Monday, March 24, 2014

Will Modi Gandhi Kejriwal look up the map and note that Crimea is not too far

In our obsession with the elections, we've lost track of the world. As it happens, the US is "just three steps away from war with Russia", as an American strategist put it. A Russian commentator put it thus: "Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash". Got the picture?

War won't -- or shall we say, may not -- happen. Not because leaders love peace, but because the prospect of being reduced to ash is all too real for more than one country. Nevertheless, it is a finger-on-the-button confrontation. The stakes in Crimea/Ukraine are high and the passions explosive. Russia sees Anglo-Saxons trying to encircle it militarily by absorbing Ukraine into the Eurocentric (anti-Russia) NATO alliance. NATO sees Russia using muscle power to annex nearby territories and thereby resurrecting the old Soviet empire.

The "annexing" of Crimea is a fait accompli. A referendum saw 96.6 percent of the people saying yes to joining the Russian Federation. Within two days Vladimir Putin signed a formal treaty making Crimea a part of Russia. Crimea declared the ruble as a second currency to Ukraine's hryvnia. It even switched to Moscow time which is two hours ahead of Ukrainian time. Putin's longish speech at the Kremlin ceremony was full of emotional references to Crimea's place in the hearts and minds of Russians and how the West, especially America, "cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back [and deployed] military infrastructure at our borders".

Those were strong words.What we see is a return to the hostile mindsets of the Cold War era. Russia saw the recent violent upheavals in Ukraine as a Western manoeuvre to effect a regime change in the country, replacing Russia-friendly leaders with Russia-haters. For the West, checkmating Russia is central to its security agenda; Britain's Foreign Secretary described the Crimean crisis as "the most serious test of European security in the 21st century". For Russia, keeping Crimea is a historical obligation and an existential necessity.

A part of the Russian Federation until 1954, Crimea was "gifted" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev who rose in the communist hierarchy through the Ukranian party apparatus. (Some say he was an ethnic Ukranian, as Stalin was an ethnic Georgian). Russia's only warm-water naval base is on Crimea's Black Sea coast. Without Crimea, Russia will cease to be a strategic power. Without a friendly Ukraine and a friendly Georgia, Russia will cease feeling secure. So Russia will do what it takes to consolidate its neighbourhood, just as the US has done for years in Central American countries. If war is ruled out, the West can do precious little.

Are these developments of any concern to India? Of course yes. Firstly, this is a new global Great Game and there is no way a player of India's size can stay in the margins. More importantly, the evolving strategic face-off is between the Atlantic West and what Russia is projecting as Eurasia which, naturally, would include India and China.

For the record, both India and China have told Russia to take the path of negotiation, respect international law, etc. In fact, though, both have indicated support to Russia. India took the clear position that "Russia has legitimate interests in the Ukraine developments", as National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon worded it. Putin later had a personal chat with Manmohan Singh.

This is a good time for India to take a hard look at its diplomatic equations. Manmohan Singh's pro-American tilt has always been one-sided causing economic loss to India (by following American diktat on Iranian oil, for example) and inviting diplomatic ridicule (by unilaterally giving privileges to US consuls in India while Indian consuls in the US are humiliated). Moscow, on the other hand, has stood by India on critical issues, like technology transfer for example. Perhaps Putin and the Eurasian idea can also help ease the relations between India and China. And Japan waits. Opportunity is knocking at India's doors. But who is there to seize the moment? Modi Gandhi Kejriwal?

Amar Akbar Antony had more chutzpah.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The squabble over tickets carries a tale: Our politicians will go on plundering

How passionate are our politicians about serving the nation! The scramble for tickets is always a feature of elections. But never have we witnessed the huddle and the muddle, the tumult and the chaos we see in the present rush to get into Parliament. There is nothing in this free-for-all to distinguish one party from another or one ticket-seeker from another. No one has an identifying ideology or principle. All are bound by a common thread: The greed for power. All are blissfully hypocritical. All parties say, for example, that they are determined to wipe out corruption, yet all have branded behemoths of corruption among their candidates. Ours must be the most double-faced democracy in the world.

Such reality is no deterrent to netas seeking party nomination. They fight among themselves, threaten and cajole, resign, join rival parties, form new alliances, even take to criminal intimidation. Lilliputian as well as Brobdingnagian parties face revolts from within over denial of tickets. Top leaders have preferences that others resent. For several days the BJP was unable to announce its principal candidates on account of internal squabbles. Murli Manohar Joshi and Lalji Tandon, both ranking leaders, felt slighted and resentful when they were told to make way for party President Rajnath Singh in Lucknow and Narendra Modi in Varanasi. Kerala's dictatorial CPM leadership picked a candidate for Kollam, a good candidate, but without even consulting its LDF allies. An outraged Revolutionary Socialist Party, with strong roots in Kollam, quit the Front and joined its old adversary, the Congress-led UDF. Lalu Prasad Yadav may be too tainted to qualify for elections. But he gave tickets to his wife and daughter. Offended long-term ally Ram Kripal Yadav quit and joined the BJP.

The worst of sins are ignored in the name of winnability. The BJP's reconciliation with B.S. Yeddyurappa was prompted by his winnability in his community. He used it to get several of his favourites on board, causing serious splits in the party. The BJP was forced to recognise even the discredited Bellary mafia. The Congress for its part kept a symbol of venality, Suresh Kalmadi, in the forefront till the last moment. It still could not wash its hand of Pavan Bansal. It's the same mindset that has brought Pappu Yadav, Bihar's dreaded toughie turned politician, back into the electoral scene.

The Supreme Court goes on giving us hopes of deliverance from criminal politicians. Can these be more than hopes? In the latest ruling the Court has said that the trial of legislators charged with offences must be completed in one year. The importance of this judgment will be clear when we realise that 50 MPs in the recently concluded Lok Sabha had 136 cases against them pending in the courts for more than a decade. A murder case against a Congress MP from Ujjain has been going on for 29 years, another murder case against a BJP MP from Azamgarh in UP for 25 years. As long as a case is pending, an MP can of course go on enjoying the ever increasing privileges and immunities of an MP. The power to make laws is in their hands, so they may well device ways to circumvent the latest Supreme Court ruling, too, as they have done in the past.

This continuing invincibility of the criminal class in our legislatures could explain the Aam Aadmi experiment's hold on popular imagination. They made silly mistakes when they were in power in Delhi. They had some immature leaders who invited disgust by trying to raid African houses and by making racial comments on southern nurses. On top of it all, the channels seem united in their attempt to discredit the AAP and its leaders. In spite of all this, the party scores points in opinion surveys and attracts distinguished professionals to its ranks. Clearly politicians who equate plundering with patriotism have made people so fed up that even the AAP, warts and all, strikes them as worth a try. There's a message here for the plunderers -- a message even the voluble TV channels cannot suppress.

Monday, March 10, 2014

When all hell broke loose over an elephant of the U caste: Memories of a lost India

R. Gopalakrishnan is a celebrated corporate leader -- celebrated as much for the positions he held in Unilever and then in Tata Sons as for the bestsellers he wrote such as The Case of the Bonsai Manager. As it turns out, he is also a gifted narrator of the laughable quarrels within his religious sect. "I happen to be a vadagalai", he says.

The simplicity of his sentences add to the impact of his tales. Example: "Among the Brahmins of Madras there were those who worshipped Shiva (called Iyers) and those who worshipped Vishnu (called Iyengars)". Then he goes on to describe how Iyengars were only one-fourth of Iyers in numbers, yet subdivided themselves into warring groups: Vadagalais, people from the north of Tamil country, who stressed Sanskrit and used the caste mark of U on their forehead and thenkalais, from the south, who used Tamil as well as Sankrit and wore a distinguishing caste mark that resembled a Y.

In the 1790s matters came to a head in the Devaraja Swamy temple in Kanchipuram, one of the three holiest Vaishnava centres. The issue was whether the temple markings especially those on the "ever-so-visible temple elephant" should be in U or Y style. The dispute went to court. In 1942, writes Gopalakrishnan, "the Maharaja of Travancore presented the temple with an elephant that bore a U mark. All hell broke loose". Some three centuries have passed, but the judicial and administrative systems avoided taking a decision, prompting Gopalakrishnan to say "this case must be the longest pending unresolved legal dispute in India".

Competing for that honour, though unmentioned by Gopalakrishnan, must be the dispute between the Orthodox and the Jacobite Syrian Christians of Travancore. The issue there was who should be the spiritual head of the denomination -- the pontiff in faraway Syria or a local dignitary. Many old churches remain locked under court orders. Robed bishops go on hunger strikes. Spirited followers come to blows in and outside churches. As Gopalakrishnan's ancestors wondered, was this what religion was all about?

Those ancestors, confined to their village of 3000 people, also wondered about the appearance of "a monstrous, puffing steam engine train". Reports said that one could go from Tiruvarur to Madras in one day. This was terrible. How could good Vaishnavites of Thanjavur perform sandhya puja and observe other acharams in such circumstances? Gopalakrishnan recalls these moments of nostalgia, delight and insights in his lovely little book, A Comma in a Sentence, presenting history through the experiences of six generations of his family over a 200-year time span. Perhaps the most moving passage in the book is his account of visiting his native village of Vilakkudi after a lapse of 30 years when most of his relatives had passed away. He just wanted to look at the old agraharam dwellings, recognise what was still standing. Then, suddenly, a bent old widow emerged, peered at him and exclaimed: "You look like Rajam's son. He had the same look and gait. You cannot be any other". Excited villagers then assembled around him for an emotional reunion.

Gopalakrishnan gives an account of how Brahmins dominated Tamil Nadu and much of Kerala at one time although their numerical strength was minuscule. This theme is taken up by another recent chronicler of reminiscences, G. Ramachandran (who retired as Finance Secretary, Government of India) in his Walking with Giants. When three decades of Congress rule ended in Tamil Nadu and the Dravida ideology was enthroned with its proclaimed stance against Brahmins, "the civil servants felt jittery", writes Ramachandran. "Many of them felt they would either suffer transfer from their present jobs or loss of face in inconsequential posts... A number of important posts in the Secretariat at the time were held by Brahmins". But their fears proved unfounded. Annadurai as Chief Minister was so fairminded that he helped many Brahmin officers. Those were days when politicians followed certain principles whatever their ideologies. And civil servants, too, tended to be honourable. Today we come across principles and honourableness only in the reminiscences of retired men.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Opportunists know which ships to desert, and which to enter for available crumps

There are two theories about rats leaving a sinking ship. One is that they have some mystic extrasensory power to anticipate impending disaster. The other is that, being burrowing creatures, they dwell in the bilge, the lowest reaches of a ship's innards; so they are the first to see leaking water and scurry up to presumed safety before all others.

Just as rats jumping ship is the surest indication that the ship is doomed, politicians leaving a party is a clear signal that the party is in trouble. Not that we need any such signal to know that the Congress Party is sinking. Nevertheless, there is a tale -- or should it be tail -- in the spectacle of traditional Congress allies scurrying about and hobnobbing with the Congress's sworn enemies.

Omar Abdullah is an example. The second most entrenched dynasty in our country, the Abdullahs are tied to the Congress for long. Omar is a personal buddy of Rahul Gandhi and related to a popular Congress family, the Pilots, by marriage. Yet he threatened to resign and snap ties with the Congress in protest against the Congress backing the creation of new administrative units in Jammu & Kashmir. That proferred reason apart, was he worried that identification with a Congress rejected by the people would make things uncomfortable for him when the BJP was on the offensive?

Sharad Pawar held a secret meeting with Narendra Modi and made sure that it did not remain secret. Subsequently he announced the continuation of his alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra. So why the secret-parleys drama? Notice that he played safe this time and took the Rajya Sabha route to remain a player in Delhi. Clearly the NCP knows that its popularity has declined following the spread of corruption across the leadership. Pawar's traditional hold in the sugarcane belt in western Maharashtra is all but gone, also because of corruption. The Shetkari Sanghatana remains strong and has chosen to ally with the BJP-Shiv Sena.

Sharad Pawar has spent a lifetime keeping himself on the winning side. Remember how he denounced Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins and quit the Congress, but made up when it came to sharing power. He knows that the Sonia camp would ditch him if an opportunity arose. (The latest hint is in the book by Pawar's fellow minister K. V. Thomas, who describes the Maratha leader as a "back-stabber". Don't dismiss the book because of its title, Sonia, The Beloved of Masses: In the Congress the level of sycophancy indicates the level of influence). Evidently, Pawar wants to keep his options open even as he signs up with the Congress.

So does Ram Vilas Paswan, the BJP's latest ally. Some retired IPS-IAS mandarins, a former army chief, a former CBI leader, a former ambassador, and sundry others have also jumped into the BJP, no doubt hoping for some crumps of office. A few brave ones have even joined the Congress in sheer self-denial.

The opportunistic calculations of allies are compounded by newfound dissensions within the Congress itself. Saying no to Rahul or Sonia would have been unthinkable for Congressmen till yesterday. But Jyotiraditya Scindia said no when Rahul asked him to become President of the Madhya Pradesh Congress. RPN Singh said no to the presidentship of the UP Congress. Corruption-tainted Congressmen whom Rahul ordered to be kept out of the Karnataka Cabinet found their way in. Even Suresh Kalmadi of Commonwealth Games shame remains a player. Rahul is reduced to wooing the likes of Mayawati and Lalu Prasad. So much for the Congress proclamations against corruption.

Some internet surveys show the Congress getting as low as 75 seats in Parliament. Rahul's own surveyors put the figure at around 110 seats. Could that be why veterans like Digvijay Singh and Sonia sidekick Kumari Selja preferred the safety of the Rajya Sabha to the dangers of elections? To paraphrase an Irish rock group's song: I'm scared, I'm scared on a sinking ship/ I've lost a lot of time, a lot of time on it/ I'll watch as it all goes down.