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.