Monday, January 27, 2014

The Shashi Tharoor case reminds us again that politics seriously diminishes people

This is a time when even his critics would feel sorry for Shashi Tharoor. He had a dream run for the first half century of his life -- progression through the very best of schools, a prized United Nations career, acclamation as an author, political debut as a favourite of India's ruling oligarchy, ministership at first shot as MP, recognition as a darling of high society. But he was star-crossed from the day he entered politics. One controversy ended only when another started. And then, tragedy of a kind that one would not wish on one's enemies.

The sudden death of his wife prompted speculation much of which was unfavourable to Tharoor. That Sunanda Pushkar's family filed no complaint was helpful to him, but loose ends remained in spite of -- and sometimes because of -- reports by doctors, forensic experts and police sources. There is also scepticism about inquiries by police when Tharoor remains a Union minister. At the political level, he continues to be a honeybun with the Congress High Command; at the height of the controversy, he was appointed an official spokesman of the party.

It is possible that Shashi Tharoor may emerge legally and politically unscathed through his ordeal, and even stand for re-election. But there are things that go beyond the legal and the political. Writers are supposed to be aware of, and sensitive to, life's unsaid realities. If the writer in Tharoor overcomes the politician in him for a moment, he will realise that his glamour value will never be the same again, that he will for ever be linked in the public mind with things that should not have happened.

But the writer will not overcome the politician in Tharoor. That is what politics does to people: It dulls human sensibilities and makes the paraphernalia of power look more important than they are. It also ruins reputations. The grandest reputation in free India's history was Jawaharlal Nehru's. It lay shattered at the end of 17 years of power -- shattered by a range of mishandled crises, from the Kashmir mess to the border war with China. Next only to Nehru's was Jayaprakash Narayan's reputation for sacrifice and probity. In the perspective of history, JP now looks like a great man whose contribution amounted ultimately to nothing. Manmohan Singh was an internationally respected economist until politics turned him into an object of ridicule.

Shashi Tharoor is not in this league of course, so his diminution by politics has been the more drastic. It's a pity that he fell for the transient trappings of power because, unlike even the High Commanders who protect him, he had other options. Literature remains an obvious one, since he already has a firm foundation as both novelist and nonfictionist. With his international connections and public relations skills, he could break new ground with the Chandran Tharoor Foundation named after his father. Big-ticket programmes for public benefit have not turned modern with modern methodologies in India in ways Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have pioneered. Shashi Tharoor can be an avant-gardist in this area, honouring the values of a family he has often publicly praised.

Chandran Tharoor was Amrita Bazaar Patirka's correspondent in London and then The Statesman's advertising director in Calcutta. He was admired as a benefactor of those in need, and for his zestfulness which earned him, from The Statesman colleagues, the title of "dynamo". Chandran's brother T. Parameshwar was the father of Reader's Digest India and an aristocratic presence in Bombay's meritocracy in the 1950s. The Tharoors are proud of their traditions that go back a few hundred years. So there is enough for Shashi Tharoor to build on, enough options to choose from. The most detrimental option will be to stand for re-election from Tirupuram and, inevitably, open up the wounds. Very likely that option will be chosen. That is what politics does to people: It subverts judgment.

Monday, January 20, 2014

If AAP fails, another will take its place because old parties have betrayed India

Sharks and piranhas famously go into a feeding frenzy when they suddenly see an abundance of prey. Turning crazy with rage, they tear into the flesh of anything within biting range. Something similar is happening among opponents of the Aam Aadmi Party. Even liberal intellectuals are in a frenzy to feed on the new party's weaknesses, ignoring the larger picture. AAP is easy prey to all. (Notice that the frenzied feeders avoid difficult prey. Hardly any fulminations against UP's ministers who displayed criminal neglect of Muzaffarnagar riot victims, then went off to Europe for rest and recreation.)

AAP inspires critics to eloquence and literary flourishes. Salman Khurshid, for example, said: "AAP has Jurassic ideas, no serious ideology, and some of the most third-rate people across the country". That was akin to his colleague Manish Tewari's infamous description of Anna Hazare as "corrupt from head to toe". The Congress windbag was forced to tender a written apology to the rural Gandhian. By comparison Narendra Modi is more circumspect in his denunciation of AAP. Referring obviously to the new party's mastery of modern media, he said the country needed more than leaders who made good television.

The funny thing is that what these articulate critics say of AAP actually applies to their own reality. What, pray, is the ideology of the Congress Party, serious or otherwise? Is dynastic fixation an ideology? For that matter, how many leaders can the Congress show who are not corrupt from head to toe? As for Modi, AAP leaders do make good television. But they are nothing before him. As the country's most gifted public speaker today, Modi is excellent television.

Beyond the frenzy and the viciousness, the contempt and the spite, two facts remain: First, the AAP has its share of frailties and contradictions which can lead to its collapse one day; second, warts and all, it represents the people's desire to end the diabolic political system that has been holding the country to ransom. The AAP's capacity to rise to people's expectations is tied to the capacity of its leaders to rise above the temptations of power. This is already under strain. Dissensions have split the leadership of the party because some did not get the loaves of office and some had their egos hurt. The party will be hard put to fight these internal schisms which have the potential to cripple it.

There are policy problems as well, like in any other party. Issues like FDI in retail were always controversial and will continue to be so. The Delhi Government's ruling against it was criticised by some and supported by some. This is part of the game. But there is ground for unease when the party puts on its website a broad policy approach like: "People's consent is necessary for future pricing of critical commodities such as gas, diesel, petrol, electricity". People's consent is a wonderful thing, but there are other critical factors, like supply and demand and international fluctuations, that affect the pricing of critical commodities.

The gravest danger facing the AAP is that it can become a victim of its own good intentions. What is popular may not always be practical; what needs to be done may sometimes have to wait until the ground is prepared with care. When such realities are ignored under the pressure of expectations, the cost may prove high. Above all, the Government's survival is dependent on the Congress' support. What happens if the campaign in Haryana, AAP's next electoral target, starts hurting the interests of the "private businessman", Robert Vadra?

AAP's Government in Delhi may or may not last, but its emergence is a declaration that India is changing. The rush of people to join the party tells its own tale, even if many of them may be motivated by the usual ambitions of personal gain. The new India out there is tired of criminality and corruption in public life -- and knows that the entrenched parties that caused the rot are incapable of ending it. If AAP goes, the new India will invent another AAP.

Monday, January 13, 2014

In Mumbai, Himachal and Karnataka, Rahul is subverted by his own people. What's up?

Believe it or not, Rahul Gandhi has begun to lose ground in the Congress Party. Till very recently a mere gesture from him would send shivers down the spine of senior leaders. A public disapproval was enough for the Government to reverse its stand on disqualifying tainted MPs. The hold of the dynasty was so total that it was unthinkable for a Congressman to go against its wishes in word or deed. Implicit loyalty to the family was the first requirement for advancement in the party.

Outwardly that remains a fact of Congress life. But inwardly winds of change seem to be blowing in the inner chambers of the party. Experienced old hands appear to have devised ways to neutralise the inexperienced young scion of the dynasty. The newest twists and turns in the party bear this out as we can see in Mumbai, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka.

For quite some time the public has known details of the Adarsh Housing scam in Mumbai, including the misuse of authority by a succession of Congress chief ministers. An inquiry commission found substance in the charges against several political leaders and civil servants. Yet the state Government had the gumption to reject the report. Outraged public opinion forced knight-errant Rahul Gandhi to stage another of his interventions and rubbish the Government's decision. Promptly the Government said it would change its position.

It did announce a change, but not as happened with the ordinance on tainted MPs wich was withdrawn. This time the Government stuck to its earlier position on the accused political leaders and declined to take any action. The only concession to the knight-errant was a recommendation to proceed against the bureaucrats. A cure worse than the disease. Unseen hands pulled unseen strings again when the High Command asked Himachal Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh to explain charges of corruption against him. Suddenly reversing gear, the High Command started protecting the accused.

Cutting Rahul Gandhi to size was most noticeable in Karnataka. The Congress had recognised that it won the last Assembly elections only because the BJP Government's freewheeling corruption had spread disgust among the voters. This had led Rahul Gandhi to give two orders to the state Congress: That the chief ministership should go to the relatively clean Siddaramaiah and that tainted leaders should not be appointed ministers. According to Congress insiders, Rahul specifically mentioned that Shiva Kumar and Roshan Baig be kept out because they were not only tainted but seemed proud of it. Both orders were carried out and it gave the Congress Government a promising start.

But suddenly last week the two men Rahul considered harmful to the party were sworn in as cabinet ministers. Some Congress leaders expressed dismay while social workers, writers and respected elders publicly gave vent to their shock. The point was that Rahul Gandhi's order was countermanded by manipulation experts within the party. It was open secret among Congressmen in Karnataka that veterans like Digvijay Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad could swing things their way even while appearing to promote the dynasty.

By elevating discredited operators to cabinet rank, the Congress not only lost its advantage with Karnataka voters, but made it easy for the BJP to elevate its dishonoured leaders. Yeddyurappa's return will destroy the BJP's right to attack others on corruption. But it will do less harm to the BJP than Shiva Kumar - Roshan Baig's rise will do to the Congress. In the next round of elections it will be a Congress-BJP fight, Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (S) having made itself irrelevant. Yeddyurappa, having suffered jail term and loss of power, may get support from his forgiving community. That will prevent a split in the anti-Congress vote which in turn could translate into three or four seats, to the delight of the BJP. The image of Shiva Kumar - Roshan Baig is too sordid to yield any such dividend to the Congress. That of course is of no concern to Congressmen who put personal interest above the party's. Those whom God wants to destroy, He first turns into politicians.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Time was when we could celebrate with fun; Today even New Year has a price tag

What makes people go wild on the night of December 31? The answer, unbeknown to them, is: Commerce. When Diwali has become a marketing device to sell fireworks and dry fruits, when Christmas is hijacked by cake-bakers, when Akshaya Tritiya is appropriated by the jewellery industry, how can New Year not be another sales gimmick, this time for liquor companies, gift shops, hotels and eateries? They made it a fashion to get drunk on New Year's eve and, like all fashions, it made business boom.

It wasn't always so. In the days of innocence, it was possible to be human without the profit motive. Festivities were then simple fun. Essentially a Western tradition, New Year appealed mostly to the Western-educated classes. Naturally India's English press got involved, as it did in the West's April Fool tradition. The late lamented R.K.Karanjia of Blitz had a field day with April Fool hoaxes. An outrageous one in 1981 shocked Bombay with the announcement that the Indian Express was sold lock stock and barrel to A.R. Antulay, then Chief Minister of Maharashtra. That was when Express was relentlessly exposing Antulay's misdeeds, a campaign that eventually led to his eclipse.

New Year hilarity was innocuous by comparison. The English press in India used the occasion for reviews and reflections while the British press tried to entertain readers with humour as well. Englishmen maintained that tradition wherever they went. In Hongkong December 31 meant nothing to the locals; Chinese New Year (in February) was their biggest festival when everything closed down for three days. Yet the British-owned, British-edited Far Eastern Economic Review ran year-end limericks poking fun at national leaders.

In 1973 they had an easy pick on Indira Gandhi, Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman Mao himself. Samples: "A strong-minded lady named Gandhi/Rode to work in a donkey-drawn bandy./ But Brezhnev arrived / As the petrol stocks dived / And the gas from their talks came in handy". The one on Mao said: "Our past we are using / To get cadres and masses a-fusing./ But make up your mind/ On the sage, for I find / Controversial Confucius confusing".

There are scurrilous limericks and limericks that cannot be recited in polite company. And there are limericks that tickle the imagination. Like: "There was a young lady one fall / Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball. / The dress caught fire / And burned her entire / Front page, sporting section and all".

Way back in 1910, the New York Times celebrated the season by asking readers to complete a limerick by adding the fifth line. The winning entry went: "Good New Year resolves are in style / The bulk of them forces to smile. / Were I making one now / I should certainly vow / I'll only drink once in a while".

Rather tame by today's standards. But the limerick remains a favourite form of humour for those who dare. Its connection to the Irish town named Limerick is unclear. But the 5-line format, rhyming a-a-b-b-a, was popularised by Edward Lear (19th century). A wizard of "nonsense poetry" his Owl and The Pussy Cat remains a masterpiece. Some made nonsense of even the 5-line rule. Example: "A young man from Timbucktoo / Whose limericks stopped at line two."

For the most "glorious nonsense", as Alice (of Wonderland fame) described it, we must go to Lewis Carrol and especially his Jabberwocky. Lines that mean nothing, yet constitute literary classics.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Satyajit Ray's father Sukumar Ray is the only known Indian writer/satirist who attempted nonsense poetry. Some English translations are available but we should assume that the Bengali originals were the more flavourful.

Edward Lear and Lewis Carrol and Sukumar Ray all flourished when life was not commercialised, when there was space for creative humour and intellectual pleasure. Today all that is replaced by the sales pitch and pleasure comes at a price. Pay the price and have a Happy New Year.