Monday, June 25, 2012

Should MPs be exploiting the system? Respect must be earned, not forced

Our headline preoccupations are actually surface trifles – oneupmanship over presidential candidates, corruption cases, one lot holding up Sonia Gandhi as goddess while another lot bows to Mamata Bannerjee as sovereign, and so on. The reality behind the surface is that our democracy is being vandalised by its very beneficiaries, the MPs and the MLAs. They have become more self-serving than at any time since elections began.

In the early days their selfishness was limited to getting increased salary and allowances. Compared to what was to come, those were days of innocence. Even then, perceptive leaders were able to sense a dangerous trend. Among them was Nanaji Deshmukh, a veteran nationalist whose mind soared above the RSS with which he was identified.

In 2005 he wrote an open letter to express his anguish over MPs voting themselves yet another salary increase. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha, yet he wrote: “Much of the privileges and perquisites of MPs, former MPs, and former PMs look more like privy purses and are unconcerned with any public purpose”. He noted that salaries of MPs had gone up 90 times in 50 years, “a mockery of democracy”.

Nanaji Deshmukh would be left without words to describe the highway robbery that's happening today. In something of a national scandal, Air-India recently worked out a “high quality handling protocol” for MPs. It stipulated procedures no one would have believed possible: Air-India should depute staff to facilitate an MP's check-in, an attendant should take his hand-carry bag into the aircraft, cabin crew should constantly inquire about his comforts, the captain himself should come and greet him and, at the arrival airport, the duty manager should receive the MP.

Adding insult to injury, the protocol was moved when Air-India was sick and haemorrhaging, pilots were on strike, losses were running into several crores a day. But MPs, guardians of the country and its assets, could only think of how to secure more privileges for themselves free of cost. The don't-care attitude was voiced by the don't-care aviation minister himself. Ajit Singh justified the protocol by declaring: “We are just saying give them due respect”.

To MPs of this kind, what respect is due? To MPs who use diplomatic passports to smuggle Indians to Canada, MPs who take bribes to raise questions in Parliament, MPs who get elected while they are lodged in jail cells, what respect is due? Let's not hear insipid arguments like, all MPs are not bad. Of course they are not. But all MPs are responsible when Parliament is stalled for every day of an entire session, and when instrumentalities like House Committees are used to unilaterally secure privileges at citizens' cost.

A Lok Sabha House Committee has now asked for a protocol of privileges in Delhi Metro: special ticket counters, staff to guide MPs to their seats, etc. MPs have also demanded higher positions in the Warrant of Procedure at public functions, lifting from 21st to 17th position in the gradation of VIPs and of course Lal batti on top of their cars. Mercifully, they have not asked for all traffic to halt when they are on the road. Well, not yet.

These VIPs (Very Irregular Persons) actually rob the country in addition to squeezing it. MPs have voted themselves the privilege of 1.5 lakh free telephone calls a year. Many exceed this and don't pay. There are sitting MPs who owe 9 lakhs and 3 lakhs rupees each. But no action can be taken against them because MPs have provided to themselves “rules of immunity”. So the tax-paying citizen must bear the cost. What respect is due to such MPs?

The final straw comes from UP Assembly. The MLAs there have moved for special privileges for those members who are in jail: A-Class status, phones inside the cells, office facilities, incarceration in their home constituencies. Their excuse is a variation on Ajit Singh's theme: Respect due to public servants. No country is governed by a more shameless class.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Manmohan Singh & the tragedy of India; Fortunately, the future looks good

The 2012 presidential election may well go down as a turning point in history. Not because of who becomes president and what he does. But because, for the first time, Sonia Gandhi did not have it her way all the way. To that extent, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of dynasty's unnatural hold on democracy in India. At the same time, the politicking highlighted the existential conundrum of Manmohan Singh. Both developments augur well for the future.

Five years ago Sonia Gandhi was the tzar of political India and her word was law. Even non-Congress leaders saw some extraterrestrial aura in her and were inclined to let her have her way. She used that position to make a nonentity the president of our great country. That president diminished the presidency, but the Congress President saw nothing wrong. As far as she was concerned, she was exercising her family's right.

That was then, this is now. She was keen, for wholly personal reasons, on keeping APJ Abdul Kalam out. She succeeded, but she had to pay a price for it – the price of accepting Pranab Mukherji as the Congress' official candidate. From the outset Pranab was seen as a natural. His acceptability to other parties gave him winnability as well. But it is well known that Sonia Gandhi was always cautious about him, unsure of the absoluteness of his loyalty. In a party where absolute personal loyalty to the family is paramount, he was never a favourite.

In the presidential run-up, although Pranab was widely discussed as an ideal candidate, Sonia Gandhi saw to it that no candidate was announced. Speculation spread, damaging the party and damaging Pranab Mukherji. Sonia's silence even triggered rumours that she was looking for a “surprise” candidate, another Pratibha Patil perhaps. But subsequent developments indicated that the challenges thrown at her forced her hands and she had to approve the name others had already approved.

Mamata Bannerji's challenge was the most serious. She is an eccentric and her motivations are suspect. But she made things move by announcing the names of Congress candidates – which made Congress spokesmen livid with rage – and then rejecting them. She promoted Kalam's name with such vigour that Sonia must have sensed danger and settled for the lesser evil.

Mamata also promoted Manmohan Singh's name as a second choice. This was calculated mischief. Sections of the Congress had been in favour of replacing Manmohan Singh. The recent Working Committee meeting heard strident criticism of him. Most of the attackers were currying favour with Sonia Gandhi with the theory that Rahul Gandhi would make a better prime minister. When Mamata jumped the gun, however, Congress flunkeys rushed to say that Manmohan Singh would remain in the prime minister’s chair even after the next general election.

And why not? Who is more pliable from Sonia Gandhi's viewpoint? Manmohan Singh has an international profile and an intellectual standing of his own. At the same time, he is capable of complete non-interference in the management of the country, including its economy. What more can Sonia Gandhi and her satraps ask for?

The big mystery of our times is why Manmohan Singh carries on the way he does. Every scandal, every policy failure, every problem that festers due to inaction brings him discredit – for no fault of his. He is allowed little real power and he exercises less. Why does he hang on? It was the economic crisis of 1991 that catapulted him to fame. Today's economic crisis has shown him up as a tragedy, with Standard & Poor's latest report specifically mentioning his ineffectiveness. The tragedy of the good and capable Manmohan Singh is the tragedy of India. The psychological – as distinct from constitutional – acceptance of the Indira dynasty's presumed supremacy has made politics and public life topsy turvey in our country. Now that we have seen the limits of Sonia Gandhi's power, perhaps things will get better from now on.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Balraj Sahni and the age of excellence, when creativity mattered above all

Thinkers make cinema, actors get the attention. When thinker and actor are the same, cinema rises high: Orson Welles in Hollywood, Guru Dutt in Bollywood. Or, at one remove, Paul Muni there, Balraj Sahni here.

Balraj did not direct movies. Like Muni, he portrayed characters. But the mastery with which he did it made the movies as much his as the director's. The Kabuliwala Tagore visualised was a remarkable character, but it was Balraj who gave it flesh and blood. M. S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa was a classic; its pathos moved audiences when Balraj gave rare authenticity to the angst of an Agra Muslim who just couldn't see why he should give up his house and his friends because Pakistan had come into being.

Balraj could pack his portrayals with power because he was a complete artiste who heeded the call of destiny. Restlessness made him leave the family business, leave Shantiniketan, leave the Gandhi ashram in Wardha, and leave the BBC in London. He found fulfilment only when he plunged into fulltime stage-and-screen activity in Bombay.

It was a wonderful Bombay. Bal Thackeray luckily was still drawing cartoons for a living. Dance-drama troupes thought nothing of loading stage props on to a bullock cart in Andheri and “driving” to Grant Road six hours away (if the bullocks were in a good mood); some of the artistes would sit on top of the stuff, singing. Balraj was always on the road because he was the only one with a motorbike. Half of Bombay rode pillion with him, from P.C. Joshi, the famed General Secretary of the Communist Party, to lowly journalists. They felt betrayed when Balraj eventually promoted himself to a Vauxhaul car.

It was the level of commitment he showed to theatre, cinema, public causes and politics that made Balraj Sahni different. There were some others like him. But they have disappeared behind the curtain of time thanks to our national habit of not maintaining records. Fortunately, Balraj had written a couple of autobiographical books. Now a small (just 98 pages) booklet has been published by Sahmat in Delhi.

But this is a valuable book because it is written by two privileged authors, Kalpana Sahni and P.C.Joshi. Kalpana, professor of Russian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is the daughter of Bhisham Sahni, Balraj's brother who too devoted his life to theatre. Hence the title of the book, Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, Brothers in Political Theatre. P. C. Joshi was a lifelong comrade of Balraj. Naturally the book is full of fascinating insights.

The basic point that comes through is that 1950s-1960s was creative India's Age of Excellence. In filmdom, only talent mattered, not abdominal muscles or item numbers. They didn't think twice about living commune style. In a small house in Bandra, the newly arrived Balraj, his wife and two small children joined Chetan Anand, Dev Anand and Hamid Butt and their respective families – 12 souls in all. In that chaos they found space for rehearsals too. K. A. Abbas lived in a two-room flat where associates and their families would descend to stay overnight, the Sahni family included. No one thought of inconveniences, because everyone thought of cameraderie.

The Indian People's Theatre Association, more than cinema, was their bond. Those were IPTA's glory days with everyone who was anyone in theatre, dance and music being an active participant – Prithviraj Kapoor and Zora Sehgal, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. This little book sheds light on a mystery topic – how IPTA collapsed. P.C.Joshi had made it a part of everyday life, even staging plays in communally disturbed areas at considerable risk to its members. But the B.T. Ranadive line pushed Joshi aside in 1948 and suddenly all who were not party-approved communists were declared enemies. IPTA was all expense and no income, they said – and that was that.

History takes revenge on the short-sighted. Ranadive is a footnote today; P.C.Joshi is a chapter. IPTA is a remembered treasure. And Balraj Sahni lives.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dynasty, communal manipulation, murder – Are these the choices for our Democracy?

Imagine a politician proclaiming publicly: Our party is experienced in eliminating its opponents. We make lists of our enemies and then kill them. Not long ago, we killed one by shooting, one by stabbing, one by cutting him to pieces. Everything is in our hands.

Words to this effect were uttered, before TV cameras, by a senior CPM leader in Kerala the other day. Only a few days earlier, a former CPM leader who had deserted the party had been waylaid and murdered, his face mutilated with some 50 machete blows. Most of the people arrested in that case were associated with the CPM. Just when the party's image had hit rock bottom, its own leader comes up with the statement that murder is party policy.

The top leadership of course rushed in with denials. But it made no impact on public sentiment. Never was the CPM in Kerala in so discredited a situation. In the other citadel of the party, Bengal, it had already fallen. The party's central leadership in Delhi was no more than a bystander in both cases. It had neither the imagination nor the guts to check unpopular local activities.

Many will no doubt rejoice at what are clearly desperate days for the CPM, a rebel group that broke away from the Communist Party of India, grew mightier than the parent, ruled West Bengal unchallenged – and unchallengeable – for almost three and a half decades, and wielded power in Kerala in electoral cycles. The CPM has no one to blame but itself for its plight. It is a pity, nevertheless, that in the seventh decade of practising democracy, we do not have a progressive party that can challenge the two reactionary theses that have monopolised the electoral space, namely, dynasticism and communalism.

Ironically, the CPM was itself an obstacle to progressive politics. It could have used its early popularity to identify itself with the people's interests and fight for their causes, as P.C.Joshi did with the Indian People's Theatre Association, for example. Instead, it grew very rich in Kerala and Bengal, its top leaders developed a taste for the good life, and its unions turned exploitative with strong-arm measures to sustain a no-work-more-pay philosophy.

It could have taken a leaf from communist parties in other countries and adjusted its dogma to suit the changing times. But to do so, it had to be attuned to the Indian reality as distinct from textbook precepts. One of the more respected communist leaders, Mohit Sen, said: “In India as elsewhere communists were patriots and champions of the working people. But they were not nationalists. They did not know India”.

Stalin was actually a Russian nationalist. Mao Zedong was a nationalist out and out. Even Lenin, although an internationalist, was pragmatic enough to devise the supra-Marxist theory of a vanguard leading the proletariat. Ho Chi Minh, an internationalist by training, was so focussed on the conditions of the Vietnamese people that General Giap's barefoot soldiers could defeat the world's mightiest military machine

In the last couple of decades, India's communist leaders not only did not know India; they did not know they had missed the bus. In a labour centre like Bombay, in the peasant country of Punjab and in the revolutionary soil of Andhra, they did not gain a toehold. In Bengal there were plenty of signs of popular disenchantment, but when defeat finally came, the party chief said it was “totally unexpected”. In Kerala the party chief still refuses to see what all others can see.

India can do without such a party. But it can also do without the sycophantic mindset that sustains the concept of hereditary power. It can do without the game of inciting communal emotions for political ends. What a mature democracy needs is a choice of democratic platforms – like Conservatism, Liberalism, Socialism. If the decline and fall of communism takes us a step closer to such a denoeument, even the politics of murder would not be in vain.