14 May 2017

Changing Times, eh?

I had written this one sometime in early 2015 and like many other pieces, it was lying unfinished on my laptop. As I went back to write something else, I realised that nothing much has changed over the last 2 years. Bharat Sarkar is still making the pretension of trying to extradite Mr. Mallya from the UK, Mr. Adani's business is only growing in spite of occasional rumbling in the media, the Supreme Court hasn't given the go-ahead to investigate the Sahara Papers. And so it continues in 2017. I hardly had to edit the piece, not even the title. Indeed, the more things change the more they remain same.

One of the favourite peeves – with significant justification, of course – of this country’s leftists – who also happen to be one of the most trenchant critics of the country’s middle classes – is that while they (the middle classes) get all riled up at the political or bureaucratic corruption, they hardly ever talk about corporate corruption – in both private and public sectors. The reason is not very difficult to fathom simply because the service classes are primarily employed in these sectors and often complicit, either actively or passively, in the same acts of omission and commission which they lambast the politicians for.

Talking to my friends in the financial industry – from rating agencies to banks – is often an education in itself in how murky things are in this industry in India and how murkier they are getting with time, how regulatory checks and balances (mostly week to start with) have failed us again and again and how entrenched and strong the vested interests are.

A friend who works with a leading rating agency put it pithily when he said, “You know, Roy, I can clearly see in front of my eyes how a bubble builds.” From pressures to rate a company higher than what an honest analysis of their financial statements should point towards to blatant conflicts of interest in the organization, he has a story to narrate everywhere. When he contemplated whistleblowing on one particular instance of conflict of interest recently, he realized how the odds are stacked against him and how powerful the entrenched interests are. At the end of the day, most of us have families to support and EMIs to pay, which makes us hold our noses while we enter our offices in the morning, do our work as honourably as possible and collect our paychecks at the end of the month. It reminds me of what another friend once said in a different context, at a time when all of us had less reasons to be cynical – we all have sold our souls. Some have sold it cheaper and some dearer.

In this context, when magazines like The Caravan do investigative stories in the long form on this sort of corporate hanky panky, to put it mildly, I can’t help but say that more power to their elbows and not everything is lost even in this age and time when companies like Reliance control huge chunks of the country’s supposedly independent media. From stories on how public sector top guns like ONGC have been steadily milked and undermined including probably leaking of crucial gas finds in KG basin to how steel, infrastructure companies (the Essars, the Jindals, the GMRs, the GVKs) have built their ‘too-big-to-fail’ businesses by taking on impossible amounts of debts, it all makes for depressing reading. Even though you knew or suspected most of it, it is difficult to fathom the extent of the rot, how spectacularly our systems have failed us and even more difficult to imagine the cost to paid when all these are taken to account and most importantly, who will pay that cost. I am sure all of us secretly hope that the day of reckoning comes after we are dead because in the long run we all are as Keynes had famously said.

People can be forgiven to think that the tricks which Harshad Mehta pulled together – which eventually led to the setting up of that ineffective and often willfully blind regulator called the SEBI – in the pre-demat era of stock trading will be impossible in this age because few people understand how the rules of the game in high finance has changed over last 2 decades. What Harshad Mehta did in early 90s and what Jignesh Shah did with commodities market in 2000s differ only in their modus operandi. If Satyam scam was the first major one which came after the Ketan Parikh’s in late 90s, it was probably an indication that auditing fraud is more widespread than most of us would like to believe. I hear that Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAI) have got stricter now and they cancel the membership of any CA found doing auditing hanky-panky. Good for them.

While growing up in a Bengali, middle class family in the 80s and 90s, we were made to understand that nationalized banks and post offices and the myriad savings instruments they offered, were the best place to park your savings even if they grew at the proverbial Hindu rate of growth. The thing is during those days, they probably were, if you didn’t understand too much of the stock market or didn’t have the risk appetite or simply didn’t trust your broker (there were too many stories of brokers underreporting a trade in the era of paper share certificates).

Now, when we hear a SBI lending a couple of thousand crores to Vijay Mallya’s by-then-already-doomed airlines with a collateral which probably didn’t amount to much more than a couple of phones calls from the Ministry of Finance, Indian Bank lending to Essar Steel whom the private lenders are not willing to touch with a bargepole, or read about the CMD of Syndicate Bank being arrested for the ‘bribe-for-loans’ scandal, one wonders about the savings of millions of small and medium investors like us who trust these wolves with their monies. Are we the so-called educated lot any different from the gullible poor who park their money with Ponzi schemes and chit funds like the Sharada? OK, the government will probably bail these banks out if things come to a crunch but who bears that cost? These public sector bankers may not be as glamorous as the wolves of the Wall Street, whom at least everyone knows as wolves. They have been pretty much like sheeps till like a decade and half back – happy with their salaried government jobs which they managed to bag in post-bank nationalization era of early 70s – when they realized that their public sector salaries are probably not sufficient to take care of their and their families aspirational lifestyles and simultaneously discovered that their positions, while probably not as powerful as that of civil servants and politicians who call shots at the level of policy-making, offer them nice and cozy means of gaining personal gratification and favours on the side. The gratifications are of course not always monetary or in form of holiday gifts. The friend mentioned earlier was recently talking about a public sector banker who after sleeping with a couple of small time models (quite a normal practice, my friend assures me), paid for by the client, was still not willing to sanction the loan. On further follow ups by the intermediary of the loan applicant/promoter, the banker finally asked to sleep with the promoter – a lady setting up a private hospital – herself and thus, putting the intermediary in a fix. Honestly speaking, I found it a bit hard to believe but given the money and sleaze involved in the whole financial system of this country, there is enough fodder for Madhur Bhandarkar to make a movie with all the usual elements of his potboilers. Who knows, it may even clock the now-usual 100-200 crores given the multiplex audiences fascination for glamour and sleaze.

Underreporting of earnings to evade taxes is an old trick in the book. Indian promoters have traditionally depended more on debt than on equity to expand their businesses, with typical debt-equity ratios often in range of 8.5:1.5 or even 9:1. Companies with large capex (capital expenditure) outlays often ask suppliers of capital equipment to over-invoice to get the banks fund their equity portion as well and thus, putting minimum of their own money. So, it is effectively the public (bank depositors) who are funding their businesses which have zero accountability to the public whose money are being deployed. Taking out a public issue to raise money from the public at least mandates the promoters to make some disclosures. In these kinds of borrow-and-bust businesses, the downside is all of the banks because of the old banking adage – if you take a 100 rupees loan from the bank, it is your problem, if you take a 100 crore rupees loan from the bank, then it is the bank’s problem. Another friend recently commented that while we have our CIBIL scores and entire credit history being vetted for a 25-30 lakh rupees home loan, Mr. Mallya doesn’t even have to keep his yacht as collateral for availing a couple of thousands crores.

The funny thing is that the gullible public neither understands this nor wants to understand. The popular perception is that finance is a highly specialized, heavily quantitative field meant only for very smart people and those who have an aptitude for numbers. The insiders – from the currency traders to the petty bank officer in your neighbourhood SBI – of course, want to keep the public at their ignorant best while crouching many simple concepts in financial mumbo jumbos. It serves their own interests.

Also, most people think that the world of finance is full of glamour and highly remunerative, which is definitely true during the years of bull runs. They will keep on exhorting their kids to do MBA Finance and preen in front of their friends and relatives and how their son/daughter is now a hotshot professional employed in one of the streets with six figure dollar salaries or eight figure rupee salaries. In some cases, they also take a perverse pride in the fact that how they routinely work 80 hours a week and are burning themselves out. The surprising thing is that even the 2008 crisis and its aftermaths and large scale discrediting of the buccaneers of all streets hasn’t really disturbed the rosy pictures of the world of finance in the minds of the man of the street.

When I come across people in their early 20s dreaming of a red hot career in Finance, after possibly an MBA from one of the IIMs, I think of my friends and their colleagues with similar academic pedigree who entered this murky and fascinating world almost a decade back and already want to quit it for good, simply because they had enough of their fill. They think about all these years spent busting their asses competing with the CAs who often had a 5 to 8 years of head start over us engineers, mastering arcane theories of risk management, which are often just that – theories, learning to read P&L, cash flow statements and balance sheets, the way one learnt basic math back in school and wonder was it all worth it.

Finally, we Indians are an inherently dishonest lot. That coupled with last two and half decades of unbridled capitalism – some will say crony capitalism – has only made people worship big money. With any residual pangs of guilt, a hangover from Nehruvian socialism, fast vanishing, flaunting your wealth is not frowned upon anymore even in face of one of the most dehumanizing poverty and wretchedness on the planet. Income inequality, climate change, social unrest nothing matters anymore even in forming public opinion against capitalism or corporate corruption in this case. 

1 April 2014

What is the Alternative?

Disclaimer: I am a donor of Aam Aadmi Party. So, now you know where the 'foreign funding' is coming from. The views expressed in this post - as with all the things on this blog - are solely mine and are not endorsed by the organisation(s) I work for or have worked for in the past. Standard disclosures apply.

Warning: A fairly long post. 

In the same vein as my previous post, I have been planning to write on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and his brand of politics since quite some time now. I also had something to say about Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal Andolan as well, during the time it was underway but then timing is important especially when commenting on political events. Also, in response to my incessant anti-Modi chatter on FB, a friend recently asked me – in the spirit of ‘what is the alternative’ – that why I don’t dwell a bit more on Congress and AAP.

Let me deal with Congress first as most of their sins – and as a result, prospects in the upcoming elections – can be boxed together in a couple of paragraphs. There is little nuance and subtext in the colossal corruption, leadership deficit and incompetence in governance they have exhibited to merit a detailed analysis. Neither is there any point in recaping something which the media has covered extensively and Modi brigade is repeating ad-nauseam as I write this. UPA-I was mostly the proverbial honeymoon phase and I do believe that Congress and Sonia Gandhi’s NAC did some good work like getting the Right to Information Act passed, launching MNREGA etc. (Those who think that MNREGA is a wasteful, populist scheme which feeds fishes to people without teaching them how to fish and subsequently promotes a sense of right based employment, need to visit a few impoverished districts of central India to realize that in spite of massive leakages, corruption, shoddy implementation, it has made a difference to some of the most marginalized of this country. If even 60 days of work prevents a family of 4 to migrate to work in brick kilns of neighbouring states under exploitative terms, I would conside MNREGA successful. Yes, it is not perfect. Yes, it doesn’t address the systemic issues. But it is better than what folks had 10 years back. I will leave the larger debate on state’s responsibility of providing a safety net to its citizens for later.) 

While scams like 2G, security issues like 26/11 happened during UPA-I, they were either not yet out in open or was something which had precedent during BJP’s rule or could be papered over with the feel-good effects of UPA-I’s rule. The result was that the UPA came back with a more comfortable majority – in spite of BJP raking the 26/11 as a national security issue quite well. Messers Kalmadi, Dixit and others did a splendid job of conducting the Commonwealth Games 2010 and managed such fantastic botch-ups and spoils of games that it became a textbook case of corruption in an event the middle-class associates with the prestige of the country. The downward spiral began from there.

Since the time Indira Gandhi established a ‘high command’ driven structure, Congress has more or less followed a similar model which I often think of akin to running of franchisees by brands like McDonalds, Taco Bell etc. So, the Gandhi surname remains the sole custodian of the Congress parent brand and is in a pseudo-contractual agreement with a slew of regional satraps with independent mass bases. The contract allows the regional chiefs to milk their respective fiefdoms in return of which they have to deliver on requisite number of seats during the national elections. These satraps in turn dispense patronage to target groups like sugar barons of Maharashtra and tobacco czars of Andhra Pradesh to assure electoral returns. The fact that most of the today’s regional parties owe their genesis to Congress is a testimony to the fact that Congress is indeed the ‘Grand Old Party’ as well as that a non-Gandhi can’t aspire to reach the pinnacle in a way a non-entity like Modi can aspire to in a party like BJP. So in spite of its drawbacks the franchisee model worked well especially in case of leaders like Ashok Gehlot, YSR and Digvijay Singh till the mid-90s. As Hartosh Singh Bal comments, no new leadership with an independent mass support base has emerged during the last 15 years of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership.

So, while it seems that the franchisee model is not really sustainable in the year of the lord 2014, Congress seems to have laid down the weapons even before the battle has begun. The reluctant dynast who is neither cut out for nor interested in the job has exhibited an intelligence and maturity which may be excusable in a random man on the street but not in someone who may have to don the mantle of running – however unwillingly – this mind-bogglingly complex nation. For all his well-intentioned efforts to democratize Congress party from within he himself is a prisoner of his image – or shall we say his surname. This would have made him a figure deserving our sympathy, if – even after spending more than a decade in the topsy-turvy of politics – he hadn’t displayed such a spectacular lack of grasp of key issues confronting the country; if – unlike his mother – he had shown that power doesn’t come without accountability by being a part of the Council of Ministers in at least one of the 2 governments. His penchant for spreadsheets, analysis and management jargons may have worked well in Monitor Group but have limited utility in the tamasha called Indian politics. While commentators say that he is already looking at 2019, Congress defeat is a forgone conclusion. It is another matter that – given its reach and penetration – even a ‘defeated’ Congress can end up with 100-odd seats and may provide outside support to a ramshackle assortment of regional parties – otherwise known as Third Front – to keep BJP at bay. But this post is not to exhibit my non-existent punditry of psephology or crystal ball gazing so let us move on to what makes Aam Aadmi Party khaas or ‘special’.

Let us first start with who really qualifies as ‘Aam’ in this country. He is definitely not the proverbial mango man. In a country where an estimated 450-600 million belong to that catch-all bin called middle class, most of the people who traditionally identified themselves as middle classes from Nehruvian 50s to Doordarshan 90s have moved up the ladder from the class rung which sociologists have traditionally called ‘middle’. If they still call themselves ‘upper middle class’ then it is due to absence of a better term to identify themselves. In any case, none of the people reading this blog are ‘aam’ just like many cultural celebrities, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, IPS Officers whom AAP has given tickets are themselves not aam by any stretch of imagination. In my experience, most of the smartphone generation posting cheeky status updates on Indian politics have no clue how the aam aadmi lives in this country. A well-meaning friend of mine who generally uses his car to get around the city had to one day travel by the A/C Volvo bus. He texted me saying that he is traveling by public transport, albeit air-conditioned, just like the ‘aam aadmi’. I replied back saying that ‘aam aadmi’ doesn’t travel by A/C buses. I admit I was curt.

The unwashed aam aadmi in urban India today has a mobile phone but the hand set may be wound with rubber bands to stop it from falling apart. The aam aadmi on twelve hour shifts as security guard has his lunch/dinner brought in tiffin carrier in the tiny recess of your neighbourhood ATM. The real aam aadmi takes the public transport with his wife holding the newborn kid in a bundle and he carrying two heavy bags with another little kid in tow who tends to fall asleep on his lap. The real aam aadmi’s kid, if lucky, goes to the Government Middle School which, if lucky, has a building where the paint and plaster of the walls are both coming off, carrying a worn out school bag whose zipper has long since stopped functioning and is held together by a couple of safety pins. An aam aadmi’s family is also most probably in his village which he visits twice a year by boarding the insanely crowded “general dabba” of Awadh Express while he drives taxi during the day and shares 9 feet by 12 feet room with 3-4 other guys of his village during the night in one of the congested parts of the city, when he is not staying in a slum.

As Mukul Kesavan very eloquently points out here that it is this aam aadmi which Kejriwal is targeting. To me, while some of these aam aadmis have been touched with India’s liberalization by getting jobs as diverse as Big Bazaar unloaders to Shoppers Stop shop assistants to electricians and carpenters working in numerous high rises but social justice in real sense has eluded them. Rising consumerism and exhibitionist spending by the nouveau riche has in turn fueled a seething resentment and is acting as a pincer to widen of the existent fault lines in Indian society.

This brings us to the question whether a Gul Panag – whose dad Lt. Gen. HS Panag, former Army Commander of Indian Army’s Northern Command has also joined AAP – or a Meera Sanyal are qualified to represent the aam aadmi of this country, however well-intentioned they may be. I don’t know the answer but there are another set of people supporting AAP who have been associated with people’s mass movements long before India’s GenNext discovered Ram Leela Maidan and Jantar Mantar. Here we have stalwarts like Medha Patkar, Alok Agarwal, Dayamani Barla who have at least walked the talk instead of just theorizing about the revolution of the proletariat while sitting in the capital’s cozy cafes with their Marxist girlfriends in sleeveless blouses. These people do have a deep understanding of problems at the grassroots of this county, an appreciation that economics is more complicated than a Amartya Sen-Jagdish Bhagwati duel and a steadfast commitment to social justice. In fact, organisations like Narmada Bachao Andolan had contemplated electoral politics in the past but couldn’t take the plunge due inability to mobilise resources.

I can say that we need people like Patkar and Agarwal in the parliament just like we need a Yogendra Yadav and a Rajmohan Gandhi or a Shashi Tharoor and a Jairam Ramesh or a Swapan Dasgupta in this country’s public life. To that extent AAP has provided a platform to a wide range of well-intentioned activists, public intellectuals, academics who have a lot to contribute to this country in terms of their individual expertise but till now – in absence of a credible platform – had helplessly watched the decline of this country’s institutions from the sidelines. Of course, most of these people are against the sort of capital driven development of which the yuppies have been the biggest beneficiaries and rooters so they automatically draw their ire and end up being labelled as the B-team of Congress. The problem with Congress is while they have harped about social justice for last 65 years they have little to show for results.

However, some people whom AAP has given tickets are indeed as ‘aam’ as you get them – the indefatigable RTI activist, the tireless tribal activist, the courageous whistleblower in government’s irrigation department.

One thing which AAP has exploited well is populism. It started with ‘corruption’ – an issue which is a darling of the middle classes – and smartly skirted the messy business of developmental models, communalism, Kashmir and other such landmines. It also steered clear of issues which don’t impact people on a day to day basis like terrorism and foreign policy. While ‘corruption’ bit was inherited from the Anna movement, it quickly moved to Congress brand of populism like free electricity and water during Delhi elections. A saner thing to promise and do would have been to provide freebies to targeted populations who really need it and simultaneously strengthen regulatory bodies to ensure that private electricity companies don’t jack up their tariffs without setting their own house in order by reducing T&D losses. But then voters find it easier to understand and believe populist policies.

Another brand of populism AAP has exhibited is in selecting candidates. So we have Kamal Kant Batra, mother of Captain Vikram Batra, PVC (Posthumous), from Hamirpur, HP. Does being the mother of a national hero really qualify her to represent the people of Hamirpur? Or the kind of emotions memories of martyred war heroes evoke in this country’s population will ensure her victory?

Let me now address the ideology part of the rise of Aam Aadmi Party. Shivam Vij makes a very valid comment here saying that AAP is a motley group of people of different and often, contradictory ideologies – so you have Prashant Bhushan on the left who takes on the sine qua non of Indian politics by suggesting a plebiscite to let Kashmiris decide whether they want the Army in the valley and Kumar Vishwas on the right whose patriotic nationalism can help taking a leaf or two of Modi’s I-am-a-Hindu-nationalist. Apart from the platform of anti-corruption and good governance with their near universal appeal, Kejriwal and company have also talked about ‘Swaraj’. Beyond some basic outline on decentralization, they haven’t cared to explain what really they mean by ‘Swaraj’ or how similar or different is their ‘Swaraj’ from Mahatma’s Swaraj. I think Kejriwal and others are smart enough to know that real swaraj will be unpalatable to many of their urban, middle class supporters – who are the real beneficiaries of a centralized, capitalist model of development. So, decentralization and ‘swaraj’ gets translated into mohalla sabhas and referendum for anything and everything. The problem with such populist modes of governance is that what is popular may not always be right as we all saw in the recent fiasco involving Somnath Bharti at Delhi’s Kirki Extension. It was just one incident which not only exposed the hypocrisy and fractures of our society but also showed how such a referendum induced governance can make constitutional guarantees a hostage to populist demands. Yes, deferring to people is at the core of participatory democracy. In fact, Ram Manohar Lohia had once remarked that Zinda kaumein paanch saal tak intezaar nahi kiya karti (Thriving countries don’t wait for 5 years). But the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy we have, envisages that people will choose their representatives once in 5 years and entrust them with running the affairs in the interim. The underlying assumption is that people entering public life will be men and women of sufficiently high caliber and a strong moral fibre. It is this assumption which has gone wrong in India’s case and not the absence of participatory democracy. So, deferring to referendums for everything is not really the sort of decentralization we need.

Then, there is some disquiet about the brand of socialist economics propogated by AAP. Critics do overestimate it when they say this is just the Nehruvian socialism of 50s in a 21st century garb. Reverting back to maximal government presence in all areas of production and distribution and a wasteful, behemoth-like public sector driven economy is just not possible today, however hard Kejriwal and co. may try. Yes, he has talked about government's responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens. He has also probably pointed out that a government has some redistributive functions. To me, this is a no-brainer. People who think free markets eventually make a level playing field and government has no business to provide even the essential services like healthcare, education should look at how industry lobbies have ruled the roost in the US politics, for the first and how the UK's National Health Service (NHS) has functioned in past 67 odd years, for the second.

Nevertheless, Arvind Kejriwal is the first politician I have seen who encapsulated his vision for India powerfully, cogently, in a well-articulated manner when asked by Madhu Trehan to do so in 3 minutes. (For the Modi fan boys who are ready with their “So did Modi” retort, I have another blogpost for you guys).

AAP has been good at improvising since day one. Recently, they has shown sufficient electoral pragmatism as well. From saying that the idea of plebiscite in Kashmir was Bhushan’s personal opinion to labeling Haryana’s notorious Khap Panchayats – which run a parallel justice system – as a ‘cultural institution’ all smacks of AAP leadership’s pragmatism which at one plane makes them no different from the established political parties but then they don’t have an option either. Similarly, AK knows that 20 Crore rupees collected transparently and spent with high degree of accountability during Delhi elections is a drop in the ocean when it comes to LS elections. So, he recently said at a CII meeting that he is not against capitalism but only crony capitalism. This is fundamentally contradictory to the kind of development models people like Medha Patkar and Dayamani Barla have espoused for decades, as Mr. Banerjee points this out in his incisive post. It seems that AAP wants to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares in this election. So, I guess this reluctance to flesh out the message, especially in contentious areas, loudly and unambiguously is by design. 

Another worrying aspect is Kejriwal’s hyperbole about India becoming “Sone ki Chidhiya” of yore in one or two generations if we can get rid of this menace called corruption. This is oversimplification at its best and misguidance at its worst.

Then there is the question of credibility. Resigning after 49 days of Delhi government has definitely played into the hands of AAP’s detractors however, principled that move may have been. AAP’s one of the greatest advantages over other mainstream parties is that they don’t have any past baggage to haunt them – whether it is scams of colossal figures or acts of omission and commission during communal riots. Only thing which comes close to being a baggage is this turning away from the responsibility of running an elected government and this can prove to be very heavy for them in the coming elections. 

Question of pulling a Delhi like performance in the LS polls is out of question and AAP leadership knows this very well. It is quite obvious that if AAP had proven its naysayers right in the Delhi election then it would have been consigned to oblivion by now and Kejriwal wouldn’t have been making news every other day. Though it may be a bit late, let me put down what I think made AAP put up such a strong performance in Delhi. The fact that most of the leadership had a past connection with the larger government establishment – Kejriwal being an ex-IRS officer and Bhushan being Supreme Court lawyer – helped to have people with knowledge of inner functioning of the government. This I think is one of the reasons why parties like Jayprakash Narayan’s Lok Satta Party or Lok Paritran (a party floated some years back by 5 IITians) failed to make a dent. Another reason was definitely the favourable coverage provided by media right from the Anna movement days. The euphoria enabled them to mobilise a lot of resources both in terms of volunteer manpower and money. I know of friends of friends who took leave from their office to do door to door campaigning for AAP. It is very difficult to garner such a support base for country wide polls in a matter of a couple of months. To give some ballpark figures, AAP fought the Delhi election with a budget of Rs. 20 crores (they stopped further collection once they reached the target they had set for themselves). The net collection for LS Polls till last week was around Rs. 16 crores. This means that most of the AAP candidates in the 400+ constituencies (at the last count) can’t dip into this central kitty and will have to mobilise resources on their own. People like former Infosys CFO V. Balakrishnan may sell a huge chunk of their Infy stock to raise the money but that recourse is not available to most of the other AAP candidates.

In spite of all these handicaps, Yogendra Yadav pointed out recently they feel that they need to ride on the momentum built as a result of Delhi elections. This is the reason for their contesting 400+ Lok Sabha seats and such a rapid expansion in spite of the fact that their candidates may end up losing their deposits in many places. According to this line of thought, waiting for another 10-20 years to build a mass base and increase the reach – most of the mainstream parties even the ones which are cadre based like BJP and CPI(M) had to spend decades in grassroots mobilization to reach where they are today – and then take the plunge may not have been a good idea in this era of short attention spans. However, such a rapid expansion is also fraught with many risks but guess AAP is willing to live with them. Many AAP candidates don’t even have the basic formal education – however well-intentioned and characters of integrity they may be. For many of them, the only qualification is social service which is not always sufficient to run a complex modern day government.

While there is a real risk of malcontents and opportunists joining their fray in their bid to grow faster, even most of the well-intentioned people including volunteers are not in it for the long haul. For some it is a passing fad, the euphoria of sloganeering, an opportunity to grab some spotlight while there are others who naively believe in the Sone ki Chidhiya homily and are in for a rude awakening. (Something which we saw during Anna Hazare’s movement as well.) Nation building is a long and arduous process which takes generations and is not as simple as Kejriwal makes out in his vision especially for a country with such contradictions as India.

In spite of all promises of staying away from all sorts of identity politics, Kejriwal during his recent visit to Varanasi – from where he is challenging BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate – took a dip in the Ganga, visited Kashi Vishwanath temple and sported a skull cap, all front of popping flash bulbs of media cameras. Coming from Kejriwal, who vehemently opposed to presence of godmen like Baba Ramdev on the dais during Jan Lokpal movement, this mixing of religion and politics is quite disconcerting.

However cynical I may have sounded above, I think where AAP has succeeded is in providing an alternative, breaking the binary, changing the political discourse and political competition and – to an extent – breaking the behind the scenes bonhomie of Congress, BJP and their ilk. AAP being an outsider has nothing to lose and has changed the rules of the game which is forcing the mainstream parties to change – however slightly – their traditional tactics. Middle class people are more engaged with politics than they ever have been. I can take my own example. In my constituency of Bangalore South, I am aware of who the candidates of the leading parties and what their credentials are while in 2009 I was barely aware of the local dynamics in spite of my closely following the national politics. Of course, social media has a lot to do with this. 

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta – one of the country’s few public intellectuals I respect today – pointed out in his Devil’s Advocate with Karan Thapar some months back, the biggest problem with the Indian middle class today is absence of engagement with local issues. They think that they have little stake in public services like electricity (my apartment has the backup), education (my kid is enrolled in the international school), healthcare (I have the corporate insurance), law and order (I have private security guards in my apartment complex). What they often miss is that the street light near my home not working affects me more directly than Raja’s 2G scam. If AAP manages to change this outlook – however little – by making an active citizenry engaging more with local issues, I will consider that their biggest achievement irrespective of their performance in the upcoming polls.

For the commentators of the armchair variety like me, you can’t help but doff your hat to folks like Kejriwal and Yadav who jettisoned the option of living off the loaves of power and many others like Munish Raizada who chucked their promising careers and embarked on an uncertain course. You have to admire their steadfastness in face of physical attacks, non-stop slander by media and dirty tricks departments of both BJP and Congress – from throwing eggs and stones to raking mud around their funding sources. Even the leftist 'liberals' and 'progressives' whom you will otherwise expect to be on the same side of ideological divide as AAP have accused them of being Sangh Parivar stooges.

The yuppies who have suddenly become the biggest critic of AAP are the sort of people who want change, wish to be beneficiaries of a positive change but are loathe to go through the painful process of reaching there. So, they wish to transform into a butterfly without going through the caterpillar phase. So, Modi’s homilies of fast and assured results suit them just fine.

After their spectacular show in Delhi elections, Rajdeep Sardesai had, in an interview with Kejriwal, mentioned that Indian politics had seen such mass movements earlier promising to bring about a revolution by bringing down the old order – JP’s Sampoorna Kranti movement in mid-seventies is one of the prominent examples. In this context, Sardesai asked Kejriwal how AAP is different from these earlier initiatives and how do we know that AAP will also not meet the same fate i.e. either becoming just another corrupt political party playing the time tested games of identity politics (like the Janata Party which came on the back of JP Movement and formed the government after the Emergency was lifted in 1977) or being consigned to oblivion and infighting (like the Lok Paritraan Party). The answer which Kejriwal gave was extremely ideal. So, I remain cynical because corruption and poor governance have reached such epidemic proportions that a few good men or women at the top or an all-powerful, Big Brother-like Lokpal will make limited difference.

Finally, if I support AAP today, it is not with the expectation of a great, ‘Sone ki Chidhiya’ like future for the coming generations (AK appeals to people by saying that they should donate for the sake of their children’s future) because I know nothing like that is going to happen in this country. It is also not because they are the ‘best of the worst’ - the logic used by many people supporting BJP. It is not because many left-of-centre people whom I admire for their personal convictions have expressed passive support for AAP.

If I support AAP, it is because in my more than two decades since gaining political consciousness and a decade of reading the politics and history of this country, this is the first time I have seen an outfit which has taken the bull by its horns instead of simply making politically correct noises. I don’t know if I would have still supported AAP if I were old enough to be around during the Naxal movement of early 70s or JP’s Total Revolution days and had seen how easy it is for disillusionment to set in. After all, we still have some people in their 70s and 80s who came of age during the early 1950s with all its idealism about youth’s devotion to nation building only to realize how that idealism turned sour by early 1970s and bitterness set in with failure of many people’s movements of 1970s. These old men and women are today most probably past caring. But even if AAP is a blip on the vast, complex and multi-dimensional landscape of Indian politics, I – looking back 30-40 years from now – wish to be able to say that I did my bit when the opportunity arose to challenge the status quo, I supported an entity which rocked the boat and asked difficult questions about entitlements and privileges. That is the consolation. It is the same bloody conscience, you see.

As someone who is getting increasingly cynical about all sorts of agglomerations or binding forces whether they be a nation state, a hobby club , an organisation, a NGO, an ideology, a religion, I am also getting skeptical about many -isms - nationalism, socialism, communalism, utilitirianism, individualism yada, yada. I am probably most comfortable with the idea of every human being as an island. So, I fully understand the dangers of supporting an ideology, a party and political correctness behind statements like "I support or oppose issues and not parties or ideologies."

Fundamentally, it is about change. Here is something by Yoginder Sikand I read yesterday which made me add this epilogue (sort of). Leftists, Rightists, Centrists, Activists, BJP, Congress, AAP all talk about changing the country, the politics, the system, the world but no one talks about changing himself/herself. If we all change ourselves for better, we may not need a party, a leader or a messiah to change the country. It was a bespectacled, frail old man who had once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

2 March 2014

Modi, Development and Indian Middle Classes

With the dust having finally settled down on Modi’s ‘ascension’ – as against Rahul baba’s ‘coronation’ – and with the tireless NaMo running across length and breadth of the country with his vision of India and ‘India First’ homilies in a manner which makes you wonder if Gujarat government is running on autopilot, I have finally overcome my inertia and decided to finish this blogpost which has been a work-in-progress since quite some time. Since my views on Modi and most of the things that he stands for – starting from economy to Hindutva – is quite well known to my Facebook friends, let me start with a cliché.
Modi’s detractors on the left, liberal side of the spectrum accuse him being a highly polarizing and divisive figure – someone who inspires either extreme admiration or extreme loathing. No one can really have a proverbial love-hate relationship with him. To a large extent, I am in agreement with this based on what I have come across amongst people. This image of being polarizing is not just based on his baggage from 2002 – wherein tried and tested antics of Hindu right won him handsome electoral dividends – but is also reinforced by his legions of supporters on the internet. Any criticism of Modi or his ‘Gujarat model of development’ is met with scorn and abuse. Any reference to Gujarat’s less than impressive human development index (states like Tamilnadu, Kerala and Maharashtra fare much better) makes you a Congressi (They spell it as ‘Con-gressi’ with ‘con’ in bold type). Any mention of 2002, immediately brings about standard responses of ‘What about 1984’. The message is this: you are either with us or against us. You are either an admirer (if not worshipper of NaMo) or you are a consumer of ‘Congress-wadi, paid media’ run by the likes of Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose. There is no scope of a discussion or debate. You must choose. A natural extension of such a stunted view is that India’s politics has only 2 alternatives – Congress’ family-run franchisee model patronage networks supported by socialist-era mai-baap Sarkari doles for pre-identified vote banks and Modi’s model of ‘getting things done and delivering’ which is comfortable with trampling rights of a many for ‘greater common good’ of a few. It is this binary which is most appealing to India’s middle class, the typical FB-crawling guy who calls himself politically aware but is short on both patience and critical thinking to understand how politics in this country works. Thankfully, elections are not fought on Facebook. 

To me (and there are many others), it is this divisiveness of Modi which makes him unsuitable to govern a country as heterogeneous as India. This was precisely the reason which made AB Vajpayee the PM in the NDA government and not LK Advani, to whom BJP actually owed its victory. Moreover, in past 2 decades India’s politics has become highly localized – and will continue to be so – where a DMK more concerned with stoking Tamil sentiments and quasi-nationalisms, shows a middle finger to the diplomatic costs associated with alienating an otherwise friendly Sri Lanka. Considering India’s diversity and this age of coalition politics, I am curious how Modi’s ‘India First’ (putting countries interest ahead of regional, linguistic, religious and other parochial interests) hyperbole is going to work in practice. This brings me to the subject of Nationalism. BJP has always identified itself as a nationalist party, never mind that with a support base restricted to the Hindi heartland that too primarily amongst the upper caste, upper class Hindus, it probably can’t even speak for 40% of the populace. Now, in a nation where another 40% of the people can’t think beyond mere survival, it is a bit rich to expect a coal scavenger working in subhuman conditions in Lalmatiya, Bihar to believe that Kashmir is an inalienable part of India (whose territorial idea of India itself may be a bit fuzzy) or expect a tribal rendered homeless as a result of a big dam to believe that electricity from the consequent hydel power will lessen India’s crippling power shortage. (You may say that the electricity will also light up his home and enable his son to finish high school but you need to have homes and schools to begin with). These (Kashmir, dams, power plants) are things which capture the imagination of the middle classes who become all red in face with faux-indignation because sovereignty of their country has been affronted when a foreign country, which doesn’t care about how well-connected you are back home, follows their due process of law against an erring diplomat. These are the issues on which Arun Jaitleys and Ravi Shankar Prasads make the right noises on prime time telly watched by people who are purportedly potential customers of platinum love bands and Swarovski crystals. Keep an unsmiling and austere looking face and you give a message that we mean business, no pussyfooting when it comes to questions of sovereignty, national security, yada, yada.

A decade back BJP used to call itself a party-with-a-difference, though the larger party hardly seems to matter in this election. (Here again if BJP rightly claims that Congress is nothing but one family, then BJP is also a party run by proxies who are in turn remote-controlled by the khaki knickers of Nagpur). For all their accusations of Congress, can they truly claim to have played the role of a constructive opposition in last 10 years? Instead of fielding their key leaders on 9 pm telly, can’t they have formed a shadow cabinet on the lines of what they have in the UK and played a more constructive role? But, that is more difficult than simple hectoring and walkouts. 

Another issue with Modi, which is related to being-acceptable-to-most-if-not-all is his autocratic style of functioning. For those who doubt that his style is not one of that of either-my-way-or-highway, just try to recall the names of a couple of his Cabinet colleagues (That rogue named Amit Shah doesn’t count). In all probability, Gujarat Cabinet is a rubber stamp which just endorses whatever the Chief Minister has already made up his mind on. To be charitable to Modi, there are other autocratic CMs like Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee in the country. An autocratic style of functioning often leads to creation of a personality cult. Today, in minds of most non-Gujarati, middle class Indians, Gujarat is synonymous with Modi – Gujarat is Modi and Modi is Gujarat (Remember Indira is India and India is Indira?). From Mr. Bachchan promoting Gujarat Tourism, to Sabarmati Waterfront, to expressways of Gujarat, it all begins and ends with one man. Here is another example. To prove the point that Modi is non-partisan, his supporters will say that he has demolished many unauthorized temples within Ahmedabad city limits. What they probably don’t know is that such demolitions fall under the jurisdiction of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and not their beloved leader’s state government. So, anything good happening in Gujarat automatically gets attributed to Modi. Next time a Gujarati scales the Mt. Everest, they will say it was Modi’s vision of putting Gujarati on Everest to begin with. And Modi himself has done nothing to demolish such a cult – from Modi masks being worn by thousands who throng his rallies to 3D Images to NaMo TV to using social media and websites like Niti Central to promote blatant lies, all such gestures by ‘Modi fan boys’ have the man’s tacit endorsement. While you can brush aside tall claims of uninterrupted power supply, Rambo-style evacuation of Gujjus during Uttarakhand floods and photos of I-am-happy-with-Gujarat’s-development Muslims as pushing the agenda by partisans, how can one ignore Modi’s own intellectual dishonesty? While he (and BJP) has rightly pilloried the Congress for promoting a cult around a particular family as long as one can remember, now he himself is guilty of the same error.

Another halo conjured up by Modi’s supporters is his perceived incorruptibility and how his Gujarat example shows that development can happen without the bane of corruption. While he rightly pillories Congress for the rise of crony capitalism of the sort which we have seen during last decade or so, it is only the naïve who will believe that doing business in Gujarat doesn’t need political patronage. While Adani is in news these days for his perceived closeness to Modi, a little investigation reveals that Modi government is guilty of all the crimes which he blames Congress and other parties for – handing over land to business houses at throwaway prices, turning a blind eye to violation of environmental norms, making cheap gas available to his favoured business groups etc. Behind all the glitter of Modi’s Gujarat, there are stories of farmers protest in Bhavnagar against a proposed nuclear plant and pollution of coastal ecosystem due blatant violation of green norms by Adani’s Mundhra port.

Then there is the message of the man. His message is something which strikes a chord with loath-to-pay-taxes middle classes who can afford that1.6 litre sedan but don’t have the roads to drive it. A minimal government (His slogan is Minimum Government, Maximum Governance), top-notch infrastructure which will tell the goras visiting ‘Incredible India’ that India has indeed arrived, functioning public services (he doesn’t tell you that you will be expected to pay at ‘private’ rates to avail these ‘public’ services. Well, if you can’t, tough luck, chote.), rapid industrialization and so on.

I have two issues with this so-called vision of development – actually one should ideally spend some time to define what exactly is this beast called ‘development’. To most minds rooting for Modi, it starts and ends at infrastructure – water supply, power, rapid transit systems, metros for urban transport, roads, ports, highways, airports. It doesn’t talk about environment, agriculture, schools, primary health centres and other such non-glamorous stuff. After all people who have their bellies full hardly need to bother about where will be the land left to grow food if all the land is handed over to Adanis and Ambanis. Firstly, while Modi talks about how this and that inefficient government service should be privatized starting from Railways to Ordnance Factories to public Utilities, I am a bit hard-pressed to recall how he intends to provide universal education and healthcare – two most basic components of human development index – probably, by letting apro Mukesh-bhai to run a series of Dhirubhai Ambani International schools and hospitals.

My second issue with NaMo’s so-called vision is in its lack of details. He roars – his rallies have names like ‘hunkaar’ and ‘lalkaar’ to further reinforce his machismo – about giving a befitting reply to China’s intransigence by mobilizing the armed forces (that makes him decisive) but doesn’t explain how roads and associated infrastructure will be built overnight in a terrain which is mostly disadvantageous to India. He talks about indigenizing defence production to cut down corruption in defence deals. He doesn’t say how he manages to do something which DRDO and nine Defence PSUs have failed to do in past 50 years. (Privatise DRDO perhaps? J) He talks about eliminating poverty and creating jobs and by extension harps on how Congress has fooled and kept people deliberately poor for 65 odd years. He doesn’t explain how a population lacking basic skills and education will be absorbed in the job market. (assuming such a job market indeed gets created by industries brought about by his regime’s intense wooing, land offered at low prices by booting out farmers and emasculation of trade unions by relaxed labour laws. Remember, most of the investment claims touted from Vibrant Gujarat summits are just that, claims.) He doesn’t tell you that unleashing entrepreneurial energy by cutting red-tape may create jobs but will also give rise to crony-capitalism of the sort that has flourished under Congress. This is exactly the strategy which Congress has played around since years – so you have a Right to Food program which intends to eliminate something as dehumanizing as hunger but its foremost advocates are hazy on where the whereabouts of 1,60,000 Crore rupees will come from to eliminate malnutrition from this country and ensuring that hunger shouldn’t keep kids out of school. But Modi’s core constituency doesn’t have the time and patience for such details. They want quick, neat and decisive solutions as long as they themselves don’t have to bear the cost of such solutions. What they don't understand is the state - however inefficient and corrupt it may be - simply cannot abdicate its responsibilities in certain areas, particularly social sector. To offer a simplistic example, I doubt if any mobile service apart from BSNL works in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

There is a reason after all why so little scholarship, literature, art has come out of this country’s right. They are at the forefront to attack researchers and artists and burning books and effigies but when was the last time they produced or created something which this country could be proud of. But that is story for another day.

Modi’s one great strength is his oration. In a nation used to seeing geriatric dhoti-wallahs reading out prepared speeches, answering to pre-screened questions from tutored journalists in stage-managed press briefings and sighing at the speeches of Obama and other sharply-dressed Western leaders, it is refreshing to see someone who exudes energy while speaking impromptu with the right intonation, voice modulation and connects with the audience all the while (never mind his latest gaffes with historical facts). Pepper the speech with personal attacks like calling the Prime Minister a night watchman; referring to his potential opponent for PM post as shehzada and head of current coalition government as Pardesi Bahu, you know that your speech will be even more appealing to your equally uncouth supporters. It seems that name calling automatically makes you a strong leader. While this little man doesn’t have the stature or statesmanship of Vajpayee, it seems that he hasn’t even inherited the values of the previous generations of BJP/Jana Sangh leaders.

In his bid to create a strong leader image with chappan ki chaati (56" chest) he has very smartly hijacked the legacies of leaders like Sardar Patel and Netaji Subash Bose. In Gujarat, he has been long known as ‘chote Sardar’ and his so-called ‘Vikas Purush’ image borrows more than a few things from Sardar Patel’s ‘Louh Purush’.

A lot has been said about how Modi has changed the face of Gujarat but the fact of the matter is Gujarat has been more urbanized, industralised and developed than most other states even when Modi was a nobody. My parents arriving in an industrial township of South Gujarat in early eighties could out rightly see the stark differences from their native Bengal. So, Gujarat’s development has much less to do with Modi than it has to with that legendary entrepreneurial spirit of Gujaratis. Gujaratis as a race have done extremely well for themselves wherever they have gone – starting from trading with Arabs since the middle of second millennium to establishing trading posts in East Africa to pickle and papad manufacturers of the UK to ‘Potels’ of small-town America to young, educated professionals at London’s Canary Wharf financial district. Still one must say that state’s leadership did have a role to play in making Gujarat what it is today. But here again monopolizing Modi’s leadership for claiming all the great things about Gujarat today – and there are plenty – will be belittling the achievements of many others who preceded him. So, these days when I see the outrage of my Gujarati friends on slightest criticism of Modi, I find it strange that the people who gave leaders like Gandhi and Patel have to look up to a demagogue for their asmita.

But Gujarat is not India and more than anyone else, Modi knows this. What has worked in Gujarat won't work in rest of the country. Just like AAP’s success in an urban setup like Delhi doesn’t mean that they are going to bring in a revolution in this country’s politics. That is also the reason why his "hum paanch humare panchis" (sloganeering in the run-up to 2002 elections which he won by a landslide in a highly polarized environment) is being toned down to "Devalaya se pehle shauchalaya". (Anyone who thinks that Modi is fighting this election purely on the agenda of development need look no further than the recent Muzzaffarnagar riots and the fact that his man Friday Amit Shah is further burnishing his Hindutva credentials as campaign-in-charge of UP, the most critical state in any general election) This is why a Rajnath Singh is attempting to apologise to the largest religious minority of this county.

Modi’s rise has inevitably made his detractors to bring back the ghosts of 2002 and by extension, the accompanying cries of ‘Courts have exonerated Modi’ and ‘What about 1984’ from his supporters. Here’s is what I will say in response to the first comment of his supporters. I have no idea whether he personally ordered the police to stand back and let ‘Hindus vent their anger’ but I will narrate 2 examples of what happened during and after the riots which suggest that there is no smoke without fire. During Feb-March 2002, I was in my 6th semester of engineering at a small town in central Gujarat around 60 kms from Ahmedabad. While I never saw actual rioting and killing, I had seen petrol bombs being assembled, mobs armed with lathis, cricket bats, stumps, sickles assembling in parking lots of middle class apartments and Muslim shops being burnt in our mostly Hindu neighbourhood. In one instance, the local police threw teargas to disperse a reasonably armed Hindu mob. In response to that, a VHP goon called up the local DSP and swore at him with loaded expletives. Having personally seen such sheer impudence to authorities, one can’t help but think that these folks had blessings from many higher-ups in the administrative hierarchy. The second example is a matter of record about how most of the IPS officers who considered maintenance of law and order as their foremost duty and tried controlling the spread of riots by making proactive arrests and clamping strict curfews were punished by the Modi administration after the riots by initiating disciplinary proceedings, transfers etc. It was largely due to proactive steps taken by people like VK Gupta (then Commissioner of Surat), that communally sensitive cities like Surat saw minimal casualties due to riots.

Yes, one of the lower courts in Gujarat has exonerated Modi and his guilt may never be proven beyond reasonable doubt because our justice system requires evidence and deposition by independent witnesses. In a system where sitting judges have their rates fixed and where the rich and powerful routinely manipulate hearings of commissions, coerce witnesses, tamper with evidence and eventually get scot-free, Modi is bound to be exonerated simply because there is very little against him which will stand the scrutiny of court. Let’s for the sake of argument forget that Supreme Court appointed an amicus curie to monitor the SIT investigation into Gulberg Society massacre, that Haren Pandya’s didn’t die a mysterious death which had something to do with his secret deposition to Nanavati Commission. But what about Modi’s own moral pretensions? At the end of the day, he, as an elected representative of people, failed to protect their life and property. That is a sufficient reason for his head to have rolled – the way heads rolled starting from Home Minister to Maharashtra CM in the aftermath of 26/11. In any western democracy, an insensitive remark of the likes of every action has an equal and opposite reaction would have been sufficient for a leader to lose his job. This brings me to ‘What about 1984’. Let me unequivocally state here that I believe Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Fall of a big tree shakes up the earth’ was equally insensitive for him to lose his job. But while Congress at least put up the sham of not giving tickets to the likes of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (mostly due to electoral exigencies), Modi appointed Maya Kodani, who was eventually convicted with life imprisonment for leading riots, to his cabinet. I won’t compare Manmohan Singh’s apology in parliament with Rajnath Singh’s ‘offer’ of apology because in a modern democracy only, and only, the law of the land should prevail. Apologies are meaningless.

Reasons for Modi to be able to ride rough shod over such moral pretensions and electoral exigencies lie in the demographic composition and social make-up of his Gujarati electorate. Muslims constitute only 8% of Gujarat’s population which allows Modi to care two hoots about Muslim votes (this is another point where Modi knows India is not Gujarat). Moreover, the most Dawoodi and Bohra Muslim communities of Gujarat are successful entrepreneurs and reasonably well-off when compared to their brethren elsewhere in the country. They are pragmatic enough to understand that endless confrontations won’t yield much and they need to make the best in the given circumstances and so have made their peace. This helps Modi to put across the narrative of ‘people have moved on’ to the rest of the world.

Another factor is the social polarization of the Gujarati society and this has got little to do with Modi. Communalisation of the state started mostly in mid-80s when Congress tried to implement the KHAM (Khsatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula. The result is that today the average Gujarati society is so polarized that a middle-of-the-road party doesn’t stand a candle's chance in a cyclone. While all major Indian cities have Muslim ghettoes and so-called mini-Pakistans, you will see the polarization a notch higher in larger and reasonably cosmopolitan Gujarati cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat. I am not aware how things are in small towns. There are entire Gujarati colonies in Bombay where Muslims can’t rent apartments, where builders refuse to sell apartments to Muslims. And this has got nothing to do with Modi. But the fact remains that the home state of the man who fought his whole life and eventually gave it up for the sake of communal harmony had become fertile enough – since mid-80s or latest by 1992 Ram Janmabhoomi mobilization – for the rise of a man like Modi.

There is one more thing which my friend A was talking about sometime back. Indians have traditionally looked up to one person to set things right. They keep wondering how things would have been different if a Sardar Patel or Subhash Bose had their time at the helm. It is the same idea which makes Modi appealing as a modern-day Messiah, who will clear up the mess, set everything right and bring back the glorious old days for India to take her rightful place on world stage. I personally believe that power of one man or woman to change the course of history has been over-stated. Some of the greatest achievements of modern mankind have been incessant, incremental efforts of thousands of men and women who wanted to make a difference in face of insurmountable odds. Even the vision wouldn’t have been of just one man.

Ascent of a man like Modi has a lot to do with India’s Middle Class about which I have written earlier. Modi knows – more than me and you – that perception is reality. He is aware of the gullibility and hypocrisy of the middle classes in all spheres of public and private life – from corruption to sexuality. For all their professed political awareness and so-called education, they are too lazy to look beyond the rhetorical bullshit dished out in what passes as media in this country - both print and electronic. So, they tell themselves that they pay all the income tax while the slum dwellers ride free but are not wont to acknowledge that slum dwellers not only pay taxes when they buy a packet of bidi or Parle-G but also contribute to an informal economy which provides them cheap labour.

Another issue with us (this country's middle class) is the absence of engagement with the larger community. Hinduism actually rationalizes poverty and suffering as fruits of bad karma from past lives. The poverty exists next door, cheek-by-jowl with my air-conditioned sedan but it has nothing to do with me but everything to do with govt., state, sarkar, that imaginary Bhup Singh sitting in Delhi. So, we will curse everything from Nehruvian socialism to populist handouts. Middle class will cringe at paying higher taxes but doesn't realize that their spending (aka consumerist hedonism) is not really trickling down but fattening the few fat cats of this country's oligarchy (Whatever the unleashing of entrepreneurial energy may mean - wealth has simply not trickled down). A natural extension is refusal to accept that the state does have a redistributive responsibility. All this makes it easier for a man like Modi to sell his prescription of decisive leadership all the while knowing that on-the-ground achievement of most of it is a pipe dream. Why the implementation is a pipe-dream?

To my mind, in a setup like ours, inability of a leader to take concrete steps for progress of the country has little to do with his indecisiveness but a lot to do with inherent contradictions in our country’s social and economic life and the ever-widening gulf in wealth distribution. Any decision will always be detrimental to one or other group and implementation of such decisions will be mostly fraught with vociferous opposition which can be overcome only by means of force backed by the power of state machinery. Such an approach may work as they do in China but as long as India remains a moderately functioning democracy anchored by a liberal Constitution such uses of force by the state will only result in further unrest, instability and resentment.

Listening to Modi’s fiery speeches often makes me think of today’s India’s parallels with the Weimar Germany. While Modi is no Fuhrer, there are some inescapable similarities between today’s India and Germany of 1920s – chronic political instability, sky-rocketing inflation and unemployment, a nose diving economy, a disenchanted middle class. In short, a situation ripe for a Messiah-like leader to rise from the ashes. To that extent, Congress has only made rise of Modi easier. In Germany before WW II, many otherwise sane and reasonable Germans were disenchanted enough to buy into Hitler’s strong-arm, nationalist rhetoric. While it will be a little too far-fetched to imagine that Indian public is at a similar point of history (for this we must thank this country’s pluralism), we can do with saner voices.
Democracies, by nature are messy. Dreams of an orderly society where everything works with a clockwork precision are tempting but we need to keep in mind that the desire to achieve order and efficiency should not be at the cost of individual liberty – a cherished gift for which mankind has fought long and hard. Being subjected to long periods of colonisations, Indians still have a tendency for mob justice and are used to tyranny of one man with a caveat. The caveat is that it is fine to wield the danda as long as I am not at its receiving end. So, AFSPA can continue in J&K in the sacrosanct name of national security as long as armed soldiers don’t barge into my home in the middle of night. Despotic tyranny may build world class infrastructure but there is always a cost involved. The question today is whether that cost is acceptable to us – environmental destruction, trampling of individual liberties and a deeply fractured and unequal society – just to chase a development which itself may be a chimera.

12 February 2013

Being a Bong, Bengali & Bangali

Most of the observations on Bengalis in this post have been made keeping in mind Bengalis residing in the Indian state of West Bengal, from the persepective of a non-resident Bengali. The latter is too diverse a category to qualify for such blatant generalizations. Bengali chauvinists - if there is indeed a species like that - are forewarned that some observations may ruffle their feathers. Finally, please excuse my stereotyping.

I sometimes wonder what it means to be Bengali and I must admit that this question of identity has been bothering me for some time. My bangali-yana probably begins with my name. While my name figures quite low in the scale of difficulty to pronounce and spell amongst the pantheon of loaded Bengali names, I, who has grown up and worked, in a pre-dominantly non-Bengali milieu have been subjected to a lifelong agony of seeing incorrect spellings of my name and hearing my name mispronounced with myriad regional accents. However, the question of cultural identity is deeper and more complex. For someone like me, who straddled across different cultures while growing up, the question of where-do-I-belong has no easy answers. I certainly don’t identify with many, many things of my generation of Bengalis but that shouldn’t automatically disqualify me from penning some thoughts on how does one define a Bengali, however, skeptical I may be of stereotypes. Dhoomk2 has done this terribly funny self-description of bongs. I neither have the sense of humour nor richness of imagination to attempt something similar. It can of course, not be a dispassionate account nor can it be an account loaded with nostalgia of past glories. At best, it can be a set of observations of someone who found the world he visited during summer vacations quite different from the one he inhabited during rest of the year, whose parents tried to cultivate in him a love for all the things for which Bengalis are justifiably proud of and who tried to read and understand some writings on Bengal, Bengalis, Calcutta and their recent (say last 2 centuries) history, politics, society.

There are certain keywords which define – or rather used to define – a Bangali Bhadralok (the Bengali genteel-folk). A certain disdain for money and moneyed classes, an appreciation of good literature, music, theatre, cinema and art and valuing certain moral principles. In short – to repeat a cliché – a simple living and a high thinking. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard examples where a person had the option of making pots of money but didn’t do so to serve a higher cause. Such examples are glorified and considered as worth emulating. Now, as many perceptive observers have pointed out, this peculiar Bengali trait has a lot to do with the economic degradation of Bengal over past couple of decades. I shall come to this point later in this blog post.

While education has always been valued in the Bengali society more than it has been elsewhere, this used to be accompanied by a healthy disdain for money – as if both can’t co-exist. But I think things have changed or are changing because when it comes to running after material goods of the world, the current generation of Bengalis is of course, no different from the other races whom their fathers used to despise. But that is a story for another day.

However, valuing of education doesn’t exempt bongs from what I call academic snobbery. For most of the bongs residing in West Bengal, the epitome of engineering excellence is Jadobpur (I deliberately spell it the way it is pronounced in Bangla) and Shibpur. Most of them also harbor certain grandiose misconceptions that most non-Bengalis are a little slow up there. In their world view, they have a near monopoly in all things related to grey matter and the ones who have veggies and dal roti are only fit for manual labour. To back such claims, some moronic bongs will cite the percentage of NASA engineers who are Bangali (again a highly dubious, if not tenuous claim) or worse drop names beginning from Satyendra Nath Bose to Mani Bhaumik. At the time of our annual visits to Calcutta during my school days, I was often subjected to thinly veiled barbs from my uncles, aunts and cousins about the supposedly pedestrian academic standards of my CBSE syllabus as against their supposedly superior State Board standards. Much later in life, when I actually came across the boys from JU and Shibpur, I was far from impressed with them. They are good but not gods and if they are good so are the boys from PEC, Chandigarh, VJTI, Bombay and PSG, Coimbatore. Then, there is that over the top fascination with marks and awards (Though this is not restricted to any particular Indian community, I think Bengalis distinguish themselves here as well) and the constant lamenting of how their state board and subsequently Calcutta University are parsimonious when it comes to granting marks. For the consideration of admission to colleges under Calcutta University, they used to (I don’t know how things are today) deduct marks obtained by CBSE & ICSE students by a certain percentage using some pervert logic-defying rationale. Now, if their fossilized dons want to keep them in nineteenth century, are the CBSE & ICSE students to blame?

A second cousin, after relocating to Bangalore, commented that no one in Bangalore had heard of her alma mater, a certain South Point High School in South Calcutta (my obvious reaction was “Why should they?”) which happens to be the first choice of most parents in their area but to me is not much more than a factory for churning out students in pure assembly line fashion.

Fixation with education and extra-curricular activities, makes Bong moms to keep on hopping from art class to swimming class to dance class with their kid in tow during after-school hours. One feels a tinge of regret for the kids born to these parents who probably want their kids to grow up to be a crossover between Jamini Roy and Ananda Shankar. A natural extension is a fair bit of mollycoddling to the point when they are thrown out of their familiar environs, they don’t realize that one has to make up their own bed in the morning when there is no mommy around. Then, there is the ubiquitous problem of “Khabar Koshto” (unavailability of the right kind of bong food) for the brave hearts who have ventured beyond the boundaries of Bengal.

Apart from intellectual and cultural snobbery if there is another thing which defines Bengalis, it is that of a talker of big, abstruse, lofty things & ideas – more often than not, pure hot air. The word Adda probably doesn’t have an equivalent in any other language. Adda – Made in Bengal, to quote a dialogue from Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk. Adda brings me to another aspect without which it is difficult to imagine a Bengali – the all-pervading fascination with nicotine. According to a survey I had come across a couple of years back, 95% of Bengali men smoke at home (give or take a few percentages). Non-bengali acquaintances who smoke have often offered me a cigarette and were genuinely surprised to know that I don’t smoke. To them, every bong male of a certain age smokes. I have personally seen people lighting up in public offices of Calcutta within closed spaces (most often on their very desks) – concerns about passive smoking and fire regulations be damned. My father (who loves to have his smoke once in a while) once remarked that nicotine and caffeine simulates the grey cells of Bengali pseudo-intellectuals sitting at College Street Coffee House who after interminable debates, come to the conclusion that biplab (revolution) is the only way out of the current morass.

Bengalis are often considered as cunning and untrustworthy by other communities. In my own personal experience, I have seen Bengalis playing some of the worst sort of office politics. They are also perceived as being jealous of success of others. While such blatant generalizations are definitely unjustified, it is worth pondering over why very few Bengalis have been successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. I think there is something more at work here than just the disdain for commercial activity. Though most Bengalis sorely lack certain traits of successful business communities like risk appetite, commercial acumen, successful and sustainable commercial activities also requires adherence to certain basic business ethics and foregoing the temptations of huge profits in the short run. What I have seen and heard from experiences of others, most Bengali businessmen want to make the killing of their lifetimes in their very first deal. Bong businessmen seem to forget what Abe Lincoln had remarked long back, “You can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”

Violence & Bengalis – This is probably a very tenuous connection but I think the otherwise meek-mannered Bengalis who never got classified as martial races in the ethnic taxonomy designed by the British, do have a proclivity for violence. From worshipping Goddess Kali in her fiercest form to the mob justice meted out to the unfortunate petty criminal on the streets of Calcutta, one can’t ignore a thread of resorting to violence at slightest provocation. In the pantheon of Indian revolutionaries who fought the British by means of armed resistance, Bengalis far outnumber any other community. Netaji’s freedom in exchange of blood exhortation may be more than just a metaphor. The Naxalism of 1970s and state sponsored hooliganism of the current and previous regimes of West Bengal is probably result of much more than just long standing resentments.

Lest the reader – not that many read this blog – thinks that I am an unapologetic Bangali-basher (and not very different from a second generation Indian American who is ashamed of the land of snake charmers & elephants – another cliché), let me state on record that my own personality, my sensibilities, my ideas have an unmistakable stamp of being an inheritor of Bengali genes and I am justifiably proud of many of these things, particularly some aspects of the Brahmo heritage which came down from my father’s side.

There was indeed a time when what Bengal used to think today, the rest of India used to think tomorrow. From the time of Bengal Renaissance to the first few decades after independence, Bengal not only produced innumerable giants in every sphere of human achievement but was also at the forefront of an enlightened modern Indian thought. Being one of the first beneficiaries of Western-styled education under the British (they were predated only by Parsees of Bombay in this respect), Bengalis produced a rich, cosmopolitan amalgamation of best of both the East & West during the particular period of second half of 19th and early 20th century. Their contribution to India’s general social reform and freedom movement requires no elaboration and probably, doesn’t have a parallel, at least in this country. And when the entire India lays claim to the legacies of Swami Vivekananda and Tagore, it just reminds us of their universalism.

But today, it saddens one to see that while these achievements may continue to provide some spent ammunition for today’s Bhadralok, who deep down there knows that today’s rot goes right down to the core, the current crop of youngsters are not even aware of their past glories.

I was taught to read and write Bangla at home by my parents at a very young age – something I am proud of today. (To someone who has grown up in Bengal, this may hardly be an achievement to be proud of but I don’t know a single soul in my entire circle of Probashi friends and acquaintances (including my sister) who can read their mother tongue as well as I can.) I guess this is another thing which distinguishes Probashi Bangalis from Bengalis residing in Bengal. They tend to hold on to their culture more dearly and try to go an extra mile to ensure that their children don’t suffer from a cultural rootlessness. While my writing will at best look like that of a kiddo, I have managed to read some novels and short stories. But then I have probably read more short stories of Amrita Pritam and poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi than I have read Tagore. I must also admit Bankim Chandra’s writings are utterly inaccessible to me.

But then, none of my close friends are Bengali. I am also quite an anti-thesis of certain things by which rest of the world identifies a Bengali – small stuff mostly. I never got hooked to football as a sport – neither as a player nor as a spectator. I remember once asking my father during a World Cup match long back to explain me the concept of 'Offside' only to get an admonishment for my ignorance with a comment on how a Class IV Calcutta kid will know such basic stuff and much more. I also dislike the kind of fresh water fishes most Bengalis can’t imagine their lives without and love the sea fishes, most true blue bongs won’t touch with a bargepole. But here at least, my father and I are on the same page.

No discussion about Bengalis can be complete without a reference to Calcutta. Whatever the Bangali Bhadralok say about their being dispossessed from their own city and its encroachment by Marwari land sharks and their ilk, to me, Calcutta remains a quintessentially Bengali city – in a way Bombay can never be a Marathi city, however hard the Thackeray brothers may try.

The city has got quite a few shameful tags – starting from Kipling Sahib’s City of Dreadful Night – and has been variously called as a dead city, an urban disaster beyond redemption. The first thing which goes against Calcutta is weather. As Moorehouse notes in his book, the only thing which made Mr. Charnock & East India Company to select a location with such insalubrious weather to launch their future conquest of Bengal and subsequently, of India was greed. Calcutta with its strategic location provided ready access to sea and inland waterways.

There have also been many eloquent, nostalgia loaded tributes to the lost glories of this city. There were the box-wallahs of late 40s to early 60s and their Anglicized clubs. There were the tea planters of Darjeeling and their lonely, leisurely lives (not exactly Calcutta). Many columnists like Vir Sanghvi and Jug Suraiya spent their early working lives in Calcutta and wax eloquent about the Calcutta of 1960s but that was a Calcutta of Flurry’s and Firpos, of midnight masses on New Years’ Eve at St. Paul’s Cathedral and dancing to Usha Uthup’s music in the discotheques of Park Street. As the City and state’s economic degeneration happened, generations of Bengalis like my parents simply left. Somehow, my nostalgia for that era makes me to go back to any book on Calcutta and its history – whether it is through books like Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta or Rathin Mitra’s sketches. It is also the same nostalgia I feel when I go to Nahoum’s in New Market for that date brownie or attempt to take a stroll along the pavements of Chowringhee.

My parents have recently moved back to Kolkata after a gap of more than 28 years and their experience in dealing with the ‘system’ – right from a tradesman called to fix the leaking pipe to the local bank to official bureaucracy – is what I can mildly term as ‘culture shock’. While most of our government issued documents have been issued from Gujarat, my folks are being treated as if they have arrived from a different planet. Having to make affidavits and undertakings by the dozen, even after having a permanent residence proof and all other papers in order, is a bizarre sort of harassment. My mother was joking the other day about the fact that while the need to bribe is a universal thing in this country, at other places the work gets done after you have paid the bribe but in Calcutta, paying the bribe is no assurance for the work getting done. My father is blunter when he says that the fish has rotten from the head.

The social fabric of the city has probably also changed irrevocably since the late 1970s. This year’s Durga Puja was a first in Calcutta for my parents after a gap of all these years. While they had expected a fair bit of cacophony and rampant commercialization, but they were not quite prepared for the binge drinking by parar cheles (boys of the local neighbourhood) – most probably with the money siphoned off from the funds raised on account of organizing the Puja.

Finally, let me touch upon a theme which I had talked about in the beginning of this post. Why has a state whose dominant community once made such stellar contributions in almost every sphere is in such state of despair? Persuasive work has been done on this subject and its analysis by many eminent and distinguished people and I am no expert in sociology. In spite of all the oft-cited reasons – shifting of political capital to Delhi during the days of the Raj, partition, decline of jute industry, small landmass, influx of refugees, rise of left, 1971 and formation of Bangladesh, 34 years of left rule, militant trade unionism, flight of capital and resultant economic migration of people, I want to explore something ingrained in Bengali psychology. Is there some fundamental trait in Bengalis which has a correlation with the current state of advanced decay of the state?

I remember reading an editorial clipping from Anandabazar Patrika, a leading Bengali newspaper, which my father had forwarded to me some weeks after the demise of Mr. Jyoti Basu. It had very eloquently explained how the Bengali psychology works in relation to development and how well Jyoti babu understood it. A Bengali subconscious takes a certain pride in struggling, in being & remaining an underdog and thinks that anything which makes life a little easier and better is not worth having. (To quote another dialogue from Ray’s Agantuk, the word ‘struggle’ is a Bengali’s favourite) A Bengali also tops up such sentiment with eloquent language. Jyoti babu indeed had his pulse on this particular Bengali mindset for close to 3 decades he was at helm. Demonizing all investors as blood sucking capitalists is just half the story – the other half is presence of a fertile ground, a mass of people who will lap up such demonization theories even to the detriment of their own self-interest. They are perfectly happy to shout eloquent nonsense about making power plants with their blood (A reference to the times when a power project at Bakreshwar got stalled due to numerous reasons). GB expresses a similar opinion here much more eloquently than I ever could. Many observers (including my father) have a similar reasoning for wholesale decay of the state.

On encountering the undercurrent of xenophobia in most of the places I have lived, I sometimes contemplate moving to Calcutta. I think of aging parents and brace myself by saying that probably, it won’t be so difficult to live there. I tell myself that for someone who changes cities every 4-5 years, it is just another city. Then, it just takes a week at Calcutta to feel how alien it is to me and I am to it. But then I am an outsider even in Calcutta and I come back to the question of “Where do I really belong?”