Monday, November 25, 2013

Their highnesses, royal or not, are ready to serve the country again. Make way

There is no democracy like Indian democracy. Yashodhara Raje Scindia, BJP candidate in Madhya Pradesh, declared in her election affidavit that she had a dinner set worth Rs 1.54 crore. Was that worth mentioning in a country where a Sheaffer pen was announced for Rs 3 crore plus last week. But when an indulgent reporter asked about the dinner trinket, the candidate smiled indulgently and said, "what's the big deal, we are royals".

Well said, your Royal Highness. In the days of the Raj and Divine Rights, you had the power of life and death over your prajas. When the Republic came, Sardar Patel took that power away but left you with a comfortable privy purse. In 1971 Indira Gandhi took away that purse, but left you with your palaces, your jewels and your dinner plates. With these you went to the hustings and regained the political power the Sardar had snatched from you. Sweet are the uses of democracy, ain't they?

Can we do some arithmetic with the costing of that dining table knick-knack? According to Oracle Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission, an urban citizen needs only Rs 32 a day to eat reasonably well. That means a citizen who has Rs. 11,680 can eat reasonably well for a year. So, if he has Rs 1.54 crore, he can eat comfortably for 1318.49 years. Since he is unlikely to need food for 1318.49 years, there is going to be an enormous amount of surplus food around. Therefore, a reasonable solution to poverty is to have more jewel-encrusted dinner sets at the disposal of royals. Convoluted logic? But certainly patriotic.

This election proves yet again that dynastic culture, the curse of our democracy, has been spreading like an airborne disease. Parties have also become more audacious in the use of violence as a political weapon especially in communally sensitive areas. There is no concern about where these would take us tomorrow. All that matters is today.

As dynasties go, the Scindias were the smart ones. The men took to the Congress and the women to the BJP; so whichever way the toss went, the clan always won. Minister Madhavrao Scindia's son Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia's son Mahanaryaman, all of 16, is already into constituency tours in Madhya Pradesh. Yashodhara Raje, born in London and settled in America, returned to India only in 1994 to share the political pie. She demanded and the BJP agreed to issue a notice in 2006 saying that she should be officially addressed as "Shrimant" which in those parts means Your Highness. Her son Akshay has arrived from New York to let the voters admire him. All so nice and cosy -- and democratic.

Of course in our free-wheeling democracy even commoners can have the clout of royals. Union Minister Kamalnath's son, Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi's son, Himachal Pradesh Governor Urmila Singh's son, Digvijay's son, Ashok Gehlot's son and sundry MPs' and ex-ministers' sons are all vying for tickets. Ajit Jogi's son and wife and Motilal Vohra's son have already got tickets in Chattisgarh.

The BJP is not lagging behind. Madan Lal Khurana's son, Sahib Singh Varma's son are in the field in Delhi. In Rajasthan former BJP chief Ghanshyam Tiwari's son and Jaswant Singh's son are active hopefuls. Irrespective of parties, all sons claim that they are in the fray not because their fathers were beneficiaries of politics but because they are independently qualified to serve the nation. So are millions of educated young men and women in our country. Some even offer themselves -- only to be rejected. When dynasty works, democracy does not.

But then, dynasty and royals are better than communalism and riots. The BJP publicly "honoured" two of its MLAs accused of inciting violence in Muzaffarnagar. Mulayam Singh honoured a Muslim cleric known for communal provocations . His Government announced a relief plan for Muslims -- so partisan a move that the Supreme Court ordered its withdrawal. If we have spawned a democracy in which votes can be won only by pitting religions against one another, it's time to restrict that democracy.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Win or lose for the Kejriwal juggernaut? Either way, it could make a difference

Essentially Arvind Kejriwal is a political accident, the kind that flashes across the scene one moment and is forgotten the next. But his movement is making a buzz that no one can deny. While his ideas are a contributing factor, the main reason for the buzz lies outside his persona and programme. He has become a symbol of the general public's disgust with the reigning political class. For too long have the people been suffering at the hands of exploiters robbing and ruining the country with apparent immunity. To those drowning in the all-encompassing political mud, Kejriwal holds out a straw.

Whether he will get the numbers he needs is an entirely different matter. True, our electorate was vigilant enough to defeat the mighty Indira Gandhi after the atrocities of the Emergency. It was also angry enough to keep the Congress out of Amethi in the last elections and to throw out the BJP in Karnataka. But these were exceptional cases of public outrage boiling over. In general our electorate is so diverse and plagued by such disparate problems that anything like concerted action is difficult to emerge. Look at the bankers, IT professionals and other highly qualified, service-minded people who contested the last elections from Mumbai and Bangalore -- and lost.

Kejriwal has the additional handicap of looking like a one-man band. He had first come into the limelight under the halo of Anna Hazare. Inexplicably the grand old Gandhian publicly washed his hands of his one-time disciple. Kejriwal has two respected associates, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and scholar Yogendra Yadav. Inexplicably again, both have chosen to remain in the background, leaving Kejriwal to shine as the solitary leader of his party. How can this help?

The white-capped leader makes up by his organisational skill and his originality. Some 10,000 volunteers are working full time, taking a break from their studies and/or work. There are wellknown professionals, too, lending their services free. Sameer Nair, for example, who made some magic as CEO of Star TV some time ago. An unnamed person has placed his sprawling bungalow at the disposal of the party for a token rent; it is now the war room of the campaign. It is petty and typical of the Congress's defeatist mentality that Home Minister Shinde has ordered an investigation into foreign funding of Kejriwal. The Congress playing moral?

Some of Kejriwal's ideas show a freshness of approach. A session of the Delhi Assembly at Ramlila Maidan may be a bit too dramatic. People of each of 2700 mohallas deciding by themselves how to spend public funds may be a bit too romantic. But mohalla commandos helping with security in their areas sounds like a good idea. So is the perception that problems vary from area to area and each area should have its own tailor-made manifesto. However, if manifestos talk of subsidised electricity and free water, the new party is succumbing to the freebie tricks of the old parties. We have repeatedly seen subsidies working as an invitation to corruption.

Let's grant that overall the Kejriwal juggernaut is transparent, sees power to the people as an article of faith and is engineered to fight corruption. Is that enough to win an election? Sheila Dixit's demonstrable failure as Chief Minister will no doubt help; she could not even make an effort to address the problem of women's safety, confining herself to platitudes all the while. The infighting in the BJP ranks is another favourable factor. But are these enough to capture power?

The nature of politics is strange. The herd mentality often gets in the way of individual discretion. Habits substitute for deliberation. Party structures and long-established groundlevel networks cannot be easily overtaken by newcomers. The Congress and the BJP may lose some ground, but that need not necessarily mean Kejriwal turning victorious. If he wins, it will be, despite his minuses, a turning point in Indian politics. If he doesn't, it will still have been a worthwhile effort, carrying home the message that the people will continue to fight the political mafiosi until victory is achieved.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thanks to Modi, Sardar Patel lives again -- and 'true secularism' is discovered

Our scientists lift us up to Mars, our politicians drag us down to the pits. The cameras on Mangalyan will not make our dogfighting parties look any better. Not when Sardar Patel himself is turned into a battle axe to hit one another with. Narendra Modi's bid for the legacy of Sardar Patel is understandable. But trying to win it by erecting the world's biggest statue is condemnable. Size is not substance. More importantly, the politics of the Patel statue is divisive and it will diminish India.

We have become a statue-obsessed nation. Standing/sitting/waving Ambedkars, Gandhis, Nehrus and Indiras dot every town. The proliferation is mostly a triumph of commercial art. A statue of Kengal Hanumanthaiah, builder of Bangalore's famous Vidhan Soudha, was so unlike him that the authorities were forced to remove it from the Soudha's premises. The replacement had a better turban, but the face was still alien. Justice to sculptural aesthetics was done only by a few. Deviprasad Roy Choudhury's Dandi March at Delhi's Wellington Crescent, Triumph of Labour in Chennai's Marina Beach, Memorial to Martyrs in Patna are among the finest. Ram Vanji Sutar's bronze Gandhi opposite Parliament's Gate No. 1 throbs with life.

Narendra Modi and others in his political universe are not known for aesthetic sensibilities. So they go for the cheap alternative -- a monolith taller, larger, hulkier, more colossal than anything else on earth. Some 70,000 villagers are to be displaced for developing the gigantic project. They organised protests but were "silenced", according to their spokesmen in South Gujarat.

Modi underlined the politics behind the resurrection of Sardar Patel when he said that Patel was "truly secular" while the Congress was following "votebank secularism". That is true of all parties today. The BJP is following "votebank Hindutva" while the Muslim parties are following "votebank Islam". Ditto with Sikhs, Christians, Bhoomihars, Vanniars, Nairs. The Sardar, though as devoted a Hindu as Gandhi, never used religion for political ends. On the contrary, fighting communal politics was their life's mission. Therefore, if Modi wants to inherit the Patel legacy, he will have to become "truly secular" like Patel. Can he?

For that matter, can he comprehend the subtleties that lie beyond his simplistic thesis that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister than Nehru. We can debate this "if" of history till the end of time. Would C. Rajagopalachari have made a better Prime Minister? Would Rajendra Prasad? Any of them would have been more focussed as a consolidator of India because none of them had either the family weaknesses that made Nehru promote his sister and daughter and sundry cousins in public life, or Nehru's emotional linkages that led to the Mountbattens "advising" on Kashmir policy until it became intractable, unsolvable and a dreadful disgrace.

The real missed opportunity, however, revolved round the growth of a monolithic Congress in defiance of the natural laws of democracy. When independence arrived there was a clear ideological division between conservatives and socialists. The Congress Socialist Party had a galaxy of stars, from Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan to Rammanohar Lohia and Narendra Deva. They were thwarted by Jawaharlal Nehru's refusal to support them. He, a professed socialist, ended up with professed anti-socialists such as Morarji Desai, S.K. Patil and Jagjivan Ram, turning India into a madhouse of policies. If he and JP had headed an Indian Socialist Party and Patel and Rajagopalachari an Indian Conservative Party, a healthy party system would have developed. Now the monolith is in a shambles and India left to count its lost years.

Today's Congress does not even have the moral right to blame Narendra Modi for trying to hijack the Patel legacy. Where was the Congress all these years when that legacy remained neglected in the attic? The Congress, in its obsession with the Indira dynasty, tried to depersonalise men like Patel and Narasimha Rao. But historical figures of that stature cannot be erased. It is the dynasty that will eventually have to go, because in a democracy dynasty is an unnatural idea. As unnatural as Narendra Modi praising "true secularism".

Monday, November 4, 2013

Modi escaped, Chandy did not, Rahul erred; We may be in for a season of violence

Will this election be the most violent in our history? There has never been so much hatred among political rivals as we see today. There is also a now-or-never desperation among aspirants to power. The result is a volatile atmosphere in which anything is possible. Almost all political parties have professional killer gangs at their disposal. Many have killers and kidnappers in their cabinets. The virus has spread to society at large. Girls travelling alone, old people living alone, even pre-school children are attacked and often killed. India, proud of its tradition of tolerance and ahimsa, has turned into a theatre of brutality. Savagery in action is matched by savagery in thought.

Two incidents that made headlines last week are revealing. The bomb blasts that preceded Narendra Modi's rally in Patna showed not only the wrecklessness of present day politics but also how erratic the authorities can get. Given the animosity between Modi and Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the Bihar leader should have ensured foolproof security lest his intentions came under suspicion. What in fact happened dented his image while Narendra Modi got the benefit of a sympathy wave.

Similar was the outcome of an attack on Kerala's Chief Minister in the communist stronghold of Kannur. Oommen Chandy became India's first Chief Minister to be hit by a stone hurled at him by political opponents. He was inside a car which was surrounded by pilot cars, escort cars, Rapid Action Force and Ring Round Squad, yet the stone hit him. Either the stone thrower deserves to be sent to the next Olympics or the State Home Ministry must be wound up so that police politics will give way to police efficiency. For now, though, the attackers' purpose was defeated. Chandy won sympathy as he used the occasion to the hilt.

The unintentional effects of what perpetrators of violence do are sometimes matched by the unintentional effects of what victims of violence say. Rahul Gandhi is known for his serial references to his family's sacrifices. The latest tear-jerker is how it took him 10 to 15 years to overcome the anger he felt towards the Sikh bodyguards who killed his grandmother. He no doubt meant well and was speaking from the heart, as he said; a man whose father was assassinated as well as his grandmother. But he is a politician and should have known what his words would mean to others.

Jawaharlal Nehru's sisters, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesingh, did not endear themselves to the people by talking -- and writing -- about "We Nehrus". The same self-importance led Rajiv Gandhi to justify the pitiless massacre of Sikhs in retaliation to Indira Gandhi's killing. His infamous words, "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes", still rankle. Thousands of Sikhs saw their innocent family members being mutilated and burned alive by thugs led by Congress leaders. How many years will they need to get over their anger? How many years will it take for the average tax-paying citizens of this great country to get over their anger at the politicians who graduate from scam to scam without shame?

Pair this festering anger with the communal hatreds being fanned by votebank chasers, and we get an explosive situation. The Muzaffarpur rioting sent a chilling message. Hatreds are still on fire there. Incredible as it may seem, UP's Home Secretary issued a circular asking senior officials to think about building a temple at the Babri Masjid site. The Home Secretary was suspended, but that did not explain his conduct or the influences that propelled him. Unseen forces seem to be at work, inciting one section of people against another. They seem to forget that no Narendra Modi and no Rahul Gandhi can save an India that is at war with itself. Two facts cry out for attention this election season. First, violence will achieve nothing for nobody. Secondly, the cultural linguistic religious diversity of India can be a source of strength, or a means of destruction. The choice, alas, is not with us the people as of now. It is with the Devil Class that rules us.