Friday, December 25, 2009

Festivals? They are all business now

The end of anything is supposed to cause gloom. But the end of a year magically produces rejoicing everywhere. Is this because one year’s death is another year’s birth? And because a new year always means new hopes? It’s rather like the sentiment behind the saying, “ The King is dead, long live the King”.

But royal successions have not been commercialised as cynically as our festivals have been. Every celebration today, religious or social, is an occasion for high-pitched marketing frenzy. Look at Diwali, for example. It’s one of our most beautiful festivals whether you see it as a harvest festival or as a religious one signifying Rama’s return to Ayodhya or Lakshmi’s emergence during the churning of the ocean. Today the lovely act of lighting diyas is a minor formality. The big focus is on “Diwali Special Sale” in shops, gifting of expensive dry fruits and sweets hampers, and of course the bursting of fire-crackers, the more deafening the better. Families spending ten lakhs rupees on an hour of fireworks are common.

Christmas also has been hijacked. Jesus Christ was a Palestinian with a Palestinian skin tan and black hair. But devotional photographs make him look like a Scandinavian with blue eyes and blonde hair. Bethlehem where he was born could never have seen snowfalls. Yet Christmas is full of snows and reindeer and stuff. Santa Claus, who is at the centre of it all, is the ultimate affront. He was invented by Coca-Cola to publicise its product. Today he symbolises the profiteering streak of the gift industry. Noticed the avalanche of advertising by cake shops, the red Santa caps on sale at traffic junctions? That’s the low end. The high end is in jewellery shops and watch boutiques.

We have even manufactured some modern-day festivals out of sheer imagination with the prime idea of selling merchandise. Whoever invented Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was a marketing genius. The greeting card business is worth millions of dollars. Half of those millions must be getting splurged on Valentine’s Day alone because that is one manufactured festival that has got a boost from our vigilante moral police. Perhaps the vigilantes are salesmen in disguise deputed by the card manufacturers –like the hooch makers who financed Prohibition Week celebrations in the moral days of Morarji Desai.

Even our media gets the itch when the year comes to a close. Magazines come out with “Special Double Issues”, meaning issues with more jingling advertisements. All of them publish their listings of “Books of the Year” which are usually occasions for literary pundits to give a pat to their pet authors. They also have a perennial routine called Person of the Year. A brave magazine or two might choose an unknown social worker who has dedicated his life to the service of the poor and the sick. But most play a pointless game. Especially our TV channels who imitate one another in picking the likes of Manmohan Singh and A.R. Rehman and Rahul Gandhi as the “Person” or “Indian” or “Businessman” of the year. The foundation in all cases is lucrative sponsorships.

But in an age when commerce rules the world, why complain? Perhaps the only thing we can wish is for a magazine or channel to provide a variation on the hackneyed theme in the spirit of a British Ambassador who broke rank half a century ago. A Washington radio station had telephoned various ambassadors in the US capital asking what they would like in the New Year. The French Ambassador said he wanted “Peace throughout the world”. The Russian Ambassador said: “Liberation for all the peoples enslaved by imperialism”. Then the British Ambassador said: “Very kind of you to ask. I’d quite like a box of chocolates”.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Seas are rising. Is the end nigh?

Never in human history have so many got together for so long to achieve so little on the weather. Everyone in Copenhagen knew that it was all about the earth’s survival, yet no one was willing to take the actions they knew they should. The rich were unwilling to cut down on the luxuries they had got accustomed to while the not-so-rich were unwilling to cut down on their desire for the same luxuries. So rhetoric replaced reality. Result: The danger level is up by another degree.

Weather is a boring subject. But this conference has been of life-and-death importance. The best way to understand it is to look at it from the perspective of history. At the end of the last ice-age (about 9000 to 10,000 years ago) catastrophes wrecked the world. Great icecaps from northern Europe and north America melted down, massive floods swept across the globe, sea levels rose as much as 100 meters devouring 25 million square kilometers of land, which is equal to about seven Indias or three Australias.

There are ominous signs that similar things may be happening again because of rising temperatures. The past ten years have been the warmest in recorded history. Unprecedented droughts and floods caused tens of thousands of deaths even in Europe and the US. Antarctica has been losing at least five billion tons of ice every year since 2006. U S vice-president turned environmentalist Al Gore’s estimate of a 20-foot rise in sea levels “in the near future” may sound alarmist. But even sober predictions put the rise at 18 to 59 centimeters by the end of the 21st Century. If the Antarctic glacial melting is also factored in, the rise could be four to six metres. Alarming enough.

Now we can appreciate the desperation that drove the Maldivian Cabinet to hold a meeting at the bottom of the sea and the Nepalese Cabinet to meet on the peaks of the Himalayas. Maldives will be one of the first nations to disappear if the seas rise a wee bit. As for the Himalayas, a Hollywood movie last year showed a gigantic monster of a tsunami sweeping over its peaks.

That may be a filmic exaggeration, but the title of that picture, “2012”, was not chosen on a whim. Some cultures hold 2012 as the year in which the world as we know it will come to an end. This “superstition” started because the Long Count Calendar of the Mayan civilisation ended with that year. Modern-day media have taken up the cry. History Channel’s “2012: End of Days” and Discovery Channel’s “2012: Apocalypse” were popular television hits.

Even those who reject doomsday beliefs should have no difficulty accepting that many ancient human settlements are today under water. Ruins of a well-developed township about a mile from the Mahabalipuram shoreline were discovered last year by a joint Indo-British team. A city five miles long and two miles wide lies 120 feet under water in the Gulf of Cambay. Similar submerged settlements exist off Egypt, Greece, Cuba, Japan.

Against the backdrop of this long history of the ocean gobbling up coastal areas, we can see the sense in the proposal made by oceanographic specialists in India that human dwellings should be at least half to one kilometer away from the shoreline. But our land developers and real estate lobbies proudly defy such counsel. Our hungry politicians and hungrier bureaucrats support them. We let hazardous wastes to be dumped irresponsibly, our rivers to be systematically killed by sand mafias. In Copenhagen the world’s worst polluters fought for their right to pollute. Perhaps we deserve what the Bhagavatam has predicted for us: Lord Kalki will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared to dress as Kings.

Friday, December 11, 2009

From patriotism to parochialism

There is something disruptive about the idea of linguistic states. But the idea received sanctity from the earliest days of the independence movement. The Congress was organised along the lines of linguistic pradeshes. In that sense Potti Sriramulu had the backing of nationalist fashion when he fasted to death in 1952 for a Telugu state. All of India was then reconfigured along linguistic lines.

The basic argument always was that linguistic structuring will facilitate development of both the language and the state. A half century later we can see the hollowness of this argument. Development of language has boiled down to the meaningless campaign for “classical status” for one’s language. What on earth does this status signify? Is Raj Thackeray’s violent chauvinism helping Marathi develop? As for development of the state, there is not a single case so far of linguistic identity having helped a state progress. On the contrary, it has produced undisguised enmities among states. Just look at the war-like posturings of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra over water sharing. The next stage will be when one-dimensional leaders like Mulayam Singh and M.K. Azhagiri become the rulers of the land – unable to talk to one another or understand one another. It will be not unity in diversity, but disunity in distrust.

And now even language as a symbol of patriotism has become passé. The success of Chandrasekhara Rao’s death-fast threat for Telangana takes the game to parochialism of a negative kind. His objective is personal gain. He had lost his political base, lost his party allies and lost even the recent elections in the state. Now, in one fell sweep, he has assured himself the chief ministership of Telangana State if and when it materialises. A classic case of zero to hero.

This is good for Chandrasekahara Rao and bad for Telengana and very bad for India. It is bad for Telangana because Chandrasekhara Rao is just a run-of-the-mill politician. Any government he heads will be one more exercise in the usual sharing of spoils. The beneficiaries will be opportunists like Deputy Superintendent of Police Nalini who resigned at the nick of time, made the right noises about Telangana being oppressed and went straight to visit the ailing Chandrasekhara Rao. Resignations and rioting have taken place against dividing the state, showing that a new Telangana state will be sailing in stormy seas. Hyderabad’s pre-eminence as a supra-Telangana megalopolis will add to the tensions. A likely attempt by Chandrasekhara Rao to anoint his son Rama Rao as heir apparent will create a precarious situation akin to Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son Jagan is currently facing.

India, poor India, will not split apart as Yugoslavia did after Tito, but its sense of unity will be severely tested. After all, we are facing a situation where even people who speak the same language are unable to stay together. Then what about the ten other demands for new states? The Gorkhaland campaign has already been revived with plans for multiple fasts unto death, a dig that makes Chandrasekhara Rao look rather foolish. Justifications abound for new Saurashtra, Bhojpur, Mithilanchal, Vidarbha states. Very strong indeed is the case for Kodagu. With a history, culture, lifestyle and socio-economic background that set it apart from surrounding regions, Kodagu’s distinctiveness is more manifest than Pondicherry’s.

Such valid cases for statehood should be winnable through democracy’s fair means. Each time Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast, it was invariably an example of complete selflessness. He was like Bharata who started a hunger strike when Rama refused to end his exile as Bharata had pleaded. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we have turned fasts unto death into a blackmailing tactic. Every time the tactic wins, the forces of good lose.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A rare case of wit and wisdom

Among the Prime Ministers of India, who was the most intellectually proficient? The temptation is to point to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Cantabrigian who conversed with Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein, who wrote classical books and masterpieces of English prose like the Tryst-with-destiny speech and the description of the Ganga in his last will and testament.

But, as in all human affairs, don’t glamour and charisma give an edge to Nehru’s appeal? By the same token, doesn’t the complete absence of glamour and charisma in P.V.Narasimha Rao tend to hide his intrinsic worth? As Prime Minister PVN made himself notorious as the Mouna Muni, saying not a word when scandals rocked him and the country. His pouting lips were notorious too, but at least cartoonists loved them. For all that, wasn’t he the finest intellectual who sat in the Prime Minister’s chair?

This is an inopportune time to bring up the subject of Narasimha Rao. For one thing, the Gandhi dynasty’s penchant to bury non-dynasty leaders as immaterial has kept PVN in the forgotten category. Remember how his body was refused entry into the AICC headquarters, and how they turned down the family’s request for a site to bury him in the capital. For another, Liberhan’s report on Babri Masjid demolition has revived memories of PVN’s inexcusable inaction when organised fanatics pulled down the mosque and unleashed a tidal wave of religious violence across the country.

But, inopportune or not, it has to be recognised that PVN remains in a class of his own as a thinker, writer and scholar. His sense of humour was of the kind that only people of refined taste and erudition could have. A sample of this disarming attribute has just come to light through Mainstream weekly. In November 2003 he was to release a book on India-Pakistan by the late Nikhil Chakravartty, the most consequential editor of his generation. He was unable to do so and wrote the following explanation to Mainstream’s current editor and Nikhil’s son Sumit:

“I am extremely sorry I cannot join you at your function on the 3rd. Because of excruciating back pain I have had to be admitted to the hospital just now. The treatment is simple: Lie on a flat bed, no one knows how long. There is no way I can move, except my moving along with my flat bed to the venue of the meeting. We are told that Lord Vishnu used to move along with his snake-bed, but I thought I would spare myself the responsibility of Godhood after what all I have already gone through as a human”.

Wit and wisdom came naturally to PVN, a master of thirteen languages who could read Greek, Latin and Sanskrit classics, impress Fidel Castro with his Spanish, speak Urdu stylishly, translate novels from Marathi to Telugu, from Telugu to Hindi, and give guest lectures in German and American universities. He as an expert on classical military doctrines and a well-honed aficionado of music, cinema and theatre. He was the closest India got to Plato’s philosopher-king.

Look at the contrast. Singularly unblessed men like Charan Singh and Deve Gowda have also sat in the prime ministerial chair. Ashok Gehlot’s Congress Government in Rajasthan today has a minister, Golma Devi, who could barely read her oath card and took three days to learn how to sign her appointment letter. And she is minister of state for nothing less than Home, Civil Defence and Rural Industries. In Karnataka a wanton family that plunders the earth controls the Government. Unworthy men and women abound in Parliament. These are the realities that should make us grateful that a man like P.V.Narasimha Rao, warts and all, lived in our midst once upon a time.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Aapka swagat hai. Of course

The sari is perhaps the most gracious dress a woman can wear. But it does not lend itself to fashion variations like a Western woman’s gown does. The Indian male faces the same disadvantage as his dress too is confined to a black bandh-gala shut jacket. The Western male can mark formal occasions with back tie and cummerbund. Or white tie and tails.

At the much-discussed state dinner at the White House, our Prime Minister looked extremely well dressed. But the style was the same as on any other occasion: black shut-coat suit and trademark blue turban. Barack Obama’s dress showed that it was indeed a special occasion: black bow-tie and black studs on a starched white shirt. Ratan Tata and Amartya Sen wore exactly the same Western outfit showing the advantage non-officials have over government leaders.

When it came to the ladies, the contrast was even sharper. Shrimati Gursharan Kaur is a naturally elegant lady. And she looked doubly so in her formal sari. But there was no way she could transcend the familiar look of the familiar sari-blouse combo. Michelle Obama could draw upon an entire culture that thrives on variety and invention. She got herself an all-new look with a shimmering silver-scquinned cream-and-gold strapless gown and matching wrap. Her fashion designer was given full credit. The sari is not designer-oriented. It can be worn in different styles of course – Bengali, Maharashtrian, Kodagu, Mylapore. But it remains essentially the sari.

If you are the Shilpa Shetty type, you can indeed claim that your sari is specially designed by Tahiliani. All it means is that the designer has worked a bundle of diamonds and pearls and stuff on to the sari to make it worth a crore to two. But it too is draped the familiar sari way. Bollywood has done its best to take the sari’s waistline to the netherworld and to let the blouse make its presence unfelt. Even then the sari ensemble remains what it has been from grandmothers’ times.

Obviously style maketh state dinners. Just as well that our Prime Minister and his wife could, in their own traditional ways, present stylish profiles. It might have been different with, say, Deve Gowda. Remember his visit to Davos for the economic forum? Sticking bravely to his native style, he became the Man With the Flying Dhoti in Switzerland. Earlier Prime Minister Morarji Desai was known to take a goat along on his foreign trips. For obvious reasons.

As in style and protocol, so in substance we have reasons to be satisfied with Manmohan Singh’s Washington visit this time. This is worth noting because there were apprehensions that he would be, like he was during the George Bush days, a supplicant anxious to please America. In fact, he did something very different. About a month before the visit, India bought 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF for $ 6.7 billion. The world was stunned by this open vote of no-confidence in the American dollar. Manmohan Singh did make some reassuring noises in his speeches in Washington, but the gold stayed firmly in India as a hedge against the dollar.

Obama for his part had to make reassuring noises to balance his exaggerated attempts to please China a few days earlier. He had hailed China as a great nation, but made it a point to hail India as a great nation of free people – a small change with a big meaning. Besides, he didn’t dare say a word in Mandarin when he was in China, but he managed all of ‘Aapka swagat hai’ in Hindi. The pronunciation was terrible, but the applause was warm. In the end, that’s what sate dinners are all about, aren’t they?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A wall collapses, the world changes

Our press and patriots made quite a splash to mark the 25th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s tragic death. As it happened, it was also, to significant sections among us, the 25th anniversary of the tragic massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. So the controversies will go on, the accusations not blunting the justifications. The violations of the time were as heinous as the loyalties were blind.

In the hurly-burly of the Indira Gandhi emotions, we barely noticed the 20th anniversary of an event that changed the course of history – the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It was of course much more than the pulling down of a wall that separated communist territory from Western Europe. It was the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and, in effect, two years later, the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Those epochal developments were interpreted narrowly in America. Many gave the credit to Ronald Regan’s manoeuvres. Some talked about the end of Communism. Others went so far as to see the end of history. Europe was more mature in its interpretations. Some analysts argued that the US did not win the cold war as much as the Soviet Union lost it. Most welcomed the newfound freedom of Eastern European countries while regretting the “political arrogance” among prosperous Western Europeans towards the poorer Easterners.

Twenty years later Eastern Europe is still relatively poor. In the great, beautiful city of Berlin itself, where the wall stood in grotesque defiance of both history and geography, the merger of the drab East with the vibrant West is still incomplete. Even attitudes are taking time to re-adjust. But these are transitional problems that should not distract attention from the revolutionary nature of what has happened after the Berlin Wall came down.

To believe that Mikhael Gorbachev was responsible for the Soviet Empire’s fall would be to fall into a trap. Powerful as the Soviet Union was – no one can deny Stalin’s profound achievements in building the country into a military powerhouse that could withstand both Hitler’s onslaughts and subsequent American strategies of containment – the country had begun haemorrhaging from within long before Gorbachev ascended the hot seat.


Militarisation was at the expense of everything else. Factories had no time to produce essentials and therefore shortages made the lives of people miserable. In time such harsh realities produced tensions and the widespread, if un-expressed, feeling that they were suffering when others (in the West) were living well. AT the same time, the financial resources of the country were drained by what were seen as unavoidable overseas exercises of superpowers in the cold war era – supporting guerilla movements in various developing countries and sustaining economic ties (which meant huge subsidies) with “friendly” regimes like Mongolia, Cuba and East European satellites. Gorbachev’s contribution was merely his refusal to use violence to suppress local self-assertion movements.

When the mighty Soviet colossus fell, two after-shocks rocked the world. The first was the recognition that rigid socialism that denied basic comforts to citizens was unsustainable, that aspects of capitalism that allowed individual freedoms had a natural appeal to human nature. The second was the acceptance of these realities by China’s Deng Hsiaoping. The internal party reforms that Deng introduced became a backbone of China’s advancement – from limiting the President’s term to two to allowing the profit motive to work its magic.

The progress China has made after the Soviet Union’s collapse is extraordinary by any standard. Capitalism’s evils like corruption and crime have also spread in China, but the country has achieved an international status that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. The hammer strokes that reverberated from Berlin in 1989 have re-ordered the world in the most unexpected ways – and mostly for the better.

Friday, November 13, 2009

India goes unipolar, alas!

What happened to the world a generation ago is happening to India now. When the Soviet Union collapsed, America became the world’s only policeman and George Bush put that status to diabolic use. With the BJP and the Communists writing their own death warrants, the Congress is becoming the choiceless face of a unipolar India. The odious potential of this can be seen in the party spokesman’s proclamation that the Congress triumphed in the latest bye-elections due solely and wholly to Rahul Gandhi’s “vision”. The spokesman did not say that Typhoon Phyan spared Mumbai because of the foresight and perspicacity of Rahulji. For this mercy, much thanks.

Of course Rahul Gandhi is an asset to the Congress. He has gained experience and does not make vapid statements of the kind that marked his early days. But to see him as the sole depository of wisdom is to belittle the Congress and, worse, to signal a new phase of unrestricted, all-consuming sycophancy.

Film star Raj Babbar won in Firozabad because of (a) his star appeal and (b) people’s disgust at Mulayam Singh fielding his son first and this time the son’s raw, inexperienced wife – as though Firozabad was a private fiefdom and the voters his vassals. To ignore these crucial factors and attribute the Congress win there to the “Rahul factor” is self-deception. Where was the Rahul factor in the nine out of eleven seats that Mayawati won despite Rahul’s systematic campaign against her in recent months?

Mayawati will remain a bubble for a few more years. But even she must have realised by now that she has no hope in hell outside UP despite the disbursement of vast sums of money. In Maharashtra this time she contested in 281 seats – and lost the deposit in 252. Not that Maharashtra’s well-wishers have reasons to rejoice. For the MNS ( Maharashtra Nava-rowdi Sena) has won some seats and already demonstrated how they plan to hold the state to ransom.

Like the Reddys are holding Karnataka to ransom. The cabinet, the civil service, the police force and the party high command have all been brought under the thumb of one family which makes no bones about its intentions to milk this once-proud state for its private profit. This is the most lurid evidence yet of the decline and fall of the BJP. With “new generation” leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley succumbing to the pulls of money power, there is no likelihood of the BJP finding a viable identity of its own in the foreseeable future.

The most disappointing – and the least surprising – of political collapses is the CPM’s. Not a single seat won in West Bengal. Not a single seat won in Kerala. What a fall for a party built on the dreams of the masses. Yet it surprises no one because the party of the proletariat had become the party of five-star leaders. The Bengal leaders at least accepted their defeat and said they would try to correct their ways. The Kerala leaders are justifying themselves by saying that the percentage of their votes had gone up and that anyway it was all the fault of an abominable media conspiracy.

A new left force is what the hapless electorate of India badly needs. The first requirement for such a turn-around is the resignation of failed leaders like Prakash Karat, Buddhadev Bhattacharya and Pinarayi Vijayan. Buddha perhaps may be willing to leave. The other two won’t. So the CPM will go down further in the days ahead. Which is another way of admitting that Rahulji will remain the vision for India. Watch for the party spokesman’s take when Typhoon Phyan comes our way next time.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Kingdom of Money is here

There is a strong case for Bellary to be made a separate state, if not an independent, sovereign republic. That such a consummation will save both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh from political paralysis is only an incidental benefit. The real gain will be the restoration of Bellary’s ancient royal glory under new kings.

Bellary is today mistaken for a backwater area. Some think it is Sonia Gandhi’s birthplace. Some others believe that Sushma Swaraj went to school under a Bodhi tree there and emerged a Kannada bhasha visharad. Such rumours merely spread the impression that any Tom, Dick, Gandhi and Swaraj can descend upon Bellary in an election helicopter and claim proprietory rights over the district.

Actually Bellary is a treasurehouse shaped over the centuries by the best of empire builders, the greatest of conquerors, the bravest of warriors. The Mauryas put their stamp on it followed by the Satavahanas and the Pallavas, the Kadambas, the Badami Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas. Then came the Kalyani Chalukyas, the Southern Kalachuryas, the Sevuna Yadavas and the Hoysalas, the Deccan Sultanates, the Marathas and the Mughals. Southern supremacy was re-established thereafter by Hyder Ali of Mysore.

What a splendid procession of cultures, customs, traditions and fashions! What a heritage! But have you noticed a glaring lacuna? From the Mauryas and Yadavas to the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas, everyone was there. But not the Reddys. The absence of such a heroic and ancient dynasty was a blot on the fair face of Bellary.

So God decided to step in for the second time. The first time was when the Rakshasa named Bella was working havoc in the region. Indra appeared and slayed the demon, thus giving Bella-ari its name. This time God did a double whammy. He put both the Kingdom of Bellary and the Kingdom of Kadapa under Reddy dynasties. After all, Kadapa and Anantapur were part of Bellary until the British separated them.

As the two Kingdoms restored Bellary-Kadapa unity, the earth yielded great wealth. The new Kingdoms together threw away inter-state boundary markers, cut roads through forests, and generally tore to pieces what modern Rakshasas called the laws of the land. To ensure efficiency Bellary annexed Karnataka as its hinterland and Kadapa annexed Andhra Pradesh as its satellite.

The two Kingdoms ignored political boundaries as well. The Kadapa dynasty wore Congress colours while the Bellary dynasty sported the BJP’s colours. The colours were only for decorative effect. On the ground, they were one and the same, united in their determination to show the meaninglessness of party labels. They were so successful that they could tell their High Commands to go jump into the Yamuna.

Collaborative money-making cemented their unity. The Kadapa Congress dynasty gave 17,000 acres of land to the Bellary BJP dynasty to set up a steel plant costing Rs 26,000 crores. Look at those figures again and recall how that small-time company, Tatas, struggled to get 997 acres in Singur and finally opened in Ahmedabad with a paltry investment of Rs 2000 crores. Not a mouse stirred in Kadapa’s 17,000 acres. In well-run Kingdoms mice are profoundly development conscious.

Now we can see how Bellary as a separate state can do wonders for India. It can fund all the steel mills in India and all the political parties in India and all elections in India. One source funding all parties will be great for unity. The Sovereign Republic of Bellary can do the same for the world. Imagine Pakistan and the Taliban and Israel and Hamas coming to Bellary for bail-out packages. Money will hold the world together. Money, the Ultimate Truth. Money, the Supreme High Command. Money, that answereth all things. Duddu-avasyamidham Sarvam.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shankara: The power of passion

The defining quality of those who leave footprints behind them is passion. What is described in literature as Magnificent Obsession. Many of us do our jobs conscientiously, even efficiently. But not many of us are driven by the passion to do what appears difficult to do. Passion is the dividing line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

It was passion that made Homi Bhabha take the engineering tripos in Cambridge and then the mathematics tripos and go on to father India's nuclear programme with great flair and foresight. At another end of the spectrum, it was passion that drove Ebrahim Alkazi to turn the National School of Drama into a wonder of India. It was P.K.Nair's passion that made the National Film Archives in Pune a national treasure.

In theatre the outstanding pioneer with passion was Prithviraj Kapur himself. The man with the imperial voice was so obsessed with the theatre that he floated a traveling drama company, Prithvi Theatre, way back in 1944, meeting the expenses of the 150-member troupe with his earnings from films. Today Prithvi Theatre is the most valuable theatrical venue in venue-rich Mumbai. The Kapurs keep the passion going.

Come to think of it, Prithvi Theatre had many advantages -- filmic glamour, Mumbai connections, a connoisseur crowd to draw from. K.V. Subbanna had nothing when he adamantly chose his small Karnataka village of Heggodu as the site of his theatre-film-publishing institute, Ninasam, in 1949. But he had a magnificent obsession. It turned Heggodu into an internationally renowned centre of the arts.

Energy is sometimes mistaken for passion. But they are different. Sharukh Khan is energy, Michael Jackson is passion. Shashi Tharoor is energy, Jairam Ramesh is passion. Sania Mirza is energy, Leander Paes is passion. In fact, passion may not even be accompanied by energy. Narayana Murthy and Bill Gates are outwardly rather un-energetic, what with their slow movements and slow talking style. But the passion is unmistakable.

Shankar Nag combined passion with energy. The result was something like ten men in the form of one man. He was everywhere at once, doing everything at once. Now he was planning a ropeway to Nandi Hills, now a Metro rail for Bangalore, now affordable pre-fab housing for ordinary folks.

Shankar dreamed ahead of his times. But instinctively he was a theatre man forged in the crucible of Marathi theatre in Bombay. Then elder brother Anant became a hit in Kannada cinema and Shankar abandoned Bombay for Bangalore. Marathi's loss was Kannada's gain.

And what a gain! Shankar's versatility made him unique. He cut new paths as director, scriptwriter, organiser as well as actor. He performed with panache in both masala and quality movies. His zestful portrayal of an autorickshaw driver in Auto Raja is still celebrated with numerous Bangalore autos sporting a Shankar photo sticker on their vehicles. Although he kept out of politics, Shankar Nag was the artistic twin of Safdar Hashmi - multifaceted, untiring, creative to the fingertips, dream-driven. Hashmi was killed by political goons, Shankar in a speeding car. Hashmi was 34, Shankar 35. A ridiculous age to die.

Like Hashmi, Shankar lives as a theatre legend. Arundhati Nag has now announced an official website for her late husband. This should be welcomed, not so much for the website itself as the fillip it can give to carrying on Shankar's unfinished business. The most important of these is an art centre for northern Bangalore to match the Ranga Shankara in the city's south. Ranga Shankara became a reality because of one person's, Arundhati's, magnificent obsession. If she can develop one more obsession, there will rise a Shankar Nag Centre for the Arts combining, perhaps, an ultra modern theatre with a cinematheque, a badly needed jewel in Bangalore's crown.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

We use sports to destroy

It’s unpleasant, but true. India’s official set-up does not have the calibre to organise high-end international games. Cricket fests, yes, but something like Commonwealth Games, not to mention the Olympics, is simply beyond the ken of our mandarins.

Other countries garner international respect by holding big-ticket Games in exemplary style. We have already invited an early dose of disrepute with the Commonwealth Games authorities in London going public about India’s unpreparedness. Suresh Kalmadi, the bossman of India’s games establishment, hasn’t got the point. He has picked up a fight with the Games Federation, and announced that all preparations are on track – a demonstrable terminological inexactitude.

The Kalmadis of the establishment are of course the problem. India is the only country where every sports body is headed by a politician. And they are permanent fixtures. K.P.S.Gill had to be bulldozed out of the Hockey Federation’s chair after the whole nation was ashamed by his mismanagement. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi remains President of the Football Federation although he is, unfortunately, incapacitated by illness. BJP’s V.K. Malhotra has been President of the Archery Federation for 30 years. Cricket is controlled by Sharad Pawar and Rajiv Shukla and Arun Jaitley in a unique NCP-Congress-BJP trimurthi coalition. From wrestling to the National Rifle Association, politicians control everything.

The reasons are two-fold. There is a lot of money in sports (and money is to politicians what honey is to ants) and there is a lot of patronage bossmen can dispense at will. There is some obligatory auditing of moneys received, but the sports federations function largely free of accountability. As for privileges and patronage, we only have to remember that Indian sports delegations that go to international meets are notorious for having more officials than athletes in them.

What we lack is a national vision and a national pride. If we had these in sufficient measure, we would have seen in international sports events an opportunity to achieve overall national progress. Barcelona is still remembered for the imagination with which it used the opportunity provided by the Olympics it hosted in 1992. It rebuilt its entire transport system, completely renovated its airport and spruced up its infrastructural facilities. These turned Barcelona into one of the finest cities in Europe.

By contrast, what did we get from the Asian Games in 1982? It gave our political hangers-on a golden chance to praise the organisational genius and fantastic efficiency of Rajiv Gandhi. But the facilities it created were more a blot than a gain for Delhi. Like the destruction of Siri forest for the Asiad Village.

This time too, destruction has been rampant. Delhi University has a disused stadium or two. These could be updated and modernised. Instead they set out to cut hundreds of trees, many of them a century old, to put up a new rugby stadium. Rugby being an unwanted game in India, this expensive stadium will go into disuse after its one-event glory.

Another 891 trees were cut in the Siri forest for basketball/squash courts. A Supreme Court-appointed committee found the site unsuitable anyway and recommended a Rs 5-crore fine on the Delhi Development Authority. Architect Charles Correa quit the Delhi Urban Arts Council refusing to act as a rubber stamp for the unscientific, arbitrary building spree. The Games Village is rising, on the strength of a Supreme Court judgment, on the banks of the Yamuna threatening, according to experts, Delhi’s largest natural groundwater recharge area.

In the end the authorities may blunder through and the Games may open on schedule, but at what cost? The Barcelonas and the Beijings of the world make their cities more liveable under the banner of sports. We destroy what we have. But the politicians are happy. Perhaps that’s all that matters in India that is Bharat.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Genetically engineered India

Prolonged court cases, the Supreme Court’s intervention, scientists’ arguments and vociferous campaigns by civic groups have amounted to nothing. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has allowed commercial cultivation of the dreaded Bt. brinjal. If this decision is ratified by the Government of India, some 170 of our commonest food items will also become chemically altered. Rice and wheat, potatoes and onions, mustard and bananas will all be genetically manipulated for us.

What’s wrong with that? Basically two things. First, GE’s benefits are temporary. In six to nine years the pests develop resistance and the technology falls flat, necessitating increased doses of pesticides. This is already happening in Gujarat where Bt. cotton conquered the market. Sheep grazing in Bt. cotton fields have died. In the case of food crops, GE causes direct health hazards, a fact that has persuaded Japan and Europe to ban GE foods. An Austrian Government report warns that GE foods can cause infertility in humans. The highly rated National Academy of Science in the US has published a finding that dietary DNA can find its way into our blood and transform our body cells. French molecular biologists said, among other things, that rats fed on Bt.brinjal suffered diarrhoea and liver weight loss.

Secondly, the technology forces farmers to buy the engineered seeds separately each season. Which means that the company that supplies the seeds can not only manipulate the prices at will, but also control the entire food security of the country by, for example, supplying inadequate or faulty seeds of rice and wheat one season. Monsanto did use its monopoly to increase prices in 2006 and make excessive profits. The company was taken to court under the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Act. It lost the case.

The brazenness of Monsanto and its Indian face, Mahyco, has been evident in other forms also. Field trials of Bt okra were started in a village in West Bengal on the basis of “permission” given by the local panchayat which of course had no authority to do such things. At another level, the biosafety studies data submitted by Mahyco to GEAC were kept secret. It took a legal battle lasting more than two years to bring them to light. What’s GEAC’s game?

The Biotechnology Regulatory Committee had ruled against Bt.cotton field testing. GEAC ignored it. Open-field testing of Bt.brinjal, not allowed in any other country, was allowed in India under GEAC pressure. The main reason seems to be that GEAC has members who have either done assignments for Mahyco or have partnership agreements with it to develop Bt.brinjal. The names of such members have been made public. The “architect of biotechnology in India”, P.M Bhargava, who was named by the Supreme Court as a special nominee to attend the GEAC meetings, found that test data given to the GEAC was given by the applicant company itself. “At every stage there is a bias if not deceipt all the way”, he said.

K.P.Prabhakaran Nair, Professor at a German Foundation, who chaired a Supreme Court ordered experts committee asked: “Why is the GEAC in such a hurry in this matter? When the scientific truths about GE products are as clear as daylight, why is there hesitation to try alternatives to GE food? Have we learned nothing from the setbacks caused by excessive use of pesticides? In Mexico where the traditional staple is corn, American attempts to introduce genetically engineered corn were rejected. Why is India’s response different?”

Because in India the interests of the few take precedence over the interests of the country. Because India is the paradise of manipulators who can make the impossible possible. Because India, alas, has genetically engineered Indians in key positions.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making a farce of vulgarity, too

Mukesh Ambani’s salary is Rs 44.2 crore a year, about three and a half crore a month. In a country where the poor outnumber the well-to-do, that seems vulgar. On the other hand, the big salary works out to 0.23 percent of the Ambani companies’ net profits. That doesn’t look vulgar.

Sun TV’s Kalanithi Maran and wife Kavery take a salary of Rs 37.08 crore each. That works out to 16.96 percent of their net profits. Is that vulgar? Anil Ambani’s salary is Rs 30.02 crore a year, or two and a half crore a month. Is that vulgar?

The answer is really simple: Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When Serena Williams obliges an ESPN publication by posing in the nude (Good heavens, Serena Williams of all people!) it is vulgar according to the Tennis Federation. But it is inspirational to herself and to others according to Serena. Who is wrong?

Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid might have been speaking in the spirit of the latest government fashion, austerity, when he asked corporate CEOs not to give themselves vulgar salaries. Was he asking them to get on the hypocrisy bandwagon on which government ministers are currently riding? The government’s travel-economy-class movement was a farce from the start. It has been shown up as such by several ministers buying economy class tickets and upgrading themselves on board – an irregularity against which Air India pilots have formally complained.

In the true spirit of farce, the Congress Working Committee recently decreed that all Congress ministers must take a salary cut of 20 percent. This is in a culture where a minister getting a salary of Rs 10,000 routinely gets the Public Works Department to spend Rs 50 lakhs to refurbish his official residence. Irresponsible spending of this kind by a class of public men who create no wealth is what is really vulgar.

Of course wealth creators often go vulgar, too. Some notorious cases came up in America recently when CEOs gave themselves enormous bonuses and other benefits even as their companies were sinking. Asatyam Raju apart, the worst that has come up in India are CEOs indulging in vulgar consumption with yachts and private jets and mansions in world metropolises. They often justify this by saying that politicians demand use of these facilities which make the yachts etc legitimate business expenses.

Besides, CEOs have shareholders and company reports to cope with. Politicians say they have voters to cope with. Which is a half-truth. The way Big Money is spent during election time, it is clear that coping with voters is not what it is supposed to mean. If you have uncountable cash and the muscle power to go with it, voters are negotiable. Think of those Bihar netas who won with big majorities while they were in jail.

The system is elastic enough to facilitate hanky-panky. Consider, for example, the affidavits politicians file at election time. Four MLAs seeking re-election in Haryana this month, all from the Congress, have reported an 800 percent increase in their assets since 2004. If this is not vulgar, what is? Yet, no questions are raised about the sources of this income – not by the Congress Working Committee, not by Salman Khurshid, not even by the Income Tax Department.

Clearly this austerity business is tomfoolery. Vulgarity, like decency, is a state of mind. What doesn’t come from within cannot be enforced by state fiat. The Fifth Pay Commission asked for a 30 percent cut in the number of government employees. (Central Government employees alone number 3.3 million today, not counting defence personnel). A reduction of that kind is the way to meaningful austerity. All else is deception. Of the vulgar kind.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hail the all-American world!

The American dollar may not long remain the natural international currency, job losses may be hurting Americans more than others, and President Obama may no longer look like the magic man he was thought to be. But don’t underestimate America. It will continue to control the world as tightly as ever.

Even at the height of its superpower omnipotence, it was not military-economic might that really gave America the power it wielded. Arms were just the icing. The cake was the cultural hold America established over the hearts and minds of peoples across the world through music and cinema, education and books, food and drinks and glamorous drugs, jeans and T-shirts and brandnames and the thousand tantalising ingredients of pop culture. Each of these ingredients is a throbbing organism with the power to enslave those who come in contact with it. America is the only nation in history to rule others through civilisational conquests.

Look at the number of emotionally charged national symbols it wields. If the first US astronaut, upon landing on the moon, had planted there a bottle of Coca-Cola instead of the American flag, it would have been just as natural. For Americans the Bottle and the Flag are equal in status. The MacDonald Arch, another national emblem, proclaims American supremacy as emphatically as a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal. The way Hollywood has cut across linguistic and cultural barriers around the globe, Bollywood can never match even if Raj Kapoor is a household name in Russia, Amitabh Bachchan in Morocco and Rajnikant in Japan.

Perhaps the most deep-going, subliminal – if also pernicious – mind control weapon at America’s disposal is its news media. We hardly notice it, but we get most of our information about the world through American sources. CNN is the ubiquitous presence in every respectable hotel room in every city in the world. In India this presence is not confined to hotel rooms; CNN is directly involved in one of our national news channels. Rupert Murdoch owns a major entertainment channel.

Our newspaper mughals make much patriotic fuss against foreign direct investment in our media. They forget that even without any investment in shareholdings, foreign interests control their news and features columns. Almost all our papers are dependent on Reuters, AP, AFP and Western Syndicates because our mughals, for all their patriotism, know that maintaining their own bureaus abroad will cost big money. Dependence is cheaper than independence.

American media has been forced to become cost conscious lately, with major newspapers closing and network TV scaling down. But what is left of it is enough to control news and opinion that reach – and influence – much of the world. This was brought freshly home to Asia when the Far Eastern Economic Review formally shut down in Hongkong a few days ago.

From the late 1940s the Review was the most influential weekly in Asia and countries interested in Asia. Its monopoly of influence was broken only in 1975 when Asiaweek quickly gained ground by being proudly Asian as opposed to the Review’s perceived Western (British) stance. But soon the twists and turns of business saw both magazines falling into American hands, the Review into Dow Jones’s and Asiaweek into Time Inc.’s. In due course, Time Inc. killed Asiaweek and Dow Jones ( now a Murdoch property) killed the Review. Murdoch-Dow’s Wall Street Journal and Time Inc.’s Time magazine now fly the American flag over Asia, unchallenged by lesser flags.
‘Asia through Asian eyes’ was the slogan that helped Asiaweek rise. Forget it. You can only have Asia, and the world itself, through American eyes. Hungry kya? Have a MacChicken with Coke. You’ve no choice.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why this cat and mouse show?

As Mr Hardy would have sternly told Mr Laurel: “Well, there’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”. Except that Manmohan Singh and associates are not doing a Laurel and Hardy show. It’s more like a cat and mouse show. India, rising economic power and IT giant, looks today like a cornered mouse being teased and taunted by a gang of sadistic cats.

Consider the fine mess. America’s military boss reports that growing Indian influence in Afghanistan is a problem because it will invite Pakistani counter-measures. Washington is finalising an aid package to beat all previous aid packages to Pakistan. To Indian protests that American-supplied weapons are used by Pakistan against India as Musharraf testified, America replies that Musharraf is a private citizen.

At the UN, America puts unprecedented pressure on India to sign the non-proliferation treaty called NTPT which India has strongly resisted. America tacitly accepted the Indian position when it signed the nuclear deal with India ( during the Manmohan-Bush Bhai Bhai days). But now America says, that was then, this is now.

China puts pressure along the Himalayan border. “Unofficial” blogs talk of India splitting into 20 or more countries while official circles deny a visa to an IAS man from Arunachal Pradesh because Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese, they say. In the wake of reported incursions, Indian military chiefs admit that we cannot match China’s might. Which is what China wants the world to note.

Pakistan does not budge an inch on the Mumbai attack issue. The world knows Pakistan is involved. The US has said so publicly. But Pakistan smartly goes to war against the terrorists who bother America. America then leaves Pakistan free to promote and protect the terrorists who bother India.

The world’s longest ruling dictator, Muammer Gaddaffi, performs in the UN to demand that Kashmir be made an independent nation. Has he been reading Arundhati Roy? Israeli intelligence warns that another Mumbai model attack is being planned by Pakistani jehadists. According to NATO intelligence, Somali pirates have been equipped by Al Quida to attack Indian ships. Australian racists are always ready to attack Indian students. Nepali Maoists are on the look out for any Indian priest lurking around Pasupatinath. LTTE operatives met secretly in Trivandrum recently for a seminar.

It’s almost as if all the sinister forces around the globe have joined hands to torment India. Why? It cannot be that India poses a potential hegemonic threat as Soviet Union once did and China does now. The care with which even adversaries treat China is a case in point. We’ll have to conclude that the world likes to kick India around because (a) the world does not respect India, and (b) India’s internal weaknesses invite a kind of derision.

Despite the Great Leap Forward that caused a famine that killed 20 to 43 million Chinese, and despite atrocities like the Tienanmen Square massacre, China is respected because of the modernity it has achieved and the military might it has built up in a short period. India has made significant progress too, but the large-scale corruption and the continuing influence of middlemen have ensured that a good proportion of our defence budget is wasted. Our military preparedness is not what it should be, or could be.
Our personality-based politics prevent our system from either achieving the national unity required on crucial issues or eliminating social disgraces like poverty and discrimination. Our vast filthy slums and our atrocities against women and dalits are open for all the world to see. No country can allow mass misery among its citizens and win the world’s respect. And a country that is not respected becomes a mouse for cats to kick around.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tricks to learn from Pakistan

Pakistan may be a failed state politically and socially. But it is demonstrably successful militarily and diplomatically. More successful than India, if you want to rub it in, for they have achieved what they set out to achieve. We have not.

Different types of dictators ruled Pakistan. All of them had one immutable objective: Make the world recognise Pakistan as a hyphenated equal of the unequally bigger ( in size, population, economy) India. Pakistan has achieved that objective – in the early days with the connivance of Britain which was an interested party in the India-Pakistan confrontation in the UN over Kashmir, and subsequently with the help of China which ensured that, as soon as India exploded a nuclear device, Pakistan did too.

The smartness with which Pakistan plays the diplomatic game is best reflected in the mileage it gains vis a vis America, and the mileage we do not gain. In the Cold War era, it was simple: Pakistan just joined the American bloc while India ploughed the non-alignment path and thereby incurred America’s wrath.

More recently the game has been subtler. Yet, otherwise bankrupt establishments like Pervez Musharaff’s and Ali Zardari’s have been playing it very cleverly. A US-Israeli strike against Pakistan’s nuclear assets was widely speculated after America expressed fears of the Pakistani bombs falling into Taliban’s hands. Suddenly the Pakistan Government joined the American side and genuinely went to war against the Taliban. Domestically it was a risk, but it won America’s appreciation.

America’s appreciation meant that Pakistan’s real game – making India run around in circles – could be played on Pakistan’s terms. Consider, for example, the toing and froing Pakistan has been doing with great relish over the Mumbai terror attack. And consider America’s all-words-and-no-action reactions to it.

More pointed from America’s policy perspectives was the fact, revealed by the New York Times, that Pakistan had been illegally modifying anti-ship missiles and maritime surveillance aircraft for attacks on India. The US Government lodged a formal protest and Pakistan formally denied the charge. That, for all practical purposes, was that.

As India fumed in its characteristically vegetarian style, Musharaff rubbed salt into the wound saying publicly that arms provided by America to fight Islamic terrorists were instead used to bolster defence against India. Forget his subsequent retraction under pressure, for he was speaking the truth when he said he was “proud he did it for Pakistan”. America said it took Musharaff’s disclosure seriously. That, presumably, was that.

This is the same America that made such a fuss about the end-user clause in its nuclear deal with India. Unlike India, Pakistan uses the clause as a joke. Which seems all right with the US. Last March the Obama administration was reportedly considering increasing developmental aid to Pakistan three times ( current rate $ 450 m. a year) and boosting military aid as well (currently $ 300 m. a year). Obviously, Pakistan knows how to manipulate American yardsticks to its advantage and how to get away with it. Can we imagine a Manmohan Singh or an A.B.Vajpayee signing the end-user agreement as America wants and then twisting it “ proudly for India”.
Adding insult to injury, India paid nearly Rs 13 crores in three years to Barber Griffith and Rogers, a Washington lobbying company, to get the nuclear deal passed by the US Congress. Pakistan also must be employing lobbyists in Washington. But they get in return what they want. We get what the Americans want. As a bonus we also get American travel advisories asking its citizens to stay away from India. Now we know why Ali Zardari is always plastered cheek to cheek with a grin hearty and toothy at once.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

YSR & the problem with empires

By every Indian standard, N.T.Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran were mass heroes of a kind that Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy could never be. The succession battles following their passing were ugly, but relieved by a semblance of ethics. Chandrababu Naidu mounted what looked like a family feud primarily to save his father-in-law’s reputation from the clutches of Lakshmi-Parvathi who suddenly surfaced to claim the late patriarch’s mantle. MGR had a legal wife to claim his mantle, but everyone knew that the politically innocent Janaki was propped up only to block Jayalalitha, the political heir. The gritty heir prevailed in that war.

In the case of YSR, the succession battle has been ugly with no saving grace – a brazen campaign that was tasteless in its haste, and orchestrated in its intensity. Sure, it was done in the name of a genuinely popular leader. Nevertheless, it raises issues that go beyond Andhra. For example, has the dynasty concept become so deeprooted that its proponents don’t care about/perceptions? Also, is the Congress boxing India into a dynastic trap? Barring stray cases in the JD (S) and the BJP, only the DMK matches the Congress in politics by inheritance. But the DMK is a one-state party whereas the Congress influences the whole country.

So why were Andhra Congressmen so desperate for YSR’s son to follow him? One reason could be YSR’s own operational genius. He had built – and now left behind – an industrial and financial empire in which there were many stake holders. Their interests demanded that the empire be secured by passing the reins to someone who was already privy to its inner workings. Hence the vehemence of the lobbying even before the body was in the grave. Hence, too, the importance of YSR’s son.

Jaganmohan Reddy is “inexperienced” only in terms of formal electoral politics. In business and its political management, his experience is vast. No doubt under his father’s tutelage, he acquired and nurtured mines, steel plants, cement factories, power companies, TV channels, newspapers, real estate. This and his latterday induction as MP were clearly meant to make him the custodian of the empire that YSR built.

YSR never allowed a No.2 to grow under him. Even in his Cabinet, there really was no No. 2. All key decisions of all ministries were handled directly by him. K.V.P. Ramachandra Rao was the only confidante whose counsel he valued – for 30 years. It speaks volumes that Rao quietly spent more than an hour in conversation with Sonia Gandhi when the campaign for Jaganmohan Reddy was in full swing in Andhra. All doors in Delhi were open to him.

That’s because YSR was the only regional Congress Chief who was not beholden to the High Command. It was indeed the other way round. After all, he ensured the Congress’s enviable position in Parliament by contributing 33 MPs from Andhra; he was also the biggest fund provider for the party. When other Congress chief ministers waited for the High Command to impose decisions on them, YSR took his own decisions.

Clearly this King of Cadappa was the cleverest politician on the Congress horizon. He secured his financial position through a business empire, his political position by strengthening the party in Delhi and by building strong personal relations with the Gandhi family, and his place in the hearts and minds of the people of Andhra by effectively implementing various welfare/development programmes. Such strong foundations may well come to his son’s aid. But that won’t automatically turn YSJ into YSR. The problem with empires is that they do not always pass from father to son. Even when they do, they do not always stay that way. Ask the King of Nepal.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Of desire, logic and social conscience

The Buddha describes lust/desire as the origin of suffering. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states pointblank that a person consists of desires. For Manu desire is one of humankind’s ten vices. Every source of wisdom warns us against desire, greed, avarice, the craving for more and more.

Yet, desire drives us. The latest example of this is cricket star Harbhajan Singh driving an unlicensed Hummar vehicle in Chandigarh. It may seem like a minor matter, but it is a symptom of what seems to have become a national trait – the arrogance of money.

Even California Governor Aarnold Schwa has given up his Hummar as unnecessarily showy. If an Indian cricketer lusts for this military-type macho car, we can’t stop him. But couldn’t he wait until it was registered? Contempt for such a simple legal requirement comes from arrogance of New Money. He will get away with it, thus justifying the Indian VIP’s contempt for the law.

Our Newly Rich display their wealth with what can only be described as vulgar abandon. Simply put, they lack class. Old Money is more civilised. Can we imagine Ratan Tata or Kumaramangalam Birla importing a Ferrari and asking for tax exemption on it as the other VIP cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, did?

Two characteristics mark out New Money pretenders from Old Money aristocrats. First, their ostentatious consumption is devoid of all logic. What is the logic of construction company boss Amit Bhonsale with three helicopters and twenty-five super luxury cars adding three new super luxury cars to his collection every year? What is the logic of paying Rs 15 lakhs for a bottle (that’s right, just one bottle) of Glenfiddich 50 Years whisky in a Delhi hotel? There’s no logic at all in paying Rs 10,000 for a bottle of Zacapa, a Guatemalan rum, in Mumbai when the 180-rupees Khoday’s rum is just as good except in snob value.

The other characteristic of the arrogant rich is their complete lack of a social conscience. The billions America’s super rich donate to charities is legend. Without the helpful tax structure that encourages philanthropy in America, many corporate entities in India have taken to social responsibility projects in a big way.

Elsewhere the picture is depressing. Some years ago in Bangalore, Amitab Bachchan’s company held a show promising to donate the proceedings largely to charity. That didn’t happen. Then it became known that he had bought land in Maharashtra on the false pretence of being a farmer in UP. Last year he got a show-cause notice after the Director of Revenue Intelligence charged that he walked through the Green Channel without declaring Rs 36 lakhs worth of clothes and accessories he bought in London. Why does one of the richest men in the country get into such problems?

Which is the same as asking: Why don’t our mega stars of sports and entertainment do more than token projects for the needy? The answer has something to do with character. National character, perhaps. Indians hold $ 1500 billion in personal deposits in Swiss banks making them world’s No. 1 in the slush fund league. The No. 2, Russians, hold only one-fourth of what Indians have. The Indian amount can clear our national debt and still leave a surplus the interest on which will be larger than the national budget. That means India can abolish all taxes.
Lovely dream! But note that modern living periodically gives us sobering thoughts. The latest has reminded us, sadly and poignantly, that all power and glory, all Lamborghinis and private jets and yachts can end suddenly in a lonely jungle in the mangled mess of a flying machine. RIP.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

BJP etc: The death of ideology

Power is the sole purpose of politics in India. Without power, parties crumble. The implosion ripping the BJP apart shows how comprehensive the crumbling can be. It is easy to say that BJP’s self-destruct is its internal affair. But there are two reasons why it should be every Indian’s affair.

First, the BJP was the only national formation that rose to challenge the Congress which inherited its all-India mantle from the independence movement. For our nascent democracy, the two-party choice was bad enough given the country’s size and diversity. It grew worse when one of them developed into a family oligarchy and the other pursued a communal divide-and-rule policy. The worst may happen now if the challenger leaves the arena and the voter is left with a choice of one. That will put us on par not with China but North Korea, for though China has a one-party system, it has no family rule.

We would not have come to this pass if the Congress had accepted Mahatma Gandhi’s advice and disbanded itself upon the attainment of independence. That would have facilitated Jawaharlal Nehru leading a progressive centrist party and Sardar Patel a conservative platform. Trade unionists and sundry radicals would have found their own left-of-centre perch in such a dispensation, giving democracy a natural environment to grow.

But Nehru saw himself as the one-size-fits-all prime minister, not challengeable by competitors. So he kept potential challengers like the Sardar under his wing and never allowed brother progressives like Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia, Narendra Deva to grow under his banyan tree. These great national leaders got frustrated and withered away. It is specious to blame Nehru for the partition of India as Jaswant Singh has made fashionable. With greater justification, he can be held responsible for thwarting the development of a progressive party in India and thereby making Indian democracy lopsided.

The second reason we should be concerned about the BJP’s plight is that it underlines the collapse of ideology in Indian politics. The Congress never had one. Nehruvian socialism was not an ideology, but a policy. Even that was abandoned in due course. The Communists held on for a while, but the temptations of parliamentary politics finally overwhelmed them. Today the Politburo is thunderously ideological but in Bengal and Kerala where the comrades practise what they do not preach, communism has gone five-star, indistinguishable from capitalism.

The BJP, too, fell victim to the politics of power and corruption. Consider Karnataka. When the BJP won the last state elections, it showed no qualms in taking renegades from other parties and rewarding them with ministerships. No trace of ideology here, unless “Anything-for-Power” is recognised as an ideology.

To its credit, the BJP has understood that the hardline Hindutva ideology that gave it an initial momentum is no longer viable. It has acknowledged Narendra Modi and the Gandhi boy from UP (who wanted to cut off the hands of other religionists) as major vote losers for the party. The obvious solution is for the leadership to boldly adopt an inclusive ideology treating all Indian citizens as equal. But they have neither the guts nor the vision to do so. What they have is the even more defeatist idea of the RSS “taking over” the BJP. Interestingly this idea came from Arun Shourie, the man who had caused haemorrhage in the first place by projecting Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister. With leaders like this, BJP needs no ememies. If the party does not survive such negative thinking, it will only vindicate P.V. Narasimha Rao’s pragmatism as expressed in his novel, The Insider: “Elections in India are a choice, not of the best, but of the least worthless”.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

BJP’s gift to Jinnah: A new life


Follies never cease. With great brouhaha, the BJP has given new life to its public enemy, Jinnah. In a double whammy, the BJP’s fanatic wing has given a marketing boost to the Jinnah book by banning it in Gujarat. Now it will sell like hot Satanic Verses.

All monolithic organisations feed on their collective myths. For the BJP-RSS ideology, survival depends on establishing Jinnah and Pakistan as evils. To allow any dilution of this doctrine will be like the Vatican allowing Catholics to question the infallibility of the Pope or, for that matter, the Congress Party allowing its members to question the infallibility of Sonia Gandhi. Certain divinities must remain divinities. Or they’ll collapse.

Actually, Jaswant Singh is no sinner. He is essentially a soldier, not a scholar or a writer. What is said to be extensive research did not help him to say anything new. He merely restated what has been said repeatedly by different types of experts since 1947.

H.M Seervai, the celebrated authority on constitutional law, said in no uncertain terms that Jinnah never wanted the partition of India. Pothan Joseph, the famous editor who worked closely with Jinnah first in the Bombay Chronicle and later in Dawn in Delhi, said that Jinnah used the Pakistan/partition idea only as a bargaining point. Poonen Abraham, senior editor at Dawn, said pointblank: “ I hold the Congress responsible for partition. A little bit of giving in to the Muslims would have won them”. Punishing Jaswant Singh for saying what is already on record is like punishing a schoolboy for saying that Aryans came to India from the Caucuses region.

The silly controversy over the Jaswant Singh book will have one salutary effect: It will kindle new interest in Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That will be salutary because, by any standard, this was a remarkable man worth studying and understanding.

The most remarkable thing about him is that, while he had not really envisaged a divided India, the Pakistan that finally came into being was not something he approved. His inaugural address in the new Pakistan legislature clearly called for a secular state where citizens would not be defined by their religion. Obviously, this was not what the zealots behind the Muslim League wanted to hear. It is not idle to speculate that Jinnah was lucky to die of TB and lung cancer a year after Pakistan was born, otherwise he might have been assassinated as his conscience-keeper and Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was in 1951.

Jinnah was not only secular, but also a gentleman with a keen sense of what was proper. He was the Chairman of the Board of Bombay Chronicle and Pothan Joseph records: “He never gave us the impression that we were employees….As an employer Jinnah was exacting but he had the gift of stimulating in those who served him a sense of pride. They could rely on him for a square deal”. Joseph should know. He worked for 36 employers and left 35 of them for lack of square deals.

Let Joseph also throw light on Jinnah’s human side. Joseph had joined Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram as a stay-in guest for a programme of detoxification. He took it for three weeks, then escaped. On a subsequent occasion, Jinnah also took up with Joseph the question of drinking. Unlike Gandhiji who stuck to goat milk, Jinnah enjoyed his whisky till almost the end of his life. So Joseph felt emboldened to say: “ Mr Jinnah, your parents were thoughtful enough to put gin in your name. I have to fend for myself”.

May Jaswant Singh feel inspired to put more spirit into his second edition.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

From Mount Rajiv to Rajiv Rajya


It is the eternal, inviolable Law of Democracy: You serve the people meaningfully, they will reward you with votes; you fool the people, they will bide their time to punish you.

This law was dramatically in evidence in this year’s election. Congress gained significantly because it was seen actively promoting a programme that helped jobless masses – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). It was not politics, but service.

Alas, it is now going to be politics. Recognising the voter appeal of the programme, state government leaders began exploiting what was a hundred percent centrally sponsored scheme. Mayawati has launched a campaign in UP with her portrait in all publicity material – as though it is her idea and her implementation.

But this is a game the Congress can play more brazenly than any other party. In order to stop others from hijacking its scheme, the Congress is now moving to put an indelible party stamp on it. It plans to name the programme after, who else, Rajiv Gandhi. Will Mayawati lend her portrait to publicise Rajiv Gandhi?

Naming a government-funded public programme after a single leader is an established Congress trick. We have always been aware of Indira Gandhi This and Rajiv Gandhi That. Journalist A. Surya Prakash now shows us how this has grown into a national disease. In a petition to the Election Commission, he has listed 450 Central and state government activities named after three members of the dynasty – Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv. It’s a frightening list.

He questions the political morality of attaching a politician’s name to government programmes aimed at improving the lives of citizens.The Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Yojana (with government funding of Rs 28,000 crore), and the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission (Rs 21,000 crore over three years) give the impression that Rajiv Gandhi is to be thanked for the electricity and the water that citizens get.

Surya Prakash cites the case of an ambulance service in Andhra that provides emergency help quickly and efficiently. The expenditure is borne out of public funds, but each of the 650 ambulances carries a portrait of Rajiv Gandhi on both sides of the vehicle with the legend ‘Rajiv Arogyasri’ thus giving the impression that this ambulance service is a gift of Rajiv Gandhi and his party to the people of Andhra.

By contrast, only the Backward Region Development Fund is named after Mahatma Gandhi. And not a single central programme is named after Ambedkar or Sardar Patel whose roles as builders of India remain unique.

In the dynastic naming spree, even Jawaharlal Nehru looks like an after-thought. The formidable listing ranges from Indira Gandhi Calf Rearing Scheme and Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vivah Shagun Yojana (Haryana) to Rajiv Gandhi Kabaddi Tournament, Rajiv Gandhi Wrestling Gold Cup, Rajiv Gandhi Stadium (three in Kerala alone), Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management, Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Rajiv Gandhi Aviation Academy, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Aquaculture, Rajiv Gandhi Shiromani Award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship for SC/ST, Rajiv Gandhi Wild Life Sanctuary, Rajiv Gandhi Mission on Food Security, Rajiv Gandhi Breakfast Scheme (Pondicherry) Rajiv Gandhi Bridges and Roads Programme, Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute……There’s even a peak in the Himalayas named Mount Rajiv.

The latest addition explains why and how this happens. Sharad Pawar, at a lose end with his NCP getting nowhere, has been anxious to curry Sonia Gandhi’s favour. So he proposed that the new sea bridge in Mumbai be named Rajiv Sethu. And so it was, scheming politicians turning India into a family estate. At this rate, Bharat may soon be re-named Rajiv Rajya.