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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

City in Decline

Mumbai Sucks, Bombay Rocks
A global firm recently publicized a survey that found Bombay the second worst city to live in. It rated Zürich as the most livable. By the standard measures used in the survey, Bombay certainly ranks poorly. But those who live in the metro will not agree; they swear by the sheer intensity and vitality of urban life in the metropolis and would live in no other place. It is actually the only real city left in India. Few people in Bombay would want to live in Zürich, except those with Swiss bank accounts. The heart-stopping city is both: the hope and despair of India’s future.

I love Bombay. Juhu Beach is where I grew up. We moved to Warden Road, where I attended a quaint little Parsi school called New Model Infant School in Oomer Park, the setting in Salman Rushdie’s book, “Midnight's Children.” Later we lived in a wonderful art deco apartment house called Court Royal in Christ Church Lane, bordering the school of the same name in Byculla Bridge. Our buzzing lane was known for its gorgeous girls and its melting pot of Catholics, Parsis, Jews, Muslims, and Anglo Indians.

My old neighborhoods have changed beyond recognition. In Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, I believe there are still the bungalows and, I hope, the sense of community. The Besant Montessori School, where I attended pre-school, is presumably still around. To roam on the beach and play on the roads of the Walden-style colony was a treat then but now I realize was a huge privilege.

Walking on the beach from Juhu to Versova on a holiday morning was a treat. I felt I could be happy doing this for the rest of my life. When we said our morning prayer at the Besant Montessori school, unwittingly I replaced the phrase “thank you for the world so sweet” with “thank you for Versova.” This was long before the grim place called Lokhandwala.

In Juhu, my neighbors included Balraj Sahni and Prem Dhavan (the lyricist), among others. Many of them articulated anti-American views even while their children, like me, wore preppy penny loafers and striped T-shirts. This was my first experience with Indian hypocrisy. Diagonally across from our house was Ratilal Parekh, whose daughter Asha went on to make big waves in films. Our next-door neighbor was Devendra Goel, the film-maker who made escapist films that attracted large audiences. Given their fame and wealth, it was a bit of stretch for me to reconcile the Gandhian vision of simple living, high thinking.

Juhu then looked a lot like today’s Goa: coconut groves, white sand and blue sea. We walked freely on the beach and in the neighborhood. It was a wonderful island and to many friends and relatives, a weekend resort. Juhu was especially magical in the monsoon when we had to confront the rough sea and the swaying coconut trees that imperiled our roof.

When we moved to Christ Church Lane from Warden Road, I made friends with kids from different cultural backgrounds and there learned the value of India’s diversity. My friends and I gawked at the gorgeous girls the lane was famous for. It was the time of Pat Boone’s Bernadine, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and Cliff Richard’s Dynamite. On Friday nights, we listened transfixed to a family of troubadours who showed up in our lane every week, singing wonderful songs like Little Serenade and Traveling Light. We used to hang out in our balconies after dinner listening to them but mostly ogling the gorgeous green-eyed daughter who sang seconds.

These wonderful memories came back to me when I read about the survey that trashed the city. Bombay has a unique culture: it is decadent, down market and egalitarian; its essence is the hallmark Tapori dialect. To be fair, the survey portrayed the city as it is today: on the brink, poised on the fine line between civilization and chaos; trapped in the nexus between the chauvinism of its political class and the violence of its underworld. Mumbai is very different from the solid middle class city of Bombay I grew up in.

from daily news and analysis april 4 2007

Yesterday Came Suddenly…

Paul McCartney's Back

Now that he’s older, losing his hair, Paul McCartney has put out a new album, Memory Almost Full, stating his point of view. The songs are full of the past that haunts him and leads him to conclude that “all we wear is vintage clothes.” It is a lilting album that leaves us Beatles fans with a sweet and sour experience. In all his songs, except for the few where he is bitter about Heather Mills, Paul is telling us, as The Beatles have for nearly 40 years that “life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting.”

In one of the songs in the album, Paul expresses disbelief that the years have flown by. “Yesterday came so suddenly,” Paul seems to say in his album. There is an element of gloom in his music, which is perhaps what makes it so haunting. The final song on the album is called “The End of The End”:

On the day that I die
I'd like bells to be rung
and songs that were sung
to be hung out like blankets
That lovers have played on
and laid on while listening
to songs that were sung.

Paul’s latest album is disconcerting.. He and his friends were simple Liverpool boys, jamming and having fun at the Cavern Club. The popularity that followed was frightening. Success turned their heads: it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. Their later albums, influenced hugely by their immense popularity, like The White Album, were individual works with different musicians even while they were marketed under The Beatles label. We didn’t know it then but we still loved the good old rock and roll music. Paul’s latest album is a signal that that we should accept that The Beatles era has drawn to an end; it will, nevertheless, live forever as nostalgia that spans generations and it is up to our children to pass it on to theirs.

Paul, John, George and Ringo made their own way in the world after the split. Their fans kept the band’s myth alive with the serum of nostalgia. In his latest album, Paul seems to be saying that all they did was made good music and later on experimented with new forms of rock. The icon status was bestowed on them and they dealt with it in different ways. In his song, “Ever Present Past,” Paul sings:

I couldn't understand the words that they were saying
but still I hung around and took it all in
I wouldn't join in with the games that they were playing.

The games that Paul laments are the ones we played as fans. We took four Liverpool boys and put them on a pedestal. They represented our middle class values of rebellion without really giving up the comforts. For me as an adolescent growing up in the confusion of India, they made me a member of a global youth community in which music was the currency. Amazingly, they sang about nostalgia to their teenage and adolescent audiences. Why else would “Yesterday” become such a monster hit?

Time magazine compared the Sergeant Pepper album to the works of Brahms and Schubert. Their “Let It Be” is sung as a hymn in churches worldwide. Such superb music! While coming to grips with their huge global presence, the Fab Four continued to make great music that their fans had to admit was getting better all the time. Paul’s new album renews my faith in The Beatles while he is saying “don’t live in the past.”

The Beatles phenomenon is inexplicable. Especially if you listen to what they have said since the split…that the brand was a burden. They stopped public performances and retreated into the studio on London’s Abbey Road to produce path-breaking music. They had no idea of the impact they would make all over the world. Their music will forever remain the sound of a changing world, milestones in our journey from the teens to adulthood.

Forty-five years later, The Beatles story is told; all we have is memories and, as Paul says, the memory is almost full.

from daily news and analysis july 25 2007

Father's Day 2007

Will they still need me? 

New York: “This holiday was one etched in sadness as well as thankfulness.” A pastor in the town of Monangah in West Virginia, perhaps the poorest state in the US, said these words at a service in memoriam of 360 men, who were killed in a coal mine disaster in December 1906. His Central United Methodist Church was the site of the first celebration of Father’s Day in 1908. The prayers were in honor of the fathers who died. The day was observed in different places at different times. It became official when President Richard Nixon proclaimed it a national holiday in 1972; the day fixed was the third Sunday in June.

Many years later, when I lived in Chicago, my first daughter was born. To mark the occasion, my mother gave us a plaque, which said “You should give your children roots and wings.” Four years later, my younger one showed up on a snowy, cold December afternoon. With two children competing for attention and resources, I became aware of the role of the father.

Fast forward to Father’s Day 2007: my younger daughter, a resident New “Yawker,” took me to McSorley’s, the oldest pub, on the buzzing Lower East Side, where she lives, to quaff a few beers with her friends. She is focused on making a life for herself in “this city that never sleeps;” she works hard and when she has the free time, she and her friends make the most of “New York, New York;” as Frank Sinatra sang, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…it’s up to you…”

My older one is the take-charge type, who can fix anything from an insurance policy to an airline ticket; from a major PowerPoint presentation to pointed research. The venue for her achievements is Delhi; she enjoys her free time with her friends from all over the world who happen to live in Delhi. She travels the world with an easy sophistication that I never knew. Fathers should be so lucky, as I have been with both my daughters, who are happy to share their lives with me.

My older daughter’s roots and my younger one’s wings are a perfect foil for my mother’s advice. They both make their way in the world. They are off and running: one protecting the roots, the other projecting the wings. Yet there is a disturbing arrhythmia in my mind. My thoughts go back to the vacations we shared together and I hope we can do it again and again as we did for many years in Goa, in Europe and in the United States. The sadness comes from knowing such togetherness will become less frequent in the years to come.

These sentiments are a luxury that today’s fathers enjoy. When I was growing up, fathers were remote persons. Whether liberal or conservative, they just did not get involved in their children’s lives. The authoritarian ones ran their children’s lives according to their worldview; the more liberal ones simply accepted things. If they couldn’t control their children or satisfy them with material or ideological baubles, they pulled back and became even more distant.

Father’s Day is when children honor and indulge their father. I’m a sucker for the syrupy sentimentality that goes with it. For me, it has always been a pause; a chance to remember the wonderful times growing up with my children; to recognize that the relationship with them is always ambiguous. You love them, let them be and hope for nothing in return. Most times, you experience pure joy; other times, there may be sheer aggravation. That’s unconditional love. Underlying it is a bittersweet taste: as fathers we tried to move heaven and earth to smooth things for our children when they were dependent on us. The haunting question is: will they still need me when I’m 64?

On a brighter note, some day I will have grandchildren on my knee.

from daily news and analysis, june 27 2007

Victory in Vienna

-->Strengthening the Rule of Law
On September 6, 2008 the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a “clean waiver” that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the United States government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.
Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India’s relationship with and standing in the global mainstream.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signaling it had majority political support for the deal; it went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They must acknowledge that government won both domestic and international political support. Now it’s time, as opponents do in a democracy, to shake hands and present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the chalta hai economy. We will engage in a big way as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh’s reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at Doha in the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. As such they have been the vanguard. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

The only hurdles that remain are the opposition parties. The Left is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset and, as it now has become clear, it is China’s cat paw. They have been consigned, as elsewhere, to the dustbin of history. In the end, the Vienna waiver included the Soviet Union and China as well as the self righteous little countries like Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and Ireland.

When it comes to the BJP’s protests, we should remember that the whole idea of the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about nuclear tests. The fact is the UPA government got the waiver in spite of the BJP’s ill-advised 1998 nuclear tests. The NSG waiver is a palliative against the hostile international reaction to the 1998 episode. We can test but we must be prepared for the global reaction. On the other hand, this government is much more mature than the insecure regimes of Indira Gandhi in 1974 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998.

If you analyze it further, the BJP’s 1998 tests provoked a tit-for-tat reaction from Pakistan and as such, nullified the huge conventional military and economic superiority that India had vis-à-vis Islamabad. The Indo-US deal restores that advantage for India. The covert support that China provided for Pakistan’s nuclear program is well known. Islamabad remains a pariah, especially given the private A Q Khan network of nuclear proliferation.

It is no wonder that the Left opposed the deal tooth and nail. When it became clear that Karat and company failed, their Chinese patrons resorted to subterfuge in Vienna and when all was lost, absented themselves from the final session of the NSG.

A major learning from the Vienna consensus is that the Chinese could not stand up to the force of the world’s great powers, the US, Russia, France, Britain and Germany and failed to scuttle the deal in Vienna. That should be a sobering thought for the Left. As for the BJP, their loud protest that the government has sold out India’s strategic interest has simply drawn derision and disbelief. Instead of projecting itself as a viable right-of-center alternative to the Congress, the BJP has succeeded in showing itself up as an immature loser.

That’s all history now, though champions of the infantile Left and the immature BJP in the media and in the academy are still yelling and screaming. The deal is done. India can look forward to the fruits and the obligations of being accepted into the global mainstream. The rule of law will be strengthened. And if the saffron and red opposition acknowledge defeat and draw the right lessons, democratic traditions could also be strengthened.

The Acrid Stench of Death

Grief Eases, the Smell Lingers

On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death.

To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We have childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age and old age. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.

It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out, and we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95th and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean or the desperate immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.

Nobody told me the only certainty in life is death for all the years I spent is respectable educational institutions. Everything was a mumbo-jumbo in equal parts religion and superstition. In school, we accepted an unstated belief in God advocated by the Jesuits; university life was guided by the Calvinist belief in the salvation of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, a job was the Holy Grail. You had find one, keep it and rise through the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, five-star hotels, business-class travel and various other diversions took you mind off from the inevitability of death.

So we build the tangled web of ambition and desire to divert our minds, stuck as we are this wonderful death row called life. Be it clearly stated I am not a dark and foreboding person; quite to the contrary I have a sunny disposition best expressed in the Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World. Satchmo sang the song in 1967, at a time when protest rock began belting out its dark and nihilistic message. The song was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:

I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

And indeed we enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles song, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even mundane experiences like a drink at the Air Force station in Ayanagar near the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house with friends, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.

My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. Sure there are trees of green and blooming flowers. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.

These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children ,both us and ours ,grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.

Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of what lies ahead. And in my father with his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Goa Unplugged

After All it’s Indian
So here we are in Ucassaim, Goa again. It’s been raining for the past three days and now there’s bright sunshine; warm humid days, cool starry nights. And I think to myself what a wonderful world. There are high-pitched songbirds in the morning; an irritating rooster with five-o’clock-alarm regularity; peacocks romantically a-braying at the prospect of snakes. The bread guy, the egg man and every other vendor has this little rooty-tooty horn that starts blowing from five in the morning to midday.
Our little village is, as such, a bucolic place. After three days of rain and a day of sunny blue skies, you can sit in the verandah and hear the water dripping from the trees at night. You get up from your armchair and look up at the million trillion stars in the sky to see if it’s clouded over again and it’s raining. And you realize with some impeccable insight that dripping water is the main event in Goa during the monsoon. Even after two days of sunny skies, the trees are still dripping; star-filled, moonlit nights notwithstanding, the drip-drop of the water from the trees never ceases. It is soothing, almost mesmerizing. The sound complements the sight of the starry, black-ink sky.
The wonder of this place is that is a feast of vision and sound but also of heavenly aromas of food: the overwhelming smell of feni, the acrid odor of Goa vinegar and the lustful noseful of seafood. Apart from the hedonistic cornucopia that is the very essence of Goa, there are other, more mundane aspects: good roads, polite drivers, great bars, good restaurants. For people like us, Goa is a discovery…a great view, a wonderful bar, a nice restaurant. Mostly, we wander through the towns, villages and beaches during the day and eat a simple dinner at home.
We love our little village. It is bucolic. Sadly, it is full of envious neighbors. We’ve tried to reach out to them but their world is so different. The amount of money we spend going back and forth from Delhi to Goa in a year surpasses their annual earnings. If we were foreigners, nobody would hassle us; if we were rich, we would have people to contain them. Being neither, we face the hostility of neighbors, who are nice to talk to; it is clear they have a hidden agenda. And they operate stealthily through the Panchayat.
In our case, they cannot complain in terms of religion or caste: my wife is a Goan Catholic; I am a Hindu Brahmin. Between Pereira (my wife’s maiden name) and Desai (also a Goan name), we easily blend in, especially because we live the local life. The problems our neighbors are causing us just for having our house are petty but stressful. One neighbor is a police constable; he earns less in a year than what we spend on airline tickets. Another neighbor started an ambitious project to build an additional floor but ran out of money; a third has cattle in his living quarters and the family is always at war, using loud voices and sometimes even physical combat.
All these years, we’ve ignored them, valuing the physical allure of the village. We’ve weaved that attraction into a pastoral experience. I was hoping to write poetry like William Blake, instead I am constrained to write a Marxist tract. Now that we are sprucing up the property for our daughter’s wedding in the next few months, we’ve had people coming out of the woodwork, objecting to walls; this, that and the other. All complaints go to the Panchayat; there are inspections, without any reference to the alleged transgressor.
In the past few weeks, we’ve had all manner of neighbors complaining about our plan to rebuild the garden walls. Forget sharing the cost, which we asked them to do and they refused, pleading poverty; they are of a completely negative frame of mind. One neighbor complained that we had encroached into his property; another complained, and he lives across the street, that the wall would block the breeze in his house. A third simply said we could not do it unless we built ten feet into our property, giving him the land for free.
We come to Goa to get away from it all. We stay at out second home, mind our own business and reach out to the locals. There is, however, such a simmering pot of envy that you can neither touch nor swallow for fear of burns. We have decided to fight it. Never mind religion or caste, the hostility has to do with socioeconomic differences. Though nowhere rich by global or even the new Indian standards, we nevertheless pay our caretaker more than the per capita income of the village…we probably spend more than that on dinner, when we go out.
That is the truth. But I see no reason why they would gang up on us, except because they believe they can wring a few thousand rupees out of us. Apart from the fact, I would not even part with a paisa, I am shocked that these people have such a skewed view of the world: the idea you can gang up to extract money from your better-off neighbor.
As my daughter says, “Man, Dad, they picked the wrong guy.” And indeed they did. My wife is from Goa and I am Goan by choice. We will fight them to the end of time and we will win for the same reason they seek to extort money from us. We have the resources to tie the Panchayat up in litigation for the next 10 years. Our taxes are 122 rupees a year because that’s really what residents can afford. I have no qualms in using my financial clout to screw their happiness.
On the other hand, despite the pathetic real estate taxes, the village is clean; everyone manages to dispose off their garbage and there are no smelly bins of the type you find in Delhi’s villages. We know because even in the capital we live surrounded by a village that immensely wealthier and depressingly dirtier.
So there we have it. We live in this bucolic village; we spend more money in a day than the local residents do in a month. But we will not give in to the egregious demands of our neighbors, who are simply hoping to make a buck by slowing our renovation.
I told members of the Panchayat, who came to visit us, that we will support the local orphanage (imagine: in this little impoverished community, there is one). But we have no time for envious and greedy neighbors. And we refuse to let their petty concerns spoil the time we spend in our little getaway that we call “Imagine.”

copyright rajiv desai 2008

American Life

Manhattan: Shakespeare in the Parking Lot

So there we stood in the parking lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome in New York’s fabled Lower East Side watching a performance of Shake-speare’s Measure for Measure. It was a warm August evening and all the chairs were taken. Eventually we just squatted on the ground. I thought it would be some amateur effort but was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the actors and the innovation of their production.

The play was staged by The Drilling CompaNY, an Off-Broadway troupe that proclaims it is a jazz player that endeavors “to extend the same free-dom in creation and production to theater artists that jazz extends to mu-sicians.” The play performed that evening was truly Haryanvi in its in-trigues and malafides. It got a bit uncomfortable after an hour of watching it and a Martini beckoned, so we left. It’s not like we didn’t know the end. We luxuriated in the performance, walked to a wondrous bistro: there to eat, drink and be merry with our daughter and her friend.

As we walked back to her place in Gramercy on that night in Manhattan, I couldn’t help marveling at her world of hard work and joyous play. As a twenty-something, our daughter lives this carelessly sophisticated life that is enviable. To live in Lower Manhattan, to have a good job, to have good friends, to shrug off care with awareness and compassion is a life de-voutly to be wished.

Beneath her seemingly hard Manhattan exterior, she is good for a cuddly hug and nostalgia. “I’m not ready for this scenario,” I told her: a stereo-typical situation when parents visit from the Old World and she takes care of everything. “Deal with it, Dad. This is a different America than when you lived here,” she said. Truth is both our daughters are “cool.” They get it from us because we defined “cool,” way back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Regardless, we spent a wonderful weekend with her. She had a problem because I like steak and burgers; her mother prefers exotic foods like tapas and sushi. “Ok parents, you can visit only one at a time. I can’t han-dle these different tastes,” she said as we ended up in a low-grade Italian restaurant with terrible food and brown bag wine on McDougal Street in the West Village, after much this and that.

Our first weekend in Manhattan was a revelation. Our daughter runs an enlightened home, small but neat and comfortable. We got an insight to her life, which seems to be a lot more about quality than quantity. It is so different than when we lived there in the seventies. She fits into the Man-hattan life so easily, where we had to make certain painful adjustments living in Chicago. She was born in America but grew up in Delhi; in the past six years she has lived, you’d think she’d always lived there.

And she ain’t never coming back, that’s for sure. That somewhat sad re-alization for us is tempered by the knowledge that she has a “Sholay” poster on her dining room wall. And that she went to the Independence Day parade and stood in line to have kulfi.

What a difference a generation makes!

Let’s Set the Record Straight

Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have rabble-rousing Hindutva hordes, which held sway from 1998 to 2004 and were booted out. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the Indo-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on the Opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat (difficult) or cause problems (easy) for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short-term political gain.

There also are 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Bannerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamul Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic setup of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalitha and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive.

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Hazare has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about déjà vu.

The foolishness of the Hazare band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, candle-in-the-wind Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, Kejriwal said that India’s much-admired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of his depth on the national stage. His natural audiences are low-level bureaucrats and politicians in the central, state and local government.

Meanwhile the BJP’s jack-in-the-box leader L K Advani led a “rath yatra” against money in Swiss banks in a none-too-subtle bid to cash in on the Hazare’s teacup storm against corruption. He is of classic RSS vintage in that he believes no one remembers his other  1990 “Ram temple” effort that left thousands dead in communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader.

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else.

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996.  In each case, it was voted of out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo.

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of  political parties that formed the Opposition put together a makeshift government that that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999.

The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype.

Since then, Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’ approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue; most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums.

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the Prime Minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia Gandhi is the real power.
The truth is different: both Singh and Gandhi are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The one pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth.”

Ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate Singh and Gandhi: Singh is a highly respected economist  who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and Prime Minister;  Gandhi who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of Prime Minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government.

An edited copy of this article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.