Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is the original Idea of India dead once and for all?

The other day, when I was thinking of this whole rigmarole called the Idea of India, one question that had never occurred to me in the past suddenly bobbed up its inquisitive head in my mind.

Who invented the Idea of India as a Democratic Republic in the first place?
Taking a long backward look, the answer became obvious. It was a coterie of eminent Indians that included Harrow-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Dt BR Ambedkar, a Columbia alumnus. It was this league of extraordinary gentlemen who chiseled and buffed the somewhat alien idea  conscientiously much before it became a reality on 15 
August 1947 and 26 January 1950.

Yes. The leaders of the Indian independence movement were mostly from the Western-educated middle class. They had been weaned, so to speak, on Socrates and Plato, Marx and Engels, Gibbon, Darwin, and Spencer, Smith and Keynes, Ruskin and Thoreau and Shaw among others. Many of these thinkers and writers hailed from Great Britain of which at the time India was a colony. Imbibing their thoughts, beliefs and opinions was ironically like being “colonial mimics” of sorts. 

But surely it is obvious that there are as many Ideas of India as there are special interest groups and sub-groups, e.g., big business, labour, Dalits, OBCs, tribals and so forth. Each group’s Idea of India is needless to say calibrated to align with its special concerns.

Big business, for instance, would want maximum ROI, least interference from the government, unlimited access to natural resources and so forth. Ergo, the big business’s Idea of India would be a country with a politico-economic system – whether democratic or not − that treats business, particularly big business, with kid gloves and so forth.

It’s time we backtracked a bit, though. The founding fathers’ Idea of India was conceived against the backdrop of Nehru’s Discovery of India, the seminal ideological text on which the Nehruvian template of a liberal, secular, egalitarian democracy with a “composite” and inclusive culture and a socialistic economy was based. Nehru envisioned an Indian nation with the state entrusted with the task of ensuring that no single special interest group, e.g., the Hindu majority or big business, enjoyed significant privileges to the detriment of others. One of the corollaries of this vision was the Indian state taking over the lead role in the economic sphere.

Unfortunately, this meant the perpetuation of the Ma Baap Sarkar metaphor in the minds of the illiterate majority − enhanced further by the continuance of feudalistic behaviour of the bureaucracy, a legacy of the British Raj in any case. Furthermore, the adoption of another legacy of the British Raj – both Discovery of India and Constitution of India were written in English and the business of the Indian state continues to be transacted in English − and the accidental privilege thereby conferred on the miniscule English-speaking minority of the Indian population who ran the emerging state enterprises merely confounded the already somewhat cloudy scenario.

The Idea of India saga seems to have modeled itself on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The first major crack in the Nehruvian template came with his daughter’s successive triumphs (Bangladesh, i.e., the splintering of Pakistan,  bank nationalization, abolition of privy purses, stoppage of food imports, a 20-year friendship pact with the USSR) culminating in the 1974 Pokharan nuclear blast that caught the world’s attention. All this prompted DK Barooah’s sycophantic “Indira is India, India is Indira” call. JP Narayan’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule triggered off the June 1975 declaration of emergency.     

The other four significant events in post-Independence India that progressively sapped  the Nehruvian Idea of India of its relevance were the chronological order of occurrence the following:

[1] The anti-Sikh violence (1984)

[2] The Shah Bano case (1985)

[3] The Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and its aftermath (1992-93)

[4] The burning of a train at Godhra and the Gujarat riots (2002).

Apart from these, there is the on-going virtual occupation of Jammu and Kashmir and the North East by the Indian Army under the pretence of keeping peace – a policy without an iota of success in stemming the insurgency and the defiance of the Indian State. Equally worrying is the seemingly unstoppable resurgence of the Naxals in the so-called red corridor comprising those parts of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgrah, Jharkand, Madhya Prasesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal inhabited mainly by the marginalized Adivasi tribals trying to eke a living out of forest produce and primitive farming under constant threat from forestry officials and the mining mafia. 

Now that NaMo has all but demolished the flag bearers of the Nehruvian Idea of India, history has finally been consigned to the dustbin, maybe even to oblivion, where according to the “neo middle class” (a NaMo hypothesis according to Sunil Khilnani it rightfully belongs.

Will it remain dead and buried for all times to come? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Why NaMo is top-of-the-pops.

Our Founding Fathers made two monumental mistakes when power was transferred from the British Emperor to the Indian Government of India in August 1947.

Monumental mistake #1: They opted for universal franchise without universal literacy.

Monumental mistake #2: they did not dismantle the then prevailing framework and mindset of Feudalism before ushering in Democracy. Equally important, they did not bother to upgrade the bureaucracy set up by the British to serve the aims of the Imperialistic reign of subjugating and controlling the citizenry, of “keeping them in their proper place” at any cost as well as of extracting an annual tribute (“drain”) of £30 million (roughly Rs.450 million in contemporary exchange terms) in the reckoning of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 -1917). (By the by, in Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith dubbed the British Rulers “plunderers of India”.

In 1952, around 85% of the eligible voters in India’s first General Election – most  of whom still lived in abysmal poverty in the countryside − were angutha chchaap: they could neither read nor write. Ma-baap Sarkar, a legacy from the British Rulers, was the only political metaphor they understood and could relate to. The Indian National Congress won hands down. The 15% literate middle class had almost no say in the matter.

How different is the scenario at the time of the 2014 General Elections to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha?

Increasing urbanization particularly after globalization has swelled the ranks of the urban middle class. They want better living conditions, more jobs, better governance, less − if not zilch − corruption, decisive leadership, less inequality. The omnipresence of television, the Internet and mobile phones has further fuelled these burgeoning aspirations. The BJP seems to be the party of choice of Middle India.

Like it or not, admit it or not, NaMo = BJP as of this moment. The personality cult for which it is fashionable to criticize the Congress is very much alive and kicking away merrily in the BJP. NaMo demolished every likely rival within the Party using tactics almost identical to the Indira Gandhi gambit against The Syndicate in the winter of 1969. Employing IT imaginatively and extensively, he has been successful in reaching to, and enrolling for his cause, the urban (mostly middle class) youth.

The World Bank defines poverty as survival on less than $1.25 per day (2005 purchasing power parity) and says that, between 1981 and 2005, poverty in India dipped from 60% of the population to 42%. The number in 2010 was 33% (about 400 million people). There is much dispute about the veracity of the Government of India and World Bank statistics. After making allowance for population growth in the interim, there appears to have been very little progress on the poverty alleviation front since 1947 – certainly nothing to boast about with claims like “India Shining”. The UPA-II efforts to alleviate poverty (Public Distribution System, Integrated Rural Development Program, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and Training Rural Youth for Self Employment) have met with very limited success.

As for literacy, UNICEF tells us that between 2008 and 2012, 62.8% of Indians aged 15 years and over were able to read and write. The literacy rates in the age group 15 – 24 years for the same time span were 88.4% (male) and 74.4% (female).  The net primary school enrolment rate for 2008 – 2011 was 98.6%. It looks like the 2014 General Elections have a literate electorate. Does it mean that it will be a conscientious electorate?

Ironically though, if Middle India’s aspirations are contemporary, many from their ranks still respond to Feudalistic overtures: religion, caste, social status, respect for authority and the pecking order among others. NaMo seems to have understood this characteristic of the electorate well. To assure them that he means business, he talks down to them like a decisive leader. Every election speech is a diatribe, a raging tirade. 

He blunders on declaring that the elections are for  the 14th Lok Sabha in a rally in Gumla (Jharkhand); linking Chandragupta Maurya with the Gupta dynasty, giving Biharis credit for halting the victorious onslaught of Alexander and relocating Taxila in Bihar – all these in a Patna rally; bumping off Shyama Prasad Mookherji, Jan Sangh’s founder, in 1930 in London in a Kheda (Gujarat) meeting (in fact, he died in a Jammu & Kashmir prison in 1953); and changing Gandhi’s first name to “Mohanlal” in a Punjab rally.

The NaMo juggernaut thunders on regardless. His fans don’t seem to care about his historical inaccuracies. They have been brought up listening to lies and false promises mouthed by politicians. They want to believe in someone. That someone happens to be NaMo. His Gujarat governance record is not bad. His role in the 2002 riots seems to have been forgiven. His style of dealing with problems seems decisive. The saviour has been found at last. NaMo is the one.

All hail NaMo. Bow to NaMo. Kowtow to NaMo. There is no alternative left. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Why Teddy Bears get my goat.

Ironical though it may sound, post-colonial urban Indians are prone to closet colonial mimicry, whether they know and/or admit it or not. In their best colonial mimicry mode, many Indian script writers foist from time to time Teddy Bears on to their characters as a symbol of childhood innocence and on to their storylines as a pointer to the impending arrival of a baby in the family, an adoption and so forth. Often, they unwittingly insert Teddy into imagined homes least likely to be aware of its iconic role in English-speaking Western cultures as a “warm, friendly, tolerant, accepting and compassionate” friend.

Mind you, I have nothing against poor cuddly Teddies per se − in their proper place and in the right context. I must confess, though, that I as a child never had one. We Mankars, colonial mimics of the second – if not the first – water, residing at 233 Khetwadi Main Road seasonally consumed rum’n’raisin Christmas cakes from the original Monginis at Flora Fountain and plum pudding from Kayani’s; bought faux Christmas stockings from the toy shops at Crawford Market; shopped occasionally − and that too, very, very sparingly − at Whiteaway Laidlaw and Evan Fraser on Hornby Road and Army & Navy on Esplanade Road in Fort; read Dickens, Richmal Crompton and the Grimm Brothers; devoutly chanted Mother Goose nursery rhymes; listened from time to time to Doing the Lambeth Walk on our wind-up turntable; and stood up in the cinema hall every time they played God Save the King. In short, we did without fail all the things all self-respecting pre-1947 colonial mimics were expected to do.

The epiphany that dropped in for a visit after I googled “Teddy Bear” concerned the place of its nativity. The awesome cuddly did not – alas! – hail from the homeland of our erstwhile Imperial masters. Instead, it was a native of the old country from across the Big Pond of their erstwhile colonial cousins. Apocrypha has it that its moniker mimicked the sporting US Prez “Teddy” Roosevelt’s “handle” to honour his refusal to shoot a live bear tied to a willow tree during a 1902 hunting trip arranged by the Mississippi governor.

Teddy’s birth is equally noteworthy. Like the recent idiot-box fad of simulcast, It was simul-birthed. Morris Michtom, a Russian immigrant selling candy in his Brooklyn store, is one of the two credited with making the first Teddy. The other joint holder of the Teddy Maker title was Richard Steiff who exhibited his version of the stuffed marvel at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903.

Enough already. By now, you can probably make a shrewd guess why I prefer Linus van Pelt’s security blanket insouciantly flung over his left shoulder to Nancy’s and Garfield’s Teddies. Has this something to do with the fact that Linus’s constant companion is multi-functional? Maybe. Richard H Passman, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee psychologist, found that “the blanket promoted play, exploration and non-distress in their mothers' absence”. The security blanket acts as a “pretend” playmate-comforter, in other words.

Far be it for me to sell Teddy short, though, just because I do not personally gel with it. In English-speaking Western cultures, psychologists see it variously as “a normal part of a child’s development”, a “transitional experience between the infant’s ability to distinguish the inner subjective world from outside reality”, a substitute for the absent mother (temp surrogate mom?) – in short, a normal, desirable and beneficial component of growing up. Teddy has also done yeoman service in class rooms by intrinsically motivating children to learn (i.e., by creating an ambience – mood, feel or atmosphere – where the pleasure of learning is its own reward). Teddy has done himself proud by being the perfect helpmate to cops, firemen and paramedics for reaching out to scared, lost and traumatized children in rescue scenarios as well.  In a Boston Children’s Museum project, kids were encouraged to take their Teddy Bears for a free medical check-up by real doctors with a view to lessen their fear of medical practitioners and hospitals.

Okay, Teddy. It’s time I gave up. You’re no bugbear. On the contrary, you may be quite the opposite. I owe you an apology.