Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ruin or wisdom? The choice is ours


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A mature society brings out its best at election time – the best candidates, the best arguments, the best issues for debate and, usually, the best results. We should pause to ponder why elections bring out the worst in India, from candidates to tactics. Even civilised men turn quarrelsome, irresponsible and inexcusably negative in the mad rush for votes.

Look at the way our netas have been exploiting (a) inflammatory religious provocations and (b) the brazen commercialisation of cricket. For a society that is described as “the largest democracy in the world”, these are life-threatening portends.

Sure, colonial Britain sowed the seeds of communal divisiveness in India. But that was all the more reason why, after the colonial exploiters’ departure, we should have gone out of our way to eliminate the dividing lines. Instead, we solidified and multiplied them. We developed religion as the shortest cut to political profiteering.

A candidate can of course take the position that he would, if elected, uphold the values of this religion or that. But to say that his hand is the hand of lotus that would cut off the heads of Muslims is to grant the right to other zealots to raise their hands to cut off the heads of Hindus and Sikhs and Christians and Buddhists. A state based on the rule of law would immediately take action against such public calls to violence.

Initially, the leaders of the BJP understood the validity of such action. Their instinctive reaction was to “disown and distance themselves” from the demagogue who violated the law so impudently. Later, however, the hardliners swung things their way and began justifying the unjustifiable for the sake of politics. Once again long-term national interests were sacrificed for short-term party gains.

The petty politicians of cricket have been equally damaging. Even by their own standards of putting money above everything else, their display of upside-down priorities has been astonishing this time. They virtually demanded that the security requirements of cricket be placed above those of the elections. When they found this wouldn’t work, they announced a grand “boycott” of India and went overseas.

Nothing better could be expected from a bunch of men who perverted even cricket for commercial gain. But the alacrity with which politicians turned it into an electoral side-game was the true eye-opener here. The Congress party was blamed for its inability to provide security for cricket and thereby damaging India’s reputation in the world. The Congress party can be blamed for dozens of unforgivable sins – from perpetuation of an undemocratic dynastic system to developing corruption to its present monstrous proportions. But it cannot be faulted for refusing to pull out border troops etc. to help BCCI make a few hundred crores more of profit. If the BJP were in power, its government would most likely have done the same. Power imposes on its wielders a logic of responsibility.

Yet we see an otherwise thinking man like Arun Jaitley bemoaning the Government’s incompetence on the security front. Narendra Modi of all people describes cricket going abroad as a national shame. The likes of Bal Thackeray and Praveen Togadia welcome Varun Gandhi as a hero.

The irresponsibility of religious fanatics is what brings shame to our great civilisation. Shame and the threat of disintegration. For states founded on religious hatreds collapse one way or another. This is an old lesson of history and its current exemplars are Pakistan and Israel. Is this the path ahead for India – or the path carved out by the great philosophers who wrote the Upanishads? It’s for us to choose.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hate politics: Its power, its limits


In one respect this election season differs from previous ones: Incitement of religious hatred has become cruder and more reckless than before. Perhaps politicians see this as an easy way to win populist votes. It certainly helps some pygmies to appear like giants.

Remember, till yesterday Pramod Muthalik was an unknown frog in an unknown well. Today he is a national figure, his face gracing every front page and every channel. That is the power of vulgar religious politics.

Similar is the case of Varun Gandhi, the spoilt son of a spoilt father. (When the boy was enrolled in the Rishi Valley School in Madanapalli, he wouldn’t eat for three days because neither the food nor the atmosphere suited the privileges he was accustomed to. Only because the staff and fellow students ignored his tantrums – and because hunger has a logic of its own – the privileged Gandhi reconciled to the culture of Jiddu Krishnamurti).

Kids born with a proprietorial attitude to everything around them rarely shed their air of superiority. Even his mentors in the BJP found Varun Gandhi to be egoistic and lightweight; his only “merit” was his surname. Then he came up with this new message of venomous religious hatred. Suddenly the immature bambino was on every front page and every channel. Another Nobody turned into Somebody.

This is a political game where the players do not lose because they have protectors behind them. The citizen loses because he was no recourse when laws are broken at his cost. Muthalik’s thugs could beat up citizens and walk proudly away because those who were supposed to protect citizens were inclined to protect the thugs instead. The court has banned this illegal moralist from entering certain areas. What if the police does not stop him? The system collapses when the state is party to evil.

The game, as played, is full of humbug and internal contradictions. Varun Gandhi announces that Pilibhit is a “violence-prone” constituency where Hindus are subjected to injustices. This is a serious charge against his mother, Maneka Gandhi, who has so far been representing Pilibhit in the Lok Sabha. Clearly the son is looking for what the original Gandhi, the Mahatma, called “the hasty applause of an unthinking public”.

He will not succeed, for never in history have hatemongers won the day. Three centuries of religious crusades by European Christianity gained nothing despite all the bloodletting, murders and cruelties. Hatred between Palestinians and Israelis continues to sacrifice generations without helping the cause of either. The mutual antipathies of Shias and Sunnis hold back the progress of all Arabs. Nazi Germany’s progrom against Jews eventually destroyed the Nazis, not the Jews. Even the bond of Islam could not unite the Sindhi-Punjabis of West Pakistan with the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

Those who spew venom in the name of Bharatiyata are unworthy to speak of India’s civilisational greatness, let alone defend it. They take Rama as their mascot without knowing that Ramayana begins with a call by Valmiki in defence of two love birds. When a hunter shot down one of the birds, the poet cried out “Ma nishada”. Brahma himself then appeared and urged the Adi Kavi to compose the story of Rama in the same poetic form.

Who represents Bharatiyata’s beauty and greatness – Valmiki who was outraged by the tragedy that struck two birds in love, or today’s petty men who hate love itself in the name of morality?

Ma nishada!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why this Third Front will not work


If any country needs a new political formulation, it is India. People have lost faith in the existing formulations to the extent that there is a loss of faith in the electoral system itself. For a democracy to be meaningful, it must offer voters a meaningful choice. As the candidacy of Barack Obama did in the US. Between a moribund monarchical party and an anti-modern communal outfit, the Indian voter has no meaningful choice.

Alas, the newly announced Third Front does not offer a choice either. The main reason is that it is an unnatural combination, put together by incompatible leaders, with contrarian objectives, pursued through self-serving methodologies.

Perhaps it is symbolic that the sutradhar of the jamboree was H.D.Deve Gowda, frustrated ever since he lost his accidental prime ministership in 1997. He is described as the sharpest Chanakya of our time. But many of his recent decisions were no compliment to Chanakya. One example will suffice. Although his party is called “secular”, his manoeuvres led directly to the BJP assuming power for the first time in his home state. He is all set to further strengthen the BJP by splitting the “secular” votes he is pledged to support.

Who are the leaders Deve Gowda claims to be with the Third Front? Prakash Karat, A. B. Bardan, Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalitha, Mayawati and groupings like the Forward Bloc, the Republican Party and the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti. Can a reasonable citizen expect any two of these leaders to agree on anything? Even Karat and Bardan are overseeing a self-destructive cockfight among their comrades over seat sharing.

What is bringing these disparate leaders together is of course the thirst for power. Barring the communists, every leader is keen to become prime minister. The two ladies will settle for nothing less. In other words, the Third Front is a platform for unyielding personal ambitions to engage in mortal combat.

We have seen this before. After the police raj of the Emergency, how excited were the people when Jayaprakash Narayan ushered into being a Janata Party Government. It embodied the hopes of a whole nation. It was as good as a second dawn of independence.

In no time all hopes were shattered and the Janata Cabinet became a circus tent. Not a single national problem was addressed while the ministries became cesspools of corruption, inefficiency and disorder. Morarji Desai insisted that only he was qualified to be Prime Minister. Charan Singh unseated him but could not face Parliament because he had no majority. He became caretaker Prime Minister, a brief interlude that he spent arresting Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi making them martyrs and himself a fool. These petty men with petty minds collapsed into their own filth to become miserable footnotes in history.

We face no better prospects this time, because petty ambitions still reign supreme. In a situation where no party commands the trust of the people, it is possible that the game of numbers may give the Third Force players some space. Post-election arithmetic may even give them, if we want to be generous, a shot at power. For example, they can join with Sharad Pawar, who is itching to serve the country as Prime Minister.

But forming a government will be the easy part. Staying in office for even a few months will be impossible, unless they agree to have a government of ten prime ministers. Our politicians are in politics not to serve India, but to make India serve them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

No Indian President for America -- Not yet


There was a strong possibility that America's first black President would be followed by its first Indian-origin President. But Bobby Jindal flopped as the Republican Party's chosen spokesman to reply to Barack Obama's grand address to the nation. He showed that he just did not have the calibre, the charisma or the intellectual reach of Obama -- attributes that Americans now expect of their President.

Jindal has been a popular Governor of Louisiana. That is something of a feather in his cap because Louisiana's history is steeped in racial bigotry. True, whites don't lynch blacks any longer; federal laws prohibit such things. But Louisiana is a nerve centre of Christian fundamentalism and conservative extremism. Jindal seems to be a part of this culture.

Piyush Jindal was brought up as a devout Hindu by his immigrant parents. In his youth, however, he chose to become a Catholic to the anger and disappointment of his parents. He was so strong in his new faith that he participated in a Christian exorcism ritual. This religious act, he said in an article in 1994, cured a woman of cancer. To the ardent Christians of Louisiana Jindal became an acceptable figure. His early steps in politics made him a darling of the conservative diehards of the Republican Party as well.

As Governor, Bobby Jindal recently signed a law that allowed teachers to "help students critique and review scientific theories." A seemingly harmless piece of legislation, this was in fact a part of the ongoing Christian campaign to establish that all life was created by God exactly as the Bible says. Scientific theories of evolution like Darwinism are rejected as teachings of the devil

Like some of our own fundamentalists in India, the Creationists in the American south have also been trying to give their faith a scientific appearance. While many still hold on to the view that the earth is flat (there is a "Flat Earth Society" propagating this theory in California), some concede that the earth is spherical but not moving. The preferred term of the movement nowadays is "Intelligent Design Creationism", meaning that the earth and all life on it were created as per an intelligent design by the Creator up above. Some state governments made this an official line. In 1920, In Dayton, Tennessee, a young school teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in class.

In the early 1980s Louisiana passed a law that was openly called Creationism Act. It said that if one theory (evolution) was taught in class, the other theory (Creationism) should also be taught. The US Supreme Court in 1987 ruled that law unconstitutional.

The law Bobby Jindal has signed is a subtle way to undo what the Supreme Court did then. This time it is innocuously called the Louisiana Education Act and it talks about "supplemental texts" and helping students to critically analyse scientific theories. But it is clear that the new Act seeks to make the teaching of Creationism legal. It was championed by a leading Christian lobby, the Louisiana Family Forum.

The law immediately attracted criticism. The Louisiana Coalition for Science accused Jindal of "loyalty to his conservative Christian base." An influential organisation of scientists cancelled its plans to hold its annual convention in Louisiana, a significant financial loss to the state because of the money big conventions bring to the local economy. Perhaps somebody will take the case again to the Supreme Court.

Maybe it is just as well that Jindal's chances of becoming US President have dimmed. After the Born Again George Bush, the world can do without another fundamentalist Christian in the White House opening the gates of Hell.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Crime without punishment?


Michael Conahan & Mark Ciavarella, leave the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. Prosecutors say Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC. (Photo:

We know to our cost that democracy breeds corruption. Because it happens at all levels and at all times in India, we think this is an Indian phenomenon. But watch the scene for a few weeks and we'll see how even America, the "land of the free," is gripped by corruption.

Voluntary organisations like Countercurrents and Social Conscience may sometimes exaggerate their case. The headline of one of their articles is: "America is spelt c-o-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n." But they make their point. The power of lobbies is so great that the entire political structure is open to manipulation. Lobbying is legally recognised and has become perhaps the biggest industry in Washington DC. It works by offering all kinds of incentives to legislators. Naturally a tradition developed whereby America was run by its giant corporations. There are also political influence groups like the Jewish lobby and the Gun lobby. Even in medical and legal fields bribery is recognised as a serious problem.

But America does not drown in this sea. It stays afloat. The reason is that very often the guilty get punished. Richard Nixon was forced to resign. George Bush has become a detested figure rivaled only by his Vice President Dick Cheney who is seen as an evil genius who masterminded the Iraq war for personal profit.

True, these men were not punished as they should have been. Nixon was granted a full pardon by Gerald Ford who succeeded him. This meant that he was never prosecuted for his criminalities. Bush and Cheney will not be brought before the International Court or the War Crimes Tribunal to be tried for the killings and tortures they ordered.

These may be seen as an exception the American system allows for their presidents. At other levels, however, punishments follow crime. One big reason is that career civil servants function independently of politicians. Upon coming to power, a party does not start transferring civil servants to suit its political agenda. US attorneys in particular are known to pursue investigations without political pressure.

Not long ago, the Mayor of Detroit (mayors and governors in the US are executives with power over the police) was sent to jail for 99 days for corruption and assault. The Governor of Illinois was impeached out of office for bribery. There was no attempt to provide escape routes for these men. Nor was there any strategem to put a Rabri Devi in office when a Lalu Prasad was found guilty.

In a sensational case last month, two judges were arrested for kickbacks. This is a uniquely American case. There are private prisons in America run by private companies for profit. The profit depends on enough people being sentenced to jail. One judge in Pennsylvania conspired to get the necessary licence for the jail
concerned. The other judge began sentencing under-age children to prison even for minor offences like making fun of a teacher. The ironically named PA Child Care prison was soon full, each inmate paying $314 per day. The judges got more than $2 million in kickbacks. Now both will get seven years in jail, lose their pensions and face prosecutions by hundreds of families whose children had their lives ruined by the criminal judgements.

Another judge in Mississippi, arrested for corruption, was produced in jail in handcuffs and leg chains.

Several judges in India have been implicated in corruption cases. One was even impeached. But all escaped punishment. America's blessing is that exemplary punishment to the corrupt keep people's faith in the system alive. Countries that allow criminals to escape destroy the very system that sustains them.

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