Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lokpal : After the dust has settled

The Anna Hazare led campaign against corruption has generated a remarkably erudite debate in the blogosphere and it does not require you to be an astute observer to see that a section of people are so appalled by the overwhelming support for the movement that they are considering this as an opportunity to classify themselves as the true liberals and the only people with intelligence and independent thought. Those lamenting the subversion of the supremacy of Parliament and Constitution by those who understand little of the Lokpal Bill are themselves no scholars of law making process. All they know is that there is some Constitution and Parliament and it supposedly has all the arsenal to prevent corruption. Apparently these people have never heard of something called ‘conflict of interest’. Those who run the Parliament will never pass a law to have their own ass kicked.

The movement has been variously tagged as Hindu, RSS backed, upper caste, elitist, NRI sponsored, to anti-minority, anti-backward caste, and even communal. These divisive tags have come from predictable quarters – Congress venom mouth Manish Tiwary, Syed Ahmed Bukhari – the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, ‘social reformer’ Swami Agnivesh, conscience-of-the-nation Arundhati Roy and random dalit leaders born with a hatred for upper caste Hindus and fed on a generous diet of Communist propaganda. Why did a movement, which was essentially born out of frustration with corruption, attract such criticism?
India’s economic growth over the last decade and a half has attracted a motley mix of detractors, ranging from genetically anti-capitalist thinkers to angst ridden inheritors of wealth who view the upwardly mobile, emerging breed of young Indians with disdain. Somewhere in between lie the intellectuals, writers and journalists who earn their livelihood and awards by feeding the western media with horror stories from the ‘real India’. So when television broadcasts a huge mass of people, their eyes quickly focus on those who in their opinion are surely the wrong kind of Indians – young, aspirational if not already successful, upper caste, beneficiaries of expensive higher education, dwellers of high rise apartments built upon land usurped from poor farmers, unapologetic about being Hindus and last but not the least, the ‘Face Booking’ types. Adjectives came thick and fast from government stooges as if someone had conducted a census of their religion and caste. My belief is that anyone who wasn't wearing a skull cap was branded a Hindu and anyone appearing urbane, educated, English speaking was branded an upper caste yuppie oblivious to the real problems of India, whose world starts and ends with the social network. Clearly, the khadi wearing, jhola hanging super brains have nothing but contempt for these crowds and as a result for anything that they are supporting.

Another blogger summed it up very well when he said that the generation currently in their thirties believed at one time that they were on the threshold of belonging to a country which has managed to break free from the shackles of protectionism, conservatism and lethargy as a way of life. The ‘Hindu rate of growth’ was behind them and a new world around the corner. Except that the corrupt babus and politicians decided that they wanted a piece of the action and took a disproportionately large piece. Yes, these Indians were definitely wealthier and owned better cars, but had to drive on roads which were getting increasingly congested and broken. They could buy air conditioners but not a power plant. They could eat in an exotic restaurant but found it difficult to get a cooking gas connection. They hoped that massive departmental stores would reduce prices, but 2% saving brought by economies of scale meant nothing in the face of 10% inflation. Personal wealth has been accompanied by administrative bankruptcy and the contrast has been frustrating. It has been even more painful for those who cannot take refuge in creature comforts – the urban poor. Life in crumbling, expensive urban India is not easy. It is an aspect of India’s growth that gets obfuscated when poverty is almost always defined in terms of its rural dimension.

The conspicuous support by NRIs and overseas Indians (and for some reason all of them are bracketed as rich right wing Hindu fascists) was also targeted, and they were conveniently designated as sponsors of the movement as if Ms Roy and her friends had just concluded an audit of the ‘financing’ of the movement, if such a thing ever existed. The reasons for which NRIs are targeted are not very different from what I have described in the previous paragraph. They also carry the additional sin of ‘escaping’ from India for a better life and yet having the gall to believe that they have a right to support anything happening in their home land. It also hurts the ‘liberals’ that Indians integrate better in their adopted land, do not oppose Western imperialism in Arab lands and are therefore complicit in the cause and hence anti-Muslim. Such derivations can be conveniently applied in local movements to augment the anti-minority perception being generated by bhajans and chants of Vande Mataram or Bharat Mata ki jai. The detractors are too clever not to seize such opportunities.

While I principally believe that religious symbols should not be encouraged in such movements, the communalization of them is almost entirely a political phenomenon, which the ‘liberals’ instead of opposing, have firmly cemented in their pursuit of majority bashing. The way the concept of secularism has taken root in India, it has come to mean equal representation for all religions, rather than dismissing religion as a basis for any act of politics or governance. We pat ourselves on the back that all religions were represented during the Lokpal movement in some form or the other, but do not try to understand why some religious groups had to come forth and make their allegiance public. It is partly because of the comments of detractors and the resulting concern that such comments would paint the entire community as being opposed to the movement and hence traitors. The most visible case was that of Imam Bukhari appealing to Muslims to distance themselves from the movement, without offering any plausible explanation except the usual ‘RSS backing’ rhetoric. Muslim clerics were quick to disown Bukhari’s appeal. Such contradictions within the minority community are a result of years of tussle between those who have been trying to create definitions of patriotism and those who claim to be protecting minority interests, both for their own political gains.

Ingenious Congress leaders did their best to portray the movement as heavily upper caste dominated and eager Dalit leaders took the bait. Fears of upper caste Hindus overturning the ‘protection’ accorded to Dalits (read the legislation that allows reservations in government jobs for backward classes) were voiced. It is interesting how a legislation which can at best be termed as positive discrimination in favour of backward classes is thought of by many as a ‘protection’ tool against the tyrannical upper castes waiting in the flanks to deliver comeuppance. To the untrained eye the difference may be too subtle, but trust the Congress to see an opportunity in anything and everything. Reservations in government jobs hurt the upper castes. It was a double whammy for poor among them who were virtually shut out of government jobs unless they were born with the brain of an Einstein or the never give up spirit of an entrepreneur. Despite this, India moved on and put reservations behind it. It was not act of virtuosity on part of the upper castes. The private sector had become the biggest employment generator, with better career prospects, money, foreign travel and free from the stigma that even an honest bureaucrat has to shoulder. Reservations stopped mattering for educated upper caste Hindus. They did not need government jobs any longer. And it is for this reason that the fear of Dalits losing their ‘protection’ to future agitation by upper castes sound so contrived, hollow and typically ‘I will say anything to cover my ass’ Congress like.

There is over simplification on both sides of the movement, but more so on the 'I don't support Anna' camp. I read with amusement certain people deriding the movement because of presence of characters such as Sambhavana Seth and models with 'I am Anna' painted on their bare back. As far as I know, participation in the movement was not 'by invitation only' and did not prescribe a dress code or intellectual ability as a qualification. There is significance in numbers, as that is what grabs attention to a cause. Mass participation in any movement such as this will represent the demographic of that region. If Hindus form 80% of India’s population then logic says that an overwhelming number of participants will be Hindus. This does not make it an anti-minority movement. If morons, eve teasers and attention grabbers exist in society, in all likelihood you will find them in the movement too. It does not make the movement dumb, lecherous or sensationalistic. On a separate and contrary note, I faintly remember an article I read during my childhood (which was a long time back) in India Today magazine that many old people who were arsonists, shop lifters and generally trouble makers during their youth call themselves freedom fighters now as they had been thrown into jail by the British, albeit for reasons that had nothing to do with the freedom struggle. Such people often exploited the rallies organized by genuine freedom fighters to ransack shops and indulge in looting. The point is that people in a massive gathering will invariably reflect the mix of society

I am not so whole heartedly inimical to the reservations of those who oppose the civil society’s version of Lokpal Bill. I agree with the observation that the media threw its entire might behind the movement and the absence of debate was stark. This is not a healthy sign for a mature society. I for one, was eager to know how the civil society’s version of the bill was different from the government’s version (email forwards notwithstanding). I genuinely wanted to hear an intelligent discussion on that aspect since till date I don’t know what the real differences are, apart from one liners you hear and read everywhere that “Prime Minister and lower bureaucracy should be within the ambit of the Lokpal”. I would have loved to be convinced that the version which was being supported by such massive crowds was indeed the better version. I would have loved to hear the government’s concerns, I would have loved to hear how this bill will be more effective than the measures we already have in place. I would have loved to hear about the difficulties involved in its implementation. But somewhere the media decided that the intent rather than content was what mattered. It was as if someone said “Enough. We are going with Anna. No discussions.” Discussions did take place, where opponents were vastly outnumbered by proponents. Owners of media houses and anchors, mostly upper caste Hindus, apparently did not take kindly to their lot being branded anti this and anti that and all that you have already read in this piece.

I agree to concerns that nothing is being said about corruption in the corporate world. It is easy to say that bribe is given because bribe is asked for. Of course the wheels of business do move on rails greased by bribes, but it is also true that huge manipulations are proactively engineered by corporate houses to get a big contract or have a policy in their favour. The bill only aims to punish government officials and politicians and assumes that law in its current form will take care of the other forms of culprits.

I agree that corruption cannot be entirely eliminated by the Lokpal. But it is a step in a certain direction. It is better than sitting with our hands folded and hoping that the villain will have a change of heart like in some Bollywood movie.

I agree that corruption is not the only problem in India. Caste based discrimination and anti minority attitude is not entirely absent. Our women are still not safe. But what is the point in creating a pecking order for taking up issues? One person decided to take up cudgels against corruption and people found a rallying point. That other issues are not being taken up equally seriously is indeed sad and a reflection on society, but does it mean that we should not take up any issue? Is corruption not a disease, the elimination of which can root out many other problems? If money is really spent the way it should be on infrastructure, healthcare, education, better security, food distribution, and hundred other things, will it not lead to better job creation, reduction of gap between rich and poor? Will all this not reduce social tensions and frustrations that manifest itself in many other forms? Lokpal bill is not a magic wand, but why let go of something that is showing light at the end of a tunnel? If nothing changes at the end of it all, at least there will be a satisfaction that we tried. And for the detractors there will be a smug smile on the face. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Hina mania

Indian media is increasingly beginning to get on my nerves. I call it Indian media and not ‘our media’ because these guys don’t represent me and I have no sense of ownership about their actions. This process of disowning did not happen overnight but the trigger is very recent - The much covered visit of Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar (for brevity’s sake I’ll address her as HRK). My irritation began with headlines that read ‘HRK has Delhi sweating’, ‘Delhi drools over model like minister’, followed by a detailed description of her accessories. To their credit the newspapers-turned-tabloids were partly correct. Delhi was indeed sweating, but out of heat and humidity, rapes & molestation cases, road rage killings and traffic jams. After exhausting themselves over such chaos in daily life, perhaps the only people who have sweat and drool left inside them for anything else are the Indian paparazzi and ‘journalists’.

I have no problem with them sweating and drooling over anything, but I just wish they would keep their stinking liquid discharge to themselves and not implicate the entire country. We, and I confidently speak for most Indians, were not standing on our heads over a pretty minister and her fashion sense. The middle class did not come out of depression and the poor did not come out of poverty during the meeting of the two foreign ministers and they couldn’t care less if HRK looked like a model or if SM Krishna, her Indian counterpart did not. Times of India, the most shrill of the English language journalistic lot stamped and sealed its idiocy by defending its hyperactive coverage the next day. As per TOI, such frenzied reportage is common in western media and we are doing not doing anything new. Quite remarkable. Since we cannot learn from the high quality journalism of some of the better western publications, we might as well adopt the trash of the lesser ones. Any stupidity is kosher as long as the white man also does it.  

If I have to use just one word to describe the condition of mainstream Indian journalism today, that word would be ‘excess’. Excess channels, excess money through advertisements and excess reporters. Any graduate who can wield a pen today considers himself a game changer in this great Indian tamasha (and the vast Indian population keeps them coming). Satellite television and easy money have given senior media persons a sense of power and arrogance which percolates down to the ranks. Journalists love to dish it out to others but are incredibly thin skinned when given back. So when HRK lashed out at journalists for turning the diplomatic meeting into a media circus, reaction was swift, suddenly she was not so beautiful, and the focus was on her credentials – ‘rich’, ‘feudal’, ‘landed’ and ‘powerful’, ‘club owner’.

Spare a thought for the young HRK, who must be wondering what she can do to have focus shifted to what she delivers as a minister (and she has a long way to go). Conservative advisors would recommend getting rid of the expensive brands and presenting a more daughter-of-the-soil image. This would be a pity and mercifully HRK realizes this, for as recently as yesterday she has said that she is not going to be apologetic about the way she presents herself. It is not a crime to look good and frankly it’s nobody’s business how much her handbag and sunglasses cost.