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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Who is Cory? What is Philippines?


It’s true that the average Indian is far more knowledgeable about the world than the average American. But “world” here means the West. We are less familiar with countries to our east.

Thanks to our new-found holiday habits, Malaysia and Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia have lately come into our area of acquaintance. But what about the Philippines? Many of us do not even pronounce it correctly, making the last syllable rhyme with “lines” instead of with “beans”. And how much do we really know about Laos and Cambodia, about New Guinea (sprawling between Indonesia and Australia), or about Taiwan?

If we say it is the hangover of our colonial past, the Filipinos will be the first to agree. Not only does their country bear the name of a colonial conqueror, Philip II of Spain; they have been under continuous colonial domination for longer than any other country in the east – 333 years under Spain, then 50 years under America.

Spanish colonialism was unique in its all-out, absolutist finality. It transformed the civilisations it conquered and possessed the very souls of the peoples it ruled. See how total is its linguistic-cultural domination of South America to this day. Even half a century of American rule could not loosen the Spanish hold on the cultural identity of Filipinos.

Thus the Philippines became something of an odd man out. It is the only Christian country in the east. Its democracy is modelled on Washington DC but functions more like a Hollywood wildwest movie. Its media is uproariously free and editors and reporters get shot rather often.

It was from this turbulent cauldron that Ferdinand Marcos rose, first as a war hero, then as a popular President, and finally as an autocrat. As autocrats go, he wasn’t too bad. Nor was his wife Imelda, though she was a cross between Mayawati and Mamta Bannerjee. The problem was their military chief, Fabian Ver, who masterminded the murder in cold blood of Benigo Aquino on the tarmac of Manila airport.

Aquino was no ordinary politician. He was a visionary, wildly popular and acknowledged rival to Marcos. His ruthless killing outraged all Philippines. The famous “People Power” rose like a tidal wave in Manila, swept away the Marcoses, and installed Aquino’s widow Corazon (Cory) as the President.

Cory knew nothing of politics. She was quite happy being a housewife and serving tea to those who visited her husband in their house. But she was a great symbol and the masses fell in love with her. That is why another tidal wave of emotions rose in Manila when she died a few days ago. It was an occasion for the mourning multitudes to remember their shattered dreams. Aquino was a great white hope. So was the People Power that put Cory at the helm. Both came to naught as the country went back to its customary mess and corruption and rich-poor disparities.

Generations have come and gone since independence in 1946. But an enlightened leadership has not emerged to take the Philiphines anywhere near its full potential. Which is ironic because this is a country that could have been a model for Asia. Its financial experts and corporate entrepreneurs occupy high positions in international board rooms. It has a great literature. Its artists and musicians are world-renowned. It’s one of Asia’s most beautiful countries. Its people are among the friendliest. It’s a pity that such a heritage, such natural beauty and such talents remain untapped and largely unknown. The Philippines deserves to be at least on our holiday maps.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What makes beautiful women beautiful?

It was a typically American marketing trick when Vogue magazine described Leela Naidu as one of the world’s ten most beautiful women. As if there is an endoscope that will measure the specific gravity of beauty. It’s like Time magazine, another gimmickry specialist, publishing lists of “tomorrow’s Asian leaders”. Some of them end up in prison for misdemeanour, but Time gets its mileage from the thousands of Indians who lap up the lists with colonial loyalty.

Leela Naidu was of course an extraordinarily beautiful woman. It was not the Aishwarya Rai kind of beauty. Its brilliance was not wholly, or even mainly, physical. It emanated from, and was embellished by the beauty of an active, comprehending mind. That was what made Maharani Gayatri Devi beautiful even at 90. That’s what makes Nandita Das, or Arundati Roy, or Mallika Sarabhai stand out in a crowd. That – and not Mallika Sharawat – is the reason for the poetic proclamation that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”. The best of them know that what they are born with must make them grateful, not boastful.

How ironic that Gayatri Devi was also in that fateful Vogue list. She passed away within 24 hours of Leela’s passing. Gayatri Devi’s grace and class put her in the classic realm, perhaps with Cleopatra and Anarkali. The strength of her character laminated the nobility of her bearing, leading to massive electoral majorities. Which was unacceptable to Indira Gandhi. She sought not only the imprisonment but also the humiliation of the woman who dared to challenge her. The Maharani was lodged in a Tihar cell along with street women and leprosy patients. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.

Like Gayatri Devi, Leela Naidu was aware, but not vain, about her beauty. Her intellectual sensibilities were well enough honed for her to distinguish between the ephemeral and the abiding. She was very much a thinking beauty. She imbibed the nuances of European aesthetics from her mother and, from her father, the resolve to stand up for her values.

Her personal life was a continuous tragedy – two failed marriages, twin daughters gone astray, grievous illnesses, loneliness. She longed for love and didn’t get it. She developed angularities, shifting moods. There was no family to turn to. Her only solace was the memory of her father whom she revered.

It’s a pity that India knows little about Ramaiya Naidu, a pioneering scientist and a staunch nationalist. He opposed colonialism so strongly that he refused to study in the premier colleges of the day because they were all British-founded. He preferred Shantiniketan and Banares Hindu University, and actively supported Krishnamurthy’s Rishi Valley school. He declined scholarships offered by famous British universities and went instead to Paris for his PhDs. Specialising in ionization under Madame Curie, he became a founding father of the Tata cancer hospital in Bombay. At one point, radiation incapacitated him and he was forced to give up cancer-related work.

It was routine for Leela to go teary-eyed and lump-throated whenever a reference to her father came up. Leela was enormously talented, but her creativity was never funnelled into works of her own. It was utilised in movies others made or books others wrote; as Dom Moraes’ travel partner, she used to conduct research and even interviews for his books. Leela spread a lot of light around, though her own life was mostly spent in darkness. Suffering sometimes cleanses life, but why should people who do no harm to others suffer at all?