Even before it began, 2014 had a special place in history. It is the 100th year after the war to end all wars, as World War 1 was called. A century after minor potentates and major Empires slugged it out on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, with cannon fodder from the colonies, the world was revisiting the possibility that ‘Peace in our Times’ may still be a distant mirage. Many of those former colonies, now independent states are shrugging off intellectual and academic legacies of the past to determine their own path. Many of them are seeing the rise of classes traditionally kept away from command structures, to positions of power, thereby giving established elites and processes a jolt. It is a situation akin to what Europe faced at the end of the Second World War, where the old order crumbled, making way for the new. As the old year draws to a close, here are three key events that will possibly make it to the history books a 100 years from now.
An Electoral Shift: While the world, in 2014, grappled with violence and war, there was also hope. India reaffirmed its faith in the power of democracy and electoral politics. While progress might be relatively slower than a nation where fear rules, this progress is more long term and sustainable. This week marked the results of the last set of elections for the year 2014. For the first time, since my generation was in school, has there been such an overwhelming mandate not just at the Centre but also in the states. And, like that time too, it is less for a party, and more for a leader. Travel to any state and travel by public transport and ask people who they are voting for, and the answer is clearL “voting for Narendra Modi”. It doesn’t matter if he is the Prime Minister and these are state elections, the answers are similar. For the first time, since Rajiv Gandhi’s overwhelming mandate in 1984 has there been such faith reposited in one person. And that, history tells us, is a double edged sword. Mr Modi and his Cabinet have to be cognisant of this fact and see that nothing, not even the chatter from their own party and supporters, derails thedevelopment agenda.
Also evident, is the rejection of dynasty – not the just the Congress Party but regional parties. If they want to survive, these parties have to recast themselves to be in line with the aspirations of a modern India. Parties can no longer be the fiefdom of one family – be it the Congress, the Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, RJD DMK, NCP or NC – it is the lack of internal democracy and the stranglehold of one family at the helm that are slowly eroding the base of once mass parties. 2015 will tell us if the political obituaries of these parties need to be written or not. It finally depends on them.
A New Hope: for the first time since the 1960’s, when the then Soviet Union and the United States competed in the space race, has the world been so excited about space travel. Mars, our planetary neighbour, is in the spotlight with space missions trying to delve into it’s mysteries and secrets. India’s Mangalyaan – made with a budget lower than mostHollywood blockbusters – hushed the naysayers and the sceptics to successfully reach the red planet and send back valuable data. The question often asked is: Should a country that has inadequate sanitation be spending money on space exploration, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. It is an investment for future generations. The question is not whether India can afford to invest in space exploration (or in science) the question is whether India can afford not to. Hopefully, the success of the Mangalyaan will have the same impact on young students in India as the Sputnik and Apollo missions had on Russian and American students four decades earlier – inspiring scientific curiosity and the desire to reach for the stars.
Barbarians at the Gate: At the international level, there is nothing more disconcerting than the return to barbarianism – as depicted by the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban. The treatment of the Yazdis, of Shias, of anyone not like the rampaging armies is horrific. There are stories that are coming out about people being sold into slavery, women being used as sex slaves, of the horrors of beheading and mass graves, of torture and pillage, and these are just the tip of the iceberg of the turmoil in the entire West Asia. Kingdoms and States built at the point of the gun, are disintegrating rapidly. Unfortunately, these States had killed or exiled most of those who opposed it. Their finest minds live elsewhere. And as these States crumble, the power vacuum left behind is filled not by those who want progress or development or a better life for the citizens – rather by ruthless psychopaths who think nothing of using slavery, beheading and other medieval methods of warfare that have left the world shaken, and the people in those nations bereft of hope. The massacre of children in Peshawar is just one of the long list of atrocities that have been perpetuated by these groups against people in this region. Europe and the United States, who have caused this problem in part, are in no position to solve it. It is left to the impacted states, and nations in the neighbourhood to try and find a solution. But, the question remains – how do you negotiate with nihilists – people who would rather see the world burn than sit at the negotiating table for everlasting peace? A solution has to be found sooner rather than later, before the region burns even more, creating toxicity and instability worldwide .
As the year draws to a close, one can only hope and pray for peace and prosperity, for a world without rancour that works in a collaborative manner for a better tomorrow. The colonisation of other planets is still sometime away, and for now there is only one planet that we have, where we need to learn to co-exist.
An edited version of this appeared in the DNA last week –
And, we have a brand new Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is a Government that has the undisputed mandate of the people. There are those who may argue, till the cows come home, about percentage polled and number of votes; but the fact remains that we are a first past the post system and the BJP has won more seats than everyone else put together.
As data comes in, and people conduct various forms of post poll analysis, and as reporters talk to ordinary voters, and as you yourself interact with more and more people what is evident is that people voted for Mr. Modi rather than the party; and that they voted against the Congress, UPA partners and major regional satraps who can routinely hold the Central Government to ransom. Mr.Modi’s victory is as much about the decimation of the Congress, as it is about marginalising State level parties, and reducing them to absolutely local level players, in those areas they still exist. The AIADMK, and the BJD are prime examples of this – they won, but they are limited to their State, with their central influence severely marginalised. In other cases the political graveyard beckons – be it the Samajwadi Party or the Communists, be it the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Even NDA allies who won, won less on their merit and more as a result of the BJP election juggernaut. What Mr.Modi has done, is reduced them to near irrelevance, at least in the short run. In most of these cases the parties have deeply frayed their connect with the voter base, and representation of local level aspiration and ‘pride’, and have become a family run business. The moment a Party, that is supposed to represent the people becomes a family run entity, then, sooner or later, it becomes disconnected with the people it claims to represent. The other problem is that fresh blood, fresh ideas, and passion cease to be injected in the system because there is no hope of growth unless you are part of the family. These parties have a grave future ahead of them and the only way to avert death is to free up parties from family control. The Congress as well as parties such as the SP or the DMK, or the MNS and the SS have to redefine their existence in the context of the 21st century and goes beyond the family name of its’ strongest leaders.
The other important aspect of the elections is it is the most significant one in terms of the India’s overall construct. A large number of Indians did not vote for regional issues or even local issues, or even because of caste or religious affiliations. They voted for a Government of India. The lesson for Parties is that they need to fight on issues other than identity. Their raison d’être has to go beyond their past. They have to be future ready – and that means, at the very least, the promise of not just governance, but also a promise of hope for a better tomorrow. With the permeation of the media, distances in India, as elsewhere, have shrunk. Voters have glimpses of lives that are more comfortable than their own – better roads, better jobs, better infrastructure, water on tap, schools with teachers and hospitals with doctors – and they realise there is a world not so far away from them where things work. The burgeoning middle class – which includes cab drivers and maids, shop assistants and courier boys, Office assistants and drivers– all aspire for a better tomorrow, not just for the next generation but our themselves. They have been most impacted by inflation, often seeing them at the precipice of slipping back into the ‘poor’ category again. Their world is less about austerity and more about the desire to consume. Also, as the middle class base increases people define themselves less by what they do and more by who they are as people and aspirations.
The last factor to consider is the change of elite. India is no longer run by the old elite. Even since liberalisation began in the early 1990’s a change in society has been underway. New elites have begun coming up in every field from media to telecom, from construction to retail. It has been the era of the calculated risk taker, the buccaneer who had the vision and foresight to invest into newer areas – be they areas at the outskirts of rarefied upper class city centres to develop as new cities, where the new elite would live; or service sectors that employed this new elite. This new strata in India, is bound by, at best, loose ties of caste, religion or linguistic identity. It may follow various customs and traditions, celebrations and rituals of their associations, but beyond that it plays very little role in their lives. This elite is a meritocracy – which has gotten there as first generation achievers in every field. You see this in all sectors – people from smaller towns, people from humble backgrounds achieving great heights. In the last decade the two men at the helm – Dr.Manmohan Singh and Mr.Narendra Modi – were not from the elite. Far from it. Both of them acknowledged it in their final and first speeches to the nation. Dr Singh said “I, an underprivileged child of Partition, was empowered enough to rise and occupy high office” and Mr. Modi said “It is proof of the strength of our Constitution that a man from a poor family is standing here today.” It is this that has changed in the core of India – the ability to move across economic and social strata, and not see India through older prisms. India, possibly for the first time in memory, is becoming upwardly socially mobile. People can aspire to more than they were born into. And, they can hope to achieve it. The election results reflect that.
My column, in last week’s DNA
In the last three days there have been two instances of suppression of expression due to ‘hurt’ sentiments and political beliefs. The first was the independent publisher Navayana that is focused on literary works based on caste from an anti-caste perspective. They decided not to publish the English translation of Tamizh writer Joe D’Cruz’s book Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (The Ocean Ringed World). Considered by many to be a modern epic, the novel tells the story of Parathavar fishermen in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, a story based on the lives of fishermen that delves into their history and culture would be an ideal topic for a publishing house that gives a platform for fiction, poetry, non fiction and graphic novels by anti-caste voices. However, Joe D’Cruz came out in support of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and that was enough for the translator, V Geetha, to withdraw consent for her translation to be published. In her letter to the publishing house she states “given D’ Cruz’s insistent and clear-cut support for Narendra Modi, I cannot bring myself to allow my translation to be published.” And so, a novel that should find a wider audience is sacrificed at the altar of personal sentiments. The second incident is that of the newspaper The Hindu that put out an internal circular instructing its employees not to consume non-vegetarian food in the office canteen as it causes ‘discomfort to the majority of the employees who are vegetarian’. In both cases it can be argued, that private organisations have the right to choose who they publish, what they decide as dress code and what they allow into their canteen. However, this is less about private organisations and more about the society and the increasing intolerance towards diversity in tastes, views and political leanings.
James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, had a very interesting observation about free speech and its curtailment. He said “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” And, that is precisely what has been taking place in India. Be it non vegetarian food or books that ‘cause offense’, be it women’s rights in terms of wearing western clothes, or carrying a mobile, wearing a veil or going to a pub, be it a song in a film or a play that questions sacred cows, the creeping intolerance resulting in restrictions to freedoms bodes ill for all of us.
A recently released report by the Hoot.org’s Free Speech Hub shows how censorship has crept in. The report states that in the first three months of 2014, there have been 52 instances of censorship across the length and breadth of India. The petitioners, says the report, cuts across society — “courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists; they all moved to exercise various forms of censorship”. What is more is that the censorship cuts across media, platforms and forms of expression — books, Facebook posts, films and plays have all been at the receiving end of offended sensibilities.There have been 52 acts of censorship in the last 90 days — a record that a democratic republic should not be proud of. In fact, if anything, we should hang our heads in shame that there have been so many instances of violations of free speech and expression — where ‘hurt sentiments’ have triumphed over freedoms.
The year started with Penguin losing its nerve and withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This was in response to a court case brought by an aggrieved individual. Rather than wait for the verdict and fight for the right to express, Penguin bought peace by withdrawing the book from the market. This was followed by the Kala Ghoda arts festival in Mumbai withdrawing a play Ali J based loosely on the life of Jinnah, after threats on a right wing website. In neither case did the State ask for censorship — this was voluntary.
There are four sources of restrictions of freedoms. The first is the State — and this is the one that we get to see the most. If the State, that is supposed to guarantee our freedoms, restricts it, then there is a problem for all of us. The second form is organisational — all organisations have a code of conduct and we accept those codes as a part of our everyday life. But, if that code descends into discrimination — not employing people of a certain community and women, having a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community — then it is definitely a restriction of individual freedoms. The third is societal — societies own dos and don’ts. The reason there is an uproar over the actions of khap panchayats or fatwas issued by mullahs, or restrictions by building societies, is that they impinge on individual freedoms. And the last is self censorship — the fear that you may step on toes, and those toes will retaliate with violence. More often than not, it is the last that is the most worrisome. If we start curtailing our expression of the truth for fear, then it is a slippery slope from where pulling back will be very difficult.
If we have to leave a better country for future generations that fear has to go. It is as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”. When there is a choice between the rights of the majority, and the freedom of the individual, the freedom of the individual will have to triumph. If we, as a nation, cannot guarantee that freedom, it is dark times indeed for the society and the nation.
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The question is, are they ? worthy that is… not in my opinion. they represent the worst of all other Parties in India, the corrupt brazenness of the Congress, the willingness to take to the streets and disrupt like the BJP, the parochialism of the regional parties, the unwillingness to look at an open market like the left front parties. But, above all, the aspect that gives them their own unique flavour is the nexus between the criminals and the Party. While others may take covert support, there is nothing subtle about the presence of criminals in the SP. It is upfront and present.
But I guess people deserve the Governments that they elect and UP has elected this lot. The rest of India, as always, will pay a price for the largest, most populous state – remaining backward.
It is strange and surprising that the Congress and the BJP targeted Mayawati and her administration to such a level, without having their own organisational mechanics in place. While Mayawati may have been imperious, and mercurial and turning a blind eye to corruption, – those were not the reasons to target her. It is, as a Dalit Activist friend pointed out, the feeling that “how dare she ? How dare a Dalit Woman not know her place”… that was behind a lot of the attacks on Mayawati. When you read the English language press on her, you realise how deep rooted caste is in the psyche ..’how dare she wear diamonds’ ‘how dare she carry a bag’ …There are others as corrupt, if not more – remember the scenes of Jayalalitha’s adopted son’s wedding ? – but Jaya speaks English, is convent educated, is one ‘of us’.. Maya, unfortunately, is not.
Yesterday a commentator on DD made a very interesting point – he said that the campaign attacks by Rahul Gandhi, the BJP were so virulent that they served the purpose of shifting the vote to the SP rather than the Congress or BJP.
The Punjab, the Uttarakhand and the Manipur elections were neither here nor there. Yes, they took place. yes, someone won. Should the winners have won — if there was any sense of right and wrong in the world, no … the Congress should not have won Manipur. the SAD/BJP should not have won Punjab. Khanduri should never have lost…yet these were the results :(.
The only election result that gives me some hope is Goa. The people of the State came out in large numbers – cutting across caste, community and religious lines – to vote out a Government & a criminal cartel that has pillaged their state, and voting in an Honest, effective man. Manohar Parrikar gives me hope to the same extent that the Samajwadi party drains that hope from me.
And finally, If the Congress wants to win, it needs to decentralize power & let others come to the fore. This is not a family business, and over reliance on one family is suicidal. The reason for this rout is neither corruption nor any other issues. It is Organisational Paralysis brought about by all decision making – party and Government – being concentrated in the hands of two or three people. If the BJP wants to win, it needs to consolidate power in fewer hands. Too many chiefs and too few followers. Where leadership was clear, they won. Where there was too much they lost.
And why do i care ? because I don’t want a third front government. Rather one or the other – the Congress or the BJP ….but, for that they need to get their act in place.
Yesterday, Parliament didn’t work for the 20th day in a row. It was disrupted from doing any business. I almost expect the headlines, in the next few days to say — “today MP’s did work” ….
What does that mean – that means, that the Government that the people of India have elected to power to deliver a certain set of goals – could not deliver what it is meant to do, because the Opposition – or the bunch of people, that the Indian voter did not think fit to exercise power – decided that this is the way to bring about their agenda.
What are the issues:
The Opposition Stand
The opposition parties – the BJP and the Communists – want a Joint Parliamentary Commission (JPC) – to look into the allocation of 2G licenses. They believe that there were massive kickbacks involved in the process. They claim that the loss to the exchequer in forgoing the auction process (which was followed in the 3G allocation) cost the country some lakhs of crores. They claim it is the single largest loss to the exchequer in history. The CPM is slightly flexible on the JPC. the BJP is not.
Do I agree with the Opposition’s stand – yes & no. there needs to be investigation. However, where I disagree with them on disrupting Parliament.
There, in my view, is this petulant childlike obstinacy on the JPC, only the JPC and nothing but the JPC – and where their behavior scares me is that if we don’t get our way, we won’t let you – the State – discharge its duties. And, we shall hold our breath, throw a tantrum and generally be disruptive till you do exactly what we want. Furthermore, the three JPC”s held to date have really not done too much except muddy the issue more – the first, for example, was on Bofors, the second on insider trading and the third on pesticides in Colas and ground water pollution…
My major objection with the opposition stand – The Opposition in India is behaving like the opposition in the Weimar republic – in discrediting the system – not the Government -and paving the way for a more unilateral system…..
The Government Stand
The Government – the Congress and its Allies – say yes there were irregularities. But they say that the loss was presumptive. What does this mean – it means that had it been auctioned x would have been earned, but since the UPA didn’t follow auctioning and went in for revenue sharing – this is not the loss, for there is money going to be earned in perpetuity. But, the UPA admits that there were irregularities, says that it will be investigated bur refuses the JPC. It has set up a one man committee to investigate the issue
note: Presumptive loss – the best analogy i can give is on gender. Lets’ say you – dear reader – are a woman. As a woman you are a presumptive male – for, If your father had contributed the other chromosome ( Y) you would have been a man:)
In economics, this is also the opportunity cost of making a decision – in life this is the road not taken
Do I agree with the Government’s stand – Yes and No. Yes – it is a presumptive loss. No – that they behaved like ostriches on corruption and flouting of the system. and i am also bugged with the fact that they tried to brazen this out till the heat got too much.
I personally want to see the loss recovered, the matter investigated, the accused investigated and the guilty punished. It matters not whether it is a PAC, a JPC or a XYZ. What I would be unhappy with is a coverup. I am unhappy that the Government has taken so long to figure out that something was drastically wrong in the process, even more unhappy that it has taken so long to get out of collective hibernation to take action.
The Congress needs to understand that it is in Government. And this is for a 5 year period and not perpetuity. You cannot hide behind ‘coalition dharma’ – if the coalition partners are that dirty, dump them and call for elections. You have not been elected to power -you have been elected to Govern – it is time that began happening….
The BJP needs to understand that the people of India didn’t want to elect it to power or to govern twice in succession. They need to ask why. Is part of it their own petulant behavior? Their desire to flout the system and take to the streets and disrupt everything if they don’t get their way. Maybe the BJP needs to dump its leadership and find people who are rational and in step with the mainstream electorate – not fossils who are as compromised as anyone in the UPA….
Finally, if I – the voter – want a change from the UPA at the centre what is my choice ….. a political party that behaves like a 3 year old spoilt child in a mall ???