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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Life 10


New York: It was a jaw-dropping piece of news. Gabrielle Giffords, a young Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Tucson, Arizona was shot in the head by a crazed assassin in a parking lot as she did her regular meeting with her constituents on Saturday January 8.

The shooting shocked America. Since March 1981, when John W Hinckley Jr took a shot at Ronald Reagan, I can recall no other such event. The Reagan shooting precipitated a national debate on gun control; this latest one raised issues about the polarization in politics that took hold when George W Bush was president.

For me, the news harked back to the night of May 21 1991 when I got a call informing me that Rajiv Gandhi was killed in Sriperumbudur in the southern state of Madras. My heart went out to the family, friends and staff of Giffords.

Giffords’ immediate supporters probably feel today as I felt on that stormy night in May 1991: the dream was over; political violence has a way of putting paid to ideals. I worked with Rajiv for many years and was devastated at the news of his death.

When Rajiv was assassinated, I told an interviewer from The Times of India that he was killed because of the hate atmosphere that was created by his opponents in politics and in the media.

Amazingly, this was among the issues being debated 30 years later in America. In a television discussion on January 12, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told the host Charlie Rose that hate mongering is an important determinant of political assassinations. In his cool, scholastic way Remnick endorsed what I told the Times in a fit of emotion some two decades ago.

The Giffords shooting brought to mind the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Their opponents had launched a relentless and visceral hate campaign against them.

Among the many stories that emerged from the Giffords shooting, one was about Sarah Palin’s website on which she had marked targeted constituencies for her yet-unspoken campaign in 2012 with cross-hair targets and one of them was Giffords’ 8th congressional district in southern Arizona.

In the middle of the reasoned debate about how a polarized hate atmosphere can move deranged people to target public figures, Sarah Palin, the erstwhile Republican vice presidential candidate, the Narendra Modi of American politics, weighed in; she accused the media of “blood libel.”

In turn, her detractors pointed out that her phrase “blood libel” was anti-semitic. The phrase has been used since Biblical times to reinforce the fundamentalist Christian view that Jews are the killers of Jesus Christ. Like Gujarat's Modi, Palin lacks sophistication, preferring the use of propaganda to work up her constituents; like Modi, she uses insulting and intemperate words to score over her opponents.

A recent example of this was in her tweet: "So how's the hopey-changey thing working out for ya?"

Contrast Palin's tilt in the debate to the much anticipated speech that President Barack Obama gave after the shooting. Rising above the clamor, he said that political differences are real but should not be allowed to become the source of violence. He reached out to his opponents and asked for a compact of civility that would foreswear hate.

Watching television coverage and debates on the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, I was struck by several things. One, the coverage was wall-to-wall. Two, there was a liberal slant to it in that most reporters and commentators pointed discreet fingers at the right-wing cable and radio mafia for hatemongering. Three, Sarah Palin got embroiled in it.

It’s much like what the Indian media do except the Americans did it in a sophisticated, understated and well-researched fashion. No screaming and shouting and rumor-mongering, just well-reasoned arguments.

Conversations on public affairs in India are sophomoric with opinions based on prejudice rather than facts; debates are in the nature of high school encounters; the discourse as a result is usually twisted and misses the point. Indeed, if America is a post-doctoral democracy, India is still to get into college.

Though it may be not the most politically correct thing to say, fingers can be pointed at Mohandas Gandhi’s jibe. Asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said, “It would be a good idea.”

In that one smug remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, movements that raised the West to unprecedented heights of prosperity and civility.

Consider 21st century India: people urinate and defecate in public; female children are suffocated at birth; brides are snuffed out for lack of dowry; there is still hunger (India ranks number 94 in the global hunger chart); most people live without water and sanitation; cities are slums and villages dens of inequity and filth.

The legacy of Gandhi’s flippant remark can be observed in the immaturity of public discourse in India. Serious issues are subverted in the flush of smug opinions.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Life 9

Let It Snow…

New York: Since yesterday, the weather service forecast, picked up in the local media, was a blizzard would dump up to 18 inches of snow on the city.

The last time a blizzard struck was over the Christmas holiday and left the city reeling under the devastating impact of more than two feet of the white stuff.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his city administration attracted a lot of criticism for the responsiveness of municipal agencies in the crisis.

That’s why, two weeks later, the mayor was upfront in the media, outlining plans to handle the upcoming snowfall. In the event, the blizzard turned out to be a non-story; it was nowhere in magnitude anywhere near the great Christmas whiteout.

Though some of the outlying boroughs like Long Island reported accumulations of up to two feet, Manhattan was spared the savagery.

Even so the mayor was out there, giving citizens a ball-by-ball account of the response by civic agencies early this morning.

He was out there, holding a press conference with his senior officials, urging citizens to lend a hand as the civic crews cleaned up the 8 to twelve inches of snow that fell.

As the day progressed and a sunny cold morning slipped into a cold, blustery and partly cloudy afternoon, the mayor’s efforts were given the thumbs up by citizens and the media.

It was an eye-opener for me; over the past couple of decades as a keen observer of the state of civic services in Delhi, I’ve been severely critical, dismissing all the main agencies as corrupt and inept.

Most of Delhi’s agencies are leaderless because in its wisdom the federal government, which is based there, created an incredibly complex chain of command.

Consequently, the agencies have had pretty much a field day over the past six decades; opaque and incompetent, they created neither civic services nor infrastructure; instead they feathered their own nests, appropriating funds and delivering nothing.

Since 1998, the capital has had a chief minister, a leader with a vision to grow Delhi into world-class city.

Despite the obstructive and corrupt bureaucrats who man the various civic agencies, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has managed to deliver significantly in terms of public goods; the mendacity of the city’s bureaucrats can be seen in the shoddy work and corners cut as a way of embezzling public funds.

These thoughts clouded my head as I watched with admiration the huge effort, both before and after the snowfall, by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.

What’s the difference in the two situations, I asked myself; in the Delhi one, we have morally challenged officials and goal-oriented ones in New York?

The more I think about it though I am convinced that morality and ethics are at the root of the two different approaches of civic agencies in New York and Delhi.

Delhi’s civic authorities seem to treat their jobs as a way to enhance both their social standing and their bank accounts; their counterparts in New York City see their positions as a public trust and work to make things better for the citizens they serve.

It may sound simplistic and naïve but that is the essential difference between two worldviews and is manifest in the incredible difference in standards of civic services and infrastructure between New York and Delhi.

But there’s more to it than just the contrast between the two cities; the issue is about the fundamentally different approach to government in the US and in India.

In India, government has more to do with privilege and perks than public service; it offers the well connected an opportunity to garner position and wealth; in the US, citizens of position and wealth are inducted to public service.

To be sure, just as in India, there is corruption here too in America; difference is that crooked public servants here are by and large brought to book and jailed; in India, usually they go scot free and seek protection from the law by becoming members of Parliament or state assemblies or patients in hospitals.

The noticeable lack of “development” that hits you between the eyes when you land in India is a direct outcome of these two startlingly different views of government: in the US, the government seeks to empower citizens whereas in India, the government actually disenfranchises them.

For instance, over the past few decades, the Indian establishment has talked ceaselessly about “sustainable development” and actually turned it into a weapon against industrialization, urbanization and economic growth.

Meanwhile in recent years, restaurants in major American cities have promoted a “hundred mile menu” that involves sourcing ingredients from within that radius; this simple marketing strategy saw the rapid growth of sustainable farms across the country.

This recent development underlines the fundamental difference in government in the two democracies: between empowerment and disenfranchisement.

It’s a sobering train of thought on the eve of my departure to Delhi, India.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

American Life 8

Obama’s Problem…

Chicago: It’s cold here, bracingly so. The high was minus five Celsius; late at night as I sit jet lagged on the computer, the mercury has dipped to minus 12 Celsius. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 20 Celsius. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and the place looks as pretty as a picture postcard. Tonight it’s going to be “four below,” that’s roughly minus 22 without the wind chill factor. **ck it’s cold!

I love the winter in Chicago. It’s a breeze to drive because all the roads are cleared almost instantaneously. On the Eisenhower expressway, the lanes are clear; I tell my friend, who’s driving us to this wonderful French restaurant, Chez Joel on Taylor Street, in the vicinity of the University of Illinois campus, that I’m convinced the city has placed heaters under the carriageway.

The atmosphere is crystal clear. We saw the lights of the city’s fabled skyline with no fog, smog or smoke refraction. It struck me that despite corruption and patronage, a city could be run and be beautiful as few other cities in the world. It is truly a winter wonderland. And the words of the famous Louis Armstrong song buzzed in my head: “What a wonderful world!”

Earlier that morning, I drove to an appointment on Cumberland Avenue, a major drag that connects the near western suburbs to the airport. This was my everyday drive when we moved to Chicago in the 1970s. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve driven that route that leads from near west suburbs northwest to O’Hare.

When we moved to the city in the 1970s, we decided to stay in the near west suburban area that comprises Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. These were the first communities out of the reach of the Chicago City Council and as such were autonomous while retaining the character of the city. They were actually an extension of the city and had no cookie cutter developments or McMansions. River Forest was the wealthy one; Oak Park, affluent and aware; Forest Park, the poor cousin.

My office was about 10 miles northwest, near the fabled O’Hare airport, crossroads of the US, the busiest in the world and also, despite the traffic, the most laid back. To get to 7220 West Higgins, I had to drive up northwest on Cumberland Avenue. It was my drive everyday for two years until I got a job in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

At noon on January 7, I found myself heading northwest from River Forest, up Thatcher Avenue to Cumberland. I fell into a reverie; it was as if nothing had changed in 30 years. For the record, since I moved to a downtown job some 30 years ago, I just never took the route, using River Road to get to the airport instead. As I drove up Thatcher to the light and turned right on Cumberland, past the Elmwood Park cemetery, the sign was still there: “Drive Carefully, We Can Wait.”

Chicago is a city that changes, always for the better each year; but not Cumberland Avenue. As I drove up the street, I may as well have been driving in the 1970s. Part of the reason is that Cumberland cuts a straight path through protected woods. Just past Fullerton Avenue, you begin to find homes on the east side of the street. They were the same, except for the “For Sale” signs stuck on their postage stamp lawns.

“Foreclosures,” I thought to myself. The neighborhoods that line the northern portions of Cumberland are all blue-collar communities with families whose breadwinners worked in machine shops that dotted the northwest parts of Chicago. The people who live in River Grove, Elmwood Park and Norridge, largely blue-collar neighborhoods that straddle Cumberland Avenue are mostly Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants.

While almost everything about Chicago has changed including the city itself and its close suburbs, these Cumberland Avenue communities have remained stagnant and are now declining. It’s almost as though the 21st century has bypassed them. I can say this with some certainty because I drove through them nearly 30 years ago and now driving through them, I found nothing changed.

In the event, I was jolted back to the present as my host and I drove east on Eisenhower Expressway to the city to dine in this fabulous restaurant. As I tucked into the streak, I thought about the challenges facing America and how to redeploy the work force.

Then I thought to myself: that’s Obama’s problem. He’s from Chicago, albeit from Hyde Park on the south side. He has to fix it. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is running for mayor to replace Richard Daley, who has bowed out and whose family has run the Democratic Party in Chicago for nearly 50 years. The mayor’s younger brother William just got appointed White House chief of staff.

For the first time in half a century, there will be no Daley in Chicago’s Democratic Party dominated politics. It’s almost as though the Nehru-Gandhi family had given up control over the Congress Party in India. I contemplate, with some anxiety, the future of Chicago’s politics and its development in the second decade of the 21st century.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Imagine there’s a Heaven

It Was Easy Because We Tried

Goa: Think about it for a minute. It’s New Year’s Eve at our house, Imagine. It’s easy if you try. And because we’re dreamers, our daughters and our entire extended family deigned to spend the evening with us. It was about 20 degrees Celsius officially but in the village where we live it was a little colder. Actually, we’ve rarely seen Goa as cold as to need sweaters. Anyway, we let it out and let it in with mirth and merriment; we made our world a little warmer. We shrugged off the cares that were upon our shoulder and sang and danced as though this eve was forever and a day.

We gave little thought that night to the busy years that had gone rushing by us because we still had our starry notions. And spending the end of the first decade of the millennium with the extended family was a treat that all in the world would devoutly wish. Though many who came were friends, the operative thing was they were all family: from New York, London, Zurich, Washington, Bombay, Ahmedabad and of course locally in Goa. It was a global celebration in a village that does not even appear in any map of this haven.

Arriving here on December 29 on an afternoon flight on our favorite IndiGo Airlines, we drove straight home and landed up at our favorite Cavala restaurant and rocked for many hours to the band Abracadabra into the wee hours of the night. There was this little girl Jessica, not even 10 years old, who jived with her father to the old time rock and roll. She was so good, I asked for her autograph, which she shyly wrote on a coaster. I will treasure forever despite the fact I may never see her again.

Tell me: how can you beat this anywhere else in nerve-wracking India? Is it any wonder that I believed it when a guy, who runs a beach shack in Morjim in the northern part of Goa, told me that nearly 250,000 people were expected in Goa on December 31? For the record, the population of Goa is just 1.5 million.

Goa lives and dies on tourism. This year because of the bad weather in Europe (few Americans come), many charter flights were canceled. The slack has been taken up by free-spending Indians. As such, the Goan tourism infrastructure that is geared to low-level European tourists is trying to adjust to domestic tourists, who demand what they can get in Thailand or Malaysia. Local demand will improve infrastructure in Goa. In the end, as in America, domestic demand makes for a more egalitarian economy.

Indian tourists are known worldwide to be big spenders. You now see in Goa the big Indian brands like Fabindia and hotels like Vivanta and Fortune that cater to the new middle class. They are better and more professional than the cramped little resorts that cater to British truck drivers in Calangute or the illegal purple, green and yellow resorts for Russian mafia and drug dealers in Morjim. In the end, the growth of high-end domestic tourism may be the savior of this gorgeous haven. Again for the record, there is no McDonald’s outlet in Goa.

The fear in Goa is that domestic tourists will bring the Indian sickness to their home, spitting paan, urinating in public, driving rashly and recklessly. Also the new thrust of domestic tourism is a more affluent class of tourists. The question remains: are hippies and backpackers, dubious Israelis and Russians better than high-end Indians from Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore?

Meanwhile, as I sit in my verandah outside my bedroom in our house, annoyed at the buzz of crickets and cicadas late at night, I realize it is all an academic wonder for now. These problems are all about the beaches and the “happening” strips. I’m happy to stay in my house and imagine ours is a haven; to be with family is very heaven.

Love, indeed, is all you need. And the love of family and friends is a treasure.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011