Monday, December 28, 2015

Only politicians can bring politicians to book; so, let's welcome the era of vendettas

For more than a year now the most overworked word in our national discourse has been "development". Not any longer. The most fashionable word today is "vendetta". Everybody is on the vendetta spree. Reigning ministers, retired ministers, sons and sons-in-law are all accusing their adversaries of carrying on vendetta. All sides fire away all the time. Cannons to the right of them/Cannons to the left of them/Cannons in front of them/Volley and thunder.

The great patriot Robert Vadra was among the first to express righteous indignation over the government's vendetta against his loved ones. Another great patriot, Kartik Chidambaram, ridiculed the Enforcement Directorate for searching some business premises said to be associated with him. His father, P. Chidambaram, a certified Grand Patriot, complained about his son being harassed because he was his son.

The advantage with patriots is that they genuinely belive that the public is an ass unaware of what is happening around them. The Modi government showed this tendency when it turned against the Aam Aadmi government in Delhi from day one. That party and its leadership had lost a great deal of credibility. With their inexperience and inner contradictions, they could have been left to stew in their own juices. But the BJP just couldn't stomach the idea that a puny little party defeated it in the elections in the nation's capital.

The harassment that began from the Lieutenant Governor's office gave the Kejriwal government a measure of public sympathy. Then the arrest and jailing of state ministers for one reason or another. This was a clear case of vendetta, giving the AAP government the halo of a pygmy being bullied by a giant. The pygmy hit back and the mighty Arun Jaitley himself was caught in the cross currents. The BJP's own Kirti Azad and Shatrughan Sinha getting into the fray, the picture is far from pretty for the ruling party.

We the public should be grateful for the culture of vendetta that has broken out. This is the only way we can get an insight into how our parties and leaders have been indulging themselves at our cost. Till recently they were observing a sort of "honour among thieves" code: You protect my family's shenanigans, I'll protect your family's. Now that they are exposing one another, tons of evidence about corruption and misuse of power will come out. Investigative journalism and sting operations can only go so far. It is politicians in power who have access to files. And files hold the secrets they want to hide. Hence the unprecedented raid on Delhi CM's office. (No raid, says BJP).

The likes of Robert Vadra and Kartik Chidambaram got so much wealth-making business because of their family connections and were so strongly protected by the system that only an opposition vendetta can bring them to justice. Among Congress chief ministers Haryana's Hooda was the one who faced the most allegations of helping the nation's son-in-law. Only a non-Congress party in power can investigate and bring him to book. If that is vendetta, so be it.

The National Herald case became sensational because it brought Sonia Gandhi and her son to court. There was poetic justice in this case which no one seems to have noticed. The NH might have been founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, but it was built and sustained as a newspaper by M. Chalapathi Rau, a doyen of Indian journalism. Nehru gave all the respect to MC, but the picture changed after Indira Gandhi started giving power to her clerks and stenographers. Among these shady characters was Yashpal Kapur. Raj Thapar (who, along with her husband Romesh, constituted a power couple in Delhi, Indira being one of their close friends) described how Yashpal "that oily cupbearer, was growing in stature by the minute and his corruption was becoming legend, and his ability to get Indira sign on the dotted line was becoming bazaar gossip". (All These Years, 1991).

This slimy operator became the manager of National Herald. He harassed and humiliated the venerable Chalapathi Rau and finally got rid of him, Indira backing him. In 1983 Chalapathi died in a wayside teashop in Delhi, unrecognised by anyone around.

For the inhumanity shown to Chalapathi, atonement was long overdue. It is fair that the heirs of the dynasty were forced to stand in court and ask for bail. Sonia Gandhi should have amended her bravado statement and said: "I am Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law, I'll pay for her sins and for the sins of her oily cupbearers".

Monday, December 21, 2015

Read about capital stocks, and Mother Earth, and the corruption of taste. And we'll know India

These are times when the best refuge is history and the counsel of the wise -- times when things that should not happen, like the killing of writers, happen, and the killers are not pursued; when men are lynched in the name of faith and the lynchers are not pursued; when hate speeches are made and the perpetrators are not pursued; when the CBI, caged parrot turned hunting falcon, is trained to select its victims with unerring political judgment; when Teesta Setalvad is hounded with the same diligence with which Russian-French-British fighter jets hound ISIS terrorists; when even Hardik Patel is silenced with sedition cases. Yes, these are times when we need reminders about the purpose of life and the aim of nations.

In the days of innocence the purpose of life was to attain peace and the aim of nations was to help this process. In today's dog-eat-dog world peace for some is war for others while self-respecting nations chase peace and progress by exploiting other nations. In India a clear aim for the nation has been clearly proclaimed: Development. But what is development and how does -- or should -- a nation achieve it?

One of the most original economist thinkers of our time, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, defined development by saying that a country had four capital stocks: Material goods, natural capital (water, soil, forest), human capital (health, education) and social capital (mutual trust, harmony). Simultaneous progress of these four is development. If GDP alone is chased, he said, it would be promotion of one capital and destruction of the others. That would not be development.

It is difficult to disagree with that theory. If water, soil and forests are degraded, health and education are neglected and mutual trust and harmony among the people are non-existent, then how can increased industrial production and trade bring about development? In India three of our four capital stocks are in dire circumstances while the fourth is still to achieve its potential despite the finance ministry's brave claims.

The Stiglitz argument resonates in the works of our own writers who have no particular grounding in economics but whose folk wisdom and familiarity with rural realities equip them with insights that are profoundly humanistic. Aware of India being a "country with 64,000 castes, 33,000 deities and 12 calendars," Chandrasekhara Kambar recently cautioned: "Something is fundamentally wrong. Our relationship with the earth has changed. The earth was our mother, but now we see her as a cheap woman who can earn us quick money".

Kambar, leading Kannada playwright-novelist, is unequalled in his portrayal of the village and folk traditions. His latest novel is called Shivana Dangura, Shiva's drum that is supposed to beat the final warning. His thesis is that industrialisation at the cost of agriculture is the way to destruction. "Agriculture is the origin of all our festivals. Our scriptures come from agriculture. Without agriculture we have no peace". He is alarmed at the migration of villagers to the cities and the conversion of agricultural land to factory sites. "What a family of ten peasants earns in a year after great toiling is much less than what an IAS officer earns in a month. What is the use of such an economy"?

Kambar does not say that industrialisation is bad. Basically he is asking what many intellectuals keep asking -- whether the Western model of capitalist-industrial growth is the model we must follow. "Let us have the modern world, their thoughts, their debates. But let us not lose that we have. Give the farmers education, give them health. Only then will we have a world that can protect us from destruction". Of course it will be too late for the thousands of farmers who have taken their own lives as a result of the policies our governments pursue.

Sensible governments would have paid more attention to the ideas of intellectuals if only because their knowledge base was as wide as their perspectives. But the intellectual has always been suspect in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats. This is more pronounced now with a constricted ideology, viscerally opposed to intellectuals, wielding power. What such forces do was summarised by Edward Gibbon as he described the degradation of the Roman Empire. "The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the Sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste".

Rome, 5th century. India, 2015.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Our greed brings Pralaya upon our cities. But we refuse to learn our lessons. So, what next?

According to many religious traditions, the end of the world will come through pralaya, the great flood. Bhagavatham talks about different kinds of floods -- Nithya pralaya or everyday death of life forms, Maimithika pralaya which destroys three worlds but leaves out the Sun and Prakruta pralaya or the ultimate one that wipes out all the worlds.

But we as a nation have advanced beyond the divine scheme of floods. We have repeatedly demonstrated our ability to bring on something close to Prakruta pralaya entirely on our own. There was nothing scriptural in the floods that devastated Mumbai in 2005, UP-Bihar-Orissa in 2011, Rishikesh in 2013 and now Chennai. It was all our own work.

Remember how, only two years ago, Uttarkhand virtually collapsed before unstoppable flood waters that triggered landslides? All of India rushed to its aid. But remember, too, how it happened. The Environment Ministry in Delhi had declared 135 km along the river as an eco-sensitive zone. The State Government immediately passed a resolution against it. The result was that hotels, resorts, residential blocks as well as hydropower projects came up along the river banks that were too weak to support them. The rains came, the earth crumbled and death and destruction swept the state into the record books.

All states in our country have a history of ignoring warning signals. All states have a record of promoting the real estate mafia which is in collusion with the political-bureaucratic mafia. That's why all states are in danger of falling victim to nature's fury. When greed is the principal motivator, concepts like planned development lose all meaning.

The capital city of Delhi itself is the prime example of how we hurt ourselves through unplanned development. When the World Health Organisation said that Delhi was the world's most polluted city, the Government found an easy solution to the problem: It just rejected the WHO report. Now locals have started complaining of lung diseases and alarming levels of pollutants in the air. So what's being done? Nothing other than the Aam Aadmi Government's odd-even day restrictions on cars.

It's no consolation that Beijing is just as notorious for its smog. Two factors put China in a superior position. First, they ruined the air but gained enormously in the bargain, becoming the world's second leading economy and acquiring military power even the US was forced to recognise. Secondly, they have shown that they can take remedial measures at the flick of a switch as it were. Last week they issued a Red Alert on pollution, forcing government agencies to keep 30 percent of their vehicles off the streets, other cars to follow odd-even days restrictions, schools to close on certain days and putting limits on factory works and constructions sites; even fireworks and outdoor barbecuing were banned. Officials declared that these measures reduced the pollutants by as much as a third.

The question is whether India has the will and the system to enforce such restrictions and to stop activities that force Nature to explode. So far there has been no hint of a new resolve either in Delhi or in the state capitals. Migration from rural to urban areas is a basic problem across India. It has become a problem because we neglect the agricultural sector and leave the rural population with little scope for improving their conditions while we invest urban living with both the economic advantages and the glitz that attract people.

In the process the urban centres grow wildly, violating not only nature's laws but also the rules and regulations set down by our governments. Marshlands are turned into construction sites while lakes are filled up for apartment complexes and office towers. Even the drainage system in inner cities are encroached by builders. The result is that the natural outlets for water to flow away are blocked. The Chennai airport and the Koyembedu bus terminal were built on former lake beds just as Bangalore's sprawling Kempe Gowda bus terminal. Nearly 30,000 acres of forest land in Karnataka disappeared in the last two years alone.

Four times in the last three decades Chennai was ravaged by floods. What lessons did we learn? What would be the consequences if a similar flood engulfs, say, Kochi or Mumbai? Even as Chennai recovers from its devastation, similar catastrophes stare us in the face, making all our talk of development meaningless. There will be no salvation unless we realise that life is not made up of only todays. There are also tomorrows.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Cabinet Secretary India lost. But KVR proved, yet again, that honesty was the best policy

'Walking encyclopaedia' is an epithet that has lost its sheen because of over-use. But it became an inevitable honorific in the case of K.V. Ramanathan because all those who came in contact with him were astonished by the encyclopaedic sweep of his knowledge. He could tell you in one sitting all you wanted to know about the steel industry, about male-female biases in the performing arts, about gas pipeline and the science of administration, about fertilisers and the nuances of musical raagas, lalit kala traditions and educational policies, and about M.S.Subbulakshmi. What's more, he kept no index to refer to. All facts, figures, background history and plus-minus assessments were stored in his memory. KVR was a phenomenon.

He was an IAS man. But don't hold that against him. He did what only a small minority of IAS officers cared to do -- sacrificed personal advantage for the sake of principles. But he went beyond the IAS, too. For nearly three years beginning 1988, he was the Chennai Resident Editor of The Indian Express. In 2003 he took over the editorship of the historically important Sruti music magazine following the death of its legendary editor N. Pattabhi Raman. He ensured that Sruti continued as the authoritative chronicler of, and guide to music and dance.

One battle he fought as an IAS officer threw light not only on his professional integrity but also on the way India was being re-calibrated for the benefit of the Gandhi family. This happened between 1978 and 1982 when he was Secretary in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers. The public sector Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers was setting up new generation gas-based fertiliser plants near Mumbai. Through a rigorous selection process characterised by many layers of evaluation, the Janata Government of the day selected the American company C.F. Braun as the technology supplier for the project. The World Bank which was financing the project concurred with the Government's evaluation. As Secretary of the Ministry concerned, KVR was the driving force behind the processes of negotiations and decisions.

No one paid attention at the time to the company that had lost out to C.F. Braun. But everyone did as soon as the Janata Government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power. For the losing company was Snamprogetti represented in India by a man who was to become India's most powerful businessman and political wire-puller for several eventful years -- the Italian go-getter Ottavio Quattrochi.

The Gandhis in power meant Quattrochi in power. Indira Gandhi went through a review process and had the C.F.Braun contract cancelled. Snamprogetti was appointed the technology supplier in its place. The World Bank withdrew from financing the project. Undaunted, the Government of India went ahead with plans to give Snamprogretti contract for six more fertiliser plants and that too, without competitive bidding.

Poor Ramanathan. What chance did an Indian have against an Italian in those days. And this was no ordinary Italian. During the Rajiv Gandhi years, he was the most influential broker between big business and the Indian Government. He was the middleman associated with the Bofors scandal. KVR was exposed to the power of this man. Pressure was brought on him by bigwigs known to be close to the Prime Minister to make the switch from C.F. Braun to Snamprogetti smooth and easy. But the Secretary of the Ministry would not budge from the position that the initial decision of the Government was taken on objective and technical principles and could not be changed for other considerations. He was of course over-ruled. When the Parliamentary Accounts Committee later grilled him about the Government's change of stance, he replied in a classic phrase. The shift from Braun to Snamprogetti was, he said, "for superior non-technical reasons".

The Indian tradition of punishing exemplars of integrity pursued KVR too. He was transferred to the Planning Commission. And in 1985 he was overlooked for the Cabinet Secretary's post which was his due both seniority-wise and on account of record in service.

Quattrochi progressed for a while, but then ran into trouble with criminal cases pursuing him. He was saved at every turn by India, on orders from above, making itself a butt of ridicule in foreign courts. K.V. Ramanathan, supremely at peace with himself, went on to serve his countrymen with pride and distinction. He died last month, but the moral his life taught us will live on -- that whatever needs to be achieved through unfair means will perish, that honesty, really, is the best policy.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Saudi-US policies led to IS. Address this fact or face the 'Islamisation of Europe' scare

Western powers have pooled their formidable military resources to punish ISIS for its terrorism. But they may not succeed because they are themselves the Frankensteins who produced the monster through the agency of Saudi Arabia. The founders of the Saudi dynasty began it all with policies of unspeakable cruelty justified in the name of religion. In the imperial games and oil politics that developed subsequently, Saudi Arabia became -- and continues to be -- an ally of the West and of countries that follow the Western model, such as India. Thus, the "civilised" world is trying to destroy ISIS while still remaining tied to the single biggest propagator of the basic ISIS premises.

In a moment of history in the 18th century Mohammed Ibn Saud, the emir (chief) of an agricultural settlement met Mohammed Abd al-Wahab, an Islamic reformer, in Central Arabia. Wahab, whose puritanical ideas had invited antagonism from other leaders of Islam, wanted protection. Ibn Saud, an ambitious desert warrior, found in Wahabism a way to legitimise his plans to conquer and expand. Wahab was intolerant enough to condemn as heretics all Muslims who did not follow him. But even he found Ibn Saud's ideas extremist, for the warrior chief believed in military conquests of the merciless kind, killing prisoners of war and slaughtering all civilians including women and children.

This legacy was the guiding influence behind Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the king who established Saudi Arabia formally in 1932 and was bewildered when unimaginable wealth started pouring into his pockets following the discovery of oil. He followed Wahabism with conviction and used as his chief instrument of domination the dreaded bedouin army called Ikhwan (Brotherhood). Thoroughly brainwashed before they were enrolled in the National Guard, Ikhwan fighters were known for the masks they wore and for their special techniques of ruthlessness such as slitting the throats of male captives. Now we know the historical background to those savage scenes of hooded IS men beheading kneeling victims.

Why did its Western allies not stop Saudi Arabia's Wahabi evangelism in its early days? Lavishly funded programmes turned tolerant and easy-going Muslim societies such as Malaysia and Indonesia into assertively religious entities. Even in India funds flowed in freely and burqa-wearing became an identity-flaunting practice that proclaimed a new attitude of defiance. Everyone know that it was Saudi money and Wahabi radicalism that caused this ominous transformation, but the mighty West and liberal leaders of Asia's liberal countries adopted an attitude of denial vis a vis Saudi Arabia.

And then came George Bush and his evil genius Dick Cheney. The way they destroyed Iraq violated all norms of civilisation. They didn't slit throats. They did worse. Remember the gut-wrenching prisoner abuse pictures from Bhagdad's Abu Ghraib jail -- US-UK soldiers standing on the naked bodies of Arab prisoners, urinating on them, dragging them with chains round their necks and taunting them with dogs? This didn't subjugate Iraqis. It infuriated them. It infuriated Muslims en masse. ISIS was the direct consequence of the Bush-Cheney war crimes in Iraq. That's why it has grown beyond a political or military phenomenon. It is now a philosophy, a culture.

It cannot be suppressed by French and Russian air forces or by American drones which can at best deal with the symptoms, not the causes. Failure to address the root problems will only provide another reminder of how civilisations fall. Referring to the Goths' sack of Rome in 410, Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "In the hour of savage licence, when every passion was inflamed and every restraint was removed, a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans.... Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by the opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent and the helpless".

A more scary warning has been sounded by a member of the Dutch Parliament. Speaking in New York recently, he cited facts and figures to argue that Muslim ghettos controlled by religious fanatics have multiplied in European cities and that "we might be in the final stages of the Islamisation of Europe".

Like America's Iraq war, the present Western offensive against ISIS in Syria may well be creating a religious divide, driving more Muslim youths into jihadi terrorism. Religious television in Arab countries influence minds more powerfully than Russian missiles can influence events. The question arises whether ISIS is in a win-win situation. But the more important question is whether those opposing it are in a lose-lose situation and if so, why.

Monday, November 23, 2015

IS terrorism has hurt Muslims, but IS won't stop. We are in the middle of World War Three

Irony of ironies: People worst affected by the Paris terror outrage are Muslims. The ISIS may be an aberration of Islam, but it shoots and beheads in the name of Islam, it gets finance and weapons in the name of Islam. Naturally, when its brainwashed jihadists machinegun innocent citizens at random, it is Islam that gets the blame.

This became clear within a day of the shootouts in Paris. The refugees flooding into Europe from Syria, most of them Muslims, now have their paths blocked. The cry for stricter border controls is threatening the Schengen concept of visa-free travel. Many states in the US have declared that they will not accept refugees.

Ground realities in Paris are more ominous. When the editorial staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were mowed down by terrorists last January, there were high-spirited appeals from important people in Paris for seeing the peace-loving Muslim majority as distinct from jihadi assassins. Not this time. The French feel betrayed this time. As President |Hollande said: "It is cruel to say that on Friday it was French who killed other French." The pride of the French in their Frenchness has been hurt.

The country's Prime Minister put it more bluntly when, the day after the terrorists struck, he called for "the expulsion of radicalised Imams." Some mosques in Paris have been desecrated. Muslims paying homage to the dead along with other Parisians have been mocked and challenged. The Muslim driver who was ferrying us around Paris failed to turn up when he was due two days after the carnage. He had taken ill, his employers explained.

It was eerie to be in France when Europe's biggest terrorist attack in a decade hit Europe's most glamorous city. So huge is the city of Paris that one or two locations can shudder and shake without other locations feeling anything. This time the shock waves spread instantaneously. Even a small group of students we visited had stories to tell. How some friends escaped miraculously -- and some perished in horror.

For a visitor from India what stood out was the way the Government, the civil society and the media handled the crisis. The Government made clearcut statements such as "France is at war" that reassured the people. There were no half-brained retaliation such as Delhi witnessed in 1984 against the Sikhs, and no half-brained leader trumpeting that when big trees fall, grass gets crushed. The most "provocative" call was for the arrest of all the thousands of citizens in France's notorious S Files, an index of people considered potentially dangerous to the state.

At the level of the people, the rise of resentment against Muslims is a new phenomenon in a country that has accommodated more Muslims than any other country in Europe. Apart from that, grief is expressed with such restraint that it somehow seems deeper. The flowers placed at the public square around the Republique monument had turned into a small mountain within two days, numerous candles glowing brighter than the fabled lights of Paris. A week later people were still spending hours there, quietly standing around, trying to suppress their sobs and not always succeeding. In restaurant windows riddled with gun shots, they had shoved in long-stemmed roses. Car windows sported the French tricolour in defiant pride.

The same dignity and pride marked the way television channels covered the news day after day. There were no national debates with half a dozen wise guys shouting all together, no one calling the terrorists names, no pronouncement on what the nation wanted to know, no snap judgements on all and sundry. There were no closeup shots of dead bodies and pools of blood. Instead, when four, then six and then eight and ten and more victims were identified by the authorities, the channels showed their bright and smiling faces, displayed their names and occupations -- and left it to the viewers to soak in the sadness of it all. There were numerous interviews -- not with politicians and party spokesmen, but with security experts and professors specialised in terrorism. The effort, consistently, was to give people information as distinct from political lectures.

We may have to wait indefinitely before we reach that level of maturity, if at all. Meanwhile, the news is not good. Most experts are of the view that terrorists will strike again. "It may not happen always, but violence will continue," as one put it. The Pope summed it up most poignantly when he said that the Third World War was on.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Naseeruddin Shah wins by saying how bad he was. But the fanatic fringe cannot understand

Reading Indian biographies is not exactly a soul-lifting experience because most of our autobiographers tell us how good they were. Naseeruddin Shah tells us how bad he was -- how conceited, arrogant and selfish, how easily given to drugs and women, how awful to look at. When his brothers went to IIT and the Defence Academy, he became a drifter, watching movies and plays. He couldn't get along with his father any more than he could get along with his first daughter. It is this brazen candour that makes And Then One Day: A Memoir a good read.

But he leaves the reader in no doubt about his natural fascination for acting and for memorising classical passages. While still in school he considered the possibility of becoming a professional actor "in spite of the face I had". A school teacher told him to read Macbeth and Hamlet because most people couldn't tell one from the other. He was quite impressive at school debates. "My speeches, peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, were well memorised, thoroughly rehearsed.... I invariably blustered my way to some prize but seldom did I know what I was talking about".

The beaten track is comforting. The ambition of middle class parents to see their wards becoming doctors and engineers is rooted in the traditional concepts of security and safety. When someone breaks the mould and strays into unpredictable areas like acting, fear grips the elders. The stage gripped Naseeruddin when he was still a school boy ( "it was the only place apart from the cricket field where I felt happy in my skin"). Everything that happened in his life was in one way or another shaped by this early fascination.

Despite his memorising capabilities, NS was a flop in school. He was used to being 50th in a class of 50 and left school in shame, having failed in Class 9. But he was never upset by such things because he had developed a capacity to imagine that he was someone else. There is philosophical substance in his observation that pretending to be someone else could be a source of great solace for actors. "It does seem like an aberration of behaviour to want to be someone else all the time, and I think it happens to people who, like me, can find no self-worth early in life and thus find fulfilment in hiding behind make-believe".

NS was surprised when he accidentally heard about a shool that taught drama. He managed to get into the National School of Drama in its heyday under Ebrahim Alkazi. Then he came to hear about the Film and Television Institute in Pune and he managed to get admission there when Girish Karnad was its director. He has interesting comments to make about the two schools, the gist of it being that it was at the FTII that he learned the basics of acting and also received opportunities to break into films.

NS has a way with words. He needs only a sentence, sometimes just a few words, to sum up personalities and situations. Here's his portrait of his school Director: "Girish Karnad, Rhodes scholar, towering intellectual, pioneer of the art film movement in Karnataka, committed theatre worker, the author of two authentic contemporary Indian theatre masterpieces, Tughlak and Hayavadana, and all-round Cool Cat more known for his writing than his acting". If that is too long, consider this self-assessment. "I kept to myself, and stumbled upon that part of me which revels in being alone". Or this conclusion: "The utter fearlessness, the astounding physical and emotional agility with which he performed is a quality Shammi Kapoor shared with Hindi cinema's certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar". You also come across throwaway phrases like "beautiful waterfall of a voice".

NS studied at Aligarh Muslim University because he couldn't get admission anywhere else. A chapter is titled "The Aligarh University absurdities". He describes the University as "a hotbed of communal conservatism if not downright fundamentalism". When he arrived at his hostel, even as he was unpacking, senior students called him for namaaz. He notes: "I felt miffed at being compelled to pray when at the moment I had nothing to pray for".

This is the man Shiv Sena fanatics criticised in the name of religion for attending the function at which Sudheendra Kulkarni was black-inked. Naseeruddin later said it was the first time he became aware of his religious identity. The compartmentalisation of India gives no chance for non-religious individuals to be non-religious.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The winner in Bihar won't be this party or that. It'll be caste -- to the detriment of democracy

India rotates round caste like the earth rotates round the sun. It is surprising that the founders of our Constitution did not recognise this when they laid down the hopeful rules of our model democracy. Look at two different cases - Karnataka and Bihar - and we will be dismayed by the extent to which democracy has become a shell under the impact of caste.

In Karnataka, the ruling Congress finally expanded the cabinet. A leading newspaper ran a 'Know Your New Ministers' feature, giving personal information of each of the four new cabinet members. Mentioned clearly was: "G. Parameshwara. Community: SC. A.Manju. Community: Vokkaliga. Manohar Tashildar. Community: Balija (OBC). Vinay Kulkarni. Community: Panchamashali Lingayat".

The newspaper did its duty by giving readers information that was locally vital. In the process it also showed that it is too simplistic to say that Karnataka is ruled by Vokkaligas and Lingayats. There are 116 types of Vokkaligas and at least 42 types of Lingayats in official listings. Now that the cabinet has recognised Panchamashali Lingayats, what of the Aradhya Lingayats, and Sadar Lingayats, and Banajiga Lingayats, and Nonaba Lingayats, and Jangama Lingayats, and all the others? There are so many castes and so many subcastes that no cabinet will be able to satisfy all of them unless we have 100-member and 200-member cabinets. When religion and caste become the basis on which political policies are decided, democracy goes out and castocracy comes in.

Bihar is of course the undisputed standard-bearer of casteism. It conveys nothing if we say that 82.7 percent of Bihar's population is Hindu, for 'Hindu' is a hazy notion, so hazy as to be immaterial. To make sense we have to say that Backward Castes make up 51 percent and Dalits 16 percent. Against that 67 percent of the population, the forward castes account for only 15 percent while Muslims upstage them with nearly 17 percent. These are the primary numbers around which politics, elections, power, party formations and ambitions revolve.

The BJP's dilemma was that its traditional base in Bihar rested on the upper castes -- Bhumihars, Brahmins, Rajputs and Kayasthas. What could that minority do against the Yadavas, the Dalits and the Kurmis who were handling power for more than a couple of decades? That explains the BJP's desperate efforts to present itself as a champion of the backward castes and the equally desperate efforts by leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav to consolidate their hold on the backward votes.

The BJP pushed several backward and Dalit leaders to the forefront in this election. Its electoral rhetoric was also highpitched on the virtues of development for the backward. But it was trying to do what was impossible, ideologically and tactically. How can you hoot for India and Pakistan in the same cricket match? The BJP's dilemma was clear from the fact that it was unable to name a chief ministerial candidate because the obvious choice, Sushil Kumar Modi who had been deputy chief minister and whose capabilities as a thinking leader had found recognition beyond party boundaries, was an OBC and projecting him would alienate the forward castes.

As for Nitish Kumar, he fortified himself by inventing brand new types of backwardness. He expanded the OBC idea to include a new EBC idea (Extremely Backward Community) and he expanded the Dalit idea to include a Mahadalit Caste. More castes of course meant more privileges, more concessions, more benefits -- and more votes. This process also produced phrases the internal contradictions of which were hilarious. The "upper backward" like Yadavas and Kurmis were in power till now. The "lower backwards" like Badadhi, Kahar, Kewat, Kumhar, Lohar, Tatwa, Teli, Sanav, etcetera could now hope for some crumps of office. What an exciting game.

The excitement is enhanced by the fact that what goes up can come down. The Patels in Gujarat were quite high in the social-economic ladder till not so long ago. But their traditional businesses declined and agriculture became less and less rewarding, so the phenomenon known as Hardik Patel came up demanding reservations and quotas for Patels and classification as backward. As if on cue the Brahmins of Gujarat have also demanded reservation for them in government jobs and educational institutions. Haryana's Jats, Kerala's Namboothiris and Tamil Brahmins, every one wants reservations. Everyone has realised that in India to be backward is the way to go forward. "Democracy is not just a form of government. It is a form of society", said Ambedkar. Poor Ambedkar.

Monday, November 2, 2015

How Muthuswamy Dikshitar invented fusion music -- and bhakti's gain became Indian Army's loss

In Carnatic music, Tyagaraja's position is so exalted that only specialists spend time studying the other luminaries of the Trinity. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar demands attention at the popular level for he did unconventional things in a conventional world. His living for a while in Varanasi absorbing North Indian culture and his composing in Sanskrit when Tyagaraja and Shama Sastri stuck largely to Telugu might have been no more than pursuit of personal preferences. But there was daring in his invention of a new genre, Fusion Music, more than a century before it became fashionable.

Ever the traveller, the innovator, the experimenter, Dikshitar was attracted by the unfamiliar but attention-grabbing music played by military bands in the garrisons near his residence and in Fort St. George, the seat of the colonial government which he often visited. The bands played marching songs and folk beats from Ireland and Scotland and Wales. They had the power of all folk and military music -- to make the listener keep pace with the beat, humming and tapping.

Dikshitar liked the lilting rhythm, the compelling beat and the sheer simplicity of the music. He kept the tunes exactly as they were, discarded the English and fitted Sanskrit lyrics into the tunes. This was towards the closing phases of his life (1775-1835). The Carnatic world of the time paid no attention of course. Traditional to a fault, orthodox to a fault, it could only look at "Indo-colonial" music as a travesty.

In less capable hands it might indeed have been a travesty. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar turned it into something of a musical phenomenon. Not only did his lyrics fit the tunes perfectly, they retained the integrity of the Carnatic tradition by adhering to such intricate details as correctly placed pauses and precise syllable lengths. This made the nottuswara (a delightful fusion word, nottu being Tamil for English musical notes) worthy of scholarly attention. Vidwan T. M. Krishna, scholar as well as vocalist, has done extensive research into the history and significance of nottuswara sahitya. Last week he released a CD containing 36 of Diskhitar's "beat music" songs.

He did it with elan, heading a chorus of a few dozen children and singing the numbers with them. The children outperformed him, though. He needed written scripts in hand to be able to recite the lines.With no such aid, the children belted out the lines from memory, song after song after song -- and with the precision in enunciation that Sanskrit demanded.

There is poetic justice in a daring composer of the past getting as interpreter and promoter a daring musician of the present. T. M. Krishna is a ranking classical singer of the new generation. That has not prevented him from criticising the newfound tendency to turn music into a trade. He opted out of the Chennai "season" (performing during the season is the ultimate stamp of recognition in the Carnatic universe), saying the music had disappeared from the festival, that money and middlemen now decided who should perform and who should not. Many aficionados had already been saying that at many venues the idli-vada was the real attraction.

Small wonder if Krishna feels an affinity with Muthuswamy Dikshitar who, two centuries ago, walked into areas where others feared to tread. Apart from the nottuswara CD, Krishna has also brought out a series of three CDs (one more due soon) of what are called Audio Books. This is part of a project to produce a full archival repertoire of Dikshitar's kritis. Projects as ambitious as this require commitment of a special kind.

One aspect of nottuswara music, however, limits its appeal. In keeping with Carnatic music's unwavering thematic uniformity, Dikshitar's Sanskrit lyrics have bhakti as their solitary subject. Military/folk tunes do not quite jell with bhakti and vice versa. Irish "snaps" for example inspired Dikshitar with their lilt, speed and contagious rhythm. Those qualities serve the purpose of snaps very well, because the purpose is to enliven drinking sessions at popular gatherings. But Dikshitar's purpose, as the purpose of all Carnatic composers, was to liven up bhakti.

This can lead to embarrassing dichotomies. The Rakes of Mallow, for example, is a famous Irish pub song with lyrics that are delightfully subversive. But in Diskhitar's hands dancing, drinking/Breaking windows, cursing, sinking became Vande Meenakshi tvam sarasija. If Dikshitar had switched from bhakti to patriotism for a moment, the Indian Army would have been marching to a nottuswara version of kadam, kadam budhaye ja. Well, we can't have everything, can we?

Monday, October 26, 2015

The intolerance debate and the game of pretence. Why is a 5000-year heritage under threat?

Suddenly last week our country reverberated with voices of wisdom. Arun Jaitley's was the clearest when he spoke of "extremely disturbing trends" of intolerance and vandalism. That was precisely what victims of intolerance, social workers, newspaper editorialists, writers, artists and other segments of the powerless have been talking about for at least six months. During those months, Jaitley and fellow policy makers had dismissed them with denials and accusations of ulterior motives.

So why the sudden change of stance? The answer is that there is no change of stance. Note that Jaitley's righteous indignation was not over the murders, the lynchings, and the hate speeches that have been mocking our civilisation, but over cricket. Lynchings are of course "unfortunate". But Shiv Sena vandals barging into BCCI offices called for condemnation at a specially called press conference by the most important cabinet minister.

A charade seems to be under way in Delhi. When Jaitley was asked about intolerance and vandalism by his own party's ranking leaders, his response showed indulgence towards the leaders. He said: "The party president called the three gentlemen [the hate speech specialists]. He very firmly told them that their statements are not appreciated by the party at all. They have been put on notice. Therefore I am sure they will correct themselves".

In fact nobody was put on notice by anybody. Within hours of Jaitley's assurance, the three gentlemen corrected, not themselves, but Jaitley. Sanjeev Balyan said he had met Amit Shah for an appointment "fixed many days ago". Sakshi Maharaj said: "I am a five-time MP. To say that I was reprimanded or scolded is not responsible reporting". Sangeet Som, who had warned of Hindu retaliation in the context of the Dadri lynching uproar said: "There is no question of reprimand. Reprimanding happens when you have done something wrong. He [Shah] is our chief and I meet him regularly".

This is not the language of gentlemen who have been very firmly put on notice. These are words of determined men who are confident that they have backing from above. These are words carrying the warning that they will continue doing what they have been doing. Arun Jaitley's concern about his beloved cricket will continue, too, because the gentlemen of the Shiv Sena have threatened more action.

The really disturbing trend is that a game of pretence appears to be on. While the establishment puts out news that it is for tolerance, it does nothing to check the demagogues of intolerance. In a move typical of the game of pretence, Panchjanya publishes an article saying that the Dadri lynching would not have happened without provocation and that the Vedas mandate the killing of those who slaughter cows. (Only those who are ignorant of the Vedas will put it that way). After publishing the essay justifying lynching, the editor says the writer was only expressing his independent views. In Himachal Pradesh a driver was lynched and in Jammu & Kashmir another was burned with petrol, mobs in both cases expressing their independent views no doubt.

The truth is that intolerance in the name of religion and attendant violence have become the dominant features of life in our country. This is so damaging to India, internally and in terms of its standing in the world, that the President had to caution against communalism twice in a fortnight. Reminding the country that Indian civilisation had survived for 5000 years chiefly because of its tolerance and by accepting dissent, he said: "Humanism and pluralism should never be abandoned".

There is no indication that the President's words have gone home. Even the tattoo of a goddess on an Australian's body is enough, according to official patriots of the day, to see Indian culture under threat. Spokesmen of the BJP said the party had nothing to do with that episode. Of course it did not; no BJP office issued instructions that foreigners with goddess tattoos should be attacked. This is where the game of pretence has to end. Without instructions, an atmosphere of intolerance and vandalism has grown in the country, leaving communal zealots free to kill and attack with immunity. It is this atmosphere that is diminishing India and, if not corrected in time, may well dismantle India.

In his criticism of the Supreme Court decision to retain the power to appoint judges, Arun Jaitley said, correctly, that democracy would be in danger if it came under the tyranny of the unelected. It is facing greater danger under the tyranny of the elected.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Too many authors, too many patriots? No problem. Black paint helps meet any challenge

Perhaps we need not work ourselves into a fluster over Shiv Sena's black-paint abhishek of Sudheendra Kularni. Perhaps it was a pre-arranged operation by the two parties, with the collaboration of former Pakistan Minister Kasuri and the publisher of his autobiography. Perhaps it was a script that panned out exactly as the players wanted -- to the benefit of every participant.

Consider the facts of life, literary and political. Both fields have become complicated with too much competition. The book market has become so crowded that selling even good books has become a problem. So we can imagine what it is to sell autobiographies, the mighty domes through which politicians and generals justify their actions and glorify their names. You need a special kind of genius to sell bubbling ego.

The situation is the same in politics. There are too many parties around, all of them insisting on serving the country. When America has in effect only two parties and Britain only three (two-and-a-half, to be precise), India has 1760 registered parties. With so many recognised patriots determined to work for the development of the country, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Again, you need a special kind of genius to convince voters that your patriotism is better than the patriotism of other patriots.

The challenge is to invent ways to forcibly attract public attention. Unfortunately everyone cannot be a Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin group of companies, who thinks up the weirdest publicity ideas to sell his products and carries them out himself. Minister Kasuri cannot bungee-jump from the top of the Kutb Minar as Branson jumped off the top of a Las Vegas hotel to celebrate Virgin Atlantic's first flight to America. Can even the new-gen Thackeray drive a tank along Marine Drive as Branson did in New York's Fifth Avenue to publicise a new cola drink he had introduced?

Lacking Branson-style chutzpah, our writers, politicians and their backers need to invent other means to sell their wares. And we have to admit that, by modern marketing principles, consecration by black paint is an effective procedure. To see the brilliance of the idea, we only have to look at how every participant gained. The Kasuri book could not have dreamed of a more dramatic blast of publicity. His publisher must be giggling all the way to the bank, even if he has to pay commission to the other players who made it all possible.

The Shiv Sena gained by becoming the cynosure of all eyes for a dazzling moment. Bal Thackeray had succeeded because his preliminary objective was economic, not communal: He set out to oust South Indians from Bombay so that middleclass jobs would go to local Maharashtrians. It was when that movement ran out of steam that he turned to a communal platform, with demonstrative symbolism against Pakistan as a headline-grabber.

If that took the Shiv Sena forward a little, it was because of the stature Bal Thackeray had managed to achieve and the marketplace politics of BJP interlocuters like Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde. With all of them gone and with Uddhav Thackeray never achieving stature, it has been an uphill task for the Shiv Sena. The Kasuri book gave them a golden opportunity. They would have invested not more than Rs 1250, the cost of one liter of Asian paint. And look at the dividend they got in terms of not only publicity but also of some badly needed clout.

Perhaps the biggest gainer was Kulkarni himself. First of all, the painted face gave him a gush of energy as he spoke animatedly before the cameras. He looked inspired as never before. More importantly, like the Shiv Sena, Kulkarni too was at a loose end. Much of his life was spent chasing some goal he did not quite seem to know; hence the somersaults he performed during his career. He started out as a communist, committed enough to become a member of the Marxist Party. Then he switched to the other extreme and joined BJP. Then he left the BJP too. Three years later he rejoined the BJP. In the course of all this toing and froing, he also spent an interlude in Tihar in the 2011 cash-for-votes scam. A busy man by any account, but still chasing that final goal of importance and influence and perhaps a bit of power thrown in. That tin of paint has pushed him to centre stage. The journey ahead should now be easier.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Dog, man's best friend, has turned into a problem. Others control it with laws. Why can't we?

We can understand the controversy over beef; it is a subject intertwined with spirituality, faith and nowadays fanatic intolerance. But dogs? In no culture is the dog an object of canonical homage. Yet dogs arouse human passions other animals don't. Is this because they often show loyalty and intelligence that are rare in the animal kingdom? Dogs' faithfulness to their masters is matched by owners' devotion to their dogs. At one end we have Queen Elizabeth proudly strolling with her pet Corgis saying "my Corgis are family". At the other extreme we have old men and old women in many countries who, though homeless themselves, live with a dozen, sometime two and three dozen, dogs each. Love of dogs is a great leveller.

But the romantic, man's-best-friend image of dogs has taken a beating in recent years. In India this is the result of the stray dogs population increasing perilously. There are said to be 35 million strays in India. In Delhi there are 3.1 lakh and 500 dog-bite cases are reported every day.

These are alarming figures in a country where rules about maintaining dogs are inadequate and their enforcement incompetent. Even the owners of pets have it easy in our country because law-makers are one-sided partisans like Maneka Gandhi. For them protection of animal rights supersedes protection of human rights. Therefore they dismiss it as a minor offence if a pet does not wear a metal tag displaying its licence details; in London the owner of such a dog will have to pay a fine as high as £ 5000. In New York City owners walk their dogs with special paper bags in hand -- to scoop up from the footpath their pets' poop. Many cities have laws that hold owners accountable if their dogs' barking creates a nuisance in public places.

The challenge posed by stray-dogs is altogether different. The compulsion to scavenge and survive on their own take many strays back to the instincts of dogs in the wild. If there is no garbage dump with enough food, a stray can run into a house and attack a child playing on the verandah. Many gruesome incidents of this kind have been reported, with photographs, in Kerala, hence the rise of public opinion in that state in favour of drastic action.

Many countries have resorted to drastic action while many others have experimented with other means. In a single incident in China recently 45,000 dogs were beaten to death. In Serbia 40,000 were killed in one go, in Rio de Janeiro 30,000. In Coimbatore two weeks ago 50 strays were found poisoned; there were 100,000 dog-bite cases in Tamil Nadu last year.

Most cities in the West strongly encourage neutering (castrating) strays with a view to reducing their numbers. Some municipalities in England add a surcharge to the license-fee of even pet dogs that are not neutered. Jaipur is often cited as an example to follow in this regard. Beginning 1994 NGOs and local authorities joined hands for a programme to sterilise and vaccinate all bitches. As a result, officials say, the stray population came down by 28 percent and the number of rabies cases became negligible. More than 3000 dogs are sterilised every year. The programme succeeded, say experts, because the sterilisation was done on a large scale. "Unless 70 percent dogs in an area are sterilised, the population will keep growing", said the chairman of the Animal Welfare Board.

Emotionalism plays tricks with us. The latest US Agriculture Department figures show that India remains the world's largest beef exporter (though, in America, beef includes buffalo as well). At the same time angry protests drowned the suggestion that we should develop dog farms, like poultry farms, to export dogs to China and Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Polynesia and Vietnam where the meat is prized.

That leaves Mahatma Gandhi as our court of appeal. In 1926 textile king Ambalal Sarabhai killed some 60 dogs roaming in his mill premises in Ahmedabad. In remorse he went to Gandhi who approved of his action. In repeated writings in Young India, he advocated a municipal bylaw authorising the destruction of unowned dogs. "There should be no stray dog", he said, "even as we have no stray cattle".

Maneka Gandhi said that the ratio of dog bites would go up with killing of dogs. When a police officer asked her about the scientific validity of that claim, she responded by getting angry.

Who should we follow - Maneka Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi?

Monday, October 5, 2015

As IS terror grows, Russia bombs Syrian targets; the world is changing -- at India's doorsteps

When 10 million Bangladeshis poured into India to escape from the brutalities of Pakistan's army, war followed. When 12 million Syrians were uprooted and 4 million of them fled across unwelcome borders to get into Europe, a good number perishing in the seas on the way, no liberation war broke out because too many players were working at cross purposes. But with the rise and rise of the Islamic State, its barbarous beheadings and proclaimed goal of conquering the globe, the dynamics are changing. Last week Russia began aerial bombardment of Syrian targets, its first military intervention outside the old Soviet territory in 35 years. Earlier, to underline the importance of Russia's new putsch, Vladimir Putin addressed the UN for the first time in a decade and asked for a UN-backed coalition to fight IS terror. The world is changing. Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

President Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's ruthless dictator, would have been thrown out along with Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Gaddafi when Arab masses rose against their tyrants in 2011. But he survived because Iran backed him. Because Shiite Iran backed him, Sunni Saudi Arabia opposed him. Because Saudis opposed him, America opposed him. Because America opposed him, Russia backed him. Because the people opposed all of them, the IS gained strength.

The growth of Taliban and then of the IS was the direct consequence of flawed US policies. Never able to grasp the nuances of local forces at play, America helped build up Osama bin Laden himself in its anxiety to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. That short-term goal was achieved, but the price paid was horrendous as the collapse of New York's twin towers showed.

Learning nothing, the erratic George Bush launched the Iraq war on false pretences. Again the immediate aims were met -- US oil companies got control of Iraqi oil and Saddam Hussain was disposed of. But at what cost? Today Iraqi oil is the main income source of IS, fetching $ 8 to 10 million a month. More ominously, terrorism has grown as an ideology, making it a religious duty for many. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put it best when he told the UN that America's two wars in the region gave "terrorists an excuse for the justification of their crimes".

Rouhani played a part in preparing the region for change. He recalibrated Iran's civil nuclear programme and thereby won the support of Barack Obama who was till then the main campaigner for sanctions against Iran. Obama began negotiations with Iran despite open opposition from long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. After that, it was not too difficult for America to realise that perhaps Iran's stand on Syria was also worth a second look.

Two factors helped change the US position. First, it was clear that even as Iran supported Assad, it had worked out plans to hold territory and influence events if Assad fell. In other words, Iran's support to Assad was tactical, not ideological. Russia's approach was the same -- that getting rid of Assad could wait because getting rid of IS terrorism was the first priority. Secondly, US policies were not producing the desired results. In fact they were counterproductive. A $ 500 million programme to train and equip rebels against Assad got stuck because many of the rebels passed on US supplied tanks and weapons to IS in return for safe passage out of the war zone.

Against this context Russia's military move appeared brilliantly timed and politically astute. Two years ago Obama was so antagonistic to Russia that he cancelled a meeting with Putin saying that there was nothing to discuss. In UN last week, he talked with Putin at length. Putin followed up quickly by ordering aerial bombardment of Syrian targets. Russian ground troops have reached Syria and an airbase has been set up.

Russia strengthened its political stand by declaring that its primary aim was to block IS fundamentalists. No one dared oppose this position since many Muslim countries themselves have been shaken by the extremism of the IS. Putin's intervention was successful enough to make the US concede that perhaps Assad could be allowed to stay on as an interim measure while the IS threat was tackled as the immediate priority.

Russia's entry has made Syria the focus of big power attention. China has stepped in, too, sending aerial equipment in support of Russia's air fleet. A Chinese naval vessel has also entered Syrian waters.

Where does India stand in this shifting scenario?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Overkill will only fetch sympathy for dynasty; pettiness in politics is counter-productive

A. Surya Prakash showed how to do it, today's culture vultures are showing how not to do it. In a well-researched analysis in 2009, Surya Prakash told us how at least 450 government programmes involving public expenditure of lakhs of crores of rupees had been named after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, dragging in Jawaharlal Nehru, too, for good measure.

Consider just a few of the projects he listed and we can see the enormity of what was going on. The Rajiv Gandhi Vidyutikaran Yojana (rural electrification programme) involving Rs 28,000 crore; the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission with even higher allocation per annum; the Indira Awas Yojana to house the poor with allocations of Rs 7000-10,000 crore per year; the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Plus, the Rajiv Gandhi Breakfast Scheme in Pondicherry, the Indira Gandhi Calf-Rearing Scheme in Andhra Pradesh, the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Vivah Shagun Yojana in Haryana, not to mention national parks, universities, airports, power projects and metro stations all named after the family. The idea was clear -- to let the people know that their drinking water, their old-age pension, their breakfast and their electricity were all by courtesy of Indira, Rajiv and to a lesser extent Jawaharlal Nehru.

This was a crude approach that actually worked against the Gandhi family in public relations terms. Although sycophants -- and that included the entire Congress establishment -- kept up a chorus about the family's mass appeal, the silent majority resented family rule distorting democracy. The proprietory style in which Indira and Rajiv treated India eventually worked against them. It is no secret that popular disgust with the dynastic system was a major factor behind the BJP's landslide victory last year.

The BJP's supporters should have left the dynasty -- and the Congress -- to stew in their own juice. Unable to rise to any level of credibility, Rahul Gandhi would have presided over the liquidation of his dynastic empire. But the Sangh parivar showed neither the political wisdom nor the tactical sense to let that happen. Instead, in a show of overkill, it began taking Nehru out of the Nehru Library and withdrawing postage stamps featuring Indira and Rajiv. This is a crude display of pettiness that could well bring a sympathy wave in favour of the Gandhis.

The problem with fringe fanatics (in any party) is that they see the world in stark shades of black and white. The different greys in between are what life -- and politics -- is all about. The fringe fanatics miss this and end up scoring self-goals. It is a mistake, for example, to tar Jawaharlal Nehru with the same brush used to tar Indira and Rajiv. Nehru made some grave mistakes -- Kashmir, China border -- but no one can deny the historic fact that he played a central role in laying the foundations of modern India. Nothing is lost by leaving the Nehru Museum and Library undisturbed, just as the Kennedy Library or the Clinton Library are left alone. Let them create other libraries to celebrate other heroes, as mature societies do. Nehru is too big to be erased by a junior culture minister beholden to lesser gods.

In the short term, Nehru may lose because the moment belongs to those who would abridge India rather than let it grow robustly in a robustly growing world. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma left nothing to the imagination when he recently said: "We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored... We have 39 institutions under the Culture Ministry, including grand museums and the National School of Drama... We will totally revamp all these institutions".

It's power, not knowledge, that make these men talk so authoritatively about what they do not know. They do not know that Indian culture and civilisation achieved greatness by absorbing the best in others. Narrow-minded definitions were unknown to the Indian cultural tradition -- until they became the political ammunition of a politically motivated movement. What is there for Sharma to "cleanse" in the National School of Drama where Ebrahim Alkazi, an Arab Indian, achieved magic by staging Andha Yug, among other classics. Alkazi did more to sustain Indian culture than the self-appointed culture guardians who are busy burning books and shooting independent thinkers. Dreams take years to build -- and only days to destroy. The consolation is that Indian civilisation is too great to be destroyed by passing philistines.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Whereas all things belong to MPs, MLAs and MLCs, now therefore, we must take them as our kings

WHEREAS the Government of Karnataka has circulated a draft bill allegedly to remove the colonial-era dress code of pants and shoes in private clubs,

AND WHEREAS the colonial rule is unpopular with Indians in general and the Tamil Nadu Government handled it in a mature manner by simply banning the ban on veshti/dhoti,

AND WHEREAS the Karnataka Government is using the veshti ban as an excuse to pursue ulterior motives, namely to turn the said clubs into playthings of politicians and their hangers-on,

NOW, THEREFORE, in order to let the people know of politicians' plans to appropriate private clubs to themselves, and to warn them that this is the first of several appropriation moves that will follow if people are not alert against the new dhoti politics, let it be known that the real bill the State Government wishes to pass in the sixty-sixth year of the Republic of India is as follows:

1.Short title. (1) This Act may be called The Karnataka Belongs to Politicians (Removal of All Restrictions and Conferment of All Rights to Go Anywhere and Demand Anything) Act 2015. (2) It shall come into force with retrospective effect from August 15, 1947. More important, it shall never expire.

2.Definitions. In this Act, unless the state decrees otherwise, some old definitions shall be changed in order to preserve our culture, custom and heritage. Accordingly,

(a)'Government' shall mean the repository of all wisdom, not subject to questioning by anyone under the Sun.
(b)'Public Places' shall mean and include any place the political leaders of the land wish to occupy, not excluding clubs, parks, lakes, public roads, private homes, kitchens and bathrooms, whether incorporated or not.
(c)'People' shall henceforth mean those with the right to rule and to whom everything belongs. Those who were hitherto known as people, such as tax payers and voters, shall henceforth be known as Census Digits.

3.Removal of restriction of entry. This clause is retained as in the original bill because it was the crux of the whole matter, namely that no person wearing a veshti (dhoti) reflecting Kannada culture shall be denied entry into any public space.

4.Allotment of membership to privileged persons. (1) In so far as the veshti clause has won the approval of all patriotic persons, the bill can now proceed to its real intent and purpose which is that under this Act, no membership shall be denied to MPs, MLAs, MLCs or to persons with meritorious contributions such as IAS and KAS luminaries, police officers and police drivers who beat up club security guards who ask for their car pass. The rights of these meritorious "people" shall prevail over perceived rights of Census Digits. (2) No club shall issue any circular, instruction or guideline so as to prescribe unreasonable membership fee on "people", anything above one rupee per annum being defined as unreasonable.

5.Public places other than Clubs. Since the Government considers it but fair that the rules and regulations applicable to private clubs should not be denied to private hotels and restaurants, all five-star establishments are required under this Act to make rooms and dining table reservations available on demand to MPs, MLAs, MLCs and the luminaries, officers and drivers mentioned in Clause 4 above. No unreasonable fee shall be levied for this service, anything above one rupee for a hotel room and five rupees for a five-course dinner with French wine being considered unreasonable for purposes of law.

6.Abolition of Private Places. Notwithstanding any rule or bylaw of welfare associations, MPs, MLAs, MLCs, the luminaries and drivers mentioned in Clauses 4 and 5 above shall have the absolute right to make use of the gym, swimming pool and other facilities of any housing welfare association in the state, without paying membership or usage fee. Residents who pay maintenance charges should consider it a privilege to have MPs, MLAs, MLCs, IAS-IPS officers and their drivers as freeloading guests in their private premises.

STATEMENT OF OBJECTS AND REASONS. It has been the noble tradition of India to be ruled by kings and nawabs. Under democracy, modern kings and nawabs are known as MPs, MLAs, MLCs, IAS-IPS officers and their honourable drivers. It is the privilege of Census Digits to surrender all they have to the aforementioned kings and nawabs. This way our state's progress will be guaranteed, the shameful power cuts will end, Bengaluru's potholes will be reduced from three million to one million and not a drop of Cauvery water will have to go to Tamil Nadu. Cheers!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Indian classics born again. It also reminds us of the lack of excellence in our campuses

Indian classical poetry ranks among the best that mankind has produced. As symbolic of a civilisational pinnacle, Kalidasa has only Dante coming near him. If we do not hear Allana Peddana's name in this context, it is because there has been no translation of this Telugu classicist in any language. Now an English translation has appeared bearing the imprint of the Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press.

What is particularly charming about Peddana is his adherence to the accepted norms of the time (around 1520). While his stylistic splendour -- of which little seems lost in translation -- puts him in a class of his own, his focus is on the gods and the king. Krishnadevaraya, king of the imperial state of Vijayanagara, was a writer himself. So the chemistry between the patron and the poet was particularly productive.

Peddana's Manucharitramu (The Story of Manu) opens with praise to the gods, each stanza asking Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Saraswati to "give Krishnaraya, our king, all the good things he wants". Then he pays homage to good poets, mentioned by name, and attacks bad poets, mercifully unnamed. The attack itself is merciless:

A rogue poet, for want of any other means
to feed his family,
Steals, in desperation, from the vast forest of
palm-leaf manuscripts,
But scholars catch him at it, his poetry
loses its charm,
and he is put in the stocks under the
gaze of the king.

Peddanna also described, with poetic effect, how the king commissioned him to do the work. "They say", he quotes the king as saying, "that out of the seven kinds of children a person might have, the only one that lasts is a poem". So he proceeds to create that child, each chapter beginning with accolades to the king and ending with the author's signature statement: "The great poem called The Birth of Svarochisha Manu was written by Allasani Cokkayamatya's son Peddanarya, known to all as the 'Creator God of Telugu Poetry'...." What self-confidence! What conviction in the worth of one's own creation! It looks like he was stating an accepted fact, for no one challenged him.

It is only when we actually delve into books like this that we realise the grand concept behind the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) and the intellectual rigour with which scholarship is employed to give it shape. Anand Mahindra donated $10 million to Harvard and Ratan Tata $ 50 million, the largest ever contribution in Harvard's history. By comparison, Rohan Murty's donation was a paltry $ 5.1 million. But the conceptualisation behind it made it spectacularly rich.

Mahindra's funding went to the University's Humanities Centre, facilitating its seminars, conferences and other academic pursuits. Tata's money was used to build new offices and residential quarters for the Harvard Business Centre. But the Murty donation ensured Harvard's involvement in bringing India's ancient literary treasure house to the attention of the world, a gain for India as well as a gain for Harvard.

The meticulousness with which the planning is done -- contentwise and designwise -- is truly impressive. Every work is a fresh translation, commissioned specially for the series. The type fonts are also specially created to ensure neatness and readability. There are Murty Hindi typeface, Murty Gurmukhi, Murty Telugu. We are told that these newly developed fonts will be made available to the public for non-commercial use.

The scholarship assembled for the series is notable too. We can see that there are dedicated scholars, sitting in their university research rooms, pouring over rare texts and acquiring expertise to translate from Pali and Punjabi and Telugu into English, their umbrella being a university designation, such as Lecturer in Buddhist Literature, or Professor of the Practice of Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages. We feel sad that there is no university in India that provides the environment for such scholarship to flourish. Occasionally a D.D. Kosambi would rise, but on the strength of his own intellectual prowess; his uniqueness, too, was utilised by Harvard in its Oriental Series.

India may not become nourishing ground for academic excellence in the foreseeable future if state interference in the IITs and IIMs -- to say nothing of the universities -- is any indication; we are going from strength to weakness. This makes initiatives like the Murty-Harvard partnership doubly welcome. Five volumes are out, five more will come out next year. That will be just the beginning. Before us is the grand vision of 500 volumes in 100 years. Bring them on.

Monday, September 7, 2015

As parties plunder by turn, people's only choice is negative voting. That doesn't seem to work

It has the appearance of a planned conspiracy. A party gets power, indulges in abominable corruption and misdeeds and is then thrown out by disgusted voters. But the next party that comes to power proves just as abominable, so voters throw it out, letting the earlier party come back to power. Thus voters end up as fools while all parties get a chance to plunder the country by turn.

Indira Gandhi's Emergency atrocities angered the people so much that they did the unthinkable: Threw out Indira herself and her despised son Sanjay. With great hope, people welcomed the Morarji Desai government. But it took only weeks for that government to show that it was a bunch of quarelling egoists. The odious lot was thrown out and Indira Gandhi returned to power.

In the last election, although Narendra Modi's oratorical magic played a significant role, it was people's disgust with Sonia Gandhi and her now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Prince of Wales that gave the BJP a landslide victory. A re-programmed Rahul Gandhi still does not strike anyone as a credible national leader. As long as he remains the alternative, Modi will be safe in his chair.

At the states level, Kerala and Karnataka are the classic examples of negative voting -- people anxious to throw out sinful incumbents. The practice actually originated in Kerala. The Congress-led United Democratic front and the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front perfected the art of competitive corruption. People responded the only way they could: With clockwise precision, they would throw out one obnoxiously corrupt Front and, five years later, throw out the other equally obnoxious Front.

There is a possibility that the tradition may be broken next time around -- and not because the UDF now in power is any less obnoxious in its ways. So numerous are the scams it has spawned that a competition seems to be under way to decide which ministry is the most fetid den of iniquity -- Finance, Excise, Industries, Revenue? Voters would as usual want to get rid of the lot. But, for the first time, the nightmare of the alternative seems more scary than the nightmare of the incumbent.

The CPM's state supremo, Pinarayi Vijayan, has been making policy mistakes over the years. He drove out the RSP, an important component of the LDF, used foul language in his speeches drawing criticism from his own followers and saw dissidents leaving the party, some even joining the BJP. In public perception the party is associated with the blood-curdling murder of a prominent dissident. Under Vijayan CPM in Kerala has become not only corruption-prone but also violence-prone and autocratic. The prospects of such an unpopular leader becoming the LDF chief minister will persuade many to vote against the LDF.

In Karnataka it was popular disgust with Congress misrule that made people welcome the untested H.D. Kumaraswamy of JD (S) and then B. S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP. The "first BJP government in the south" gave the party a historic opportunity. But they botched it up; BJP's first CM also became the first CM to be jailed with some of his cabinet colleagues for company. Negative voting came into play again and the Congress got another go at power.

Now it was the Congress's turn to botch things up again. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, experienced and relatively clean, suffers from a reluctance to apply his mind to an issue on hand and act decisively. As a result, problems ranging from drought to the rise of moral-police thugs remain unresolved.

People expressed their mood in Bengaluru's corporation elections. During a longish rule, BJP corporators had set an unprecedented record in corruption which outweighed the lacklustre performance of the Siddaramaiah government. So voters gave the BJP 11 seats less than in 2010 while they gave the Congress 11 seats more, depriving both of a working majority -- a friendly warning to both parties.

But no self-respecting party pays heed to warnings, friendly or otherwise. As it happens, both the LDF in Kerala and the Congress in Karnataka have trump cards they can play to ensure victory in the next elections. Party prospects will dramatically change if the LDF officially projects V.S.Achuthanandan, the most popular living political leader in Kerala, as its chief ministerial candidate. In Karnataka, the Congress will immediately gain the upper hand if it announces that its choice of chief minister after the next election is Mallikarjun Kharge, a veteran respected by all. But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?

Monday, August 31, 2015

When damn lies, damn truths are both damn right. The games we can play with census figures

As everyone knows, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Mark Twain did not specifically mention census because census is statistics. Ten people interpret census figures in ten different ways, all of them being damn lies and damn truths at the same time. That's the beauty of census statistics: We an use them to suit our purpose.

The 2011 Religious Communities Census testifies to this beauty. The Congress-led government did not release it, for political reasons. The BJP-led government has now released it, for political reasons. The Congress's reason was to ensure Muslim votes. The BJP's reason was to ensure Hindutva votes. The same 2011 census has a caste-wise set of statistics as well. This has not been released by the present government -- of course for political reasons, whatever they are.

This must be a special Indian thing. Because only in India has democracy developed along religious and caste lines. Patels in Gujarat, Yadavs in Bihar-UP, Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Dalits and anti-Dalits everywhere -- that is the road map our democracy follows.

To see how Indian this is, we must look at how other democracies use census figures. In the US, politicians will no doubt make use of the information that, for example, the Asian population has fallen in a district or increased in another. But essentially census information provide the basis for policy making -- which areas need new roads, where new schools and libraries must be located, where new hospitals and daycare centres must be built. It's also on the basis of census figures that they decide the size of police stations and fire departments.

Perhaps our politicians are also studying census findings to make policy decisions -- how many in a highrise building in Mumbai's Bandra area are vegetarian, how many in Bhendi Bazaar are Sunnis, essential information to chalk out action plans. Even simple things like giving a flat on rent depends upon such critical information.

The religion-wise details brought out by the newly released census report lend themselves to political use in our very religious country. A typical newspaper headline said: 'Muslim population grew faster: Census'. (The headline was correct. But so was the headline in another newspaper: 'Muslim population growth slows'). The general impression was that Muslim population in India was increasing while other religious groupings were dwindling in numbers. Naturally, non-Muslims -- and not just the Hindutva hardliners -- would feel uncomfortable. Their inclination would be to support measures meant to keep Muslims in check. Gain for BJP.

But this will be a short-sighted, wholly political way of looking at the census. In terms of the country's overall progress, two factors need to be taken into account. First, only during 1981-91 did Muslim growth rate rise. During 1971-81, it was constant. During 1991-2001, it declined by 0.4 percentage points, when Hindu growth rate declined by 0.3 percentage points. In absolute terms India now has 966.3 million Hindus, 79.8 percent of the total population, the first time the Hindu percentage has fallen below 80. This is something to be welcomed because it points to social and economic progress among Hindus.

That is the second factor to be considered while evaluating the census. Population growth/decline is directly linked to the improvement in a community's socio-economic parameters. Better education and better access to healthcare have made a difference to Muslim population statistics -- including child mortality and women's health -- in southern India, Kerala being often cited as a model. Muslims in Kerala stand well above their fellow-religionists in the north in education and general wellbeing. If Muslims are the only community in the country to show growth in its share of the total population, it is a pointer to the large-scale poverty, illiteracy and backwardness that prevail among them. This should worry the leaders of the community. But instead they seem to look upon poor and untutored followers as safe bets who will not question the leadership's actions.

According to sociologists, Muslim growth rate dipped in 2001-2011 because of the impact of primary education. The obvious course an enlightened government should follow is to ensure the spread of education among Muslims, especially among Muslim girls. Their own leaders, religious as well as political, are the main stumbling blocks to Muslim progress. Their obstructionism should be fought and the cooperation of enlightened Muslims enlisted to end the economic and educational inequalities that hold the community back. Simply turning anti-Muslim won't help because 172.2 million Muslims cannot be wished away.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Is Saudi Arabia facing a bleak future? If true, India -- and Modi's plans -- may be hurt

Narendra Modi's visit to the UAE acquired interesting diplomatic nuances because he did not pick Saudi Arabia, the recognised Big Boy of the Arab region, for his first state visit. Plans are said to be ready for a trip soon. But it won't be the same as the warm Abu Dhabi-Dubai visit for two reasons: One, Saudi Arabia is organically different from the Emirates. Two, the oil economy of the Gulf is under threat.

The Saudi ruling family follows the fundamentalist Wahabi Islam and has been spending millions of dollars for many years to propagate its extremism in other countries including Islamic countries. This is like the American-funded Born Again Christian sects whose first target for conversion are other Christians. Only in Saudi Arabia do they have a police unit with the macabre name Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice; they patrol the streets checking dress code and ensuring strict separation of men and women. The UAE has its rigid rules: Criticism of the government is not allowed. For the rest, though, it is liberal enough to sustain the biggest tourist industry in the Gulf.

The prosperity of the Gulf countries and their becoming a magnet for Indians are of course related to the wealth made from oil. To describe that wealth as enormous would be an understatement. It enabled the Gulf countries to be ostentatious. Deserts were converted to verdant gardens, boulevards came up that could be called majestic and architectural monuments rose that set world records of various kinds. There were no taxes on citizens. On the contrary, the state paid for most expenses, from education to house plots.

This dream life was expected to be perpetual because the world's thirst for oil was expected to grow and grow. But in the last few years, unknown to the public and closely watched by experts, equations have been changing. Saudi Arabia's dominant position in the world's oil supplies is gone. For the first time since the country was founded, it has been facing budgetary problems. In fact some experts have made the sensational claim that the Saudis could go bankrupt in the next five years.

They put the blame largely on Saudi shoulders. The argument is that the Saudis kept international oil prices high for too long. This forced other countries, especially the US, to look for alternative sources of supply. Enter, shale oil. This is oil made by converting organic matter inside shale rock. Known from the early 14th century and in production from the late 19th century in Europe, the US, Australia-New Zealand and China, nobody had pursued this in earnest because the discovery of crude oil in the Gulf made things easier. When the Saudi-led oil monopoly raised the prices, shale producers woke up. North America began production in such large quantities that their need for Gulf oil spiralled down. Later, Iranian oil started flowing, too. The Gulf countries were no longer masters of the market.

This meant serious trouble. As much as 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's budget revenue is from oil. It has no other industry, no other source of income. At the same time it has taken on expensive political tasks, such as a war against the Houthis in Yemen and a diplomatic-military manoeuvre against Iran. Ominously the US, Saudi Arabia's traditional supporter, has been moving away in the last one year.

The Saudis don't have many options. Disenchanted with America's strategic shift, they tried to get close to Russia. But Russia finds Iran more attractive. Raising oil prices is not an option because America and others will increase shale oil production and neutralise the Saudis. Eventually the Saudi government may be forced to overhaul its economy. But how? Impose taxes? Stop evangelical missions abroad? Stop importing war material at high prices and forget hot-spots such as Yemen? Turn to Israel for help and face ultimate humiliation?

What is certain is that the world's dependence on Arab oil will never again be what it has been. To that extent the entire political-economic scenario in West Asia will change. It will directly -- and devastatingly -- impact the economy and sociology of India with tens of thousands of Indians, currently employed in the Gulf, returning home. Modi's expectations of Gulf countries investing in India may also be adversely affected. The only good thing is that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will have less arduous duties to perform. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.

Monday, August 17, 2015

MPs waste their brilliance on virulent attacks; It's time to ask: Where are we headed?

Wednesday, August 12, was a miracle day in Indian history. People were thrilled by a rarest-of-rare spectacle -- a debate in Parliament. It lasted barely five hours and ended in an anticlimax, but that brief interlude was sheer excitement for citizens who had seen several thousand hours being wiped out in the last dozen or so years by Parliamentarians uninterested in anything but shouting. August 12 was a tonic.

It was also a reminder of the presence in our Parliament of some brilliant members. (The more the pity that they often ignore their primary responsibilities to the people who elect them). We saw some great performances -- great speeches, smart repartees, sharp attacks and sharper counter attacks. The art of give and take was on full display. All of which showed that these men and women have it in them to serve the country creditably if they want to. Ay there's the rub: If they want to.

Since there is not much hope in that direction, the best we can do is to enjoy the cut and thrust of the day. Perhaps the best gem was Arun Jaitley's description of Rahul Gandhi. "The difficulty with Rahul", he said, "is that he is an expert without knowledge". It cut deep because of its truth, but it stopped short of reaching the classical status of V. S. Achuthanandan's description of Rahul Gandhi as Amul Baby.

Sushma Swaraj's basic query to Rahul was how much his family made from Italian manipulator Quattrochi. Rahul fielded it by asking how much Sushma's family made from cricket manipulator Lalit Modi. But the match was by no means equal. The experienced Sushma scored high from the way she framed her charges. When you go on your next long vacation, Rahulji, she said with mock respect, read up on the history of your family, then ask, Mamma, why did daddy allow the killer of 15,000 people in Bhopal escape?

That black episode needs to be brought up from time to time. Warren Anderson, boss of Union Carbide that caused the Bhopal gas tragedy, was given special aircraft to travel to Delhi and from there to escape to US in December 1984. Why? Six months later, the day Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi landed in Washington on an official visit in June 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed clemency papers releasing from jail an Indian named Adil Shahriyar as "a goodwill gesture" and "for reasons of state".

Adil Shahriyar was a Delhi VIP, son of Yunus Chacha as Indira Gandhi's children called Mohammed Yunus, a towering family retainer. A playmate of Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, Adil's pastime was taking off with other people's cars and abandoning them after a few spins. Yunus Chacha had lamented that his son had "fallen into bad company". How bad became public when he was given a 35-year jail sentence in the US for importing illegal substances and trying to fire-bomb a cargo ship in Florida to collect insurance fraudulently. Release from prison did not help Adil; he died not long after due to "ill health and disillusionment".

The Gandhi family's cupboards are so full of skeletons that it really does not require Sushma Swaraj's oratorial skills to rattle them. On the contrary, she would have gained respect if she had admitted that she could have handled the Lalit Modi affair more wisely. To say that the fugitive got UK residency rights during Congress regime is like Congress saying that they are disrupting Parliament because the BJP did so.

Democracy demands mutual accommodation by the ruling party and the opposition. When one or both sides say I-do-no-wrong-you-do-no-right, democracy stalls. Last week's debate could have been a new beginning. The Congress had climbed down from its obstinate position that no debate would be allowed unless tainted ministers resigned. The BJP also had softened its stand that it would not allow a debate adjourning other business. But that spirit of accommodation did not continue. What we saw instead was a virulent attack on the entire Gandhi family, raising passions on both sides. Prime Minister Modi contributed his mite by staying conspicuously away from the debate despite his being leader of the House.

How will confrontationalism help? Having practised obstructionism in its days in the opposition, the BJP cannot now say it is Snow White. Its plans to have a high-power "Expose Congress" campaign in primarily Congress constituencies in the country will only increase tensions further. It's time to pause for a moment and ask: Where are we headed?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Let's be grateful for MPs stalling Parliament; It has given us great photos to learn from

In political terms it was something of a sensation, unprecedented and, till now, unimaginable: Sonia Gandhi took part in a public demonstration, shouting slogans with gusto, raising her arm, fist clenched, to stab the air for emphasis. It was as though she had begun, not at the top, but at the level of a Youth Congress agitator working her way up through street practice and lathi charges.

Only days earlier a different sort of sensation had taken place at the same spot on Parliament grounds. This time it was the ruling BJP that staged a public protest. In response to Congress MPs demanding the resignation of corrupt BJP leaders, now BJP MPs demanded the resignation of corrupt Congress leaders.

The irony did not go unnoticed. Both the groups staged their shows in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, a man who would punish close associates like J.B.Kripalani for the smallest lapses concerning the tiniest sums of money. Ironic, too, was ruling MPs protesting outside the House against opposition MPs protesting inside the House. Taunted an opposition leader: The almighty of the country, supposed to run the House -- To whom are they sending demands?

Seven decades of democracy find us in a situation of the almighty vs others. The consolation is that the roles seem interchangeable. The almighty of only a year ago is now shouting slogans against the almighty of today. The Congress demonstration, however, yielded for posterity photographs of historical importance. A close look provides glimpses into the body language, the gestures, the facial expressions and the general drift of today's Congressmen.

Sonia Gandhi is, of course, the focus of all the photographs. She radiates confidence and happiness reflecting the infallibility she enjoys in the Congress. She knows that if she points to the mid-day sun and says it is the moon, Congressmen will say in chorus, "The moon, the moon".

Rahul Gandhi is the other personification of total confidence. He does not shout or wave his arm in protest. He knows he does not have to prove his loyalty to anyone. People like Anand Sharma provide examples of the opposite kind. In some photos he is somewhere at the back. In others he has come to the row immediately behind Sonia, no doubt pushing himself forward for attention. That, after all, is what politics is all about.

K.Antony is of a different kind. Examine the pictures and we can see Sonia taking Antony's arm and drawing him closer to her side. But looming behind Antony is Gulam Nabi Azad with his two arms dangling loosely over Antony's shoulders. A photographer out to capture the long and short of politics could not have arranged his subjects more imaginatively, the top of Antony's head dramatically below the bottom of Azad's chin. Now we know why the North is always head and shoulders above the South in Delhi's perception.

But the most impressive figure in all the photographs is Manmohan Singh, immovable, impenetrable and changeless. He is like Parliament House itself; terrorists may attack, whole sessions may get washed out, but those massive pillars stand there motionless, soundless -- like Manmohan Singh. In fact, during the twin demonstrations, Mahatma Gandhi's face looked more expressive by comparison.

Is it time to give the Mahatma some respite? Just because an imposing statue of his stands guard on Parliament grounds, it does not mean that his peace should be disturbed by MPs who want to score points over other MPs. If the bedlam they create inside the House is not enough for them, why not have a less hallowed spot for purposes of competitive slogan shouting? Perhaps the car park. Perhaps the entrance steps which will have the added advantage of stopping brother MPs from entering or exiting.

In London's Parliament Square, featuring several statues including one of Gandhi, demonstrations are illegal. In fact the British have successfully kept London free of traffic-stopping demonstrations by developing the Hyde Park Corner as a venue for any protestor to protest about anything under the sun.

Our Jantar Mantar comes pretty close to that concept. Couldn't the MPs go there and hold their protests and leave the Mahatma alone? They might consider it infradig to protest at a spot where every Tom, Dick and Hazare protests. But they can regain their VIP status by returning to Parliament and having a chicken biriyani subsidised by the poor. The game is always the same: Either MPs win and the people lose, or people lose and MPs win.

Monday, August 3, 2015

We had values in public life, then we lost them. Now we have only dream-givers to guide us

Bharthruhari, king of Ujjain, elder brother of Vikramaditya and sage poet who gave us subhashita, inspirational verse, was talking of life's abiding values when he wrote

It is generosity
that ornaments the hand;
for the head, it is
bowing to one's teacher's feet;
upon the lips, true speech;
within the ear
the faultless words of scripture;
pure conduct in the heart,
and in victorious arms
brave self-reliance:
Such is the jewellery of the great
which needs no riches.

That was in the 5th century. The values he mentioned were no doubt universal and eternal, but how relevant are they in our times? Ours is not an age of poets, thinkers, philosophers and mentors. Ours is the age of politicians. Not politicians who make at least an effort to honour their promises, but politicians who are beasts of prey -- and the only ones who prey systematically on their own species.

There was a time when politicians did have a sense of values. It is fashionable these days to say that the first 60 years of India were wasted and that the next six years will make the country great. This is a political untruth. During the first 30 of the 60 years, there was indeed a sense of values among politicians. The Nehru years might have lost precious time on account of socialism, but let us not forget that socialism in those days stood for fairplay and social justice. That was why when a reckless businessman used the government-owned LIC for corrupt dealings, the finance minister took moral responsibility and resigned. Or when a nasty train accident shook the country, the railway minister resigned on moral grounds.

It was with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency that things changed and a ruling class emerged with diminishing respect for values. Today even chief ministers caught in indefensible misconduct never say sorry, let alone resign. Democracy has become no more than a shell: Where those in power should be serving the people, today the people serve those in power.

Plato must have known this when he outlined his utopian theories about the philosopher-king. His principal proposition was that only politicians who would gain no personal advantage from the policies they pursued would be fit to govern. Could the father of Western philosophy have been unaware of the impracticality of his theory? By defining who was fit to govern, he was perhaps warning us that those who were unfit to govern would in reality govern us.

That was what happened across the world down the ages. Look at just a few of the personifications of cruelty and corruption that marked the present generation -- Idi Amin of Uganda, Nicolae Ceausescue of Rumania, Bokassa of Central African Republic, Pinochet of Chile and Henry Kissinger who set US policies when Pinochet rose and Allende was assassinated, Richard Nixon who turned the Vietnam war into the most ecologically destructive in human history, the George Bush-Dick Cheney team that wiped out the civilisational history of Babylon on false grounds. (For politeness' sake, let us leave out the Indian examples of corruption and malfeasance). Obviously much of the world is governed most of the time by people unfit to govern.

When elephants are hunted down by ivory agents with the connivance of forest guards, when our mountains are levelled by the quarry mafia and our rivers are killed by the sand mafia, when half of Goa was dug up and exported, when politicians benefit from every project put up in the name of development (in Kerala's Vizhinjam Port project, there was only one tender; how convenient), then we know -- and accept helplessly -- that we are governed by people unfit to govern.

That helplessness, and the sense of despair emanating from it, have been the conditioning influences of our life for many decades now. We protest and fight, but we also adjust and compromise for people everywhere just want to get on with their lives and make the best of what they can. When they see a rare straw of hope, they hail it and cling to it and derive from it the happiness they desperately seek. This explains the unprecedented outpouring of love and admiration for APJ Abdul Kalam. He told us that dreams were not something we saw in sleep, but something that made us too excited to sleep. He was a teacher of India in the line of Mahatma Gandhi. He was a dreamer for India in the tradition of Jawaharlal Nehru. Kalam will live on.