Sunday, December 28, 2008

Champion of our Hearts

The recent shenanigans by our politicians, most notably Minority Affairs Minister A R Antulay and BJP leaders asking for his resignation, only suggests that tea stall opinions about our political class hold water. At a time like this, when the whole nation is willing to stand behind our netas and support them in whatever hard decisions needed to be made, they simply cannot find it in themselves to show any sense of purpose in their political discourse or even the barest levels of civility. It truly is demoralizing. No wonder then that for years together now, no politician figures in any list of Indians of the Year, drawn up by the various media outlets.

However one man who does figure routinely is Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. The little maestro has consistently done himself and his nation proud for nearly two decades. And yet our appreciation for his efforts and his astounding decency has not been anywhere near as consistent as he has been on the field. An incident that happened while I was watching the final overs of the recent test match against England at Chennai illustrates aptly what I am trying to say. While the match was heading towards a famous Indian victory a small crowd had gathered around the television in the lobby where we were watching the match. Inevitably to a man/woman everyone wanted to see if Sachin would manage to score yet another century. However the reactions varied between “Even if India loses from here I hope Sachin scores a century” to “Whether or not India wins, Sachin will ensure that he scores a century”!!

There is a very curious dichotomy in the way Tendulkar affects the average Indian. All of us love him and yet somehow quite a few of us also hate him at the same time. This curious canard about a selfish man who plays for personal glory and his place in the record books should simply not be entertained. Any attempt to use his statistics to prove the man’s ability or his dedication is akin to holding a candle to the sun. To put it simply, Sachin Tendulkar is a champion. He has proved his mettle time and again on the field and is accepted as a legend among his peers. And he has lived his life, under unmatched scrutiny, with the utmost humility and dignity.

His efforts in the recent Chennai test illustrate his dedication to his team and to his  nation. It was apparent to anyone watching how much this victory meant to him and also how clearly he understood what it would mean to a grieving nation. With this match-winning century he not only exorcised the trauma of the loss to Pakistan at the same ground in ’99, but also staked his claim to a title that should rightly have been his ages ago. In a cricket obsessed nation, he truly is the Champion of our hearts.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happily ever after?

If we stop to think about it, the story of India and Pakistan seems like it came from the mind of a Bollywood  scriptwriter. It’s the classic tale of twins separated at birth and yet eternally intertwined by Fate. All the usual scripting devices can be found in this story. One brother, after having to go through various trials and tribulations finally gets on the road to success and the other brother just sinks deeper and deeper into a moral and financial abyss. 
In this case of course, India would be the first brother and Pakistan the second. At the time of independence not many pundits had given either country much chance at long-term survival let alone any hope of peaceful democratic governance. And while Pakistan has had to suffer repeated cycles of military rule interrupted by gasps of inefficient democracy, India has somehow managed to hold on to the path set out in 1947, aberrations like the Emergency notwithstanding. This is not to suggest that democracy in India is a model of perfection. Far from it, we have shown in our own way that we can manage to mangle and corrupt even such a noble idea as governance by the people, of the people and for the people. But somehow we’ve still shown the good sense to stick with the plan. Somehow, as a country we have managed to shake off the post-colonial mindset, break free of our own bureaucratic shackles and begin to assert ourselves with a confidence not seen before. All the while Pakistan has lurched from one disastrous government to the next. The latest experiment in democracy in Pakistan was held with a lot of hope and goodwill and not just in Pakistan but over here in India as well. But the reins of power in that country are just too firmly held by the ISI/Military nexus for the civilian government to make any meaningful departure from the past. This has also brought Pakistan to the edge of economic meltdown and it is only kept afloat by handouts from the USA and other western institutions. 
All of this brings us back to our Bollywood analogy. Around this time in our typical Hindi movie, the richer successful brother will reach out to help his prodigal sibling. After having seen the error in his ways and following a tearful and melodramatic reunion, they will join forces to beat up the bad guys and live happily ever after. So is this possible in real life with India and Pakistan? 
I bring this up in reference to an editorial  in The Hindu by Sarfraz Manzoor (Mumbai shows partition was a tragic mistake..Dec16 2008). He makes a passionate case for unity and says that what is different is so much less than what is shared. This is completely true and its very difficult to disagree with him. However this view is largely held by the intellectual elite in Pakistan, by the kind of people who show up for cross border cultural exchanges. Not the common man on the street and definitely not the conservative mullahs in Pakistan’s tribal northwest. The truth is that most Pakistanis have been brought up on a steady diet of hate for India. It is part of the upbringing of the average Pakistani and is even part of the curriculum. The history lessons taught in schools are distorted and do not present the kind of picture that may cause a schoolboy to pause and ponder the similarities.
The point in all this is, that Pakistan simply is not mentally ready for peace with India. Media reports suggesting that Pakistanis called in to their local news networks saying Mumbai was a much deserved comeuppance for India bear this out. However, India should still play that role of the more successful brother who reaches out. Because it is simply not in out national interest to see Pakistan go up in its own internal conflagrations. A stable democratic Pakistan with a reined in army and disbanded ISI is what India should work for. Only then can we look forward to a happily ever after.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Still waiting...

Nearly two weeks after the worst terrorist attack on Indian soil, our Government is still trying to decide on an appropriate response to the attack. After the initial shock wore off, our leaders realized that the public’s anger demand some sort of response. What that response should be no one seems to know. So what has the Government/political class done so far? 
We’ve had the worst type political opportunism from the likes of Narendra Modi. Others have come up with statements condemning the attacks, and depending on their political inclination, blaming or pledging support to the Government. The usual statements blaming Pakistan have been issued, only this time they are a bit more nuanced and do not directly blame the Government there.  As usual, our leaders have turned to the US to fight our battles for us, supposedly as part of a diplomatic initiative. And finally, the United Nations has been approached, purportedly to involve the global community in our fight against terror. 
Contrary to claims by the new Home Minister that this time it wont be “business as usual”, none of these moves will do anything to make us any safer. However, there have been unprecedented responses which need to be mentioned. The PM has apologized to the nation for his Government’s failure to prevent the attacks, though this is more a testament to Manmohan Singh’s innate decency than any admission of guilt by the establishment. Also, Parliament has issued a unanimous resolution condemning the attacks and pledging to do all that is necessary to protect us. The last time our leaders were so united, was when they voted to give themselves a raise and added perks.
So what else can our Government do under these circumstances? Definitely any escalation of tensions at the border with Pakistan should be avoided and to fall into that trap would only add to sense of victory that those behind the attacks feel right now. However, calls from the American government and media for restraint from India is ridiculously hypocritical. Expecting the US to help us put pressure on Pakistan is simply being na├»ve. We should know from past experiences that the Americans do anything at all keeping only their national interests in mind. And right now their interest lies in keeping Pakistani troops involved along the Afghanistan border. So aside from strong statements condemning terror and supporting the people of India from President Bush and Secretary Rice, which make for good headlines, we cannot expect anything from the US.  The UN is the other big part of our Government’s grand diplomatic initiative. The last decade has shown the United Nations to be a toothless organization where leaders meet to talk and play to galleries back home. With its distorted power structure and dependency on western countries for funding, the UN in its current state is hardly relevant in the global scheme of things. Besides, we still haven’t recovered from the fallout of our last approach to the UN for help. That was in 1948 and the issue was Kashmir. 
The government should ideally be pushing the US and all other global institutions to cut aid to Pakistan and to ensure that whatever aid does go is not diverted to the military/ISI apparatus. Seeing that President Zardari’s government already has its hands tied behind its back. Such a move might provide the necessary stimulus to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. But again all of these moves do not make us any safer in our cities or towns. The government has been deafeningly silent on the promised overhaul of our intelligence gathering apparatus, our disaster response strategy or our police force. What we as citizens demand of our Government is greater transparency and accountability in its response to this tragedy. As a start maybe the government can drastically cut down on the number of police and NSG personnel currently guarding VIPs and divert those forces to the more important job of protecting society at large. But would that be expecting too much of our netas? The nation is waiting and watching.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An Indian Obama??!!

The recent events in Mumbai have completely exposed the total disconnect of our political class. Neta after neta has managed to infuriate an already enraged society. From Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s “lipstick” comment to R R Patil’s SRKesque punch line, politicians of every hue have been providing us with insight into how little they understand the pulse of the common man. Former Maharashtra CM Deshmukh’s tour of the Taj hotel with director Ram Gopal Verma can actually be explained away as silly and pales in comparison to Kerala CM Achuthananthan’s arrogance in dealing with Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s grieving family. Raj Thackeray strangely has not had any comments to make about the fact that it was “outsiders” who ended up sacrificing their lives protecting amchi Mumbai.
That our politicians are a corrupt self serving lot is not a new discovery. What is new this time though, is the blatant disregard these netas have shown to the common man’s distress and anger at the Mumbai terror attacks and its handling so far. So why are our netas so crass and arrogant? Why is it that they don’t really care how they are perceived by society? Why is it that they behave like they can get away with anything? 
Because they can. Or almost anything. Case in point, our former Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. This is a man who lost the election to the Lok Sabha from Latur.  That he somehow still became an MP and was further made cabinet minister with the all important Home portfolio is a slap in the face of democracy. Furthermore, his dumbfounding incompetence was repeatedly ignored, as were repeated calls for his removal from the Home ministry. All because he was considered a loyalist to the Gandhi family. And herein lies the answer to our question.
Our netas are so arrogant and conceited in their dealings with Joe public because they don’t owe their allegiance to us. They owe their position and power all to the Party. The Party decides who gets a ticket. The Party decides who gets to be Rajya Sabha MP. The Party decides who gets to be a minister. The Party decides who goes into what committee, who goes in this foreign fact finding mission, who gets the boot and who’s handed the keys to the safe. In our parliamentary system, we’ve ended up making the political party the masters of our politicians and as a result the masters of our nation’s future. Examples of how bad things have become are way too many to enlist and include every single political party in India. The Congress led riots in 1984, BJP in 1992 and 2002, the Communists giving outside support to the current UPA government, the SP or BSP whenever they came to power in UP, the JD(S) in Karnataka till their government fell; every single time these parties chose to interpret the public sentiment in a manner that suited their interests and gave two hoots to what people really wanted. And what we want is change. Dare we say it, CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN?
Barack Obama’s election to the White House has galvanized a whole generation worldwide. Young people everywhere are more willing to believe that YES WE CAN. But here in India, can we really believe? Even in the US, Obama’s election is nothing short of a miracle. Here with our entrenched party system and political dynasties any fresh faced kid seeking to change the system is more likely to bite the dust or even worse, get incorporated into the system. But there are things we as voters can try and do. We can make sure we get out and vote. Not doing so only empowers those who are already part of the system. When we do get out to vote, we should avoid voting for anyone who has a reputation as a party loyalist, because we can be sure they will be working not with our interests in mind, but to please their political masters. And we must vote for whoever we think is best for our country, not for whoever belongs to our caste or community. Ultimately we only have ourselves to blame for letting things become so bad. We have allowed ourselves to be easily swayed by narrow self serving rhetoric. To paraphrase Gandhiji, we must become the change we want to see in our political class. Maybe then we can start hoping for an Indian Obama.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

CARPE DIEM!!

Mumbai has finally been recaptured!! 
This nation grieves with the families of those who lost their loved ones to this dastardly attack. As one, we also salute the bravery of our men in uniform who risked life and limb so that we may go back to our comfortable lives. You truly are the pride of our nation.
But very often this is where things stop. We mourn our dead, praise our soldiers, maybe sit around coffee tables and lambaste our politicians and then forget all the hue and cry and go back to our daily grind. The same sequence of events has played out over and over with every previous attack on our soil. We must not let the deaths of so many go unanswered, we must not let their sacrifices go to waste. This country must now finally free itself of its cocoon of complacency. The time to act is now.
India is on the cusp of unparalleled economic development. We are a nation waiting in the wings to take our rightful place on the global high table, an aspiring superpower. And yet, we cannot guarantee the safety of our people within our borders. Somehow, the size of our country and the 
sheer number of people keep us from realizing that whats happened in Mumbai today might happen in Chennai or Chandigarh tomorrow. Or even if something does happen, as a people we have always been ready to take whatever life throws our way. Yeh India hai, yahan sab chalta hai. 
But that attitude has to stop now. We have to demand solid evidence and definitive actions from our leaders. As usual, we hear news reports of how "hard evidence" points to Pakistani involvement. Well, the citizens of this country must be privy to that information. We cannot and must not accept the usual "its our neighbour's fault" excuse. Heightened security measures at public places is an inconvenience the average Indian is willing to bear. But it must be backed by political will to act decisively against terrorists, an effective intelligence gathering system and most importantly well-equipped and trained personnel to put into effect an effective counter-terrorism strategy. This is the need of the hour. Polticians acting to make electoral gains out of this tragedy are insulting the memory of the martyrs and the average voters' intelligence. 
Any suggestions that its simply impossible to prevent a motivated terrorist willing to risk his life should not be accepted. Both the US and the UK have had a near 100% record in prevention of attacks since 9/11 and 7/7 respectively. And both these countries are as big a target for terrorists as India is.
But we cannot just stop at demanding actions from our leaders. Past experience has shown that our leaders look out for themselves in the aftermath of every national tragedy (but thats a whole other blog). As citizens we must become more self aware. We must realize that terror has no religion. Our judgement of the events in Mumbai must not be coloured by communal prejudice or nationalist fervour. Its time to start thinking of ourselves as Indians first and whatever else we are as secondary. Its time to organize our communities, to watch for suspicious activities and to report these. What we choose to ignore today might just come back to haunt us tomorrow. Its time to sieze this moment, sieze the day. Carpe diem.