Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Karnataka quagmire

The drama surrounding the refusal of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy to hand over power to the BJP is old news. That, in itself , was betrayal of an agreement in my opinion. But what has happened since the state came under President's Rule on October 9, goes beyond all expectations. Not that I believed that our politicians had any morals in the first place, but the actions of the Janata Dal (S) and the BJP in the state really take the cake. First, a state Chief Minister back down from a very public agreement to transfer power to his coalition partners. Then, the father of the said CM, who also happens to be the chief of the Party and a former Prime Minister of the country says it was a sin to have ever entered into a power-sharing agreement with a "communal" party. You see, he did not know, at that time, that the BJP was communal. He vows his support to the minority communities and promises not to let a power-hungry "fascist" party take power in the state. In the meantime, he tries to broker a deal with other parties to try and get his son back on the Chief Minister's chair. All attempts fail and the state comes under Central rule.

Barely two weeks later, we learn that the said "communal" and "fascist" party and the "secular" one are bedfellows again. The leaders are seen shaking hands and hugging one another in public. They all troop to the Governor of the state to try and convince him to invite them to form a government. The Governor, being answerable to the Central Government, asks for a couple of days to decide. Impatient with the delay, the "fascists" threaten to take to the streets, in an attempt to force the Governor's hand. As if this is not enough, the president of the "secular" party's state unit calls it "a murder of democracy."

Of course, it's a murder of democracy. It is not murder when two parties that contested one another in the election join hands in an unholy alliance, simply because they want power. And, it is not murder when one of the two parties backtracks on a public commitment and calls it's ally a fascist. It is definitely not murder when suddenly, driven by a desire to seize power, the two adversaries reach a compromise and go back to the Governor to get their power back. Neither is it murder when the two parties, terrified of facing a mid-term election shower praises on the ally they slandered barely 2 weeks ago. But, of course, the refusal of a state Governor to take a decision without first consulting the Centre on it is a murder of democracy. But of course!

Is this what we wanted when we elected our government? What does the average Indian voter do when he/she votes to throw a government out simply to realise that the government will be back in power anyway with the help of the same people they slandered not 2 weeks ago? Are we really living in a democracy? Do we, as voters, actually have a choice? Or are we being asked to choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea? I only have questions. And no answers.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Women, marriage and compromise

Yesterday, I was going through Ms. Bansal's blog, and I came across this post on Chak De India. I know it's a bit late to write on this movie, especially as I have already written on it once. But, the temptation was irresistible. What caught my attention was not so much the post itself but a comment to the post. This comment, made by someone called Madan, presumably a man, sums up the overall attitude towards women. He says,
"In addition most men are pretty balanced in their outlook towards life,career and family and seem to have no problem juggling them irrespective of their maritial status. But all we hear from the female is constant crib about how society is somehow denying them their rightful place? Strange considering the fact most women marry UP and not DOWN. Men unfortunately don't have the luxury of moving up the social ladder thru marriage." (click here for full post)
He goes on to claim that men and women are given equal opportunities but the equality of result cannot be guaranteed. Equal opportunities? Really? What about the woman who is forced to drop out of school because the education of her brother is more important and the family cannot afford to educate them both? What about the woman who is married off at 18 and has 3 children by the time she is 23? And what about the millions of Indian women who work as house-maids because they face harassment and humiliation if they choose to do anything else? Does Madan and others like him have answer to why women are paid only half as much as men in the construction industry when they work just as hard? India may be on the path to economic development, but the hard truth is that women have to be twice as good as men in their careers to be considered as equals. A woman taking a few months off as maternity leave is seen as a liability to a company rather than as an investment.

Secondly, Madan claims that most women marry up in an attempt to move up the social ladder. Ever stopped to think why women prefer a man who earns better than she does? The reason is simple. Very few men can take it if their wives are more successful in their careers than they are. A woman chooses a man who earns better than her to avoid the ego clashes that will inevitably occur. There are other, more practical reasons for this. It is inevitably the woman who quits her job, or downsizes her career as Bansal puts it, to take care of the kids. In this scenario, it would only make more sense if the husband earned better so that the family remains financially stable even after the loss of the woman's income. Of course, if men are willing to be stay-at-home dads, there would be no reason for women to marry up.

As for the claim that men don't have the luxury of moving up the social ladder through marriage, nothing could be farther from the truth. Why do men ask for dowry? Because they think it's culturally correct? No. It is because they know they are simply incapable of acquiring the money through their own hard work. It it obviously easier to ask your father-in-law for a car or a flat than to work towards buying one yourself. If this is not moving up the social ladder through marriage, then what is? As if this is not enough, another reader says,
"In fact , the woman survives on the money brought by the husband if she is not working. Everything comes for a price. If the woman is not working , she has to repay by serving her husband in lieu of the food and material comforts he provides her."
What the hell? A woman repays her husband by serving him food and cleaning up after him? If it is business, then what about the free sex the husband gets on demand? Is that business too? A price to pay for staying at home and eating out of the husband's earnings? If all this is true, then I don't think we are talking about a family at all. We are talking about a profit-making corporation where there is no free lunch. And the job of a wife is simply that: a job. And, like all jobs, the employer can be changed. This is an extremely cynical world view and has no place in our lives. I do not say this citing Indian culture or society. I say this because as human beings, we all need a place to call home. A place where every action, or lack of it, will not be measured in monetary terms. I can only hope that this viewpoint is the exception rather than the rule. Otherwise, we will have to rethink our existence as human beings.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Love affairs, society and violence

Recently, there have been reports in the media about couples eloping to get married and the drama that follows the event. The latest news story is about Telugu film star Chiranjeevi's daughter's wedding to her lover of 4 years against her parents wishes. The national media followed the story almost obsessively, even talking to Chiranjeevi himself and to his daughter. In the meantime, the Rizwanur Rahman murder case increasingly resembles the infamous honour killings of Punjab and Haryana. And parts of Pakistan too. But, all this drama behind the elopement and marriage of a star-kid raises one important question. How much attention should the media give to such happenings? Does the mere fact that Srija is Chiranjeevi's daughter nullify her right to a private life. Everything was discussed in the Press. From the cost of her wedding dress to the honeymoon destination, everything was talked about. Experts condemned Chiranjeevi, wondered if Srija was really in love given that she was only 18 and raised a hue and cry about security to the newly-married couple. These experts appropriate the right to talk about her private life simply because she has a star father. Once the hype and hoopla dies down, what is to become of the couple? Does anyone care? Or is it simply a way of increasing circulation and improving TRP ratings?

The Rizwanur murder is another case in point. The media is more obsessed about the love affair between Rizwanur and Priyanka Todi than in the murder itself. Of course, who want to see the gory details of police investigation, post-mortem examinations and forensic evidence? The elopement and marriage of the couple is more interesting right? Is this what the media should do? What about more serious issues like the Global Hunger Report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute was barely mentioned by the media. Where are we going? What is the media, which is supposed to be the fourth estate, doing to create awareness on important issues?

That said, a second issue regarding these elopements and marriages must be addressed. Couples don't elope for the thrill of it. They elope because of parental opposition, pressure and other problems. Nobody likes to run away from home. They are forced to. By this, I am not justifying the decision of the couple to run away. I am simply trying to understand the reasons behind such a decision. This blogpost by Rashmi Bansal hits the nail on the head. The problem is the unwillingness to compromise. Parents always think their kids are too young, too immature or too naive to be able to choose a life partner. That said, kids refuse to acknowledge that their parents' advice and knowledge can sometimes be heeded. Where is the solution? Is there a meeting point? Will things ever change?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Education, reservations and reform

A few days ago, The Hindu reported that the TN Assembly had passed a bill approving 3.5% reservations for minorities (Christians and Muslims) within the 30% quota already existing for backward classes. This 3.5% for minorities is yet another attempt at affirmative action, although whether it really serves to uplift the downtrodden is questionable. The trend towards affirmative action through special quotas seems to be never-ending. Think about it; Tamil Nadu has the highest percentage of reserved seats totalling to a massive 69%, leading even the Apex Court to say that reservations must not exceed 50% if they are to retain their relevance. But no, our politicians have found a way out of the quagmire. They simply create extra seats in engineering and medical colleges to accommodate the reservations-less students and circumvent the Supreme Court ruling. Anyway, the point here is this: what does the rest of the world do if this reservation trend continues? How do good students belonging to unreserved categories get admission into good colleges or get government jobs if this quota goes on increasing?

More importantly, does this quota system really help those who need the help? I think the Times of India got it right this time. We need to start thinking beyond quotas. Far from working towards the abolition of the caste system, the quota system actually reinforces caste identities and helps in entrenching the caste system more firmly in Indian society. The creation of several caste-based political parties is clearly a pointer to this trend. Why can't we rise above petty considerations of caste, religion and community and look at the capacity of the person in question. How does the caste of the applicant to a college or a job matter if the person concerned is capable of carrying on his duties to perfection? Perhaps it is time to look at another way of providing affirmative action. Or perhaps we must now move on from our caste-conscious behaviour and learn to think beyond it.

PS: On an unrelated note, anyone noticed that all those people who left comments on my previous post (saying I was the one who was bullshitting) are men?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The importance of making sense...

I try my best to be as concise as possible when I post. Even then, I sometimes worry about whether I am making my point clearly to my readers. But, here is a blog that worries about nothing: not good writing, not logic, not sensible opinions, nothing. I came across this site when I was reading old posts on Boiling Blood. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I came across the link to the author's profile.

Before I began this post, I wondered if it was worth commenting upon, and prompting my readers to read total crap like this. But then, I decided that I had a lot to say on it and I could not hold back for fear of popularising the blog. When I read the first post ranting about lazy women and echal and pathu, I thought this guy was being sarcastic. But no, I had over-estimated his intelligence. A brief reading of other posts proved to me that he was, indeed, the chauvinist I thought he was. What else do you call a man who says America's low savings rate is because women don't go dhooram during their periods and dare to eat before the esteemed men of the family have had their fill? Anyway, there it is, male chauvinism at its worst. Or best as you may call it. Do the world's feminists have advice to render about handling such men? Honestly, if I knew the guy, I would probably advise all my female friends to stay the hell away from him. Whoever would want to marry him and be treated like an unpaid maid?

That said, I have a serious grudge against people who write in SMS-talk on their blogs. Why the hell can't people take the time to dot their i's and cross their t's? And yes, capitalise their I's?? Ok ok...I am ranting...but please...follow the basics of English grammar...for the sake of your poor readers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Some responses...

To begin, let me refer my readers to a comment made to my previous post on the nuclear deal. This post is intended mainly as a riposte to the said comment. Arun, while it is true that American ambitions in the rest of the world are far from innocent, I think it is naive to think that India will have to support the US' "atrocities" in the rest of the world if it signs the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal with the US is precisely that: a deal detailing the intricacies of civil nuclear cooperation with the United States. It does not mean that India relinquishes control over its foreign policy. It does not mean that we become the United States' unquestioning ally on the lines of the UK either. It does not even mean that we are totally dependent on the United States for energy, technology, fuel or anything else. After having signed the deal with the US, India is free to sign similar deals with other countries of the P-5. There is nothing in the 123 Agreement that bars India from doing so.

Secondly, I had said in my post that the withdrawal of the deal symbolises a surrender to the Left. The issue here is not of how beneficial the deal is to India. The issue is loss of credibility. The issue could have debated, argued upon, fought for or even rejected before the signing of the 123 Agreement. That is perfectly democratic. But, the fact that a democratically elected government backtracks on a commitment made after the signing of the agreement by no less that the head of government is condemnable. I would not have complained if the withdrawal had resulted from a change of government following a national election. Governments are perfectly free to withdraw from a commitment made by a previous government. That is national politics. But the withdrawal of the commitment by the very same person who signed it in the first place is unacceptable. What makes matters worse is that he takes the decision, not after a vote in Parliament, as is expected in a democracy, but after talks with some selected leaders of the Left, which extends "outside support" but refuses to be part of the government. Not to mention that the meeting is chaired by a woman who is, in no way, accountable to the people who elected her, because she holds no position of responsibility in the government. She is a Member of Parliament like any other. But, her status as daughter-in-law of the Dynasty gives her the power to decide the fate of an issue as important as a bilateral agreement that could have a tremendous impact on India's future. With that, I rest my case.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The deal is dead...or so he said...

As the Times of India puts in its article of about 12 hours ago, "The Nuclear deal is dead. Long live the nuclear deal." The cat is finally out of the bag. The Government of India has surrendered to the blackmail of the Left. A Left, that supports the government "from outside." What does that mean? you may wonder. It means that the Left parties in India hold a lot of power without any responsibility whatsoever. It means they can blackmail the government into accepting their stance without being answerable to anyone, not the Parliament, not the Press, and certainly not the voters. It may not be politically correct to say this, but the Government of India has been brought to its knees by a combination of blackmail, power politics and populism. And, as always, the Congress government has buckled, driven almost exclusively by the desire to stay in power as long as possible.

I am not exactly the greatest fan of the Congress, nor of its dynastic and sycophantic nature. To me, the withdrawal of deal is tantamount to betrayal. As an Indian, I think it is a serious loss of credibility. And if I were the President of any country in the world, I would ask myself just what guarantee I had that the Indian government would not backtrack on a commitment a few months later. An article on Reuters says that rather plainly. The government of India loses both the deal and its credibility by giving in to a Left that refuses to step out of the Cold War-era and into the 21st Century. A Left, that does nothing to contribute to the phenomenal economic growth that India has been witnessing for the last decade. In fact, the Left in India actively campaigns against liberalisation and loosening of governmental control on industry in the name of social justice.

And, while we are on the subject of the nuclear deal, this article in The Hindu caught my attention. It is established fact that a country whose military stays away from politics is freer than one ruled by a military junta. But, what about our esteemed scientists? With all due respect for the ex-chairpersons and ex-directors of the various scientific research institutions of this country, I think they would do well to shut up. Their job is to carry out scientific research and development. And they should stop with doing that. They do not understand either the politics or the economics of the proposed deal, and must thus keep their noses out of the affair. I may not be an authority in nuclear technology, but I certainly think I am qualified enough to discuss the politics of the deal. Just as I think our scientists are not qualified to do the same. All I say to them is this: advise the government by all means, but leave the final decision to the political decision-makers at the top. And stop pretending you know everything about everything simply because the issue is vaguely scientific.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Economic development and social welfare...among other things...

Yet again, I am going to talk about two different things. But, this time around, the two are not entirely unrelated to one another. First, Amalia sent me a link a couple of days ago that spoke of the OECD report on India. It is an article of Le Monde, that says India can reduce its poverty levels to half the current level by 2015. The Policy Brief released by the OECD can be accessed in PDF format here. The report simply confirms what economist have been saying for years; that economic liberalisation has benefited large sections of society, but that further reforms are needed if we want the growth to be sustainable and more inclusive. The Policy Brief puts it rather succinctly when it says, "Reform must continue if government is to achieve its growth targets." I am happy to learn that India is on the right track with liberalisation, no matter what the Left says or wants to believe. It is, of course, evident that there are several sectors that need to be reformed if the phenomenal growth rate of the past two decades is to be sustained.

Of them, the most important is education. In a way, the report vindicated my post of July 22, that creativity is becoming a bad word for most schools, given the national obsession with grades. There are many things wrong with our educational system. The first is that we still pride ourselves on a system created to school a nation of clerks. The second problem is that a government that is so keen on making out IITs and IIMs as good as Harvard spends next to nothing on primary education. I repeat the question I asked some time back on the same blog. How does one get to the IITs or the IIMs when he does not know how to gain access to kindergarten? The government must now concentrate on enabling students from less privileged backgrounds, notably girls, to get at least primary education. Otherwise, we are closing the doors to sustainable development, both economic and human.

That said, I also think the government is doing its best, given the circumstances, to improve the situation. As the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia said on a programme on BBC today, we are an open society. It is easy to find weaknesses in the system. That is a good thing. But, we must also document the successes and find encouragement for further reforms in them. A second statement by Ahluwalia reassured me that our fate is in the right hands. To a question on whether development would 'trickle down' to the bottom, he said that he did not like the expression. As he put it, it implies that development takes place at the top and is distributed to the lower levels. He added that for growth to be inclusive, development must start from the lowest levels. I completely agree. And I hope he stays put at the Planning Commission long enough to ensure that he implements the policies he creates.

Ok...now, moving on. This article of the International Herald Tribune caught my attention this morning. It made me wonder whether the world would have taken such a death in India so lightly. One case of a farmer committing suicide in India hits the headlines and everyone, including starving African nations start talking about how economic growth in India is not inclusive. A case of double standards? I certainly think so. Also, I think such a situation is practically impossible in India. Indian society is too close-knit, even in urban centres, to completely ignore a person like this for months. I only hope that, in the euphoria of economic development, we do not lose sight of the social support system that makes India so special. To me, it is something that must be preserved.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Politics, security and technology...

Here is a post, once again, that talks of things that are unrelated to one another. Let me start with politics, security and armed political opposition. Yesterday, I was at the CSA seminar on Civil Society in Conflict situations. There, one of the speakers, a distinguished and retired army officer analysed some of the characteristics of violence-ridden and conflict-torn societies. He said, in his rather interesting presentation, that conflict situations are often characterised by a lack of basic amenities, poverty, high levels of unemployment and absence of infrastructure. That reminded me of the fabled robbers of Chambal Valley, so famously characterised by Phoolan Devi. But, these factors do not always lead to conflict. Or inversely, all conflict situations are not necessarily characterised by the above problems. In fact, some of the most violent armed struggles of the world have been started and sustained by the prosperous.

Take, for example, the secessionist violence that the Democratic Republic of Congo suffered for decades. The province that wanted to secede, Katanga possesses practically 90% of DRC's natural resources. The same is the case with insurgency in Punjab. Punjab is one of India's richest states, in terms of agricultural produce. As I said some time back in my post on Bihar, the desire to secede or rise in arms against the state comes, not only from the poorest, but also from the richest states. Was Tamil Nadu ever as backward as the Northeast? Why then, did the campaign for a separate Tamil nation catch the people's imagination in the 1960s? Armed political resistance only starts where the insurgents are sure of carrying it on successfully. Insurgency will hardly work in a place where the common man is too worried about his next meal to support insurgent groups. What creates problems and incites insurgency is economic development and influx of money in the absence of good governance. That said, there is no linear relationship between poverty, unemployment and violence. the relationship is much more complex and merits a more detailed study then is possible on a simple blog. So, I will leave that to someone else.

Now, over to technology. The other day, I saw the brand new Lenovo with an in-built face recognition system. Now, that is the kind of computer I would like to buy. But, the said laptop had many more features and weighed just 900 grams. And, cost a whopping 120,000 rupees (about $3000.) So, I contented myself with just looking. The way technology has evolved over the last ten years is amazing. Using fingerprint identification or face recognition to access your computer would have been unthinkable at the turn of the century. At least, for us non-techies. Today, biometric identification for security had permeated every aspect of life. The French Government's decision to include biometric identifiers in all passports issued after September 2006, is symbolic of the change that is sweeping Europe and the rest of the world. It will perhaps take a few more years to get to India, not because we are far behind technologically, but because the Indian government takes a lot longer to act that the EU does. Not to mention that decisions are implemented a decade after they are actually taken, by which time they become redundant. Let us hope we get biometric passports soon. At least before my passport is due for renewal in 2014!

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Great Indian Novel

That's right. It is the famous book by Shashi Tharoor I am talking about. I know it's a bit late to review that book on this blog, but what can I do? I bought myself a copy just a week ago, and finished reading it just a couple of hours ago. But, I can say this confidently. I regret having taken so long to read a book that is so delightfully irreverent and astonishingly well-informed. Now, where do I start? Before I say anything else, let me state that I always knew that Tharoor was a prolific writer. But, this one exceeded my expectations. To cut a long story short, I loved the book. There were many things that I liked about the book. The first, and most important: the treatment of the fictional Gangaji, (the real-life Gandhi) as a master tactician, an expert politician, and sometimes, a biased moralist. The portrayal must have ruffled quite a few Congress feathers when it was first published. It makes me wonder if the current generation of Congress-walahs have even read the book. After all, Tharoor does not exactly flatter them by labelling their 'Goddess Indira' as Priya Duryodhani. Or is the allusion too subtle for the videshi mind of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to grasp? Do the apologists of the Dynasty even have the brains required to understand Tharoor's satire? I highly doubt they do. For if they had, they would not have nominated him as India's candidate for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. Congratulations Mr. Tharoor! You have made your point quite clearly.

The second positive aspect, perhaps as important as the first is our beloved first Prime Minister as Dritarashtra. Oh yes, Dritarashtra was blind, literally. That is not his fault. But, Nehru was blind in the metaphorical sense. And, as Tharoor puts it, chose to see the world as he wanted to see it and not as it really was. The analogy, I must say, is quite apt. The references to Draupadi Mokrasi puzzled me, until the very end. Until about an hour after I finished the book. The brilliance of it all hit me on the face as suddenly as a flash of sunlight in a dull, dreary day. Draupadi Mokrasi is precisely that, De-mocracy!! Wow!

Anyway, with that, I will end this eulogy of Tharoor and his book. I do, however, have something to say about Nita's latest blogpost. She has finally completed an incomplete post on NRIs and dollar-earning desis. It was published, if I remember right, way back in October 2006. Wow Nita! Your posts certainly have a long gestation period. Her objections to Rashmi Bansal's article on Rediff are certainly valid. When I first read the said article a year ago, I wasn't as offended as Nita. In fact, I even questioned her defensiveness. But today, I bear testimony to the fact that attitudes evolve. I am just as bugged as Nita by the way Bansal portrays all Indians working abroad as those who are not good enough to make it to top-of-the-rung institutions in India.

Secondly, Nita's feelings about nostalgia are quite valid too. Not everyone feels the need to wax eloquent about crowded sabzi mandis and traffic jams and mum's cooking. We must accept that some people are decidedly happier in their First-World homes with 52-inch televisions and three cars. That doesn't mean they are not Indian. Why do we, as Indians, feel the need to be so judgemental about those who choose to make a foreign land their home despite what Bansal calls cold reception? Do they not have the right to choose the way they want to live? Do we seriously think our NRI cousins or American-born nephews are out to make us jealous and plant diffidence and wistfulness in our desi heads? If we do, we are simply too naive for the world...and lack greatly in entrepreneurship and confidence. If some of us want to chase dollar dreams, so be it? Why is the rest of the world so bothered about that? We may or not may not be good Indians, but we are certainly successful and happy, albeit in an alien land.