Monday, November 26, 2012

China's congress and India's congress: Not all princelings are the same.

First, India's Congress party met, then China's party Congress met. Don't see it as just a nice coincidence allowing a nice play on words. The twin events demonstrated yet again how we go in circles while others go forward. The party Congress was a reiteration of China's capacity to impact the world. The Congress party  reiterated its -- and the country's -- incapacity to break free of one family's stranglehold.

Scions of political families, "princelings", are active in China too. New party chief Xi Jinping is himself the son of a former deputy prime minister. But he had to compete with other princelings since there is no dominant dynasty with a dominant princeling before whom others have no chance. In fact Xi is an example of meritocracy in China. He was not the preferred choice of outgoing boss Hu Jintao. Hu would have liked Li Kequiang to succeed him. But he couldn't persuade his colleagues in the caucus and Li had to settle for prime ministership.

That merit and consensus were taken into account for the third succession in a row is a tribute to Deng Hsiaoping,  perhaps the most visionary leader in Chinese history, not excluding Mao Zedong. Deng's commnonsense ("The colour of the cat does not matter as long as it catches mice") was a seachange from Mao's follies such as the Great Leap Forward which triggered a famine. The economic prosperity he ushered in made headlines because it marked a departure from communism itself. His blueprint to eliminate Mao-style personality cult was based on two concepts: The President and Prime Minister should only have two five-year terms each, and leaders should not hold office after they were 68.

The leaders Deng nurtured imbibed his spirit. Jiang Zemin who succeeded Den in 1992 was a powerful leader whose influence still counts. He could have manoeuvred  to stay on in office, but he did not. Hu Jintao who succeeded Jiang in 2003 also followed the 10-year rule.

There must indeed be fierce internal wranglings in closed-door meetings of the party bigwigs. It is a corruption-ridden country and stakes are high for power wielders. But the secret of their success is that they fight in private and unite in public. Once decisions are reached, a picture-perfect  harmony emerges for the world to marvel at. All 2268 delegates appear in identical black suits (fortunately  different styles of neck ties are allowed), all voting hands  rise in unison, and all announcements are endorsed unanimously.

The choreography is all to evident and unconvincing. Like the verbal choreography we see at home when Sonia-Rahul's role in the National Herald property is questioned or Robert Vadra's real estate deals are publicised. The Surajkund conclave might have seen no sartorial uniformity but the leaders' obeisance before the Supreme Leader was all too evident. And that, without prior fireworks; Congressmen would be as obsequious behind closed doors as in front of them.

The point is that we have the form without the substance. With power no less than Deng Hsiaoping's, Indira Gandhi could have established a healthy precedent or two, like a respectable retirement age for ministers. A two-or three-term limit for MPs would have helped bring up fresh talent. She had the power, but not the wisdom. so she went in the opposite direction. If Deng's objective was to put the country above personalities and their cults, Indira ensured that her family would be above the country.

Things can of course change. There is no guarantee that Deng's vision would live for decades to come. A leader may emerge who will see the enormous might of China and develop ambitions of his own. By the same token, the Congress party may realise that dependence on one family is not taking it anywhere while the country is slipping in its economic progress. India may yet discover its destiny. At the moment, however, what we see is an avowed democracy getting caught in the ways of dictatorship, while an avowed dictatorship benefits from the ways of democracy. Ironies never cease.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A cartoonist with a sense of humour, Thackeray went politically astray

Bal Thackeray was not meant to be a demagogue.  The elements were so mixed in him that Nature could stand up and say: Here was a gentle soul who found his fulfillment in a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and a glass of beer. And yet,  he proved the elements wrong. He obliterated Bombay’s history by changing its name and altering its face and in the process became an apostle of urban violence leading a lumpenproletariat mafia. Bal was agreeable, decent. Balasaheb was virulent, pestilential.

It is easy to condemn Thackeray as a destroyer of peace and a promoter of petty chauvinism. But it would be wrong to ignore the forces, principally two,  that built him up as an agitprop militant. The Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee had an enemy to destroy while the city’s prominent industries had trade unions to tame. Both objectives called for unconventional  measures, but neither the BPCC nor industry associations could resort to actions that would dent their image as law-abiding entities. For them Thackeray became a convenience.

That was because the Shiv Sena had by then done some bashing of heads and smashing of shops. It was an accidental  confluence of factors that brought this about. Free Press Journal (FPJ) where Thackeray made his mark as an editorial cartoonist had passed into the hands of a new boss and he had  done what was then unthinkable: Publish a  soap company advertisement as the lead news story of the day. Half a dozen outraged members of the editorial team resigned in protest, Thackeray among them. They started a new newspaper, but it failed. Economic hardship faced Thackeray. As a desperate measure, he revived an old idea of starting a Marathi periodical.  It was a shot in the dark.  But it made headlines when it published a chance contribution by a chance contributor detailing how senior positions in big companies like Glaxo were monopolised by South Indians. The rest was history.

As it happened, the most prominent South Indian of the time was the popular MP from North Bombay, V.K. Krishna Menon. He was a Congressman, but the most prominent Congressman of Bombay, BPCC President S. K. Patil, detested him and was ready to do anything to banish him from Bombay.  Shiv Sena became Patil’s weapon and Menon was banished once and for all. Sena storm troopers were even more frenetic as they  went after trade union leaders. With patronage coming from both political and industrial godfathers, Thackeray grew into a godfather himself, lacking in neither finances nor clout.
Like company executives and Krishna Menon, several trade union leaders too were South Indians, with a  Mangalorean named George Fernandes at the helm. This and the fact  that Udupi restaurant  boys and moplah narielpaniwallahs were soft  targets made Shiv Sena focuses on South Indians in its early rounds of violence.

Spicy coffee house theories spread that Thackeray had developed a personal grudge against South Indians. There was talk that he was jealous of R.K. Laxman who started out in FPJ and went on to glory while he, Thackeray, was denied his due.

In fact, Thackeray not only had high regard for Laxman, but counted South Indians among his buddies in FPJ. There was a good deal of banter. Thackeray called the FPJ news desk the Malayali Club. The celebrated crime reporter M.P.Iyer constantly  showered friendly abuse on Thackeray. But Thackeray would not take offence because Iyer used colloquial Marathi with a brilliance Thackeray could not command. At least on one occasion, Thackeray paid public tribute to Iyer and S.Sadanand, FPJ’s founder, holding them up as models for young journalists to follow.

Thackeray was as much a victim as an exploiter of circumstance. The movement that gathered around him was unworthy of him. It deteriorated into a communal platform. Its fire passed to nephew Raj Thackeray, remarkable for his unsmiling mien, who further reduced it to a platform for social hatreds. Bal Thackeray deserved better for, essentially, he was a cartoonist with a  capacity for humour. A good guy. Now only the badness of his movement  will remain.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

They solve problems, make life easier; Why can’t we do what others do?

At a  businessmen’s conclave in Delhi the other day, Javed Akhtar described what he saw in a tiny village in Europe. It was at the back of nowhere, with no more than 50  households. Yet, the road was well tarred and everything was spick and span. There were  nice little lawns and flower patches, a small store and other conveniences. Peace and happiness filled the air.

But the visitor from India felt sad. He was burdened by the thought that there was not a village in India that was so neat and orderly, so good-looking and satisfying. Javed Akhtar is a poet,  so he was sensitive to the civilisational  contrast between what he saw in Europe and what he knew of India. We may take pride in the ancientness of our culture, but we have been irresponsible about our surroundings.

Look at what we have done to places like Shimla and Ooty, Darjeeling and Munnar. Land mafia and sarkar mafia combined to turn these beauty spots of nature into unplanned, unappealing commercial conglomerates.  Villages? How many are there with basic latrine facilities, let alone tarred roads and footpaths and garden patches? Many of our rivers are in their death throes thanks to the sand mafia. Many lakes have been filled up for their land value, many others have become  receptacles  for factory effluents and other poisons. Even the holiness of the Ganga does not inspire the authorities to clean it up.

Accident rates on Indian roads are among the highest in the world. While cars and bikes are liberally promoted, road development plans are in the hands of racketeers. In many cities there are major roads with no footpaths. How can speeding buses be blamed if they knock down pedestrians? There are roads with dividers that are invisible at night. How can oil tankers be blamed if they hit the dividers, turn turtle and set nearby houses aflame?

Cities in other countries also face serious traffic problems. But they take effective remedial measures. The footpaths in  boulevards  like New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Champ Elysees are the envy of the world. The current trend is to take city traffic underground, along with high-footfall activities like mall shopping. Montreal and Boston have already done this and Singapore and Beijing are going ahead with their plans.
In other words, there are doable solutions to modern traffic and transport  problems. The will to do it is what makes the difference. Central and state authorities in India lack the will. They find it easier to ape others. Cities like Singapore and London levy special fees on cars that enter the central business district. So Bangalore said it would do likewise. But Singapore and London imposed the fee after making public transport pleasurable as well as convenient. In Bangalore the bus service is a pain while the metro is at best an exercise in minimalism.

But it is Bangalore’s garbage politics that exposes the shame of our urban governance. The Garden City is today a Garbage City. Not because the system broke down, but because the mafia put its foot down. Landfill, being part of the land-construction business, was a subject close to the mafia. Garbage lorry operators constituted another mafia. All of them have close links and working arrangements with corporators, MLAs and ministers. The rest is obvious.

In all cities garbage is dumped in areas where the poor live. But sometimes the poor revolt. That was what happened near Trivandrum when the entire population of a locality objected to garbage trucks entering the area. The way they protested, the police was unable to move. Even orders by the court could not be carried out. The Government is now looking for alternate dumping grounds.

Actually household garbage is a small problem (compared to industrial waste). There are localities where it is converted to biogas for heating purposes. Garbage does not have to rot on roadsides causing dengue and worse if there are authorities with a  modicum of responsibility. Difficulties arise only when seats of power are occupied by political garbage.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Their fathers' sons are rising, but look elsewhere for the real India

From Nitin Gadkari to Mamata Banerji, all politicians describe controversies surrounding them as media creations. Which is like looking at a pimple on your face and calling it a mirror creation. There are other things which are indeed media creations. The idea of the “Rahul Stamp”,  for example. First, media mandarins said the cabinet reshuffle was going to bear the Rahul Stamp. Then they said the Rahul Stamp was missing. Then they found that the Rahul Stamp had in fact worked and brought the average age of the cabinet down from 65 to 64.

The advantage with the media, especially the variety that shouts from inside boxes, is that it is concerned only with the moment. What happens the next moment is another headline and another shout. There was no logic in creating a hype in the first place about a Rahul Stamp on the cabinet.  A stamp is put on things by those who have outstanding ideological and philosophical convictions that influence others. Jawaharlal Nehru put his stamp on the  post-war world with  concepts like non-alignment. Jyoti Basu and E.M.S. Nambudiripad imprinted their stamp on their states by the power of their personalities. Annadurai engraved his stamp on Tamil country, Narasimha Rao on India’s economy.

Rahul Gandhi does not belong to this league. His true asset is that he seems to realise this – assuming  that that is the reason he has declined to become prime minister. In terms of grand convictions that influence others, he has betrayed none so far. No notable speech stands in his name. No policy initiative has stirred up popular imagination. No electoral campaign he led has  met with success. Only fawning sycophancy is there to sustain the hype. As The Economist put it:  “Nobody really knows what he is capable of, nor what he wishes to do should he ever attain power and responsibility. The suspicion is growing that Mr Gandhi himself does not know”.

He doesn’t have to. Not when he is his father’s son. To appreciate this we must look at something the media played up with a more appropriate phrase, the “Rahul Brigade”. Headline writers went effusive about the freshness and promise of the Brigade. They actually meant Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitendra Singh, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora.  Accomplished young men who deserve to do well. But that was not why they got prominent positions in the cabinet.
This is where the real stamp imprinted on today’s India emerges into view: The stamp of dynasty. If it were simply a matter of the Rahul Brigade, at least two others should have been somewhere in the limelight. From 2008 what was known as Rahul’s core team at the Congress headquarters comprised Jitendra Singh, Meenakshi Natarajan and Ashok Tanwar. They were closest to Rahul, strategizing every move of his, united in their  devotion to him. When the moment of truth came, however, the differences among them came to the fore. Jitendra Singh was the scion of  Alwar royalty, Meenakshi was a Madhya Pradesh grassroot worker, Tanwar a dalit. The one who fitted into the dynastic framework moved up to join his kind – Scindia and Pilot, Prasada and Deora, all of them their fathers’ sons.

When sons and daughters, on their own, are unable to climb the steps of leadership, democracy is diminished. Our democracy was subverted when dynastic rule followed the Emergency. Two factors since made it worse. First, the idea spread to other parties reviving the spectre of hereditary rulers.  Secondly, Sonia Gandhi emerged as a more formidable wielder of power than Indira. A surprised nation watched  with awe as she tore into L.K.Advani in the Lok Sabha recently, bristling with rage, shouting, gesticulating and repeatedly goading her party men to shout down the opposition. For the first time the nation understood why Congressmen were terrified of her.

This is the real India, beyond  the make-believe of democracy. In this India only two forces can decide matters like cabinet appointments. And the Prime Minister is not one of them. Ask Jaipal Reddy.