Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama: Do we expect too much?


No American President in living memory has generated the kind of international excitement that Barak Obama has. We can almost say that he has assumed office not as President of the United States of America but as President of the United States of the World.

This is risky for him. When expectations are so high and so many, can any human being meet them? When the world is in such a complicated mess, can any one person solve even half its problems? When hopes are too high, disappointments come too fast. Will the world’s honeymoon with this new kind of leader prove to be just that – a honeymoon?

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are the two American presidents with whom Obama has already been compared. There is good reason for that. In their time, Lincoln and Roosevelt faced unprecedented challenges and rose to the occasion. People wanted a healing leadership after the civil war that devastated America; Lincoln provided it. People wanted visionary initiatives to save the country from the catastrophe of the Great Depression; Roosevelt provided them.

Obama faces both these challenges. Americans today want a unifier and healer after the terribly divisive war years of George Bush. They also want a saviour who would lift America from the mounting misery of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In other words, Obama has to be a Lincoln and a Roosevelt rolled into one.

As if that’s not hard enough, he has to be more. The problems Lincoln and Roosevelt faced were entirely domestic. Bush’s America has erased the boundaries between domestic and foreign. Solving American problems today is not separated from solving world problems, and vice versa. Which means that Obama faces challenges no government leader in modern history has faced.

Will he succeed? To put the question in sharper perspective: Will he be superhuman enough to succeed? The short answer is that if anyone can succeed, he will. But that may not be saying much. In today’s chaotic, anarchistic, violent, lawless, madhouse of a world, can anyone succeed?
Two words summed up both the campaign and the presidential profile of Obama – Change and Hope. These two simple, monosyllabic words must be the reason that all countries in the world joined America in its excitement over Obama. For every country in the world wants change – from the politics of corruption, the economy of the rich and poor, the social systems of discrimination. And every country welcomes the slightest glimmer of hope because hoping for a better tomorrow has become the only way to survive.

Obama, unlike any other leader in our times, has held up the message of Change and Hope in a credible manner. People in Japan and South Africa, in Indonesia and Brazil think that Obama’s success will somehow be their success. This is not entirely a reaction to the Bush years of deception and cruelty. It is rooted in the fact that Obama is a fresh breeze, a man whose sincerity is as impressive as his intellectual talents.

He still has to work under an entrenched system of lobbies, political pressure groups and manipulative power centres such as the Jewish caucus and the evangelicals. His climb will certainly be steep. But he will have one incomparable strength: the backing of Americans, and the people of the world, in greater measure than any American President before. To wish him success is to wish ourselves success.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Adiga, Slumdog, Nargis – and India


Do people in the west love to see the ugly side of India? We may talk big about the rising number of Indian billionaires, but does the world out there have a vested interest in applauding and promoting the horrible realities of India – its atrocious poverty, its way of degrading women, abusing children?

The question arose when Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger” won the Booker Prize. As a literary work, the novel had its fault lines. But it was its theme that caught attention. Indian reviewers dismissed it as unworthy. The west hailed it as a new voice and as a ‘bald, unadorned portrait of India as seen from the bottom of the heap’.

That was the point: The bottom of the heap, not the top of the glittering malls and the exclusive clubs in hotels where a shot of single malt whisky sells for ten and twenty thousand rupees. These comfort zones of the few boost our national ego, the dehumanizing poverty of the many is uncomfortable and therefore ignored.

Adiga not only does not ignore it, he makes a visible molehill out of the mountain. Almost brutally he shows how poverty corrupts the mind, now hypocrisies colour most things Indian, from the naming of roads to that incomparable Indianism, “Indian made Foreign Liquor”. His sarcasm is biting when he refers to “the 36,000,004 gods” of India and to the country’s cockroach population (for which, mercifully, he does not give a figure). Is this spilling of the filthy innards of India that attracts westerners and irritates Indians?

Then comes “Slumdog Millionaire” with its Golden Globes. Did this movie win so many awards because it, too, is a brutal expose of the dehumanizing life in Indian slums? Bombay’s slums are an old shame. In Dharavi, the world’s biggest and most putrid slum, people live like insects, cooking their food while channels of excreta flow all around them. Whole lives are spent there with no escape from the appalling conditions that breed child trafficking, supari killings, incest, homosexuality, prostitution. It is difficult to imagine such inhuman existence, yet it exists.

Successive Governments have managed not to notice the presence of such a national disgrace right before their eyes. The rest of the population just close their eyes, their nostrils and their consciences and carry on. But now the whole world can see graphic, technicolor portrayals of India’s shame. Some filth scenes are so realistic as to be disgusting and shocking at the same time.

So even as we lionize A.R. Rahman for his trophies, will we dismiss “Slumdog Millionaire” as a dark movie unworthy of honours? Or should we have the honesty to accept that exposing a disgrace is not the offence; allowing the disgrace to exist is the real offence.

The tendency to shoot the messenger is fundamentally hypocritical, and we have been guilty of it from early on. When that all time classic “Pather Panchali” was released in 1955, its creator Satyajit Ray was viciously attacked. Not by any fly-by-night reviewer, but by Nargis herself. The Queen of the screen in the 1950’s Golden Age of Indian Cinema stood up in the Rajya Sabha and called Satyajit Ray a Peddler of India’s poverty. She said in a subsequent interview that “Pather Panchali” became successful abroad because foreigners wanted to see India in a groveling posture. Then came her unforgivable accusation – that Satyajit Ray made such films in order to win awards. Many NRIs in America had also complained about the depiction of poverty in that film. Delhi’s response to these criticisms was to tighten censorship rules to ban portrayal of “Disgusting Poverty”.

Which shows what our official policy is. Poverty is okay, portraying it is not okay. Killing newborn baby girls is okay so long as no one reports it. Dowry deaths and throwing acid on unobliging girls is okay so long as no books are written on them. Accepting bribe money in bundles is okay, but putting it on camera is a crime inviting nemesis. Raping minorities and ghettoizing the survivors of pogroms is okay so long as there are enough industrialists to talk of development.

We are experts in double-speak. We flourish on double standards. Jai Hind!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sinners get caught, except in politics

Ramalinga Raju - Chairman of the Great Satyam Fraud

Kubera is a symbol of untold wealth. But it is important to remember that he earned his wealth through hard work, not cheating. He performed penance for 10,000 years. Ten thousand years! And that, standing in water with his head submerged!

Brahma was still not pleased. Undaunted, Kubera switched to a new, more punishing form of penance – standing on one leg in the burning centre of Panchagni. Now Brahma had no choice but to appear and grant his Bhakta the boom he wished: the treasures of all the world with the Pushpaka Vimana thrown in as bonus.

For the wealth Ramalinga Raju amassed, the penance will have to be performed, first, by Satyam’s 53,000 employees and then by India and its corporate sector for both of whom reputation is wealth.

Of course Raju will have to undergo his share of penance soon enough, but that will be at the most ten years in prison. Luckily for him, ours is a country where hardcore criminals can run for elections from inside jail cells and win. Raju may not be able to use his executive Pushpaka Vimana for a while, but there will be no Panchagni to roast him.

We are a blessed country with many Rajus practising the arts of fraud. Let’s not forget that it takes tremendous brain power to master the kind of cheating techniques we saw in Satyam. To cook the books to the level of 7000 crore rupees and make fools of banks, accountants, regulatory authorities and all is something that requires genius of an advanced kind.

This is an area where Indian genius is on par with the sharpest in the world. In fact, in sheer inventiveners, it is superior. Fudging of accounts is a familiar game that is played by kirana shops and Nasdaq companies alike.But to identify a gold mine in illegally printed stamp papers you need a gifted Indian brain. What originality! And Telgi did not even have Oxford Harvard sophistication.

Hundreds of thousands of crooks work stock exchanges round the world. But it required a Harshad Mehta to discover a legitimate loophole in the processing procedures of banks’ pay slips. He turned that loophole into a fabulous business model. What creativity!

These superbrains attract universal attention by the sheer daring they display. Some even win admiration. Remember how Harshad Mehta was lionized as the Big Bull and invited to give lectures on investment finance, the true businessman in him charging 2 lakhs per lecture.

An ungrateful world, alas, does not appreciate their talent. In the end, they all get caught. They spend their time miserably in narco analysis labs as Telgi does, or throw themselves into the sea as Robert Maxwell, the great newspaper tycoon of England did. Which raises the question: Is wealth through cheating worth it? Isn’t a night’s peaceful sleep better than all the gold and outsourcing contracts in the world?

The answer lies with politicians. They are the only ones who get away with it. Even when they are caught on camera receiving bribe, they only lose reputation which, being politicians, they don’t have anyway. Criminals can join politics and become state ministers and MPs. There is a message here for Ramalinga Raju. Become a party neta and he can still turn Satyam’s failure into asatyam’s victory.

But there’s another lesson he has taught that will remain valid for all time: Enterprise inspires, greed destroys.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The power of hatred

Kasab - Deadly Fidayeen caught in Mumbai 26/11

In our relentless television yuga, no explanation is needed for a putta virama. The best thing about a “short break” is that, while it is never short, it is always a break; it ends and news follows as surely as defection follows election in Karnataka.

During the silence of this particular virama, however, our world changed. Terrorism took hold of our lives. It’s a wholesale, all-embracing kind of terrorism that affects even simple things like going to the station to catch train or enjoying tindi in a favourite restaurant. This is a paradigm shift, a new epoch. From now on the life-changing adjustments required to cope with terrorism will be the substance of our lives. We will be living as the Palestinians, the Afghans and the Pakistanis have been living for decades – in a culture of terror.

Of course we have some things the others do not have. A functioning democracy, a thriving economy, some good universities, a free press, arts, cinema, music, theatre. These may make us feel that we are better off than our neighbours. But even these assets will now be under the shadow of instant unpredictabilities of a bloody kind.

Not all the armies and technologies of the world can eliminate this shadow. This is because the prime motivation that drives terrorism is hatred, the most powerful emotion known to man, and an emotion unknown to other animals. Jews, the first people in history to employ political terrorism (when their Zealot Movement created violent insurrection against the Romans in AD 66) are still hate-driven against the Arabs; see the bloodthirstiness of their ongoing air attacks in Gaza. The Arabs of course return the compliment.

The intensity of Jewish hatred towards Arabs has only two parallels in our time – the Al Quaida’s hatred of America, and Pakistani army elements’ hatred of India. In the madrassas run by them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the main teaching imparted to young boys is how to hate. There is no stopping the indoctrinated fanatics who come out of such brainwashing schools.

Pakistan’s former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, was recently on TV. This is a man on America’s list of global terrorists. Yet his words and facial expressions reflected contempt for his critics and an arrogant self-confidence. A highly skilled professional, his mind is not open to discussion. It feeds on hatred.

Let’s remember too that Pakistan has reliable friends, like China. Our Prime Minister’s trusted friend, America, made some friendly noises initially, but has changed positions subsequently. Germany came forward with help to upgrade India’s national security apparatus. The next day’s news was that Germany was selling submarines to Pakistan.

Others look after their interests. We can look after our interests only if
(a) we are a united people,
(b) we have foolproof systems and
(c) our leaders are committed to national interests and nothing else.

Examine these factors honestly and what do we find? The New York terror attack united Americans in an exemplary way. But we are still fighting over Muslim terror and Hindu terror, over caste and language and rivers. In 60 years we have become more divided as a people. Our systems are full of holes because corruption corrodes all decisions. We have learned nothing from Bofors. As for our leadership, they are unforgivably self-centred. Who kept Shivraj Patil in the Home Minister’s chair until he became a national disgrace? Who is still keeping national security chairs warm for incompetence? How long will small, greedy minds hold back India from its destiny of greatness?