Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Tale of Two Stages

The Oscar fever has died down for now, but the 81st Academy Awards will always be remembered as the time when Bollywood took over Kodak Theater. Well, technically it wasn't really Bollywood-Slumdog Millionaire, the movie that stole the show (quite literally) is an English language film, made by Brits and can at best be described as an Anglo-Indian collaboration. But it felt like Bollywood- A R Rahman sang Jaya Ho as Meryl Streep, elegant as ever, looked on somewhat dazed. Hugh Jackman performed a lovely medley of numbers from our favourite musicals, but will that be remembered or will the sight of lehnga clad dancers and Japanese drum-men (masquerading as Indians one presumes) forever enter the popular consciousness? And I would love to know what the purists were saying when the entire cast of Slumdog went up on stage and Shri Anil Kapoor proceeded to throttle poor Oscar to death. What the Kodak Theater, and all of Hollywood's biggest stars, witnessed was a show put on by the new India-loud, confident and unapologetic.

Now I have written previously in this blog what I think about the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I stand by my views. I believe that Slumdog swept the Oscars not because it was a great film but because the Academy was engulfed in a wave of Indo-mania. It was different, it was fresh, it was new-it won. Yet what interests me is the manner in which India has embraced the movie-from top politicians congratulating the stars to victory processions being carried out in major Indian cities, the reaction to the movie within India has been overwhelming. It is not the first time that a movie centered on India has swept the Oscars. Close on 20 years ago, Gandhi, a biopic about the Mahatma won a large number of awards. The film included Indians such as Roshan Seth and Alyque Padamsee, yet it never really captured the imagination of Indians like Slumdog has managed to do. I believe this is because India has changed-we are no longer a nation merely identified as the nation of Gandhi. We are a dynamic, vibrant nation, or so we would like to believe, a nation poised to enter the limelight of the world stage. The success of Slumdog, unlike the success of Gandhi, indicated to many that India had arrived.

Whether you like it or not, a large part of India's 'arrival' is due to the growing reach of Bollywood. Casting Bollywood actors and using Bollywood music in a major motion picture would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and hence the casting of prominent theater personalities in Gandhi, and not, say, an Amitabh Bachchan. Yet today Bollywood has come to be accepted, or at least recognized, by the world at large. Film makers are no longer afraid to tell an Indian story with actors drawn from the Indian film industry. The fact is that Bollywood has become one of India's major soft-power weapons.

Getting back to the Oscars, it is remarkable that when the entire cast of Slumdog crowded the stage and revelled in their glory, the stage didn't collapse. Well actually it isn't remarkable-it is the Kodak Theater after all. And by that same logic, it isn't remarkable that when Amar Singh was addressing a rally in Bijnor, the stage did collapse. The Indian mentality, which many of us share, of 'bhai hamein bhi stage par aana hai' (we also want to come on stage), results in stages around the world being crowded with Indians trying their best to get their heads into picture frames. That the hi-tech stage in Hollywood survived and the ramshackle stage in Bijnor did not is no surprise. All those who talk of India arriving would do well to remember this fact.

Bloody Borders

That India lived in a dangerous neighbourhood has long been known, and in case we needed any reminder of the fact, we only have to look at events of the last week. The security situation in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan all took a turn for the worse and there seems little prospect of a compensating upward swing in the near future.


I do not remember the last time I heard good news coming out of Pakistan. First the government effectively handed over sovereignty to the Taliban in the valley of Swat, in a move that is widely being seen as a precursor to wider government abdication in FATA and Baluchistan. Many commentators have claimed, and I think justly, that to negotiate with the Taliban is futile, and that the only way to beat them is through a combination of judicial military strikes and a systematic eroding of their support base. Currently the opposite is happening-a rather simplified reading of the situation could be as follows: the CIA with the help of the ISI is attacking targets with drones, something that minimizes risk to American lives but which serves more often than not to kill innocent civilians, thereby validating the Jihadi cause. Certainly, there is no sense in handing over the fate of hundreds of thousands of people to a quasi-terrorist group and then hoping that the group will be satisfied with what they've got. The best description of the deal that I have come across is one provided by Brahma Chellaney-he calls it a faustian bargain. I have said before that Pakistan is playing with fire when it promotes Jihadi elements, but in this case it seems as if Pakistan is willfully walking down the path of self destruction. Whose side is the ISI on? And what do the people of Pakistan want? A Pakistani Taliban sitting in Islamabad? And as the Taliban in Pakistan goes from strength to strength, the Pakistani politicians continue to try to outdo each other in terms of incompetence. Nawaz Sharif has been banned from contesting elections by the current administration, in what seems like a desperate bid by the increasingly unpopular Asif Zardari to stay in power. Unless the politicians of Punjab and Sindh can bridge the divide that separates them and provide courageous, farsighted leadership, there seems little hope for Pakistan.

2)Sri Lanka

The Rajapakse government is gloating over its military success against a somewhat beleaguered and it seems, rather tired, LTTE. Now I am no fan of V Prabhakaran or his organization. I think that they have almost as much to harm the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils as decades of Sinhalese discrimination. This is evident in the manner in which they have forcibly radicalized Tamil civil society, driving away, or worse, assassinating, moderate Tamils; and in their insistence on putting all their faith in a military solution. They have also ensured, with the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, that never again will the Indian government actively support the cause for Eelam. However I have no patience for President Rajapakse either. He is the embodiment of Sinhalese chauvinism and his complete lack of faith in the negotiation process smacks of an attempt to bully his way out of a long standing crisis. The unabated military action against the LTTE has created an unprecedented humanitarian disaster in Sri Lanka, and one wonders why, if people like Omar Bashir of Sudan can be accused of war crimes, President Rajapakse cannot. Moreover, I am forced to wonder how successful this action will be. Countless examples, from Gaza to Kashmir, prove that the use of disproportionate force on an opponent that is capable of hiding behind civilians, only creates more trouble. I would not be surprised in the LTTE goes underground once again, and continues its struggle from there. The Tamils of Sri Lanka have not taken up arms for no reason, and while I do not condone the excesses of the LTTE, I do believe that it is impossible to beat into subjugation those who are fighting for their inalienable rights of citizenship. Ultimately, the situation in Sri Lanka can only be solved through a protracted cease fire and negotiated settlement. The military success of the Sri Lankan army only makes this possibility seem more remote than ever before.

3) Bangladesh

The Sheikh Hasina government met with its first major challenge as sections of the army mutinied over salary issues. The mutiny has since been put down, but it points to a wider problem inherent in Bangladeshi affairs. The Bangladeshi army is radicalized outfit, and one suspects that the salary, low as it is, served as a cover for the soldiers. Sheikh Hasina has pledged to tackle extremist organizations that have found safe haven in Bangladesh and it is likely that sections of the army do not wholly approve of this step.

What are the implications of events in neighbouring countries on India? The answer is, in one word, profound. The treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Indian governments failure to provide a coherent plan to assist them will be a major poll issue in Tamil Nadu. It may force the DMK to sever its links with the Congress as it attempts to battle anti-incumbency and retain as many seats as possible. This in turn could push the Congress towards the AIADMK, which is widely expected to perform well in these elections. On a broader foreign policy level, the actions of the Sri Lankan government and the subsequent Indian reaction point to a increasing irrelevance of India in Sri Lankan affairs. India, while refraining from supporting the LTTE, must make a strong case for a cease fire and a return to the negotiating table. The government must stop trying to compete with China in aiding Rajapakse, and instead take a harder line on him, criticizing him for his unilateral escalation of force. India must push for a solution whereby the Tamils either get a semi-autonomous state, or equal cultural rights within the Sri Lankan union. This is not meddling in the internal affairs of another country-this is acting in one's own best interest, with the view that foreign policy cannot and should not be alienated from domestic policy.

Bangladesh provides a different, but in some ways more palatable challenge. Sheikh Hasina is openly pro-India, and she has earned a huge mandate from her people. The opportunity is ripe for the Indian government to strengthen Indo-Bangla ties by investing heavily in infrastructure development in that country, bolstering trade, and working to ensure that Bangladeshi civil society does not fall under the influence of radical Islamic groups. What is important is that India plays a proactive role in this regard, and does not merely provide nominal assistance to the Hasina government.

Pakistan offers the most pressing challenge to Indian foreign policy. There is a general idea that democracy is a good thing and must be bolstered, but if the parties that make up Pakistani democracy are hell bent on destroying the system that provides them the forum to survive, there is really not much India can do. As a result, I believe India must keep its demands few and consistent-the Taliban must be opposed at all costs, the civilian government must muster the courage to take on pro-Jihadi elements within the administration and ultimately must move to maintain the moderate nature of Pakistani civil society.

Evidently India faces a number of foreign policy challenges. South Block can't complain of being underemployed.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Squabbles over Sovereignty

The Election Commission has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. The op-ed pages of all the nation's leading papers have been filled with pieces demanding EC Navin Chawla be dismissed; or pieces censuring CEC Gopalaswami for the timing of his announcement; or more general pieces lamenting the fact that nepotism and scandal have infiltrated what was an increasingly isolated bastion of fairness in the Indian political system. I'm not going to add my voice to the increasingly large number of voices that have clamoured to be heard on this issue, but I do want to look into the question of why this is such a big deal. Here is what I think:

1) Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Indian democracy is that sovereignty lies not in Parliament, but in the voice of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. It is for this reason that no Parliamentary amendment can pass muster if it violates the basic principles of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Without talking too much about the enormous power that the Supreme Court wields, it should be noted that the Supreme Court is one of two bodies that ensures that vested interests as expressed through votes in the Indian Parliament do not hijack the nature of Indian polity. I say one of two bodies because the other one is the Election Commission. Where the Supreme Court ensures that vested interests do not obscure the 'people's voice' from within the Parliament, the EC ensures that demagogues do not sway the people and fill Parliament with voices that represent vested interests instead of the general will. The Model Code of Conduct that the EC publishes before every election is an impressive document. Elections are routinely ruled null and void if the winning candidate has appealed to voters on the basis of vested interests, or (worse) has intimidated voters to vote for him/her. Although the EC does not have judicial authority, it is on the basis of the EC's code that these decisions are taken.
Now the problem with having a CEC who is biased is that he may turn a blind eye to electoral malpractices by certain candidates. This was obvious. But what this means is that it begins the movement of sovereignty away from the 'people' and into the parliament. The moment candidates are not monitored closely, or they are allowed to encourage voters to vote according to passion not reason, we begin to slide down a slippery slope, further and further away from the dreams of our founding fathers.
2)I want to like the Congress-I really do. But it (or rather Mrs Gandhi) has an annoying habit of filling important positions with 'loyalists'-the President, the former Home Minister, and possibly the new CEC. Mrs Gandhi has to realise that she cannot act like the country is not her fiefdom. I think it's a miracle that Indian democracy has survived and remains as vibrant as it is despite the fact that for the best part of 60 years, the Congress has appointed people to a number of positions based on who they are and not how good they are for the position. Appointing Navin Chawla as CEC is another brick thrown at the edifice of Indian democracy. How will it hold up?

Now I don't want to hype the scandal. As I often say when Indian democracy depresses me, 'this too shall pass'. There is an ideal-the ideal of the judiciary and quasi-judicial bodies keeping the legislature in check. And there is the reality-the reality of partisan politics, the reality of judges reading headlines. There is a constant tension between the ideal and the reality and in this tension lies the heart of Indian politics.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Big Picture

The journalist Siddhart Vardarajan recently talked to some students at Yale on a variety of topics pertaining to current affairs in India. Here's the crux of what he had to say:

1) On the Mumbai Terror Attack:

Evidence points to Pakistan-of that there is no doubt. But which Pakistan? Vardarajan pointed out that there are many competing groups within Pakistan-the army, the ISI, the Jihadis, the political parties, civil society-and that it is likely that the terror attack did not have the sanction of the civilian government. Instead, the common belief seems to be Jehadi groups within Pakistan working with some elements within the army and the ISI carried out the attack. The phrase 'Jihadi groups' points to LeT, but what is interesting is that the LeT is no longer working as an independent Jihadi group. Rather there is clear evidence that it has developed ties with the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives working on the western border. This explains the targeting of Americans and Jews, something that LeT is not known to have done in the past. Keeping these new ties between the LeT and other Jihadi groups in mind, Vardarajan espouses a rather complex motive behind the attacks. He believes that the attacks took place to create tension between India and Pakistan, which would force Pakistan to pull troops out of the western front and move them to the Indian border, thereby relieving some pressure on the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.

2) On India-Pakistan relations:

Despite the recent positive developments in Indo-Pak relations (after reaching a low in December-January), Vardarajan is fairly pessimistic about the relations between the two countries over the next few years (although he does say that all out war is unlikely). The primary reason for this is the nexus between the LeT and the Taliban. As long as this nexus is allowed to thrive in Pakistan, terrorist attacks will continue in India and this will prevent a substantial improvement of relations. Vardarajan believes that Pakistan will not crack down on Jihadi groups largely because once the Americans leave Afghanistan (which is bound to happen at some time), they want to ensure that they have a tried and tested Jihadi apparatus left to fill the power vacuum.

3) On the upcoming elections:

The short answer seems to be: the UPA is coming back. Also look out for a resurgent AIADMK, TDP, BSP and a still powerful Left. Neither the UPA nor the NDA will get more than 200 seats, so third front support will be essential. Vardarajan has great faith in the Indian voter. He believes they will reject divisive politics, that deep down they think the BJP is responsible for the growth in terrorism, that they recognize the NREGS is a central scheme, that they are not swayed by the theory of anti-incumbency.

And now for some of my views:

1) I agree primarily with much of Vardarajan has to say on foreign policy (who am I not to). However one major issue I have with him is his determination to separate the Kashmir issue from the Mumbai attacks. He claimed that because of the convergence of Indian and Pakistani views on Kashmir in the last 5 years, Kashmir was not the reason why Mumbai was attacked. However, if we are to believe that the Jihadi groups were primarily responsible for the attack, and not an official wing of the Pakistani establishment, then I wonder how easy it is to isolate Kashmir entirely. Certainly Jihadi groups have a motive in getting Pakistani troops away from the Afghan border, but I think the more pressing reason for the attack is as follows: Jihadi groups wanted to derail the peace process and strengthen extremist groups in India (namely the BJP). The timing of the attack-just before a round of state elections, points to this fact. Presumably, the terrorists felt that the attacks would result in the Indian public taking a hard line and sweeping the BJP into power. Why would they want this to happen? Because groups like the BJP were primarily responsible for the huge azadi demonstrations that took place in Kashmir last summer-remember the Amarnath controversy? The relationship between a strong BJP and popular discontent in Kashmir seems to be a direct one, and this is of great benefit to groups like the LeT, which receive much of their funding and popular support due to their stand on the Kashmir issue.

2) Vardarajan is certainly spot on when he comes to predicting the future of Indo-Pak relations. Until Pakistan dismantles its carefully constructed Jihadi framework, terror attacks will continue in India and relations will remain sour. What is baffling is why Pakistani officialdom does not crack down on the Jihadis. Recent events in Swat, where the government has effectively ceded administration to the Jihadi groups, points to the fact that the Pakistani authorities have created a Frankenstein monster. It is quite possible that their obsession to control Afghan domestic affairs and hurt India with a thousand small cuts (the two primary reasons for the creation of the Jihadi apparatus) at the same time will lead to Pakistan itself being consumed by the Jihadi fireball.

3) On the issue of the general elections, I believe that Vardarajan may indeed have got it wrong. The UPA may come back-I don't deny it. But to say that the Indian voter will turn away from the BJP because of divisive politics or that most voters recognize NREGS to be a central scheme is, I believe, wrong. The BJP is stronger than ever in states like Gujrat and Karnataka despite shockingly divisive politics. Just because Delhi did not fall under the spell of divisive politics does not mean that the BJP's style of functioning has no appeal. As for the question of NREGS, Vardarajan believes that the BJP lost in Rajasthan because people recognized NREGS to be a central scheme. I believe that the primary reason for the BJP's defeat was not this however. Rather I think that the abrasive personality politics employed by Vasundhara Raje turned a lot of people off and created divisions within her party, which led to her defeat. Moreover, even if the people of Rajasthan looked at NREGS as a Central scheme, the people of MP and Chattisgarh certainly did not. Indeed the fact that the BJP won in MP and Chattisgarh, thus defying anti-incumbency, does mean something.

Vardarajan also ruled out the possibility of Mayawati becoming PM, saying that she will get not more than 50 seats. I'm not sure how true this is-I believe that she may even get closer to 60. I certainly think she has a reasonable shot at the PM's chair.

Despite my disagreements with Siddharat Vardarajan, I must put on record what a pleasure it was hearing him speak. He is a lucid speaker, certainly knows his stuff, and provides an original insight into a number of issues. I look forward to reading his columns more regularly in future.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Too canny to be a bad gambler

I agree with the majority of Ashish's analysis of Uttar Pradesh politics. Doubtless it is a subject he knows much more about than I do. But I take issue with his harsh criticism of Mulayam Singh Yadav for allying with Kalyan Singh. Mulayam is, after all, a self-made politician who has risen to the top due in no small part to consummate political skill, his only visible weakness or misjudgement being an ill-advised promotion of his unpopular son, a move that weakened his once thriving party. Ashish reckons that this time he has made a brazen error by allying with a figure of hate for UP Muslims, a core part of Mulayam's votebank. He reckons that this spells automatic trouble for Mulayam.

Or does it? Let us after all remind ourselves that Mulayam is doing exactly what he did before the assembly elections of 2003. Kalyan Singh had left the BJP in late 1999, when they were in power in UP and he was ousted as chief minister and replaced with Ram Prakash Gupta. He was something of a political outcast after that and as late as New Year 2003 it was unclear where his political future lay. At this point, he created a new party, the Rashtriya Kranti Party (National Revolution Party) which essentially consisted of himself, his family and his closest personal toadies from his time in the BJP. Mulayam was only too happy to ally with him, Kalyan's sole purpose at the time being revenge on the BJP for throwing him out. The RKP won only four seats (Kalyan Singh, his son, and two associates), but Mulayam did not visibly suffer as a result of the alliance. In fact, he formed the government with the support of the Congress, and served over four years of his term as Chief Minister.

In 2003, why did Muslim voters vote Mulayam in despite his alliance with the hated Kalyan? The answer is not difficult. Mayawati has formed governments in alliance with the BJP not once but twice. She is always a candidate to do so again, having no powerful association with secularism. Mulayam, while like all Indian party leaders being happy to take in powerful dissenters thrown out by rivals, has not and will not touch the BJP. The UP Muslim is still left with a choice between Samajwadi Party and the Congress. Given their alliance, this choice too no longer exists. I think that on the balance of things, given the considerable situational advantages Mayawati has, Mulayam has done fairly well for himself. He won't hold on to 38 seats, or even 28. But he has made an impressive pitch for continued relevance.

Ulta Pradesh

An addition to Keshava's description of the Hell that is the Indian political scene:

Uttar Pradesh. Indian politics is murky, that we know. But the politics in the state of Uttar Pradesh is murkier than imaginable. Aside from the BJP predictably re-raising the Ram mandir issue, a lot has happened in UP over the last two weeks.

Firstly, Kalyan Singh, CM during the Babri years has joined the Samajwadi Party. He has even (sort of) apologised for the demolition. One cannot understand why Mulayam Singh, who will need the sizable Muslim vote bank to support him if he is to retain even half of his seats in the Lok Sabha, has brought Kalyan Singh into the party. Ostensibly it is to reinforce the coalition of OBC's and Muslims that he has built up so effectively (Singh is an OBC), in order to act as a counterweight to the Brahmin-Dalit combine of the BSP. However even a village idiot could tell you that no matter how many times Kalyan Singh apologises for Babri, Muslims will not easily forgive, let alone forget the role he played in the demolition. And even though M J Akbar points out correctly that there are people other than Kalyan Singh who deserved to be blamed for the incident, that fact is that he is the natural target for all the anger directed against the kar sevaks. Mayawati, who harbors prime-ministerial ambitions, has already moved to make inroads in the Muslim vote bank. She made a big scene by joining Prakash Karat and the left in opposing the Nuclear Deal, and now she has offered a ticket to Afzal Ansari, for whom the word thug seems polite. Ansari was involved in the murder of BJP MLA Krishnanad Rai 2 years ago, and Mayawati spearheaded the agitation against him. But then, MLA's are expendable aren't they. And so I believe Kalyan Singh will lose Mulayam the Muslim vote. I don't even know whether he'll gain much more from the OBC community. The Yadavs are behind him, but Singh is a fading leader amongst the Lodhs and the BJP will be looking to regain some lost ground by getting some of the Lodh vote.

Secondly, Mulayam Singh has aligned himself with the Congress, an example of classic political opportunism. The opportunism began when the SP extended support to the UPA coalition during the trust vote (I refuse to believe there were no deals struck). Indeed, no one has forgotten the feud Amar Singh (Mulayam's chief 'fixer') had with Sonia Gandhi, or the manner in which he famously said that she is intent on making him a 'keeda makoda'. Even now, the alliance has a distasteful air about it. Amar Singh has said that the Governor of UP (who is supposed to be above politics) helped put the pre-poll 'understanding' together. The Congress has nothing to lose, but again I don't know how good this deal will be for the Samajwadi Party. It may of course be good for Mulayam personally-he is facing a disproportionate assets case in the Supreme Court. Amar Singh says that the report filed by the CBI has not 1 not 10 but 288 mistakes. Perhaps the deal between the Congress and the SP will alleviate some of the pressure on Mulayam. The fact is however that the Congress is facing anti-incumbency across the country. And Mayawati, who will fight the elections alone, should be able to take advantage of the 'election opportunism'.

Mulayam Singh has gambled a lot in the last 2 weeks, and I feel that he has gambled foolishly. Perhaps there was no alternative but to ally with the Congress in order to ensure that anti-BSP votes don't get split, but there certainly was no compulsion to get Kalyan Singh into the fold. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the endgame in UP. For the last 10 years, Mayawati and Mulayam have tussled for political power as the BJP and Congress have sunk to new levels of irrelevance. Mayawati has an upper hand as of now, and she may just be able to kill Mulayam off for good. I'm not betting on it yet, but it does look like an increasingly likely possibility.

Look out for more developments from UP. To me, it is the most interesting Indian state. Historically it has played a pivotal role in Indian politics. It has the most seats in the Lok Sabha. The Congress and the BJP can never get near 200 seats without a strong showing in UP. And it has a whole troupe of personalities-Amar, Mayawati, Ajit Singh, to name a few. For 10 years, UP has not played a prominent role in the central government, but I think that is set to change. Love it or hate it, you can't ignore Ulta Pradesh.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

(One good man) in Hell

I've taken a two-week leave of absence, due both to overwork and a strange inability to write. Which was remiss of me, because in those two weeks there has been plenty to write about, none of it pleasant.

Where do I begin? How about the fact that in India's greatest city, the vibrant, teeming metropolis celebrated (yes, celebrated, whatever the unsubtle India-shining types have to say) by Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the common citizen has no protection from thugs and goons?

How about the fact that when the world agrees on the responsibility of Pakistani actors, non-state or otherwise, for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Narendra Modi casts aspersions on the guilt of Indian Muslims and seeks punishment? Much as I dislike our present government, it behaved admirably in limiting anti-Muslim "retribution" to essentially nil. Under Modi, imagine how different things could be.

How about Rajnath Singh and LK Advani raising the ugly head of Hindutva in its worst form, the Ram temple agitation? The word "pseudo-secularism" is back, as well.

How about the fact that Hindu Taliban wannabes invoke the name of Ram and describe themselves as "the custodians of Indian culture" while beating up women who attend a pub, and are defended by the chief minister of Karnataka, my chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa?

How about the fact that this selfsame chief minister, having taken on a mistress and received a "no" from his wife in response to his request for a bigamous arrangement, murdered his wife by drowning in a water tank?

Living away from India, I miss my country daily and intensely, not only longing for home but feeling unduly nostalgic and positive about everything Indian. As an idealist, I've long shared my father's passionate celebration of Indian democracy in the face of a widespread sentiment in the middle class that we ought to go the Chinese way. I've often taken refuge in the argument that while our politicans are corrupt and worse, while we commit excesses in Kashmir and the North-East and fail to help our poorest citizens, Indians are still free and politically empowered. Things are definitively better than in any alternative system.

Or are they? Reflecting on these pieces of news, I can confess nothing but the deepest gloom. In the land of Gandhi, I can find in our current polity only one resonant legacy of the Mahatma's life- the rise of Mayawati, and that gives me no pleasure. That it is in Gandhi's state- prosperous, educated, Gujarat- that Narendra Modi reigns is as difficult to believe- and live with- as it was seven years ago. In a civilized society, the private citizen has the protection of a functioning police force- for otherwise, all societies descend into the rule of the fist. It is apparent that our police force is intent on ensuring such a descent.

There is so much more to say, so many more crimes and tragedies to report. Many commentators described last December in end-of-term reports 2008 as "possibly our worst year ever", an annus horribilus (to use the Queen's phrase) to rank with 1948, 1965, 1976, 1984, 1992. On the evidence of a month-and-a-bit, 2009 is set to outdo 2008 and all the others.

But in this morass of evil I do find one cause for an admittedly minor optimism. The source of this is not the Congress Party- Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, for instance, offered implicit moral support to the Ram Sena. There is, however, one politician in this country who has not utterly disgraced himself. The "Congress lackey" Vinod Mehta said of Kumar on his election two years ago that "of all Indian politicians, he leaves behind the cleanest smell", no small praise of a BJP ally. Last week, when Rajnath Singh raised the Ram temple issue, Nitish refused to cooperate with the BJP president. When elected Bihar CM, Nitish had asserted that he had no plans for following the "Gujarat model" of development; unlike Modi, he wanted to include all communities in the resurrection of his state. Now, he made clear that the Ram temple was not in the "common minimum programme" of the BJP and its allies; neither was removing Kashmir's special status or a uniform civil code (while I approve of the latter two measures, there's no question that the BJP intends them only to spite the Muslims). If the NDA is elected, the JD(U) will not be party to the mindless propagation of Hindutva.

I am not saying that Nitish Kumar is perfect. Bihar's development under his watch has been slow, although we cannot count out the difficulties of achieving great things quickly in a state so thoroughly crippled by Laloo Prasad Yadav. I do not know if he is free from corruption; while I would like to think so, I don't assume it. He is an ambitious man with an eye out for his own political future, but these are not faults. What separates Nitish from not just the Yeddyurappas but also the Modis and Pranab Mukherjees of this world is his innate, old-style patriotism, patriotism that involves a respect for the idea of a secular, democratic India and a vision and commitment to its improvement. In its own way, this passion inspired Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Even Indira Gandhi, much as I hate to admit, was not untouched by it. All these leaders had flaws, great and small. But what I call patriotism clearly separated them from the cynics, rapists, murderers and self-interested businessmen that now rule us. Apart from Nitish Kumar, I can think of no other major politician that carries this flame. May the gods ensure that he is successful. We need him.

Edit: A reader has wisely pointed out that to Nitish's name should be added that of Sheila Dixit. Unquestionably she too represents a politician with good intentions and impressive achievements. Governing Delhi is a far easier job than governing Bihar. But of all Indian Chief Ministers she is is the closest to being an authentic success story.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Haathi Mere Saathi

After writing an article in which he attempted to relate economic development with Ranji trophy success, Swaminathan Aiyar returned to writing sense this weekend when he published an article declaring Mayawati to be the front runner for the Prime Ministership after the upcoming elections. I believe that most of India would pray that he is wrong, for a variety of reasons, but I will stick my neck out here and say that in the current political scenario, perhaps she is the best choice for the job. My reasons for saying so are as follows:

1) Even if things go her way, Mayawati will not win more than 70 seats. She will have to aid either the NDA or the UPA or even the Third Front if she wants to form a government. Her political opportunism, as Aiyar points out, will ensure that she is able to ally herself with any of these blocs should the need arise. In such the coalition government that will thus arise, most of her ministers will be from other parties, especially larger ones. Since we live in an age of coalition politics as it is, most of the possible ministerial candidates in a Mayawati led government have already been ministers in some form or the other over the past 10 years. Her government will not result in political upheaval as some expect, but in a certain amount of continuity.

2) Many critics of Mayawati point to her lack of clear and well defined policy positions on a number of important issues, ranging from relations with Pakistan to subsidies, pension reform, education etc. Her only ideology seems to be Dalit upliftment. However contrary to popular belief, I believe that this could be a good thing. She is not limited by ideological baggage. Moreover she is limited to UP and though she may have All India aspirations, her policies will not be governed by vote bank politics outside UP. This is in contrast to the BJP and Congress, which as All India parties, have to manage the pulls and pushes from all corners of the country. Once she comes to power, she will be forced to take coherent positions on a range of important matters, which, if she has good advisers, could mean the birth of policies that are based on reason and general well being rather than the benefit of a particular community. If the right ministers and bureaucrats are appointed, we could actually find sound policies not bound by populist necessities.

3) Mayawati's ascent to power does not pose a threat to the secular nature of India. In this respect she is unlike both the BJP and the Congress. While the BJP pushes for what it terms 'positive secularism' and the need for Hinduism to be 'respected' the Congress indulges in vote bank politics and minority appeasement, resulting in a backlash from the Hindu right.

4) Mayawati has immense political skill and personal charisma. The presence of such a leader is lacking in both the Congress and the BJP. The former has Sonia Gandhi, but she refuses to take up the Prime Ministership. The BJP has Advani who is looking increasingly old, and Narendra Modi who is increasingly unpopular with is party workers (not that that has stopped him before). If she utilizes it properly, Mayawati should be able to use her strong personality to cobble a coalition, hold it together and drag it along through its five year term. She is a strong leader and will be able to ensure that her writ runs outside 7 Race Course Road, unlike some other Prime Ministers that we have had.

5) Mayawati's rise to the PM's post will have immense symbolic power. Here we have a dalit woman who has risen to where she is not because of her family name or connections but because of her own skill and ambition. If she becomes PM, marginalised communities like Dalits, Muslims and even Adivasi's could hope for greater inclusion within the Indian political setup and a larger voice. Indeed one of the greatest problems of Indian democracy is the lack of a variety of credible political voices in the minority communities. This can be seen in the birth of Naxalism, which began (at least) as an attempt by tribals to ensure that their demands are heard and addressed. Yet Mayawati is not a solely Dalit figure, as her victory in 2007 showed. She appeals to all those who feel disenfranchised, and is able to do so because she is a symbol of traditionally 'fringe' group asserting their rights. India has successfully tackled the issue of linguistic diversity. Mayawati may just be able to tackle the issue of caste divisiveness in the country.

6) And finally, she is a new entity as far as Delhi politics goes. She neither supported the NDA for a stretch of time, nor the UPA, and that in itself says something. She is capable of shaking up a system which looks like it might stagnate into two coalitions pointing fingers at each other.

These are just six reasons why Mayawati could make a good Prime Minister. There may be more. Of course, a lot could go wrong. Her lack of ideological baggage could lead to the creation of totally populist policies. Her strong personality could lead to authoritarian tendencies and thus result in political turmoil. Her famed opportunism could lead to great instability. And then there is her corruption.

However I would rather be an optimist. If Mayawati becomes PM, she will have more choices than many of her predecessors. After all she is not bound by precedent or party democracy. And I do believe that if she becomes PM, she will make many right choices. And so I say at least think about Mayawati. Do not attempt to ignore her, do not cringe every time she says Uttar Pardes instead of Uttar Pradesh, every time she cuts a giant birthday cake. The elephant is rumbling in. Learn how to ride it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Taking India to the World

A friend of mine recently sent me this article. I feel it encapsulates pretty much all that I feel about the film 'Slumdog Millionaire', which as its posters say, is a movie the 'whole world is talking about'. Tipped to win a number of Oscars, and having already won four golden globes, Slumdog Millionaire has been billed as a movie which shows the 'real India' to the world. As an Indian, I feel that this something the movie fails to do.

Make no mistake, I enjoyed watching the film. It was fun. But that's about where it ends. I don't think the film was fantastic. I don't think the music was brilliant. I certainly do not think that the film deserves an Oscar. Yes, I will feel extremely proud if I see A R Rahman and Anil Kapoor walking onto the stage, but I don't think the film deserves an Oscar. Rahman for one has made far far better music-the soundtracks of Roja, Lagaan, Swades to name a few, come to mind.

Most of my American friends loved the film-it was the classic third world story. Yet, the India shown in Slumdog is the India that most westerners would imagine in their heads. The movie reinforced cultural stereotypes. India=poverty and Bollywood. Now I'm not criticizing the film because it attempts to show life in the slums. After all, the slums of our cities are as much a part of India as the malls of our metropolitan cities. However I do feel that the movie does a bad job of showing life in the slums. The real world is a lot more complex than two smiling slum kids triumphing against a series of bad guys.

To put it simply, I believe that Slumdog Millionaire is a movie that is caught straddling two lanes-it provides a cocktail of poverty, love and the 'real' India, all in just over 2 hours. For Western audiences, there hasn't been a movie like this in a long time. It's not too shocking, it doesn't tell them anything they don't think they know, yet its different. It's its not surprising that they are lapping it up. In this respect, Danny Boyle got his film spot on. But for me, it neither explores the problems of the 'real' India in any amount of depth, nor does it have the elements of a traditional Bollywood film. And so it remains a good movie, and just that, a good movie.