Monday, May 26, 2014

Not all leaders see our civilisation's shift. Will Modi's good first impressions hold?

A remarkable study in contrast is unfolding before our eyes post election. Narendra Modi is rising to the occasion, step by calculated step, every inch a Prime Minister, and a cautious one at that, uttering the right words, making the right gestures, presenting the right image. What and how much he will deliver against heightened popular expectations cannot be gauged at this point. But the first impressions are in his favour. Especially his show of grace, suggestive of the Churchillian precept "in victory, magnanimity".

The parties that collapsed present an altogether different picture. The Congress is scoring self-goals, imagining that the masses can be fooled by a resignation at the top followed by its cancellation in the name of alleged public clamour. The Congress is unable to understand what hit it -- and unable to stomach what it does understand. So the sycophants run riot with their cry that the alternative to the Gandhis are the Gandhis; the farthest they can go from Rahul Gandhi is Priyanka Gandhi. This party of the past will have no future unless it faces democracy in democratic ways. That's true of all dynasty perpetrators, from the Abdullahs to the Badals, from the Yadavs to the Pawars, and even the Scindias who have one leg in the Congress boat and another in the BJP boat though both legs rest on the Maharajah-Maharani principle.

Other losers have been as adamant as the Congress in not accepting the fallibility of their egos. UP's Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties are an example. The ruling Samajwadi Party did not blame any of the top leaders for losing 75 of the 80 seats at stake. Instead it sacked 36 Ministers of state holding them responsible for the party's poorest ever show. The Ministers of State as conceptualised by the SP Government were a travesty anyway. Their main job was to arrange transfers and postings. The big blunders that led to the party's unpopularity were committed directly by the top leaders, but not one of them was touched.

The Mayawati coterie that runs Bahujan Samaj is also dodging responsibility after scoring a duck in the elections. At the best of times, the entrenched casteism of this party was an obstacle to progress, especially after progress was defined as megalomaniacal monuments to the supreme leader. This time the caste philosophy was turned on its head with the party nominating 21 Brahmins (on the advice of Mayawati's Brahmin confidant) and 19 Muslims (on the advice of her Muslim confidant). How farcical can Indian politics get. But the confidants are riding high. Mayawati punished zonal coordinators and party committees for her and her confidants' failure. Ambedkar, her professed idol, probably had people like her in mind when he said "democracy is only a top dressing on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic".

It is astonishing that despite the high principles enunciated by constitutional scholars like Ambedkar and Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar and despite the noble examples initially set by elected leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, India fell into the hands of opportunistic politicians who used the country to enrich themselves and their families. Adult franchise and first-past-the-post sounded wonderful at first. But nothing stopped crooks from hijacking the system. Crime and nonpunishment became so accepted that the Government formally led by Mr Clean did not lift a finger to stop the avalanche of corruption scandals that engulfed it. It is a tribute to the spirit of India that more people turned out to vote this time; they had a lot of anger to register and corrections to carry out.

The change they voted in could not have been more dramatic. From Sonia Gandhi to Narendra Modi is a civilisational shift. It has the potential to make up for the lost years and transform India from what is today -- "islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa". Whether that will in fact happen will depend on whether Modi stays true to his first impressions, or whether unseen forces will push ahead with undeclared agendas. In every sense we are at a turning point in history.

Monday, May 19, 2014

People have punished the Gandhi clan. But what kind of change will Modi bring?

Now that
the hurley-burley's done
the battle's lost and won,
fair is foul and foul is fair,
can we forget the posturings and face up to the fundamentals? First, this is more Narendra Modi's victory than the BJP's. To his organisational genius and spectacular campaign style must go the lion's share of credit. Second, sophisticated public relations did create a Modi Wave. But more decisive was the Anti-Gandhi family Tsunami. The third fundamental is perhaps the most important: It is unsure whether this will turn out to be the change the people of India yearned for and voted for; that is to be proved by the actions of the new Government -- and there is no saying what the substance of those actions will be.

Even his critics will agree that Narendra Modi is the smartest politician India has seen in recent times. And also the most assertive. He used both qualities to turn the BJP into an instrument of his ambition, obliging the seniors in the party to bow to his scheme of things. They had no alternative because Modi was a master strategist as well as the most gifted orator of his generation. The way he captured the imagination of the masses made him the pivot on which the party's fortunes turned. For the BJP Modi became what Jawaharlal Nehru was to the Congress in the early years of independence.

But Nehru's Congress withered away in his final years. Some Congress photocopies followed. The Indira Congress was feared more than it was accepted. The Rajiv Congress saw the establishment of the kickback culture. Under the Sonia Congress the rush of scandals continued with sycophancy reaching levels that offended Indian sensibilities. The Rahul Congress finally reached the point of no return. The young scion's general level of incompetence, the public humiliations meted out to the Prime Minister and the rise and rise of Robert Vadra made people desperate for a change. Unfortunately for the Gandhi family, the moment found the man and Modi blew in like a hurricane sweeping the lot out of his way.

So change has come. But will it be a meaningful change, marking a return to the real world that politicians usually ignore? The real world consists of simple, decent citizens with simple, decent aspirations. The self-serving world of politicians has a makebelieve character where party labels make no difference. Growth and development were Manmohan Singh's obsessions. They are Narendra Modi's slogans as well. One set of cronies will now fade away and another set of cronies will fade in. Big-ticket projects will light up the sky and dramatic headlines will be made. But will attention be paid to the real world of real people and real issues?

Consider the food we eat, for example. The European Union recently banned our beloved alphonso. This pride of India was found to contain fruit flies. So what happened to the lush mangoes that were meant for European tables? They were of course diverted to Indian tables. How come what is bad for others is good enough for us? Why is it that civilised countries have designated authorities and systems that safeguard the health of their citizens while in our country the authorities are otherwise busy and the systems are at the mercy of manipulators?

Indian chillies were banned in Saudi Arabia. That did not mean that conscience-stricken chilli traders burned their produce in a rush of patriotism. They merely passed it on to the anything-goes Indian market. Periodically Indian prawns are rejected by advanced countries. The rejects are eaten by Indians as delicacies. Masala powders in Indian shops have a bad reputation on account of adulteration. Even government-run Rajdhani Express often serves stale food. Why is it that these utterly basic things receive no attention from our elected governments whatever be the party colours they flaunt?

The attention government does pay usually helps the guilty. The notorious Cancer Train from Batinda to Bikaner was the consequence of Punjabi farmers using harmful pesticides in excess. Instead of finding ways to stop this devil dance of the Green Revolution, the authorities focussed on turning Batinda into a glitzy mall town for the pleasure of the well-to-do. Aerial spraying of endosulfan turned Kasargod into a horror museum of pitiably deformed children and adults. The local government eventually banned the poison, but it continued to be used under other names. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar insisted that further research was necessary to take a call on endosulfan. This was after the US with its strict regulatory mechanisms had finally ordered the closure of the last endosulfan factory in that country. India is the dreamland of international lobbies. Even competent Indian agricultural research and seed formulations are sidelined to help foreign monopoly lobbies.

Narendra Modi has the imagination, and now the mandate, to change these shameful facts of life. But will he? The question arises because the smart Modi is also the pracharak Modi. Modi's BJP and Mohan Bhagwat's RSS have achieved a policy-approach synchronisation unseen in the history of either organisation. Bhagwat was an active participant in discussions of strategy and cabinet formation. Not surprisingly a senior RSS leader has publicly said that a Modi Government must deliver on Ayodhya, Article 370 in Kashmir and the Uniform Civil Code. Even those who agree that these are desirable objectives will be concerned about pushing them to the forefront of a freshly formed BJP Government's agenda. While the punishment meted out to the Gandhi Dynasty makes the present look rosy, the future is anything but.

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Modi's bravado vs Priyanka's braggadocio. If not, the next choice is 'Item Girl'

When politics get dirty, good becomes bad and wrong becomes right. The abandon with which election-struck leaders cross the limits of decency these days is matched only by their brazenness in violating rules and norms of conduct. They misinterpret one another to gain points and they use bad language without qualms. These are people who want to become law-makers. What makes them so contemptuous of the laws that govern electioneering, to say nothing of common courtesies? The desperation of a make-or-break election may explain it, but not justify it.

Consider the strange parallelism between Narendra Modi and Priyanka Gandhi. Both are unbeatable as headline-grabbers. Both send the media into a frenzy. Both speak as though they own the country. Both project power. Both flaunt a style and a tone that strike half the population as arrogance and the other half as braggadocio, but may in fact be closer to bravado (which is defined as boldness intended to impress or intimidate).

Modi makes no pretence of his intimidating tendency. When a media interviewer asked an inconvenient question or two, Modi sat up and told the man: "Remember you are talking to Modi". Priyanka has not advanced to that level yet, but she has an unshakable conviction that the nation must recognise her family as very special. In an earlier election when Arun Nehru campaigned against her family, she berated the public by asking, "How could you allow this man to step foot on Rae Bareilly's soil?" Similar was her indignation in this election when there was criticism of Rajiv Gandhi and she said: "They have insulted my martyred father on the soil of Amethi. Workers in Amethi will reply to their neech rajnithi".

It was Narendra Modi who had "insulted" her martyred father. And it was not insult. It was legitimate political criticism of a Rajiv Gandhi action that had changed the course of Andhra Pradesh politics. (Only a party secretary at the time, Rajiv Gandhi had insulted AP Chief Minister Anjiah so publicly and so unnecessarily that all Andhra people felt offended. N. T. Rama Rao raised the issue of Telugu atmagauravam - self respect - and crushed the Congress).

But then, Narendra Modi on his part descended to levels lower than Priyanka's in their nasty hit-and-hit-back game. Illogically and unconvincingly, he twisted Priyanka's neech term to mean low caste when it only means low-level. Caste politics can be handled at a high level, as Ambedkar showed, or at a truly neech level as UP politicians including freshly imported Amit Shah have been showing. But "low-level" politics become "low-caste" politics only through misinterpretation. Modi convinced none but the converted by his contrived play on words. Ironically, he was attacked by Mayawati for encroaching on the caste territory where she believes she has proprietorial rights.

Perhaps misinterpretation and misrepresentation are preferable to the exchange of bad words. In this election, Narendra Modi has been called a monkey and a donkey, Rahul Gandhi a merchant of lies and Aam Aadmi an item girl. Baba Ramdev's criticism of Rahul Gandhi was easily the most uncultured. Compared to him, the Labour MP in Britain was a picture of civilisation when he roasted a Tory MP with the words: "The Honourablle Member is living proof that a pig's bladder on a stick can be elected to Parliament". Ours is modelled on the British Parliament, isn't it?

With claims of winning more than 300 seats, the BJP perhaps feels that it can sidestep inconvenient electoral laws. The flaunting of religion is a case in point. Narendra Modi appearing at the Varanasi rally with the city's holy temples forming the backdrop on the stage was bad enough. In Ayodhya's twin city of Faizabad he spoke with the picture of Lord Rama in the background. This was a direct violation of the Representation of the People Act which includes "the use of or appeal to religious symbols" among corrupt practices that are disallowed. Was it essential for a party confident of 300 seats to so casually ignore a law of the land?

Perhaps something amiss in that 300 figure?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ultimately, was this election our version of the clash of civilisations?

This year's April-May heat reached record highs, but not high enough to beat the election heat. Nature will soon bring some rain to make life liveable for us. Will politics provide any such relief? Unlikely. This election was fought on a single issue -- whether Narendra Modi should or should not become Prime Minister. That he succeeded, entirely on his own, in dividing the world's largest electorate into those who admired him and those who despised him with no space in the middle was a tribute to the power of Modi's personality. A lot follows from this.

No election in Indian history was fought so passionately. The fever quickly slipped into danger zone. As aspiring law-makers went reckless in their hate speeches, public discourse started revolving round the religious-cultural differences between Indians and Indians. Such raw, unrefined passions tend to linger even after politicians make post-election adjustments in their usual opportunistic style. The multiculturalism that was always India's strength now faces the danger of becoming its weakness.

Are we witnessing, in the wake of the polarising Modi-centric election campaign, our own variation on the clash-of-civilisations theme? Despite its critics, that phrase became a currency of our times because of the simplicity of its logic. As Samuel Huntington put it, the characteristics of any civilisation are too basic to change, defined as they are by history, language, tradition and, most importantly, by religion. In a world turned into a global village, every person longs for identity and religion is the surest and easiest basis of identity. If clashes become inevitable in this process, the general attitude is: So be it.

Huntington was not the originator of the idea that an element of confrontationism was inherent in civilisations shaped by religions. According to researchers, the phrase was first used way back in 1926 in a book titled: Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilisations. It appeared again in 1990 in a magazine article titled The Roots of Muslim Rage. Huntington popularised the term in a lecture in 1992, later developing it into a book-length study. The important point to note here is that in 1926 and 1990 and 1992 and ever after "clash" referred to the clash of religions; civilisation and religion were used as synonymous terms. Note, too, that the religions that figured in the discourse were Islam and Christianity.

This was natural because the debate developed in the West where the principal players were a visible Christianity and a largely invisible Judaism, both challenged by an unbending Islam. The West paid scant attention to "the mysterious Orient" and its mysterious civilisations such as Hindu and Han. It might be surprised to see that the clash of civilisations is seeping unmysteriously into these regions as well. This election saw Hindu zealots and Muslim zealots trying to outdo one another. Walls of suspicion and distrust have been erected in a game that will only have losers.

To some extent at least we can emerge winners if we learn a few lessons from the heat and dust of this divisive campaign. First, projecting optimism is different from projecting overconfidence bordering on arrogance which is what Modi and the BJP have been doing. A touch of humility would have enhanced Modi's image. Secondly, Modi could have established his supremacy in the party without necessarily humiliating senior leaders. A demonstration of grace would have added value to his leadership. Thirdly, what did he hope to gain by antagonising vote-rich state leaders such as Mamta Bannerji? Someone should have read Churchill to him: "In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill".

The shame of this election is that, despite all the talk about development, the emphasis has consistently been on the communal card. Nothing underlined this more prominently than Amit Shah's conduct of strategy in UP. Unknowingly, men like Shah and Azam Khan proved yet again the Huntington thesis: That the fundamental source of conflict in the world is not primarily ideological (rightwing conservatism vs leftwing liberalism) or primarily economic (capitalism vs communism), but primarily cultural (meaning, religion vs religion).

We can yet disprove this.