Monday, December 23, 2013

The disgraced mem-sahib?

One of the colonial hangover left in our system is the culture of sahibs and mem-sahibs. Even today our middle-class feel entitled to have domestic help whom we can order the house while relaxing in comfort of couch. Now, added to that if your dad is powerful bureaucrat, and you are an IFS officer, than this entitlement extends beyond Indian national boundaries. So what, if local labor laws of a country called US do not allow you to have one? Well, you simply break those laws. You get two contracts done, one for the satisfaction of the silly US visa officers, other which you can show in Indian law enforcement system, a system you have perfected in gaming. After all, you and and your dad have built a real-estate empire in India with such tricks. And as far as you know,  getting arrested and humiliated is a poor man's business.

When India born Preet Bharara, decides to take up a case against the IFS officer, Devyani, he is dubbed an 'overzealous' cop by Indian media. He is devil incarnate. There must be some plan, some conspiracy everyone shouts. The maid must have known someone in US embassy, we claim. There must be some US conspiracy, others chant. The usual suspect CIA comes into picture. The fact that a federal prosecutor can just take up a case which involves a housemaid is inconceivable to anyone grown up in India. Labor laws? We are used to ignoring such offshoots of legal system anyway, if they exist. Of course, Federal prosecutor shall look like overzealous from Indian perspective, where there is no zeal in public prosecutors or the police. If India had some Preet Bhararas in its system, Devyani would already have been convicted in Adarsh scam or dismissed for influencing Ministry of External Affairs for favorable German posting much before she landed on US soil.

Another colonial hangover is a brittle sense of national pride. Our national pride is very easy to break and it seems we need reassurance every now and then, that we are sovereign. Exactly how does infraction of an Indian woman, and consequently her arrest an attack on our national pride? Lot is made out of strip search, which it seems is a standard procedure for arrest in US. I agree that it may not be very humane way of treating an accused, especially if there is no reason to believe that accused is carrying any contraband item(as was admittedly the case for Devyani). But at least, US has a system that applies equally to all. Compare it with India, where a Laloo Yadav will not even be handcuffed, while poor people are routinely tortured and custodial deaths is a grim reality! There is another section which says that US did this only because she was an 'Indian' diplomat. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF president, a Frenchman, was subject to same procedure just last year.

There are others who say US is hypocritical and it protects its diplomats everywhere. This may well be true. But the example of Raymond Davis that people cite does not actually fit. I had followed that story closely both in US and in Pakistan media. There are two key differences in that case: a) it is an open secret that Raymond was working in a US covert mission in Pakistan and as part of that mission he ended up murdering two Pakistani people(who in turn were spying on him). Firstly, Raymond was arrested and that did not cause any rage, any demonstration in US. US population understood well  that Pakistan govt will be under local pressure to arrest Raymond. Next, US did put all its diplomatic weight behind Raymond. As it should. For Raymond, unlike Devyani, was not breaking Pakistan law for his personal convenience. He was doing so in national interest of US. And hence, his nation is obligated to make every effort to protect him. Secondly, Pakistan laws allows a murderer to go free, if close relatives of deceased are willing to accept 'blood money' instead of punishment of murderer. And paying few million dollars was the easiest way out for US. So if a parallel is to be drawn, if US laws allow Devyani to go free by paying fine, than that would be an easy solution(but it doesn't seem US laws allow that). Secondly, even if this were to end in a fine, the fine should not come from Indian taxpayer, as her employing a housemaid at wages lower than that required by law, was not an act done to further national interest of India.

There are other stories, like US pulled out its diplomat out of Kenya when he killed someone accidentally. Yes, US might have been hypocritical. But well, India also prosecuted French consular official Pascal Mazurier accused of raping a child. So while US is hypocritical, does the same not apply to India. Seems that both countries want to prosecute foreign consular officials deployed on their land, but wish to protect their officials deployed in foreign missions. But the difference is how far they go in their zeal. US consular officials have been in trouble all over the world, sometimes arrested, sometimes not. But at no instance, it became a national headline for weeks, in no case pizza joints were burnt down.

Which comes to next point, that of Indian reaction. India reacted by asking how much do American consular officers pay their domestic staff in India. Which, according to me, is completely pointless. Did American consular officials bring anyone from US, asking for Indian visa using a fraudulent contract? If so, prosecute them. Does American officers pay their domestic workers less than what is mandated by Indian law? If so, prosecute them. India seems to be saying, look you don't pay Indians in India, what you pay Americans or Indians in America - an argument which is bizarre and hilarious.

Another reaction of India is of withdrawing privileges from US consuls that are not accorded to Indian consuls abroad. I support this. But this should have been the case anyways, with or without Devyani episode. India has a deep running VIP culture. Americans, by virtue of being goras, were by default accorded the VIP status. We felt infuriated that our own VIPs, the IFS officers were not accorded same VIP treatment in goraland. So while the reaction is good, it could have been timed better. At other times when US has been more clearly wrong, for example, it has strip searched defense minister George Fernandes, frisked ex-president Abdul Kalam. These people were not suspected of breaking any US law. It would be even better if we cut down VIP privileges not only for Americans, but for everyone(other foreigners as well Indians).

None of this is to claim that US is a perfect state. Many US citizens and residents suffer injustice day in and day out. But we can't hide behind US imperfections to conceal gaping holes in our system. Yes, our egos are hurt when we hear Preet Bharara 'evacuate' maid's family from India. We say we are no Banana Republic. But then we are also not a country for mango people.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

The wave of political awareness

At least one great thing has started since last JanLokpal bill, that is a new desire in urban youth for being politically aware. Now my experience may differ from some of my friends, but I have felt rural youth has always been interested in politics. Politics formed an important part of conversation on charpois around fire in rural India, but it found absolutely no mention in corporate cafeterias. Suddenly, in past two years, it has become an active part of conversation, an active subject of interest and people are even going into history to understand how politics unfolded in decades that followed independence.Today people are watching live debates on manifestos, debating them at length on Facebook. This is a welcome shift. While all this is good and positive, I wish a few more changes happen.

 I wish, not only do we remain excited about polls and who wins, but also about what our legislators do when they are in house. I wish for a day when youth will go to parliament website, look at question hour schedule, see if there is a question that interests him, and watch that question and answer in parliament feed. He will see motions of the day, see debate on any motion that interests him. Trust me, the debates are not as meaningless as many of  us so-called educated youth think them to be. Partly, our disdain comes from the notion that parliamentarians are 'illiterate' and partly from 'doctor-engineer' mentality that middle class upbringing instills(mentality that intelligent ones become doctor-engineer and since parliament comprise so few of them, they are unintelligent at the least). Yes, some MPs resort to cheap tricks, some use it as platform for practicing populist one-liners, but even then the floor debates tell us more about individual party's real stand than any of television moderated debates.

Second, I wish YouTube videos from propaganda websites do not become basis of primary learning. In my observation, several self styled gurus/analysts have emerged. Typically, these videos have a mixture of facts, exaggerations, outright lies, coupled with motivated analysis. I am afraid, as much as this generation is getting informed, it is also getting misinformed at a rapid pace. I have seen some of these ridiculous videos, and sometimes more ridiculous(even funny) comments of all around adulation these videos receive. In one such instance, a fan-boy had seriously compared the orator with Hitler without having slightest idea about what kind of reputation Hitler has. Now, there are dozens of serious scholarly books on post-independent Indian politics, by academicians, reporters, biographers. If only, the urban educated youth, decided to pursue some of them instead of propaganda videos, they will not only be aware, but also aware in a wholesome way. An example of this is controversy over Patel-Nehru relationship, on which lot of great research exist in print, but YouTube is mostly filled with propaganda videos. Yes, watching a free video is easier than ordering and reading a book and that is a problem. The reluctance of Indian universities to make their lectures available online in video accentuates this problem. Lack of BBC/PBS style video documentaries is another.

Last point may perhaps be limited be NRIs or English media. This relates to an attempt to understand Indian political space with parameters used in Europe and US. I think this typically happens with folks(mostly NRIs) who first learn about politics in the US/Europe, then try to apply the same constraints to India. In my opinion, it is impossible to divide political ideology in India as left and right(or right of center, left of center or this gradient). There are two reasons for it. One, economic right and economic left is not exactly aligned with religious right and religious left. In fact, to a large extent, left parties in India do fit the bill of what is termed as left in west, but right-parties certainly do not. Secondly, Indian religious demography is more balanced with respect to majority/minority ratio, so that religious conservationists exist not only for majority but also for minority. So, even the religious right-wing is not one force but two diametrically opposite forces. So, rather than thinking of these parties on right to left scale, or even communal/secularism scale, what really they are, majority/minority vote-share scale. An incomplete attempt to put them linearly on a scale may look like(note that in some places I used names of people instead of parties, as those people have changed parties but maintained their position in this spectrum):
Majlis-e-Musilmeen, Muslim League, SP, Congress, Communists, Lalu,JD-S, NC,.....Paswan....Nitish Kumar.....DMK/AIDMK....BJP,ShivSena

 One might notice, that parties on either end of the spectrum never ally with each other solely of the fear of upsetting the majority:minority composition in their vote share. Parties in middle are happy do-goers who are able to mix and match in any NDA/UPA or third fronts and also conveniently leave them. But wait, it gets further complicated. On some issues, opposite ends do come together, and this line becomes a hcircle. One such issue you saw recently was opposition to gay-rights. On that, you can group BJP, SS, MIM, MuslimLegue, SP as Right wing conservatives and parties in middle as left wing liberals but such issues are few and far between.

Coming to economic right and left, tagging a party with either of these is nearly impossible in Indian context.
Except for the communists (CPI-M, CPI, Forward Bloc etc), the economic line of thought for all parties can either be described as 'flexible' or 'confused', depending on whether you are supporter or against that party. There have been few individuals like Rajgopalachari, Subramaniam Swamy, Manmohan Singh who have stood for right of center economics through their life, but their individual political strength has never been enough to influence bigger parties(or their own parties when they were members of main parties themselves). Recently, there has been a trend to blame Congress for left-oriented economic devices in India throughout later half of twentieth century. But the fact is, only credible political opposition Congress saw that time to its economics was that it is not left enough(discounting the individual politically weak voices)!. In Bengal, communists were the first to wrest power from Congress. The Janata Party government, of which so called 'right wing' Janasangh was part of, was full of Lohiavadis' who were committed socialists. These Lohiates, form the crux of what may be called the third front. Again, the fact that they say they are Lohiates may not always mean much, for the lowest tax rates were passed by third front government in Devegowda/Gujral government.  Even today, while in some quarters BJP is thought of as economic center of right, in his letter to PM on Food Security Bill Modi criticized FSB for not going far enough. BJP also supported NREGA along with Congress. So there is no way I can produce a linear scale for economic ideology like I produced for religious ideology. Not to mention, the newly created AAP has maintained same ambivalence that traditional parties have. In some sense, this says something about voter as well. While the voter has forced the parties to take a clear stand on socio-religious issues, it has not forced them to stand firm on economics.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

So who has won Delhi anyway?

The assembly election results are out, but the verdict is not. Delhi BJP is celebrating, so is AAP. Technically, AAP has lost the elections but everyone is congratulating them. Their debut, spectacular as it is, is seen as harbinger of new type of politics. While TV debates are focusing on many aspects, here are few smaller but important points which they seem to be missing in cacophony of Modi/Rahul/Kejriwal/Congress-free India etc.

One of the new features of this elections was NOTA, none of the above. An interesting, and somewhat expected trend of elections is that Delhi registered NOTA at one-third the rate of Chhatisgarh, and at half the rate of Madhya-Pradesh and Rajasthan. To me, it says 50-66% of people who are unimpressed by current political establishment, found their answer in AAP in Delhi(as that is only distinguishing factor in Delhi, rest two players were common in all states). To further establish the hypothesis that AAP is the reason of lowest NOTA in Delhi, look at seat-wise distribution of NOTA within Delhi. The seat with maximum number of NOTA is, the only seat where AAP officially withdrew its candidate- Rajaouri Garden. Why is this small percentage important? Though absolute vote share for NOTA seems to be negligible(at 1-3%), remember this is the percentage of voters who were frustrated enough from current system that they would go to polling station, stand in line, just to register the fact that they are unhappy with choices. NOTA got this vote share, in absence of any campaigning, any aggressive booth management, that all other options got. Now, people who did not cast their vote(30-40%) majorly fall into categories of lazy and NOTA. If we assume half of them were lazy, that tells me 15-20% of voter is disappointed by current establishment. Going by NOTA data, if 50-66% of this disenchanted voter, finds its answer in AAP, that tells us that AAP has 7.5-13.2% voter base to begin with in other states, without having to 'convert' a voter. Yes, as always in statistics, I have made some assumptions, some oversimplifications. There may be more factors which might impact this, but in a simplistic analysis, I believe AAP has a standing base of 7.5-13.2% just by raising 'awareness' about itself in other states.

Another interesting thing is insistence of Congress that MP and Chhatisgarh were not blown by Modi wave, and BJP insisting otherwise. To me, this is a sign of very unhealthy democracy. Shivraj Singh and Raman Singh both are ruling their states for 10 years. Both are generally appreciated for good work. I would say to BJP, it is a pity if a ten year standing CM needs a Modi to introduce state voters to their own CM. BJP is saying that voter of MP and Chhatisgarh had more faith in Modi, whom they had never experienced governing, rather than their own CM. Instead of being proud of having three CM's (including Modi himself), whose work has been re-stamped by voter, BJP wants to use it to propel a wave by a single person. This personality cult, is not befitting largest opposition party in world's largest democracy. This is one of few things they have learnt from Congress, where all good things are credited to Gandhis and all bad things blamed on state leaders.

Coming back to Delhi, as the fateful day of counting unfolded another interesting development has taken place. BJP+ is at 32, just four short of majority. In normal circumstances, BJP would be running to Lt. Governer to stake claim to form government. It would simultaneously be talking to legislators scheming a possible crack in any of other parties, doling out ministries, if not hard cash in return. Arun Jaitley, was in fact very candid about this, even joking Congress has too few MLA's to try any scheme anyways. But this time, the circumstances are abnormal. AAP made clear it is happy to sit in opposition and is not forming government. Arvind Kejriwal further quipped - have some 'faith' in BJP, they will find a way to form government. Now the discourse has changed. Dr. Harshvardhan now says, he will not stake claim as he is short of numbers. Another first in election scenario. Remember the BJP approached President Shankar Dayal Sharma when it did not have numbers in parliament hoping to ally and break others. It entered humiliating alliance with BSP just to see few days of power in UP. Now, it is happy to sit in opposition. After 70 manifestos, cleaner candidates, another lesson it quickly picked up. Good going, I sincerely congratulate it. If such improvisations keep coming, we may not even need AAP one day.

Lastly, is the buzzing question for AAP, so far so good, but where next? No doubt, Delhi was strategically chosen as a place where party could have maximum impact. It could carry on full campaign without anyone ever boarding a helicopter, or its central leadership having to fly around. Delhi is also relatively lesser violent compared to rest of Hindi belt. It is mostly urban. It also had been the hub of anti-corruption movement. It was also the home of Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia and ground-work of their NGOs had been done there. And then, party could concentrate its energy from all over India(and abroad) to this small space. But I would say Delhi elections were a proof of concept. A proof, that it is possible to contest elections with declared funds, with clean candidates and make an impact. Another astonishing part is AAP achieved all this with candidates who were not well known, who weren't 'strong' politically. Going forward, if the movement has to live, it needs scaling. It needs an explosion in number of people joining it. It will have to grow 77 times its current strength to be able to cover whole nation the way it covered Delhi. To achieve that in six months, before General Elections, may not be possible. But then, someone said politics is art of impossible.
Garlanded Kejriwal