Monday, August 31, 2015

When damn lies, damn truths are both damn right. The games we can play with census figures

As everyone knows, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Mark Twain did not specifically mention census because census is statistics. Ten people interpret census figures in ten different ways, all of them being damn lies and damn truths at the same time. That's the beauty of census statistics: We an use them to suit our purpose.

The 2011 Religious Communities Census testifies to this beauty. The Congress-led government did not release it, for political reasons. The BJP-led government has now released it, for political reasons. The Congress's reason was to ensure Muslim votes. The BJP's reason was to ensure Hindutva votes. The same 2011 census has a caste-wise set of statistics as well. This has not been released by the present government -- of course for political reasons, whatever they are.

This must be a special Indian thing. Because only in India has democracy developed along religious and caste lines. Patels in Gujarat, Yadavs in Bihar-UP, Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Dalits and anti-Dalits everywhere -- that is the road map our democracy follows.

To see how Indian this is, we must look at how other democracies use census figures. In the US, politicians will no doubt make use of the information that, for example, the Asian population has fallen in a district or increased in another. But essentially census information provide the basis for policy making -- which areas need new roads, where new schools and libraries must be located, where new hospitals and daycare centres must be built. It's also on the basis of census figures that they decide the size of police stations and fire departments.

Perhaps our politicians are also studying census findings to make policy decisions -- how many in a highrise building in Mumbai's Bandra area are vegetarian, how many in Bhendi Bazaar are Sunnis, essential information to chalk out action plans. Even simple things like giving a flat on rent depends upon such critical information.

The religion-wise details brought out by the newly released census report lend themselves to political use in our very religious country. A typical newspaper headline said: 'Muslim population grew faster: Census'. (The headline was correct. But so was the headline in another newspaper: 'Muslim population growth slows'). The general impression was that Muslim population in India was increasing while other religious groupings were dwindling in numbers. Naturally, non-Muslims -- and not just the Hindutva hardliners -- would feel uncomfortable. Their inclination would be to support measures meant to keep Muslims in check. Gain for BJP.

But this will be a short-sighted, wholly political way of looking at the census. In terms of the country's overall progress, two factors need to be taken into account. First, only during 1981-91 did Muslim growth rate rise. During 1971-81, it was constant. During 1991-2001, it declined by 0.4 percentage points, when Hindu growth rate declined by 0.3 percentage points. In absolute terms India now has 966.3 million Hindus, 79.8 percent of the total population, the first time the Hindu percentage has fallen below 80. This is something to be welcomed because it points to social and economic progress among Hindus.

That is the second factor to be considered while evaluating the census. Population growth/decline is directly linked to the improvement in a community's socio-economic parameters. Better education and better access to healthcare have made a difference to Muslim population statistics -- including child mortality and women's health -- in southern India, Kerala being often cited as a model. Muslims in Kerala stand well above their fellow-religionists in the north in education and general wellbeing. If Muslims are the only community in the country to show growth in its share of the total population, it is a pointer to the large-scale poverty, illiteracy and backwardness that prevail among them. This should worry the leaders of the community. But instead they seem to look upon poor and untutored followers as safe bets who will not question the leadership's actions.

According to sociologists, Muslim growth rate dipped in 2001-2011 because of the impact of primary education. The obvious course an enlightened government should follow is to ensure the spread of education among Muslims, especially among Muslim girls. Their own leaders, religious as well as political, are the main stumbling blocks to Muslim progress. Their obstructionism should be fought and the cooperation of enlightened Muslims enlisted to end the economic and educational inequalities that hold the community back. Simply turning anti-Muslim won't help because 172.2 million Muslims cannot be wished away.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Is Saudi Arabia facing a bleak future? If true, India -- and Modi's plans -- may be hurt

Narendra Modi's visit to the UAE acquired interesting diplomatic nuances because he did not pick Saudi Arabia, the recognised Big Boy of the Arab region, for his first state visit. Plans are said to be ready for a trip soon. But it won't be the same as the warm Abu Dhabi-Dubai visit for two reasons: One, Saudi Arabia is organically different from the Emirates. Two, the oil economy of the Gulf is under threat.

The Saudi ruling family follows the fundamentalist Wahabi Islam and has been spending millions of dollars for many years to propagate its extremism in other countries including Islamic countries. This is like the American-funded Born Again Christian sects whose first target for conversion are other Christians. Only in Saudi Arabia do they have a police unit with the macabre name Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice; they patrol the streets checking dress code and ensuring strict separation of men and women. The UAE has its rigid rules: Criticism of the government is not allowed. For the rest, though, it is liberal enough to sustain the biggest tourist industry in the Gulf.

The prosperity of the Gulf countries and their becoming a magnet for Indians are of course related to the wealth made from oil. To describe that wealth as enormous would be an understatement. It enabled the Gulf countries to be ostentatious. Deserts were converted to verdant gardens, boulevards came up that could be called majestic and architectural monuments rose that set world records of various kinds. There were no taxes on citizens. On the contrary, the state paid for most expenses, from education to house plots.

This dream life was expected to be perpetual because the world's thirst for oil was expected to grow and grow. But in the last few years, unknown to the public and closely watched by experts, equations have been changing. Saudi Arabia's dominant position in the world's oil supplies is gone. For the first time since the country was founded, it has been facing budgetary problems. In fact some experts have made the sensational claim that the Saudis could go bankrupt in the next five years.

They put the blame largely on Saudi shoulders. The argument is that the Saudis kept international oil prices high for too long. This forced other countries, especially the US, to look for alternative sources of supply. Enter, shale oil. This is oil made by converting organic matter inside shale rock. Known from the early 14th century and in production from the late 19th century in Europe, the US, Australia-New Zealand and China, nobody had pursued this in earnest because the discovery of crude oil in the Gulf made things easier. When the Saudi-led oil monopoly raised the prices, shale producers woke up. North America began production in such large quantities that their need for Gulf oil spiralled down. Later, Iranian oil started flowing, too. The Gulf countries were no longer masters of the market.

This meant serious trouble. As much as 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's budget revenue is from oil. It has no other industry, no other source of income. At the same time it has taken on expensive political tasks, such as a war against the Houthis in Yemen and a diplomatic-military manoeuvre against Iran. Ominously the US, Saudi Arabia's traditional supporter, has been moving away in the last one year.

The Saudis don't have many options. Disenchanted with America's strategic shift, they tried to get close to Russia. But Russia finds Iran more attractive. Raising oil prices is not an option because America and others will increase shale oil production and neutralise the Saudis. Eventually the Saudi government may be forced to overhaul its economy. But how? Impose taxes? Stop evangelical missions abroad? Stop importing war material at high prices and forget hot-spots such as Yemen? Turn to Israel for help and face ultimate humiliation?

What is certain is that the world's dependence on Arab oil will never again be what it has been. To that extent the entire political-economic scenario in West Asia will change. It will directly -- and devastatingly -- impact the economy and sociology of India with tens of thousands of Indians, currently employed in the Gulf, returning home. Modi's expectations of Gulf countries investing in India may also be adversely affected. The only good thing is that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will have less arduous duties to perform. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.

Monday, August 17, 2015

MPs waste their brilliance on virulent attacks; It's time to ask: Where are we headed?

Wednesday, August 12, was a miracle day in Indian history. People were thrilled by a rarest-of-rare spectacle -- a debate in Parliament. It lasted barely five hours and ended in an anticlimax, but that brief interlude was sheer excitement for citizens who had seen several thousand hours being wiped out in the last dozen or so years by Parliamentarians uninterested in anything but shouting. August 12 was a tonic.

It was also a reminder of the presence in our Parliament of some brilliant members. (The more the pity that they often ignore their primary responsibilities to the people who elect them). We saw some great performances -- great speeches, smart repartees, sharp attacks and sharper counter attacks. The art of give and take was on full display. All of which showed that these men and women have it in them to serve the country creditably if they want to. Ay there's the rub: If they want to.

Since there is not much hope in that direction, the best we can do is to enjoy the cut and thrust of the day. Perhaps the best gem was Arun Jaitley's description of Rahul Gandhi. "The difficulty with Rahul", he said, "is that he is an expert without knowledge". It cut deep because of its truth, but it stopped short of reaching the classical status of V. S. Achuthanandan's description of Rahul Gandhi as Amul Baby.

Sushma Swaraj's basic query to Rahul was how much his family made from Italian manipulator Quattrochi. Rahul fielded it by asking how much Sushma's family made from cricket manipulator Lalit Modi. But the match was by no means equal. The experienced Sushma scored high from the way she framed her charges. When you go on your next long vacation, Rahulji, she said with mock respect, read up on the history of your family, then ask, Mamma, why did daddy allow the killer of 15,000 people in Bhopal escape?

That black episode needs to be brought up from time to time. Warren Anderson, boss of Union Carbide that caused the Bhopal gas tragedy, was given special aircraft to travel to Delhi and from there to escape to US in December 1984. Why? Six months later, the day Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi landed in Washington on an official visit in June 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed clemency papers releasing from jail an Indian named Adil Shahriyar as "a goodwill gesture" and "for reasons of state".

Adil Shahriyar was a Delhi VIP, son of Yunus Chacha as Indira Gandhi's children called Mohammed Yunus, a towering family retainer. A playmate of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, Adil's pastime was taking off with other people's cars and abandoning them after a few spins. Yunus Chacha had lamented that his son had "fallen into bad company". How bad became public when he was given a 35-year jail sentence in the US for importing illegal substances and trying to fire-bomb a cargo ship in Florida to collect insurance fraudulently. Release from prison did not help Adil; he died not long after due to "ill health and disillusionment".

The Gandhi family's cupboards are so full of skeletons that it really does not require Sushma Swaraj's oratorial skills to rattle them. On the contrary, she would have gained respect if she had admitted that she could have handled the Lalit Modi affair more wisely. To say that the fugitive got UK residency rights during Congress regime is like Congress saying that they are disrupting Parliament because the BJP did so.

Democracy demands mutual accommodation by the ruling party and the opposition. When one or both sides say I-do-no-wrong-you-do-no-right, democracy stalls. Last week's debate could have been a new beginning. The Congress had climbed down from its obstinate position that no debate would be allowed unless tainted ministers resigned. The BJP also had softened its stand that it would not allow a debate adjourning other business. But that spirit of accommodation did not continue. What we saw instead was a virulent attack on the entire Gandhi family, raising passions on both sides. Prime Minister Modi contributed his mite by staying conspicuously away from the debate despite his being leader of the House.

How will confrontationalism help? Having practised obstructionism in its days in the opposition, the BJP cannot now say it is Snow White. Its plans to have a high-power "Expose Congress" campaign in primarily Congress constituencies in the country will only increase tensions further. It's time to pause for a moment and ask: Where are we headed?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Let's be grateful for MPs stalling Parliament; It has given us great photos to learn from

In political terms it was something of a sensation, unprecedented and, till now, unimaginable: Sonia Gandhi took part in a public demonstration, shouting slogans with gusto, raising her arm, fist clenched, to stab the air for emphasis. It was as though she had begun, not at the top, but at the level of a Youth Congress agitator working her way up through street practice and lathi charges.

Only days earlier a different sort of sensation had taken place at the same spot on Parliament grounds. This time it was the ruling BJP that staged a public protest. In response to Congress MPs demanding the resignation of corrupt BJP leaders, now BJP MPs demanded the resignation of corrupt Congress leaders.

The irony did not go unnoticed. Both the groups staged their shows in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, a man who would punish close associates like J.B.Kripalani for the smallest lapses concerning the tiniest sums of money. Ironic, too, was ruling MPs protesting outside the House against opposition MPs protesting inside the House. Taunted an opposition leader: The almighty of the country, supposed to run the House -- To whom are they sending demands?

Seven decades of democracy find us in a situation of the almighty vs others. The consolation is that the roles seem interchangeable. The almighty of only a year ago is now shouting slogans against the almighty of today. The Congress demonstration, however, yielded for posterity photographs of historical importance. A close look provides glimpses into the body language, the gestures, the facial expressions and the general drift of today's Congressmen.

Sonia Gandhi is, of course, the focus of all the photographs. She radiates confidence and happiness reflecting the infallibility she enjoys in the Congress. She knows that if she points to the mid-day sun and says it is the moon, Congressmen will say in chorus, "The moon, the moon".

Rahul Gandhi is the other personification of total confidence. He does not shout or wave his arm in protest. He knows he does not have to prove his loyalty to anyone. People like Anand Sharma provide examples of the opposite kind. In some photos he is somewhere at the back. In others he has come to the row immediately behind Sonia, no doubt pushing himself forward for attention. That, after all, is what politics is all about.

K.Antony is of a different kind. Examine the pictures and we can see Sonia taking Antony's arm and drawing him closer to her side. But looming behind Antony is Gulam Nabi Azad with his two arms dangling loosely over Antony's shoulders. A photographer out to capture the long and short of politics could not have arranged his subjects more imaginatively, the top of Antony's head dramatically below the bottom of Azad's chin. Now we know why the North is always head and shoulders above the South in Delhi's perception.

But the most impressive figure in all the photographs is Manmohan Singh, immovable, impenetrable and changeless. He is like Parliament House itself; terrorists may attack, whole sessions may get washed out, but those massive pillars stand there motionless, soundless -- like Manmohan Singh. In fact, during the twin demonstrations, Mahatma Gandhi's face looked more expressive by comparison.

Is it time to give the Mahatma some respite? Just because an imposing statue of his stands guard on Parliament grounds, it does not mean that his peace should be disturbed by MPs who want to score points over other MPs. If the bedlam they create inside the House is not enough for them, why not have a less hallowed spot for purposes of competitive slogan shouting? Perhaps the car park. Perhaps the entrance steps which will have the added advantage of stopping brother MPs from entering or exiting.

In London's Parliament Square, featuring several statues including one of Gandhi, demonstrations are illegal. In fact the British have successfully kept London free of traffic-stopping demonstrations by developing the Hyde Park Corner as a venue for any protestor to protest about anything under the sun.

Our Jantar Mantar comes pretty close to that concept. Couldn't the MPs go there and hold their protests and leave the Mahatma alone? They might consider it infradig to protest at a spot where every Tom, Dick and Hazare protests. But they can regain their VIP status by returning to Parliament and having a chicken biriyani subsidised by the poor. The game is always the same: Either MPs win and the people lose, or people lose and MPs win.

Monday, August 3, 2015

We had values in public life, then we lost them. Now we have only dream-givers to guide us

Bharthruhari, king of Ujjain, elder brother of Vikramaditya and sage poet who gave us subhashita, inspirational verse, was talking of life's abiding values when he wrote

It is generosity
that ornaments the hand;
for the head, it is
bowing to one's teacher's feet;
upon the lips, true speech;
within the ear
the faultless words of scripture;
pure conduct in the heart,
and in victorious arms
brave self-reliance:
Such is the jewellery of the great
which needs no riches.

That was in the 5th century. The values he mentioned were no doubt universal and eternal, but how relevant are they in our times? Ours is not an age of poets, thinkers, philosophers and mentors. Ours is the age of politicians. Not politicians who make at least an effort to honour their promises, but politicians who are beasts of prey -- and the only ones who prey systematically on their own species.

There was a time when politicians did have a sense of values. It is fashionable these days to say that the first 60 years of India were wasted and that the next six years will make the country great. This is a political untruth. During the first 30 of the 60 years, there was indeed a sense of values among politicians. The Nehru years might have lost precious time on account of socialism, but let us not forget that socialism in those days stood for fairplay and social justice. That was why when a reckless businessman used the government-owned LIC for corrupt dealings, the finance minister took moral responsibility and resigned. Or when a nasty train accident shook the country, the railway minister resigned on moral grounds.

It was with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency that things changed and a ruling class emerged with diminishing respect for values. Today even chief ministers caught in indefensible misconduct never say sorry, let alone resign. Democracy has become no more than a shell: Where those in power should be serving the people, today the people serve those in power.

Plato must have known this when he outlined his utopian theories about the philosopher-king. His principal proposition was that only politicians who would gain no personal advantage from the policies they pursued would be fit to govern. Could the father of Western philosophy have been unaware of the impracticality of his theory? By defining who was fit to govern, he was perhaps warning us that those who were unfit to govern would in reality govern us.

That was what happened across the world down the ages. Look at just a few of the personifications of cruelty and corruption that marked the present generation -- Idi Amin of Uganda, Nicolae Ceausescue of Rumania, Bokassa of Central African Republic, Pinochet of Chile and Henry Kissinger who set US policies when Pinochet rose and Allende was assassinated, Richard Nixon who turned the Vietnam war into the most ecologically destructive in human history, the George Bush-Dick Cheney team that wiped out the civilisational history of Babylon on false grounds. (For politeness' sake, let us leave out the Indian examples of corruption and malfeasance). Obviously much of the world is governed most of the time by people unfit to govern.

When elephants are hunted down by ivory agents with the connivance of forest guards, when our mountains are levelled by the quarry mafia and our rivers are killed by the sand mafia, when half of Goa was dug up and exported, when politicians benefit from every project put up in the name of development (in Kerala's Vizhinjam Port project, there was only one tender; how convenient), then we know -- and accept helplessly -- that we are governed by people unfit to govern.

That helplessness, and the sense of despair emanating from it, have been the conditioning influences of our life for many decades now. We protest and fight, but we also adjust and compromise for people everywhere just want to get on with their lives and make the best of what they can. When they see a rare straw of hope, they hail it and cling to it and derive from it the happiness they desperately seek. This explains the unprecedented outpouring of love and admiration for APJ Abdul Kalam. He told us that dreams were not something we saw in sleep, but something that made us too excited to sleep. He was a teacher of India in the line of Mahatma Gandhi. He was a dreamer for India in the tradition of Jawaharlal Nehru. Kalam will live on.