Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mind your language, we're all Indians

For someone whose fluency in the languages of the Aryavarta is fairly basic, there are few things more exasperating than being caught in the crossfire of incomprehension at social gatherings where, as a rule, you meet people of your own social strata. Delhi is ostensibly the Capital of India, the administrative centre of a country with multiple languages and cultures. Yet, there is an unstated presumption that most Indians are sufficiently multi-cultural to able to laugh at risqué jokes in Punjabi and say ‘wah-wah’ to the Urdu couplet most appropriate for the occasion.

The one occasion when, out of sheer perversity, i feebly asked for subtitles, there were twenty pairs of eyes accusing me of being a rootless Angrez.

Negotiating the linguistic clutter of India is never easy and invariably prone to social and political misunderstanding. I recall a curious encounter with a shopkeeper in Southall, the ‘Indian’ ghetto in London, in the early-1980s. Having ordered a takeaway, the man at the counter asked me politely: “Are you an Indian?” “Yes,” i replied. “Can you speak Punjabi?” he queried. “I’m afraid not,” i confessed. “Well, can you speak Gujarati?” Again, i confessed my inability. “What sort of an Indian are you?” he barked indignantly.

It’s a question that left me flummoxed. Unwilling to engage in a discourse on the linguistic complexities of India, i left the Southall desi content with the satisfaction that he had ticked off a rootless wonder—one who didn’t know the two Indian languages most prevalent in the UK.

The encounter in Southall came to mind last week on reading a report from the Jaipur Literary Festival, an event that is fast becoming the place-to-be-seen each January. In a bewildering intervention, diplomat-author Pavan Varma suggested that independent India began on the wrong culture when Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his memorable “tryst with destiny” speech in English. According to him, it was indicative of a perverse mindset and “testimony to how the roots of our own languages were weakened in 200 years of colonial rule.” Nehru, it would, seem, set the tone for the subsequent marginalization of the mother tongues in India.

Like the man from Southall, Varma seemed to be asking: “What sort of Indian was Nehru?”

Having tasted the Jaipur experience for two consecutive years, it may be presumed that Varma’s tirade against the cultural inadequacies of those Indians who see English as a status symbol went down rather well. The festival has always been marked by an undercurrent of tension between those who crave the opportunity to hear and interact with internationally-acclaimed writers and those who turn to protest against the less exalted billing to bhasha—the newspeak for what was earlier called the ‘vernacular’. The bhasha brigade tends to be somewhat assertive in flaunting their victimhood and, like Varma, invariably succeed in guilt-tripping the Angrezi-wallas. Denouncing the apparent colonization of the mind is trendy.

Bhasha may be shorthand for Indian languages but in practice it has become a euphemism for Hindi. The real grievance of the Hindi chauvinists isn’t that the language has been ignored. Hindi is the primary language of politics (but not statecraft). It dominates TV and Bollywood, and it is the language most understood throughout India. Its functional importance is undeniable. Apart from Tamil Nadu where its encroachments are fiercely resisted, a smattering of Hindi can see you through most of India.

However, there is one shortcoming Hindi hasn’t been able to overcome: its lack of respectability. It suffers from a deep, age-old inferiority vis-a-vis Urdu and an inability to cope with the disdain of more evolved languages.  Contrary to what Varma believes, colonial rule and exposure to European ideas saw a flowering of regional languages in the three presidencies. Hindi’s rise was post-1947 and dictated by political necessity.

In Bengal, a state familiar to me, the upwardly mobile, concurrently fluent in English, were never embarrassed by the presence of bhasha newspapers and books in their homes. In Hindi-dominated Delhi, material prosperity has triggered a comic Westernization, not least of which is the massacre of the English language.

India is routinely embroiled in contrived controversies over language. Periodically, nationalist assertion involves

Angrezi-bashing and shadow boxing with a colonial past. Yet, thanks to a globalization from which India has profited greatly, these outbreaks of seasonal hysteria rarely cross the bounds of a phoney war. English has continued to gain in usage but India isn’t likely to become a cultural outpost of the Anglosphere. India’s English is the language of abstraction, ideas and business; Hindi is for everyday communication.

It’s a replay of the Persian-Hindustani hierarchy in Mughal India. Perhaps Nehru anticipated this: he spoke to the nation in English and to voters in Hindi.

Sunday Times of India, January 31, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Wonder That Is India: 60 years of the Republic

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, a body called Reputation Institute published a poll of how some countries perceived themselves in terms of “overall respect, trust, esteem, admiration and good feelings”, and how these countries were in turn viewed by others. Predictably, the perception gap was the least for countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Japan and even UK. In the case of India, it was as high as 32 points, around the same as the US.

It was reassuring that 82 per cent of Indians are basking in self-esteem—the corresponding figures were 79 per cent for China, 77 per cent for the US and a measly 57 per cent for Japan. In 1997, a poll had suggested that some 60 per cent of Indians thought they were better off under British rule.

Opinion polls are never conclusive but the Reputation Institute exercise does point to a phenomenon that has often been corroborated by anecdotal evidence: Indians feel that the 21st century is theirs.

The headiness that marks 60 years of the Indian Republic is a departure from the gloomy pessimism of earlier decades. Amid this high, it’s easy to forget that not very long ago the haunting face of a hungry Indian child was used to guilt-trip the West into parting with loose change. My parents used to talk about the unspeakable horrors of the 1943 Bengal famine; I recall the grim shortages that marked the mid-1960s; my son, a product of the market economy, takes material comforts for granted.

Nationalist history has stressed the starry-eyed idealism of an India that heard Jawaharlal Nehru making a “tryst with destiny” and witnessed Rajendra Prasad sign the Constitution 60 years ago. But that was half the story. India was intoxicated by the sweet air of freedom after centuries of servitude but its exuberance wasn’t universally shared.

On the far-Right of this ‘perception gap’ stood Winston Churchill who viewed Indian independence as the betrayal of a sacred trust. Using Gibbon’s imagery, he even prepared a speech prophesying that “to India it may well be the age of Antonines”; he never delivered it. Still, he fell back on the horrors of Partition to lament “one of the most melancholy tragedies Asia has ever known”—the end of Empire.

On the far-Left of the brigade of sceptics stood the Communists, determined to turn human tragedy into political advantage. After a Moscow-dictated shift in the party line saw the elevation of B.T. Ranadive as general secretary, the Comrades took to the streets chanting ‘ye azadi jhooti hai’. The insurrection against a ‘spurious’ independence saw grotesque acts of political adventurism: an ultra-Left group stormed the Jessop factory in Calcutta and threw an European manager into the boiler. Mercifully, this delinquency ended in 1951.

Nor was India alone affected by the turbulence; the neighbourhood proved equally volatile. In Pakistan, the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 triggered a wave of sectarian discord, regional tensions and political instability and paved the way for a military coup in 1958. In Burma, soldiers barged into Parliament in July 1947 and gunned down Aung San, the leader of the nationalist movement, and six of his ministers. The tragedy paralysed democracy and eventually led to General Ne Win’s eccentric socialism. Only Ceylon, ironically the only country that never had a mass-based nationalist movement, proved an island of democratic stability — at least till 1956 when Sinhala nationalism brought in ethnic complications, frequent changes of Constitution and, finally, a deeply damaging 25-year civil war.

In hindsight, India seems to have come out of decolonisation least damaged. A commitment to bad ideology meant it had to wait till 1991 for sensible economics to prevail and entrepreneurial opportunities to return. Yet, for 60 years the political edifice created by the founding fathers of the Republic held — barring an 18-month aberration during the Emergency. India conducted 15 democratic elections and witnessed peaceful transitions of government. The military remained outside politics, the judiciary stayed independent and civil liberties were preserved and even extended. There were bouts of political turbulence and civil unrest but these didn’t jeopardise the Constitution.

This awesome 60-year record must seem inexplicable to those who tore their hair for 30 years trying to work out viable and acceptable institutions of self-government for India. Constitution-making for India didn’t begin in 1947; its origins go back to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919. Thereafter, it went through a bumpy and treacherous ride — the Simon Commission Report, the three Round Table conferences, the Cripps Mission and the Cabinet Mission — which left many convinced that independent India would be violently ungovernable. But these abstruse and fractious exercises actually helped clear up the clutter for the inheritors of the Raj.

Prior to 1947, there were four major concerns. First, would India be governed by an overriding Centre or be a loose federation, a United States of India? Second, how would religious minorities be given a stake in the new dispensation? Third, how would the internal differentiations within Hindus be tackled to prevent, as many feared, Brahmin domination? Finally, how would democracy square with mass poverty and

Partition resolved the seemingly intractable strong-Centre versus federal debate. The biggest votaries of a weak Centre walked away into Pakistan. Partition also ensured that the role of minorities wouldn’t become an instrument of permanent political blackmail. India’s multi-religious character could be preserved within the parameters of a liberal Constitution that followed the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation to not override faith and custom. The only difference was that while the British after 1858 tried to steer clear of all Indian social customs, free India confined its prohibitions to minority sensitivities. As for iniquities within Hindu communities, the Poona Pact of 1932 was carried over and extended to affirmative action in government employment. Mandal took it a step further. The formation of linguistic states cemented another possible area of discord. Today, however, there is a danger of some ghosts from the past reappearing.

The final issue was the evolution of political consciousness and the creation of a democratic culture. This proved a long time coming but the process was helped by the remarkable political self-assurance of the Congress Party. Till 1967, the party leadership didn’t have adequate incentives to attempt a derailment of democracy. Only Indira Gandhi had other ideas. Fortunately, the brief Emergency interlude ended up making Indians fanatically committed to the system. After 1977 India imposed a moratorium on quick-fix, radicalism. Demands for a “committed” bureaucracy and judiciary and a presidential system have become politically unacceptable.

Yet, India’s success with democracy wouldn’t have happened without the presence of a middle class that had imbibed a measure of European Enlightenment and combined it with patriotic selflessness. It was the relative irrelevance of this class in Pakistan that gave feudal landlords and soldiers the upper hand in that country. Lord Macaulay may be a swear word for those untainted by cosmopolitanism but contemporary India has reason to appreciate the prescience of his 1835 mission statement: “Come what may, self-knowledge will lead to self-rule.”
India’s thriving Republic is an Indian achievement but it’s also an outcome of inheritance.

Times of India, January 23, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Basu and Bengal were made for each other

[This is the English version of an obituary published in Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on January 18, 2010]

By Swapan Dasgupta

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960’s and early-1970s in a household with strongly Congress inclinations, I can vividly recall the outpouring of venom that greeted the very mention of Jyoti Basu. In those turbulent days spanning the slow loss of Congress dominance and the violent transformation of West Bengal into a “Red Fort”, Basu was at the epicentre of controversy. As the most visible Communist mass leader he was perceived by many as the evil choreographer of West Bengal’s plunge from a settled existence into uncertainty, verging on anarchy.

The image of a fiery revolutionary bent on turning the world upside down may have been sharply at odds with the benign bhadralok who missed becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister by a whisker in 1996, and that too as a consensus candidate. But an evolving image was a feature of a gentleman who first became a player before Independence and was in the crease for more than six decades. The Jyoti Basu held under preventive detention in 1962 by Dr B.C. Roy for his known pro-China sympathies was a very man from the venerable elder statesman who helped forge the Congress-CPI(M) understanding at the Centre in May 2004.

Few individuals can boast a more fulfilling and chequered political life as Jyoti Basu. Since the time he entered the Legislative Assembly of undivided Bengal way back in 1946, Jyoti Basu has been a decisive force in the politics of West Bengal. As Leader of Opposition from 1952 to 1967 during the days of Congress dominance, Deputy Chief Minister in the two United Front governments between 1967 and 1967, the longest-serving Chief Minister from 1977 to 2000 and elder statesman in his twilight years, Basu’s life encapsulates both the history of West Bengal and the Communist movement since Independence.

History and another generation will be better placed to assess what Jyoti babu made of the many opportunities that came his way. Did he live up the idealism of those bright young Indians from respectable homes who travelled to England in preparation of a career but ended up as revolutionary foot-soldiers of Pollitt and Palme-Dutt? Or did he, in a strange sort of way, live up to his inheritance as a pillar of respectability and stodginess? To use the imagery of Ashok Mitra, was Jyoti Basu more a Communist or more a Bengali bhadralok?

At the sartorial level, the answer was obvious. Aesthetically, there was nothing outlandish and, therefore, Communist about the man. Jyoti babu didn’t fight the class war by wearing rubber chappals and non-ironed clothes to prove his proletarian credentials. Always correct and decorous, he carried himself with an air of superiority, tinged with brusqueness. He loathed flash but liked the tasteful good life and, above all, his summer vacation in London. Jyoti babu was transparent; he wasn’t a poseur.

This innate decency endeared Jyoti babu to a state where the CPI(M) evolved from being a party of radical change to an outfit that championed Bengali regional aspirations. His natural desire to temper the rough edges of ideology made him a natural face of the party in times good and bad. But what did he make of this golden opportunity?

Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977 at a time when the state was engulfed by two distinct crises: an economy crippled by a decade of Left militancy and Congress high-handedness, and a civil society distorted by a perverse sense of entitlement. In his mind Basu knew that recovery was possible if Bengal could reinvent itself as a destination for profitable investment. He was also painfully aware that economic revival was possible if there was an improvement in Bengal’s work culture and decline in the 24x7 preoccupation with politics. Although the Communist victory had been made possible by the collapse of the old culture of deference, Basu knew that the state’s revival was possible by lowering the political temperature.

This was not what his colleagues believed. Initially, the party went in for radical land reforms and decentralisation of power to consolidate its hold in the countryside. But after five years, this strategy had run its course—though the political dividends keep flowing to this day. When it came to the revival of manufacturing and the creation of a new services sector, the Chief Minister found himself outvoted inside the party. His government adopted measures such as the abolition of English teaching till class 5 and the politicisation of institutions which set West Bengal behind by decades. Trade union militancy and crippling power cuts led to the decimation of small and medium industry. To the investing classes, Bengal became a big no-no. Its efficiency was limited to the organisation of bandhs.

Basu could have used his clout as the Bengali patriarch to force a reformist agenda. He chose the line of least resistance—arguing feebly for pragmatism inside the party but endorsing the collective view in public. Ideologically, he wasn’t much of a Communist but in following the “party line” faithfully, he was a model Comrade.

Jyoti Basu was India’s longest-serving Chief Minister, being in office for 23 years. Politically, his achievement is colossal. However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times. He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor. He merely prevented the roof from caving in.

Maybe Basu’s exalted status is a reflection of the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change. Basu and Bengal were made for each other.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"If you seek his monument, look around"

As someone who grew up in Calcutta and witnessed the beginnings of its long-term decline, I find it difficult to lionise Jyoti Basu.

Whatever his personal inclinations, he was the public face of a socially regressive movement that destroyed Bengal's age-old refinement. He led the mob that made the Bengali coarse.

Even these could have been overlooked had he left West Bengal in a better state than when he first assumed charge in 1967 (remember that he was the driving force behind the United Front governments of 1967 and 1969). He unleashed forces that caused the complete destruction of Bengal's manufacturing industry.

He killed the work ethic in Bengal. He helped make Bengalis a tribe of the permanently aggrieved.

Mamata Bannerjee is his true successor. She will complete his unfinished agenda of destruction.

POSTSCRIPT: There are however some endearing qualities about Jyoti Basu the man. He was a politician of unimpeachable personal integrity. He was also simple in his lifestyle, without being either austere or a humbug. I particularly admired his inability to cast off his innate fascination for England. He traveled there most summers since 1977, ostensibly to attract foreign investment--an useful euphemism for just chilling.

India must not blink on Pakistan (January 17, 2010)

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an awesome demagogue. Much before the technique became common currency in the inspirational-talks circuit, he used an ‘interactive’ approach to keep his audiences enthralled. In the course of his speeches he would invariably pose anodyne questions to his listeners and then await the roar of approval. I recall listening on the radio to one of his speeches during the troublesome aftermath of liberation. He posed the question “Do you want more roads?” and waited for the inevitable response. He then asked, “Do you want more buses?” and then gloated over the mass reply.

I am reminded of Mujib in the context of an epidemic of apparent brotherhood that has suddenly gripped a small section of the media and civil society in recent weeks. At numerous occasions we have been asked the question: “Do you want peace between India and Pakistan?”

The answer is obvious. Apart from a handful of crazies, there isn’t anyone in India who is opposed to peace in the neighbourhood, whether it involves Pakistan, China or even Burma. It doesn’t require strategic affairs experts and Track 3 activists to tell us that India would rather be building roads and schools than diverting resources into expensive military hardware. I can’t speak for Pakistan but, presumably, the overall feeling across the Radcliffe Line wouldn’t be all that different. Sensible Pakistanis have had an overdose of jihad and wouldn’t mind exploring other facets of theology.

Of course, there is a flip side to the earnest desire for peace. There is an un-stated assumption that an undeclared war or, if you so prefer, a proxy war exists between India and Pakistan. It is a war that India has experienced in different ways throughout the past decade and which is also being waged in Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the anarchic zones along the Indo-Burmese border. The war has made life insecure in Indian cities, created zones of treachery in ghettos, diverted tourist traffic and even made it difficult for people to accept Rs 500 currency notes without fear of forgeries. Yes, the late Gen Zia-ul Haq’s “war of a thousand cuts” has cost India dearly — although Pakistan too has suffered from the blowback.

It is easy to buy short-term peace by following the essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s intriguing advice to the persecuted Jews of Hitler’s Germany: To be prepared for immeasurable suffering and even a massacre of the entire community since “to the god-fearing, death has no terror”. In political terms this would involve withdrawal from the Siachen heights, agreeing to dual sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir and conceding Pakistan’s overriding sphere of influence in Afghanistan. In other words, leave Pakistan with no substantial grievance against India and, presumably, emerge as such a morally superior nation that the Swedes would have no alternative but to confer the Nobel Prize for Peace on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If you imagine this is a caricature, just examine the fine print of the writings of those who are praising the “instincts” and “tactical acumen” of the Prime Minister and advocating a “region-led” (as opposed to a “US-led”) approach to Afghanistan. The grapevine in Lutyens’ Delhi suggests that the advocates of such a foreign policy course-correction have the ears of the Prime Minister, but that could well be conjecture. Manmohan does have a penchant for encouraging others to assume the part of a stalking horse — witness Jairam Ramesh’s role in the climate change debate — and taking refuge behind a shield of deniability. The joint Indo-Pakistani statement in Sharm el-Sheikh was one of the few occasions where he allowed full play to his “instincts” and “tactical acumen”. The result was a shamefaced retreat before Parliament and a silly bid to blame the unacceptable formulations on “clumsy” drafting.

What has happened in the months following Sharm el-Sheikh to warrant an overdrive for peace? Pakistan has persisted with its obstructionist attitude towards investigations into the 26/11 Mumbai carnage; more evidence has emerged of Pakistani involvement in the massacre; the wafer-thin line between the Pakistani state and ‘non-state players’ such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has disappeared; Pakistan itself has been plagued by daily attacks on civilian and military targets by suicide bombers; large chunks of western Pakistan are in the midst of a civil war; the fragile civilian Government in Islamabad has become even more shakier and there is concern over who is actually in charge; and the Kerry-Luger legislation has set the stage for greater US involvement in the civil administration of Pakistan.

If Pakistan was a dangerous place before 26/11, it has become infinitely more volatile in the ensuing 14 months. This is no doubt tough on the Pakistani people, particularly that section of the middle classes which is more at ease in Mumbai and Delhi than at home. To be unable to reciprocate their goodwill towards India is painful and there is a very strong case for enlarging the scope of people-to-people contacts with Pakistan, if only to showcase India’s soft power.

India could certainly do with more visits by Pakistani cricketers, musicians, artists, novelists and others who are genuinely committed to cross-border amity. There is even a case for unilaterally allowing more Pakistani traders to sell their fruits, carpets and shoes to access the Indian market without expecting reciprocity. If this is what is meant by ‘peace’, India should be prepared to go the extra mile.

But that’s where it has to stop for the moment. As far as Government-to-Government relations are concerned, India has absolutely no reason to let down its guard. At least not until there is conclusive evidence that the Pakistani establishment has become weary of persisting with a policy that is aimed at causing maximum pain to India.

The Government of India must not blink.

Sunday Pioneer, January 17, 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cooks, barbers and Australians

For an emerging international player, the Ministry of External Affairs should have an iconic status. In the past weeks, the MEA has, unfortunately, acquired an image of frivolity with its junior Minister constantly getting into scrapes over his Twitter-ing ways and the senior Minister being mocked for being more preoccupied with his appearance than his charge. The perceptions may well be unfair but they have contributed to an overall feeling that South Block could do with an injection of gravitas.

There are times, however, when flippancy may serve an unwitting purpose. Last week, SM Krishna made a telling comment on Australia’s education industry and what he thought was Indian gullibility: “One can understand students going there (Australia) at the university level, at the IIT level or at the level of some other institution of excellence. When I went there, I was shocked to see so many students in courses they don’t need to go to Australia for — such as learning hair-styling or doing facials.”

Krishna needs to be complimented on his belated discovery that the 66,000 Indians who went to Australia last year on student visas aren’t exactly interested in rocket science and that they are unlikely to be short-listed in future for the Nobel Prize. Australia has cleverly used its education industry for two strategic ends. First, to earn itself a whopping Au$ 15 billion, of which the largest share comes from India, each year; and, second, to use bucket shops (masquerading as institutes of ‘higher education’) as a primary point of immigration. The Minister would have been surprised to learn that hair-styling, which he ironically looks down on, and commercial cookery were two of the recognised vocations for converting student visas into residence permits. Australians, it would seem, were short of barbers (or hair stylists if you prefer) and cooks (or chefs if you so like) and were glad to facilitate their entry into the country. The country had the additional satisfaction of knowing that the bulk of these preferred immigrants have paid for the privilege of meeting the manpower shortage.

Australia must be congratulated for evolving a unique, revenue-generating immigration model. It is qualitatively different from that of the US which doles out generous scholarships to the best and the brightest students from India and allures them into the American dream. The US has believed that a particular type of immigrant enhances the creative and competitive thrust of its economy; Australia has used education to cope with basic labour shortages — and not merely in hair-dressing saloons and restaurants. What has made Australia attractive to India’s less academically-inclined students is the fact that studies are at a serious discount. The students pay a whopping fee to an institute and then devote themselves to earning money driving taxis or working as shop attendants in retail establishments, particularly those that are open late into the night. Australian universities, an unnamed academic is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “used to be a place of learning; now they are a place of earning.”

I don’t know why Australia persists with the fiction of issuing student visas: These are short-term work visas with a steep entry fee.
This is not to mention that all Australian education is an eye-wash. There are well-regarded universities in the country, maybe even in Melbourne too. The question is: How many of the one lakh plus Indian students are enrolled in them?

It is pertinent to point out the grim reality of what passes for education, particularly in a city such as Melbourne, to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Indian ‘students’ are being targeted by Australians. It is not a town versus gown clash that has made Indians the favourite whipping boys of every disgruntled lout emerging from a pub. Those who are being targeted are Indian workers, the reserve army of potential immigrants.

This doesn’t make the attacks any less heinous. If Australians are repelled by the growth of Indian ghettos in the suburbs of Melbourne and disgusted by the curry smells and Hindi film songs, they must realise that it is a problem of their own creation. It is they who wanted cheap labour and there is a social price to be paid for this luxury.

There is a social problem that is affecting Melbourne and whether Australia likes it or not, it has a strong racial dimension. The crime statistics suggest that Indians are 2.5 times more vulnerable to attacks than others in Melbourne, and yet Australian authorities pretend that crime is colour-blind. The argument is patently disingenuous.

Australia won’t lose brownie points if it honestly admits that the State of Victoria has a serious problem of race-related crimes. It is not going to take away from the fact that the country has travelled a long way from the ‘Whites only’ immigration policy it pursued until the 1960s. Nor will India question the right of Australia to cut down student visas in future because MEA has already recognised that most of the courses aren’t worth spending hard-earned money on. But Australia cannot expect India to sit by idly as its citizens are set upon by goons and harassed and even killed.

The Ku Klux Klan analogy of an Indian tabloid may be an exaggeration (and it certainly wasn’t very funny) but the response to Indian shrillness is not stone-faced Australian denial. Nor does it lie in shrill Australian indignation over the sheer effrontery of India calling someone else racist.

The point which Australia has recognised insufficiently, and which Indians don’t seem to have recognised at all, is that India means something quite different to what it meant 30 years ago. If the race attacks don’t cease, it would be worth the MEA’s while to make the travel advisory more stringent and, as a final resort, advise the Reserve Bank of India to stop all fresh money remittances to Australia for ‘education’ purposes.

Sunday Pioneer, January 10, 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

As political reforms go, Modi’s must-vote bill is an important step

There was a time when the Indian version of the Honours List was the strict prerogative of the State. In the market economy age, it isn’t necessary for India’s achievers to lobby ministers and officials to get their names on the Republic Day list: there are alternatives.

The ‘season’ in Delhi and Mumbai witnesses a surfeit of functions organized by media houses, ‘academic’ institutes and industry-sponsored foundations aimed at honouring those who have apparently made a difference to the lives of others. There are awards for sports, media, literature, entertainment, governance, philanthropy and business. And, of course, there are the invariable awards for the “Indian of the Year”— politicians are traditionally favoured — and for “Lifetime achievement”. The wicked people say that many awards are rigged, and aimed at securing collateral benefits for the sponsors. But, like the ‘news for sale’ scandal that has gripped the media, that is another story altogether.

A striking feature of the awards is their sheer predictability. Those who observe these things keenly can more or less predict those who are favoured and those who are out of the radar. Taking a cue from the Nobel committee, it is almost pre-ordained that every second award will be offered to Rahul Gandhi — not necessarily for what he has achieved but because, like President Barack Obama, he has potential. For those awarding bodies that have the clout to arrange an acceptance speech (or at least a message), the prime minister will be honoured — again, not necessarily for what he has achieved, but for the position he holds. Among chief ministers, Delhi’s Sheila Dikshit is a permanent favourite for purely logistical reasons.

Equally significant are those who invariably get left out. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik has about as many achievements as the Delhi chief minister: winning three consecutive elections. Yet, it is rare to see him being honoured. There are few collateral advantages to honouring Patnaik.

Another notable who has been bypassed for the awards is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. For those who measure achievement through the prism of economic success, Modi stands out. He has presided over the highest growth rate of any state in the past years; he has made efficiency a yardstick of governance; he has curbed corruption dramatically; he has arrested the decline of agricultural productivity in his state; he has put environment on the agenda of development; and he has revelled in innovative governance. By any measure, Modi should have been swimming in awards showered on him.

It is not that his achievements are unknown. Two years ago, a media house conducted a viewers’/readers’ poll for its Indian of the Year. Modi came out tops. Yet, vox populi was discounted in favour of a hand-picked jury, which, predictably, settled for a more socially acceptable candidate. When it comes to Modi, what matters is the burden of the singer and not the song.

Last month, the Modi government undertook an audacious piece of legislation aimed at making the political process more wholesome and more accountable and, by implication, less venal. The Gujarat assembly passed a bill making voting compulsory for all elections to local bodies. In short, universal adult franchise was extended to universal adult participation — a measure adopted by 32 countries and actively enforced in 19. Left to himself, Modi would probably have made voting in assembly and Lok Sabha elections obligatory. But since these come under the purview of the Centre, such a move must await another day.

An interesting feature of the Gujarat legislation is that there is a provision for voters to reject all the candidates on offer — a “none of these” option. Presumably, if the majority of voters rejects the list of aspirants, a re-election will become mandatory. In other words, the act of either neutrality or protest has been built into a system of compulsory participation.

As political reforms go, the Gujarat legislation is one of the most important initiatives in recent times. Yet, it is curious that it has been greeted with an embarrassed but deafening silence, not least from those who are loudest in their indignation over the present debasement of electoral politics. In true babu fashion, the Election Commission has underlined the administrative difficulties of ensuring total participation, and some liberals have expressed dismay at the attempt to codify the obligations of citizenship. Yet others have pointed to the absurdities involved in dragging the sick, infirm and transient voters into the polling booth. In time, there may even be theological objections to a system of participation that isn’t divinely ordained. Even within Modi’s own party, the Gujarat legislation has not secured unequivocal endorsement. The temptation to see the measure as Modi’s personal, overbearing initiative has clouded dispassionate assessment.

The dramatic consequences of compulsory voting need to be spelt out. For a start, since a large percentage of electioneering costs governs the turnout of voters, it is certain to reduce the importance of money power quite dramatically. There will be an automatic shift in focus from ensuring voter turnout to publicizing what a party or candidate stands for. There will be a shift in politics from organization to issues. By implication, the role of the apparatchiks in the political system will be devalued.

Secondly, a major distortion in our election system results from bloc-voting by one section and the relative non-participation by a larger, unorganized and amorphous group of citizens. An organized group can punch above its weight and distort the verdict by capitalizing on the passivity of others. Compulsory voting puts all citizens, regardless of class, gender, caste and religion, on an equal footing. A net consequence could be the lowering of sectarian tensions as an instrument of voter mobilization.

Finally, a government elected with the endorsement of a majority, as opposed to a majority of the minority that turns up to vote, will enjoy extra legitimacy. This, in turn, will be a weapon of decisive governance.

That there are logistical hurdles in the path of an effective implementation of the compulsory voting scheme is undeniable. First, the preparation of electoral rolls must become more rigorous, and there must be easy procedures for citizens to enlist as voters. Secondly, the system of postal voting must be enlarged to cover a larger group of citizens than just government servants and members of the armed forces. If voting is deemed compulsory, it must become more convenient. It may even become necessary to extend the hours of physical voting. Thirdly, there is a difference between making voting obligatory and making it coercive. Since the idea is to increase voter turnout from the all-India average of 55 per cent to around 90 per cent (a 100 per cent turnout is an impossibility), there should be no harassment of those who are either unable to vote or choose to be libertarians. A system of incentives rather than punishment may be more appropriate — a subject that needs more deliberation.

Democracy is one of India’s most cherished attributes. The irony is that this great pillar of strength and national resolve has been systematically undermined by operational shortcomings of the electoral system. With growing prosperity, there is a fear that India could go the way of many Western democracies and become indifferent to the political process. Low turnouts in elections lead to the hijacking of democracy by a determined minority. It contributes to the emotional secession of the contended from citizenship and accords a premium on discontent. Measures to rectify the distortions warrant serious consideration regardless of our personal view of the man who made it happen in Gujarat.

The Telegraph, January 8, 2010

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