Monday, April 24, 2017

V. P. Singh was meant to be a dreamer, a poet, an artist; It was bad luck he ended up as prime minister

In the political universe of India V. P. Singh rose as high as a citizen could -- MLA, chief minister, union finance minister, defence minister, prime minister, father of coalition politics. For all that, he was seen as a "failure" because he was a lone crusader against corruption and for social justice; those who disapproved of crusaders were more powerful. The footprints V. P. Singh left on the sands of time were rapidly washed away.

To make it in politics in India, one needs a certain crudity of disposition, a well-developed insensitivity to other people's needs. V. P. Singh had the opposite attributes, for he was really not a politician; he was a poet and an artist. He was shaped by the essential qualities of an artist -- sensitiveness, a penchant for the subtleties that make up life, an eye for beauty including the beauty of the invisible. That a man of creative sensibilities was pushed into the negative tumble of politics was the tragedy of V. P. Singh.

How different it would have been if he had decided to dedicate his life to writing. See how his imagination takes wing as he watches tea being poured through a tea-stainer. The poem is titled Tea-Stainer and the lines go:

Bounded by wires
And punctured by holes
Is my being.

For a moment
My heart
Rapturously fills up
Then drop by drop
Drains away.

Whatever you may pour
Is never retained

What remains
Are some drained leaves
Spent desires.

Life then a wait
For someone to come
And make tea again.

Fortunately some of his work as poet and painter is available in book form. He usually wrote poems in Hindi, then, Tagore-like, translated them himself into English, making his imageries and dreamings available to a wider audience. Every Time I Wake Up is a collection of poems published by the Penguin Group in 2006. It's really a collector's item because, apart from the surprisingly revealing poems, some of them just two or four lines and untitled, the book contains evocative drawings by the poet. The cover jacket carries colour paintings in front and back in two contrasting styles.

V. P. Singh was a sick man. (He died in November 2008 after a long struggle with bone marrow cancer). The loneliness and the anxieties hospitalisation brought him are the more moving for the candidness with which he wrote about them. Every time I wake up / It is night.... / With only my echo to tell me / How far away I am. How could a man of such perceptive responsiveness cope with the all-or-nothing attrition wars of politics? Singh as Defence Minister unveiled Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in kickback defence deals such as Bofors. But he could not pursue that campaign with the relentlessness it needed. Poets just do not have the ruthlessness of politicians.

Did V. P. Singh have a private love link? It could as well be the flights of fancy of a poet felled by a fatal illness. But we cannot miss the tenderness of some of his untitled couplets that take up half the book under the generic heading Vignettes. After confessing in the very first Vignette that Desire tip-toed right up to me / It was too late to run, he gives us some teasers:

Blossoms whispered
You are in town

The floating lines are no doubt meant to be momentary thoughts that inspire and/or depress the poet. But the power of sentiment makes you pause and ponder when you read sudden lines like

The moon
Just peeped into my window
Did you send it ?

He certainly was aware that his public image was that of a politician, not a writer or artist. There are repeated references to the fallibilities and transitoriness of what makes news. But clearly the politician found consolation in the poet.

All their swords
Could not slay
My shadow

Not that he considered himself a ranking poet. At one point he says, with disarming self-effacement.
I counted
My poems
Like money
And realised
How bankrupt am I.

Perhaps he knew that he was trapped in politics. That, at any rate, seems to be the message in the very last Vignette in the book:

I switched off the moon
And switched on the lights
I was in town.

A decade after his passing, he is still in town -- as prime minister, and as poet and artist.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Craze for fairness creams, too, is an aspect of racism. No need to deny facts; all peoples are racists

Why do we deny the racism in us? All humans are infected by it. When an Indian techie was shot dead in an American pub, when an Indian woman was stabbed to death in Australia, we knew and we said they were racial attacks. Why do we do a metaphysical turnaround when we are the attackers and Africans the victims?

When Africans were beaten up horrendously in a Delhi mall recently, government spokesman expressed regret but hastened to add that it was not a racial attack. What else was it? Even when a fight is triggered by routine factors like a restaurant altercation or taxifare dispute, when the fight is between Indians and Africans, it takes on at once a racist character expressed through the expletives used and the sheer ruthlessness of the attack.

This message has been conveyed by many incidents of violence in recent years. Typical was the case of the African student who stopped at a wayside shop in Bengaluru and asked for cigarettes. The shopkeeper said he was out of stock. A minute later a local came along and he was given the brand he wanted. The African protested -- and was beaten up. The worst part is that the police either turn bystanders or side with the locals.

Denial doesn't help anyone. In the language of social scientists, racism exists as an unconscious attitude in individuals and societies everywhere. "There has been a racial element in human history", said A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in his 1998 book India 2020. Long before him, the poet in Sarojini Naidu had referred to "the natural conflicts of races and religions" and said that only education could resolve them.

That was an optimistic view. The greatest racist crimes in history were committed by apparently educated people -- the annihilation of the natives of America by European colonisers, the decimation of Australia's aborigines by British settlers and Nazi Germany's extermination campaign against Jews. Education may tone down racism but cannot eradicate it because ethnic prejudices are ingrained in human psyche.

That Germans claiming pure Aryan blood set out to obliterate Jews showed that racism is not always colour-based. But colour is the most potent element in racism. In Israel itself black Jews from Africa and India are second class compared to white Jews. George Washington, who pioneered the concepts of equality enshrined in the American constitution, kept blacks as slaves because he considered it normal. Despite the "black is beautiful" movement and an icon like Cassius Clay defiantly becoming Mohammed Ali, white policemen still attack black Americans because they are black.

We in India should be able to understand this clearly because no other Asian country is home to such colour-based prejudices as we are. See the matrimonial ads and the craze for fairness creams. Scholars trace our colour complexes all the way back to our Vedic heritage. R.S.Sharma, author of books like Sudras in Ancient India, cites chapter and verse in the Rig Veda to show that "other survivors of earlier societies were reduced to what came to be known as the fourth varna of Aryan society". But, he adds, "it would be wrong to think that all the 'blacks' were reduced to the status of Sudra helots, since there are some references to black seers". He also draws attention to the fact that "in the tenth book the Angiras author of the Rig Veda x.42-44 is called 'black' ".

Perhaps it is the Rig Veda's triumph that the average North Indian sees all South Indians as "Madrasis". That dumbness of the brain made Aam Admi Party's court poet Kumar Vishwas and JDU's antique leader Sharad Yadav talk about the dark damsels of the south. They are convinced no doubt that Deepika Padukone is a Garhwal native.

By comparison Tarun Vijay is a worldlywise politician. Even for him it came naturally to wonder "how we live with" South Indians. For all his public relations chutzpah, Tarun Vijay's veins carry RSS-treated blood, making the Vindhyas a cultural wall. Compulsions of vote politics may impose different public posturings but the inner cells remains fixed.

That is why it is important not to miss the significance of the "we" he used. The message to the Africans was: How do "we", inheritors of Aryavarta's glories, live with "them", the unsanskritised natives of the south; if we can live with them, we can live with you. Convinced? It's time to expand Kipling: North is north and south is south and never the twain shall meet.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Almost unnoticed, our democracy is getting abridged; is perpetual one-party rule the future of India?

Fact No. 1: Donations by companies to political parties is the biggest contributor to corruption in India. All parties acknowledge this.

Fact No. 2: Elimination of corruption has been a top priority with the BJP government. After the currency demonetisation, government leaders even claimed that black money and corruption had been virtually stamped out.

Fact No. 3: The Finance Bill rushed through Parliament two weeks ago made nonsense of the Government's stated positions. It actually legalised unlimited donations by companies, that too, anonymously.

Fact No. 4: Brazenness characterised the Government's move to promote the interests of the ruling party. If new rules also promoted corruption and black money, so be it, seemed to be the official stance.

Consider the audacity on display. Companies were allowed to contribute to parties 7.5 percent of their average net profits of the previous three years. The Finance Bill abolished that limit. A company can now contribute any amount of money to political parties regardless of whether its own balance sheet shows profit or loss. Ominously, they do not have to disclose to whom they have given the funds. Thus, the new policy position boils down to: Unlimited and anonymous. So much for the policy of transparency the Government swears by.

This is in addition to the electoral bonds idea introduced in the budget earlier. The Finance Minister claims that this system will bring in clean money. How can it be clean when neither the donor company nor the favoured party has to declare the transaction? In fact the legally permitted secrecy make it a profound boost to crony capitalism.The power of business houses to influence policies has always been a feature of our democracy. Now it can be exercised without even the vexatious paraphernalia that Niira Radia had to organise for her clients.

If things were clean, then what was the need to introduce the finance Bill with non-money amendments in violation of parliamentary convention? Those amendments should normally have gone through Rajya Sabha voting as well. But the BJP does not have a majority in the upper house, so the short cut of money bill with non-money amendments was resorted to. The opposition objected to the irregularity and walked out, and clauses that would alter the character of Indian democracy were passed by voice vote.

Corporate donations to political parties always help the party in power more than others. The Association of Democratic Reforms reported that in 2015 the BJP had received contributions totalling Rs 437.35 crore, more than twice the aggregate declared by the Congress, the NCP, the CPI and the CPM put together. Donations received by all political parties that year showed a 151 percent increase over the previous year. As much as 94 percent of the donations declared by the BJP came from corporates. These figures point to developments not anticipated either by the Constitution makers, or indeed by the voters.

The Finance Bill 2017 altered as many as 40 existing laws. One example should suffice to highlight the scary potential of the changes. Under the new amendments, an Income Tax official can now raid your house or office, carry out a search and seize things without giving any reason. This is reminiscent of the powers that Indira Gandhi acquired under the Emergency. Just as she did, the authorities today can "legally" intimidate political opponents and subjugate critics. A perilous future awaits those who try to exercise the rights they imagine they have in a democracy.

The picture gets grimmer with the controversy that has arisen over voting machine malfunctioning. People like Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal have zero credibility. When they complained about machine tampering, it was dismissed as the cry of the loser. Subsequently, however, official tests found that the machines could indeed record votes in favour of one party whichever button was pressed. Following the demo in Bhind under the supervision of the Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh, three government officials including the district collector had been transferred. The state government resisted any further transfer of officials, but under the pressure of the Election Commission, two more revenue officers were transferred.

Only the dumb will fail to understand the implications of these disturbing developments -- of money flowing anonymously to the coffers of a party, of laws getting amended conveniently, of self-opinionated voting machines. We may be witnessing the historical spectacle of a people governed by one of the world's most enlightened constitutions electing through constitutionally prescribed channels the same party continuously for ever and ever, Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

If gangsters have taken over the education 'industry', all talk of development in India is bunkum

Education in India is in tatters because of horrendous corruption. This is making the country wobble like a skyscraper detached from its foundations. The authorities ignore the crisis because they are themselves either the destroyers or protectors of the destroyers. Frauds and scoundrels have been having such a field day that it is difficult to imagine the country rising to its potential in the foreseeable future. So much for our glorified development.

How can there be any kind of development when examination papers are routinely leaked, copying becomes a cottage industry as in Bihar, admissions are based on bribes and colleges and examiners are, to a large extent, fake? Cheats have invaded even the army. In Mumbai recently question papers of the army recruitment examinations, supplied by insiders, were made available to aspirants at Rs 2-to-5 lakh per head. Forged domicile certificates were also on sale if a candidate wanted to appear in another examination centre. Investigators said the racket had been going on for two years -- which means battalion-size numbers of unworthy recruits might already be wearing army uniforms.

How many unworthy recruits who got fake medical degrees from fake medical colleges must be there in our hospitals? The Medical Council of India, the supreme controlling authority, was dissolved in 2010 because of corruption. President Ketan Desai was arrested. But the influential Desai remains active while government announcement of creating a new controlling body remains on paper.

Remember the biggest scandal of them all was the Madhya Pradesh Government's Vyavasayik Pareeksha Mandal, tasked with conducting eligibility tests for medical colleges and government jobs. It was manipulated for so long that thousands of unqualified people became doctors and government servants. So powerful were the manipulators that, after the story broke in 2013, at least 48 people were killed, mostly witnesses, and a journalist who had started investigating the story? Were the guilty punished? Are the Vyapam examinations clean today? Keep guessing.

We all know the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, ICSE, is the prized class X examination conducted by more than 2000 schools in the country. But the Intermediate Council of Schooling Education is also ICSE. Their website offers not only Class X pass but also degrees from MBBS to BL, from B.Sc to B.Com. The police busted the racket in 2014. The racket reconstituted itself in different formats.

Kerala is currently scandalised by private colleges not only fleecing students but also beating them up as routine practice. A "law university" had shed its original backers and become a family-controlled business with the chief organiser's daughter becoming the principal. Women students, unable to tolerate the principal's highhandedness and caste insults, launched an agitation that attracted massive public support. The principal was forced to resign. But the support extended by the ruling communist leaders to the college's owning family casts doubts on whether the widely-detested principal is really gone or is only having a holiday.

A student "committed suicide" in another private college. Students went on strike saying it was murder. They said the college had a special torture room where any student who raised questions about the college's affairs was given appropriate treatment. The chairman of the college was arrested and bailed out. Two others charged with torture are at large. Again, the Government is on the side of the college which ensures that inquiries are getting nowhere. All this in a state once reputed for its high level of education and its model colleges.

In Vellore last month, the chairman of the GGR College of Engieering, G.G. Ravi, was hacked to death by a gang armed with sickles. Apparently Ravi's family had a long-running war with a known rowdy Mahalingam. In September 2015 Mahalingam had tried to kill Ravi, but Ravi escaped while his sons chased Mahalingam and stoned him to death. The gang finally took its revenge -- which is all fine, but what have people of this kind got to do with colleges of engineering and stuff?

Plenty. Gangsters have turned to education because tens of thousands of youngsters are out there seeking jobs. They are easy prey. Education of some quality is the foundation without which no country can progress. If education at the government and private levels is taken over by racketeers and torturers and killers, all patronised by corrupt politicians and civil servants, what hope is there for the country? Human history, said H.G.Wells, becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Not much of a race for us, is it?