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.