Friday, October 17, 2014

An Irani Cafe in Mumbai

Abdul knew how to make a glass of sweet & salty fresh lime water. He would bring a glass of sugared fresh lime water to the table and then use the salt shaker. As he shook some salt out of the shaker he would say 'Lime water sweet and salty'.
The interiors of the cafe, Monroe and the Titanic share space.

The catholic menu

Abdul worked in the Irani cafe close to where I am currently staying. He was from Uttar Pradesh and had been working at this cafe for the last 30 years. As soon as we sat in the cafe he came to take our orders. But we were more interested in its décor. 'Take your time' he said in Hindi and left, he came to our table twice before we placed our order. After the décor time was spent going through the menu which seemed to be as catholic as the owners beliefs.

Sai Baba hangs out with two founding fathers.

Everything from an 'Irani Wrestler Omelette' a five egg dish, which Abdul said would have us shaking in our chairs if we ate it, to Maggi Noodles transmogrified into something more edible. It was all there on the menu slipped between the table and its glass top.
Irani Specialities

Every religious place has a unofficial place for hedonism close bye. I am told that the Catholics who visit the Don Bosco church on sunday visit this Irani cafe for breakfast post their spiritual meal. One has spoken about man's inability to live on just love and fresh air but it seems that spiritual food is not the manna which sustains.

Samir Nazareth is the author of '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'. Read an excerpt of the book here. Read more about the book here

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My travelogue '1400 Bananas, 76 towns & 1 million people' is out

In 2005 i travelled through the Indian coast, starting at what I think is the Northwestern most tip of the Indian coast I went down the west coast and then up the east coast ending up in Nathu La in the Himalayas 6 months later.

I visited #76towns. The 6 month journey was fuelled by approximately #76bananas.

I met a range of people from priests to the lay person. I slept in seedy hotels, on roofs. I travelled cheap too.

I discussed a range of issues my singledom to ways to solve the Pakistan 'problem' with the people I met.

The book can be bought on Amazon here. You dont need to own a kindle. There is a free app that can be downloaded for non-kindle users who would like to read the book on their smart phones, laptops or tablets.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Even after 60 years

The 'even after 60 years' argument is something that has come up in the last few years in India. The argument made is that not much has happened, socio-economically, in India since its independence in 1947. This show of disaffection is usually made by the erudite in their well appointed homes as the discussion veers on what the Congress I has done since Nehru and what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will do with Modi. Those propounding this argument cannot see the incongruity staring in their face as they make these arguments. Simple things – they own more than one car, they live in well appointed homes, they holiday abroad, their work takes them abroad, the food and drink that they serve comes from varied parts of the nation and the world, they are able to translate their concern for the environment and for the downtrodden into something tangible.

This in 60 years! Okay 67 years.

The 60 year argument would have held water if it were being put forth by one of the many millions who are poor in India. They have a grouse which no one can deny – they are still poor, their access to facilities is still limited, their future does not seem to be in their grasp. But for the others, 'what is curdling their milk'?

So why does this argument  have takers? There are many reasons, the ones that appear to be most prominent are – comparisons with developed nations, loss of traditional social structures, arguments that make initial superficial sense and historical grandiosity.

Comparisons with developed nations and others
The fact that we are a product (or are reaping the benefits) of what India as a country has achieved socially, educationally, technologically and politically in '60 years' is conveniently forgotten. We also are oblivious that it is these socio-economic achievements that have given people the wherewithal to compare the country's progress with other nations.

Comparisons are made to Singapore, China, South Korea and even to the US. One chooses to forget that these nations are either smaller, have different forms of political-economies, are homogeneous or have had a century or more of a head start.

This desire 'to keep up with the Joneses' is less to do with what the Joneses have achieved. It has to do with a belief of being at par with them in the ability, opportunity and situational section. So, the resentment is of not being able to achieve what the other has achieved, of falling short and being embarrassed when they compare themselves to others.

It is human nature to build on small successes. It is also human to inflate ability and therefore be ambitious and so reach for the stars. A taste of economic growth whets our appetite for more. That we have learned to 'walk' gives rise to our belief that there is an untapped potential to immediately be able to leap. This supposed ability is made all the more real when comparisons are made with those who we think have grown out of the same miasma as we and who are now fleet-footed.

People accept arguments that make initial superficial sense
I came to realise the potency of such arguments when discussing the healthcare system in India. The person said that the healthcare system immediately post independence was far better than what it is today. Who would argue with such an observation when debating India's sixty years? On the face of it, it sounds true; not only because I wasnt there to experience the healthcare system then, but also because this statement was coming from an expert . Not to mention the constant news of the floundering public health care system in the country adding a ring of truth to the possibility that the past was rosier. After having recovered from this googly, the unspoken truth emerges, the population was less, the variety of diseases were fewer, the avenues for disease were less - there was no such thing as 'lifestyle diseases'. But the life expectancy then was around 32 years, children died of small pox and thousands were infected with guinea worm while polio marred the future of millions.

Hmmmm! The fact that life expectancy has increased to 65 if not more today, or that polio and small pox have been eradicated suggests something; doesn't it?

There is no doubt that much has yet to be done, but just because much has to be done one cant ignore what has been accomplished.

Historical grandiosity and loss of traditional class structures
Some Indians love to live and promote the historical past, because there is no way to corroborate it. It gives those expounding on it limitless liberty to wax eloquent. It is easy to enchant people with the spell of the past and of regaining this lands lost 'glory' because there is no set definition of it. There is no list of requirements that have to be ticked to arrive to the conclusion and certify that the glory of the past has now been achieved. So people are sucked into one large amorphous “the ruler was just and kind, the subjects were good and fair, the economy was rich, the population was skilled and happy and there was peace and contentment.”

This seems to be a wonderland when compared to today -where people oppose dynastic politics, where the hold of the oppressive and rigid caste system has been shattered through education, where people demand their rights and more, where the poor can become rich, where the seemingly powerless have a hold on the powerful, where there are no subjects but citizens.

There is little wonder that the progress of the 60 years leaves some disconcerted and they wish to sell a version of history where they will be safe.

Can we deny how feudal our democratic country is? It is not only seen by the swords given to our politicians during public rallies, but also in how we address citizens whose forefathers belonged to the feudal set, even if these citizens are democratically elected representatives today.

The past which we are so proud of and cling so dearly to because our ancestors held positions of status is no longer relevant today. Democracy is giving everybody equal rights, today we are all accountable to somebody, we can no longer dictate terms and expect servility in response. The class system that held back people while ensuring others remained in positions of power is being broken.

The stranglehold of lineage is being demolished, and therefore the angst of 'even after 60 years'. Equality does not bring with it equanimity of acceptance of a new social order.

Economic growth leads to a churning of the social order, it will make the past seem more enchanting to some. The truth is if the past, sold disingenuously to generate disaffection, were so rosy it would have remained with us in the present as a reality and not as a construct of someone's uncorroborated memory.

Look out for my soon to be published travelogue ’1400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people'

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Marriages in Goa

I can claim to be an expert on the Goan marriage, I have been to the altar thrice, but the bells have pealed to herald another’s wedding. The chimes have got nothing to do with the rationale of giving the sobriquet of Bestman to the person not marrying. Being a Bestman has given me an opportunity to be part of Goan weddings without having to bear the ring of the aftermath.

A Goan marriage is not made in heaven; it’s the sum of many choices, parts and roles. Though choosing a mate is key, there are many other crossroads like creating the right religious ceremony, venue choice, menu selection for the reception, the music and the ambience.  It takes family veterans to pull this off.
If love hasn’t blinded and beguiled the eligible women and men to the altar, families step in. Photographs of the prospective bride/groom are made and distributed to match – makers with a CV and a brief on what the family is looking for. They are not official marriage bureaus, but members of society interested in repaying the favour, usually housewives or retired women, with a few males.

Match-makers have a genius to file and extricate information.  Their elephantine memory reaches back in time to get details for possible matches. Like putting together a jig-saw puzzle, they pick up snippets like family background, education, ambition, willingness to relocate, etc., to find the right fit. On finding something suitable the match-maker informs both sides. With the surfeit of information provided in the CV’s combined with the photo, families begin making discrete enquiries about each other to verify each other’s credentials. If all things align a meeting is arranged between the boy and girl by the matchmaker or the boy’s family.

In Goa these meetings are held at the coffee shop of Hotel Mandovi. Old fashioned families send a chaperone along with the girl or her parent’s get a discrete table. The choice of place shows the level of detail that goes into the matchmaking process. The place is spacious and service slow and unobtrusive.
If the tinder shows combustibility the couple spend time peeling the layers trying to get to know each other. Sightings of the couple at feasts are portentous. The engagement is announced and the party is hosted by the girl’s family, it is a family affair – food and alcohol are at their best, served on family cutlery passed down through generations. Rings are exchanged; the couple blushingly oblige a kiss under peer pressure.

This lip-lock heralds the next stage which is the planning for the wedding. Hidden in the mundane of choosing party halls, sifting through invitee lists and  comparing menus of other marriages and those offered by caterers are esoteric decisions like gospel readings  for the service;  decorations for the church and hall; heights of the flower girls and page boys; and   attire. All occasions for the couple’s first major fight.

There is the usual fracas of the bridal gown, never has so much money and tears flowed for a piece of cloth that will be worn for a few hours.  Things are practical for the groom as a suit can be worn for different occasions. A few days before the wedding each family has the Roas, a Goan version of a haldi ceremony. Konkani songs are sung and the elders of the family bless the boy/girl.
On the Day, relatives gather in the respective houses where a meal is spread and eaten while clothes are ironed, babies bathed and last minute decisions made; in one room beauticians add finishing touches to the ladies. Things swing between chaos and calm. Men who have been through this winepress remember their big day; sharing horror stories. The groom is immune. An official photographer shuttles between the houses photographing pre-decided poses.

The decorated church is now filled with people and the groom waiting for the bride. Not many know the hymns as the nuptials are made special by choosing those rarely sung. This need for ceremonial uniqueness is a ritual followed by everybody. Ultimately, there are commonalities – couples offer, at the altar, things which are dear to them accompanied by a brief explanation. All offer a model of a house (the design will differ) with the prayer for a happy home, the Bible for a prayerful family etc. These can lead to bloopers; for a lawyer’s wedding a copy of the Indian Constitution was offered with the statement that they would ‘try to uphold it in their practise’.

Once the mass is over, people head for the reception joining those who gave the nuptials a miss. The hired MC checks the mike while the band tunes their instruments. The bride and groom go for a short ride in their bedecked car to ensure that they enter to a packed hall.

The band strikes up the ‘Bridal March’ and the couple enter, followed by their proud parents and relatives. They end up at the centre where an elaborate cake has been set up under a larger version of the centre piece. The MC cracks a few recognisable jokes.  The cake is cut and the centre piece is manipulated to shower the couple with confetti.

A toast to the couple is raised by a close friend or a family member. The groom does not bat an eyelid as skeletons tumble out of the closet to everyone’s delight.  The groom replies, which now includes a vote of thanks to the caterers and band, the Bride also pipes in.

The newly wed couple take the floor for the first dance to a song specially chosen by them.  For flawlessness, the couple would have practised their steps before,   the parents and then everyone else joins in. The music for the evening, like the attires of the guests, varies from modern to the old.

Snacks include – croquettes, elfin sized rainbow sandwiches, rissois- prawn savouries, cheese toasties etc. The bar does service to the Goan’s love for a good tipple.

The buffet table reflects the Goan’s secular palate. Representatives from various hooved and Piscean species share space with the fowl. The much loved pig comes into its own here; a roasted piglet, dishes like Sorpotel and Cabidela indicate the versatility of this animal vilified in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Salted tongue, rice, Goan bread, prawn curry; Chicken Xacuti find place.  There are North Indian vegetarian and recognisable continental dishes.

Desserts include Bebinca, a multilayered egg yolk based sweet; Letria, which is egg based; Dedos-de-Dama, coconut based; san rival, which uses almonds; and Burnt Custard pudding.  The North is also represented.  In the hurly burly the Matchmaker is quietly thanked and introduced to other families. She also keeps her eyes open for the eligible.

Things wind down by 12. The bride and groom finally have a chance to sit; someone brings leftovers from the buffet for them. It does provide an indication of what life has in store for them – there will be many opportunities for them but only some will finally make it to their plate.

(Lookout for my soon to be published travelogue ’1400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people)

Friday, January 31, 2014

Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal.. 3 leaders... what morals?

In the 66 years of independence, India has lived with a certain set of moral codes that called for respect of regulation, sacrifice for a greater good, duty towards society, accountability. An accepted definition of what was expected from members of society and from those in power gave the country its navigational apparatus and heroes. That definition allowed heirs to rise from the miasma to take over the reins when those in positions of authority stepped down. It also marked the scales on which people were measured and judgments passed. It is difficult to deny that moral codes were the cornerstone of trust between all parts of society, and the grease that allowed society to function.

There is a need for a new morality in India today, or at least for a call to recognize the new morals we live with compared with those of six decades ago. One may ask why, and the answer is simple, if we don't recognize new morals and spread them, the result can be unrest. Things are already changing in India - look at who we consider our leaders, look at who we put in jail. We get affronted when our film stars are held up at foreign airports and derive a sense of pride when citizens of other nations though of Indian ancestry achieve recognition in their country.

Our "philosopher kings" are businessmen who equate foreign investment with national prosperity, who see environmental protection and concern for the marginalized as being bad for the country. They decry government expenditure on the economically bereft while seeking tax breaks for themselves. We find solace in the deep voice of a septuagenarian who made his mark in the country's dream factory. We seek the counsel of the glitterati who tweet from their ivory towers and from TV studios far removed from the humdrum of daily existence. For what we value to change, wouldn't our moral scales have to change too?

The fallout
As citizens of a democracy, Indians have become inured with our choice of electoral candidates. They swing between brilliant home-economists whose assets magically increase annually and Houdini like magicians who can't be confined within the thick walls of a prison cell.

Though most citizens' views have gone beyond contempt for the politician, there is a burgeoning group who are now involved and committed. This is a class of people who not only have ideas on who should be in power but also do what they can to get these people in power. There is a meeting of minds here; the dreams of the common person and the politician merge. There is also a belief that these chosen ones can make such common dreams come true.

The triumvirate
Let's narrow down to three people on whom many pin their hopes in this year's general election: Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. The three are very different politicians, heir socio-economic backgrounds, political philosophy, manner of functioning and experience all dissimilar. But they have one thing in common as the first surfers riding a new wave of morality.

Narendra Modi became the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after stomping all over the patriarch of the party, Lal Krishna Advani. The very same person who stood by Modi after the 2002 religious riots, where many allege Modi played a role in the what can only be called a state-sponsored pogrom. His form of governance is held up as the way ahead.

For a party whose philosophical fountainhead is the desire to bring back Ram Rajya (something everyone is unsure what that connotes) and which speaks about Raj Dharma (rule based on spirituality and positivity), the Machiavellian machinations that went to create Modi were the very antithesis of their foundation. That the patriarch was discarded and shouted at goes against the Hindu dharm (respect for elders) that the party wishes to preserve and promote.

Then there is the whole idea of protecting the weak and the helpless, which is part of Raj Dharma. In the case of Modi, this was tossed out in the 2002 riots and continues to be ignored, with economic policies that has led to increased state debt, child malnourishment and low wages in Gujarat, where he is chief minister. Given all this, Modi is still a darling of the many. The very same people who espouse respect for the elderly and speak in glowing terms of India's past - and even the need to protect the weak - say goodbye to all this when it comes to bringing Modi as the nation's leader.

Is the new morality that allows support for Modi based on less concern for our elders and the weak? And if so, wouldn't this go against the many tenets of Hinduism, a religion (or way of life) that the BJP wishes all Indians to convert to?

Then we turn to Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty. While many of us speak against dynastic politics, we have no qualms in ensuring that wealth and power remain within the confines of our family. Most marriages in business families are fixed on the basis of love - a love of money and finding ways to increase it. Marriage ceremonies are a time to repay or exact debts. The power that congregates in one location during such occasions could create a new industry, light a city, bring down a government or even create a new one.

Given this state of affairs one wonders why many think awry of the "dynastic politics" of the Congress Party. How different is that from Narayan Murthy of Infosys bringing his son into the company as his executive assistant and then promoting him to a vice president? There was hardly a peep from the business community after this action from a man many consider to have sound ethics. Why shouldn't sauce for the goose be sauce for the gander?

So the second moral dilemma is the support by many for Rahul Gandhi as India's future prime minister. Proponents of that cause choose to ignore that Rahul, whose candidacy has yet to be declared but is widely regarded as a shoe-in, has absolutely no experience in politics or in working in government. The political statecraft that goes with such a position, along with the knowledge of the workings of the government and the country, is not easily acquired. It could be argued that his name and the experience of those working with him would pave the way for a successful stint as premier. One wonders, why is such an opportunity not given to others of the same age and similarly haloed backgrounds but of more experience?

The pertinent question here concerns the differing moral scales used by those opposing the Congress, but silent on other similar issues, and by those within the Congress who promote Rahul on the one hand and on the other do not give Rahul's party members similar opportunities.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and the force behind the Aam Admi Party (AAP), is a different kettle of fish. The reasons for his rise to power range from public disaffection with entrenched politics to a collective victimhood that is finally raising its head. During his journey to power he tarred all government institutions with the same brush - everything was dirty - and promised to clean up their mess. Having achieved power, he seems to have gone a step further and is now living by the "heads I win, tails you lose" philosophy.

Kejriwal seems unable to work with the power given to him by the people but undermines it by sitting in protest, a protest which has led to no resolution and instead is converting an inability to channel powers to make change into a form of martyrdom which allows him to continue functioning by attracting people's sympathy and even admiration.

The AAP leader, whom the party has yet to declare as its prime ministerial candidate, is a dream come true for Indians who in general have no love for authority or social order. Here is a man after their own heart, a man who though in a position of authority does everything to undermine it. The protest warms the cockles of the common person because they see a man with immense power acting as if helpless. So they believe he is still like them - an outsider fighting a firmly dug-in cabal.

No one questions the fallout of such actions - if people in power begin to protest in this way then what will the common person do? Kejriwal is destroying institutions without providing an alternative while also usurping public space used by the truly powerless to make themselves heard.

His code of conduct has not only diminished the office he holds by portraying it as one without power but has also left the common person bereft of means of communicating with higher-ups. Kejriwal has not shared his idea of what a leader should be and for what he should be held accountable, while he is simultaneously laying to waste institutions that have been the bulwark of society. So he has given himself an open canvas to do what he imagines to be right, which may soon inspire the common person to imitate him.

Though Kejriwal calls himself an anarchist he cannot absolve himself of the trust and the mantle of leadership that people have reposed in him through an institutionalized election process that he was part of, and which people believe in. Can an anarchist be a leader? It goes against the very grain of anarchic philosophy. Or is he using the term because he realizes that today most Indians don't know what it takes to be a leader and are quite happy with someone who can destabilize the establishment?

Society becomes redundant and dysfunctional in two instances - when it has no morals or when society's thoughts and actions far outpace its moral strictures. With Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal we seem to have arrived at the latter. Their presence and their impact indicates that subliminally moral codes in India have changed. Isn't it time therefore that we shout it out from the roof tops and get everybody on the same page?

Look out for my soon to be published travelogue '1400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people'

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Is Kejriwal using our sense of victimisation?

It was just a few years back that Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Prashant Bhushan were the three musketeers and d'Artagnan fighting the Cardinal Richelieu-like machinations of “corrupt government" in India. Their fight's rallying cry was the Jan Lok Pal Bill, the citizen's ombudsman bill.

The bill, the four swore, would cleanse India of corruption, which was eating into the very foundations of the nation and so denying the common person their rights. This had resulted in the country joining this battle against corruption. The emotion of the common citizen that was channeled into promoting the bill was labelled as outrage against the pervasiveness of corruption that had allegedly permeated the government.

Could this sentiment then have been the manifestation of a false sense of victimization? Could this conflagration of rage have been cleverly fanned by an "us and them" strategy - the "us" being the common Indian trying to overwhelm "them" the government? The outrage was used to corner if not coerce "them" into accepting the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Even though this bill was sold as being the cornerstone of democracy, the way the "us" wanted to get the bill passed was anything but democratic, unless of course one defined democracy as mob rule.

Charging at windmills
Unfortunately, this "us and them" structure of the anti-corruption movement is also the primordial soup that gives rise to corruption. Corruption exists because people believe they are above the rules that are meant for all, or feel that laws restrict their freedom which they presume they are more entitled to than the rest of the population. Corruption exists when individuals do not wish to follow rules created by society for the common good.

Thus who is the "us" and "them" in the fight against corruption? Can the "them" be corrupt if the "us" is clean? Can "us" be clean if "them" is corrupt?

Unfortunately, the secularism of corruption was not realized by those demanding the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Therefore, while everyone raved, ranted and hurled abuse against the government, it sounded hollow to many because there was no acknowledgement that two hands are needed to clap. Could Dumas and Cervantes have got together in these modern times to get the musketeers to charge at windmills?

The need to re-invent the wheel
"Us vs Them" was the DNA from which Arvind Kejriwal and others created the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has just formed the new state government in Delhi. This speciously manufactured but much harped on conflict that late last year brought the AAP to power at the local-government level in Delhi and is fueling its national ambitions, was apparent after the swearing in ceremony, when Arvind Kejriwal made his acceptance speech.

He advised the more than 1 million people gathered for the ceremony, and the many other millions watching him on TV, that if they encountered an official demanding a bribe they should not refuse this demand. Instead, they should call up a helpline/complaint number that he promised to set up in two days where a complaint against the official could be made and a trap set. Kejriwal promised that he would personally ensure that their files would be processed.

India already has an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and almost every government department has a Vigilance Cell that is supposed to look into cases of corruption. The contact numbers for officials of these agencies are advertised and prominently displayed. Not a day goes by when the ACB does not catch someone accepting a bribe. The Central Bureau of Investigation is another agency that has been used to catch corrupt officials.

So the question is, why is there a need to re-invent the wheel? Why wasn't the platform of the acceptance speech used to indicate the existence of these departments and promote them?

The answer is very simple. Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP want to be seen as something akin to the Phoenix - that mythical bird reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. There is an attempt to market him and his government as being different from - and with no links to - past governments. The difference is constantly played up by suggesting that the past was one of usurpation and the future is not.

This message could not have not been better put across than with a personal promise of setting up the help line, which suggests there was no similar system already in place and seemingly puts the common person in control and paints the government officials as unscrupulous.

Corruption off the people, by the people
However, nobody seems to ask why the official is in the crosshairs and whether it is only the government servant who is to blame for the much-hyped corruption.

Most of us Indians do not like "no" for an answer. To us, a "no" is a personal affront and an ego-buster. For us, being able to wangle a deal no matter how crooked is something that is laudable. At other times, we are like ostriches with our heads in the sand - we are so engrossed in ourselves that we are incapable of thinking of the fallout of our self-serving actions.

In both instances, a bribe is used to get the work done. It is not the government official who demands the bribe here. It is the "naughty" or "ignorant" common citizen of India who would like the government official to turn a blind eye and proffers money to facilitate this.

Traffic policemen lament that they see no point in stopping vehicles when their drivers break rules because they just throw money at the police and continue on their way. I have been in the office of a Fire Chief when a middleman deposited a wad of notes in his desk drawer to facilitate passage of building plans that were ill-conceived. When rules are not respected by either society or those in a position enforce them, corruption is a natural corollary.

It takes two to tango, but not so according to Arvind Kejriwal. With these horse blinkers on, Arvind Kejriwal has deftly created a constituency of those sold on the idea that they are victims; that the corruption of previous governments has sucked the common person dry; that there is a dawn of a fresh beginning and a new light shines from the sun that is spelt AAP.

But this is a false hope because no one wants to be seen as a perpetrator of a crime or be pointed to as a criminal - sympathy is cornered by the victim no matter how wrong he is.

Corrupt victims or victims of corruption?
The ability to create a sense of victimhood nationally is not unique to this particular instance. There is a large number of people who weep for an unlived and unknown golden past that they claim was destroyed by invaders and colonization. We are known to find succor from this ethereal past while diminishing our present.

What Arvind Kejriwal has done is something extremely clever: he has modernized this genetically programmed victimhood to be relevant to these times. Instead of blaming an ancient history that no one has lived for our current state, he has provided a current history of which we are a part. However, even in being part of this history he has obligingly ensured we are removed from it. As before, when we did not blame the invasions on the factious kings who parceled this land into their kingdoms but instead blamed the invaders for invading, we now do not blame ourselves for the corruption, but instead blame it on the government and its officials.

Till now, the victimization that stems from being conned into believing that we are on the wrong side of history has been milked by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. But now Arvind has re-framed the contours to make it more secular, by ascribing our national problems not to the common person, whom he assures is guiltless, but foists the cause as the corruption of the powers-that-be.

He has beguiled us into believing that we are not the source of our problems. The saccharine sweetness of the mirage of this victim mentality has drawn people to his party like flies are drawn to sugar. His move makes sense when one reads the article "Rethinking 'Don't Blame the Victim': The Psychology of Victimhood" by Dr Ofer Zur in the Journal of Couple Therapy. The author highlights the following point: "The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible or accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy."

A clean sweep
Nothing could have been a greater representation of this than the choice of broom as the symbol of his political party - the AAP. The broom has many connotations. The first that springs to mind is the "us and them" setting - there is dirt and then there are those wielding the broom to remove the dirt; its simplicity of use - indicating its secular prowess; its commonness - every household has one because dirt is omnipresent. Most importantly, the ownership of the broom presupposes the intention to keep things clean.

We forget that a lot of dirt is brought into homes by residents of the household themselves. Every Indian household uses the broom only to sweep dirt from the house into the common area, where it becomes the responsibility of an unknown someone else. Dirt just outside the place of residence is okay as long as it does not cross its threshold.

How we clean our homes is symptomatic of us being victims - concern for the self and not for society at large. The victim seeks redress no matter the cost to the rest. The abdication of social responsibility is a result.

It is not enough to have a telephone hotline if we do not hold ourselves responsible to obey rules and appreciate the fact that we cannot always have our way. If truth be told, we are victims of perverting our individual responsibility at the cost of the state. We are victims of our own hypocrisy as we choose to ignore the role we play in debilitating India. It would appear that we are unable to judge ourselves because when circumstances demand we do so our morals suddenly leave the room.

It is easier to ascribe fault to someone else, not only because it absolves us of personal responsibility but also because we are remain who we are and continue doing what we do. This includes having a feudal mindset that makes demands of others without us being held accountable to anyone. Kejriwal has realized that there is a low personal cost in ascribing oneself as a victim. In effect, we do not want to be the change we want to see.

Kejriwal is milking our lazy conscience, this sense of victimization. Is it then surprising that many are joining his party to partake off this feast, while others see him as someone who will share the munificence?
Look out for my soon to be published travelogue  1,400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Can India learn from the 2000 US Presidential elections?

With Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) assuming office as New Delhi's chief minister, political pundits are recalibrating poll equations as India heads into national elections this year. Arvind Kejriwal and his fledgling party have barged onto the political stage that up to now had only two principal actors - Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Rahul Gandhi, of the Congress-I.

Not a day goes by in the Indian national media where AAP, Congress-I and the BJP are not mentioned in one breath, and
there couldn't be a greater indication of India being in the throes of political and social upheaval than this. However, even in this state of flux, when Narendra Modi becomes prime minister later this year, as at present seems inevitable, the face of the country will change, to the point where the country's Hindu majority may once more find its voice.

Modi, the new face of Hindu revivalism, is seen as an answer to the socio-economic secularism of the Congress-I fronted political coalition because this revivalism also has an economic facet to it which has found resonance in many quarters. There is another aspect to this surge - the alleged mis-governance and corruption of the Congress and its allies in central government that has tainted the party's performance and fortunes in the state elections, as seen most starkly in the recent defeat of the Congress and its stalwart who headed the government in Delhi.

This mis-governance has also given rise to a new political party which in its electoral debut won the second highest number of seats in the Delhi state elections. In fact Kejriwal, the leader of AAP, stood against and defeated the incumbent chief minister, Shiela Dixit in her own constituency, by a huge margin of 25,864 votes.

From this and the coming electoral battle there is a lesson from the United States for those concerned with the future of India under Modi or Rahul Gandhi. Modi is a political leader known for his alleged involvement and handling of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which many see as an instance of a state-sponsored pogrom, while his claims of success in bringing Gujarat economic progress hides a big socio-economic travesty.

While Rahul Gandhi is an almost unknown political entity, he was born into a political family that not only worked for India's freedom and has lead India almost entirely since independence and is now hobbled with allegations of corruption. Rahul is trying to change the party's functioning to get the party back on its feet.
Learning from America
When George W Bush became the US president, one of the cries that went across the US was "Hail to the Thief", a rephrasing of "Hail to the Chief", with many arguing that Bush stole the presidential elections.

The 2000 election in the US was one of the few instances where a third party was involved at the hustings, with Ralph Nader running as the presidential nominee of the Green Party. It was argued that Ralph Nader split the Democrat vote, causing Al Gore to lose to Bush by 537 votes. There was also the contentious Supreme Court ruling that stopped a recount in Florida, which undoubtedly helped Bush. Though later electoral studies were in two minds on the impact of Nader in Gore's defeat, what is certain is that a new entrant can change the dynamics of elections.

The reasons include "the-new-kid-in-town" effect - that is, the attraction of a fresh, unsullied face entering the political arena. Fresh faces not only attract a whole set of new people who may have been disillusioned with politics but also bring new issues for the electorate to mull over. This naturally leads to a churning within the population, which brings in more people to vote and a shift in political allegiance.

Nader's plank in 2000 touched on problems of a two party system, affordable housing, universal health-care - issues that were close to some voters. Being new, what the AAP did in Delhi was something Ralph Nader-esque - they chose issues that directly affect people, including demands for cheaper electricity and a regular supply of water, all neatly packed in a corruption-free governance package. The party also created election manifestos for each constituency.

In 2000, Ralph Nader spoke of his candidacy as an alternative to both the Democrats and Republicans, stating they were indistinguishable from each other as they now drank from a common economic and philosophic wellspring. AAP came out with a similar statement in 2013; Kejriwal said that the BJP and the Congress were clones of each other with their politics of caste, riots, handouts to the corporate sector and corrupt leaders.

Being a new kid in town naturally drew people's attention. Thus there were more than the usual ears; what the kid was saying was very different from what had been said before. Importantly what was being said was also said by someone who had their own ear to the ground, something that had not happened for a very long time.

Nader's campaign resulted in an increase in the voter turn; at 50.3%, it was higher than the preceding 1996 election, when only 49% voted, though in the following election the turnout was again higher.

A similar scenario played out in the recent elections in Delhi. The voter turnout of 65.8% was well up on the previous election, when 57.58% of the eligible population voted. BJP, the right wing party, won 31 seats, the AAP in its first electoral secured 28 seats and the Congress Party lost all but eight seats. Two seats went to smaller parties.

While Nader came nowhere close to winning the US presidency, voters acknowledged the issues he raised, indicated their disillusionment with the current political system and their desire for change; but in voting for Nader, did those supporters lose the long-term perspective and not realize that they could be unleashing a far more dangerous beast?

Nader realized that he was muddying the waters by running, but did he realize also that by teaching the Democrat leadership a lesson) he would in the end punish the country? One cannot blame Nader for what followed, but one surely can find fault with an electorate who donned a restricting, self-righteous world view that the power of their vote could change the world for good - but instead harvested something much worse, witness the damage that election winner Bush did to the world.

The anti-incumbency factor in politics is borne by the perception, real or otherwise, that those in power are no longer listening to the people and this unresponsiveness is because politicians build themselves ivory towers. One could argue that the AAP reaped this anti-incumbency factor.

But if this were all, it would be the known entity - the BJP with Modi as its well-marketed figurehead - that would have won a clean mandate, leaving the unknown AAP and the ruling Congress to share the dregs.

This did not happen. Instead, the spoils of vanquishing the incumbent were divided between the neophyte and the veteran.

Ralph Nader is not a politician, although he is known for his left-liberal stance and for his fight for the common US citizen. That he did not win the 2000 presidential elections is irrelevant; that he could have been the cause of a larger voter turn-out is something that needs to be taken into consideration.

Political parties need to keep re-inventing themselves because the society they wish to represent politically is always in the throes of change. This change is tangible in its cultural and socio-economic connotations and also through the intangible -the philosophical discourse - which colors the former two.

Nader touched on issues that directly impacted Americans, as the AAP did with Delhi voters in through constituency-based manifestos. The underlying message in such a move was that the AAP would constantly gauge the pulse of the electorate. More importantly, the candidates for this political party were common individuals, with no history of political work and with whom people in society could identify themselves - the party couldn't have found a better way to communicate "of the people, by the people and for the people".

The results of the Delhi elections could be the beginning of a trend of the electorate no longer identifying with a political party but with an individual from within the community. Thus political parties would need to involve the community in formulating manifestos and in choosing candidates for elections. This is real democracy - representation that rises from the people and not parachuted down from a central authority, which is how candidates are chosen in the BJP, Congress and other parties.

Nader's 2000 presidential attempt also begs a bigger question - should leadership be of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" kind, resulting in consequences far greater than what an individual can imagine; or should it be one where a leader is able to acquiesce and form partnerships with others to ensure a far greater danger is met? Even as one wishes AAP to do well in the 2014 national elections, it needs to be aware of this pitfall.

Today, the Congress and BJP seem to be of the same genetic stock. The fact remains that one party can be induced to change and the other cannot because the foundations of the latter, its roots in the Hindu past, are based on a regressive ideology that needs to interpret history in an exclusionist manner to further its political ambitions.

The current political and electoral catharsis initiated by the AAP may benefit the country in the long run. However, if in the meanwhile the process allows a divisive figure who represents an exclusionist religio-right-wing ethos to come to power, one wonders whether the means can really justify the end.