Monday, December 29, 2014

Xi. Putin. Obama. The new India arouses curiosity; But we have weaknesses they will exploit

Reforms that will change the conditions of life in India are under way. We can see their implications more clearly if we look at them in the context of the Prime Minister's foreign policy excursions. Narendra Modi's flair for foreign affairs is by now legend. Not only has he had some triumphal rallies abroad; Xi Jinping came and went in a blaze of celebratory razzmatazz. Vladimir Putin has come and gone with deals ranging from diamonds to nuclear plants. Barack Obama is set to dominate Republic Day, dwarfing the military showpieces on parade. The world is discovering India with a curiosity and esteem last seen in Jawaharlal Nehru's early days.

But Nehru was tricked by the Mountbattens and then by Chou Enlai. The result was a virtually unsolvable Kashmir problem and the China war. There are already signs that Modi may be taken in by a demanding America, an assertive China and a disappointed Russia. Are we at a disadvantage, irrespective of who is the Prime Minister, because of deficiencies in our national character? We do have a tendency to be carried away by public relations dramatics. And we do lack a sense of historical continuity in our governance system.

The tendency to mistake publicity brouhaha for substance made us go ga-ga recently over Modi's place in a Time magazine stunt. This was just a magazine's marketing gimmick. Besides, its so-called competition for Man of the Year title is a trick; it's a nomination, not an election by readers. Yet our cheerleaders fell for the trick, and our media was breathless in reporting "Modi tops the list", then "Modi drops to second position" and so on. No other country attaches importance to this familiar media fiddle. For Indians, however, a good chit by a foreign source is the ultimate achievement. Is that all we are worth?

Worse is our tendency to see a change of government as a new beginning for the country, not as a continuation of India's march towards greatness in a changing world. Every government that comes to power ignores and sometimes repudiates those before them. This became ludicrous when Sonia Gandhi tried to turn P.V.Narasimha Rao into a non-person. When we don't have a sense of continuity, we don't have a longterm view of our national priorities.

China presents a study in contrast. The shift from Mao Zedong to Deng Hsiaoping was fundamental while that from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has been radical. But China presents it all as continuity. There is no criticism of previous regimes. The dominant note is national pride as could be seen from a People's Daily headline a couple of months ago. It said: "Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Hsiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong".

Against this real world, where do we stand? Especially against American pressure with the combined might of the big corporations and the White House? US interests have been focussed on agriculture and pharmaceuticals, basics that cover India's entire billion-plus market. In agriculture Monsanto gained at the cost of India's own highly competent seed technologies. US drug companies were kept at bay by Indian laws that sought to maintain the prices of lifesaving drugs at affordable levels. This precious protection is now under threat. Big Pharma from the US will soon be able to fully own Indian companies and thereby influence drug prices. Obama has been fighting in his own country to make drug companies interested in patients as well as in profits. He has not succeeded. How then can India maintain price levels?

If that is the situation in a field where India has high levels of competence, what about the military front where we are several years behind? China has surrounded India with military assets while it objects to our building even roads along the northern frontier. As for Russia, there was a time when it was India's most valuable strategic ally. A measure of how much things have changed lately was the military pact Russia signed with Pakistan a few weeks ago. It would serve India's long-term interests, said Putin in a memorable political joke of our time.

The lesson to learn is that smiles, cheering rallies and celebratory publicity are all fine, but they are on the surface. To reach the substance underneath, we must acquire America's and China's and Russia's abilities to play hard ball and play it with a hundred-year vision. That's right, a vision that goes beyond the next election.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lesson for Pakistan: There is no good terrorist. Lesson for India: Imitating evil is also evil

In Mary Shelly’s original novel written in 1818, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist who builds a live monster in his laboratory. The author described it as 8-foot tall and hideously ugly with black lips and glowing eyes. But she gave the creature no name. Frankenstein himself refers to his creation variously as Fiend, Spectre, Demon, Devil, and so on. The namelessness was seen then as a literary eccentricity. But perhaps there was more to it. Perhaps the author was saying that the most monstrous things in life had no name, that indeed it did not matter whether they had names or not.

In our time, the Frankenstein monster has assumed different names to suit different occasions, all of them coming under the rubric of communal hatreds. The most debasing of these hatreds rise from fringe Islamic groups. They produce the biggest shock waves because their barbarism is of a kind that cannot be matched by Christian, Jewish or Hindu fringe groups.

A case in point is the Islamic State’s (IS) massacring of even Muslims whose faith lines are different although they all worship the same God. Their extermination campaigns against Shias and Yazidis, and their turning of women captives into slaves were seen as the limits of human depravity. Yet, the IS attracted young Europeans and some Indians who joined them.

Now IS has been overshadowed by TT, the Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan. That this group has gone beyond the human range became evident from three developments that followed the murderous attack on Peshawar's Army Public School. First, it quickly claimed responsibility for the killings. Second, supremo Mullah Fazlullah came up with the perverse argument that the TT was humanitarian since it killed only the older boys, sparing the small ones. Third, it said in no uncertain terms that more attacks would follow.

These are pointers to a seriously hopeless situation. Even Pakistan, which has long years of experience in nurturing terror groups, will find it hard to suppress an outfit like the TT. In their extremism, such outfits become demons threatening their own creators, as the monster threatened Victor Frankenstein for creating him and then abandoning him to fend for himself. By attacking Pakistan's elite army school, the TT killed the loved ones of many military families. This was a good time for Pakistan's army and the ISI leadership to realise that bloodletting led nowhere and that an effective way to stop the Mullah Fazlullahs was to stop the Hafiz Saeeds. But Pakistan has been sending out mixed messages; the 26/11 terror attack mastermind Lakhvi was released on bail, then put under 3-month house arrest. The concept of good terrorists and bad terrorists will devour those who believe in that impossibility.

But of course the monster of our times is not confined to one country, one doctrine or one religion. It has turned universal. At one end are the Southern Baptists of America who insist that Darwin's theory of evolution is bunkum and that the world and all living things in it were created by a Christian God. At the other end, we have a lone fanatic shooting people in a Sydney coffee shop, saying that he and he alone is right. In between, we have the Government of Israel persecuting and sometimes killing Palestinian citizens and, not the least, our own fringe Parivar that pits Indians against Indians.

But for its mischief effect, the Parivar tantrums could be dismissed as farce. What else is it when a woman divides India's population into Ramzade and H....zade? Many Indians whom she defines as Ram's children would have themselves felt annoyed. Some others want to put up Nathuram Godse statues to compete with Mahatma Gandhi statues in our cities. Why not, as long as they don't proceed to the naming of roads; new NG Roads will be mistaken for familiar old MG Roads. As for Christmas, why not abolish December itself? It is a Roman invention imposed by British imperialists on our ancient civilisation.

Conversion is more serious because conversion by any religion is condemnable. Latterday Christianity has taken it to ridiculous extents by offering inducements including the promise of curing incurable diseases with a preacher's touch.Pentecostal evangelists in Kerala make themselves ludicrous by trying to convert other Christians. There are specific laws against conversion in our country. These laws should be used to suppress fake salvation merchants. The Parivar's conversion-to-Hinduism farce will only flatter Islam and Christianity by imitation. No one will win and all will lose.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Big people do small things and lose everything? Why do power-lust, greed, ego rule the world?

Why does N. Srinivasan hang on to his cricket chair when every milligram of his credibility is gone? Why did Manmohan Singh cling to prime ministership even after he was reduced to an object of ridicule? Why did Rampal order pitched battles against the police leading to the death of at least five women and a child when he didn't have a chance in hell of winning? Why did Rajat Gupta, such a celebrated management icon, do insider trading that landed him in a US prison? Why did Subrata Roy, an innovative genius and buddy of everyone who mattered, find himself in Tihar?

Questions without answers pile up around us. In politics, business, sports and even spirituality, big people do small things unworthy of their position. Not only do they not gain anything, they actually lose their prestige and often their way of life. Does the explanation lie in philosophy? There is consolation of sorts in the poetic precept that all human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, monarchs must obey. Was it the summons of fate that led to the fall of Subrata Roy and Rampal, of Manmohan Singh and Srinivasan?

The former Primer Minister and the cricket tzar are unique, though in opposite ways; the one had public sympathy pouring out for him, while the other was covered with disgrace. The considerateness Manmohan Singh received was spontaneous because of his nature and the circumstances of his mortification. Here was a man who stood tall on two pedestals: goodness as a human being and international eminence as an economist. Being apolitical, he needed political backing to do well in an essentially political setup. He got this when he teamed up with P.V.Narasimha Rao -- and he reached heights of glory. He did not get similar backing when he teamed up with Sonia Gandhi whose agenda was family-oriented. To the extent she did her job well, to that extent Manmohan Singh's job was compromised.

Only once during his 10-year term did Dr. Singh find the courage to stand up for what he thought right. Even then, he stood up against the Left Front, not against Sonia Gandhi. The Left had threatened to withdraw support to his Government over the US nuclear deal. Facing the prospect of the Government not having the numbers to pass the bill, the Prime Minister decided to resign and conveyed his decision to Sonia and Pranab Mukherjee at a secret meeting in the Prime Minister's house. Eventually the PM had his way because the Samajwadi Party switched policy and supported the Government. In historical terms, though, the victory was nothing big because of the controversial nature of the nuclear deal. It did nothing to correct the image of Manmohan Singh as an inconsequential Prime Minister.

N. Srinivasan is an assertive personality in contrast to the ever-yielding Manmohan Singh. While Indian cricket has been a bedlam of personality clashes, conspiracies, manipulations and politics of the meanest kind, no one took it to the "me-first" depths that Srinivasan contrived. There were several occasions when shenanigans around him were exposed and he could have withdrawn with dignity. But he chose to fight even the Supreme Court's unambiguous remarks.

"You are presuming there is nothing against you", said the Supreme Court. "You can't use BCCI rules to say you will stand for elections because the doctrine of public trust will apply". Even more pointedly, it said: "The ownership of the team raises conflict of interest. [Srinivasan is the managing director of India Cements which owns the Chennai Super Kings; its captain, M. S. Dhoni, is Vice President of India Cements.] President of the BCCI has to run the show but you have a team". Such castigations would be sufficient for an honourable man to quietly leave the scene. But Srinivasan is always looking for a tiny loophole somewhere in the labyrinth of law. Even if he finds one, he will remain in the record books as the man under whom Indian cricket was shamed by what Bishan Singh Bedi called "abnormal hunger for power and insatiable greed for money".

Duryodhana was holding out a lesson for all of us when he confessed that he knew what was dharma but had no urge to follow it. It was only in humans that the Creator planted such cosmic contradictions. All religions warn against ego. Sikhism includes it in one of the Panch Dosh, five evils. Taoism equates enlightenment with the annihilation of the ego. But ego rules the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An activist Judge with Aristotle's mental range. Fearless Krishna Iyer was a game changer

If style maketh the man, opinion maketh the judge. A wise opinion memorably expressed goes directly into the conscience of society and the annals of time. Such was the opinion: "Law without politics is blind. Politics without law is deaf". It was an aphorism that marked the personality, the commitment and the intellectualism of Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. Some 700 judgments he pronounced from the bench of the Supreme Court and all of them were studded with bold ideas boldly expressed. They all had but one aim: Uphold the human rights of ordinary people, even of detainee suspects (he pronounced against handcuffing as a routine) and jailed convicts (he took up a prisoner's letter about torture as a public interest litigation).

India's judicial firmament is full of shining stars. (The Emergency years showed that there were also judges who were unworthy of their calling). Fali Nariman in his autobiography cites some examples of the great, such as Vivian Bose, S.R. Das and P.B.Gajendragadkar. He then says that as "pathfinders" he could name only two: Justice K.Subba Rao and Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer. More than all others "they influenced creative judicial thinking. They lighted new, difficult (and different) paths - paths which others followed".

The lay public is not all that familiar with the Subba Rao saga, but the legal fraternity remembers with reverence his efforts to ensure the sanctity of citizens' personal liberties. As Nariman puts it, Subba Rao's "concern for fundamental rights and his distrust of parliamentary majority led to some of his most controversial decisions. He abhorred absolute power - especially the arrogance of absolute power" whether exercised by the executive or the legislature.

If Subba Rao's agenda was to make politics subservient to law, Krishna Iyer's was to make law serve the ends of social justice. He became arguably the most famous of Supreme Court judges. One reason was his activism which increased after his retirement in 1980. There was no people's cause that he did not champion; at the age of 99 he even sat in dharna demanding a cancer centre for Kochi. He was interested in practically all subjects; one of the 105 books he authored was on life after death. Former Chief Justice of India, M.N.Venkatachaliah put it best when he said "the range of Krishna Iyer's mind was that of Aristotle".

But the big reason for his fame was, ironically, his judgment in a political case - the election case appeal by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Krishna Iyer was a junior puisne judge in the Supreme Court at that time. It was just an accident that the appeal came up before him. It was summer recess for the court and Krishna Iyer happened to be filling in as vacation judge. That was when Indira Gandhi approached the court pleading for an absolute stay on the Allahabad High Court's verdict disqualifying her.

Indira Gandhi was at the height of her power. It was not incumbent on the junior vacation judge to take up the case. He could have just as well granted a stay till the reopening of the court when a proper bench of three or four judges could have given a decision. But this was Krishna Iyer who had what Nariman called "that abiding quality of a great judge - he was fearless". Taking the full weight of responsibility upon himself, the vacation judge heard the arguments nonstop for six hours, three each by Nani Palkhivala (for Indira Gandhi) and Shanti Bhushan (for Raj Narain). It was 2 o'clock in the morning when the writing of the judgment was completed. The court rejected the plea for a complete stay of the High Court verdict and allowed only a partial stay. Indira Gandhi was allowed to function as Prime Minister, but without the right to vote in Parliament. The order was handed down on July 24. On July 25 Emergency was proclaimed.

To understand the extent of Krishna Iyer's courage in passing that judgment, we must know that Palkhivala had sounded a warning during the argument. His words were: "The nation was solidly behind (Indira) as Prime Minister" and "there were momentous consequences, disastrous to the country, if anything less than the total suspension of the order under appeal were made". Krishna Iyer remained undaunted. Constitutional lawyer M.Seervai, usually a critic of Krishna Iyer, described this as the Supreme Court's finest hour. Was that the same as saying that V.R.Krishna Iyer was India's finest judge? His one judgment certainly changed the game for Indian history.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Kashmir has an 'overwhelming desire for change'. But will the coming change be for the better?

The good news is that the first round of polling in Jammu & Kashmir saw the highest turnout in the state's electoral history. The overall percentage was 71 but in some constituencies it went up to 77 and 80. Leh in Ladakh saw a drop, but even this was extraordinary. The temperature there had dropped to 10 degrees below zero, yet the number of voters dropped only from 68.9 percent to 65.2 percent. This election is the people's most decisive reply to the secessionists, the separatists and the terrorists who had all called for a boycott of the voting. It is now clear that the separatists are separated from the general sentiment of the people.

So what's the bad news? If we look behind the parties and their posturings, we can see that whoever wins will make no difference in practice. All the leaders who attained power in the past primarily served their parties and themselves (with the possible exception of brief interludes under Sheikh Abdullah and then Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed). This is not unique to J & K. Elsewhere, too, widely welcomed change turned out to be disappointing, for example, B. S. Yeddyurappa and Mamata Banerji. How can J & K become an exception overnight?

Not that change is not in the air. In fact this election may mark the start of a whole new chapter in the state's history. Kashmiris had become as disgusted with the father-son dynasty rule in Srinagar as Indians in general had with the mother-son rule in Delhi. A defeat of the Abdullah dynasty as resounding as the defeat of the Gandhi dynasty would therefore be in order. The traditional challenger of the Abdullahs are the Muftis with their People's Democratic Party. The PDP is not weighed down by the incumbency millstone, but it has the dynasty millstone and a non-performance track record. It cannot expect significant voter backing. The Congress may turn out to be nothing more than an also-ran. Contextual advantage thus lies with the BJP. When people are driven by "an overwhelming desire for change" (Mehbooba Mufti's phrase), the BJP offers just that. It also has the unrivalled advantage of campaigning by the country's most gifted orator-campaigner. The BJP certainly will be a change, but whether the change will be for the better is far from clear.

The reason for this reservation is that J & K has already been turned into a communal cauldron. The BJP finds such situations ideal for its growth as recent events in election-bound states have shown. Preoccupation with divisive sectarianism has stood in the way of J & K making any meaningful progress on the economic, educational or social front. If this has to change, the state will need a political dispensation that puts down communal elements and unites the people for collective socio-economic growth. There is no evidence that the BJP is ready for such moves just now.

What can be said in its favour is that it did not start the communalisation of J & K. To a large extent, history did. Even in the 15th and 16th centuries, the norm was: Whichever community had the protection of the ruler of the day violated others. As David Devadas puts it in his In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, "When Pathan governors let them, Muslims merrily bounced on to the backs of Pandits, riding them like asses. Under Dogras, Pandits kicked Muslims all the way home. When Shias ruled, a Sunni qasi was trampled under an elephant. When Sunnis ruled, the Shias' most revered grave became a burnt dung-heap".

This was communal oneupmanship of convenience. It could have been contained by an enlightened leadership. Instead, what happened in our own times was the cynical exploitation of antagonisms for political gain. This was the contribution of Indira Gandhi. Just as she turned Punjab into a battleground by discovering Bindranwale, and polarised Assam into Bengalis and Assamese with the contrived election of 1983, so did she undermine the political stability of J & K by first forcing Farooq Abdullah to share power with the Congress in 1986 and then toppling his Government through organised defection. The 1987 election in J & K became notorious for rigging. Disillusioned young supporters of local parties turned to militancy.

India remains a functioning anarchy because leaders refuse to see beyond themselves and their narrow agendas. Since this is the ongoing culture of all political parties, Kashmir could continue to bleed after this election too. Such a pity.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Speed and quality mark the growth of SE Asia's infrastructure. Why are we where we are?

Only a few years ago Bangkok was Southeast Asia's most notorious city for traffic jams. It was common for parents to pick up their kids from school and, while the family vehicle tried to crawl along, give them a bucket wash, help them change into night clothes, go over homework, give them dinner and put them to sleep; the vehicle would still be crawling-stopping-crawling towards home.

Today flyovers crisscross the city in multiple layers. Sky-trains provide fast links to its far corners. Roads are in good condition. There is, as a consequence, a measure of traffic sense among motorists. The number of vehicles on the move is still scary, but those who knew the Bangkok of the 1970s and 80s would be amazed at the way the city has turned into an attractive, livable metropolis. Ditto with Kuala Lumpur. It was a village in the 1970s. It took Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed only about 20 years to make it the glittering capital it is today. Ditto with Jakarta.

The most interesting transformation currently under way is in Vietnam. The war ended only 40 years ago. Considering that extra-lethal chemical weapons were specially developed by America to destroy the earth and ecology of Vietnam, independence found the country poor. There are vast tracts of wasteland sarcastically called "Agent Orange museums" in memory of the death-dealing chemical that was extensively used by the US air force. Nevertheless, economic rebuilding has been progressing steadily. Massive infrastructure projects are under way with Japanese and Chinese assistance. Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) already looks like a New York or Tokyo.

To see the industriousness of the Vietnamese, one must go to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. A cross between Mumbai's Bhendi Bazaar and Delhi's Chandni Chowk, it is a cobweb of narrow streets through which, by some miracle, an unending flow of cars, buses, electric trailers, bicycles, scooters and more scooters, goods vehicles and rickshaws called cyclos cross one another's paths without knocking down any of the zigzagging locals, upcountry visitors, traders, hawkers and wonderstruck tourists. Every inch of the footpath is occupied, either by parked bikes, or pavement workshops, or stools of the city's fabled street-food eateries. Not a soul is idle. The Old Quarter is the heart throb of Hanoi.

But it is only a corner of the vast city. It's outside the Old Quarter that you begin to realise that Hanoi is a charming modern city, having retained the broad boulevards, the grand old trees and the continental ambience of the French era. Every available public space is a lovingly maintained park. Ancient structures proclaim the antiquity of the place and its civilisation. In the early years of the first century guerilla warfare was invented by two Vietnamese women against Chinese occupiers.

In a tree-dense areas of Hanoi nestles what looks like a Vietnamese speciality, the "Temple of Literature". (There is another Temple of Literature in Hue, central Vietnam). Founded in 1070 this commemorates Vietnam's great men of letters. It is as much a spiritual retreat as a house of learning. Notices greet visitors with instructions such as "Behave in a civilised manner. Please do not swear". The obviously hallowed space was also home to Vietnam's first university, founded in 1076. Oxford, described as the oldest university in the English-speaking world, began developing only in 1167 although there was "evidence of teaching" in Oxford from 1096. The only university older than the Hanoi one is the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, functioning from 859.

Hardworking population, pioneering guerilla women, ancient culture, love of scholarship -- perhaps there is nothing surprising in Vietnam becoming the only country in history to defeat America in war. However, modern Vietnam has also developed the telltale habits of modernity. Tourists often fall into traps operated by touts, dubious taxi companies and spurious hotels. Online football betting is a flourishing racket. You need to develop local savvy to ensure that you are not getting adulterated petrol at filling stations. When progress comes, can mafias be far behind?

But the pluses outweigh the minuses. With Vietnam catching up fast, international experts are predicting accelerated growth for the ASEAN region. They say that cross-border integration alone would bring about an open market of 600 million people with economic opportunities worth $ 280 billion to 615 billion by 2030. Benefits from urbanisation and technological advancement will add billions more to annual economic impact. The Look East idea has never made more sense to India than now. Provided we learn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hong Kong: The Civil Disobedience Movement Looks Like a College Kids' Game. But It's Real Serious

The protest movement in Hong Kong is a modern-day political wonder. Reason one: To demand Western-style democracy in a part of China is plain mad; for lesser audacity vast numbers of people in Tibet and the Muslim area of Uighur have paid dearly. Reason two: Authorities in Beijing have avoided a Tienanmen model crackdown, apparently because a violent interdiction would have undermined business, Hong Kong's lifeblood, and rattled world opinion at a time when Beijing is working towards a world leadership role.

China won't yield an inch to the protestors. But that does not mean that the so-called Occupy movement, also called democracy movement, is a non-event. That it has lasted two months is an achievement in itself. More importantly, it has energised the youth and attracted large segments of the general public, holding up the message that Hong Kong has changed. For a century and a half it had remained a happily docile colony of Britain, firm in its belief that the freedom to make money was the only freedom that mattered. Democracy never bothered either the ruler or the ruled. China actually injected a tiny dose of democracy into this system. Earlier Britain merely nominated a Governor and he ruled as the colony's lord and master.For the election of the next Chief Executive (as Governor is now called) in 2017, China offered universal franchise for all citizens in Hong Kong, a first-ever "reform". The catch was that voters' choice was limited to a panel of two or three names nominated by a China-controlled 1200-member committee. In other words, the right to vote was given to all, but the right to stand as candidate was given to none. It was against this little trick that students took to the streets.

They did so in a unique manner. Despite a skirmish or two, overall it was a disciplined and stylish movement. They did not look like agitators in the first place. They were dressed in city casuals reflecting -- this being Hong Kong -- uptodate international fashion. They were polite with the public. They were meticulous about cleaning the streets they occupied, collecting their garbage in big plastic bags for disposal. They called their protest a civil disobedience movement but emphasised that civil disobedience was not defiance of the rule of law but acceptance of it. Some of the leaders were no older than 17 and 18. Many talked of parents pressurising them to get back to classes. One bright young man with a nattily shaped hair style told this writer that he was returning to his research at Hong Kong University but that didn't mean he was withdrawing from the movement. The University campus was leafy, peaceful and busy as always.

The question is: Why has this new generation of Hong Kong citizens taken on China's mighty power structure when their elders were content to be apolitical until just two decades ago? Basically there are two issues, political and cultural. Politically Hongkongers fear that China is becoming more rigid under President Xi Jinping. He has been neutralising powerful leaders one by one using corruption charges as his weapon. At this rate, would he one day crush the freedoms that Hongkong people have come to take for granted? This antipathy to Xi's China is intensified by the behaviour of visitors from the mainland. Hong Kong's people are for long used to the niceties and adjustments of international living. The mainlanders, as visitors from China are called locally, are crude by comparison, talking loudly in public spaces and behaving without any civic sense. The story of a mainlander mother letting her child do No. 1 in a crowded Metro train is the most discussed folk tale in Hong Kong these days.

The cultural divide goes really deep. Hong Kong's filmmakers say that mainland audiences are difficult and different. Hong Kong's universities, people say, are rated higher than China's thanks to a tradition of intellectual freedom. The new generation in Hong Kong feels that its precious cultural edge would be lost if China takes full control of Hong Kong. They are not alone. The new generation in Taiwan is also embittered by an apparently hardening China. Within the mainland itself the young often revolt but are firmly suppressed. The Chinese-language Apple Daily of Hong Kong, founded in 1995, has been anti-China to the extent of once calling on people to rise in revolt against Beijing. Last week an academic survey revealed that only 8.9 percent of Hongkongers call themselves Chinese. This is a historical shift: not just Tibetans and Uighurs, but Chinese turning against communist China.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Durant blames Britain for India's poverty and misery. True. But why is mass misery still continuing?

Here's something that should rivet Narendra Modi's attention. "Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilised world -- nearly every kind of creation of man's brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty -- had long, long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia. Her textile goods -- the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk -- were famous over the civilised world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, colour and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal -- iron, steel, silver and gold. She had great architecture, equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest shipbuilding nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilised countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came".

That's a quotation from a little-known but ought-to-be-widely-known book written 84 years ago: The Case for India by Will Durant (of the 11-volume The Story of Civilisation fame). "Made in India" was the natural slogan of the past. Today we have to plead to "make in India". What explains the wholesale collapse? Will Durant puts the blame squarely on British exploitation of India. Separating the English from the British, he says, "The English are the best gentlemen on earth, the British are the worst of all imperialists". His book marshals evidence to show how extensive was the destruction wrought by the imperialist Britain.

Durant has a way of digging out nuggets of information from extensive research and presenting them with a suddenness that surprises the reader. Casually as it were, he tells us that there were 7000 opium shops in India operated by the British Government, that two to four hundred thousand acres of India's soil were given away to the growing of opium. On Gandhi: "In his first year in England he read 80 books on Christianity".

His account of the levels of poverty that prevailed in India is perhaps the most disturbing. While Britain stole enough wealth from India to make the Industrial Revolution possible, the percentage of taxes as related to the gross produce was more in India than in any other country. Famine became a feature of Indian life. As many as 15 million people died in the famines of 1877, 1889, 1897 and 1900. (A bigger one was to come after Durant's visit when the British took away all the foodgrains they could get from India as supplies to World War II).

There is a doomsday echo to Durant's words: "The British ownership of India has been a calamity and a crime. This is quite unlike the Mohammedan domination: those invaders came to stay; what they took in taxes and tribute they spent in India, developing its industries and resources, adorning its literature and art... [Under British rule] I saw a people -- one-fifth of the human race -- suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery". That last point seems applicable to successive governments after independence as well. The misery of vast sections of people in the slums, on the banks of polluted water bodies, in unplanned urban beehives ever waiting for catastrophes would horrify Durant if he were to visit us again.

An oddity in the narrative provides an ironic link to today's ultra-nationalists who say that all Indians are Hindus. They are, of course, in a geographic sense -- as inheritors of the Sindhu (Indus) valley civilisation. The word has since become wholly religious, as distinct from geographical, so much so that Durant sounds outdated or eccentric when he talks of Hindu industries vs British industries, there being not one Hindu in the Railway Board of those days, third-class passengers in trains being Hindus and Gandhi being the leader of 320 million Hindus. Narendra Modi would never claim to be, or want to be, the leader of 1.1 billion Hindus. He wants to be the leader of 1.1 billion Indians. Which underlines why the two words are not interchangeable.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A wide gap yawns between the BJP and the Congress. It's called the decline & fall of the Communists

In the midst of all the churnings that are transforming India's political space, no one is talking about the communist parties. Obviously no one cares. The decline and fall of this once promising movement has been so steady and so foreseeable that they present a sad chapter in history. In a situation where the Congress was detested and the BJP was distrusted, it was no small achievement for the Left to reduce itself from 60 seats in Parliament to 12. The CPI-M leaders were forced to admit that they had failed to "modernise the party's ideology".

The communist parties in other countries changed with the times and in keeping with the genius of each country. China is the best example. They began as professed Marxists, then expanded to Marxism-Leninism, finally ending up with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. The Chinese Communists specifically kept Stalinism at arm's length because they saw Stalinism as too Russia-centric. Which was true.

Indian communists missed that point and embraced Stalinism with doctrinaire fidelity. Unlike the Chinese, they never thought of communism with Indian characteristics. The result was that the middle class and intellectual types who were attracted by the idealism of social equality gradually moved away. One of India's most respected communist intellectuals, Mohit Sen, provided a rare insight into the price India's Left movement paid for its fascination with Stalinism. Saying that "dogmatism, sectarianism and inhumanity were at least as much a part of Stalin as Leninism", he pointed out: "While Lenin and Leninism triumphed when they were most themselves, the triumphs associated with Stalin occurred when those actually leading such parties disobeyed him and returned to Lenin". Sen cites this disobedience as the reason for the victory of the Chinese, Yugoslav and Vietnamese parties as well as for the "spectacular advance" of the Italian and French communist parties.

Actually Mohit Sen's A Traveller and The Road should be prescribed reading for India's remaining comrades. Lenin, he says, understood the strength and positive nature of nationalism while being aware, also, of the menace of nationalism degenerating into chauvinism."In India the Communists were patriots... but they were not nationalists. They did not know India". Sen rejects Mao's policy of sinicising Marxism, arguing that the right thing was to be Communist and Chinese. "Ho Chi Minh achieved this. So did P.C.Joshi and S.A.Dange". But the Joshis and Danges were denounced. In the process, the CPI-M and CPI became mutually hating parties.

In due course power did to the Communists what it does to all parties: It corrupted them. Comrade ministers and party bosses in West Bengal and Kerala became votaries of the good life. Worse, the CPI-M's name got tried up -- rightly or wrongly is a different issue -- with politics of violence. When current Party Secretary Prakash Karat made peace overtures to the breakaway group SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India), the latter's published reaction was that 161 SUCI workers had been murdered during the Left Front rule in West Bengal. In Kerala the public associates the "Kannur Lobby" of the party with the murder of several dissenters. Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned party cadres have left, many of them to join the BJP's inviting pastures in a kind of reverse cultural revolution.

Admitting the setback the party has suffered, CPI-M leadership said: "The next party congress is coming up in April 2015. By then we will have a crystal-clear idea of what should be our line of action". Reports are already out suggesting that the line of action will be to protect the leadership from blame for the party's decline. There will be no commonsense line because the leadership consists of academics and theoreticians, not people with grassroots involvement in people's problems. What is needed is a recognition of the ground realities that have developed in India in the last couple of decades. An aspirational generation has emerged with middleclass dreams of peace and economic opportunities. Only a modernist leadership that will identify itself with this new India can have any relevance.

Gapingly vacant is the space between the rightwing BJP and the reactionary Congress (reactionary because it still swears by the dynastic principle of power). The communist parties have failed to fill this space because they have not progressed beyond the 1950s-1960s. Perhaps the term "communist" itself has been overtaken by time. Europe's idea of Social Democrats may be more in tune with the modern world. India's misfortune is that from the ranks of those who profess socialism not one Deng Hsiao-ping has emerged.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Modi's popularity & power are re-inforced. How will he use them to conquer the challenges facing him?

Now that the festival of lights and fireworks is behind us (with a bonus ban on Chinese crackers), we can return to our customary festival of political fireworks. The excitement produced by the Assembly election results is yet to die down although Maharashtra has a semblance of unity after tortuous oneupmanship games. It was yet another Narendra Modi triumph, no doubt about that. For the rest, what we see is a maze of interpretations, explanations and anticipations. Ploughing through this labyrinth, we can see at least six lines of thought. Take your pick.

The era of coalitions is over and so is the relevance of regional parties, say BJP circles emboldened by the party going solo and doing well. But this is a premature claim. In Maharashtra a tactical understanding amounting to a coalition became necessary so that the BJP could proceed towards forming a government. Haryana got an all-BJP government, but a completely local party, the INLD, won enough seats to become the main opposition. This in spite of the INLD being a decrepit party steeped in corruption and with its top leaders in jail.

Ideology has nothing to do with the rise of the BJP or the fall of the other parties. The BJP did well because of people's disgust with the dynastic Congress and the popular oratory of Narendra Modi that offered the promise of a change. The strong Modi personality towered over the feebleness of Sonia Gandhi and her son. Rahul Gandhi's proven incompetence is finally provoking several Congressmen to criticise the leadership openly.

Modi is the winner rather than the BJP. The party won spectacularly in the elections in which he campaigned, and fared badly in the state byelections in which he did not campaign. No one in the BJP can win votes the way Modi can. This uniqueness must be seen in tandem with Modi's tendency to to be the pivot around which power revolves. Even cabinet ministers do not take decisions on their own or speak out of turn. This can be a good thing from the governance angle, but it is in the tradition of the banyan tree under which no grass grows.

The Modi style of control worked well in Gujarat, but can it be equally effective in the bewilderingly diverse landmass that is India? The dissensions within the party over the Maharashtra chief minster's post were an indication of power lust afflicting BJP leaders as much as other party leaders. Eventually of course Narendra Modi's word prevails. How is this different from Sonia Gandhi's word prevailing over infighting Congressmen?

There is general agreement that the Congress is finished and will remain finished for a while. It will remain finished because it still does not try to escape from the curse of dynastic control. The current thinking is that Priyanka Gandhi will save the party. She won't. She might in fact bring further ignominy to the party with her husband entangled in scandals that can turn, to put it mildly, inconvenient. This does not mean that the BJP can achieve what it calls a Congress-eradicated India. That means in effect an opposition-eradicated India which would be disastrous. Besides, the old party has, especially at the younger levels, a great deal of talent, clean and capable. Someday somehow they will have to come out of the dynastic stranglehold and make something of themselves -- and of their party and their country.

Perhaps the most important sentiment that has emerged is hope. There is a perceptible feeling that Modi has re-invented himself yet again and is trying genuinely to become acceptable to all. He is known to isolate the hardliners in his own party if they interfere with his policy ideas. But then hardliners are an easy problem compared to corruption. Modi's corruption-free image is his greatest asset, but his party has been anything but corruption-free. The initial willingness to make a deal in Maharashtra with the NCP, a den of corruption at the top, was indicative of a tolerant attitude to the corrupt for political bargaining.

Modi can afford to rise above such short-term tactics because he has a popularity rating higher than that of any living politician in the country. The question is, will he use it to conquer the challenge of corruption? Modi has more power than any Prime Minister before him, not excluding Indira Gandhi and he has the will to use it. The question is, will he use it to conquer the politics of polarisation? The nation waits.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is winning elections all that matters in democracy? What about values and the rules of conduct?

For a pregnant Sunday morning, only hours before history opens a new page, some timely queries: Is the NCP a Naturally Corrupt Party as Narendra Modi says it is? Is Narendra Modi lowering the dignity of prime ministership by resorting to cheap electioneering as Sharad Pawar says he is? Has the BJP betrayed Hindutva by ditching the Shiv Sena as Uddhav Thackeray says it has? Is Modi a street-level operator as the Congress says he is?

Elections are the feather on India's democratic cap, but the electioneering style of our leaders and parties often turn the cap into a crown of dishonour. In the last election, a Congress spokesman called Modi Yamaraj. Sonia Gandhi had called him a merchant of death. Karnataka's Deve Gowda once called B.S. Yeddyurappa a b...d. Degradation reached its nadir when Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari described Anna Hazare in 2011 as "corrupt from head to toe". He didn't stop at that. Addicted to bombastic language, he called Anna Hazare's associates "armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists funded by invisible donors". Tragic fellow, he had to swallow every one of those words later.

Electioneering is not meant to go below the belt. In fact its central principle is respect for opponents and dignified conduct in both action and words. Candidates explain their position on various issues, and then leave it to voters to make their choice as they deem fit. One political figure who strictly adhered to this principled approach was V.K.Krishna Menon. Honed by prolonged exposure to politics in St.Pancras, London, where he was a popularly elected Borough Councillor for several years, his campaigns in Bombay never saw an adverse remark against his opponents, even when the opponents attacked him personally.

In Maharashtra this time personal attacks were the norm. Actually they were not necessary in the light of a clear shift in the BJP's strategy. There was no Amit Shah domination in Maharashtra, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no Yogi Adityanath, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no love jihad, no Muzaffarnagar, there was only Narendra Modi. Modi's mass appeal combined with the imbecilities of rival parties to put the stars on Modi's side. The NCP projected the horror of the widely disliked Ajit Pawar becoming chief minister; the Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray showed immaturity by insisting on chief minister nomination in advance unlike his smarter father who wanted the remote control firmly in his hand; the other bash-Biharis Sena outraged even the Election Commission by saying that non-Marathis wouldn't be allowed to enter Mumbai; and the Congress is still trying to figure out what's going on. Yes, the stars are on Modi's side.

In the long term, though, it is a question of culture. Politics diminishes the cultural worth of its practitioners. The need for votes is so overwhelming that morality becomes irrelevant. This is true of the supposedly mature democracies as well. It is part of political folklore that the 1960 US presidential race was decided by television. In the TV debate John Kennedy appeared cool and well-groomed while Richard Nixon looked unshaved and sweating. Both had cheated behind the cameras. There was an agreement that they would not use make-up for the programme. But Kennedy had a team of professionals to put on a layer of make-up. Nixon used a common product called Lazy Shave to conceal his 5 o'clock shadow - with little effect. Nixon was known to sweat easily, so his team kept the studio thermostats down. Kennedy's team secretly raised the temperature. Kennedy won.

Such tactics touched an alltime low in the George Bush years. In the primaries in 2000 the clean and upright John McCain was a formidable opponent, campaigning with a Bangladeshi daughter he had adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage. George Bush's campaign strategists conducted a phony poll asking people: Would you vote for John McCain if you knew that he had fathered an illegitimate black child? That was the end of McCain's campaign. The victorious Bush went on to ruin Iraq and give an unprecedented fillip to the growth of terrorism in the world.

The moral is clear. What ultimately matters is not this party or that leader, but what happens to the quality of democracy. In the first quarter century of independence elections enhanced our democracy. After the Emergency, it has been down hill because the culture changed. First-past-the-post became literally the watchword, no matter what tactics were used. Winning alone mattered, morality be damned.

How will it be from now on?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Pakistan testing Modi? ISI's foolishness subverts collective progress that awaits South Asia

Suddenly reality is catching with Narendra Modi and India. We are learning that showmanship can go thus far and no further. The first hint came when the Chinese President's visit coincided with stepped-up Chinese incursions in Ladakh. The message was that China's Big Brother posture in Asia was not negotiable and all the Ahmedabad hoopla was just hoopla. Then, so soon after the Pakistani Prime Minister's attendance at Modi's swearing-in, a war-like crisis developed along the Jammu border. The message was that in Pakistan the army was the shot-caller and all the photo-ops of the country's ceremonial Prime Minister were just photo-ops.

What drives the Pakistani army is visceral hatred of India. It must have intensified with the rise of Narendra Modi whom they see as anti-Muslim. The audacity of the latest shelling was in all probability meant to test the Modi Government. If so, Pakistan badly miscalculated. For one thing, as the Home Minister said, there is a new reality in India and the Defence Minister spelt it out by saying that Pakistan would have to pay a price it could not afford. For another, despite all the divisiveness that marks Indian democracy, Pakistan will find that a threat it mounts will unite all Indians. Narendra Modi will then be the leader of India, not just a BJP Prime Minister.

Pakistan has got the message and the guns are falling silent. But that should not lull India into complacency because there are organic weaknesses in India's position. Chinese and Pakistani border incursions have been rather frequent occurrences, yet each time we are surprised and seem freshly hurt. The reason is that over half a century our defence and foreign policy establishments have not developed a comprehensive policy architecture to deal with issues of complexity. Ours is an ad hoc approach. China is famous for functioning with the stability of a hundred-year vision. Indian leaders' vision rarely extends beyond the next general election, party labels making no difference. Even Pakistan has a policy stability vis a vis India. Governments rise and collapse, civic upheavals come and go, but the ultra-efficient Inter-Services Intelligence remains consistently pro-active in its destabilisation strategy against India. The pattern never varies: ISI acts, India reacts.

The ISI is lucky, too, for opportunities come its way unasked. Kashmir's devastating floods were utilised to spread disaffection among the locals. An unexpected crump came from Narendra Modi himself. Carried away by his triumphalism in the US, the Prime Minister announced some timely and imaginative reforms for NRIs such as lifelong visas and lifting of harassment checks. Additionally, however, Modi also announced visa-on-arrival facility for every American citizen. It was an American citizen named David Headley who roamed India freely and frequently, working out the logistics for the Mumbai terror attack. Worse, after his guilt was uncovered, the US Government extended full protection to him. Criminals with an American passport will now find it easier to collaborate with the ISI. Of course all Americans are not criminals. All Indians are not terrorists either, but try saying that to US immigration officials.

Unfortunately, all the consistency and luck of the ISI will not help Pakistan because it is fundamentally flawed as a state. The ruling elite turned it into a self-defeating "warrior state". McGill University Professor T. V. Paul argues in his acclaimed The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World that Pakistan's enviable position as "the pivot of the world" (Jinnah's phrase) actually turned out to be its curse. The generous largesse from foreign aid-givers prevented the elite from seeking a more sustainable developmental path. Besides, the lack of domestic reforms, especially land reforms, and the inattention to education at all levels crippled Pakistan's ability to progress.

Correcting this course is what Pakistan should do for its own good. It must aim at economic growth as was done by other geostrategically located states such as Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. Nawaz Sharief, a businessman, knows this, hence his emphasis on normal trade relations with India. Narendra Modi knows that Pakistan's economic progress will be good for all of South Asia. Anxious to prove that he is not anti-Muslim, Modi will probably go beyond the extra mile for normalcy across the border. Which means that there has never been a more propitious time for collective progress. Even the Nobel Committee underlined this by linking Malala Yousafsai and Kailash Satyarthi in a historic peace gesture. The ISI has conceded that it's not up to a war. Why can't it settle for peace?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Brutal Jihadi terrorism, now a fashion among youth. US blunders helped; so did Wahabism and Pakistan

So it's out in the open: Terrorism is the issue of our times. It was a central theme in Narendra Modi's discussion with Israel's Netanyahu, a veteran on the subject. It was the main focus of attention during the Modi-Obama talks. The US President went to the extent of agreeing to make efforts to dismantle safe havens for terror and to disrupt financial and tactical support to terror outfits, naming some based in Pakistan.

Honourable intentions. If even half of it became real, the world could heave a sigh of relief. The problem is that both Israel and the US see the issue in terms of good terrorism and bad terrorism, a differentiation that makes a mockery of the fight against terrorism.Remember how America agreed with Pakistan that the "good Taliban" must be accepted? As for Israel, the first recorded terrorist putsch was by a Jewish political movement called Zealots in 66-70. As good terrorists resenting the occupation of their homeland by foreign forces, they organised a mass insurrection against the Romans. It failed and the Zealots committed mass suicide. The modern state of Israel is still engaged in eradicating bad terrorism, this time represented by the Palestinians. In the latest flareup a few weeks ago, it was merciless in bombing civilians in the Gaza Strip ignoring worldwide protests, including by Israelis. How sad that the job of good terrorists is often thankless.

The American record has hurt the world even more grievously. Its policies have repeatedly produced the contrary effect. Three years ago it started a "humanitarian war" to achieve a regime change in Libya. The goal was achieved leading to Muammar Gaddafi's murder. But the situation in Libya went from bad to worse with daily deaths becoming part of the political chaos. America built up Bin Laden's Al Qaeda in order to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The goal was achieved but Al Qaeda became a Frankenstein's monster targetting America. America started the Iraqi war to eliminate Saddam Hussain. The goal was achieved but Iraq turned into a mess, culminating in the birth of the cruellest terrorist outfit in history, the Islamic State, the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Obama was forced to admit openly that American intelligence had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State (IS).

To say that it was underestimated is an understatement. More frenzied than the Zealots of old, the IS jihadists are unlike anything the world has ever seen before. US airstrikes have been destroying some lifelines of the IS such as gas plants and grain silos. But the jihadists keep advancing. A Sunni group, they give no quarter even to other Muslims; Shias, as well as non-Muslims, must either convert or die. This has alarmed even countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who were suppliers of funds and weapons in the early days. Many Muslim authorities have gone public with statements that the IS is not representative of true Islam.

That has not stopped the IS from becoming a fashion among young men, however small in numbers. The hooded killer who beheaded Westerners in Syria recently was a British citizen. There is a Sharia4Belgium group in that small country. According to Western estimates, 300 Belgians, 400 Germans, 800 Russians, 80 Swedes, 70 Danes, 50 Norwegians and 60 Australians are among 30,000 IS fighters. Dozens of young Western women are joining their ranks to bear children for jihadists. A small group of ultraconservative Salafists, wearing vests with the words "Sharia Police", have been telling people in the German town of Wuppertal not to drink or listen to music. German media and official circles are outraged.

Fanaticism of this kind is irrational and therefore difficult to check. Yet, if the IS is not checked, much of the world's population may be beheaded. What the West can do is to learn from its blunders. It must know that concentration on military action alone will make matters worse. The US must recognise that its "allies" have been actively contributing to the growth of radicalism and, through it, the rise of terrorism. Saudi Arabia began the process some decades ago by providing funds to spread its version of intolerance, Wahabism. Pakistan, obsessed with India, has directly nurtured terrorist groups with American funds and equipment. Saudi evangelism and Pakistani adventurism provided outlets to a young generation disillusioned by the crass materialism of the West and by poverty in Asia. Corrective action can be meaningful only when the roots of the problem are pulled out. Pruning some branches will fool nobody.

Monday, September 29, 2014

To promote development we need not destroy nature; Just enforce the laws decreed by Arthasastra

Kedarnath. Then Kashmir. The earth ploughed up into a shambles, death and destruction everywhere, multitudes plunged into misery on a scale that moved the world. Yet, these were the lesser tragedies. The bigger one is that there will be more Kedarnaths and more Kashmirs, for we are too selfish a people to learn lessons from experience. We plunder nature, upsetting the systemic order on which life on the planet is balanced. When catastrophe strikes, the price is paid by ordinary people, not the privileged plunderers. So plundering resumes. This is the tragedy of those who refuse to see that by destroying our todays we cannot build our tomorrows.

The causes of recent disasters tell their own tale. In mountains and planes, geography had provided for excess water to escape through natural drainage channels like rivers, low-lying wetlands and crevices between rock formations. Under the pressure of development these escape channels steadily disappeared. Half the lakes in Srinagar have been filled up and converted into residential and commercial areas.

This is an all-India pattern. In Udaipur, the city of famous lakes, encroachment was so blatant that the Rajasthan High Court declared lake shores as "no construction zones". That was in 1997. The court order was so widely ignored that encroachment in shores and catchment areas steadily increased: 374 hectares in 2002, 665 in 2006 and 863 in 2009. Builders could defy the court openly because they had political backing. Bangalore has no rivers, so its founders and progressive maharajahs had built a string of lakes, locally known as tanks. There were 280 tanks in the 1960s, and only 80 in 1993. Vembanad lake in Kerala is not only majestic in its spread and beauty; it is also the livelihood of thousands of families living on its shores. But the lake has shrunk from 366 sq. km to 200 and what is left is so polluted and silted up that experts predict the possibility of the lake drying up in the next 50 years. Hyderabad city was devastated by floods in 2000 because water bodies like Masab Tank were turned into residential areas. Bombay city was ravaged by flash floods in 2000 as the Mithi river, traditionally a storm water drain, had become a stagnant sewer. Even as the construction boom blocked the natural escape routes of water, "heavy rain events" dumped vastly increased quantities of water on earth because of abnormal increase in carbon emissions. In some Himalayan regions rainfall has been 400 percent above normal.

Much of the construction-prompted destruction takes place with government support, the magic word being "development". In the Manmohan Singh government, after Jairam Ramesh took some steps to protect the environment, he was removed from the ministry. When his successor, Jayanti Natarajan, tried in her own way to protect some forests, she was removed too. According to Manmohan Singh, industrialists and investors must have all the freedom to do what they like with geography because they assured GDP growth, nothing else mattered to the economist.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on the very slogan of development. He has been taking bold steps on many policy fronts. How will he tackle the conflict between development and nature? His Ministry of Earth Sciences recently launched a plan to study the increased frequency of extreme weather events in the country. That was a good sign. A bad sign was the reconstitution of the National Board for Wildlife avoiding the mandatory number of non-government specialists. The Supreme Court stayed the decisions of the new Standing Committee. Other bad signs: The Ministry of Environment and Forests announced several controversial concessions to the coal industry. Laws pertaining to environment and forests are being examined with a view to "bringing them in line with current requirements". The National Green Tribunal, boldly independent till now, is suddenly under pressure.

A country can be industry-friendly without destroying nature. The US, after obliterating a lot of forests in the early years, now ensures 33 percent forest cover. In India it is 21 percent although the National Forest Policy mandates it to be 33 percent. Unlike the US, we have the backing of an ancient culture. All we have to do is to pay heed to the laws clearly outlined in the Arthasastra. Namely: "For cutting of the tender sprouts of fruit trees or shade trees, a fine of six panaas will be imposed. For cutting their minor branches, twelve panaas and for cutting the big branches 24 panaas shall be levied". That's wisdom.

Monday, September 22, 2014

China needs to see India as an equal. Economic ties are no substitute to solving border problems

It's a remarkable coincidence that Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are brothers cast in the same mould. Both are believers in centralised authority, who spent their initial months in office consolidating their hold on the power structure. Both seek enlarged international status for their countries and for themselves. Both are fighters behind their smiles. Both are shrewd with the capacity to be, when necessary, ruthless. Both manoeuvre and manipulate with skill. Preparatory to his meeting with Xi, Modi did some manoeuvres with Japan, Australia and Vietnam all of which challenged China's stated positions. Preparatory to his meeting with Modi, Xi did some manoeuvres with Maldives, Sri Lanka and in Ladakh all of them aimed at intimidating India.

Then came Sabarmati. Majestic, peaceful Sabarmati, its waters twinkling in myriad lights, its banks bedecked with spectacular displays, Gujarat's finest art, culture and cuisine on show. No visiting dignitary has ever received so warm and so personal a reception from the Prime Minister of India as Xi received from Modi in Ahmedabad. Everything was so companionable that it would not have surprised anyone if star singer Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife, had broken into an operatic number.

But harsh facts remained. The relationship between India and China is unequal -- in China's favour. This is so at diplomatic and economic levels. Never has a top Chinese leader visited India without including nearby countries in his itinerary; India is for them one among many. Never has an Indian leader visited China except on a stand-alone basis; China is never one among many. India exports virtually nothing to China while more than 10 percent of India's total imports is from China, making us an economic dependency of China. Traditional local industries like Sivakasi's fireworks were devastated by cheap Chinese imports.

Most importantly, China's border politics is intriguingly aggressive. Every time a senior Government leader arrives from Beijing, there is a sudden rush of demonstrative "incidents" in Ladakh, this time more demonstrative than before. Xi is the head of China's military and intelligence establishments as well and he could have easily kept the border peaceful at least during the three days he was in India. But he stuck to the familiar pattern of visits coinciding with incursions. Why? Was it China, timeless and unchanging China, expressing itself as was always its wont, Xi or no Xi?

Modi described India and China as two bodies, one spirit. That's wrong. China's spirit is singularly different from India's. For some six millenia the Chinese have seen their country as the Middle Kingdom, the central point of the world (then considered flat). This developed into a national pride unmatched in the world. Xi himself said, when he was Vice President, that national pride "is the historical driving force" of China.

Narendra Modi cannot make that claim for his country. We only have to look at sports to see the contrast. China attained glory with the Olympics in 2008 because even Beijing's street sweepers took it into their heads that the prestige of their country depended on how well they did their job. Corrupt politicians shamed India with the Commonwealth Games. Inefficient bureaucrats messed up the accreditation papers of several Incheon-bound athletes, including star shooter Abhinav Bindra. Modi may talk about new work ethics, but our national characterlessness goes on.

The silver lining is that for the first time in many years the two countries have strong leaders at the helm with the mandate to take bold action. They can achieve what their predecessors could not. But only if Xi is ready to see India as an equal to China, and Modi gives up what some Hindutva hardliners called his "over-effusiveness" towards China. Modi can follow two lines. First, firm up India's relations with ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam, who are resentful of China's attempt to lord it over them. This can be done without going to the extent of doing what China does by equipping Pakistan against India. Secondly, take up China on its declaration that "we are prepared to reach a final settlement" on the border issue. What kind of final settlement? Drawing a line in Ladakh where none exists is one thing, it is quite another to replace a line that already exists along the Arunachal Pradesh border. The most important point is that no meaningful relationship is possible between the two countries if the border tensions continue. History's call to Modi and Xi is clear. Will they rise to it? That depends on whether they are politicians or statesmen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacked by Rajiv, A P Venkateshwaran remained a legend. Remembering a no-nonsense tradition of wit

Retired Foreign Secretary A.P. Ventakeshwaran's passing a few days ago attracted widespread attention. The main reason was that it recalled Rajiv Gandhi's arrogant way of belittling others. His public scolding of Andhra's Congress Chief Minister T. Anjiah offended all Telugu people. His public denigration of Karnataka's respected Congress Chief Minister Veerendra Patil annoyed all Kannadigas. His seemingly casual announcement of Venkateshwaran's removal provoked the Indian Foreign Service Association which, in an unprecedented move, criticised the Prime Minister's action. The media called it Rajiv Gandhi's "most insensitive blunder".

Such being the public reaction, it was natural that Rajiv Gandhi's petulant power play should feature prominently in A.P. Venkateshwaran's career profile. But the man was extraordinary in his own right. At least two factors should be taken into account while considering his contributions. He was, alongside J. N. (Mani) Dixit, the best Foreign Secretary India has had. Secondly, in sharpness of wit and keenness of intellect, Venkat was outstanding, but a copy; the original was his father, A. S. Panchapakesa Iyer. Genes decreed his differentiating brilliance.

Both Dixit and Venkat were Foreign Service legends. Two personalities could not be more different. Mani Dixit made friends easily. And enemies too. Venkat was ever the genial gentleman; it was difficult to see him as an enemy -- unless you were Rajiv Gandhi. When Dixit was tough, he could be unsparing, making adversaries call him Mr. Fixit. Venkat covered even his toughness with wit. Mani could be imperious. Venkat would be chivalrous even as he swung his sabre. Mani had a touch of the politician in him though not to the extent that Brijesh Mishra symbolised. Venkat was a foreign service professional, unwilling to make compromises for politics or vested interests. Two very different men, different character types, different styles, but both equally distinguished in their probity and their sense of honour, both paragons of patriotism. India was richer for them.

Not many knew that Venkat was merely continuing a tradition of nonconformance set by his father. At a time when the ICS was a British preserve into which only the best of the best Indians were admitted, A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer (1899-1963) entered that exalted service. He made his mark at the ICS board interview itself. The Englishmen who made up that board were famous for rattling candidates with seemingly irrelevant questions. "If a lion chased you," they asked young Iyer, "what steps would you take to save yourself?" Instant answer: "Long steps, Sir".

The ICS needed such ready wit. But ASP Iyer was also a proud Indian who would not change his views because he was a member of the ICS. He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and the independence movement, expressing his admiration openly before his British peers. In one of their exclusive clubs one evening, a British colleague asked him how many children he had. ASP said: "Six. The more the merrier to kick the British out of the country". Naturally he was not exactly popular among the British. They denied him promotions, keeping him as a District Judge for long years. Only after independence was he elevated to the High Court.

As a member of his father's more-the-merrier troop, A. P. Venkateshwaran faithfully maintained the no-nonsense tradition of intellectual independence. His academic record itself was remarkable, with master's degrees in science, economics and political science. Beyond the universities, he learned the values of integrity and candidness. Only in one area, he failed to follow his father. ASP Iyer wrote books. Venkat owed it to the country to write a book, but he didn't. As the only Foreign Secretary who had to leave in controversial circumstances, it was essential that the facts were put on record. There are reasons to believe that his customary lightheartedness had made Rajiv Gandhi blush when the two discussed an IFS officer's application for permission to marry a foreigner. There were also suggestions that Venkat had given a pledge to Rajiv never to breach the confidentiality of his office. For Venkat, nothing was more important than his word.

He enlivened his surroundings with playful humour. In a mail to "friends of my father-in-law", James Peck described how the family went to the confluence of three swollen rivers for the immersion ceremony. "Venkat's ashes were immersed in the strong current. True to his nature, the ashes initially travelled upstream against the current. After brief mischief, the ashes, cajoled by the currents, sashayed along the water's surface toward the sun".

No wonder the sun is brighter these days.

Monday, September 8, 2014

With drum-beats and word-play Modi captured hearts. But wait, it's only 100 days in a Manvantar

Indian culture counts time in mahayug (4,32,000 years) and manvantar ( 71 mahayug or 30,67,20,000 years). We see a single day-and-night of Brahma as equal to 2000 mahayug or 8.65 billion human years. In such a tradition, the completion of 100 days by a Government should not attract even a cursory glance. We should just let it pass as a small collection of krati ( 34,000th of a second).

But the yugas have changed. The rishis of yore did not have to reckon with media. In those propitious times there were (a) no content-hungry channels devoting every krati of their time staging cockfights on camera. And there were (b) no political parties with officially appointed fighter cocks assigned to perform in public. Today these two forces have taken over our lives. So we had the privilege of 24-hour (or was it 72?) saturation feeding on "100 days of Modi". What did they give us? Certainly no new information on the Prime Minister's plans and priorities, no weighing of the multiple factors at play. They gave us two definitive conclusions. One, that Modi represented evil. Two, that Modi was God's gift to the world.

The problem is that we are no longer citizens sharing dreams about our country. We have become units fitted into separate compartments separately labelled as Congress people, BJP people, Leftist people, different types of Dalit people and assorted Nationalist Congress, Janata and Trinamool people. The result is that we judge government actions and inactions, not as citizens but as compartmentalised sectarian units.

In looking at the Modi Government's record, for example, the tendency is to see one side of the ledger and pretend that the other side does not exist. No ledger can exist without both the credit and the debit columns. The Modi Government has several entries on the debit list: The ascent of a single individual as the centralised authority; an increase in communal incidents with little or no action against those responsible; signs of a desire to influence the judiciary; avoidable rousing of linguistic emotions; planned moves to "revitalise" school curriculum, an idea that has caused widespread worry against the background of Dinanath Batra's publicised intention to "Indianise" education. His intolerance of opinions contrary to his has already led to the elimination from the Indian market of scholarly works hailed in intellectual circles everywhere including in India.

Critics of Narendra Modi will be justified if they analyse these debit entries and point out their possible adverse effects. But they will make no impact if they dwell only on the debits. Congress spokesmen did that and cut a sorry figure. For example, Anand Sharma, whose ego walked in front of him during his years of power, tried to do an all-out hatchet job. He roundly dismissed the Modi record as one of "non-fulfilment of promises, undermining of institutions and creating a work culture nurtured by distrust and fear".

Thick minds like Anand Sharma's would not understand that they could win a wee bit more credibility if they acknowledged at least a few of the Modi Government's credit points. Let us set aside for a moment important factors like improvement in business sentiment with market indices going up. But what about the toilet revolution Modi jump-started with a single speech. Defecation, fortunately, is not ideological and anyone could have paid attention to it. Why didn't Indira Gandhi do it? Why didn't Rahul Gandhi realise that he was trying to modernise India without recognising that it was the world's most unhygienic country?

It must also be recognised that Modi has surprised admirers and critics alike by his flair for foreign affairs. If the first overseas trips are any indication, he might emerge as India's most successful foreign minister, Jawaharlal Nehru not excluded. His Japan trip was a triumph not because of the agreements he signed, but because of his style. His felicity with words was clearly a winner: "Not red tape, but red carpet.... no more a land of snake charmers but of people who played with the mouse.... trust is superior to fevicol in binding countries together". Yet, dramatically more successful was his performance on Japanese drums. Was it real! If it was, Ustad Zakir Husain better be on guard.

For stock-taking, though, 100 days do not make sense. The trend now is that Modi is doing many right things, his party and allies are doing many wrong things. Since Modi is smarter than all the others, he might prevail in the end. In 1000 days?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Irom Sharmila, released by law, is arrested by police. And thereby hangs the tale of a national shame

Vietnam: Mai Lai Massacre is known as "the most shocking episode of the Vietnam war". One morning in 1968 a platoon of US soldiers entered the sprawling Vietnamese village, saw men and women and children getting ready to go to market, and began shooting without warning. A man was pushed into a well and a grenade thrown into it. Some 20 women and children kneeled before a temple deity praying. They were all shot in the head. Some 70-80 villagers were pushed into an irrigation ditch and machinegunned. In all more than 400 villagers perished. Eventually 26 soldiers were courtmartialled, though they were softly treated. Only one, Lt. William Calley, was sentenced to life, but he too was freed after less than four years of house arrest.

Iraq: Photographs from the Abu Graib prison in Iraq scandalised the world in 2003 as they revealed how Iraqis were abused by American and British soldiers. Particularly galling was the picture of a woman soldier holding a lash which was tethered round the neck of an Iraqi man lying on the ground naked. Americans themselves protested and the Defence Secretary offered to resign, admitting that unacceptable levels of abuse of prisoners were rampant in Iraqi prisons. Eventually seven soldiers were courtmartialled on charges of abuse and cruelty. The woman with the naked Iraqi on leash was sentenced to three years in prison and given a dishonourable discharge.

Afghanistan: In the summer of 2012 Lt. Clint Lorance of the US army asked one of his soldiers to shoot down two Afghans on motorcycles. He had been told by Army pilots that Taliban fighters were moving about on motorcycles. Interestingly, some soldiers of his own platoon reported the matter to the higherups. They re-assigned Lorance to a desk job and stripped him of his weapon. Eventually he was courtmartialled on charges of murder, attempted murder and misconduct. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the military. A unit of US soldiers in Afghanistan became known as "kill team" because they took to killing Afghans for sport and keeping their body parts as trophies. One sergeant, bored by insomnia one night, went out for a stroll in the wee hours and shot 17 sleeping Afghans for fun. Most probably he returned to his bunker and enjoyed an undisturbed sleep for the rest of the night.

So much for the American way of life. How about the Indian way?

India: Just after midnight on July 10-11, 2004, a unit of Assam Rifles broke into a house in Imphal and seized a 32-year old woman named Thangjam Manorama Devi. She was blindfolded and her hands and legs tied up before the soldiers began assaulting her. Shocked family members were also brutalised. Around 3.30 am the by-now collapsed Manorama was bundled into an army vehicle and taken away. Around 5 pm that day her bullet-ridden, clothesless body with knife wounds was found in a field with tell-tale evidence of rape. An outraged town took to the street en masse, engaging the police in battles and braving teargas and rubber bullets. In a scene that made history, some 30 middleaged women stripped themselves naked and marched to the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal shouting: "Indian Army, rape us too. We are all mothers of Manorama". Eventually, an inquiry was ordered. And eventually nothing happened because there was a law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gave the soldiers complete immunity.

Four years earlier Manipur rebels had bombed a unit of soldiers in a jungle operation. To wreak vengeance, a passing squad of soldiers shot down ten people waiting at a bus stop in Malom town in Manipur. One woman ducked and lay sprawled on the road to escape the bullet. She was spotted and shot in the head. Widespread protests broke out. Eventually nothing happened because there was a law called AFSPA.

AFSPA, a British idea, was enacted in 1958 when armed Naga insurrection was intense. More than half a century has passed and insurrections and rebellions have lost their steam. Judges have pronounced against the continuance of AFSPA. So have UN agencies, Amnesty, most newspapers and several state governments. It's a shame that the Malom Massacre remains an open wound when the Mai Lai Massacre was at least acknowledged as a crime. It's a shame that Irom Sharmila's ordeal continues after 14 incredible years. It's a shame that governments go and governments come, but AFSPA goes on for ever.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Modi has won respect for India abroad. Can he use it to solve problems with Pakistan -- and China, too?

Narendra Modi's India is turning out to be quite different from Manmohan Singh's India. This is borne out by America's shift in policy. If the old India often appeared like a supplicant before the US, the roles seem reversed now. Consider technology, for example. From the 1980s, the US was determined to scuttle India's space programme. It refused ISRO's request for assistance in cryogenic technology development. India then found Russia willing to help, but the US forced Russia to renege on its agreement. Thereupon P. V. Narasimha Rao announced, in 1993, that India would develop cryogenic technology indigenously. An angry US warned that its two-year ban on selling space components to ISRO would be extended. All this hostility was on the plea that India was actually after nuclear weapons development. Yet the US did not lift a finger in protest when China and North Korea equipped Pakistan with nuclear capability. Despite all the obstructionism, GSLV's advanced rocket soared into space last January, a triumph for India and a reproach to America.

It was a new America that sent its Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, to India a few days ago. Without the slightest embarrassment, he said that India and America must "transform our nations' defence cooperation from simply buying and selling to co-production, co-development and freer exchange of technology". This is what is known as epiphany. Hagel is used to it. Three years ago, as a Senator, he had criticised India for "using Afghanistan as a second front to fund problems for Pakistan from that side of the border". Now, in Delhi's fresh air, he said: "India has a critical responsibility in terms of Afghanistan's security". This is what is known as patriotic opportunism.

Clearly Hagel's chameleon act was meant to get America into Narendra Modi's good books. The new Prime Minister is seen around the world as a game-changer. His domestic agenda is still evolving though his associates have rushed through programmes that worry sections of the people. But in foreign affairs Modi has been firm. It's a tough field where victories can be quickly overtaken by setbacks. Nonetheless he has shown that he is not lacking in courage. He did not hesitate to make America angry by going against WTO's pro-Western definition of free trade. But America did not retaliate. Instead, on the Mumbai terror inquiry, having blocked linchpin David Headley's extradition to India and his interrogation by Indian investigators except under American supervision, the US now says that India's request for access to the terror mastermind is "under discussion".

Modi's readiness to stand up to American pressure has enhanced his standing with China and Russia. India is now seen, not as a Western ally, but as a power that will take independent decisions. This reading must be the reason for China's recent initiative to make India a full member of the important Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Known as Asia's NATO, the SCO has the potential to change the prevailing, West-centric economic and strategic structure of the world. Significantly, India is becoming a member against the background of a renewed American strategy of containment against China and Russia. No wonder that Russia, a member, is delighted by the invitation to India and predicts that the SCO will consequently become "a centre of power in world politics".

Such major international realignments, however, benefit those who know how to handle them subtly, astutely and even cunningly. China is adept at this and will be using India's, Iran's, Pakistan's and Mongolia's membership of the SCO to its diplomatic advantage every inch of the way. The latest Ladakh incursions could well be manoeuvres for future negotiations from a position of strength. Similarly Russia will gain considerably with oil and gas pipelines across the Asian landmass. What of India? The reality is that all our progress on all other fronts can be subverted by lack of progress on the Pakistan front. Last week's cancellation of talks between the two countries showed how abruptly things can go wrong for India. Modi, inexperienced in international diplomatic intrigue, now has warm relations with two masters of that game, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Will he be shrewd enough to talk them into cooperation under the umbrella of the SCO? This is a rare - perhaps the biggest - test of Modi's political skills. If he bargains cleverly, a border pact with China is not inconceivable. If China helps, an end to the Pakistani Army's hostility is not inconceivable. Is that level of diplomatic dexterity on Modi's part conceivable?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rajya Sabha seats, or Bharat Ratna, or Governorships, it's all politics & populism, not national interest

In itself, Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha treating Parliament as one of their trinkets is a non-issue. There are many in our vast and fertile country who have neither the civilisational range nor the intellectual calibre to understand the true meaning of Parliament. If such individuals are given positions they are not worthy of and they mishandle them, it is not their fault; it is the fault of the system that facilitates such mismatch. Indeed, the Tendulkar-Rekha controversy and the ongoing Bharat Ratna controversy and controversies around a constitutional position like Governor are all pointers to system malfunctioning. It may well have something to do with fault lines in the Indian character.

What else can it be but a flaw in the national character that only Indian millionaires crave for honours and favours in foreign countries? We do not hear of a Chinese-American cosying up to political parties in Washington and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. No Malaysian has "donated" his way to the British Parliament. Indians have. "Cash for peerage" is a scandal in Britain. The Labour Party in particular has taken generous donations from wealthy Indians and rewarded them with Lordship and other favours. Last year New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to US politicians. A longtime fundraiser for the Clintons, Chatwal received a Padma award in 2010 triggering off the bitterest disputation in the disputation-filled history of those awards.

That same Indian penchant for shortcuts to distinction has haunted our originally well-intentioned national honours concept. The nomination system for the Rajya Sabha was devised so that the nation could benefit from the wisdom of distinguished achievers who would normally be hesitant to fight elections. The first batch in 1952 underlined that noble intent, with illustrious figures such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Zakir Husain, Prithviraj Kapur and Rukmini Arundale gracing the upper house. Then the standards began to fall, as did the standards of politicians. Into the House went the likes of M.F.Husian and Lata Mangeshkar and Hema Malini who had no notion of their obligations as MPs. Alongside appeared another trend: Businessmen with spare cash buying MLA votes to enter Rajya Sabha. In a system so crippled by its own gatekeepers, why blame Tendulkar and Rekha who were victims of idolatry, not vehicles of nobility.

Idolatry was also behind Tendulkar's Bharat Ratna award for which he was eminently unsuited. A responsible state would have recognised cricket's deterioration into a business activity led by fixers and money launderers and tried to divert popular attention to less corrupting games such as football, hockey and tennis. But the decision makers went for cheap populist applause by picking a man who will, if it all, be a Ratna of cricket, not of Bharat.

Is the present Government any wiser? Atal Behari Vajpayee's nomination for the high honour will be universally welcomed for no living leader is more deserving. But Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Subhas Bose? They were among the greatest sons of India, no doubt. But they belonged to an era of sacrifice and service. To impose today's yardsticks of honour on them will not honour them. Should we give a Bharat Ratna to Kalidasa?

The worst impact of system malfunctioning has been on constitutional posts like Comptroller & Auditor General and Chief Election Commissioner. When some incumbents sought and were given post-retirement jobs, these posts lost their sanctity. Now an argumentative Army Chief has been absorbed as a Union minister immediately after retirement, an ominous precedent. In the case of governors, the early years saw some great personages such as H. P. Mody and K.M. Munshi, Sarojini Naidu and P.V.Cheriyan occupying Raj Bhavans. But that phase passed quickly. All parties joined hands to politicise governorship blatantly. The Gandhi dynasty appointed family retainers and loyalist police officers as Governors.

If the new BJP Government asked such appointees to quit, who can complain? In fact they should have quit on their own. In the case of Kamla Beniwal, the BJP Government went into a revenge mode. But again, who can complain? As Gujarat Governor she had obstructed Chief Minister Modi's moves wherever she could. When Modi got his chance, she got her comeuppance, a classic case of foul is fair. What made it ugly was the moral posturing -- the Congress accusing the Government of malafide and the Government proclaiming its adherence to constitutional propriety. Nonsense. It was political tit followed by political tat. Why are our parties dishonest even when they don't have to be?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Congress still cannot look beyond the dynasty, nor BJP beyond sectarian politics. Beware of the voter

It may seem too early, but the contours of the next general election are beginning to take shape. It will be the usual politics, played the usual dismal way. Those who saw in Narendra Modi's victory a turning point in history may have to revise their views. The size of its triumph had surprised the BJP just as the extent of its defeat had shocked the Congress. It was a message for the winner to try and earn the trust of all, and for the loser to introspect and change its ways. In just three months, though, both parties have made their intentions clear: They will learn nothing, change nothing.

The Congress has painted itself into a pathetic corner. Of the many factors that led to its downfall, the most obvious was dynastic dominance. What appeared tolerable in Indira Gandhi's days became unacceptable a generation later. Sonia Gandhi's extraconstitutional control of the Government, her chosen Prime Minister reducing himself to a nobody, and her son's handling of leadership as a part-time hobby combined to make voters realise that the joke had gone too far. Their thumbs-down to the Congress was a bid to save the nation's honour.

If the Gandhis really cared for the party that had looked after them and their interests for so long, they would have paid heed to the message from voters. Some Congress leaders found the courage to criticise Sonia by name. Voices in the Youth Congress rose against Rahul Gandhi. Ignoring it all, the family allowed sycophants to "persuade" them to remain at the helm.

Priyanka is proposed as the new mascot. She does have more mass appeal than her brother. But what else? She has said nothing to date suggesting any understanding of the economic, social or geopolitical issues facing the country and the world. She has often shown an exaggerated view of her family's sacrifices, indicative of a latent autocratic streak. Above all, she is a Vadra and thereby hangs a long shadow of business "achievements". Is this the future of India?

It is a factor in the future of the BJP, for sure. Another devoted mother has openly asked that Varun Gandhi be nominated for the chief ministership of UP, no doubt as a stepping stone to prime ministership. What this means is that, BJP or Congress, the leadership of India will remain in the hands of one Gandhi or another. This was not the objective of those who voted for Narendra Modi. Nor did the voters expect Modi to lapse into a phase of perceptible slowdown so soon after the elections. Perhaps the hype he created during the campaign is having a rebound, reminiscent of the hype the Aam Aadmi Party generated and later found impossible to sustain.

But the Prime Minister's associates are by no means quiet. Hindi partisanship, despite proving divisive, has been enforced on the IAS-IPS system as well. The decision to discount English in UPSC grades is the most short-sighted initiative by the Government so far. It holds up UP-Bihar as the standard for the rest of the country. It puts India at a disadvantage in a world where China, for example, is actively promoting the study of English among its people. It gives non-Hindi citizens the feeling that they are less than equal. It will create dissensions and will lead to resentments. All for what?

Meanwhile the prices of essential commodities have been rising. The Green Tribunal is being neutered so that hills can be levelled, rivers killed through sand mining and forests cleared for the sake of "development". Attempts are being made to hand agriculture over to foreign seed monopolies in the name of promoting GM food. What does the Prime Minister have to say about these developments? We don't know. Are some groups operating from behind? We don't know. We only know what he says in Brazil and Nepal.

Silences, too, have a role in politics. The calculation may be that the Prime Minister should stay above the dust and din of groundlevel politicking, that sectarianism is the surest way to win elections. This line succeeded in UP and Amit Shah, the strategist behind that victory, has since become party president. As an all-India strategy, however, sectarianism may cause more harm than good. Voters are basically in favour of inclusive growth, precisely what Modi offered. If that promise goes astray, the Indian voter is experienced enough to know what to do. The BJP lost three recent byelections in Uttarkhand. Never underestimate the voter.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bold new books on Chanakya and China, Rama and Shiva; Time for bold new action to get a few banned?

We all know that Chanakya was a genius at manipulating people ruthlessly for power. What fun he (and we) would have if he were reborn and got active in today's politics. Or, for a change, imagine Bengal as a protectorate/colony of China with Governor Wen finding it difficult to control the Maoists. Or, horror of horrors, consider the proposition that there is no evidence to prove the historicity of Rama. These are a few of the hair-raising visions awaiting attention in our bookstores. Among them are three new volumes by Wendy Doniger, the author India promoted by banning On Hinduism. The shelves are alive with the sound of letters, brilliant and daringly original.

Catalogues by publishers are usually humdrum affairs, providing lists of titles and trade details such as size, paper quality and release details. Not the Aleph catalogue. They don't even call it a catalogue; they call it The Book of Aleph 3. It also looks every inch like a book -- a hardbound, immaculately designed, beautifully printed book in the classical mould. Its approach to content is different, too. Of course it gives the usual information: A full list of 50 titles, including paperback editions of titles brought out earlier. But its 192 pages present a phantasmagoria of long and short excerpts interspersed with photographs, blurbs and author profiles. We can savour it like an anthology. To read extensive excerpts from Timeri Murari, Shoven Chowdhury, Romila Thapar et al is to partake of a feast.

Who is more devastatingly inventive -- Murari or Chowdhury? Chanakya Returns is so apt a theme for our upside-down times that it is surprising no one had thought it up before Timeri Murari. But then, no one had thought of Murari's The Taliban Cricket Club either. His newly minted Chanakya is a master of 21st century politics. He has a grouse or two, mainly about an Italian plagiarist called Machiavelli who stole Chanakya's theories and achieved fame. "This is the problem with death", muses Chanakya. "One thousand seven hundred and fifty-two years later your work appears under another man's name, granting him the immortality that is rightly yours".

But the plagiarist never got the opportunity that Chanakya got with his second coming. In his modern avatar, Chanakya began advising Avanti, heir to a family that has ruled the country for long, young and malleable and aware of her favoured position in life. "I began service as a humble clerk though not humble myself. I ensured I was loyal to her alone and to none else. She noticed this loyalty and confined her thoughts and emotions in me". Familiar?

Read about his advice on love. "The heart is not to be trusted as it is brainless. Love is a watery foundation. Like the flip of a coin, love can fall into hate. Power is an aphrodisiac, it is unending hot sex in 1001 positions, it is magical, it is miraculous. Your followers will worship you like an idol that can confer riches and miracles more than any god". No wonder Avanti was persuaded to believe that the love of power was better than the power of love. Familiar? Perish the thought. This is a novel where "any resemblance to any actual entirely coincidental".

Shoven Chowdhury has a disturbing habit. He covers the most outrageous subversions with the most innocuous titles. Last year he gave us an account of an India devastated by Chinese nuclear bombs -- Bombay obliterated, Bengal turned into a protectorate of China. And what was the title of that novel? The Competent Authority. In a repeat of that trick, he has come out with a new novel called, even more innocuously, Death of a Schoolmaster. Be warned. It is Bengal, the Chinese protectorate, revisited. Things are not very nice. Governor Wen is suffering grievously from a lack of concubines. The New Thug Society is trying to free Bengal from Chinese oppression. But "China ruled Asia now. They were all one big happy family. The Japanese were the sons, the Koreans were the brothers, and the Bengalis were the idiot cousins". Time for a Bengal Sena to organise a bonfire?

Better still, leave it to the banning expert, Dinanath Batra. He must get Romila Thapar banned for saying, in her The Past as Present, that doubting historicity (that is, saying that Rama is a mythical character) is not blasphemy. He must get Wendy Doniger banned again for her new study, Shiva, The Erotic Ascetic. How else can we keep India purified.