Category Archives: Politics

#Republic Launches

Political discourse in India today revolves around a single question: Are you a Liberal or a Right Winger? There doesn’t seem to be room for much else lately. You’re either a liberal who stands for equality and social justice or a “Bhakt” who cannot uncouple himself from India’s past. The Marxist or the Hindutva-vadi. The atheist or the Gau Rakshak. Nationalist or “Paki-lover”. 

The difference between the two groups seems to stem from a single root cause – the identity of India. Liberals tend to view India as a single forcibly united political entity that emerged from colonial rule seventy years ago. The Right typically considers India to be a more complex historical entity – almost a person – several millennia old and defined by the banner of Hindu thought and civilization. Liberals seem to view the creation of India the political entity as a way to escape the past and keep up with the times. Keeping up is defined by Western ideals, we shall soon see. Right Wingers view the same event of independence as an opportunity to finally reclaim our identity after centuries of foreign rule. Both Islamic conquerers and European colonizers come under this umbrella.

Pseudo-Liberal India (we lack true liberals) would be built on the politics of appeasement. Shah Bhano, Mandal Commission, caste based reservations, and a general brushing aside of pre-Islamic history have happened in the past and worse will happen if we let it. This brand of politics will never allow Uniform Civil code to happen. It will focus on fracturing India along as many fault lines as possible in order to capture votes. Lalu Yadav, Mayawati, the Left and even the Dravidian parties are examples of this school of thought. 

Tired of watching the rest of the world (read China) speed by, the Great Indian Middle Class voted for Change. What is Change? Change is Hindutva. Let us classify the history of India into two time periods – pre and post “invaders”. Now let’s regard anything succeeding the raids of invaders as an aberration whose effects must be erased. Hindu thought and philosophy, ancient literature and art must rule supreme. Out with PK and in with Bahubali. Out with NDTV. In with Republic. Out with Unilever. In with Patanjali.

The perfect example of the ridiculous fight we’re witnessing is in our approach to Yoga and Ayurveda. Every time a Western journal publishes something that validates traditional Indian healing, both sides are up in arms. The Right claims “India knew it all along”. The Left wants to buy the repackaged “scientific” truth and ridicules the traditionalists as blind followers. Both miss the point. Scientific validation of traditional systems is not bad. We need to learn why and how things work. That said, we can’t simply reject centuries old empirical truths just because we lack understanding (which is either lost or non-existent). Instead, India should be at the forefront of research into what works in Ayurveda and why.

Here’s the truth. Just as we cannot seek to erase a cultural identity several millennia old, we cannot erase the truths of colonization however much it may hurt our pride to not do so. Every colonizer leaves an imprint and no matter how much Subramanyam Swami wishes it, one cannot deny that a mosque once stood in Ayodhya too. We can’t do away with Cricket or the English language or the Gazal or Hindustani. We need to learn to make peace with history.

What we are living through is a giant tussle for the reset button that will shape the future of our country. It doesn’t matter which side wins, we all lose. Meanwhile, there is Republic.


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An Idiot’s Guide to dealing with the latest news cycle controversy #Gurmeher

The script is simple. There is hate-speech or borderline hate speech designed to provoke hyper-nationalists. There is a facade for liberals to hide behind – freedom of expression, oppression of minorities, dalit rights, animal rights and so on*. There is a highly publicized clash with violence and death threats which is then covered liberally by the news media. If you’re lucky, the face of the controversy might even be from an oppressed group! Finally, there’s a huge ruckus ending with a highly polarized prime-time debate and then poof! the next thing you know, that’s all anyone wants to talk about at lunch and you are expected to have an opinion.

Source: Firstpost

You have a career, family, project deadlines, tax deadlines, aphids attacking your hibiscus, and other assorted worries preventing you from getting the facts, you say? Who the f*** is Gurmeher you ask? Fear not! Use this guide to appear knowledgeable about any issue facing Indian politics at all without reading a single tweet or article.

Step One: Pick an Angle
If you’re  a woman, that’s easy. Pick the feminist angle whether or not it’s relevant to the case at hand. There is bound to be some woman being trolled with threats of sexual assault as is the norm in our country. Support her. In this case, call out the trolls issuing rape threats in response to her posts.

The tricky part in this step is suppressing your conscience.  For example, you might have some moral qualms about the general hypocrisy of supporting dalit rights when you use the phrase “reservation candidate” in a condescending tone. Suppress them. Over time you’ll perfect the art of double-think just as our news media has.

Step Two: Pick a Persona
Stephen Colbert had it right when he created that guy. My personal preferences are “rational truth seeker” and “feminist”. If I were to play “rational truth seeker”, for example, I would ask questions like, “How do we know the outsiders entering Ramjas college were actually ABVP activists? It’s possible that someone paid goons to beat people up and claim to be ABVP, no?” and if I were to pick the feminist persona, I would write articles such as these.

The risk here is that you may sound slightly deranged and over the top. The best way to avoid doing so is to just ask random rhetorical questions. Try these stock phrases: “Are we sure of the facts?” or “Women always bear the brunt in all conflicts in our country” or even “Sigh! There’s so much stupidity, I don’t even know where to begin analyzing!”

Step Three: Deny All Other Angles
Stop up your ears should you chance upon an idiot trying to make a nuanced argument. One good idea would be to quote celebrities and politicians liberally. Javed Akhtar and Aamir Khan are usually good bets. Kiren Rijiju is usually highly quotable also.

The biggest risk here is of course accidentally seeing an issue in grey instead of black and white. If this is to happen, immediately switch to a prime-time debate on TV.

Step Four: Polish
This is where our Right Wing is at a serious disadvantage. While both sides excel at idiocy in our country, our Right Wingers lose out by resorting to crude stereotypes of hyper-nationalism and Hindu Chauvinism instead of presenting a more polished image. Liberals on the other hand, tend to spin stories better. They also tend to poke gentle fun of their thinner skinned, boorish brothers and sisters and try to educate them how “civilized” discourse should take place.  How interesting that hate speech is “just words” but violence arising from said hate speech is “uncivilized”*.

Take Shashi Tharoor for instance. This argument is no more nuanced than Virender Sehwag’s. The gist of the article linked above is, “Be nice to a twenty year old expressing political opinions because she’s a twenty year old expressing political opinions”. Forget the premise for a moment. Notice the gentle condescension in Tharoor’s tone? Notice the subtle reminder to Veeru how valuable an education is? See how he helpfully sets out his argument in paragraphs? Shasi Tharoor is mansplaining, albeit to another man.

On the other hand, look at posts by Shefali Vaidya – a more coherent Right Winger. She’s too blunt. She directly attacks main stream media. She does not ask us to introspect or question society or even remind us what civil discourse is about. She simply tries to call out what she feels is bullshit. From an aesthetic perspective, which persona do you prefer?

I digress. This is meant to be an actionable guide. So, if you’re a Liberal, play to your strengths. If you choose to disagree with mainstream media don’t forget to prefix every other sentence with, “I am not Right Wing but…” You do not want to be associated with an “illiterate cricketer” with humble middle-class roots or a “wrestler troll” worse, a TV actress turned politician. Do you?

Step Five: Sob quietly at night while watching your child sleep 
While this cheat sheet will help you survive, it will not change the reality of the world we live in. It’s ok to cry when you think about the world you’ve brought a child into. In fact, given that we live in a world where hate speech is conjured to feed news cycles every time there are elections and violence unfailingly follows, I strongly encourage it.


* All worthy causes in their own right deserving more respect than our news cycles give them

 


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#RIPAmma – What Amma meant to people

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

On 13th May, 2011, with the rumble of the crackers celebrating Amma’s victory serving as the background score, The Hero and I sat outside the IIT Madras guest house after dinner, weighed our options and spontaneously decided to move to Chennai.

“A kick-ass female C.M., a winning IPL team and filter coffee. What more do we want to be happy?”, I joked. We moved to Chennai for good in September and Amma has been part of my life since.

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Three years later at the peak of the Modi wave my first ever vote went to Amma . I chose to vote for Amma not because I wasn’t sure of Modi (topic for a different post) but because in a country swept away in an obsession for one man, and an opposition in ruins, I put my faith in Amma to oppose him if needed. Turns out that a lot of others did the same resulting in the AIADMK picking up 37 Lok Sabha seats in one state compared to the INC’s 44 across the country. That was Amma for you. I couldn’t find it in my conscience to vote for her again after the administrative mismanagement of the Chennai floods but there was no viable alternative really, and she was back again.

Why did people love her so much? I have just two stories to tell. One is my former cook’s, the other my former maid’s. Both these women were BPL, uneducated and divorced. As divorcees they received a stipend of a couple of thousand rupees a month. This subsidy, my maid later told me, acted as an incentive for some women to legally divorce their abusive husbands as opposed to just living separately from them.

My cook’s daughter was a reasonably bright student. When she got an admission into a good college she accepted a gift of some of my lightly worn clothes but not of my lightly used laptop – Amma had given her one of her own.

My maid’s son, similarly, refused a new backpack for school when I offered him one. Amma had given him one of his own. With some help from me and subsidies from Amma, he got a decent push for education.

Freebies like griders, mixies, fans, and TV’s allowed my maid and cook to enjoy a reasonably comfortable middle-class lifestyle. They are not cash rich, neither will they likely ever be. But they felt empowered to use the machines they saw in the homes they worked in.

It wasn’t just the women, my fruit seller and I once joked about the fact that even his pen was Amma branded. He sheepishly admitted that he got the bright white dhoti he was wearing as a gift for attending one of the numerous rallies held across the city.

A lot of cab drivers have told me how they eat at Amma canteen. Amma canteens provide not just subsidized food but also dignified employment to women. P told me how their family’s maid quit domestic work to serve food in an Amma canteen instead.

It didn’t end with freebies and food. My cook used to buy vegetables and medicines for her arthritis at Amma stores. My maid used to get a bunch of other freebies using her BPL ration card. All in all, they were happy and they kept voting for Amma. Contrary to what some might believe, the subsidies didn’t make them “lazy”, they helped supplement the family income.

Of course the AIADMK cadre’s obsession with branding came at a cost. People were disgusted when volunteers during last year’s flood were not allowed to distribute supplies without slapping on an Amma sticker first. But that’s besides the point. The point is, the impact of these subsidies was very real for many people – mostly women. It’s easy for me with all my advantages of education and employment to judge the laptops and mixies being distributed as luxuries. But to the women who received them they were necessities.

Here’s some very creative accounting to put the numbers in perspective. The best estimate I can dig up for the freebies is INR 5,600 crore in the 2015 state budget. Even if that were doubled to about INR 12,000 crore to count all subsidies, compare that with the income generated by TASMAC (state controlled liquor stores) – around INR 16,000 crore in 2015-16. So in effect what Amma did was transform the revenue generated from alcoholic husbands into freebies for their (oft-abused) wives and daughters. At least that’s how the two women who worked in my house saw it.

I haven’t made up my mind yet whether subsidies and freebies are good or bad but it’s worth noting that when the Nordic countries implement elaborate state funded programs we ooh and aah over them and share the story of why Sweden is special on Facebook.

Subsidies are not the only reason people loved Amma, of course. She was intelligent, articulate, an iconoclast, and an inspiration. Her courage and determination are legendary. I miss her too.


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