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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scaling Heights, Plumbing Depths

A Disturbed Weekend in Kasauli

Our friends Yuri and Rupa have a place just outside Kasauli, a civilized mountain oasis on the way to Simla. I call their retreat “Misty Heights.” We got there late on Thursday evening with Gautam and Rita, our other friends with whom we share the experience of living in America. When we arrived late in the evening, I thought of the Eric Clapton song, and said to myself that the place, shrouded in mist, looked wonderful that night.

If ever there was generational bonding, this was it. Yuri, now a growing Bollywood star, is a former IAF fighter pilot, who was chosen to be a part of India’s space program. Rupa is a whiz kid; she is a partner in a global business that deals with American and European buyers of quality apparel.

Gautam is India’s senior-most editor, who is the genius behind the success of the Bombay-based DNA newspaper and who now serves as editorial adviser to The Times of India. He is the most sensible and erudite person in Indian journalism today. Rita is a teacher in Washington DC area; she is the fount of wisdom on education. What we discovered over the weekend is that she is also the greatest authority on films, Hollywood and Bollywood.

When you put this accomplished lot together in the hills, walking in the clouds and wearing sweaters and shawls in July, you have the makings of an enjoyable weekend, dripped in nostalgia. Especially because Gautam and Yuri are also rock stars, who, like the cult band of the 1960s, Traffic, can “sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy.” So we sat in the bar of “Misty Heights” and laughed away the hours, talking about the great things that we could do that weekend.

Even as we enjoyed conversations and music, we learned over the weekend about the bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Many of us had family and friends in the two cities. We tried to reach them but all phone lines were jammed. So we sat on edge, worrying about them, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. We did eventually reach them and were gratified to learn they were okay.

Nevertheless, it cast a pall over the gathering. We wondered what could possibly motivate people to rain death and mayhem on innocent people? I can understand driven psychos like Prabhakaran’s LTTE in Sri Lanka, who sent a suicide bomber to kill Rajiv Gandhi. Given the levels of corruption and police state governance in the island country, there is modicum of logic in the LTTE’s extremism.

What is clearly beyond reason is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in India. There are 150 million Moslems in India and they are within their rights to be concerned about the BJP and its Nazi views. On the other hand, they are a pampered lot, with every political party vying for their support. The classic example of this mollycoddling is that the avowedly secular government of India pays for Moslems to make their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Politics apart, these terrorist blasts have outlined in stark relief the sheer incompetence of the government. It is not about the BJP or the Congress; the central and state government agencies are simply inept and stupid, what a good banker friend of mine calls IAS. These agencies, whether RAW or IB or CBI, have been unable to bring anyone to book, starting with the bombings in Bombay in 1993.

“The world has decided we should be a global player,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once told me. But the world simply has no idea that the Indian government is in held in thrall by corrupt politicians and wily bureaucrats.

So we have the unseemly spectacle of L K Advani, in the midst of this terrorist mayhem, asking the Speaker of Parliament to release a clandestine video that ostensibly shows a cash for votes transaction. No one, including the Speaker, bought the BJP’s wild allegation. In fact, the Speaker is reported to have read Advani the riot act, expressing grave displeasure at the flagrant violation of parliamentary norms.

Advani was referring to an alleged monetary offer made by the government’s supporters to induce legislators to vote for the UPA in the confidence vote in Parliament. What’s even worse, despite enjoying the exalted status of opposition leader, Advani allowed, nay encouraged, these dubious players to enact the cash drama in Parliament.

My personal view is that Advani is the most corrosive politician in India today. He stands criminally accused for his role in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 and for his recklessly provocative rath yatra two years before. He is so blinded by his ambition to become prime minister that he has lost all sense of balance.

How can Advani focus on the so-called sting operation that members of his party conducted during the vote of confidence? More than 50 people have died in the terrorist attack in Gujarat (which Advani represents in the Lok Sabha) and Karnataka, both states run by the BJP. Shouldn’t he be asking questions of the BJP chief ministers there as to how this happened? He clearly has come unhinged by the government's convincing win on the floor of the house.

Where he should stand shoulder to shoulder with the central government, urging his party chief ministers to move quickly to arrest the perpetrators, Advani has shown he has the mentality of a municipal councilman. As such, he will continue in his cynically graceless manner to yell and scream from the margins to which he has relegated his party. Under the burden of his ambition, the BJP, which could be a useful right of center alternative in the political mainstream, has been reduced to a rump of naysayers and whiners.

Meanwhile back in Kasauli, we agreed that politicians like Advani would naturally draw an extreme response from Islamist formations like the “Indian Mujaheedin,” who have claimed responsibility for the blasts. Advani bashes on relentlessly: sponsoring foolish resolutions to oppose the government's plans to speed up reforms; egging on the egregious Sushma Swaraj in her wild allegations about the blasts; forgetting his own dismal record as home minister. It's time for him to adopt a vow of silence and maintain it for the remainder of this government's term.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Defeat of Evil

The Advani Karat Pact

Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritam
Dharma sansthapanarthaya sambahvami yuge yuge

(Gita 4:8)

(For the upliftment of the good and virtuous
For the destruction of evil
For the re-establishment of natural law
I will come in every age)

So the BJP and the Left and the casteist Mayawati have been defeated conclusively; time to take stock of why they did what they did. A bit of history will help understand what happened.

On August 23, 1939, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin entered into a secret agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler. It was the ultimate act of appeasement because Stalin felt that would focus Hitler's attention on Western Europe. On July 8 2008, Prakash Karat made a not-so-secret pact with L K Advani, whose naked ambition is to become India’s Prime Minister.

Karat is a diehard Stalinist, who is enjoying his place under India's democratic sun. Most people believe he gets his marching orders from the mandarins in Beijing. Because the Left is what it is, he remained unchallenged until the Speaker of the House, Somnath Chatterjee, called his bluff with support from the more flexible members of the CPM. He defied Karat and stayed on as Speaker and was quick to call "The Ayes have it" on the voice vote after the debate, rudely disrupted by BJP thugs, over the confidence vote called by the Prime Minister.

Then there’s Advani, who for all the years he’s been in politics, comes off as an amateur actor seeking a role in the major play of governance. For many years he served as the home minister and forced his way into being the deputy prime minister of the clueless Atal Vajpayee. For all the darts, deserved or not, hurled at the current home minister, Shivraj Patil, Advani was clearly the most incompetent incumbent.

On his watch as home minister and deputy prime minister, terrorists were freed and flown by external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in an abject surrender to the world’s worst thugs, the Taliban of Afghanistan. Under his watch also, Islamic terrorists attacked Parliament House with a view to taking Indian lawmakers hostage. And on and on the story goes. There were so many terrorist incidents, including the attack on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat, under his dispensation that when he gets up in Parliament to attack this government for being soft on terrorism, he comes off sounding like a hypocrite.

Remember, this man is so desperate that he has become discombobulated. He went to his native province of Sindh in Pakistan and was so "moved" that he lost all sense of bearing; he ended up calling Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, a secular leader. He forgot that Jinnah led the Muslim League and asked for a Pakistan as a home for the Muslims of British India. Jinnah's intractable stand caused the Partition and a loss of millions of lives and the largest transfer of populations the world has ever known to this day.

Sadly, Advani and his family were among the victims of Jinnah’s communal calculations. But then Jinnah was personally suave and secular and used the communal divide just to grab power. Advani understands that; he took out his rath yatra in the 1980s that left thousands dead in it‘s wake. Like Jinnah, Advani has cynically manipulated communal divisions in India in his no-holds-barred pursuit of power.

Between the ideologue Karat and the incompetent Advani, our country is being held hostage today. They have come together to try and topple India’s most liberal and reformist government. This is not the first time that India’s Hindu nationalists and communists have come together. They colluded in 1977 to support the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai and then in 1980 to support V P Singh, the feudal thakur who managed through sheer deviousness to become the prime minister for a few months.

Both experiments ended in disaster. Who can forget Madhu Dandavate, the finance minister in V P Singh’s ill-starred government? A man of great integrity, Dandavate was nevertheless an inexperienced person with no sense of the importance of his position. His first comment on assuming office in 1989, “The coffers are empty,” set the stage for the rapid decline of India into bankruptcy. The man who presided over the mortgage of India’s gold reserves to the Bank of England was Yashwant Sinha, an equally incompetent bureaucrat who served as finance minister after Dandavate. Sinha is today a leading light of the BJP, partly because he is among the few articulate people in the saffron combine.

The communists and the communalists joined forces in opposing the government over the nuclear deal. The communists’ objection is bigoted; they hate the US; the communalists’ opposition is purely opportunistic because they would rather have done the deal. Who can forget Jaswant Singh strutting around the place, dropping names: “My friend Strobe.” A senior British executive told me that he was struck by the number of times this obstreperous BJP minister dropped the name in a 15-minute conversation.

This is why, despite the desperate 11th-hour drama of dubious BJP MPs smuggling currency into Parliament House, the Advani Karat pact was defeated convincingly on July 22. They are the forces of darkness and India has already awoken to that Tagorean heaven of freedom, “where the mind is without fear and the head held high.”

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Halfway Point for the UPA

The Way Things Are Going…

When the Congress Party came to power nearly three years ago, middle class hearts were gladdened. Having supported the Neanderthal Democratic Alliance led by the BJP, many were dismayed by the 1998 nuclear tests, following which India became a pariah of the international community. In 2004, the Congress-led UPA won a mandate. Tragically, the Congress think tank, which consisted largely of people who played the role of the palace guard for 10 Janpath, interpreted the result as a vote against the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign.

The Congress continues to believe that Indira Gandhi was their talisman with her garibi hatao and her 20-point program. They see in Sonia Gandhi glimpses of Indira, when really she represents a continuation of her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of ushering India into the 21st century. Many of us who worked closely with him remember when he met Jack Welch, the head of GE, who started the first BPO operation. The rest is history. Today, we are not just the world’s back office; we are solving complex business problems on the basis of our information technology expertise.

Yet the Congress rank-and-file believes that the socialist nostrum is the way forward. They now talk about “inclusive growth.” There can be no denying that the fruits of India’s screaming economic success, led by the BPO industry, should also include the poor and that the government must play an active role in ensuring that they are equally distributed. But that’s not why the BJP-led NDA coalition was defeated. The middle class that voted it into power in 1998 deserted them, frightened by the communal agenda and more so by their incompetence in governance.

The BJP sees things in black-and-white: they propagate that the Congress is an anti-Hindu party and seek votes by raising the basest communal passions that were tweaked by the Partition. The Congress also takes a similar zero-sum view and pits the rich against the poor, stoking the fires of class conflict. It is unable to shake the Soviet mindset of state control over all aspects of human endeavor.

Both parties tend to ignore the middle class. In the old days, the middle class was small and easily forgotten; today it is a substantial, creative force that chose to oust the communal die hards of the BJP. And this is the very group against which the Congress seems to have taken up cudgels, with its divisive agenda of class and caste differences. It has increased taxes, squeezed credit and supported irrational quotas based on caste.

Neither party has taken into account the aspirations of this fastest growing segment of the population. There is something abroad in the world; it’s called the India story. No political party seems to understand it. After Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, scrapped Soviet-style controls on private enterprise in 1991, the economy boomed. Unfortunately, the sacking of the Babri Mosque derailed the reforms the very next year. The economy began to drift and that saw the comprehensive defeat of the Congress in 1996 and the emergence of carpetbagger politicians, who slept in different political tents every night.

In 1996-1997, there were two weak Congress-backed governments under whose dispensation the bureaucracy was able to stall any further reforms. In 1997, when it was clear that the Gujral-Deve Gowda regime had run it course, the bureaucracy unleashed a series of demand management measures including a rise in interest rates that reined in the growing economy. The recession that followed lasted until 2003. In the interim, BJP-led coalitions came to power but proved unequal to task of reigning in the demand managers. It resorted to ad hoc measures such as the poorly designed national highway program. In the event, the BJP-led NDA crashed to defeat in the 2004 election.

For two years, the UPA government focused on setting things right. But the internal contradictions in the Congress and the nihilism of the Left saw its goodwill erode. The Congress is losing elections everywhere but its sycophantic leaders believe that Rahul Gandhi will deliver them from the morass of ignorance and intrigue that is sapping the party. Such complacency will cost them dearly.

from daily news and analysis april 18 2007

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Fall of India’s Berlin Wall

Comrades Sent Packing

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." (Martin Luther King).

Prakash Karat cuts a sorry figure today. His ideological posturing has cost the Left dearly. In 2004, his predecessor, Harkishan Singh Surjeet offered the UPA support and enabled the Congress-led coalition to form the government. In 2005, Karat replaced Surjeet and almost immediately the relationship between the Congress and the Left turned sour.

The dogmatic new general secretary unveiled a new era of hectoring the Congress and pushing an unreconstructed ideology that survives only in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Elsewhere in the world, the communists have been pushed to the fringes after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Between April 2005, when Karat replaced Surjeet, and Tuesday July 8, 2008, when he foolishly withdrew support to the UPA, the Indian Left enjoyed more influence over the Indian government than Israel has over various US governments. And they blew it.

Karat’s obduracy has painted the Left out of the reckoning. Beijing’s mandarins cannot be very pleased. This is abundantly clear from foreign secretary Menon’s statement that China will support the Indian application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. His dour, immature brinkmanship cost the Left its invaluable influence over government policy. The current crisis is of Karat’s making; it has rocked the India story that the world believes is crucial both in geopolitics as well as in international economics.

What the commissars don’t understand is that the entire world in banking on India’s emergence from a regional to a global power. US President George W Bush was among the first to grasp the importance of the transformation. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, the whole world is rooting for India to emerge from its poverty and its Third World victim mindset. Should India succeed, it will set an example for poor countries. It did that in the 1940s when the Indian National Congress won independence from Britain and presided over a relatively smooth transfer of power.

India’s economic transformation will send a more powerful signal to the world than China’s phenomenal growth. The only other large nation that succeeded in wiping out mass poverty is the United States more than two centuries ago. Sure, China has lifted more people out of poverty than India; at the same time, it has clamped down on political opposition. “An iron fist in a velvet glove,” a Chinese-American scholar once called it.

What China lacks is soft power. That’s what the Olympics exercise is all about. The fact is that without the fuzzier aspects of power, it will always be an outsider wanting in to the world milieu. On the other hand, between cricket, Bollywood, the increasingly competitive and aggressive business community and the English-speaking, highly accomplished emigrant community in the West, India has more global influence than China.

The charge that India’s communists are a Chinese fifth column is not lightly made. Many in the highest levels of government believe it to be true. Any rational explanation of Karat’s latest move must factor it in. If, we give Karat and his commissars the benefit of the doubt, the only conclusion left to draw is that they are irresponsible and dogmatic. Any which way, they do not deserve to have a veto on government policy. Either as Quislings or as juvenile ideologues, they should be banished to the fringes from whence they sprang.

So Karat has now wrought his masterpiece of absurd theatre. It reminds me of a scene from the acclaimed film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” With the forces of the law closing in on them, the duo found themselves at the edge of a cliff with a river flowing furiously below. They had no option but to jump. Sundance was hesitant because he couldn’t swim. Butch told him not to worry “because the fall will kill you anyway.”

That’s the fate of the Left today. They have pulled the plug and find they are the ones who will be flushed down the drain. The Congress is a mighty political player with over a century’s experience. It ran circles around the juvenile commissars and emerged triumphant.

from the times of india july 14 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Goa in the Off Season

White Trash, Desi Detritus

It is “off-season” in India’s only civilized state. Late diners, prowling the strip between Calangute and Baga, find a haven in Cavala, a hostelry that has a great bar and a nice outdoor restaurant. And so it was that we found ourselves ordering dinner late one evening. As we waited to be served the food, we ordered some beer and various cocktails.

One gulp down the hatch, I nearly choked as the drink went down the wrong tube. That was because I saw a barefooted white guy walk through the restaurant into the bar, wearing only a ponytail and a saffron loincloth. Mercifully, he didn’t stay there for more than two minutes but it was long enough for me to be offended

Goa is famous for its tolerance but blue-collar tourists and just plain white trash types are stretching it to the limit. In the end, they spend less than tourists from other parts of India, who are equally obnoxious in that they believe and behave that Goa is all about unrestricted and inexpensive alcohol consumption. They drink themselves silly and venture out into the sea, unable to swim, to become the latest statistics in drowning deaths. Both the white trash and the Indian yobs detract from the wonder of this place: its gorgeous landscape; its fresh seafood and its charming lifestyle that is unrivaled anywhere on the Indian subcontinent.

Whether you stay in a five-star hotel by the beach or especially if you live in a seductive little, off-the-map village like we do, the living is easy. Nowhere in India can you find the blend of European charm and desi comfort. Where in the world can you find a place today that is simply shuts down between 1 pm and 4 pm: siesta!

In the circumstances, it is easy to be what Bombay call bindaas. Why get exercised about loincloth-wearing white trash types or beer guzzling desi morons? For one thing, both behaviors are obnoxious. On the other hand, many people like us have made Goa into our haven, away from the ugly chaos of modern India. If we must put up this, we may as well live in Bihar or Thailand.

Our retreat is threatened by white trash and desi jerks. The locals in Goa are too busy to care; they are either applying for visas to Dubai, Canada and Australia or selling heritage properties to developers. An hour’s drive around the place shows up the ugly condominiums and resorts that are springing up like topsy all over Goa; plus there are these little boutique developers who buy properties for a song, develop it and sell them at egregious profits. Indeed there’s one like that in our village that a Delhi-based boutique developer bought for 16 lakh five years ago and flogged it for 80 a few weeks ago; you can be sure no local bought it.

Such stories spread like wildfire in the small gossipy community that is a Goan village and soon, every gent with a broken down old shack is looking for 30 or 40 lakh. Where all this will end is difficult to say but the state government, in a ham-handed way, is looking to curb foreigners from buying property in the state. It is an easy populist posture but the real threat comes from developers like the Tatas, Rahejas and various other national developers, who are offering to make Goa into a place that could resemble Gurgaon near Delhi or the hideous Hiranandani township in Powai, Bombay: as ugly as sin and as crass as Disneyland.

On the other hand, Goa is full of self-righteous NGOs set up by has-been journalists and retired advertising agency types. They are against all development and would rather Goa retain its traditional ways. Their misbegotten idealism has condemned the wondrous place to be a jobless economy; net exporter of locals to Bombay, the Gulf States, Australia and Canada. They fight to retain the old feudal ways and oppose all development of any kind; their idealism is only matched by their serious wrong-headedness.

As I prepare to head back into the rubble-strewn, loud and garish world of modern India, I take comfort in the fact that I will come back here again soon to this constellation of different worlds: a retreat; a home to fly away from; a loud vacation spot; a milk-cow for political plunderers; a virgin land for unscrupulous real estate developers; a place to vent self-righteous NGO indignation. Sometimes these orbits cross as they did for me that evening on Baga beach. The results are often distressing.

from daily news and analysis september 13 2006

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Going Home

Thirty-five years and two months is a long time to stay away from a place that you hated to leave at all. The thought crossed my mind as I wandered the streets of the old city of Surat, looking for familiar landmarks and for my family home.

Is that my cousin's house opposite the temple? I can remember playing cards there on a sweltering afternoon in May 1964 when news came that Jawaharlal Nehru had died and admonishing my cousin for her less-than-respectful demeanor. My outburst surprised her for she did not expect a teenager with an Elvis-style pompadour to be politically sensitive.

A few steps down and there's the building that housed the all-girls school that my great-grandmother founded. As we stood and looked, an official came up and greeted us. When I told him of my interest in the school, he became nostalgic and reminisced about my family. However, he got confused between my grandfather, the doctor, and his brother, the lawyer, both of whom were active in public affairs.

Just down the street is Gandiva Sahitya Mandir, the publishing house famed for its Bakor Patel books that brought Disney-like anthropomorphic characters into the homes of the Gujarati middle class. It was into this family that my younger aunt was married. Sadly the `press', as it was called locally, was torn down some years ago.

Across the street from the press is the house where my grandfather's brother lived. He was the lawyer, whose prominence in the city was the stuff of history. However, I remember him for his great collection of mystery books: Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Ellery Queen and for his ability to produce a coin from behind the ear of any person less than 10 years old. His house was part of the old family home that was really two grand old buildings connected by a bridge. On the ground floor was my grandfather's dispensary, where a quaint old compounder mixed all the good doctor's prescriptions. My interest in his rudimentary pharmacology led some to insist that I would follow in my grandfather's footsteps to major in medicine. As it turned out, I did follow the old man's trail, not in medicine but in public affairs.

Between the two houses is the narrow lane that led to my grandfather's house, where I was born and raised and visited regularly till April 1966 when he died. My eyes brim over as I walk through the alley into the house that was a home and is now a rich trove of treasured memories: of those who have passed like my grandfather, with his inspiring vision and my grandmother, who gets my vote as the sweetest person of the 20th century...and of those who remain, inheritors of strong family ties that have weathered the passage of time and the alienation of distance.

Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.

from the times of india august 20 2001

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Dev Anand Legend

Evergreen Optimist

As I stood there shaking hands with him when he came to receive the Dada Saheb Phalke award, the years seemed to melt away. It was as though I was in my pre-teens, having just watched Nau Do Gyarah , Munimji , Paying Guest or whichever film I first saw starring Dev Anand.

I can remember going straight into the bathroom, wetting my hair and trying to work up the stylish pompadour. Dev Anand was my absolute favourite screen personality and I religiously caught every single film he ever made.

My friends say I am an inveterate optimist, that's why I came back to India after nearly two decades in the US. The optimism has its roots in my early exposure to Dev Anand's films.

Since the late 1950s and through the early 1960s, he was my favourite hero, not necessarily because he was a good actor but because he stood for hope.

While Dilip Kumar represented the tragedy of the Indian condition, Raj Kapoor the misbegotten ideology that messed up India, Dev Anand stood for what India could be, smiling and stylish with a song on the lips.

Dev Anand represents the most modern of all creative idioms: Find talented people and let them grow. Through his organisation, Navketan, we were introduced to Guru Dutt, S D Burman and dozens of others, who entertained generations with movies and music that today are part of our memories.

About the time Dev Anand began to be recognised as an entertainer, the operative mood in Indian films was down-in-the-mouth, a victim of the colonial experience. The theme song was Duniya mein hum ayein hain to jeena hi padega, jeevan hai agar zahar to peena hi padega .

Along came Dev Anand with his worldview expressed best in the song from the film Hum Dono : Barbadiyon ka shok manana fuzul tha, har fikr ko dhuein mein udata chala gaya .

His films filled me with hope, the ultimate global value that was in short supply in India at that time.

Congratulations on the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and thank you Dev Saheb, you instilled me with optimism about India before I reached my teens.

In the words of your immortal song: Jeevan ke safar mein raahi... de jaate hain yaadein . Indeed, you have given me, a fellow traveller in the world, a rich lode of memories, never mind your lyricist's other lines, which I have left out in the ellipsis.

from the times of india, february 16, 2004