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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

‘Tis the Season…

Days of Future Past

Some sort of a sweet foreboding sweeps over me in this season of glad tidings and joy. I get transported back to Chicago when our daughters were still in the single digits, age wise. Especially the music and the warmth, even though the temperature outside was four Celsius below zero. I think back to the days, hoping with my girls for a white Christmas so they and their mother and I could build a snowman or at the very least, throw snowballs at each other or my girls could make angels in the snow.

Christmas Eve, we sat at the kitchen table while Mom baked cookies and the girls helped. The stereo played “Jingle Bell Jazz” and we sang along about Rudolph and Frosty and sleigh bells. We ate the cookies, warm from the oven with hot chocolate to drink. “Dad,” the girls chorused in unison, “we have to save some for Santa Claus.”

So we put a bunch of cookies and a glass of milk on the kitchen table, I snuck a scotch and we ate Cornish Hen stuffed with chestnuts with a side of  boiled sweet potato  and topped it off with Mom’s fabulous dessert. And we said to ourselves, what a wonderful world! We stared longingly at the presents under the Christmas tree in the living room, bundled ourselves and drove to church for midnight mass.

Coming back, we fell upon our presents. Thanks to their mother, the girls got environmentally friendly presents like wooden Scandinavian toys while I got them crass American gifts like a cat and a robot that responded to voice commands. We still have the wooden toys that our granddaughter, Kiara, plays with.

Decades later, we wonder what gifts we can get for our granddaughter. We wanted to get her a pedal car but it wasn’t available. A store in Khan Market ordered one for us but when we went to pick it up, it was shabby and seemed to have been a sample piece, dirty and tacky. So our big plans for Kiara fell victim to the shoddy salesmanship of India’s disgusting, two-bit retail sector.

We banished the bitter experience aside to focus on the season. Christmas is about giving and receiving but most of all, it is about family and nostalgia. It’s a time when we put aside the cares and demands of reality and plunge into the world of Rudolph and Frosty and Santa Claus to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. My hope is in the grim reality of India our granddaughter  will actually believe in Santa Claus, like her mother and aunt did when growing up in Chicago.

As always, this Christmas Eve, we attended an early mass at the Vatican church in Lutyens Delhi. As always, we heard the proclamation of the mystery of faith as the choir sang “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The idea of a savior to guide you through the thickets of ethics and morality is seductive, even for gray-haired men who value rationalism.  The quid pro quo is faith. In my understanding, this savior asks you to believe in compassion and communion. I’m good with that. So I’m happy to go to church Christmas Eve and participate in the rituals that celebrate peace and goodwill.

Amazingly even our daughters, who are like me: rational skeptics, always come to church Christmas Eve...our younger one comes all the way from Manhattan’s East Village.  To them, it is a family tradition to uphold. They dress up and accompany us to the high mass, just to be part of the concelebration. For years, they have come to midnight mass with us; the Vatican service is much earlier at 8 pm and that works well for the party animals we all are. Enough time to eat, drink and be merry and still be ready the next day for the decades-old tradition of Christmas lunch at our house.

When you think about it, the appeal to faith and tradition is an uplifting experience. The music, the food, family and friends and the dollops of camaraderie and nostalgia that seem to overwhelm the season make you soar above mundane cares. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.  Listen to “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” and let the eyes tear up; a tighter hug; a huge kiss; a warm embrace; mulled wine; a special table; family and friends. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.

Above all, Christmas is about continuity. We still make the sweets my daughters’ grandma made and the same food, if inflected with post modern fusion. We listen to the same music, traditional, jazz and classical, except on a state-of-the-art music system. The Christmas tree is the same except the ornaments now include little cutouts made by our granddaughter Kiara plus the lights are nicer.

Christmas is also about the passage of time.  Just recently, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a South African commentator told the BBC that in Africa death was not just about mourning a loss but also a celebration of ancestors. “Mandela has become an ancestor,” he said, “and that is a cause for joy.” Christmas is a reminder that if you keep the faith and continue the tradition, you will too become an ancestor. For us, Christmas evokes my wife’s mother who carried the standard and became an ancestor.

On this foggy Christmas eve, when Santa’s on his way, my fervent hope is my wife and I become ancestors, remembered and honored…not because of any achievements or accouterments but because we enhanced the tradition and kept the faith.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Bentley at the Red Light: Old Poverty, New Wealth

For the first time, the electorate faces a clear ideological choice. The Congress is the architect of liberalisation that unleashed the animal spirits of competition and innovation in the economy. The ensuing economic boom peaked in 2004; in the following decade, the economy grew at an average of 8% a year. This is evident as many sectors, including telecom, automobiles, pharmaceuticals and IT, became globally competitive.

Somewhere down the line, this growth story came up against some cruel facts: a large population afflicted by poverty and illiteracy, high malnutrition and abysmal public health. In stark contrast, world-class private schools, private hospitals, private estates, private planes, private roads and private banks blossomed.
There was always disparity, but never in your face. The pathetic picture of a car worth over a crore, waiting at a red light, besieged by begging children, is a new phenomenon. There have always been beggars, never Bentleys and Jaguars. Over the years, the rich became richer. This was not the outcome that Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, envisioned in 1991.

A year later, the BJP changed the debate with its sacking of the Babri Masjid. Suddenly, the debate was about Hindutva and the Ram temple. In the tumultuous decade that followed, the opened economy was hijacked by crony capitalists and middlemen. Mistaking this to be genuine reforms, the NDA government launched a highvoltage “India Shining” campaign. They even called an early election, hoping to cash in. In the event, a Congress-led coalition came to power in 2004 on an inclusive growth manifesto and was reelected in 2009.

Now, Narendra Modi, the new RSS mascot, has turned the BJP around to make it a US-style Republican party, stalling reforms in the legislature, promoting laissez faire and protectionist policies in the same breath, railing against government welfare spending, espousing a hardline but whimsical foreign policy. He speaks to an urban, upper-middle class audience and believes there are enough votes there to see him through.
Modi and his supporters believe he can form a government in 2014. It’s hard to believe, though, that his agenda of gated communities, luxury cars and conspicuous consumption will garner votes from the urban and rural poor, Dalits, tribals and Muslims who form the bulk of the young population. Meanwhile, the Congress has again arrayed itself in support of the excluded. More than his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who nudged the government into adopting a welfare-based legislative agenda, Rahul Gandhi is vocal about the skewed priorities.

The Indian business elite is up in arms against the Congress welfare agenda. They say India can’t afford it; they demand business-friendly policies that encourage growth, never mind the disparity. Senior ministers in the government are at pains to point out an inclusive agenda is not anti-growth and point to the national manufacturing policy that aims, in the next 10 years, to boost the share of manufacturing to 25% from 15% and, in the process, to create 100 million jobs.

In the face of heightened disparity, no political party can embrace trickledown economics and expect to form a government. Hence, the Congress lays emphasis on welfare along with its track record of growth. Modi’s noisy campaign, on the other hand, is based on disputable claims about growth and governance; the underlying message, however, is an unmistakable one of Hindu chauvinism.

Modi hopes to ascend on many contradictory platforms: authoritarian capitalism, muscular nationalism as a subliminal plank against minorities. In voting the Congress back in 2004 and again in 2009, the electorate turned its back on the BJP’s growth hype. The question now is whether voters will buy Modi’s high-voltage pitch. The idea behind the multilayered campaign is to fudge his track record that is sullied by allegations of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

These charges have proved difficult to shake. Modi’s controversial role in the riots also attracted global concern. Major western countries instituted a diplomatic boycott; the US revoked his travel visa and is yet to restore it. Will the US presidential-style campaign help overcome the stain of 2002?

This article appeared in The Economic Times, November 5, 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Majoritarian Thinking

The World Bears Witness to its Destructive Outcomes

Sixty-eight years ago on August 6, American planes dropped “atom bombs” on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This reprehensible act 0f the Harry S Truman administration is worth examining. Apart from the moral and humanitarian dissent against nuclear weapons, there also were strategic differences. Allen Dulles, who was CIA chief at the time, admitted in a candid television interview years later that he knew the Japanese wanted to surrender and had informed the administration. There were other influential voices, including one Gen Dwight D Eisenhower, ranged against the bombings.  President Truman and his advisers ignored them.

Truman’s motives were duplicitous: one, avenge Pearl Harbor and two, get a head start on the Soviet Union in the incipient arms race. Besides, the Democrats had been in office since 1933, having been elected for three successive terms under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  So it was easy for Truman, who was sworn in after FDR’s death in April 1945, to ride roughshod over dissenting voices.

The allusion to this controversial decision is by way of drawing attention to a political phenomenon that is sweeping emergent democracies in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Russia, in Belarus; also in established democracies like Turkey and Hungary: that democracy is a winner-take-all system in which the majority can assert power without any concern for dissenters.

Majoritarian politics has prevailed in most Western democracies. Concepts like public order and national security have often triumphed over notions of privacy and human rights. We’ve seen the case of the US National Security Agency snooping on citizens; Swiss authorities confining asylum seekers to mountainside bunkers and restricting their movement.

Challenges to the majority principle first arose in the United States and the United Kingdom, where equal rights, racial discrimination and nuclear disarmament became central political issues, on which elections were won and lost. In both countries though, conservative leaders emerged to revive the Majoritarian agenda: in Britain, Margaret Thatcher and in the US, Ronald Reagan succeeded in restoring national security and free-market economics as the focus of public policy, steamrollering “bleeding heart liberals.”

In India, too, prevalent political winds are driving policy in the Majoritarian direction.  Hindu nationalists want to define India as a Hindu nation. On the other hand, India’s business barons want a Thatcher-Reagan style focus on business-friendly government policies.  Both support a Majoritarian order, in which policies are made without concern for alternative views.

Such hard-line thinking, notable for its deaf-blind approach to alternative streams of thought, can lead to serious breaches of national security. Witness the strife on the streets of Istanbul, Cairo and elsewhere. It happens also in the mature democracies of the West, though  a strong and effective security regime there simply overwhelms protest.   

Back in India, the current government seems to be aware of the ascent of Majoritarian forces. Given an inept security apparatus, it has allowed dissent full play. For that, it has been lambasted as being paralyzed, without vision, corrupt and inept. A lot of the criticism is noise; fact is, the ruling dispensation has been able to complete nearly two full terms and notch up some significant policy gains.

Negotiation and the art of compromise could help govern this diverse milieu of warring interests and rising aspirations. However, in India, as elsewhere in the world, intolerance is on the rise and people, bureaucrats and politicians articulate extreme positions on every subject from economic policy to foreign affairs, from urban governance to rural development.

One group of people feels the government’s policies in aid of the poor are profligate, pointing to “leakages.” Another group feels the government is not doing enough to help the poor; a third lot feel the government’s policies are a drag on the economy. This clash of perspectives has fueled public debate in India since Independence. Today, this is compounded by an immature opposition party that disrupts Parliament; a shrill media with opinionated and crusading journalists, obstructionist bureaucrats and a cynical citizenry.

The result is a pervasive sense of disaffection in which rational and mature opinions have been marginalized; in their place is a general disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. This sort of opting out has created space for champions of Majoritarian politics. They offer visions of decisive leadership with a sub textual rant against the “vermin,” religious, ethnic and ideological opponents.

Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, led the nationalist movement after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is credited with turning his Muslim majority country into a modern, secular democracy following the First World War. India had a parallel in Jawaharlal Nehru, who did something similar after the Second World War.  Ataturk’s Turkey and Nehru’s India are both under challenge today by advocates of Majoritarian politics.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Economic Times, August 17, 2013.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Livin' the Impromptu Life

On the Spiritual Roots of Loafing…

There is a deeply spiritual element in spurning ritual to do something completely different: it’s liberating, this idea that you can just go off the grid. Call it going AWOL. No permissions taken; no explanations provided. This is not about vacation or travel. There aren't any surveys or statistics to cite but it’s a pretty good guess that not everyone can or wants to do it. It is an attitude that for me has begun to take hold as I grow older. Maybe it stems from a growing awareness that in the end, everyone goes AWOL.

No; this is not a lament about growing old or a nervous look at death. On the contrary, it’s about life and joy and sensual pleasures; about the free spirit and the liberated mind that enables the impromptu life.

Periodic trips to Goa fall in that category. They let us explore the elasticity of time in which breakfast is on the table and every bite of buttered poi (Goan bread) with homemade jam satisfies so much you think you’ll never have lunch. Thinking of lunch while eating your breakfast is the impromptu state of mind in which minutes expand to fill an hour; the same minutes disappear in a fleet rush of seconds to leave you breathless, as you finish the clams or put down the book.

In the end, you become so embroiled in non-purposive activity that you lose track of time and begin to live on the wax and wane of nature: sunlight, moonlight, stars, dusk, dawn, rain, breezes, birdsong, rustling palms and the scent of the sea.

You lounge, you laze, go on long drives; read books and magazines all day or go to the beach and watch the Arabian Sea churn and roil in the Monsoon or gently roll at other times. You look for exciting new restaurants, cafes and watering holes; hook up with local friends and shoot the breeze late into the night; catch a movie at Panjim’s slick Inox cinema and in the auditorium, eat bhel instead of popcorn.

Eventually, when the sojourn draws to a close, you are refreshed and ready to look routine in the eye. That lasts a few weeks; then the soul begins to stir; your mind turns once again to the impromptu life in Goa and the serene experience of green rice fields, large rivers, lovely beaches, calamari, clams, shrimp and beer. So you go back again and spend another few days, unmindful of time. In that sense, it is a slice of immortality.

As you grow older and begin to see life’s finite horizon, such experiences gain in importance. You realize you may have done okay for yourself if, in your later life, you can indulge in such spiritual pursuits.  As you plan another journey into timelessness, thoughts hearken ahead to the new restaurant that’s just opened; succulent figs for breakfast; shrimp curry and rice for lunch; for dinner, chilly fry; dessert, custard apple ice cream; pickled green peppers in the fridge and the very dry vodka martini which their corns will flavor.

But wait…why can’t we disrupt routine more often? Is the impromptu life only available in Goa or some other such idyllic place? Of course not; it is a state of mind, as I recently discovered.

Having slept over at our house on a Sunday not too long ago, our granddaughter awoke early and climbed into our bed, making sweet sounds in her own dialect: “Wake up, sleepy head,” she seemed to be saying. My eyes opened and she smiled. I knew immediately then, Monday or not, there was no going to the office, no newspaper…even my tea remained undrunk.

Soon we were in the garden, chasing after birds and chipmunks. Of course, they disappeared; so we spent time scanning the skies and trees, whistling, gesticulating, making noises: trying to lure them back. Finally, the sapping heat got to me so we shifted the impromptu show indoors and went upstairs to sit directly in front of the air conditioner.

Then she happened on the remote control. Well, if we were going to watch TV, I felt Discovery HD was the best option for a stunning visual and learning experience. Except that we came upon the Cartoon Network while surfing…and lo and behold, it was the Tom and Jerry show, with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances as the soundtrack. So heads leaning together we watched as Jerry outwitted the cat every which way.

Another work afternoon, we took her to a playground in a nearby mall where she climbed up slides from bottom to top and ran around among the ingenious sprays that kept the place cool with their mist on a sultry day. Equally thoughtful were the soft cork board tiles that lined the playground…no scraped knees or elbows, no tears, no fears. Then last week, we took the time out of a weekday morning to take go swimming with her.

There was a time when even a half-hour delay in reaching the office would upset me. The pride and joy of my professional life was never missing a day of work, arriving early, leaving late. Things began to change when our house in Goa was ready to be occupied some dozen years ago.

Suddenly, a new appreciation of reality dawned: time isn't all about achievement. It’s about books read, movies seen, friends met, food enjoyed…or just sitting in an armchair, nodding off moments after flipping on the television set.

Years ago in a psycho-linguistics class, we learned the distinction between nominal definition, chair and operational definition, thing to sit on.  This disruption of ritual, which includes squandering of time and indulging in sensory pursuits, is living the impromptu life. The nominal definition is loafing.

The key is to let time wash over you; not watch over you and bind you with punitive schedules. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…

The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Namo hype tour

Roll up, roll up…for the Namo Hype Tour that is dying to take you away…from reality, from conciliation, from tolerance, from grace, from the Constitution. Roll up, the Namo Hype Tour will provide strong leadership, bring in investment, chant Hindu mantras, and oppress poor and middle class Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Never mind that, he will give you, if you are rich and powerful, preferably Hindu, electric power, water, roads and tax breaks.
Er…he has little support outside of Gujarat. Never mind, his global public relations agency has subdued even the television reporters who exposed his complicity in the post-Godhra riots in 2002; that was when he leashed his police as Hindu mobs fell upon Muslims and slaughtered thousands of men, women and children.
I have this on good faith from a friend in Ahmedabad, who is neutral about Modi. He affirmed a story I heard while in Gujarat about a bunch of Hindutva thugs, who chased a car because they had determined it was carrying beef. They seemed to have had intelligence…no, information, because intelligence is not part of the Hindutva worldview, only bigotry.  They chased this butcher but he managed to escape into Sarkhej, a Muslim neighborhood, where they dare not venture.
Policing in Gujarat is outsourced to Hindu and Muslim thugs.
To herd Muslims into ghettos is very much part of Modi’s agenda. I heard it time and  again from many people in Gujarat, all of them Hindus. Some lament it; others think it’s good. “We know where they are should any trouble arise,” a Modi supporter told me disingenuously.
That’s the Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts) part of Modi’s platform. That’s not gone very far because his share of seats in the assembly has declined steadily since 2002: from 126 seats then, to 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012.
Modi is now projected as the governance icon with a “Gujarat model.” His ideal is not that different from a raft of Latin American, Caribbean and African dictators, who sold their countries to local and international business interests. His PR people have sought to create an image for Gujarat that is truly fantastic…a veritable haven of governance and development.
And so it was I arrived at Ahmedabad airport recently, fully expecting a Singapore-style experience. Aside of the jetways, a modern and much-needed convenience that beats taking a bus from the ATF-choked tarmac, the Ahmedabad airport has an air of moffusil desolation…at least for ordinary citizens.
Upon landing, the non-VIP must walk through a garbage-strewn pathway to the parking lot to get to the car and then drive on a standard Indian road that is nowhere near the Singapore experience. Or even Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But we must not talk about these UAE airports and roads because they are Muslim; else you risk being attacked by Hindu fundamentalist goons, who are Narendra Modi cultists.
So what is the ground reality in Gujarat? The simple answer is: unsustainable development. A drive from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar and back tells the story. There are scores of real estate developments, residential and commercial. It looks impressive, especially if you are a xenophobic NRI or a member of the World Economic Forum.
A closer look reveals most completed projects are empty and many others unfinished.  Dig as you may, statistics are hard to come by from the Modi government.
The word is the celebrated automobile venture that shot Modi into prominence, the Tata Nano project in Sanand, just outside Ahmedabad, is floundering because of poor sales and a misbegotten marketing strategy.
Propaganda plays a big role in the Modi campaign, initially for chief minister, now for the prime minister. His PR handlers specialize in hype as a strategy and often fudge issues with smoke-and-mirror tactics.
The manner in which his machine hyped the recent visit of a few fringe Republican members of the US Congress seemed to suggest Washington has absolved him of the charge of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” that in 2005 led to a denial of a diplomatic visa and revocation of the B category visa he held.
Sources in the US State Department say the US government will follow the judgments of Indian courts. Despite the pressure of the Hindu lobby, the US administration stands firm in its assessment that there is enough evidence to show Modi was complicit in the 2002 riots. Many Western diplomats point to the life sentence handed out to one of Modi’s ministers, Maya Kodnani, as a damning indictment.
Modi propagandists proclaim the European Union reached out to him after a decade-long boycott. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sources in the EU say the boycott continues and its diplomats are under instructions to have no official contact with him.
In the end, my sojourn in Gujarat convinced me Modi’s “Gujarat model” is a mutant that is alien to the inherent decency, fairness and above all moderation of the people in the state.

This article appeared on Times of India website on April 16, 2013.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

Shanghai: This city, the largest in the world, was never on my bucket list. Now, I want to go back to hang out and discover the promise it revealed on an abbreviated trip. What a wonderful town! Just an off-the-top assessment: this city was born global and has embraced, unlike Bombay, its international heritage. 

So here's the thing: you land at the Pudong International Airport and get the sense of desolate grandeur and last-mile incompetence that you see at Delhi's T3 white-elephant terminal. The difference is the immigration officials all looked very professional; there were no casual "supervisors" hanging about; no officious flunkies escorting VIPs; the security men were real, not guys scratching their privates. 

Our designated chauffer was waiting with a graphically soothing placard; young fellow who spoke English and was exceptionally polite. He drove us on wonderful, well-lit expressways to our hotel. We couldn't see much of the city because of the smog but the lights on the highway were bright and we zoomed into the Pudong city center with the smoothness you can only associate with Western transit.

My lack of enthusiasm for the trip-to attend an Asian PR conference-was challenged by my two daughters who accompanied me. "Get over it, Dad. It'll be great," they chorused, brushing aside my concern about language and my Indian jaundiced eye. I was just 13 in 1962 when China delivered the knockout punch that sent the burgeoning republic of India into a tizzy from which it is still to recover.

On my own, I would have checked into the hotel, attended the conference and done the regulatory sightseeing, eaten the standard five-star hotel food and come away marveling at the city with its colored-light modernity.  With my daughters in attendance, we traipsed through the Huangpu and Xuhui districts and saw parts of the city that I probably would never have visited, especially when the day temperature was two degrees Celsius and windy.

Shanghai is seared in my memory because of my daughters; the one is the mother of my precocious granddaughter; the other a New York sophisticate. They are so cool and so well-informed that I just let them take me here, there and everywhere.  We walked through the old town, wandered through Xintiandi, the upscale part of the French Concession neighborhood that also boasts of the home of the suave Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), who served as the premier of China from 1949 t0 1976.

Zhou was the interlocutor for Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference of 1955, in which the first principles of the Nonaligned Movement were articulated; a year before in Peking (now Beijing), Zhou signed with Nehru the Panchsheel Treaty, binding India and China to an agreement of peaceful coexistence.

As we walked through Xintiandi, I marveled at the restoration; here was a city that embraced it European heritage…so unlike any Indian city.  My time in Shanghai was cut short because of a family emergency but we did get a chance to walk around People's Square and take in the Bund, a gorgeous esplanade on the Huangpu River, with its barges and bridges. 

From the Bund, you can see in shimmering watercolor impressionism, the high rises of Pudong, which my girls called the Gurgaon of Shanghai; looking to our back, we saw the traditional Tudor-style buildings, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where we stopped to have afternoon tea.

We walked and walked, marveling at the sheer exuberance of street life even in the cold two-degree-Celsius weather.  As we followed Nanjing Road to People's Square, I kept thinking that the Bombay of the 1950s that I knew and loved could have become like this, except power-grubbing politicians, venal bureaucrats and apathetic citizens destroyed it and condemned it to be a slum. 

Unlike any city in India, Shanghai seems to be livable for the average citizen; you can actually walk the streets, which you cannot in any Indian city; its riches seem to have been shared with the people. Roads, sidewalks, gardens, public art and mass transport; they have it all in spades; they also have preserved and enhanced their colonial heritage. "Inclusive growth" is not a slogan here; it's real. 

In the most superficial assessment, if one is to compare to Shanghai to Bombay (and frankly, there's no comparison), it is clear that Shanghai is in a totally different league, comparable to Paris. Duh! It is called Paris of the East.

Shanghai has almost 24 million people compared to Bombay's 21 million. There can be no question that life seems to be hugely better in the Chinese city. These comparisons are impressionist, I grant you. There's no mistaking, however, the dignity of common people and the preponderance of public goods. If Bombay is part of a democracy (and this is dubious, given the thugs of the Shiv Sena) and Shanghai of  an authoritarian system, then without any survey or anything,  just looking at the ground reality, I'd rather as an ordinary citizen be living in Shanghai.

In the end, two things stood out. One, the Chinese political system, opaque though it is, seems to throw up decisive leaders, committed to enhancing the public interest. Two, the life of citizens seems to be light years ahead of the daily hassles, slum culture and criminal violence in Indian cities.

As for the race between India and China, I am saddened to report India never even made it to the starting line. It is very likely, as a friend told me, that India is to China as Mexico is to the United States.

This article appeared on Times of India website on January 29, 2013.

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A new age of unreason

On a television talk show recently in which I was a participant, the question posed was “Have opposition politicians misunderstood the nature of lobbying?” The moderator went straight for the jugular, asking the BJP spokesman to defend the assertion of a senior leader of his party, who had asserted in Parliament that lobbying is illegal in India.

The anchor said his due diligence had satisfied him that lobbying is not illegal. Somewhat disingenuously and with the brash confidence of a man who knows little, the BJP participant contradicted him, saying there is no law that makes lobbying legal. To which the anchor responded: laws make things illegal, not legal. The BJP man was having none of it. “Why are you standing up for a corrupt company like Walmart?” he asked the journalist. “How can the spokesman of a leading political party accuse an international firm of corruption on prime time national TV?” I interjected. The BJP stalwart was undeterred and continued his rant, insisting lobbying is illegal and no different from corruption. It was plain that he knew very little about business processes and public policy apart from a few stray facts he may have picked up from newspapers.

Later, Delhi’s middle classes led by Left-leaning student unions took to the streets to protest the rape of a woman on a bus in the capital. Their demand was for the police chief, the chief minister and the Union home minister to resign. Granted, the police in Delhi are not very high on anyone’s security assurance list, and that one may have reservations about the Congress governments in the state of Delhi and at the Centre. But, the heinous crime was committed by violent psychopaths, like the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t hear any calls for Obama’s head or of the state governor or police chief. Crimes are mostly dealt with in retrospect, except in the Tom Cruise sci-fi film, Minority Report, which is about seers gifted with the ability to look into the future and prevent crime.

Crimes are committed the world over and sometimes law enforcement agencies are able to anticipate and prevent them. Mostly, they simply happen and police hunt down the perpetrators and turn them over to the criminal justice system for prosecution and, if proved guilty, punishment.

Then there’s the massive media hype about Narendra Modi winning a third term in Gujarat. The truth is he won by a smaller margin than five years ago; even his vote share has declined. Yet the talking heads and anchors of cable television and newspaper reporters would have us believe he will be the next prime minister of India. This is an individual who refuses to apologise for the riots that killed thousands in Gujarat when he was chief minister as well as home minister. While he has never been able to shake off allegations that he connived with mass violence, there’s no doubt he should be held responsible because he was the man in charge.

Every time this issue is raised in public, his supporters who are few but loud, raise the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Both incidents, 18 years apart, involved a lapse of governance leading to wanton loss of life and are condemnable. Except in the Gujarat case, the riots were followed by the systematic boycott of victims which pushed them into ghettos, a situation that persists to this day. Modi’s triumphalism and communalism is shameless and unapologetic as evident by his reference to Congress member Ahmed Patel as Ahmed mian.

A common thread runs through these narratives: lack of reasoned discourse. Between the media, opposition politicians and sundry activists outraged by some atrocity or corruption, debate has transformed into noise in which prejudice is the norm. The talking heads of television, pundits of print and those who attend exclusive parties in the capital, talk at each other without the slightest deference to reality. Did Walmart bribe government officials? Was Sheila Dikshit asleep when the heinous rape took place? Will Modi be the next prime minister? These are the questions being debated in public. Walmart may well have indulged in corrupt practices; there is an internal inquiry and some executives of the company have been suspended. The Delhi chief minister reacted with powers under her control — and that excludes the Delhi police — by scrubbing the licence of the operator on whose bus the woman was raped. And Modi actually lost ground in Gujarat; he still has a brute majority but his national ambitions have dimmed.

The Age of Unreason is upon us. People who would normally know better, including businessmen, members of the academy, activists, journalists and other groups which influence public opinion, seem to have lost their bearings. Pursuing their own limited agendas, they have put a crimp on Indian modernisation. As a concerned Indian citizen, “J’Accuse”, in the words of French writer Emile Zola. But while Zola complained about anti-Semitism in France, my complaint is about anti-Congressism. It seems to me that the entire political debate in India is focused on this grand old party. Those who hate it have forums to express themselves; those who are voiceless seem to vote for it, even in Gujarat.

The Age of Unreason is what 21st century’s second decade will be called in India. Everyone shouts and postures. And judgment seems to have fled to brutish beasts.

This article appeared in Education world magazine in January 2013 issue.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest

High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

Insolent India and the lack of grace

A columnist recently called the protest against the heinous rape in Delhi a manifestation of “insolent India.” Though his context was different, he is right: transforming from a subservient and feudal culture, the growing neo middle class India has chosen insolence as a response to the times. They have shunned all civil niceties to indulge in rhetorical curses and violent protest. 
One measure of this is the media’s propensity to refer to all public figures by their first name. Not even in the USA, where first-name familiarity is part of the culture, do media call the President, Barack or the Secretary of State, Hillary. Heck, even in Chicago, the mayor is called Mayor Emanuel and in New York, Mayor Bloomberg. You’ll never hear a print or broadcast journalist call them Rahm or Michael, never mind Mike. Just read the stories in the newspapers; watch the news shows on television. It is Sheila this, Manmohan that, Sonia, Rahul, Kapil, Salman and horror of horrors Chidu, for the finance minister. It is Rattan and Mukesh and Anil and Adi and Sachin and Saurav and Amitabh and Jaya and Kat and Kareena and what have you. It is amazing also to witness at soirees in Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere, the breezy familiarity with which people use first names. 
Such behavior seems to have originated in one-upmanship and is now an indicator of insolence. 
Just troll social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and the insolence is compounded to infinity. Even as we speak, some misbegotten people are circulating what purport to be photos of the young woman who was raped December 16 on a Delhi bus by ruthless criminals; such men seem to fester like sores at the margins of India’s ramshackle urbanization in the major metros and the Wild West style small towns. I am deeply aware of this because I live in a place surrounded by lawless but wealthy villages infested with illiterates, who threaten you with death and destruction if you challenge their scofflaw ways.
Coming back to the photos on Facebook, the circulation of these photos is not just distasteful but illegal. It betrays a lack of sober judgment and indicates an excitable mind that is easily carried away by emotions of the moment and is a prime candidate for hopping on cultish bandwagons.
This emergent neo middle class in India appears to lack civility and grace; plus, it seems to be infected with the virus of authoritarianism. The very word “civil” has been subverted by the likes of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, who pass themselves off as “civil society” activists while using the foulest of rhetoric and crudest of means. Not that different than the rabid M S Golwalker, who wrote India’s “Mein Kampf.” Only he called it “We, Our Nation Defined.” 
Even the bald prejudice of Golwalker’s Hindutva, which reserves hate for minorities, takes a back seat in the face of the insolence of the neo middle class. This segment is much larger than the middle class of yore and its reckless rhetoric and behavior threaten long-held societal norms of tolerance and compassion, values have enabled Indian culture survive despite the Mughal and British conquests. Its modern-day avatar, India’s globally-admired constitutional democracy, with its adherence to the “due process” tradition of law, has held firm despite the onslaught of Hindu fundamentalists; anarchists with a Luddite agenda; votaries of Soviet-style socialism; poor human development indicators like persistent poverty, lingering illiteracy and preventable disease; now, inept governance The Sanskrit word kripa is worth understanding. In transliteration, it combines the meanings of several English words: grace and especially mercy. It was used in the liberal Bhakti tradition that arose as an alternative to the Vedic mainstream. It is a word we would do well to remember as the baying hordes call for all manner of capital punishment for the men who mercilessly raped and killed the young woman in Delhi. The horrendous crime set off protests all over India. One strand of the protest was valid in that it raised public consciousness about the plight of women in India. Even in America, there are of gender bias cases reported among Indian immigrants including one in which a woman forbade her son’s wife to enter the kitchen during her menstrual cycle or a family that insisted on a sex determination test or others who indulged in rampant gender prejudices. Back in India, there are uncounted cases of female infanticide, dowry deaths and honor killings.
Another strand, which includes the bulk of the protesters, is a vicious call for revenge. Capital punishment, torture, castration are bandied about as options. Sounding strangely medieval, the neo middle class protestors have directed their unfocused anger at the government, the easiest target given all its angularities. In the view of the neo middle class protestors, the government is venal. 
What’s admirable is the protests did galvanize the government to take action. Whether this citizen action can be sustained and actually makes cities safe for women or will it peter out is a question worth pondering. Soon, the media will move on; that’s when the logic of these protests will be tested. Late and slow, the government nevertheless responded; now it’s the turn of the citizen.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, January 2, 2013.)