Monday, December 29, 2014

Xi. Putin. Obama. The new India arouses curiosity; But we have weaknesses they will exploit

Reforms that will change the conditions of life in India are under way. We can see their implications more clearly if we look at them in the context of the Prime Minister's foreign policy excursions. Narendra Modi's flair for foreign affairs is by now legend. Not only has he had some triumphal rallies abroad; Xi Jinping came and went in a blaze of celebratory razzmatazz. Vladimir Putin has come and gone with deals ranging from diamonds to nuclear plants. Barack Obama is set to dominate Republic Day, dwarfing the military showpieces on parade. The world is discovering India with a curiosity and esteem last seen in Jawaharlal Nehru's early days.

But Nehru was tricked by the Mountbattens and then by Chou Enlai. The result was a virtually unsolvable Kashmir problem and the China war. There are already signs that Modi may be taken in by a demanding America, an assertive China and a disappointed Russia. Are we at a disadvantage, irrespective of who is the Prime Minister, because of deficiencies in our national character? We do have a tendency to be carried away by public relations dramatics. And we do lack a sense of historical continuity in our governance system.

The tendency to mistake publicity brouhaha for substance made us go ga-ga recently over Modi's place in a Time magazine stunt. This was just a magazine's marketing gimmick. Besides, its so-called competition for Man of the Year title is a trick; it's a nomination, not an election by readers. Yet our cheerleaders fell for the trick, and our media was breathless in reporting "Modi tops the list", then "Modi drops to second position" and so on. No other country attaches importance to this familiar media fiddle. For Indians, however, a good chit by a foreign source is the ultimate achievement. Is that all we are worth?

Worse is our tendency to see a change of government as a new beginning for the country, not as a continuation of India's march towards greatness in a changing world. Every government that comes to power ignores and sometimes repudiates those before them. This became ludicrous when Sonia Gandhi tried to turn P.V.Narasimha Rao into a non-person. When we don't have a sense of continuity, we don't have a longterm view of our national priorities.

China presents a study in contrast. The shift from Mao Zedong to Deng Hsiaoping was fundamental while that from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has been radical. But China presents it all as continuity. There is no criticism of previous regimes. The dominant note is national pride as could be seen from a People's Daily headline a couple of months ago. It said: "Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Hsiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong".

Against this real world, where do we stand? Especially against American pressure with the combined might of the big corporations and the White House? US interests have been focussed on agriculture and pharmaceuticals, basics that cover India's entire billion-plus market. In agriculture Monsanto gained at the cost of India's own highly competent seed technologies. US drug companies were kept at bay by Indian laws that sought to maintain the prices of lifesaving drugs at affordable levels. This precious protection is now under threat. Big Pharma from the US will soon be able to fully own Indian companies and thereby influence drug prices. Obama has been fighting in his own country to make drug companies interested in patients as well as in profits. He has not succeeded. How then can India maintain price levels?

If that is the situation in a field where India has high levels of competence, what about the military front where we are several years behind? China has surrounded India with military assets while it objects to our building even roads along the northern frontier. As for Russia, there was a time when it was India's most valuable strategic ally. A measure of how much things have changed lately was the military pact Russia signed with Pakistan a few weeks ago. It would serve India's long-term interests, said Putin in a memorable political joke of our time.

The lesson to learn is that smiles, cheering rallies and celebratory publicity are all fine, but they are on the surface. To reach the substance underneath, we must acquire America's and China's and Russia's abilities to play hard ball and play it with a hundred-year vision. That's right, a vision that goes beyond the next election.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lesson for Pakistan: There is no good terrorist. Lesson for India: Imitating evil is also evil

In Mary Shelly’s original novel written in 1818, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist who builds a live monster in his laboratory. The author described it as 8-foot tall and hideously ugly with black lips and glowing eyes. But she gave the creature no name. Frankenstein himself refers to his creation variously as Fiend, Spectre, Demon, Devil, and so on. The namelessness was seen then as a literary eccentricity. But perhaps there was more to it. Perhaps the author was saying that the most monstrous things in life had no name, that indeed it did not matter whether they had names or not.

In our time, the Frankenstein monster has assumed different names to suit different occasions, all of them coming under the rubric of communal hatreds. The most debasing of these hatreds rise from fringe Islamic groups. They produce the biggest shock waves because their barbarism is of a kind that cannot be matched by Christian, Jewish or Hindu fringe groups.

A case in point is the Islamic State’s (IS) massacring of even Muslims whose faith lines are different although they all worship the same God. Their extermination campaigns against Shias and Yazidis, and their turning of women captives into slaves were seen as the limits of human depravity. Yet, the IS attracted young Europeans and some Indians who joined them.

Now IS has been overshadowed by TT, the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan. That this group has gone beyond the human range became evident from three developments that followed the murderous attack on Peshawar's Army Public School. First, it quickly claimed responsibility for the killings. Second, supremo Mullah Fazlullah came up with the perverse argument that the TT was humanitarian since it killed only the older boys, sparing the small ones. Third, it said in no uncertain terms that more attacks would follow.

These are pointers to a seriously hopeless situation. Even Pakistan, which has long years of experience in nurturing terror groups, will find it hard to suppress an outfit like the TT. In their extremism, such outfits become demons threatening their own creators, as the monster threatened Victor Frankenstein for creating him and then abandoning him to fend for himself. By attacking Pakistan's elite army school, the TT killed the loved ones of many military families. This was a good time for Pakistan's army and the ISI leadership to realise that bloodletting led nowhere and that an effective way to stop the Mullah Fazlullahs was to stop the Hafiz Saeeds. But Pakistan has been sending out mixed messages; the 26/11 terror attack mastermind Lakhvi was released on bail, then put under 3-month house arrest. The concept of good terrorists and bad terrorists will devour those who believe in that impossibility.

But of course the monster of our times is not confined to one country, one doctrine or one religion. It has turned universal. At one end are the Southern Baptists of America who insist that Darwin's theory of evolution is bunkum and that the world and all living things in it were created by a Christian God. At the other end, we have a lone fanatic shooting people in a Sydney coffee shop, saying that he and he alone is right. In between, we have the Government of Israel persecuting and sometimes killing Palestinian citizens and, not the least, our own fringe Parivar that pits Indians against Indians.

But for its mischief effect, the Parivar tantrums could be dismissed as farce. What else is it when a woman divides India's population into Ramzade and H....zade? Many Indians whom she defines as Ram's children would have themselves felt annoyed. Some others want to put up Nathuram Godse statues to compete with Mahatma Gandhi statues in our cities. Why not, as long as they don't proceed to the naming of roads; new NG Roads will be mistaken for familiar old MG Roads. As for Christmas, why not abolish December itself? It is a Roman invention imposed by British imperialists on our ancient civilisation.

Conversion is more serious because conversion by any religion is condemnable. Latterday Christianity has taken it to ridiculous extents by offering inducements including the promise of curing incurable diseases with a preacher's touch.Pentecostal evangelists in Kerala make themselves ludicrous by trying to convert other Christians. There are specific laws against conversion in our country. These laws should be used to suppress fake salvation merchants. The Parivar's conversion-to-Hinduism farce will only flatter Islam and Christianity by imitation. No one will win and all will lose.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Big people do small things and lose everything? Why do power-lust, greed, ego rule the world?

Why does N. Srinivasan hang on to his cricket chair when every milligram of his credibility is gone? Why did Manmohan Singh cling to prime ministership even after he was reduced to an object of ridicule? Why did Rampal order pitched battles against the police leading to the death of at least five women and a child when he didn't have a chance in hell of winning? Why did Rajat Gupta, such a celebrated management icon, do insider trading that landed him in a US prison? Why did Subrata Roy, an innovative genius and buddy of everyone who mattered, find himself in Tihar?

Questions without answers pile up around us. In politics, business, sports and even spirituality, big people do small things unworthy of their position. Not only do they not gain anything, they actually lose their prestige and often their way of life. Does the explanation lie in philosophy? There is consolation of sorts in the poetic precept that all human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, monarchs must obey. Was it the summons of fate that led to the fall of Subrata Roy and Rampal, of Manmohan Singh and Srinivasan?

The former Primer Minister and the cricket tzar are unique, though in opposite ways; the one had public sympathy pouring out for him, while the other was covered with disgrace. The considerateness Manmohan Singh received was spontaneous because of his nature and the circumstances of his mortification. Here was a man who stood tall on two pedestals: goodness as a human being and international eminence as an economist. Being apolitical, he needed political backing to do well in an essentially political setup. He got this when he teamed up with P.V.Narasimha Rao -- and he reached heights of glory. He did not get similar backing when he teamed up with Sonia Gandhi whose agenda was family-oriented. To the extent she did her job well, to that extent Manmohan Singh's job was compromised.

Only once during his 10-year term did Dr. Singh find the courage to stand up for what he thought right. Even then, he stood up against the Left Front, not against Sonia Gandhi. The Left had threatened to withdraw support to his Government over the US nuclear deal. Facing the prospect of the Government not having the numbers to pass the bill, the Prime Minister decided to resign and conveyed his decision to Sonia and Pranab Mukherjee at a secret meeting in the Prime Minister's house. Eventually the PM had his way because the Samajwadi Party switched policy and supported the Government. In historical terms, though, the victory was nothing big because of the controversial nature of the nuclear deal. It did nothing to correct the image of Manmohan Singh as an inconsequential Prime Minister.

N. Srinivasan is an assertive personality in contrast to the ever-yielding Manmohan Singh. While Indian cricket has been a bedlam of personality clashes, conspiracies, manipulations and politics of the meanest kind, no one took it to the "me-first" depths that Srinivasan contrived. There were several occasions when shenanigans around him were exposed and he could have withdrawn with dignity. But he chose to fight even the Supreme Court's unambiguous remarks.

"You are presuming there is nothing against you", said the Supreme Court. "You can't use BCCI rules to say you will stand for elections because the doctrine of public trust will apply". Even more pointedly, it said: "The ownership of the team raises conflict of interest. [Srinivasan is the managing director of India Cements which owns the Chennai Super Kings; its captain, M. S. Dhoni, is Vice President of India Cements.] President of the BCCI has to run the show but you have a team". Such castigations would be sufficient for an honourable man to quietly leave the scene. But Srinivasan is always looking for a tiny loophole somewhere in the labyrinth of law. Even if he finds one, he will remain in the record books as the man under whom Indian cricket was shamed by what Bishan Singh Bedi called "abnormal hunger for power and insatiable greed for money".

Duryodhana was holding out a lesson for all of us when he confessed that he knew what was dharma but had no urge to follow it. It was only in humans that the Creator planted such cosmic contradictions. All religions warn against ego. Sikhism includes it in one of the Panch Dosh, five evils. Taoism equates enlightenment with the annihilation of the ego. But ego rules the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An activist Judge with Aristotle's mental range. Fearless Krishna Iyer was a game changer

If style maketh the man, opinion maketh the judge. A wise opinion memorably expressed goes directly into the conscience of society and the annals of time. Such was the opinion: "Law without politics is blind. Politics without law is deaf". It was an aphorism that marked the personality, the commitment and the intellectualism of Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. Some 700 judgments he pronounced from the bench of the Supreme Court and all of them were studded with bold ideas boldly expressed. They all had but one aim: Uphold the human rights of ordinary people, even of detainee suspects (he pronounced against handcuffing as a routine) and jailed convicts (he took up a prisoner's letter about torture as a public interest litigation).

India's judicial firmament is full of shining stars. (The Emergency years showed that there were also judges who were unworthy of their calling). Fali Nariman in his autobiography cites some examples of the great, such as Vivian Bose, S.R. Das and P.B.Gajendragadkar. He then says that as "pathfinders" he could name only two: Justice K.Subba Rao and Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. More than all others "they influenced creative judicial thinking. They lighted new, difficult (and different) paths - paths which others followed".

The lay public is not all that familiar with the Subba Rao saga, but the legal fraternity remembers with reverence his efforts to ensure the sanctity of citizens' personal liberties. As Nariman puts it, Subba Rao's "concern for fundamental rights and his distrust of parliamentary majority led to some of his most controversial decisions. He abhorred absolute power - especially the arrogance of absolute power" whether exercised by the executive or the legislature.

If Subba Rao's agenda was to make politics subservient to law, Krishna Iyer's was to make law serve the ends of social justice. He became arguably the most famous of Supreme Court judges. One reason was his activism which increased after his retirement in 1980. There was no people's cause that he did not champion; at the age of 99 he even sat in dharna demanding a cancer centre for Kochi. He was interested in practically all subjects; one of the 105 books he authored was on life after death. Former Chief Justice of India, M.N.Venkatachaliah put it best when he said "the range of Krishna Iyer's mind was that of Aristotle".

But the big reason for his fame was, ironically, his judgment in a political case - the election case appeal by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Krishna Iyer was a junior puisne judge in the Supreme Court at that time. It was just an accident that the appeal came up before him. It was summer recess for the court and Krishna Iyer happened to be filling in as vacation judge. That was when Indira Gandhi approached the court pleading for an absolute stay on the Allahabad High Court's verdict disqualifying her.

Indira Gandhi was at the height of her power. It was not incumbent on the junior vacation judge to take up the case. He could have just as well granted a stay till the reopening of the court when a proper bench of three or four judges could have given a decision. But this was Krishna Iyer who had what Nariman called "that abiding quality of a great judge - he was fearless". Taking the full weight of responsibility upon himself, the vacation judge heard the arguments nonstop for six hours, three each by Nani Palkhivala (for Indira Gandhi) and Shanti Bhushan (for Raj Narain). It was 2 o'clock in the morning when the writing of the judgment was completed. The court rejected the plea for a complete stay of the High Court verdict and allowed only a partial stay. Indira Gandhi was allowed to function as Prime Minister, but without the right to vote in Parliament. The order was handed down on July 24. On July 25 Emergency was proclaimed.

To understand the extent of Krishna Iyer's courage in passing that judgment, we must know that Palkhivala had sounded a warning during the argument. His words were: "The nation was solidly behind (Indira) as Prime Minister" and "there were momentous consequences, disastrous to the country, if anything less than the total suspension of the order under appeal were made". Krishna Iyer remained undaunted. Constitutional lawyer M.Seervai, usually a critic of Krishna Iyer, described this as the Supreme Court's finest hour. Was that the same as saying that V.R.Krishna Iyer was India's finest judge? His one judgment certainly changed the game for Indian history.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Kashmir has an 'overwhelming desire for change'. But will the coming change be for the better?

The good news is that the first round of polling in Jammu & Kashmir saw the highest turnout in the state's electoral history. The overall percentage was 71 but in some constituencies it went up to 77 and 80. Leh in Ladakh saw a drop, but even this was extraordinary. The temperature there had dropped to 10 degrees below zero, yet the number of voters dropped only from 68.9 percent to 65.2 percent. This election is the people's most decisive reply to the secessionists, the separatists and the terrorists who had all called for a boycott of the voting. It is now clear that the separatists are separated from the general sentiment of the people.

So what's the bad news? If we look behind the parties and their posturings, we can see that whoever wins will make no difference in practice. All the leaders who attained power in the past primarily served their parties and themselves (with the possible exception of brief interludes under Sheikh Abdullah and then Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed). This is not unique to J & K. Elsewhere, too, widely welcomed change turned out to be disappointing, for example, B. S. Yeddyurappa and Mamata Banerji. How can J & K become an exception overnight?

Not that change is not in the air. In fact this election may mark the start of a whole new chapter in the state's history. Kashmiris had become as disgusted with the father-son dynasty rule in Srinagar as Indians in general had with the mother-son rule in Delhi. A defeat of the Abdullah dynasty as resounding as the defeat of the Gandhi dynasty would therefore be in order. The traditional challenger of the Abdullahs are the Muftis with their People's Democratic Party. The PDP is not weighed down by the incumbency millstone, but it has the dynasty millstone and a non-performance track record. It cannot expect significant voter backing. The Congress may turn out to be nothing more than an also-ran. Contextual advantage thus lies with the BJP. When people are driven by "an overwhelming desire for change" (Mehbooba Mufti's phrase), the BJP offers just that. It also has the unrivalled advantage of campaigning by the country's most gifted orator-campaigner. The BJP certainly will be a change, but whether the change will be for the better is far from clear.

The reason for this reservation is that J & K has already been turned into a communal cauldron. The BJP finds such situations ideal for its growth as recent events in election-bound states have shown. Preoccupation with divisive sectarianism has stood in the way of J & K making any meaningful progress on the economic, educational or social front. If this has to change, the state will need a political dispensation that puts down communal elements and unites the people for collective socio-economic growth. There is no evidence that the BJP is ready for such moves just now.

What can be said in its favour is that it did not start the communalisation of J & K. To a large extent, history did. Even in the 15th and 16th centuries, the norm was: Whichever community had the protection of the ruler of the day violated others. As David Devadas puts it in his In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, "When Pathan governors let them, Muslims merrily bounced on to the backs of Pandits, riding them like asses. Under Dogras, Pandits kicked Muslims all the way home. When Shias ruled, a Sunni qasi was trampled under an elephant. When Sunnis ruled, the Shias' most revered grave became a burnt dung-heap".

This was communal oneupmanship of convenience. It could have been contained by an enlightened leadership. Instead, what happened in our own times was the cynical exploitation of antagonisms for political gain. This was the contribution of Indira Gandhi. Just as she turned Punjab into a battleground by discovering Bindranwale, and polarised Assam into Bengalis and Assamese with the contrived election of 1983, so did she undermine the political stability of J & K by first forcing Farooq Abdullah to share power with the Congress in 1986 and then toppling his Government through organised defection. The 1987 election in J & K became notorious for rigging. Disillusioned young supporters of local parties turned to militancy.

India remains a functioning anarchy because leaders refuse to see beyond themselves and their narrow agendas. Since this is the ongoing culture of all political parties, Kashmir could continue to bleed after this election too. Such a pity.