2013. The days of innocence were gone thanks to a series of historic landmarks from Commonwealth Games to 2G spectrum to coal fields. That is why Rahul Gandhi who boldly aired public feelings over the ordinance will not air public feelings over the coal fields allocation files that went missing. He will not air popular feelings even on non-political irregularities like IAS-IPS officers getting the right to go abroad for medical treatment at tax-payers' expense.

Actually, the negativism of dynasty politics casts a shadow even on positive developments. In the normal course, the imprisonment of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rasheed Masood should have been an occasion for rejoicing. For it reassured us that even high-profile leaders could be brought to justice long years after their crimes. But punishment has meaning only when the punished understand that there are things that cannot be legally done. That is not the case here. Masood said, " I am innocent, hundred percent innocent". Lalu also proclaimed innocence, his son saying that the family did not expect justice from the lower court and would now appeal.

These are men who descended to abominable levels of corruption. As Chief Minister Lalu Yadav plundered his own treasury with fake bills and fake allotment letters. Masood became Union Health Minister for a while and promptly proceeded to allot to his handpicked candidates MBBS seats meant for Tripura students. This is what they all do when they get a bit of power. And all of them -- from Suresh Kalmadi to A. Raja, Omprakash Chautala to Janardhan Reddy, Pawan Bansal to Ashwini Kumar -- they all say they are one hundred percent innocent. Asaram Bapu is also one hundred percent innocent. Presumably, only the people are one hundred percent guilty.

Monday, September 30, 2013

There is a conspiracy of the guilty; Dramatics will not erase it

It is too late in the day for Rahul Gandhi to act as though he is unaware of major policy initiatives in his party. If he did not know about the Congress-led Ordinance to protect criminally tainted MPs, he was an unworthy vice president of the party. If he knew about the deliberations that led to the Ordinance and still proclaimed that it should be torn up, then he was playing games. What games? The people of the country were outraged by the Ordinance that belittled the Supreme Court and abetted criminals in one go. Was Rahul Gandhi trying to save his party by showing, however belatedly, that he was on the people's side?

If so, he did it without grace. If he had said that the party had taken public opinion into account and decided to reverse course, there would have been a touch a maturity about it. But his peremptory style and linguistic excess merely reaffirmed that the Congress was a proprietary concern and that proprietors set their own rules. He attacked his party with the demonstrative flair of a Naxalite strike. He gatecrashed into a press conference, made his dramatic denunciations, then left as abruptly as he had entered.

Dutiful Congressmen immediately took up the new line. Like the Ganga, flowing towards Bangladesh, suddenly deciding to flow towards Pakistan. But it will take more than loyalty and dramatics to shake politics free of evil. The circumstances that led to the Ordinance showed the depths to which all political parties had sunk in our hapless land. The Supreme Court was reflecting common sense and widespread public sentiment when it ruled that legislators sentenced to jail for two or more years should be disqualified forthwith. A review petition by the Government was rejected, showing that the Court's ruling was a carefully considered one. A Government loyal to its constitutional obligations would have understood this and accepted the judicial verdict. Instead the Congress mobilised other parties to subvert the judgement and allow convicted legislators to keep their seats with an appeal. The purport of the Ordinance and the motivations behind it were fundamentally immoral.

The audacity of the Ordinance suited the criminal culture into which our political culture has been coalescing in recent years. As many as 161 MPs (30 percent) have criminal cases against them; 78 face serious charges. Not that the remaining 70 percent are snow-white innocents. They become exemplars of unity for personal gain. They agreed five times to enlarge the pot of gold they voted for themselves under the so-called Local Area Development Fund. Currently it stands at an incredible five crores for every MP every year, spent mostly on private projects.

The same unity was in evidence on the issue of protecting criminals. After the Ordinance was approved the BJP took a position against it. That was a tactical manoeuvre, not a principled stand. It had attended the all-party meeting that decided to circumvent the judicial ruling. After all, the BJP tops the list with 42 criminally tainted MPs in Parliament. (The Congress has 41). Its showpiece state of Gujarat has 26 MPs of whom 11 are tainted. In the state cabinet itself Water Resources Minister Babubhai Bokhariya was convicted in an illegal mining case but stayed on in his post. About the parties in UP, the less said the better. All parties are engaged in a conspiracy of the guilty.

Because this is a class characteristic, an election here or a change of government there will make no difference. The nature of politics and the quality of governance will continue to be anti-people. This was the case when Bengal switched from communists to the Trinamool, and UP from Mayawati to the Yadavs. Variations of the same pattern can be seen in other states too. The silver lining is that the people have not lost the capacity to rebel. Outraged public opinion can play a role in our country because we have an open society, a free media and above all an independent judiciary. That will have to be our armour against proprietors out to hijack our history.

Monday, September 23, 2013

There are times when war is better than our free & fair elections

What if Hastinapura were a democracy? All the turmoil about giving half the kingdom to the Pandavas could have been avoided and the matter settled through free and fair elections. The minor irritations of democracy would have persisted -- like Duryodhana putting in a fib or two in his affidavit to the Election Commission. But he couldn't have gone too far. Any attempt to hide his net assets or pending criminal cases would have been exposed by the Crimes Wow news channel with its insider hold on what the Nation wants to know.

The real attraction of the election option was that the opposing parties were in any case used to the ways of vote-bank politics and therefore could have avoided the path of war. Look at Duryodhana's extraordinary skill at building a national alliance. Just when Karna
was humiliated over low birth status, the Kaurava chief announced royal status for him. Karna's loyalty was sealed. As for Dharmaputra, the slightest excuse was enough for him to shower gift on the most influential vote bank of the time; he presented 10,000 cows to Brahmins to celebrate the birth of Arjuna's son Abhimanyu.

No wonder our leaders continue to be generous with freebees when elections approach. The Supreme Court may decry freebees as much as it wants, but bills like food security will get passed quickly. Since free rice and free laptops have become too common, wait for our netas to come up with brand new ideas: Free university degrees, free medical treatment abroad in IAS style.

With the BJP putting a crown on Narendra Modi, a whole new electioneering culture is developing around him. Articulate Muslims are appearing on television to describe how Muslims in Gujarat have benefited from Modi's rule. One even quoted statistics to show that Gujarat has more Muslims in government and police services than Bihar has. At Modi's Jaipur rally, the organisers distributed 5000 skull caps and burquas so that Muslims would attend looking like Muslims. A drive is under way in Gujarat to recruit a few tens of thousands of "minority citizens" into the BJP. At this rate, Modi may emerge as modern India's most popular hero of Muslims.

He will face no challenge from UP's Samajwadi Party which actually claims that position. UP is today the country's most lawless state (which is saying a great deal because during the previous Mayawati reign UP was not exactly law-abiding). Photographic evidence emerged to show that the Government was an active player in the riot that tore Muzaffarnagar apart. Police forces were held back, hate speeches were allowed. Eventually some provocateurs from the BJP and other parties were chargesheeted, but not a man from the Samajwadi Party was touched. Father, Son and their Holy Ghosts -- be they Raja Bhayya or Azam Khan -- have rendered themselves guilty even by UP standards.

Compared to other parties the Congress has an advantage: Nothing is expected from its leaders. Its President does not have to say anything and she knows it. Its Prime Minister in residence does not have to do or say anything and he knows it. Its Prime Minister in waiting does not have to say anything though he is not quite sure of it. When something is indeed heard in authentic Gandhi accents, it is usually the verbal equivalent of one-size-fits-all products. Rahul Gandhi said in Jaipur that the youth should be helped so that they can have big dreams. The cause of poverty, he said in a moment of pure inspiration, was not unemployment but frequent diseases. What a pity that the Congress lost in every state where Rahulji was the lead campaigner.

On second thoughts, may be Kurukshetra was better than free and fair elections. At least war was fought as per rules. Nothing exemplified this more touchingly than Dharmaputra respectfully approaching Bhishma, and then Drona, to ask: Tell me, how can I kill you? The great sages understood. They revealed their secrets and the killings took place with the blessings of the killed. This is human achievement at its noblest. Impossible in today's India.

Monday, September 16, 2013

True, death sentences won't end crime, but a wounded society needs relief

People's fury over the Delhi gang rape is a continuing thing as proved by the explosion of emotions at judgment time. When the pronouncement of punishment was put off by a few days, angry crowds raised slogans of protest. Defence lawyers were harangued by irate citizens for daring to plead for the criminals. The cry for death penalty rose from all quarters. A nation was in rage.

And in frustration, we might add. Despite the death sentence passed by the court, the feeling lingered that the violence against women was not going to go away in India, adjudged the worst country for women among the well-to-do G-20 nations in a 2011 study; even Saudi Arabia was safer than India. If the Delhi, Manipal and Mumbai gang rapes caught mass attention, thousands of others went unnoticed. Among the victims have been six- and five-year-olds and, recently, a five-month-old.

This is happening despite vastly increased public awareness and tightening of laws. One reason is that law-makers and law-enforcers are half-hearted about solving the problem. In fact they are part of the problem. It is well-known that the police across the country look suspiciously at women going to them with complaints. Rather often women are raped inside police stations. Politicians are no better. In UP-Bihar and more recently in Haryana, ministers and MLAs have been brazen in their abuse of women, sometimes leading to the suicide or murder of the victims. Samajwadi Party leader Naresh Agarwal was inspired by the Mumbai gang rape to advise all women to pay attention to what they wear.

Perhaps insensitivity is required qualification for politicians everywhere. US presidential candidate Santhorum publicly proclaimed that pregnancy through rape should be accepted as a gift from God. A US senator said that in the case of "a legitimate rape", women's bodies had ways to shut down (meaning, to block pregnancy). Putting them all in the shade, Asaram Bapu said that the Delhi rape victim was equally at fault and could have avoided the rape had she taken guru diksha, chanted the Saraswati Mantra and pleaded with her tormentors for mercy. Did any of the victims of this man, currently in jail on rape charges, escape by chanting the Saraswati Mantra in the nick of time? This proves yet again that the thinking that goes with a crime is more dangerous than the crime itself. In Rajasthan last year a father used a sword to behead his 20-year-old daughter for marrying a lower-caste boy. Then he went about displaying the blood-oozing head of his daughter as a warning to other girls eyeing boys below their caste.

Rape becomes particularly heinous when the mindset behind it calls for extraordinary cruelty as well. The gang that raped the girl in the Delhi bus was not satisfied with mere sex. Sadism was also at play, the gang inflicting unspeakable tortures on her, including pushing an iron rod inside her. News came from Indore last year of a man locking up his wife's private parts before he went to work every morning. He didn't do it by using a chastity belt, invented in the 15th century and available even today on-line. He preferred a device of his own which he fitted around his wife's vital areas by "drilling holes" on her body.

Such attitudes make it a dim picture for those who hope that court pronouncements would be a deterrent to criminals. As one defence lawyer put it, would killing rapists make streets safer for women? Will death penalty end crime? Logical questions. But sometimes it helps if logic makes way for emotion. A death sentence may on occasion provide badly needed relief for a public conscience wounded by inexplicable brutality. The right punishment would have been what Sri Krishna gave to Ashwatama -- roam about the earth for 3000 years, shunned by all and tormented by all diseases on earth. Perhaps the so-called juvenile who was the cruellest in the gang but escaped with only three years in a rehabilitation centre, will get something akin to that kind of just justice.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

China averted a Soviet-like collapse. Will that prove a passing gimmick?

Democracy has gone so berserk in India that there are serious people who think a dose of dictatorship would be good for the country. In such a situation it may be difficult for us to grasp how things are in China where the economy has opened up but politics has remained closed. Which is like opening the windows of a house and asking folks at home not to look outside. The news is that a whole lot of people are looking outside and raising demands for a whole lot of things, and that the Government is resorting to unprecedented ways to keep its power intact.

The Chinese are a very nationalistic people. Even those who fled from Mao Tsedong's dictatorial excesses were proud of the way he had consolidated China. That pride increased when Deng Hsiaoping's disciples developed China into a global power. Such national pride may prevent public anger from exploding into the kind of violent uprising that wrecked Libya and Egypt and Syria where whimsical dictators left no alternative to the populace.

In China the authorities at least appease the people by frequently imprisoning and sometimes executing high-ranking officials involved in corruption. Besides, corruption does not co-exist with dynasty building; the "princelings" who rise in China's power structure are princelings, not automatically accepted "crown princes". Nevertheless, popular disaffection has been growing in China because the pursuit of market economy is incompatible with the suppression of individual aspirations. More importantly, a culture so alive with art, philosophy and literature demands independence in thought and action.

The yearning for freedoms spread with the internet despite the Government's attempt to restrict social media. The nature and extent of dissent can be gleaned from a recent incident that would be unthinkable even in India. Early this year in south China's premier city of Guangchou, the Southern Weekend newspaper wrote an editorial arguing that the Government and the party should be subject to a supreme constitution that would protect citizens' rights and prevent abuses. A government information officer re-wrote the editorial reversing the argument. Then, incredibly, the paper's editorial staff protested. Even more incredibly, the public rose in support of the staff with street demonstrations.

In crisis situations, the Government always prevails. This time, however, the authorities were so shaken that they launched a propaganda campaign among party cadres across the country. The burden of the campaign is that "seven subversive ideas" are threatening Chinese society and that if these are not eradicated, the country would be in peril. Among these subversive ideas are Constitutionalism, Civil Society, Universal Human Rights, Media Freedom and Neo-Liberalism. "Document No. 9" distributed to party cadres describes these as "Western ideas" the promotion of which "is an attempt to negate the party's leadership".

There is irony in the fact that China's new leader Xi Jinping was initially presented to the world as a modernist with progressive ideas whose immediate family was exposed to Western thought. In the present campaign against Western ideas, he is identified as one of the leaders pressing for suppression of dissenters. China, for all the economic and military strength it has acquired, must be worried by the possibility of an economic slowdown, the public anger against corruption and the popularity of liberals demanding political change. The leadership must be particularly worried about the journalists' protest in Guangchou and by an ongoing people's campaign demanding that officials disclose their assets. President Xi, who had promised to end corruption and bring transparency into Government, now finds himself in a quandary.

Significantly Chinese commentators have recalled how ideas like Constitutionalism had helped topple the Soviet Union. China's communist leadership must be afraid that the fate that overtook the mighty Soviet Union could one day overtake it, too. Deng Hsiaoping's great achievement was that he averted such a collapse. But he did so by resorting to a gimmick which he called "socialism with Chinese characteristics". In fact it was capitalism with the Chinese characteristic of one-party political control -- a mixture of ideas that could not possibly mix. Will Deng's gimmick, like all gimmicks in history, pass?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Amoral politicians create a culture where values fall and rapes rise

Our Supreme Court asked what citizens have been asking for a while: Why is there such a sharp rise in rape cases across the country? "We are shocked", said a two-judge bench. "What has gone wrong with our society? What is wrong with the system now? Is it the total failure of social values, the lack of law, or is it that law enforcement is not working well?"

For the politicians who do not bother about such questions, here is "good" news: India is not the worst case in crimes against women. Surveys conducted by world organisations say that the most dangerous country for a woman is Afghanistan where women face targeted violence, horrible health care and horrible poverty. Congo is a close second with frighteningly high levels of rape. The highest numbers of reported rapes per capita are in Australia, Botswana and Lesotho. India figures only where the "global perception of threat to women is higher due to domestic violence, economic discrimination and female foeticide". Here Pakistan is first, India second and Somalia third.

Is this consolation? It may be to the political class revelling in selfishness and irresponsibility. But the facts of life point to an India that has lost its moorings, where fathers rape daughters, husbands kill wives, "holy" men abuse devotees for the glory of God and street hooligans treat women as disposable utilities. Overall rape cases doubled between 1990 and 2008. In Mumbai city they doubled in one year, from mid 2012 to mid 2013. Statistically, with 256 cases for one lakh women, Vijayawada was the most unsafe city for women.

Statistics are both impersonal and dry. They do not even attempt to give an idea of the torture, the pain, the humiliation and the bloodshed every single victim goes through. Media-highlighted cases like the Delhi bus gangrape, the Manipal Medical College gangrape and the Mumbai photojournalist gangrape open up the gates of public rage. The Government makes some noises and that's that.

Which brings up the core issue: It is the ruling class's amorality and cynicism that have led to the fall in standards in general and increased criminality in particular. In taking care of the larger interests of the country, the Government has been non-functioning for many years. In promoting the private interests of VIP leaders and VIP corporations, the same Government has been over-functioning. This lopsidedness affected the temper of the country, leading to what the Supreme Court called "a total failure of social values".

Consider the latest instances of cynical self-pursuit by the political class. Parties that cannot stand one another united to create new provisions that would legally protect the criminals among them. An MP can remain an MP even if he is convicted while people in jail can contest elections. Inconvenient Court rulings will be circumvented. What's more, political parties may go to the people for votes but will have no responsibility to give any information to the people; parties will be exempt from RTI obligations. Nor do politicians have to declare in their election affidavits the true value of their assets; values of ten, fifty or a hundred years ago would do.

These are things that cannot happen in a democracy. That they happen in India only proves that India has been robbed of its democracy by the very beneficiaries of democracy. What we have at the helm today is a value system in which people essentially do what pleases them. If manipulating land transactions in Haryana and/or selling coal resources on the sly is what pleases the rulers of the land, how can the ruled be denied their idea of what pleases them -- raping a convenient victim, and/or torturing a wife for dowry? When privileged criminals fly high, lesser ones get inspired.

The questions the Supreme Court raised were obvious. Because the problem was obvious. When we need economic action heroes, we get Manmohan Singh. When we need role models, we get Sonia Gandhi and children and son-in-law. When we need unifying political icons, we get Narendra Modi. When we need social reformers, we get Asaram Bapu.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Innovation and challenge in Goa. And a historic moment for CM Parrikar

Goa, like any other state in India, is overrun with negative forces that create apprehensions about the future. But, unlike most other states, a positive spark flickers in Goa now and again. The state is so completely identified with beaches and hippies that neither the gloomy side of politics nor the hopeful signs receive the attention they deserve. Goa is more than tourists.

How many of us realise, for example, that Goa has a university and that it performs more imaginatively than any other university in the country? We are told that the Presidency University of Kolkata is ready to introduce a course on "The Enigma of Love" with emphasis on the "theoretical aspects" of love. Compare this academic drollery with some half dozen Research Chairs Goa University has established. The Bandodkar Chair on Political Economy, the D.D.Kosambi Chair on Interdisciplinary Studies and the Borkar Chair on Comparative Literature may appear routine. But two factors make the Goa University's approach anything but routine.

First, it has also introduced unusual and innovative courses: One on Western music, another on traditional music and bhajan, a third on fine arts, painting and cartooning named after Goa's and India's beloved illustrator genius, Mario Miranda. Second -- and this is the crux of the matter -- in a country where appointments from peons to professors are made on the basis of caste, cash and ministerial interest, Goa University got for its Chairs the likes of Madhav Gadgil, Romila Thapar, Meghnad Desai and Shuba Mudgal.

A near miracle. How could integrity be honoured so openly and repeatedly? Evidently the University's authorities put professionalism above caste, cash, etc. But they would still have been thwarted if they had to face political interference of the kind that happens in almost every university in our country. In Goa University, some officers more loyal than the King in fact tried to curry favour by telling the BJP Chief Minister that a Leftwing anti-BJP intellectual like Romila Thapar was being invited at the University's expense. Apparently Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar said this was an academic issue and he could not interfere.

This is what makes Parrikar different from the rest of his tribe. In an earlier stint, he had succumbed to Hindutva extremists and done what was unthinkable in Goa -- cancel the public holiday on Good Friday. That was a major reason for the BJP losing the election that followed. Parrikar won last year's election with Catholic support; the Catholics were sure that Parrikar had learned from his Good Friday blunder and, more importantly, they were disgusted by the criminalities and shamelessness of Catholic ministers in the Congress Government.

Not only did Congress ministers and their families get enmeshed in murders and rape cases; the corruption went beyond limits even by Congress standards. It is a surprise that the High Command never attempted to curb the open criminality of its flag-bearers in Goa. Or was it a case of collusion? Not that the BJP is clean. Curiously both the BJP and the Congress today have exactly 33.3 percent MLAs each with criminal cases pending against them. But no corruption is as vulgar as Congress corruption in Goa.

A year into his landslide victory, Parrikar is grappling with the realities of power. Some of his campaign promises were clearly unrealistic: He is unable to abolish casinos, or save Goa from miners as promised. His voters will accept such dilemmas if his honesty of purpose is transparent. Actually, Parrikar has an opportunity no post-liberation Chief Minister has had. His educational and technological background attracts the respect of even his opponents as does his relative austerity. He is recognised as an administrator. To be recognised as a visionary, he must accept that the governance of Goa has to be in tune with its historical and cultural uniqueness, not with the one-size-fits-all ideology of this political party or that. To do justice to his state, he will have to rise above partisanship. Manohar Parrikar, the leader of the BJP, today has the chance to become the leader of Goa. He should take the call.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On the surface they win and they lose, but in real terms, they all lose

Kerala has for long been the sick state of India, politics for the sake of politics dominating all of life, traditional strengths ebbing away and new strengths finding no avenues to develop. It is a state where the moment is mistaken for eternity. Last week the mother of all street protests created records even by Kerala's standards. The capital city of Trivandrum overflowed with crowds such as it had never seen before. They were responding to the Left parties' call to lay siege to the Secretariat until the Chief Minister resigned and faced a judicial inquiry into cheating scams centred round his office. The massive crowds were surprisingly disciplined, too. In so charged an atmosphere one little spark could have set off a conflagration. But the Left parties ensured that nothing untoward happened. The police did likewise. Then, 36 hours into the confrontation, the Left leadership called off the siege and asked its cadres to go home. What happened?

In the political theatre that is Kerala, what happens does not really happen sometimes, and what does not happen often happens. So both sides won and both sides lost. The Left won because the Chief Minister agreed to hold a judicial inquiry; they lost because he refused to resign. In reverse, the Chief Minister lost where the Left won, and won where they lost. The Chief Minister's victory was the sweeter. His resignation was the Left's primary demand and they didn't get it. On the other hand, given the story of judicial commissions in our country, what the Left won was a dubious victory. Oomen Chandy proved yet again that he was a master of political machinations with no one in his party or outside to match his cunning.

Victories won by cunning, however, lack substance. Underneath were deeper issues that mattered and an examination of these will show that both the Chief Minister and the Left coalition lost rather heavily. Major segments of the Congress party and almost all the coalition partners that sustain the Government came out in open criticism of the Chief Minister. They complained about his secretive, unilateral moves, about his calling central armed forces and putting them up in the city's colleges, about unseen hands in Government issuing notices to hotels, tourist homes and taxi cars not to serve visitors; even public toilets were ordered closed. The expression of coalition solidarity for public consumption did not hide the fact that his own party factions and coalition partners now saw Chandy as a political liability. The electoral prospects of the Congress have hit rock bottom. The High Command will eventually have to address the problem and take steps to salvage what it can.

The setback the Left suffered, especially the CPM as the lead partner, was more grievous. The abrupt termination of so massive a protest programme triggered the suspicion of a deal between the CPM and the Government. This was backed by a telltale puzzle here and purported taped conversations there. While the Left had declared from housetops that they would block all the four gates of the Secretariat and would not let a soul in, they in fact blocked only three gates. There was not even a pretension to lay siege to the fourth which remained under police control and through which ministers and Secretariat employees went to their offices without any trouble. To this day there has been no explanation for this convenient breach that defeated the very purpose of the siege. What happened?

The present condition of the state gives one answer. Once famous around the world for its health and educational services, Kerala is today deficit in both. Home to a flattering number of rivers, it now watches them die under the onslaught of sand-political mafia. Quarry-political mafia flattens hills causing land slides. Diseases are persisting. Agriculture is in shambles. Roads, always a shame, have now become so pathetic that bus companies are on strike in some places. In this historical procession of good turning bad and bad going worse, who really wins? In the sick state of India, all lose.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Netas punish Durga, Khemka. TV anchors punish China, Pak. Life is beautiful

Calamities are famous for coming in battalions, not singly. We are seeing this all over again, with our ruling parties and neighbours unleashing a cascade of calamities upon us. Is it the swan song of a dying government? Are vultures in the neighbourhood sensing mealtime ahead?

The aftermath of the Congress Party's cynical politics over Telangana is a case in point. Not a file is moving in the state Government. Ministers are away and nongazetted officers, suddenly divided by geography, are holding rival demonstrations, sometimes on the verge of fisticuffs. Telangana's chief agitator, Chandrasekhar Rao, asked people from other parts of the state to be ready to leave Hyderabad. Will he now set up a Raj Thackeray Sena to beat up outsiders? Ironically, it now looks as though the Congress may not reap any electoral benefits from its Telangana gamble after all. That would be poetic justice. Who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrongs, the law's delay, the insolence of office, even if these come from the High Command?

The High Command herself is affected by the calamity wave. Her celebrated inner voice was initially a convenience because it gave her absolute power with absolutely no responsibility. But its underlying premise was that the handpicked Prime Minister would go through the motions of a Prime Minister. Once Manmohan Singh proved to be motionless, actionless and speechless, his usefulness as a buffer was lost and people began directly blaming Sonia Gandhi for the Government's failures and the great scams.

The Trainee High Command didn't help either. Despite repeated appeals and cajolings, Rahul Gandhi refused to give up his lifestyle. Quite right, too. Why would anyone want to give up the freedom to appear as national leader for some of the time and disappear for most of the time? Seen or unseen, he will get the credit for good rains anyway, while the blame for bad floods will go to party underlings. Life is beautiful.

Receiving no help from her son and heir, Sonia Gandhi has taken to writing letters, no doubt with the idea of producing a new book, A Further Bunch of Letters. The letters are addressed to the Prime Minister. That way she can be sure that there would be no replies to bother about. One letter put Pakistan in its place by telling the Prime Minister (ours of course) that India would not be cowed down by the dastardly Pakistanis killing our brave jawans. Jai Hind!

But her letter on Durga Shakti backfired for no fault of Durga, the IAS officer of UP who offended some of the ruling Yadav clan's sand mafia buddies and was punished for it. Of some 200 IAS officers punished for being upright, more than half are in UP. The Akhilesh-Mulayam Government has been unabashed in its collaboration with criminal elements. The voters who wanted to escape from Mayawati's frying pan landed in the Yadavs' fire.

For all that, Sonia Gandhi's bonafides were suspect and Mulayam Singh seized on that. Why didn't she write to the PM, he asked, when Haryana's Congress Government gave two punishment transfers to Ashok Khemka? Fair question. Khemka had taken action against what he considered illegal land deals that favoured Robert Vadra, the nation's son-in-law. The Haryana Government went to the extent of arranging a "clean chit" to the in-law. Sonia Gandhi's letter on Durga Shakti exposed a double standard for which the Congress had no explanation.

When criminality and hypocrisy rule the domestic scene, do we need calamities from beyond the borders? Our perennial tormentors are not the type to miss an opportunity when they see one. The Chinese loiter into Ladakh whenever the mood seizes them. The Pakistanis, disguised to fool only our Defence Ministry, behead or shoot some jawans whenever the mood seizes them. We destroy the Chinese and Pakistanis by opening fire from our news-channel studios and parliamentary benches. No TV anchor in the world and no MP in the world is more lethal in bravado than ours. Or more counterproductive. So, will we go the way our rupee goes?

Monday, August 5, 2013

We can do with structured new States, but not ad-hoc partitions of India

The usual doublespeak accompanied the Congress Party's green signal to Telangana. The party's entire rank and file in Andhra was "solidly behind the decision", they said. The decision was not politically motivated, they said. The truth is exactly the opposite. The state's Congress Chief Minister and five Telugu ministers in the Union Cabinet were solidly against the party's decision and several MLAs have resigned. And the party was motivated entirely by political considerations.

First, with Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress capturing hearts and minds in the Rayalaseema and coastal areas, the Congress was left with the choice of either gambling for Telangana or losing the whole state. Secondly, the BJP was committed to Telangana and if it were to come anywhere near power after the next election, they would announce Telangana state anyway. Again, the only option for the Congress was to deny the BJP any chance of claiming credit. Telangana has 17 parliamentary seats (out of Andhra's total of 42) and 119 Assembly seats in a house of 294. With the Congress suddenly becoming the darling of Telangana, this is no small catch.

History provides an ironic background to the Congress' opportunistic coup. In 1920 when the Congress was a national movement as distinct from a political party, its venerated leaders formulated a policy of linguistic restructuring of India. This seemed logical at the time because of the artificiality of colonial Britain's division of the country into "presidencies" and the suppression of all local cultures.

After independence, however, the same venerated leaders recognised a potentially disruptive side to the idea of promoting linguistic identities. On the initiative of Dr Rajendra Prasad, who would become India's first President, a Linguistic Provinces Commission was set up in 1948. Concluding that language-based division of India would "not be in the larger interests of the Indian nation", the Commission recommended the restructuring of Bombay, Madras and Central Provinces on the basis of "geographical continuity, financial self-sufficiency and ease of administration".

If this scheme had been implemented in time, "Bombay" would have made way for Maharashtra and Gujarat, and "Madras" for Andhra peacefully. But the Nehru Government sat on the report until Potti Sriramulu fasted until death and rioting spread in 1952. The very next year the Government appointed the States Reorganisation Commission and Andhra became the first linguistic state of India. Even then decisions on Gujarat and especially Bombay city were delayed until death and destruction went out of control -- and the Government yielded. Are we seeing a repeat of the same shortsightedness of the past?

There is a good case for scientifically conceptualised smaller states in a country of baffling diversities. Such a set up can help the advancement of areas far removed from the capitals of big states and therefore neglected. But this is a matter that needs to be handled with the utmost care and wisdom, keeping in mind the country's long-term interests and not the short-term advantages of this party or that. It is the latter approach that saw the birth of Andhra in violence and now the death of Andhra in violence.

If the cynicism of the present ruling class holds, our 29-state country may soon become a 35- or 40-state country. That many more Governors, Chief Ministers, MLAs, limousines and bungalows will literally make it "the more the merrier" for the beneficiaries although for the people it will be a case of "the more the messier". Demands for Gorkhaland, Bodoland and Karbi Anglong (Assam) are already erupting into violence. Vidarbha and as many as five regions of UP are sizzling. A responsible Government and responsible opposition parties would agree on a common approach to so complex a problem. The prudent course would be to appoint a second States Reorganisation Commission so that the issues involved can be studied in a holistic, controlled and systematic manner. What the country needs is a unified policy in handling regional demands with a national perspective. If, on the contrary, selfishness persists, the ultimate victor will Winston Churchill who predicted that India would disintegrate into small nations.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Law-breaking law-makers are becoming a serious threat to our democracy

The Allahabad High Court recently banned caste-based public rallies, a core political gimmick in Uttar Pradesh. Within days the UP Public Service Commission announced a new reservation policy with caste-based quotas from the preliminary examination stage itself. This violated the spirit of not only the High Court's order against caste rallies but also of the Supreme Court's order capping reservation at 50 percent.

There was public commotion, some students took recourse to law, the High Court issued a restraint order, some other students took to the street in support of reservations, charges of malpractices in the Public Service Commission filled the air, there were lathicharges and stone throwing. Indian democracy was once again at its riotous best.

The system is sick when politicians mock the law. Corruption, because it is rampant and involves the highest authorities in the country, is considered the biggest threat to our country. In fact the biggest threat is defiance of the law by those who are tasked to uphold it. Instances of undermining, discrediting, circumventing and simply ignoring politically inconvenient laws have been on the rise. How long can the ruling class do this without the common people losing respect for the law? Perhaps this has something to do with the increasing crimes against women and children across the country.

Look at the example set by elected MLAs in Maharashtra. A police official, Suryavanshi, had stopped and fined Kshitij Thakur for overspeeding on the Bandra-Worli sea link, a bridge on which anyone with commonsense will know that drivers must be cautious. But Thakur was an MLA and he did not hesitate to get Suryavanshi summoned to the Assembly premises. There the policeman who did his duty was thrashed by the shameless Thakur and four other shameless MLAs. Suryavanshi was not only hospitalised but also suspended by an equally shameless administration.

Public outrage caused the MLAs to be suspended. This was meant to be no more than an eye-wash. Last week the suspension of the MLAs was revoked. The explanation added insult to injury. A committee, said the Speaker, had looked into the matter and recommended that the suspension be withdrawn. Opposition leaders also had intervened on behalf of the offenders, we were told. How touching.

When it comes to sharing the spoils, opposition leaders embrace ruling leaders with warmth. They are now coming together again to amend the Right to Information Act so that political parties will be outside its purview. The RTI was perhaps the most enlightened enactment of recent times, making power-wielders accountable and giving citizens the right to know what was being done in their name. This triumph of democracy advanced by a notch recently when the Central Information Commission declared that political parties came within the ambit of RTI. It ordered six parties to appoint Public Information Officers.

The parties defied the constitutional order. All political parties are notorious for the things they want to hide. Naturally they resented the CIC's move to make them accountable. Let us not fail to notice that the parties did not seek legal redress. They did not approach the court for a stay on the CIC order although some party luminaries who are also legal luminaries said that the order was bad in law. Instead of proving that and winning their case, they decided to take the easy route of changing the law itself. They are culprits in cahoot, with the power to pass laws that will put their parties above the law.

Comparatively speaking, Congress factotums who say that you can have a meal in Mumbai for Rs 12 are simply mad and can be put right in a mental asylum. But MPs and MLAs who say that they will only obey laws that suit them are dangerous animals. The caste-manipulators of UP, the speed-breakers of Mumbai, the law-subverters of Delhi have together become a political class that oppresses democracy. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: "Citizen's rights are never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed". If the citizen remains unheard for too long, pressure could build up until it explodes.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The ideas man of Chennai who made a difference to his generation

Outside the rarefied world of books, K.S. Padmanabhan was in all likelihood an unknown quantity. He was never flamboyant, he never projected himself, he claimed nothing. He was, as the poet said, in his simplicity sublime. But his vision made him, unheralded, a part of contemporary India's cultural history. He belonged to the class of P. Lal of Writer's Workshop and Shanbaug of Strand Bookstall -- men of imagination who made a difference to their generation.

Publishing is a star-studded, glamorous enterprise in today's India. All the famous publishing houses of the West, facing problems in their home bases, have opened shop in India. Their author-lists jingle with the sound of million-rupee advances.

For those who see only this glittering face of publishing, it will be difficult to understand the dismal conditions that prevailed in the first half-century of independence. P. Lal was a one-man show struggling to bring out the manuscripts he accepted. He persisted and among the unknown writers he brought into print for the first time were Vikram Seth and A.K. Ramanujan and Kamala Das. Shanbaug could afford to rent only a wall in the foyer of Bombay's Strand cinema. But his knowledge of the books he put up there for sale attracted regulars like Mulk Raj Anand and editor Sham Lal.

Padmanabhan put his stamp on Chennai. There he flowered into an ideas man, publishing books, organising a distribution network and mobilising book lovers. A quiet passion drove him. It was passion that made him start the Indian Review of Books in 1991, with S. Muthiah as founding editor. The Padmanabhan-Muthiah partnership worked like a sunburst over the south. Muthiah's enviable reputation as an antiquarian and chronicler was built by the books Padmanabhan published. The Indian Review became a lively forum, featuring bylines that were to become famous in due course. It worked alongside another Padmanabhan-Muthiah initiative, The Madras Book Club.

Their ideological independence and scholarly approach sometimes produced unexpected results. A Muthiah study of the San Thome church, a Madras landmark, reflected the approach of a historian and archivist. This provoked an angry reaction from a writer in the Bombay-based Hindu Voice. Condemning the study for omitting the violent role of Portuguese missionaries, the writer described The Hindu newspaper in which the study had appeared as "an obloquial Communist rag" and Muthiah as a "notorious columnist" associated with "another Communist rag, the Indian Review of Books".

Despite such compliments, The Indian Review did not last. Like Biblio and Quest did not. For magazines, it's a harsh world out there. Readership is counted in quantity, not quality. That one reader of a weighty literary magazine is worth a hundred readers of a glossy, one-dimensional newspaper does not impress advertisers. And without advertising support, how long could a publishing house subsidise a magazine.

Padmanabhan's other dreams gathered strength until East-West Books, Westlands and the iconic Landmark bookstore chain with which he had a partnership, all became part of the Tata group in 2006. He continued as the new entity's mentor, but retired in 2011. He was only 75 then, too young for an ideas man to retire. Did retirement adversely affect his health? Exactly two years after he called it a day, he passed away.

Unpretentious, informal and genuine as he was, Padmanabhan would be happy to be quietly forgotten. But his associates have a duty, the kind of duty that J.R.D. Tata performed when Mulk Raj Anand returned home to Bombay after his prolonged stay in England. The novelist was fired by the ambition to start a magazine that would be a "loose encyclopaedia of the arts of India and related civilisations". It was an expensive concept, but it became a reality because J.R.D. gave him a start-up fund along with "seven advertisements [per issue] and two rooms" in the historic Army & Navy Building. Thus was born the quarterly Marg.

Tata's successors would honour the spirit of J.R.D if they were to help revive their business partner K.S.Padmanabhan's labour of love, the Indian Review of Books. Seven advertisements and two rooms can work magic even today.