Monday, December 31, 2012

Couldn't the PM show some feelings in a time of strong feelings?

Of the many things that went wrong during Big Bad Year 2012, which was the most upsetting? That's not an easy question to answer because there were too many Big Bad Things that were disconcerting. Hopes were shattered and fears came true. Heroes developed clay feet, villains became kings. Politicians grew fat, mafia cronies fatter. Mango in-laws made jokes about aam admis.

Consider Mamata Banerji. A hugely popular leader, she was different from other politicians, living in a tiny house in a crowded area, a picture of frugality and honesty. Overnight she changed into an ogre. Her admitted hero was Rabindranath Tagore, yet she made Bengalis moan about the state

Where the mind
is full of fear
and the head held low.

Consider other let-downs. When young and educated Akhilesh Yadav became Chief Minister of UP, there was hope that at last that ravaged state would be free of criminal politicians. But it became free of only Mayawati's criminal politicians. Mulayam Singh Yadav's lot staged a triumphant comeback and the state continued to be the playground of thugs.

When Anna Hazare inspired people to protest against the corrupt political class, Home Minister Chidambaram, a man with no feel for the public pulse, could only think of beating up people and putting Hazare in jail. When women and students in their thousands rose against the brutalisation of a girl in a moving bus in Delhi, all that Home Minister Shinde could think of was beating them up and calling them Maoists. Ministers shamed India last year and this year.

Let us not forget the dynastic rulers of Punjab where well-connected politicians can kill and rape with immunity. One man who was shot dead was a policeman in uniform who had tried to protect his daughter being harassed by a ruling politician. In Mumbai, if it's a Pawar he gets clean chits. In Karnataka, jail or bail, Yeddyurappa is convinced that he alone has the right to rule. In Bengal, the son of respected parents and brother of a civilised lady goes bonkers and attacks women, discos, makeup, demonstrations, all at once. He probably had secret ambitions to get painted, but frustrations dented his mind.

Any of these could qualify as the Great Upset of 2012. But they must all yield to the performance style of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This might have escaped our attention because it was so quiet and undramatic. But think about it. Can anything be more worrying for a country than its Prime Minister becoming inscrutable?

It may be his realisation that politics is more than economics. It may be Soniaji's presence round the corner all the time. Whatever the reason, he has developed special techniques to cope. The expressionlessness of his face as he sits in Parliament is one of the wonders of the world. We know he is not sleeping because sleep gives an expression of its own to the human face. The Manmohan face does not have that either.

And he avoids speaking his mind. When did we hear him speak -- really speak -- after the war over the Indo-US nuclear treaty which he singlehandedly fought and won? So he can speak if he wants to. So the point is he doesn't want to. For three tumultuous days we did not know what our Prime Minister felt about the bus rape horror in Delhi. Then he came on television and delivered one of the worst speeches in the history of mankind. It was a one-minute speech. Could he not say those few sentences looking into the camera, into the eyes of people, instead of the paper on his table? As a father of the daughters he mentioned, could he not bring a modicum of human emotion to what he was saying? Even the Theek hai he said at the end was so meek and inaudible that it need not have triggered the fuss it did. His rape speech will be remembered as the grand tragedy of 2012. Perhaps he had no choice. The presence of the High Command is so overpowering that only an expressionless, opinionless, emotionless Prime Minister can be Theek hai.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Politicians are involved in rape cases. Is that why there's no action?

The nationwide eruption of anger over the Delhi bus rape can be seen as a silver lining, if indeed so horrific a crime can have a silver lining. It shows that public opinion is vigilant and assertive as was proved when a stunned nation responded to the Mumbai terrorist attack and, more recently, to corruption when Anna Hazare sounded the bugle. But in both these instances, nothing eventually happened. The Government did not put adequate, modern security systems in place except for VIP protection. Nor did it take corruption seriously, preferring instead to fight corruption-fighters.

Will it be different this time? It ought to be because what we are facing is not just a pack of animals attacking a young woman held captive in a moving bus; what we confront is an epidemic of rape. Across the length and breadth of the country, in urban centres and rural backyards, fathers are attacking daughters, neighbours are kidnapping under-aged girls and upper caste men are raping and then killing lower caste girls.

The present case, execrable as it is, attracted concentrated attention because it happened in Delhi. Several sensational cases of recent memory, such as the Jessica and Arushi murder cases, moved toward justice because they happened in Delhi and therefore were taken up by Delhi television channels. It is no compliment to our political, judicial and media systems that crimes have to occur in Delhi for them to be noticed, publicised, prosecuted, and pursued until the perpetrators are properly punished.

Naturally the media crowned Delhi with the title of the rape capital of India. Statistically Durg-Bhilainagar in Chattisgarh has the highest per-capita rape cases, followed by Bhopal. Men there should be happy that they can carry on undisturbed because they are beyond the range of Delhi's TV channels. The girls must be worse off for the same reason.

For that matter, how much national horror is generated by horror stories from Mumbai? A policeman on patrol duty in Marine Drive, of all places, got an attack of libido and just pulled a passing college girl into his bunker and raped her. Perhaps the worst tragedy of its kind in Indian history was that of Aruna Shanbag, the nurse who was sexually assaulted in 1973 by a hospital sweeper and has been in a vegetative state ever since. The man was sentenced to 7 years because the charges filed against him were "assault and robbery". Even if he had been charged with rape, he would have got 10 years, whereas the victim is lying in a helpless state for the 39th year. The Supreme Court rejected a plea to allow mercy killing in her case.

At the other extreme, we have the case of Phoolan Devi. She was gang-raped in her village and she responded by turning to a life of violence herself. She launched her life as a bandit by ordering the murder of 22 upper caste villagers, her presumed tormentors. Most of her attacks were in revenge, until she herself was shot dead by a revenge-seeking upper caste man. She was an MP when she was killed.

The involvement of politicians in rape cases must be one reason for governments to go easy on the subject. In UP the number of politicians booked for rape is high, and more must be escaping the law. The tragic case of Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan (1992) and of Anjana Mishra in Orissa (1999) involved high-ranking politicians. In Kerala, from the Suryanelli case to the icecream parlour case, ranking political leaders were involved. They went free, giving the rape industry a big boost in Kerala.

For politicians even the massive outburst of public anger in the present situation is an occasion to cash in. The demonstration at India Gate was dominated by ABVP placards as though this was an ABVP event. In the Mumbai demonstration, the focus was on Sharad Pawar's smiling face. BJP MPs demonstrated as BJP MPs. Congress MPs did not demonstrate because the Government is Congress-led. We are a nation of opportunistic politicians as well as of rapists.

Monday, December 17, 2012

How important was the West's role in the Ravi Shankar phenomenon?

There is a big (896 pages) reference compendium called The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. Note that title again. It does not say western classical music, or Asian or African. Just "classical music". So we would think that this book, in convenient dictionary format, is about the classical music of the world.

But it isn't. In all those hundreds of pages, the word Hindustani does not appear, or Carnatic. There is no Tyagaraja. Not one of the great Khan Sahebs of Hindustani classical music figures anywhere. The word India exists, to inform us that Indian music had the same sources as music in modern Europe. In other words, what we have here is a companion to western classical music parading under false universal pretences.

There is one, and only one, classicist of Indian music who was found worthy of notice: Shankar, Ravi. All right, he gets only 5 1/2 lines, 3 1/2 of which are about his tour of Europe and contacts with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison. But that is 5 1/2 lines more than what Muthuswamy Dikshitar, who re-invented the violin, got. The lesson to learn here is that recognition in any field of human endeavour assumes meaning only when it comes from the white west. This is of course no reflection on Ravi Shankar. His greatness was genuine and acquired through tortuous saadhana. But he became more equal than his peers because he was seen as part of the culture that the Beatles so brilliantly symbolised.

Let it also be remembered that Ravi Shankar did not go looking for western recognition as a shortcut to success. Far from it. His westward gravitation came naturally. His father was already settled abroad when he was born. At 10, "Robu" was in Paris with his other brothers helping Uday Shankar, the eldest, to set up his dance troupe.

It should be noted, too, that Ravi Shankar's counterculture fling with the hippies did not dilute his classical worth. He was versatile. He was activist enough to be a part of the communist-inspired IPTA movement and multifaceted enough to contribute to the musical substance of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy and Attenborough's Gandhi. But a comprehensive look at his place in history cannot sidestep his combativeness and his flair for public relations. These played no small part in the stardom he achieved, and the way unhappy controversies were papered over.

The withdrawal into silence of his hugely talented wife Annapoorna Devi was a major loss to music. By available accounts, this daughter of the great Allauddin Khan was more talented than Ravi Shankar. This was probably true considering that her disciples included the likes of Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Nikhil Banerjee. She must have been devastated by whatever happened during the flareups between her and the husband she married when she was 14. Some who knew the couple said Ravi Shankar was jealous of her musical virtuosity. The wife's Bhishma-like resolve to remain silent only kept the chatter going.

It is a fact that Vilayat Khan felt eclipsed by Ravi Shankar. To a large extent the reason was Vilayat's acerbic personality and the contrast provided by Ravi Shankar's cultivated charm. But Vilayat Khan had reasons to be haunted by the feeling that his contributions to music did not receive the recognition they deserved. He was a prodigy who began performing when he was 6. He modified the sitar and developed a revolutionary style of his own, the gayaki ang, which won devotees and imitators wherever he went. But the limelight was focussed on Ravi Shankar. Vilayat Khan showed his resentment in small ways -- rejecting the two Padma awards offered to him and accepting an unknown group's title, Bharat Sitar Samrat.

As in music, so in dance. The debate is still on as to who served Bharata Natyam better -- Rukmini Devi who "cleansed it" or Balasaraswati who took abhinaya to unprecedented heights of glory. But in the celebrity circuit the upperclass wife of an Englishman reigns. To what extent can art go without the backing of the west? Who wins in the end -- the art or the glamour?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Modi has the Gujarati Middle Class; Beyond that, others have the edge

Ongoing debates about the Gujarat election are much ado about nothing. This is an election Narenda Modi will win without any difficulty. Manifestos, competitive promises of freebies and the bravado of speakers add up to mere poll-season tamasha. The only significance of the election is how it will affect the national scenario if at all.

There are many factors that make a Modi victory inevitable. The most obvious is that it is really a one-man race. There is no opposition party worth talking about. The Congress is decimated for the same reason that it is decimated in most other states: Its culture is so dynasty-centric that no credible leadership can come up anywhere. As for Kesubhai Patel, he was done little to widen his support base beyond sections of the Patel community. In any case, age is against him.

Modi, by contrast, is the very personification of power. Among urban voters his popularity is genuine and strong because they have benefited the most from his modernisation drive, especially in terms of infrastructure. There are neglected areas but they hardly hit the headlines. In Saurashtra, for example, farmer suicides have gone beyond 30 and all that the Modi manifesto promises is for the state to pay a portion of their debts. This will not help much. Economists consider it retrograde in principle.

But then, Narendra Modi has not expended too much energy this time talking about economics and development. There was a reference to the "neo-middle class" in the manifesto, but nothing substantive. Maybe too many worms have come out of the woodwork, such as new allegations about gasfield allotment irregularities and shelf companies of cronies. Maybe he felt safer to return to the original wellsprings of his strength, his passionate support base, the Gujarati Middle Class.

In a historically important essay in 2008, political psychologist Ashish Nandy had said how the Gujarati Middle Class "has found in militant religious nationalism a new virtual identity", how "the middle class controls the media and education which have become hate factories in recent times," and how non-resident Gujaratis, "at a safe distance from India", had become "more nationalistic and irresponsible". Those comments must have been as true as they were strong because Gujarat's police started criminal proceedings against Nandy. He was saved by the Supreme Court which expressed anguish at the growing intolerance over the free expression of people's views.

The perception that Modi feels safest with majoritarian communalism has been strengthened by his return to a trade-mark attack style this time. He said Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel was the Congress's nominee for chief ministership and then started referring to him as Ahmed-miyan. In the run-up to the 2002 election, he had won applause from the middle class by calling Pakistan's then President Miyan-Musharaf. When the Election Commission declined to change the polling date as Modi demanded, he had started referring to Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh as James Michael Lyngdoh. Modi obviously relishes the religious dig. And not one Muslim in Gujarat has got a ticket this time.

The BJP, plagued by factionalism and with a president grievously wounded by corruption charges, is left with no star other than Narendra Modi. Hence the recent rush among BJP leaders, including those aspiring for prime ministership, to sing praises of Modi. Given the mess the BJP is in, there is little likelihood of it garnering the strength to form the next Government in Delhi. There will be a post-election scramble among parties to collect the necessary numbers through allies.

That will be the moment of truth for Narendra Modi. Parties that joined hands with A.B.Vajpayee's BJP will not do the same with Narendra Modi's BJP. Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik merely symbolise the many who feel uncomfortable with Modi. At the same time leaders like Mulayam Singh and Jayalalitha may have credentials as good if not better than Modi to head a collision. As of now, it looks like a safe bet that Narendra Modi will remain confined to his fortress base -- the Gujarati Middle Class.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Aam Aadmi is good for mango jokes; It's no name for a serious party

The name Arvind Kejriwal & Co has chosen for their political party will not run. Their cause is noble. Corruption has become a Frankenstein's monster and all Indians outside the political class want to see it destroyed. But in politics, details like names are important. Sentiments matter -- sentiments associated with recognised heroes and traditions.

Aam Aadmi is at best a slogan, like Garibi. It can be the title of a newspaper column or of a cartoon feature like Laxman's Common Man. But it does not have the gravitas or emotional connect a party name needs. We only have to look at the words Congress and Janata to understand this.

O. Hume and his Theosophical Society friends picked a name that consisted of three unimpeachable terms -- Indian and National and Union which was later changed to Congress. As a name, Indian National Congress had such a universal appeal that the Nelson Mandela movement named its party the African National Congress.

In Indian politics, "Congress" lost its Englishness and became a generic term that suggested a sort of political legitimacy. Hence the numerous parties that adopted the term, from the Nationalist Congress Party to the Trinamool Congress, not to mention the Karnataka Congress Party of the late Chief Minister S. Bangarappa, and a string of Kerala Congress parties identified by the initials of each group's leader.

The same logic worked for the word Janata, directly understood in every Indian language. Following the atrocities of the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi was summarily defeated, opposition groups came under the banner of the Janata Party led by Jayaprakash Narayan. But that party let the people down and Subramaniam Swamy hijacked the party's name on technical grounds. Yet the magic of the name remained.

So the Hindutva lobby that was part of the Janata Party now formed the Bharatiya Janata Party, quickly becoming the Congress's main rival. Others too took advantage of the word's popular appeal -- Janata (United), Janata (Secular), Biju Janata. Even B. S. Yeddyurappa, BJP's fallen star who believes that it is his right and no one else's to rule Karnataka, could think of only one name when he considered forming his own party: Karnataka Janata Party.

It is not for nothing that almost every party in Tamil Nadu has a D connection, legitimising its Dravida authenticity. Periyar Ramaswamy's original Dravida Kazhagam is politically nowhere. But the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are in the forefront of the power game. Never mind what DMDK and MDMK and PDK stand for. As long as the D is there, everything else is secondary.

Ensuring the aptness of names is in the realm of creative minds. Look at the names Vyasa picked. The Du in Duryodhana was no accident. Several of his brothers also had names beginning with that inauspicious sound -- Dushyasana, Dhurmukan, even Dussala for their only sister. On the other hand names like Dhritarashtra and Bhishma, Shakuni and Shikandi hold a mirror to their respective characters.

In English, there was no one to beat Rudyard Kipling in this art. Consider the sheer genius of a name like Kaa for a python, Shere Khan for a tiger, Bagheera for a leopard. Vidyadhar Suryaprasad would have been a turn-off compared to V. S. Naipaul. His characters had names that reflected their identity problems: Willie Chandran, Ralph Singh ( a westernisation of Ranjit Kripal Singh).

Whether in literature or in real life, names that click win the day. The Americans, trying hard to break out of their two-party logjam, have been trying to form a platform that would emerge as a third alternative. Forget eccentric formations like the American Nazi Party and the US Marijuana Party. But the American Independent Party got 10 million voters for its 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace. Beyond that nothing. What chance then, for a humdrum, unimaginative, just-for-today-sounding Aam Aadmi Party that will only give operators like Robert Vadra a chance to crack cheap mango jokes? It's no answer to the millions waiting for salvation from the stranglehold of the corrupt Congress and the corrupt BJP.