Monday, January 30, 2017

News, when true, wasn't truth. But news that is untrue is taken as truth today. Is anybody safe?

What's happening to news, that precious information source that has kept the world ticking for ages? News has now turned into a weapon of destruction. They have a new name for it, Fake News, used as a term of endearment. Fake news has grown into a phenomenon of evil in the West and has made a sinister splash or two in India as well. Social media, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, is the breeding ground of malicious news spread for malicious ends. Where are we headed?

It was the Trump-Hillary presidential campaign that highlighted the noxious nature of fake news. At one point devices like Instagram and Facebook carried fake stories saying that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking racket. Naturally online reactions were fierce, some threatening to kill those involved. None of the accusations were true.

The anonymous artistes of the internet had other guns to fire at Hillary -- that she had secretly helped sell weapons to the ISIS terrorists, that she was involved in the 1999 plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Junior. Donald Trump himself promoted the idea that Barack Obama was not born in America. One fake story against Trump got traction when a private citizen tweeted that he saw paid protestors being sent in buses to demonstrate against Trump. There were no paid protestors.

By comparison, the fake news menace is not in full bloom in India. Or is it that we are not agitated enough because we haven't yet faced the ruinous consequences of lies masquerading as news? We came pretty close to it, though, when the JNU campus erupted with reverberations of anti-national cry. As it turned out, the video showing student union leaders shouting pro-Pakistan slogans was a doctored video.This fake news was broadcast by a national channel as well. Naturally, anger welled up against the student leaders. By the time the doctored nature of the video was established, student leaders had already been slapped with sedition charges and some of them manhandled by partisan lawyers.

Some cases of fake news in India were rather comical in nature and obvious offshoots of the political project to project the Prime Minister as a heroic figure. In June last year reports appeared in India saying that the UNESCO had declared Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister in the world. Claims of a similar nature followed -- that the UNESCO declared Jana Gana Mana as the best national anthem in the world and the new 2000-rupee note as the best currency in the world.

The ludicrous nature of the claims made them counterproductive. More sinister were reports that spread, within hours of the currency demonetisation announcement, that the new 2000-rupee notes had nano-GPS chips and radioactive ink embedded in them, enabling satellites to track accumulation of the notes anywhere in the world. A Hindi news channel even showed a video on the hightech nature of the notes. There was a degree of fear across the country because 300 to 400 million Indians are exposed to WhatsApp and other online instrumentalities through which information, especially false information, spreads fast and free.

In advanced countries there is an awareness of the dangers of this online menace. In Germany, preparing for general election this year, a special government department is being planned to fight fake news. In UK, parliamentarians are asking for measures that will prevent politics from getting "infected by the contagion". Cambridge University scientists are working on the idea of "pre-emptively" exposing readers to small doses of misinformation so as to "provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance" to real-life fake news, a kind of psychological vaccination.

No such remedial measures are contemplated in India because we seem to be unconcerned about the social, political and moral issues involved. That national channels are willing to broadcast provocative visuals without checking their authenticity is indicative of our easygoing approach to the menace.

Will that approach change only if a catastrophe strikes? Advance signals of possible disasters have already come. News of salt shortage swept across India last November causing panic everywhere. There were fights in front of shops; in Kanpur police lathicharged people who robbed shops. In 2012 communally-inspired text messages warned of attacks against Northeasterners in Bengaluru during Ramzan. Overnight panic-stricken Northeasterners began an exodus from Bengaluru causing massive labour crisis in the city.

The wise used to say: News may be true, but it is not truth. Today news that is untrue is taken as truth -- Kaliyuga at its zenith.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Those who do not think of other people's opinions live in bubbles. Was Obama talking of India?

If sloganeering characterised President Donald Trump's inaugural address, sagacity marked Barack Obama's farewell address a week earlier. Undoubtedly, it is the Obama pitch that will reverberate in the chambers of history.Uncannily, Uncannily, Obama's words seemed directed at India though they were meant for the United States. His theme was rather platitudinous -- the responsibilities of democracy. But isn't wisdom ultimately a pack of well-minted platitudes? Like, "do unto others as you'd have others do unto you". Like, "the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth".

Abraham Lincoln is said to have composed the Gettysburg Address while travelling by train to the venue. The speech was so short that it took barely three minutes to deliver, but it has remained the unalterable motto of a "nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal".

On par with Lincoln's quotability was John Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country". Kennedy lived in an age when the President had teams of speech writers at his disposal. Even so, he worked on that speech for two whole months. We have no way of knowing how long it took Jawaharlal Nehru to write his Tryst With Destiny speech delivered at midnight on August 14, 1947. He certainly had no ghosts to help him. Yet the wondrous ring of those phrases still works its magic as we read, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance".

Obama is in a different class, more intellectual and naturally more pre-occupied with the entangled challenges of our times -- the rise of old-fashioned orthodoxies, the populist rejection of a globalised world, the emergence of nationalism as an emotive force.

Hence his repeated references to the dangers of taking democracy for granted. Democracy requires perpetual participation, he said. Indifference to democracy is betrayal of democracy. Citizenship must be continuously reinvented in a functioning democracy. He was of course referring to the shadows cast upon democracy by Donald Trump's philosophy of protecting the white middleclass American from immigrants. But we can see the parallelism between that philosophy and the narrow nationalism that has gained ground elsewhere in the world, too, including India.

When Obama cautions his audience to be wary of forces that "weaken the sacred ties that make us one", he is giving expression to truisms that are as important for India as for any other nation. When he says that the country's potential will be realised "only if our politics reflects the decency of our people", we know he might just as well be referring to India.

He elevated the whole issue to a lofty level where minds are challenged to go into overdrive. Politics, he said, is a battle of ideas but, he hastened to add, "ideas that explore differences on the basis of reason. We should be reasonable enough to concede that the opponent may have a valid point". He was saying in effect that the foundation upon which democracy rested was debate. To what extent is debate practised -- or indeed allowed -- in today's India? How far do we explore differences on the basis of reason?

The way intolerance has become a term of everyday currency contains the answers to such questions. The BJP's enthronement in power has emboldened the party's riffraff to pose as protectors of the nation, with a monopoly of the right to talk about its civilisational status. Dissension is not acceptable. Even criticism of a government policy such as demonetisation is enough to tar responsible citizens with the anti-national brush.

Like all extremists in history, the Hindutva extremists will have their fifteen minutes of glory and then collapse. They will be cast aside by their own ludicrous positions. A case in point was the recent denunciation of Yashwant Sinha, a distinguished BJP leader, just because a committee he headed recommended talks with Kashmiri separatists. The Hindutva forces are open to no suggestions outside the communal calendar they follow, a familiar problem of closed minds.

Obama no doubt had such self-defeating partisans in mind when he said, "we have become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinion".

Fortunately bubbles burst. Unfortunately some bubbles swallow up a generation before they burst. But burst they will.

Monday, January 16, 2017

India, pre-occupied at home, is losing ground abroad; China, alert & pro-active, is gaining all around

Meanwhile, China has been gaining significantly in India's neighbourhood and at India's cost. Pre-occupied as we are with unprecedented internal schisms, setbacks in our external relations have not caught public attention. That only adds to the gravity of the diplomatic failures. To see how grievous they are, a glance is enough at the way we walked into a mess in Mongolia, alienated the Nepalese people and lost opportunities in Iran, all in the course of about a year.

Considering China's not-so-friendly moves against India of late, it looked like a smart move when Prime Minister Modi began sending some signals to Beijing. One was his visit to Mongolia in 2015. A bolder step followed last November when the Dalai Lama was encouraged to visit Mongolia.

China went livid with anger. Unlike in the past, China was now a big player asserting its power across the globe and having its way in almost all its strategic moves. It responded to the Mongolia-Dalai Lama-India tactic by virtually blockading Mongolia's transportation lifelines. Mountainous Mongolia is a landlocked country, sandwiched between Russia and China and dependent almost wholly on truck traffic through Chinese (Inner Mongolia) territory. To block this traffic is like strangling Mongolia.

The hapless country's first move was to appeal to India for help. No doubt it remembered the promise of $1 billion Prime Minister Modi had made during his visit. The pledge had not moved beyond the announcement stage and access to it at this juncture would mean considerable relief to Mongolia. Our foreign ministry responded to the friendly country's SOS by saying that it was working "to implement the credit line". Apparently nothing happened. Unable to wait, Mongolia apologised to China and said it would never welcome the Dalai Lama on its soil again. China promptly resumed talks for a $ 4.2 billion loan to Mongolia.

Now look at what happened when Nepal, another landlocked country, was blockaded from the Indian side in September 2015. India was insensitive to Nepalese sovereignty from Jawaharlal Nehru's days. The proprietorial attitude with which Indian Embassy officials in Kathmandu conducted themselves is part of foreign service lore. After Kingdom gave way to democracy in Nepal, India should have adjusted its approach. But it did not. It sat back and watched as Indian-origin Madhesis of Nepal's plains blockaded roads from India to Nepal to back their demand for special status in Nepal's new constitution. Daily life in Nepal was derailed.

What did China do? Within a month of the blockade, it rushed 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal as a grant, the first time in history that fuel from a source other than India reached Nepal. Steps were also taken to establish "regular and long-term trade" in petroleum between the two countries.

Looking far ahead as is its wont, China began work on several projects -- Nepal's access to Chinese ports for exports to third countries, free-trade agreement with duty-free access for Nepalese goods to China, upgrading nine roads from Tibet to Nepal, scheduling a railway line to reach Nepal by 2022. Geography will force Nepal to depend on India for many things, but the little Himalayan country is unlikely to feel helpless in a future crisis.

With Iran, too, India has a long history of unimaginative relations. Manmohan Singh, with his inexplicable closeness to George Bush, implicitly obeyed US-sponsored sanctions against Iran. Even when the US position changed under Barack Obama, Delhi did not get the message. In January last year, Iran's ambassador to India felt constrained to say: "In my three years as ambassador I have often been advised by Delhi to be patient with big India-Iran projects. Does India want to wait for centuries before capturing the right opportunities?".

Some time after that unusual reprimand, India formally approved the $150 million Chabahar project to develop the strategic Iranian port, including a transit route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. The political-economic importance of such a port cannot be overstated. Yet, there is no report of any significant progress. Meanwhile, 72 km away, China has already set up the Gwador port in Baluchistan. China has been busy in Iran itself, ignoring the sanctions. It has set up steel mills, constructed Teheran's metro system and is progressing with a massive elevated expressway. In February last year the first freight train from China's eastern province reached Teheran after a 14-day, 10000-km journey along the old Silk Road route.

There is a saying in China: "It is not enough to succeed; others must fail". Evidently, others agree.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Politicians, not only in UP, think they are forever; Refusing to retire, they cripple us for their ego

Uttar Pradesh is only a vicious example of a curse that plagues India -- politicians' refusal to retire. Politicians want power, fair enough. But, after a state leader becomes chief minister, then what? After he becomes chief minister three times and four times, then what? The ambition never stops. This is a sickness of the mind which, over a period of time, has become a sickness of Indian public life and of India itself.

Compared to L.K.Advani, 87, and Murali Manohar Joshi, 82, Mulayam Singh is young at 77. But the older men retired gracefully when the tide turned in a different direction in their party. By doing so, they retained their dignity. Today, on the rare occasions when Advani speaks, he gets the attention due to an elder statesman.

Mulayam Singh had more pressing reasons to retire. He is infirm, his speech is often slurring, his memory plays tricks with him. With all that, he has the gall to say that the party is his, that he is strong enough to become chief minister again. Obviously he suffers from the affliction common to most fossilised minds -- the conviction that they are irreplaceable, that "after me, the deluge".

He is not alone. K.R.Gowriamma, a communist revolutionary and member of Kerala's first elected ministry, is 98 today. She is beset by illness, cannot speak properly because of voice problems and looks her age. But she manoeuvres for positions of importance with a handful of followers, bargaining, arguing and "disciplining" her ranks.

The veteran, multi-talented war horse of Tamil Nadu, M.Karunanidhi, is 93. He has been Chief Minister five times and still leads his party, unsure whether his chosen son and heir has acquired the strength to take over. Recently hospitalised, he made his son working president of the party. At 83, Deve Gowda in Karnataka is a spent force with nothing new to offer. But he spends his time working out permutations and combinations, losing no opportunity to refer to himself as the former Prime Minister and getting nowhere.

Democracy stops these men from doing what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. Having captured power in his hapless country way back in 1980, he is still the unchallenged boss at age 93. His technique was simple: Eliminate everyone who disagreed, change the constitution as often and as comprehensively as he thought fit and ignore world opinion.

Something comparable was tried out in India with the declaration of Emergency. But Indira Gandhi was brought up in a tradition that would not accept the wholesale elimination of rivals. Indeed, her political culture pushed her into seeking popular mandate after two years of Emergency. And she came a cropper. Eventually she resorted to dynasty to perpetuate her hold. It worked briefly, then became counterproductive against India's ingrained democratic DNA.

One of the ways in which Deng Hsiaoping transformed China was by introducing two fixed terms of five years each for the President. The US had a similar system as part of its early constitution. Deng's achievement is that he ended the tradition, sustained by Mao Zedong, of an autocratic presidency of indefinite duration. His followers imbibed the spirit of the reform. Even Jiang Zemin remitted power when his term ended in 2003 although he was considered a king of corruption. Hu Jintao, president till 2013, remains in the background while Xi Jinping, current president, exercises power in his own style.

What our politicians do is humiliating by contrast. Consider Kerala. The last Congress government was enmeshed in corruption that was unprecedented in scale. The electorate defeated the Congress resoundingly. The proper thing in a democracy would have been for the disgraced leaders to quietly retire. Not in Kerala. The man who presided over the shoddy performance as chief minister, Oommen Chandy, now wants to capture the party. Public fisticuffs have occurred, leaders have hurled abuses at one another and the party has been reduced to an object of ridicule. All this for the ego satisfaction of a man who has been minister four times and chief minister twice.

Imagine Barack Obama plunging into group manipulations in the Democratic Party in order to become President again. Imagine David Cameron manoeuvring to get back into the Prime Minister's chair in Britain.

In grownup societies, people retire. It is ordained by nature, law and tradition. In the Indian tradition vaanaprastha is a vedic duty. Oommen Chandy would know that the Lord rested on the seventh day after completing his labours.

Rest, gentlemen, rest. Let the world move on.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Today is New Year's Day, says the West. Others agree. How the power of marketing controls the world

Happy New Year!

On second thoughts, why? In half the world January 1 is not the day on which a new year starts. India's kaleidoscopic culture knows New Year's Day by many names -- Yugadi in Karnataka, Ugadi in Telugu areas, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Cheti Chand in Sindhi regions, Sajibu Nongma Panba in Manipur. But they are all celebrated on the same day, the first day of Chaitra which is the first month of the year which is around April. In China it is between January end and February end and the celebration is so elaborate that everything shuts down for seven days.

January 1 became New Year's Day basically as a Western thing and a Christian thing. Those were the twin influences that shaped the world's ways at one stage in history. Unbeknown to them, however, the festivities of the occasion were throwing open new opportunities for commerce and merchandise. With that, the genius of marketing took over. The occasion and the celebrations now took on a veneer of universalism, suggesting the involvement of all peoples of all cultures. Like Christmas and Diwali, the original significance of the occasion mattered less than the profitability potential of the celebrations.

Not that the West had it easy when it was setting the pattern. Confusion and arbitrariness marked some of the early attempts at calendar-making. A Roman calendar had only ten months, March 1 being the start of the year. Under the Popes, Christmas Day, December 25, was made the first day of the year. Then Easter, March 25, was given the honour. Finally, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar came into vogue with January 1 restored to its earlier glory.

The power of the church and the might of colonial rulers ensured that what they approved as New Year's Day was so approved by the world as well. But the management of the system was quickly taken over by wizards with the talent to merchandise God himself. There is a saying in the West that New Year is just a holiday created by calendar companies that wanted people to buy new calendars.

One can be philosophical of course and ask why the end of one year and start of another should be an occasion for fireworks and gift exchanges and dancing and drinking. Indeed, what is there to celebrate when every year things get worse; when Arctic ice melts dangerously, forests and rivers die, contamination of food becomes an every day crime openly practised, human cruelties reach inhuman levels.

Legitimate issues that concern all of us. But the world is run, not by philosophers, but by marketeers. Valentine's Day, a commercially created idea for young people, rings up sales of $ 20 billion in the US alone. The size of the gift industry covering Christmas and New Year alone should be mind-boggling.

The marketing industry is peopled by experts specially blessed by the Creator. There is nothing they cannot sell. There's no limit to their creativity. Santa Clause, sanctified by Christmas, was invented by marketing wizards to popularise Coca Cola. Only once did the Cola people fail to achieve their target, and that apocryphally.

One day Coca Cola's advertising chief called on the Pope and said, "Your Holiness, we can offer you 5 million a month if you will change the line in the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread' to 'give us this day our daily Coke...'

After a moment's pause, the Holy Father replied: "We cannot do that, my son".

A few month's later, the company's President came and said, "Your Holiness, we can offer you 50 million a month if you would change 'our daily bread' to 'our daily Coke'.

The Pope was not amenable. On his way out, the President of the Cola company was heard asking his aides: "I wonder how much the bread people gave him".

In a world where nothing has value and everything has a price, festive occasions can only be seen as marketing-backed commercial celebrations. This has to be accepted as a fact of life because marketing controls almost all aspect of our lives. The only way to bring an element of sanity to it is to assert our individual worth and bend to the spirit of G.K.Chesterton's words:

"The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes".