Monday, March 30, 2015

Lee deserved all the praise he got. But his idea of prosperity without freedom can never win

The way the world reacted to Lee Kuan Yew's passing was a measure of the greatness he had achieved as Prime Minister of Singapore. His lifelong disappointment was that he did not have a country big enough to match his vision. He made up by turning Singapore into a world showpiece, marked by efficiency, beauty, cleanliness and absence of perceptible corruption. In his later years he also achieved the status of a philosopher-king whose views were sought by other countries including China. He was an honoured speaker at America's think-tanks.

India's own admiration for Lee Kuan Yew was always out in the open, clinched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to attend the funeral. Many of our leaders extended a different kind of compliment when they boasted that they would turn this city or that into another Singapore. A momentary political point scored with that bunkum, they went back to the shenanigans that have turned our cities into nightmares.

Occasional shenanigans are unavoidable in running a country in today's world. Lee had had his share. The defining question in all such cases is: Are they aimed at enriching oneself or at achieving national goals. The world evidently judged that Lee's intentions were honourable, hence the graciousness of the accolades showered on him. The New York Times report referred to the International Herald Tribune apologising when libel suits were filed by Lee. But it was too polite to mention its own cancellation of a lunch invitation to Lee in New York in protest against its correspondent being rudely thrown out of Singapore.

Lee's libel suits were numerous and famous. He did not lose one of them. He literally turned prosecution into persecution when lawyer J. B. Jeyaretnam won a seat in Parliament on an opposition ticket which Lee considered an unpardonable offence. He punished the constituency that voted for the oppositionist. Then he chased the MP relentlessly until court orders disqualified him from functioning as a lawyer or as an MP and declared him legally bankrupt. The Economist's obituary in 2008 referred to a party organised by its correspondent in Singapore. The moment Jeyaretnam entered, most of the guests withdrew into corners to avoid being seen with a man the Prime Minister disliked.

Significantly, the reportage following Lee's death described him repeatedly as the founding father of Singapore. Actually there were four co-equal co-founders. Two of them could be said to have made contributions more solid than Lee's to the transformation of Singapore. Goh Keng Swee was responsible for the economic miracle in Singapore while Toh Chin Chye was the no-nonsense builder of the People's Action Party, keeping it strong and safe for Lee. S. Rajaratnam provided ideological ballast to Lee and, as Foreign Minister, gave wing to Singapore's gospel.

But three of the four founding fathers went off the radar towards the end of the 20th century. Some foundations and university chairs were named after them, otherwise memories of them were allowed to lapse. One reason was that health failed them sooner. Suggestive of an agreement that they would only die as nonagenarians, Rajaratnam moved on in 2006 aged 90, Goh in 2010 aged 92, Toh in 2012 aged 90 and now Lee aged 91. Lee, enjoying relatively better health and intellectually sharper, emerged more equal than the others, enabling him to arrange "leadership transition" the way he wanted.

Lee was prime minister till 1990. That year, with the other founders virtually invisible, he handed over prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong while remaining in the cabinet as senior minister. In 2004 Goh withdrew and the prime ministership passed to Lee Hsien Loong, with Lee remaining in the cabinet as minister mentor. Chok Tong and Hsien Loong were by no means the brightest men in the party or government.But Hsien Loong was Lee's son. The leadership transition was so neatly executed that there were articles in the Herald Tribune under headings like "All in the family" and "Dynastic politics in East Asia". Anxious to ensure continued circulation in Singapore, the H-T apologised, paid substantial fines to settle the libel case, and agreed that only merit mattered in leadership choices.

All very neat. But it's a new Singapore now, with new ideas, new ambitions. The new generation wants prosperity with freedom. In the general election in 2011 good old Jeyaretnam's Workers' Party scored unprecedented success. Son Lee's Singapore is already different from Father Lee's. An old maxim is filling the air again: Arbitrary power does not last, only people's power does.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Once a backward, always a backward? New ruling by Supreme Court is a call to go forward

No one gives up privileges. Especially in India where privileges based on caste are at the core of politics, vote banks and zealously preserved vested interests. Predictably therefore Jat MPs and community leaders rose in protest within hours of the Supreme Court ruling against quotas to Jats on the basis of caste backwardness. But the Court's logic was irrefutable. It acknowledged that caste was a prominent reason for historic injustices in the country and therefore recognition of backwardness was associated with caste. However, self-proclamation was not a yardstick to decide backwardness, and vigilance was needed to discover emerging forms of backwardness in a continually evolving society. No longer, said the Court, could caste be the sole decider of backwardness.

The Court did not deny that the idea of reservations became a principle of governance in India for valid reasons. Castes suppressed for centuries could not compete with others in free and democratic India without help from the state. Reservations were the obvious way to provide help. But the underlying concept was that in three or four generations "the backward" would catch up with "the forward" and make props like reservations unnecessary. That part of the idea was conveniently ignored. The Supreme Court brought commonsense back into the picture -- that reservations on the basis of caste cannot be a permanent fixture any more than suppression on the basis of caste.

But caste is an easier route to jobs and positions than merit. That is why even educated segments of society flaunt the caste card. Lawyers in the High Court of Madras have been demanding that names recommended for appointment as High Court Judges henceforth shall not include those from Brahmin, Mudaliar, Gounder and Pillai communities, but only those from communities hitherto unrepresented. A retired judge of the High Court pointed out that the number of posts occupied by the named communities in the Madras High Court "is less than 15 percent, which is permitted even statutorily in case the rule of reservation at 69 percent is applied". But the President of the Lawyers for Democracy and Social Causes offered other sets of statistics to counter the argument. Either way caste claims dominated the discussion.

In politics, too, the backward have overtaken the forward and seized power in many states. The two dominant castes that control Karnataka, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are officially backward castes. The officially forward castes became politically backward. In some other states there have been cases of persons born high paying bribes to get listed as low-born because that label opened doors to jobs and admissions.

One case that brought out the absurdity of it all was the rioting by the Gujjar and Meena communities in Rajasthan in 2007 and 2008. Historically both were fighter castes and enjoyed social recognition. The Meenas got themselves registered as STs although they were landowners and economically well-to-do. The Gujjars, economically weaker, became OBCs, although in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh they were classified as STs. OBC was backward no doubt, but Gujjars wanted to be recognised as more backward with the ST tag. The 10 percent Meenas would tolerate no such thing as it would mean sharing their "privileges" with the 5 percent Gujjars. Several dozen people were killed in the riots.

The initiator of the Dravida movement, Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker, fought a lifelong battle against casteism of all kinds. Yet, in Shanmugapuram village in Thoothukudi district in 2008, a young Dalit named Periya Karuppan was given 101 lashes for keeping a male dog as his pet; the dog was killed. The village rule was that Dalits should not keep male pets lest they impregnate female pets of the upper castes. In Narikkudi Irunchira village in Virudunagar district, a resident named Guruswamy became a temporary worker in the postal department whereupon he developed a desire to wear a shirt properly ironed. The local dhobi advised him against it because only upper caste people were allowed to wear ironed shirts. Guruswamy's insistence on ironing his shirt caught the attention of local leaders. He was called to the Panchayat where a member beat him until he fell unconscious.

In Vivekananda's time only Kerala was a lunatic asylum of castes. Kerala has since improved, but elsewhere in the country lunacy lives on. The Supreme Court's decision in the Jats case is a timely reminder that we need to catch up with the world. Jat leaders committed to promoting the current development policy should welcome it. There cannot be economic development without social development.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Improbable democracy, yes, but still a democracy. A neighbour, in the same boat, looks at India

It is rather odd that India is barely conscious of one of its neighbours, the Philippines. Countries around it -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, even Hongkong and Taiwan -- are familiar to us. With the Philippines, contact points are virtually nil. Delegations do not travel from one country to another, trade and economic relations are minimal. It is the only country in Southeast Asia without a noticeable Indian population. The real surprise is that the ubiquitous Indian tourist hasn't discovered the Philippines, one of the most beautiful parts of Asia, culturally vibrant, lifestyles and cuisines changing from island to island and the whole archipelago dotted with plantations, haciendas, resorts and hideaways. Above all, Filipinos are the friendliest people in Asia -- in the professions, in the service sector, at the personal level. And they are friendly in English.

There are also some similarities between India and the Philippines. The poor in the Philippines are as wretched as the poor in India. There are slums in Manila that can compete with slums in Mumbai. Corruption in public life is as endemic in the Philippines as in India. Politics flourishes as a negative force in both countries; Filipinos as well as Indians see politicians as an exploiter class. Skilled Filipinos are very skilled, like their Indian counterparts, and both shine best when they go abroad. The media is as free and loud in the Philippines as it is in India, and both countries are diminished by it.

Similarities of this kind recently inspired a Filipino political writer to measure his own country with the yardstick an American political science professor used to measure Indian democracy. Yale's Prof. Robert Dal started with the thesis that India remained a democracy though it lacked many of the conditions required for democracy to thrive. He argued that one billion Indians were divided along more lines than people in any other country. If this extreme factionalism of society made political power so difficult to consolidate in the national interest, it also ensured that no power holder could ignore others and rule arbitrarily. (See how, despite its majority, the BJP is unable to get many important bills passed in Parliament).

Arbitrary rule by a majority party is not possible in his country either, says Juan Gatbonton, the most respected political commentator in the Philippines. Bewildering variety marks his archipelagic nation where Baguio in the north and Mindanao in the south are culturally as disparate as Kanpur and Thirunelveli. In these scattered islands, geography combined with history and culture to make the sense of nationality difficult to instil. Gatbonton reminds us that pre-colonial chiefdoms in the islands were primitive local oligarchies, with the bulk of the population being debt-serfs and household slaves. Spanish and then American colonial policy preserved these small-scale autocracies, leaving no scope for a strong central leadership to emerge.

Unlike in Latin America, the military could not come in because, as Gatbonton puts it, "India's officer corps is thoroughly professional, while that of the Philippines is as divided as the civilian leadership". In the "two improbable democracies" politicians tried to impose autocracies, Ferdinand Marcos in 1972-86 and Indira Gandhi in 1975-77. Both failed. Thus, in India and in the Philippines, "democracy is propped up principally by the balance of power among politicians and bureaucrats, elite families, clans, factions and oligarchic businesses. Much of state policy results from deal-making among these power brokers".

As Gatbonton points out, "Japan, Korea and China -- being ethnically and culturally homogenous -- can take their nationhood for granted". We don't have that advantage and so we need a wiser and more understanding leadership than Japan, Korea and China need. Upanishadic India had the wisdom to absorb differences and diversities and turn them into sources of strength. Alone among ancient civilisations, it envisaged progress through the pursuit of "that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive the unperceivable, by which we know the unknowable". Our ancestors who listened to those teachings achieved great heights. But eventually the philosophers were replaced by plunderers, constantly deal-making and deal-breaking. We have lost our moorings. Politicians come in different shapes and colours, but all of them pursue their individual ambitions or their narrow, idiosyncratic ideas, with no thought for the larger good of the country. That would explain Gatbonton's conclusion: "Much is expected from tough-minded, nationalistic Prime Minister Narendra Modi; but I for one feel that even he will find the going hard in any effort to break his country's democracy of stalemate".

Monday, March 9, 2015

Did people vote for another High-Command Party? History won't wait for Kejriwal. Nor voters

There are two reasons why the split in the Aam Aadmi Party should not worry the general public too much. One is that this is, after all, politics Indian desi style; for all the hopes it raised, the AAP is "maturing" into the usual pattern of political parties -- splitting as they grow and growing as they split. Secondly, the AAP's electoral triumph was an expression of people's desire for change. That desire will continue and, if the AAP falters, people will turn to others until the system stops criminals from becoming "elected representatives of the people".

AAP looked like a route to that destination. Hence the enthusiasm it generated across the country. That enthusiasm is bound to dim as a result of the leadership breaking up so early in the game. The bone of contention appears to be Arvind Kejriwal's rise as a kind of Sonia Gandhi of the AAP, his word being final in all matters. He was indeed the party's face during the campaign and his persona, complete with muffler and cough, won a lot of votes. If that is interpreted as reason enough for his turning into a one-man high command, then what is the difference between the AAP and the Congress, or indeed between the AAP and the BJP where, too, one man's writ runs at present.

The elimination from the core team of two of the party's founders will strengthen Kejriwal inside the party, but weaken him outside. Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav were not populist vote catchers, but they were good thinkers and good articulators who contributed significantly to the credibility and substance of the AAP. That the votes were 8 in their support and 11 against showed that Kejriwal's was a pyrrhic victory. Large segments of the young volunteers who made the AAP phenomenon possible were dismayed. Ironically, it was left to Yadav to tell them not to lose heart. He announced that he himself would stay within the confines of the party, carrying out whatever assignments were given to him -- words and actions of a leader who attracts respect.

If his nature-cure days give him time to reflect, perhaps Kejriwal should reflect on the story of the Green Party. In many parts of the world many NGOs, came up with environmental protection as their principal programme. In the 1980s some of them formed political parties. Almost all of them took false steps initially. "Adjusting the mindset from protest groups to mainstream political parties" was the main problem. There was also the problem of "low levels of tolerance between activists who disagreed".

Eventually the problems were sorted out because all agreed that political action had its own logic which had to be accepted. Accordingly, they went for an organisational overhaul. The idea of a single national party was abandoned in favour of the regional route. Today the Green Party of Australia is a confederation of separately registered state parties. The Green Party (UK) was disbanded in 1990 in favour of the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party and the the Green Party of Northern Ireland. They also set up a Disputes Resolution Committee to resolve internal differences. All this worked because there were no serious infighting by leaders for dominance. Some founding leaders voluntarily made way for people more effective in political campaigning. In 2013 as many as 11 Green members got elected to the Australian Parliament. The first Green MP was elected in England in 2010. With a new election due in May this year, there is already a "Green surge" in Britain with membership of Green parties rising to 55,000, well above that of the Liberal-Democratic Party, currently a partner in Government.

This is big change in a country accustomed for long to a traditional two-party system. Change of the kind the AAP is supposed to usher in will happen only when people of differing views stick together for a cause that is bigger than them and their views. The confederation idea, inevitable in a country of India's size, was implied in the suggestion by the leader of the Kudankulam anti-nuclear agitation that in the deep South the Aam Aadmi Party should not even bear that name, but be called Sadharana Makkal Katchi, ordinary people's party. Some approved AAP leaders such as the freewheeling Kumar Biswas may not even understand such a proposal. Where understanding and adjustments are essential for moving ahead, who will lead, who will deliver? History knocks, and having knocked, moves on.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Unpopular leadership style hurts Kerala's CPI-M. Will communism's loss become BJP's gain?

Kerala could well become another Bengal for the Communist Party of India Marxist. The party's state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, demitted office last week after a 17-year reign. The party lost ground during that period, though the initial years were promising. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the first after he had fully settled down to the job, Kerala's Left Front won 18 of 20 seats. In 2009, with his style of functioning a talking point, the result was 4 out of 20. In 2014, the last election on his watch, the score was 6.

The period also saw divisions, splits and open fighting within the party as never before. Some local units rebelled, some leaders quit, some quit and bargained their way back, some formed parallel parties and some got murdered. Violent clashes between CPI-M followers and followers of other parties became common. PV stood firm as a rock, stressing his party's correctness on disputed issues and accusing others of trying to tarnish his and the party's image. He asserted his power to enforce discipline.

One man declined to accept what he called the secretary's dictatorial style. V. S. Achuthanandan was not just another leader. Twenty years senior to PV, VS is a mass leader whose easy ways and support to popular causes have turned him into a darling of the common man. PV saw this popularity as blocking his own (PV's) chances of becoming chief minister and carried on a sustained campaign to devalue VS. In the 2011 Assembly election he went so far as to deny VS a ticket. The public uproar was such that the strong man was forced to retreat and let VS run. But party-level vilification of VS continued.

At last week's party conference VS was publicly belittled. He sat alone most of the time. No one except Sitaram Yechury greeted him. In his four-hour speech, PV attacked him by name; it's not trivial words that must be used against VS, he said. A resolution was passed by the party's State Secretariat accusing VS of deteriorating to an anti-party mentality. As the attacks rose to a crescendo, VS left the meeting and did not return. The gathering was stunned. General Secretary Prakash Karat formally phoned VS and asked him to return. VS replied that when a resolution was on record describing him as anti-party, he should not be at the party's session.

Earlier VS had sent a report to the central leadership saying that the official report was meant only to justify the state secretary's leadership and dwelling at length on the murder of T.P Chandrasekharan, a CPI-M leader who had left and organised a rival party, attracting, to the surprise of all, considerable following in certain areas. He was waylaid one night and attacked with long knives, splitting his head and body into multiple pieces.

"Even when our Government was in power", said VS who was the Chief Minister then, "there were intelligence reports about a conspiracy to kill Chandrasekharan... Along with seven hired killers, three CPI-M leaders were also sentenced to life imprisonment. We keep on saying that the party had no role in the murder. At the same time the party secretary keeps justifying the kingpin of the conspiracy". VS also said that the party lost ground in elections because traditional allies in the LDF were alienated by the secretary's arrogance while deals were struck with dubious leaders like Abdul Nasar Madani.

The charges and countercharges have a direct bearing on the party's credibility and influence among the people. The PV style of confrontationism may not be visible now because his successor, K. Balakrishnan is a smiling leader. But KB is a product of PV, and PV is certain to be active behind the scenes pursuing his goal of chief ministership. The elimination of VS was a necessary preparatory step to achieve that aim. To some extent that may now be within reach. But the loss of ground already confronting the CPI-M and PV's continuing authoritarian style that makes all but his close allies uncomfortable cannnot be brushed aside. Political Kerala has lost its optimism about the CPI-M. It will get worse for the party if VS is not around to win votes for it. The Congress making the people more angry with more mistakes is PV's and the CPI-M's best hope. But much of that anger may benefit the BJP next time. What the PV era proves is that in the CPI-M, too, individuals prosper at the expense of their party.