Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Present and Future of Indian Politics

As a child, I had the unique fortune of living in a township adjacent to a village, witnessing the simple lives that majority of Indians lead. There were two predominant sources of employment for the community – agriculture and the township’s factory. There were two temples and a mosque in the village and there were varied castes living in the community. There were just two schools where children from all walks of life went and interacted with each other. There was one hospital in the township that catered to the needs of all the people in the vicinity. It was a harmonious existence and the child in me thought that the world was as peaceful as our rural community.

The normal and mundane life of the little village was interrupted on very few occasions. The most vivid memories that I have of such events are of the visits of passing by politicians, stopping to use the guest accommodations of the factory. Those visits were like weddings – the cooks were busy preparing delicacies, security staff shunted around ensuring decorum and safety, flower arrangements adorned the guest house building and all senior factory officials with their wives were in attendance. The drama made no sense to me and the importance of the visiting Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers and Home Ministers etc. escaped my eight year old brain. They might have been important people but never struck me as intelligent and powerful office holders.

Gifted and authoritative to me were the collectors and the other Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officers, who visited our township and held intense discussions over rather normal meals, without elaborate displays. Despite the humour and light conversation, ironically the lack of fanfare to me was an indication of the respect that they commanded. That they interacted effortlessly and directly with all the inhabitants of the rural community made them real and humane. These were the people, who I thought, really cared about the community. Reality struck gradually as I grew up and moved out of that little cocoon in to the real world. Today, having lived in a number of Indian cities and abroad, I definitely have a wider perspective.

The upcoming 2009 elections, however, have refreshed my memories and I am forced to think that maybe my child brain was correct to a large extent. The political leadership in India is indeed about self promotion and self profit. There is mass exploitation of people’s sentiments, with all promises made at the beginning and none even remotely fulfilled at the end of the ministerial tenure. Take the example of the local candidates in the holy city of Tirupati. They are busy distributing gold coins worth INR 3,000, with Lord Balaji embossed on them, to the public. The aim is to use the religious sentiments of the populace to strengthen the vote bank! Or take the example of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena chief, who tried to use ethnicity as a trump card, stating that the financial capital of India should be foremost for the indigenous people of the state. I cannot remember reading of any promises made whatsoever; however, there is enough evidence to suggest that this very party, fighting for the rights of the local people, has been conspicuous in its absence post the November attacks on Mumbai. There was no help extended by the party during or after the crisis. All the bravado and valour of the party members were and are being used against innocent civilians but none against any perpetrator violating the peace and development of their very own city!

Why is it that Indian politicians need to resort to sentiment exploitation to enrich their vote banks? One reason is a lack of inspirational leaders who can motivate either by example or by oratory skills. Thus the simplest way to incite the crowd is to inflame emotions leading to mass following. Communal politics seems to be the lowest hanging fruit to encash upon. Even in the current elections, the struggling heir of the grand old Indian political family has used religious hatred to garner support. Sad that an educated youth leader would resort to these tactics.

However sad the truth maybe, it is to quite a degree due to the second pillar supporting sectarian politics in India. The most active participants in the country’s politics are the poor and the uneducated. These people, desperately craving a change, are willing to believe anyone who brings the slightest of glimmer of hope. The urban educated middle class, upper middle class and the elite are the weakest link in the democratic setup of the country. These individuals with the wherewithal should not only be active participants but also proponents of civil rights and civic duties. However, these are the very people who encourage corruption and chaos by attempting the short routes to meet their aims. In the garb of having no capable candidate to vote for, they remain completely detached from elections, preventing any weeding out of the most undeserving candidates.

Indian businesses and lobby groups are also culpable in this propaganda. It is true that businesses cannot survive without lobbying as politicians do not make it easy for them. However, if the country’s revenue generators were to take a tough stand against parliamentary wrongdoings, then the sheer lack of economic gains would bring discipline in Indian politics.

The picture is not as gloomy as I portray it to be. The November attacks on Mumbai seem to have played the role of a catalyst in awakening the youth and the able. There is an entry of the upper middle class and elite into politics; key examples being Meera Sanyal (a banker) and Captain Gopinath (a retired Indian Army soldier and an entrepreneur). They might be just two individuals, however, even if they can inspire 200,000 youth it will be a start. The silver lining in the cloud is that these individuals are not attaching themselves to any political party but contesting as independents. This implies that they really aim of doing the right things, in the right way, for the people. Indian political leadership is also not completely devoid of able leadership. There are individuals of mettle such as Sri Arun Shourie, the former disinvestment minister of India. A learned economist and a passionate advocate of his beliefs, he is truly an inspiration. However, such credible names are few and far in between.

There is a ray of hope of change and it is the educated youth who can turn this dream into a reality. I do hope that youth in India recognise their importance and play their role judiciously. The American youth ensured that Obama took helm not just as the first ever African-American president of the United States of America, but also as the voice of the country’s future. Similarly, I hope that Indian youth will see party politics for what it is and start the process of weeding out the most undeserving players from our political arena. It is not realistic to hope for a complete turn around in these elections, however, it is practical to desire the beginning of a new era –an era which once again witnesses the educated and the aware framing the country’s law and policies, leading the country by example and shaping our young nation as a global power of reckoning. It is now over to the educated and able India, it is over to you.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The "jugaad" of Indians

There are a number of descriptions of India – hub of outsourcing, the land of the mystic, ancient culture and civilization etc. Depending on the seeker and the descriptor, the portrayal changes from one view to the next. However, to date I have not come across a single phrase or word that describes the contemporary Indian; the individual whose existence creates this country. For a long time I had been searching for this identity, till it suddenly dawned on me that the ideal description for all Indians is the simple Hindi word of “jugaad”. Loosely this can be translated into English as an “uncoordinated temporary solution”.

From the farmer living a hand to mouth existence to the vegetable vendor in Mumbai, the poor are all doing a jugaad for their next meal. The meagre salary earning drivers and domestic help are occupied with the jugaad of sending their children to school. Whether this translates into a loan from their employers or into multiple jobs a day, very few solutions are sustainable. The middle class is constantly engaged in the jugaad of earning more money and buying that new car or flat. Then even if it means approaching a bank for an unaffordable EMI loan or a stock market broker for a lottery winning stock tip, it’s all to take the shortest route to the top. Finally it’s the rich. They are constantly in search of the next jugaad to save on the upcoming tax liability.

At some point I think that corporate India is no different. Every company is doing some jugaad or the other – finding loopholes in policies, saving taxes, understaffing to curtail costs or finding a link in the old boys’ network to get away with non compliance of laws. The crown prince of all jugaad in India is the nation’s political system, with every politician (and political party) doing everything s/he can to win the next election; even if it means representing a different party (or alliance) in every consecutive election. Jugaad seems to have broken all barriers of religion, cast and creed to become an all pervasive identity.

The presence of jugaad, however, by no means indicates lack of enthusiasm or energy to work. In fact ask any Indian if something can be done and most often the reply is yes. The problem is that while the yes is said first, the how, which will implement the yes is not thought of until much later. In the absence of having thought through this how, the path leading to the solution becomes clumsy and messy, causing more accidents than needed.

Able thought leadership can very effectively and efficiently rid us of this identity, which while making us hard working also makes us less productive. According to Sanjeev Sanyal, the author of “the Indian Renaissance”, it is the decline in intellectual guidance and tactics that led to the decline of India in 1800s, much before the colonial rule took root. But history has proven that this thought leadership has not eroded from the country – Gandhi gave birth to one and India gained independence, Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh devised another and India started on the path to economic prosperity. Maybe it is time now for a new thought leadership to emerge to re-establish the lost glory of the Golden Eagle.

For this to emerge it is the educated youth, the professional with some financial backing who will need to take the lead. Can we do it? Yes! How? Let’s think about it today.