Monday, January 30, 2012

Cynical Politicians Submit to Extremists; Will India Become a Communal State?

Republican India's pride at the time of its birth was that it was a country where religion was not a factor in policy making, in contrast to the breakaway country of Pakistan where everything was decided by religion. That distinction is fading. We may not become a theocratic state, but religion is steadily moving to centrestage in politics and public life. The newest witnesses are A. R. Rahman, Sri Ram Sene and of course Salman Rushdie.

The reason for the rise of communalism is the rise of cynicism among politicians. If anything is more disastrous than corruption, it is cynicism. Remember Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic – a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Cynicism drives the rulers of the land to forget principles, forget their obligations to the country, and make compromises with evil for short-term gains.

This becomes glaring at election time because selfish, shortsighted parties find it easiest to attract voters on the basis of religion and caste. People like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad, who would otherwise be blots on democracy, become rulers of the land on the strength of blind caste loyalties. Democracy itself has become a farce on account of these aberrations. But the aberrations continue, giving increasing momentum to religious reactionaries.

Consider the strange case of Hosanna. A. R. Rahman composed a song for a Hindi movie and the word Hosanna appeared in it. A gentleman named Joseph Dias representing a Christian organisation took objection. The use of the word in the song, he said, hurt the religious sentiments of the Christians and Jews around the world.

How did he know? Who authorised him to speak for “the Christians and Jews of the world” who seldom agree on anything anyway? Why does the word hurt these communities only when it is used in a Hindi song? It was used in the original Tamil and Telugu versions of the movie a year earlier and Shriman Dias had no problem with that. In any case, Christians and Jews might have used the word Hosanna in a devotional context, but that does not give them any copyright over it. It is a word that has become part of the English language and widely used by even journalists who sing hosannas to their pet protagonists.

If Joseph Dias had asked for a ban on the movie, perhaps the Government would have obliged with an eye on the presumed Christian vote. That is what the Government did when a Muslim cleric asked for a ban on Salman Rushdie coming to Jaipur. In one of the most stupidly handled issues of recent times, the Congress politicians in Delhi and Rajasthan played into the hands of a minority among the Muslim minority to thwart Rushdie's appearance at the Literary Festival. Many Muslim organisations had condemned the Muslim groups that threatened violence against Rushdie. So how may Muslim votes can the Congress win by appeasing only the extremists?

Majority communalism also had its day though it did not attract national attention. In Karnataka, Home Minister Ashok said there would be no ban on the Shri Ram Sene. He admitted, though, that this extremist Hindutva outfit was involved in the recent hoisting of the Pakistani flag in Bijapur; evidently the zealots had hoped to pin the blame on Muslims and thus create communal disturbances. When it comes to hate politics, majority communalism and minority communalism do not cancel each other out; they feed each other.

And they are hugely counterproductive. The clerics and extremists who campaigned against Rushdie actually made him larger than he was, the glamour figure who dominated Jaipur. If they had ignored him, he would have come and gone with nothing more than a few Page 3 flutters. In the event, the extremists also introduced The Satanic Verses to a generation that had grown up without knowing about it. Now they will be curious to read it. How self-defeating. And how moronic of the Indian state to succumb to a fundamentalist viewpoint.

Monday, January 23, 2012

BCCI Cash Machine Collapses, So What? The Shame is Corruption in Sports

Indian cricket's performance in Australia this time has been described as shameful, humiliating, disgraceful, etc. Actually, it is the best thing that has happened not just to Indian cricket but to India itself. If this “disgrace” can only be sustained for a while, Indians can, perhaps, recover from a madness that has been induced in them by commercial operators.

Of course cricket was always popular in India. But popularity never turned into mandess in the days of Vijay Merchant and Vinoo Mankad. If Bombay's Brabourne Stadium was full when cricket stars were playing a test, so was the nearby Cooperage grounds when football heroes were kicking up their magic. No cricket team ever commanded the preeminence of Mohan Bagan and East Bengal clubs.

Cricket's spoilage began with the arrival of television. TV meant advertisements which meant money. And money meant politicians. Politicians of course meant ruination. Money attracted business tycoons also. The combination of politicians and business tycoons can only lead to one thing – scams of different shades. This happened and transformed cricket from a sport to a commercial activity run for profits.

The climax came with IPL, the correct full form of which was given as Indian Paisa League. It was invented by a man whose genius cannot be denied. Lalit Modi, singlehandedly, converted cricket from a five-day and one-day bore into a three-hour prime time spectacle complete with Bollywood stars and imported cheerleaders – genetic engineering at its wicked best. He sold teams and auctioned players in the ultimate commercialisation of the game. Cricket was fully corporatised.

Unfortunately Lalit Modi's genius was not unlike the genius of Harshad Mehta and Abdul Karim Telgi who too had thought up wholly original business schemes. So in the end rivals brought him down and he had to leave the country to escape legal traps. How long he can remain safely away is in doubt since the cases against him are alive and his passport is impounded according to some reports.

Of course the corruption of cricket was not started by Lalit Modi. The tragedies of South African Captain Hansie Cronje and India's own Mohammed Azharuddin were played out before Modi. But Modi raised cricket from the million-league to the billion-league. The auction of just two IPL teams in 2010 brought in Rs 32 billion. The criminal case filed against Modi alleged a misappropriation of Rs 4.7 billion.

The billions mean that the politicians and the tycoons will dig their feet deeper into the BCCI, the controlling body. That is the real bad news. Because of its monopoly and the pull of the politicians running it, the BCCI conducts itself as a supranational fiefdom. The richest cricket body in the world, it still wants tax concessions, it still argues that its books are not open to outsiders, that it is above RTI rules. BCCI talks of misappropriation by Lalit Modi. Were the other bosses of BCCI twiddling their thumbs when one man was making hay? How many have misappropriated how much?

Sharad Pawar and Arun Jaitley and Rajiv Shukla belong to opposing parties which try to gore one another in the political pit. But the luxury and the privileges and the sheer money cricket provides are so beautiful that they embrace one another warmly on the BCCI's pitch. For once coalition dharma runs smooth as silk. All of Indian sport has been destroyed by self-seeking politicians. India does reasonably well only in individual sports like shooting, wrestling and tennis. The talent in athletics is outstanding, but politicians and sundry exploiters look after their own comfort while subjecting athletes to deprivation and abuse. The example set by cricket and its Pawars and Jaitleys and Shuklas wreaks havoc across the field.

From far away, the New York Times once commented that IPL had become a symbol of “how much the old and often corrupt political and business elite still dominate the country”. This is what really is shameful, humiliating, disgraceful, etc., not the collapse of BCCI's money machine in Australia.

Monday, January 16, 2012

War on Terror was in Fact War of Hatred; now Hatred Triggers Renewed Terror

Caught between anti-corruption hypocrisies and pre-election manipulations, we are failing to notice the gathering clouds of a new kind of terrorism. Many perspective observers had commented that America's “war on terror” would in fact inflame terrorism instead of containing it. Is that happening already?

It is clear that hatred of America has intensified among those who were targeted by the war on terror. In spite of the civilian government handpicked and installed by the US in Baghdad, Iraqis are known to be seething with anger against the Americans. Not all of Hamid Karzai's clever foxtrotting has prevented Afghans from looking at Americans as persecutors instead of saviours.

Pakistan is the outstanding example of the failure of American policy. Successive American administrations spent hundreds of millions of dollars to sustain both the governments and the military forces of Pakistan. Despite some humming and hawing, the lifeline supplies continue. Yet, the Pakistani establishment heartily dislikes America. Public anger often spills out into the street with venemous slogans and threats highlighting anti-American demonstrations. Despite all efforts by America to dismantle terror camps in Pakistan, the outfits that sustain terrorism have only grown in strength and reach.

Obviously India is a victim of this expansion. While spectacular events like the Mumbai terror attack hit headlines, more sinister is the sustained effort to subvert the economy and simultaneously fund terror modules in India by circulating vast amounts of fake currency. Eleven Bengali construction workers were arrested in Hyderabad a week ago with ten lakhs worth of fake Indian notes. A few months ago fake notes worth 2 lakhs were seized from a lodge in Kerala. Now Mumbai police has tracked down large quantities of counterfeit American dollars made in Pakistan.

According to the National Investigation agency, rupee notes printed in Pakistan are flown to Bangladesh, then taken by carriers who walk across the border into Bengal from where migrant labourers take the lot to southern states, targeting small shops in small towns. The damage this does to India is self-evident. That currency traffic focuses on Kerala is also significant. Kerala recently figured as a recruiting area for terrorist work in Kashmir. Some of the men arrested in that connection created such a ruckus inside their jail that prisons along the coast have been put on special security alert. Such is the power of terrorist cells and their international backers.

Maldiveans visit Kerala fairly often; they can stay in India for 90 days without visa. Maldives has lately seen Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba establishing new active modules. Fundamentalist groups have come up in the country staging protests against the perceived tolerant attitude of the Government. These groups are well funded.

Perhaps the scariest manifestation of newfound terrorism is in Nigeria, known hitherto as an economic frontrunner in western Africa firmly anchored in its oil wealth. For weeks now it has been witnessing violent battles between Muslims and non-Muslims. Some parts of the country have been put under a state of emergency while borders with some neighbours have been closed.

To know the virulence of the hate wars under way, we only have to look at the name of the group that spearheads it in Nigeria. The name is Boko Haram (short form for Jama'atu Ahlet Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad, meaning People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. In a local dialect Boko Haram means “western education is sin”).

Founded in 2002, it took to war only by 2009. Was this transformation connected to the thesis promulgated by Ayman al-Zawahiri, chief of the post-Bin Laden Al Queda, that instead of focussing on countries like US, jihadists should concentrate on reinforcing Islamic commitments in Muslim-majority countries and in countries that 'traditionally belonged to Muslims', whatever that means?

The moral is again what perceptive observers had seen long ago – that the Bin Ladens of the world may be taken out, but that would not snuff out terrorism. Greed sparked yesterday's wars. Hatred sparks today's. Wars go on because greed and hatreds go on.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rogue Politicians at Their Cynical Worst; Will People's Anger Reach Crisis Point?

Now that the celebratory mood of the New Year has passed, we can take a cool look at what 2011 did to 2012. It did bad things on the business front: growth slowdown, euro crisis, rupee's fall and so on. The ill effects of these will continue to haunt much of the world, triggering not only protectionist policies already initiated in America, but also hate crimes in White countries against non-Whites.

The dead year also did something historically portentous: It brought people out into the street in protest against the selfish rich and the scheming politicians. It was a public rebellion such as the world had not witnessed in recent memory – not even during the turmoil that followed the dismantling of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s; that was a revolution from above although it turned later into a revolution from below.

What 2011 saw was a revolutionary surge from below against tyrannical forces above. It brought about bloody regime changes in some countries. In some other countries hated rulers further entrenched their positions through suppression and killings. In many democracies, the honesty and competence levels of elected governments were challenged by those who elected them. The message everywhere was the same: Those who govern can neither ignore nor take for granted those who are governed.

Nothing summed up that message more poignantly than the oft-quoted story of the small man who started it all. This streetside vegetable seller in a small town in Tunisia was fined, then slapped and publicly humiliated by a police woman. The man went away, but returned an hour later to set himself ablaze in the town square. The anger of the masses was aroused and the Arab Spring was under way.

In America it was not humiliation of the citizen that made the worm turn. It was the ugly face of capitalism, hence the name “Occupy Wall Street”, instead of “Occupy the White House”. Globalisation favoured the Fat Cats, the multinationals, the big banks whose CEOs walked off with big bonuses even as their business applied for bankruptcy. People wanted an end to this exploitation.

In India is was public disgust with corruption that turned the people against the system. The reality about corruption in India is that no party and no leader has made any real effort to combat it, not even the few leaders who were known for their personal integrity. It was as though the system of venality, turpitude and deception was so deeply entrenched that no leader or party could dare to oppose it. When generations of leaders functioned on that premise and decades passed with corruption only getting wider and deeper and more brazen, Hazare happened.

Infuriatingly politicians assume that voters are for fooling, that all the people can be fooled all the time. Look at the happenings in UP. Murderers and rapists were proudly flaunted as cabinet ministers by Mayawati. For more than four years they were allowed to violate all laws and, as the Comptroller and Auditor General reported, misuse public funds in PWD, Housing, Excise, Animal Husbandry, Medical, Family Welfare. After this prolonged plunder, just as the election schedule is announced, she dismisses some plunderers, rapists and murderers. Does she see the people of her state as mules?

We can put the question to the BJP bosses as well because that party quickly absorbed into its ranks several of the dismissed plunderers. The rejects of Mayawati will now be the heroes of the Party With a Difference, now renamed One More Party of Hypocrites. What a cynical abuse of elections? How crude can these manipulators get?

Politicians do not realise that people have started seeing through their trickery. The anger of those who took to the street all over India will intensify as rogue politicians grab power through deceipt and intrigue. The neutralisation of good men like Manmohan Singh and the indifference of power-wielders like Sonia Gandhi will aggravate public discontent. What shape will the Indian Spring take, and when?

Monday, January 2, 2012

If the War Against Corruption Becomes Just a Game, Let Politicians Beware

Albert Camus begins his famous essay The Fastidious Assassins with a provocation: “There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic”. The dividing line is not clear, he warns in aggravation. When India's leaders use democracy to frustrate democracy, is it a crime of passion or crime of logic – or does it not matter since the line that divides them is not clear anyway?

Although we have one of the finest democratic constitutions in the world, it is a fact that the practice of democracy has been at variance with the spirit of it. Indira Gandhi declared a harsh autocracy in 1975 in the name of the Constitution. Yet, the Emergency was only the most dramatic abuse of democracy. Less spectacularly the system has been getting subverted in our everyday lives. The way people with criminal records get elected to legislatures is a result of this subversion. The corruption that engulfs our lives is another.

It is in this context that we must look at the Lokpal brouhaha in and outside Parliament. The honourable as well as the dishonourable members ensured that the debate had very little to do with corruption and the problem of containing it. It was a political game for them – how to appear to be against corruption and yet keep alive the corrupt practices that sustained them in power.

It was no accident that the loudest, almost emotional, speech in the Lok Sabha was that of Lalu Prasad Yadav. He condemned the Lokpal bill not because it was toothless but because it dared to put on some false denture. “Anyone can file a case and hound you, calling you a chor”, he told his fellow MPs. This is a man who has half a dozen cases pending against him, some of them serious enough to hound him even in jail. People called him chor in the fodder scam. But why worry? The master manipulator in Lalu has managed not only to remain out of jail but also to bargain with Delhi to ensure for himself a position of importance in parliamentary arithmetic. Smart cookies like Lalu and Mayawati are above Lokpals and constitutions. They lend meaning to the slogan, Incredible India!

It was farcical to see the BJP accusing the Congress of losing its moral authority when it lost the Constitution Amendment Bill. Which party today has any moral authority to lose? As seen by the people, all parties are selfish and insincere, hence the historical groundswell of support to the anti-corruption movement initiated by Anna Hazare. That support has not ebbed despite the Gandhian's Mumbai fast ending abruptly in an anticlimax.

Of the many points that underline politicians' insincerity, not to mention ulterior motive, consider just three. First, the BJP ensured that the Lokpal Act would have no constitutional status. Which means that a government can abolish the law with the simple expedient of an ordinance. Secondly, the Congress introduced the idea of minority representation in the composition of the Lokpal – as absurd as a minority quota in the Supreme Court or Election Commission, and blatantly politically motivated on the eve of the UP elections.

The third point covers the CBI, a central element in combating corruption. The bill as envisaged by the Congress leaves the Lokpal with no power to control the CBI; the Government will control it. Only during Jawaharlal Nehru's and then Lal Bahadur Shastri's regimes could the CBI function independently. Beginning with Indira Gandhi, every Prime Minister has used the CBI as a political tool. A Lokpal with no real powers of investigation and prosecution will be a phoney Lokpal. It will make no difference to the culture of corruption that is suffocating India.

Towards the end of his essay, Camus asks a question that is scary. “Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end?. To that question, which historic thought leaves pending, rebellion replies: the means”. That's Camus's way of saying: Beware.