Why Congress is Jittery about VS Naipaul

If you are familiar with VS Naipaul’s stature as a writer you would have got a little surprised by the indifference of Congress guys on Twitter to his passing away recently.

And when I say Congress guys I mean the entire pro Congress brigade from editors through average sympathizers to Cong MPs. I can understand the tepid response from the average Cong sympathizers and even those who formally represent the party.

They mayn’t know much about Naipaul – because Naipaul is not Rushdie nor was he a very popular commercial writer like, say, Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham. Before he won the Noble Prize for Literature, he was hardly known outside the group of people with genuine interest in English literature. After he won there was a sudden eruption of interest in Naipaul.

That’s when many who didn’t know him would have read him the first time (this includes me). And many would have restricted their knowledge about him and his work to what the media had to say about him, that he was an anti-Muslim bigot, a misogynist etc. But what about the pro Congress editors?

I didn’t see too many posts from them beyond the customary ‘great writer bad human being RIP VSN’ ones. Did you?

Many of them would have read Naipaul, at least his nonfiction books. Many of them would have interacted with Naipaul when he came to India to research for his last book on India, The Million Mutinies Now. On record Naipaul had met Vinod Mehta (who is no more with us), Vir Sanghvi and Shekhar Gupta.

Only an article by Vir Sanghvi was an expection to the rule. In the article, Vir Sanghvi claimed he knew Naipaul rather closely having met him several times while Sanghvi worked in Calcutta and Naipaul was visiting the city.

Sanghvi admitted his greatness as a writer but little bit tarnished it by calling Naipaul’s contemporary relevance into question. “Will his novels stand the test of time? Does anybody still read say, A House for Mr. Biswas? Will they read it ten years from now?”

Most of his books are celebrated and no discussion on post 2nd World War great books is complete without a mention of A House for Mr. Biswas.

This ‘tell as little as you must, then shove him inside the carpet’ approach of Congress online image managers towards VS Naipaul is not strange. VS Naipaul’s nonfiction work on India – mainly An Area of Darkness, which was written in the mid-60s and was scathingly critical of India – almost of everything you can think of.

The India that Naipaul criticized so strongly in his first two books An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization was actually Nehru’s India. And Naipaul never changed his views until Million Mutinies Now, many years after An Area of Darkness, published in 1990.

This was two years before liberalization and many years before liberalization made its effect on India felt, but Nehru by then was firmly placed in India’s past separated by several subsequent leaderships of Congress.

And if you think a little deeply, the India that Naipaul rejected – the Nehru constructed India – is the main bone of contention between BJP and Congress. BJP says Nehru’s socialist model, which Congress followed until Rajiv Gandhi started tinkering with things in the mid-80s, denied India its share of development, made it poor, and deepened corruption even as it strengthened the grip of the Gandhi Nehru parivar on power.

Congress says the path shown by the first prime minister of India is the right path for the country, and moving away from the Nehruvian way is where India’s doom lies.

But Congress knows it stands on a very shaky ground when it comes to Nehru. Economically India has moved beyond Nehru. His contributions to nation building may be immense but sadly obscured by the subsequent years of Congress rule when Nehru’s economic legacy degenerated into license raj which held back India until it was dismantled in the early 90s, his institutions were subverted as his own daughter strengthened her grip on power – Emergency was an extreme manifestation of which – and the Congress became the fiefdom of one family.

So if you found the response of the online Cong image managers to Naipaul’s death underwhelming it’s because there is no point paying too much attention to a writer who held inconvenient views about a period when Congress was in power especially when the tempo for 2019 general elections is building up.

Karnataka Elections – Several Tragedies Rolled into One

Siddaramaiah offering HD Kumaraswami chief ministership to form government in Karnataka has a tragic twist to it. Siddaramaiah, the Congress CM, was a senior minister in JD(S). In 2005 he left JD(S) feeling marginalized by HD Deve Gowda’s attempts to promote his son Kumaraswami as his political heir and the top leader of the party.

After leaving JD(S), Siddaramaiah joined Congress. In later years, both Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswami rose to the pinnacle of Karnataka state politics. Kumaraswami became CM in 2006 when JD(S) formed government with BJP. Siddaramaiah became CM in 2013 when he helped Congress win in Karnataka. But their rivalry continued. They kept exchanging barbs through media.

Couple of years ago, the rivalry boiled over when at the State Assembly Kumaraswami swore on his father that he would not let Siddaramaiah become CM and Siddaramaiah retorted that he swore on Kumaraswami’s father (HD Deve Gowda) that he would become CM. Karnataka politics is acrimonious and filthy. But as fate would have it, a few years later and a few days ago, driven by compulsions of politics, in the wake of unexpected dip in Congress’ number of seats, Siddaramaiah not only offered support to JD(S) to form government in Karnatka but also offered Kumaraswami the position of CM.

That’s not where the tragedy ends, though.

Of the three chief ministerial aspirants – HD Kumaraswami, Siddaramaiah and B. S. Yeddyurappa (BJP) – Siddaramaiah was the most deserving candidate. He has run a clean administration for five years which performed reasonably well and wasn’t disrupted by internal feuds and challenges to his leadership. None of these can be said about the other two chief ministerial aspirants (one of whom – Kumaraswami – is a chief minister now).

But will this coming together of the Cong and JD(S) for purely political reasons mark a complete transformation of Siddaramaiah’s and Kumaraswami’s relationship? Or will the old bitterness rear its head again once the euphoria is over? Both are mercurial and ambitious. And at least Kumaraswami has the record of being ungentlemanly when it comes to temptations of power.

In 2006, JD(S) had formed government with BJP with Kumaraswami as chief minister on the understanding that after 10 months Kumaraswami would step down from the position of CM making way for Yeddyurappa, but he refused to, prompting BJP to withdraw support to the government and call for new elections which BJP won riding a pro- Yeddyurappa sympathy wave.

Lenin’s Statue in Belonia

Of all the statues torn down last week in various parts of India, tearing down of Lenin’s statue, in Belonia, Tripura, which triggered a series of reactions across India where mobs brought down statues of icons –was the most significant one.  The differing ideologies that the icons represented notwithstanding all of them had something in common – they were all Indians. Lenin was the only one of foreign origin.  India is not the only place in the world to host statues of icons of foreign origin.

You will find statues of foreign icons with global stature in all countries. For example, there are several countries in the West that have statues of Mahatma Gandhi. But there is a difference even between these globally celebrated icons and Lenin.

They largely represent an apolitical message of universal humanism; Lenin represents a specific political ideology, which many people across the world associate with severest form of authoritarianism, disregard for human liberties, lack of economic opportunities and its attendant problems and so on.

There is no denying that destroying the statues was an act of vandalism but to the extent that it was an effort to wipe out the remnants of a political ideology opposed to yours, it is not something that the Left is not guilty of, only their methods are more gentlemanly and sophisticated.

There is almost no party that can equal Left’s hostility  towards icons (both political and otherwise) who represent a different strain of political belief or have a towering stature in the states Left rule. While the Left ruled Bengal, Subhash Chandra Bose and Tagore were always fair games.

But an outrage towards a political belief which represents hegemony was only one component of the anger which led to bringing down the Lenin statue in Belonia. The other was a sense of despair and helplessness lack of opportunities create in a Left-ruled state among the youth.

And Tripura has all the hallmarks of a Left-ruled state. Most people are employed with the state government and there are no private sector employment opportunities – which means majority of the youth population is jobless. This is not a new problem in Tripura; it has coexisted with Left rule for several years, in fact, decades. Left has ruled the state for roughly 20 years, which means for most of its time in power it has sat on the problem and let it grow.

It’s not as if the next government will be able to change everything overnight but at least a beginning has been made. One of the emotions that swayed the delirious mob which exhorted as the statue of the Russian revolutionary was bulldozed to ground was hope.

A Chance Encounter with a Kashmiri Pandit

I was at a Reliance departmental store picking vegetables and tossing them into my trolley when the elderly person standing next to me suddenly started a conversation. “How do these guys manage to sell things so cheap?” “I think because they sell well – economies of scale,” I responded. “But there are other chains that are not doing poorly, yet they sell their stuff much costlier,” the old man rebutted. I had not expected a rebuttal. “Omm…maybe because they source their vegies directly from the farmer, uncle.” “But I think others are doing it too, beta.”

The elderly person was apparently from north India. He was speaking smooth English but throwing in a word or two of Hindi in his sentences. He was soft spoken, wore a Sherlock Homes cap, thick black frame and was too fair complexioned.

His patient probing had exhausted my stock of glib answers. I had no more answer. I kept quiet and concentrated on choosing the vegies. A brief silence followed. Then came the obvious from the old man. “Where are you from? “I am from Calcutta but I have been in Bangalore for last 12 years.”

“And you, sir?”

“Where do you think I am from, beta?”

The mischief in his question and the twinkle in his eye revealed something fleeting and deeper than the sum of physical attributes and words. “You are a Kashmiri Pandit, uncle.”

Surprised, he immediately extended his hand for a handshake: “How did you figure out?”

“Gut feeling,” I replied smiling.

Then a desultory conversation followed until our discussion settled into a specific trajectory.

“The Left finished Bengal and even the current person is not doing well,” he said.

I hesitantly brought up the contentious issue.

“Uncle, is the situation in Kashmir normal now?”

“No, it’s not. And it won’t ever unless…”

“Where do you stay now? In Jammu?”

“Yes, we have been there for roughly 30 years now.”

“Have you been to Kashmir since you left?”

“Yes, I have a few times.”

I steered the conversation into the forbidden territory. “In what circumstances you had to leave Kashmir? Was there genuine threat to you and your family?”

“Yes, there was. On 20th January 1990 almost one lakh Hindus left, beta, after terrorism broke out,” he said with a sense of loss he has learnt to live with. “We had to leave with whatever we could carry with us. We left everything else behind.”

To cheer him up, I said: “But things are changing. Your cause is very dear to the current government in center.”

To gather his thoughts, he looked away for a second and then looked at me. “I don’t think my generation will be able to return to Kashmir for good, but if they succeed to do something my grandson will be able to see what once belonged to his forebears.”

Salman Rushdie, Now Padmavati – Free Speech Being Trammeled upon Nothing New

In India freedom of expression coming under attack is neither new nor rare. Each time a book or a movie offends someone, hurts someone’s (or a group’s) religious/community sentiments, things go up in flames. Processions hit the streets, effigies are burnt, threats given, normal life disrupted. The government (regardless of which party is in power or whether it’s a state or central government) observes the situation for a while expecting it to abate…Sometimes the government also asks the two parties to talk and arrive at a settlement.

When after sometime the situation doesn’t show any signs of abetment, the government does what is politically safe to do: bans the movie or insists on its release after putting it through so many cuts as to emasculate it completely, so that it neither insults nor informs.

However, there is an interesting angle to the crisis this time. Padmavati is not a serious film; it’s a commercial film with no serious intent except entertaining people. It’s on a character which never existed. Padmavati is a fictional character created by a poet (Jayasi) in a poem which fictionalized the invasion of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji, who ruled Delhi in the 12th century. The poem says Khilji, who was besotted with Padmavati after hearing about her magical beauty from a Brahamin who had a score to settle with Padmavati’s husband – attacked Chittor to capture Padmavati and take her with him.

However, once Padmavati’s husband died fighting Khilji’s invasion, Padmavati together with all other women in the fort set herself on fire to protect their honor against Khilji. However, historians who accompanied Khilji on his invasion of Chittor don’t mention any such incident in their account. In fact, Padmavati’s name is not available in any record or account contemporaneous to the invasion. Her name is only found in this poem by Jayasi which was written more than two centuries after the invasion.

However, I had written the blog below Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India written in 2012 when a similar frenzy had gripped the country albeit for a shorter period: Salman Rushdie was invited to visit Jaipur Literature Festival – and some Muslim groups felt the author’s visit would hurt their religious sentiments – and the government (it was a Congress government both at the center and state – Rajasthan) armtwisted the Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to drop from their invitee list.

The situation was similar in many more ways. Several state assembly elections are going to take place shortly (Gujrat being the most important one), as the Padmavati row unfolds. At that time, in 2012, UP elections were nearing. UP has a sizable Muslim population. Now, in 2017, in view of the forthcoming assembly elections, hurting majoritarian sentiments (although Padmavati is specific to Rajasthani and Rajut pride, it can easily be drummed up into something bigger and polarizing in election times) may not be a good idea now.

And yet we know it’s nothing new. Freedom of expression has been a casualty of electoral interests in the past and it will continue to happen no matter which party is in power as my blog below will make clear. So what do the public intellectuals, in India, really mean when they blame the current regime for attacks on free speech?


Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India

Recently the Indian government armtwisted Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to have Salman Rushdie dropped from their invitee list. The government has justified its decision by saying that Rushdie’s visit will hurt Muslim sentiments thanks to his book Satanic Verses which insulted Islam by caricaturing the Prophet Mohamed.

Rushdie has been coming to the festival since it started, but it’s the first time the government wants us to believe his visit will wound religious sentiments. UP elections are near and UP has a sizeable Muslim population. UP is a place the Cong, the leading party of the ruling coalition, can ill afford to lose because being among the largest states in India, UP has a big impact on general elections.

The Rushdie controversy is not an isolated incident. It’s the recent installment of a series of incidents in India where outfits of all political hues or their affiliates have attacked people or work (books, movies , paintings, etc) opposed to their strain of beliefs.

The reasons for the outbursts are varied. Sometimes it’s a political party desperate to retain its political space, sometimes a political newbie trying to make a mark for himself, sometimes a political party making a desperate bid to woo a community (Hindu or Muslim).

Three incidents related to books will help you understand the pattern. 

Around seven years ago, Taslima Nasreen (the writer of Lajja) had been forced out of Bengal by the Left government and then out of the country by the central government which refused to renew her visa. Why? Because Taslima had expressed blasphemous views in her book Lajja and mobs had taken to the streets demanding her ouster from Bengal when her visa was due for renewal. The Left government justified its decision saying her stay would have led to communal riots.

About a year ago, a political aspirant from the Thackeray clan (a family that founded and heads a regional political right wing outfit which models itself on Hindu nationalism and chauvinism) got together a mob which burnt the copies of Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry alleging the book to have provocative material (not sure to provoke whom) demanding the removal of the book from English honors syllabus. The authorities obliged (apparently to quell the mob).

And then came this Rushdie controversy.

As the instances above demonstrate, it’s not just parties coming from one strain of political or social belief who demand book bans and persecute writers (or creative people guilty of challenging popular beliefs through their work) for their ends, but parties of all political colour (from left to right) partake in them and frame their demand and actions according to their constituency.

If you read the books as against the claims that the ban-seekers make, you will know that they don’t read the books they seek ban on. Lajja has nothing against Islam in it; it’s a story about a Hindu Bengali family in Bangladesh; and Such A Long Journey was published in the 70s (and demanded a withdrawal of in 2011) and is loosely about Congress politics in Bombay, in the 70s, a party which the Thackerays are anyway hysterically opposed to. (I have read Lajja, but not Such a Long Journey.)

This hostility on books or any creative output works on a certain belief. 

Banning of a book or movie doesn’t hit people’s interest in the way, say, closing of a factory does. So whether you are part of the establishment imposing a ban or forcing out an author or you are part of sloganeering mob demanding a ban or an ouster, the belief on either side is since the common man won’t be hurt beyond, say, the denial of a book or a movie, they will move on and the intelligentsia will stop shouting on TV once the media get another story. Elections are won and lost on more immediate and tangible issues, not on books, after all.

And, of course, there is the additional gain for the political party of ingratiating itself with a group/community (whatever) through the emotive route, which has a long-lasting electoral value, where reason is always a casualty.

What the establishment overlooks is each time you yield to a bullying mob, you concede a space that is hard to retrieve. What they also forget is when application of force becomes an accepted means to silence a contrary voice, you lose the ability to tolerate because you don’t need to stress your endurance to tolerate; an easier option is available – force.

It’s one thing to brag about having great values (in this case, freedom of speech and free thought) as a nation; it’s another to be ready to defend them at whatever cost they demand. Great Britain gave knighthood to Rushdie in the teeth of opposition from the Islamic world. France gave political asylum to Taslima Nasreen after she was hounded out from India.

Communism – 100 Years of the Revolution

A few days ago Russia celebrated 100 years of the 1917 revolution. In these 100 years communism has gone from  a leading political ideology to a failed one. In whichever country the ideology has been applied, there has been dictatorship, corruption, economic stagnation, bloodshed and so on.

Yet universal brotherhood, a world free of religion and other discriminatory ideas, selflessness, sacrifice for a higher cause, economic equality – are some of the loftiest ideals a man can ever live for.

Communism had looked like a panacea in a 20th century world torn by wars, bigotry, narrow nationalism and economic inequality. Soviet Russia’s impressive GDP year upon year had convinced world leaders of the merit of communist economic model. The global intelligentsia had appreciated its educational and social reforms. Their space projects had earned lot of global admiration (remember Sputnik?). But there were flaws in the system and the cracks began to show up soon.

Today it is surprising to see how the lofty ideals, when applied as state policies, degenerated into completely different things not just in Soviet Russia but also other pockets of communism in the world: a constant thirst for power expressed through annexing regions or bringing  them into communist sphere of influence, state censorship (and other forms of freedom-denying activities), ruthless directorship (Stalin, Mao and so many  other communist leaders), personality cults (Fidel Castro, Mao etc), state-level corruption, people in positions of power growing loathsomely wealthy (in China but there are numerous other examples), a dead economy (Cuba’s highest source of revenue is the remittances sent by Cubans staying in the US), the list is endless.

Frankly, if we compare them with the sins of capitalism, capitalism will hardly fare any better: two world wars, imperialism, Hitler, economic inequality, absence of financial support for the elderly (in purely capitalist societies like the US) and so on. But capitalism has bounced back each time. There wasn’t a third world war. The world didn’t see another Hitler (at least none who wreaked havoc on a similar scale). There is no 20th century scale imperialism any more.

Yes, capitalism is responsible for economic inequalities, but it has also created pockets of economic excellence, like Microsoft, Google, Apple and so many more, which provide economic opportunities to so many across various countries. (One can even argue the more capitalism the better: after all, less capitalist societies like Sweden and the Netherlands have not created these gems.)

On balance capitalism has done better than communism. But why? I think it’s because at the core capitalism is a simpler ideology which is mainly about economics (private enterprise and free market) and is silent on other aspects of life whereas communism seeks to control every sphere of life, the personal, professional and even the spiritual. (We know what happens of powerful religious ideas that lay out rules for every aspect of a man’s life and insist on complete compliance.)

This regimental nature of communism not only denies basic freedom but also stores too much discretionary power in the hands of those in power. And because communism doesn’t accommodate democratic practices like participatory politics, the power stays with a few who, to continue being in power, plug in all ventilations within the system blocking free passage of air – and slowly rot sets in.

In newspapers, we keep reading about corrupt and nepotistic high officials in China – and the Chinese administration trying to cleanse the system. Gorbachev had attempted Perestroika and Glasnost to cleanse the Soviet system of similar rot leading to an end of Soviet Union in December 26, 1991. The end of communism, however, had started a year earlier, on 9th November 1989, when the Berlin wall had collapsed uniting West and East Germany.

Is Bangalore Going the Bombay Way

On 1st Nov, on Karnataka Rajya Utsava, while I was entering a shopping mall, a person with a wad of thin books in his hand whisked one into my hand. I waved him away without any consideration. Few steps later, I stopped turned around, walked to him and asked for a copy of the book he was distributing free. It was a postcard size book on how to learn Kannada.

A day later I read the Karnataka CM’s (a Congress CM) Rajya Utsava speech in paper. He said everyone staying in Karnataka should learn Kannada and consider themselves Kannadigas. Karnataka is also going to become the first state in India to have its flag.

I am from Calcutta and have been staying in Bangalore for last 12 years now – and from time to time have seen manifestation of provincial sentiments through violence sometimes owing to something as innocuous as death of Kannada movie icons and sometimes slightly more tangible issues like water sharing with neighboring states.  The targets are generally ethnic groups to establishments like malls, restaurants representing a culture perceived to have overshadowed the local culture or representing  those who are insolent towards it.

But the best part about these conflagrations is they fizzle out in a day or two thanks to the fact that they are mostly carried out by small chauvinistic groups with little or no impact on mainstream politics.

Only twice, in my so many years in Bangalore, have I seen chauvinistic disturbances targeted towards a particular group or community go beyond their one-day routine.

One of them involved the Kaveri water sharing issue. The Kaveri water sharing  issue has been a source of disturbances for sometime recurring almost once every year but none has taken so long  to calm down. The trigger was a Supreme Court order asking Karnataka to share more cusecs of Kaveri water with Tamil Nadu than the state was ready to do.

My wife and I were touring Chikmagalur, a nice hill station in Karnataka with lot of coffee plantations but little known outside south India. We left for Chikmagalur a day after a state-wide bandh over the Kaveri issue.

Roughly two to three days later, sitting in a restaurant in Chikmagalur overlooking the road in front, we saw a flock of people shouting slogans, a column of black smoke rising up from amidst them. Curious, I asked the restaurant manager what it was.

He said they were protesting the Supreme Court order which had gone against Karnatka assuring us that they would not cause any harm, that it was just a protest.

Later we realized it wasn’t ‘just’ a protest. It took a week or so for normalcy to return. Some IT offices were forced shut by vandals, people killed, vehicles particularly those with Tamil Nadu number plates, set on fire.

The other one was over passing away of a famous Kannada movie star, Rajkumar. Within an hour of the death news becoming public, in anticipation of trouble, our office was called off and we were asked to return home. A few hours later, city life completely collapsed. Malls were attacked; foreign brand outlets were vandalized. It took sometime for normalcy to return.  (Some years earlier the same superstar had been kidnapped sparking similar reaction from his fans across the city.)

For the last 20 years or so, Bangalore has seen an excessive influx of migrants from different parts of the country mainly due to IT but also other industries and work streams. This influx of people from other places has meant the local culture now has to jostle for space with other cultures. This marginalization expresses itself through outbursts of regional sentiments whenever there is a provocation.

Another city where provincial chauvinism expresses itself through violence towards ‘outsiders’ is Bombay, another place which offers economic possibilities. Beating up poor migrants and attempts to force the local language on everyone are common.

The difference between Bangalore and Bombay, though, is in Bangalore the troublemakers don’t continue for too long. Also, the level of cynicism and organization that characterizes the chauvinistic flareups in Bombay is not to be found in Bangalore.

Perhaps a little bit of regional chauvinism is inevitable in a city which goes through economic prosperity on the scale Bangalore has over last 20 years or so. What is important is to avoid touching the raw nerve.

That’s why the chief minister’s brazen exhortation to everyone staying in Karnataka to learn and feel Kannada – doesn’t help unless he wants to convert Bangalore into Bombay. He should stop doing it.

In the meantime, I will try learning a little bit of Kannada using the book I got.

Is the International Community Acting Self Rightious on Rohingyas

Don’t you think the international community is acting self-righteously on Sui Kyi?  Those who are criticizing her for her inaction in the wake of atrocities on Rohingyas in Rakhine, in Myanmar, are not taking into account how the ground realities in Myanmar almost don’t allow any space to Suu Kyi to do anything. Suu Kyi operates under a constitution which confers overriding power to the army. It empowers the army to dissolve the civilian government anytime it wants without any obligation to justify its action, and restore Junta rule in Myanmar.

But some say the reason for Suu Kyi’s indifference towards the suffering of Rohingyas at the hand of the Myanmar army is more ethno-religious than we realize. Buddhists don’t particularly like Islam, having been at its receiving end for centuries. Islam has always posed existential threat to Buddhism. Islam was responsible for preventing the growth of Buddhism in India, the place of its birth. Recently, among other things, Bamiyan Buddha statues were destroyed in Afghanistan by Taliban.

From the documentaries I saw on Youtube, there is clearly a divide among the two communities in Myanmar. Some of the popular religious/community leaders from both sides openly expressed their animosities towards the other community. There is a concern among the Buddhists, the majority in Myanmar, that they will be soon outnumbered by Muslims.

What further deepens the chasm between the two communities is the secessionist movement underway in Rakhine which seeks separation of Rakhine, home to Rohingyas, from Myanmar. There is another angle to the issue: the displacement of Rohingyas from Myanmar and their incursion into various neighboring countries. Even here the international community, particularly the UN, has stuck to their humbug attitude.

Given the current geopolitical challenges – transnational terrorism, lack of employment etc – any country would be reluctant to throw its door open to anyone seeking entry unless it’s in a desperate need to pump up its population. And even sparsely populated countries, like the Scandinavian countries, are wary of being too generous with migrants as we have seen with respect to those fleeing war-torn places like Syria and Iraq.

The idea of multiculturalism and no-holds-barred entry for everyone of the past decades has received a bad name not only due to terrorism as a security concern but as a social problem stemming from an unresolvable conflict between Western and Islamic values. India shares some of these concerns and in addition to them it has a huge population.

Recalling Demonitization

I had written the blogs below when effects of demonetization were at their peak. Almost no ATMs had cash. The very few that had would attract interminable queues. Sometimes after standing in a queue for a long time (it could be anything between half an hour to an hour or more) when your turn would be just a person away, the security guard would announce the ATM wouldn’t have cash beyond the person in front of you in the queue. You would go to another ATM to try your luck.

It was the same situation everywhere. The government had suddenly decided to starve the country of cash. Normalcy looked far off; some even wondered if it was the new normal. Reports of people staying in rural areas travelling to distant places for cash and returning home disappointed, people standing in long ATM queues dying of excessive heat, were coming in.

Nothing could be a better situation for the opposition. Yet they failed to seize the opportunity. People somehow had believed demonetization was good for the country. Observers said the poor felt the rich were suffering more than them; that people indeed believed demonization would bring better times and so on.

When the nation was still discussing whether demonetization was good or bad, UP elections arrived –  and BJP won. Whatever little flak the government was receiving from the opposition parties and the media died down. In a country where the success of policies is measured in terms of their electoral effects, there could not be a more decisive answer than a win in UP, the most politically important state in India.

Slowly cash returned to ATMs (it took roughly two months). People forgot.

But demonetization is back into news after a substantial drop in GDP has been attributed to the effects of demonetization by experts.

The following blogs will help you recollect the period after the November 8th announcement: that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no more be legal tenders.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The I and We of Demonitization

It’s been sometime I have been at the receiving end of the effects of demonetization. I still am confused whether what the government is telling is right, that it’s today’s pain and tomorrow’s gain. Or what the opposition parties are claiming is true, that it’s not going to serve the intended purpose of eliminating black money, that it’s legalized loot, that nothing will prevent counterfeiters from counterfeiting the newly introduced notes and so on.

Whichever side of the argument you are on, a few things are very clear. It’s almost a month since  demonetization and the situation on ground is still not back to normal. Most ATMs are not functioning, barring a few located in prominent places per area. The load on these few functioning ATMs is so high, as a result, that they are running out of cash within a few hours of refill. I stood in long queues of several such ATMs and the cash ran out when my turn was two to three people away. The luckiest ones walked away with 100 rupee notes, the luckier with 2000, some (including me) had to return emptyhanded. Even if you are lucky to get some cash, there is restriction to how much you can draw. Until some time ago ATMs cards from banks other than the host bank were not working. Now they are.

Like many of you, I am tracking this development closely and have read several articles and heard some interviews. Posthumously, they say a range of things which could have prevented or at least brought down the scale of the crisis. Instead of banning both 500 and 1000 rupee notes, they say, the government could have banned one – preferably  1000 – and left the other, which would have given them time to replenish the banned notes and also the option of targeting the 500 rupee denomination later. If they had taken some time to make all the notes the same size, which is how it is in many countries, the ATM machines would not require recalibration, they say.

These ‘should have beens’ may not bother us much now that it’s too late, but at a national and personal level there are a few possible outcomes of them. The happy political consensus over GST seems to have dissipated and reorganized itself as a pan India opposition against the government over demonetization. No one seems to mind the purported goals – end of black money, cashless economy etc – of demonetization; given their lofty nature, they are slightly unchallengeable. The opposition parties seem to smell a political opportunity in how demonetization has been carried out. And that seems to be the bone of contention for the amm janta too…who may think, if the mainstream media reports are to go by, that little bit of pain is worth the long term gains. But as each day goes by without the situation coming under control, the concern that’s becoming bigger and bigger is: how long the patience will hold out?

The answer to that lies in several things. How long will the government take to pull the situation under control? How soon, in what forms and how tangibly will people see the benefits of the pain they are undergoing? How long the government will be able to prevent the growing voice of a uniting opposition into becoming a nationwide roar (something like the G scams)?

A lot of this will require perception handling. Also, as the government works towards getting things in order, care has to be taken to make sure that nothing undermines the ground which is being covered on the way to normalcy. The system has countless holes through which illegal money can travel back and forth having a termite-like effect. And there is enough evidence that this is happening. New notes worth over Rs 4 crore have been seized in income tax raids in Bengaluru. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country. And there are inherent challenges. One of them is the unorganized economy in India is intricately entwined with the mainstream economy and the former is mostly (unless it is illegal) cash based.

On ground a few things need to be made smooth so that after I get a 2000 rupee note it’s easy for me to find change or there are enough 100 notes in ATMs. The number of functioning ATMs should start growing so that I don’t have to stand in queues for too long. If the problem is to linger for a few more months, then special arrangements should be made on payment days, either by pumping in more currencies or devising ways to identify and move as many as possible to crediting their stuff salary into their accounts.  None is easy. And what makes it difficult is this hydraheaded monster has to be tamed FAST.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are We with Demonitization

It’s been sometime since I wrote the earlier blog on demonetization – and the situation has changed since then. We have got used to the new normal – that ATMs will not be the same again, that some visits to ATMs will be disappointing, some fruitful, that 2000 rupee notes will be in greater use than 1000 rupee denomination ever was and therefore getting it changed will always be a concern, that although a complete cashlessness may still be some years away, more and more number of small shops, the most formidable bastions of cashbased transactions, will offer digital options for payment. In sum, liquid cash will become less and less part of our day to day lives.

Well, all this is good news, but is it the whole picture or just an urban snapshot? From the reports that are emerging, rural India is still smarting under the effects of demo. A few days ago a news portal solely reporting on the effects of demonetization on rural India reported that in Maharashtra prices of some vegetables have dropped substantially due to over supply resulting from the inability of middle men to buy them due to lack of cash availability  (these transactions are almost always cashbased). Some rural regions are not receiving enough cash supply in their banks – and it’s a bigger concern in rural areas than in urban ones.

And even in urban areas, even by the standard of the new normal, order has not completely returned. Most ATMs are still out of cash. Most of those that are working are mostly dispensing Rs 2000 notes.  Many have concluded that visits to banks to draw cash via cheques is a better option than depending on ATMs; but then if that is so, then does it not defeat the whole purpose of demonetization?

By now it is undeniable that the implementation has been a disaster. How the government and various financial institutions have reacted to situations suggests they were not foreseen and planned for earlier. Surprisingly though, as it appears, demo hasn’t hurt the government politically, although many would suspend their judgement about it until UP delivers its verdict.

Apart from Modi’s thunderous speeches, what has helped the government is that the opposition continues to be hopeless. To start with, there is hardly any opposition unity. Some parties are ambiguous about their stand on demo, some are half-heartedly supporting it by maintaining silence, some are mindlessly hurling accusations none of which is sticking.

Amidst this chaos, though, one thing is becoming clear: emergence of a new order of payment methods, networks etc. The problem is how fast people can get used to the emerging order. The lightning speed with which demo was brought by the government will keep people on their toes, causing them to rush to the new transaction practices, in terms of learning them and making them an integral part of their day-to-day financial transactions.

Good or bad, this attitude towards government-brought changes is another bequest of demonetization. In the past, whenever it came to matters relating the government, people felt things would largely remain the same and they would be able to bypass the minor changes and survive the effects. Such comforting assurances have become a thing of the past.

In the meantime, stories will keep emerging, some funny, some tragic. Let us look at this one from Karnataka. To raise funds, to help a depleted exchequer, the government is invoking an old law where pubs will have to achieve a minimum target of liquor sale set by the government, falling short of the target will attract penalties.

How India and Turkey are Similar in More Ways Than One

The recent incident of Darwin being dropped from school syllabus in Turkey would have made many in India react with ‘this is more of the same’ boredom. The ‘the more of the same’ boredom is understandable given the fact that rewriting of school history books has become a routine affair in India.

However, the way the two countries are trying to indoctrinate their education may appear to be coming from the global trend of rise in conservatism, but they are, in reality, rooted in the histories of the two countries which are strangely similar.

Like India, Turkey was a British colony. The founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk Kemal Pasha, was among the most prominent figures of Turkey’s freedom movement. Once Turkey found independence from Britain, Kemal, a military person, seized power. He is said to have had many of his political adversaries killed, some of whom were his former allies, to remove hurdles to his passage to power.

A diehard Westophile, Kemal believed the only way Turkey could prosper was by embracing Western ways. He told his people they should look to Europe for social and cultural reference and consider themselves as part of European culture and not the Arab countries.

He replaced the Arabic script of Turkish language with Roman script. He insisted on Western attire. He completely suppressed the Muslim orthodoxy.

In 2014, BJP came to power with a majority unmatched since 1981 when Indira Gandhi, following some years in opposition, had stormed to the PMO. Indira Gandhi’s 1981 victory meant a resumption of continuity following a disruption in 1977. Conversely, BJP’s 2014 victory was a complete break with the past.

This departure from the past signifies a much bigger break than mere political. This victory meant a halt to everything Congress. It’s not as if Congress had not suffered electoral reverses before (read 1977), nor is it the first time that there is a non-Congress government in power; BJP itself was in power 10 years ago.

What is different this time is everything is being completely reversed. New definitions of traditional perceptions are being laid. Because of Congress’ long stay in power, popular perceptions about good and bad involving things like space of minorities in the society, secularism were coloured by Congress’ stand on them. Now a new normal is being formed.

But Congress, to a great extent, is responsible for their decline. Subsequent leadership generations of Congress digressed from the core values of socialism and secularism  which defined the value framework of pre and post independence Congress leadership. The quality of Cong leadership in fact started reducing  post Nehru.

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was ideologically less driven. Her son Rajeev Gandhi was a novice and a new comer to politics when leadership was thrust on him following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. The current leadership of Congress led by Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great gradson,  is reluctant and incompetent.

In addition to this, what works for BJP is a popular leader and unprecedented majority in parliament.

But perhaps the bigger reason is the party in power represents Hindu orthodoxy, a group that was denied any voice in post-independence India when Jawaharlal Nehru was steering the country in the direction where religion had no role, in the same way as the voice of Muslim orthodoxy was suppressed in Turkey when Kemal Pasha was writing the rules for a modern Turkey. It’s this that brings a touch of vengeance to whatever they do to the old orders (Kemalism and Nehruism) in their country.

Since then, lot of water has flowed under the bridge for both the countries.

In 1998, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, read out verses of Ottoman Islamist poet Ziya Gőkalp at a public event. In a secular Turkey, it was an oddity for a politician to read out Islamist verses publicly. It was also illegal – which attracted a 10 month sentence for Erdogan for ‘’inciting religious hatred”.

While in jail, Erdogan continued to mobilize opinion and founded a party, AKP (Justice and Development Party), his launch vehicle for a career in politics. In 2002, AKP won a thumping victory and since then the man who was born in a family of modest means in a provincial town of Turkey and moved to Istanbul aged 13 and joined the youth wing of an Islamist party, has not had to look back.

In the years following Erdogan’s coming to power, Turkey became economically prosperous resulting in the rise in income levels of the middle class and exit of many from poverty. But together with this economic boom came social conservatism (many wear scarves publicly – a marked departure from the past) and shrinking civil liberties, especially after the failed military coup last year which saw wide-spread purging of perceived and real enemies from different institutions and terrorist attacks carried out by Kurdistan separatist and ISIS affiliated groups.

Since then the long shadow of the state hasn’t retreated.

BJP came to power with the promise of change – change from the corruption, incompetency, leaderlessness and an economic stagnation which had characterized the Congress led UPA 2 (United Progressive Alliance). And indeed BJP has been able to deliver change on several fronts. The economy is doing better but how much of it is due to BJP’s performance is uncertain because the party has not had a long shot at power unlike AKP. It has taken bold decisions involving several areas – some of which mayn’t have had the intended impact and some may make their impact felt in longer term.

Its biggest impact has been on how the country discusses matters related to politics and other issues of public interest. On every matter there seems to be a division from the middle – whether it’s religion, the army, security, food, on everything the nation is divided into two camps, pro national and anti-national. The same moral certitude informs the stand people take on any issue involving moral ambiguity, corruption and media collusion (certain sections of the media generally presenting balanced view of things are targeted for being antinational and sections of media presenting a pro-government view of things in an unabashed manner are being hailed). A simplistic certainty on everything seems to have gripped the country.

The stridency of the ruling party and their fellow companions has helped them counter the backlash they faced from the intelligentsia (both pseudo and real) after coming to power. But the same stridency is not helping them handle problems that require a softer approach.

Like there has been a spurt of violence from the Kurdish groups after Erdogan’s ascendance, the Kashmir problem in India seems to be getting more complicated – and the reason why the government is not able to try out softer options, like engaging with moderate separatist voices within the valley, is that doing so will not square up with hyper nationalism which the government has come to be associated with. This may lead to the cornering of the moderate voices allowing the movement in Kashmir to acquire a religious colour.

Reading the social media reactions to a changing Turkey, Turkey is also going through a similar experience.