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In India, the political is everywhere, the space for the neutral has shrunk

Everything is political in India right now. Simple pleasures are tinged with the political. Conversations, amplified and intermingled with digital social interactions, are no longer linear but imbued with multiple meanings. For instance, I befriend someone I nod at on my regular evening walks. I think this person is nice. We become Facebook friends. On FB, I find this personal has a radically opposing political stand than mine. Our evening conversations become strained. I am no longer able to separate the political from the personal. I’m suspicious about a (probably) innocent comment by the said friend about her house help’s ethnicity, for instance. I’m questioning her motivations even as I nod and listen to her. Mentally, I’m wondering if I should change my walking routine!

I’m sure this has happened to many of my friends in India. This inability to separate what used to be separate worlds for many of us middle class folks has brought an element of stress into everyday life.

This is to be expected. The spectacular rise of the BJP on the back of Modi’s popularity is rewriting the script for how we live our lives. The political thinking of our parents’ generation was dominated by post-Independence thinking and the enormous footprint of the Congress party (whether they were supporters or opposers). Young folks today are looking for change and novelty. They are accepting that the BJP is here to stay and falling in line with its new script.

For folks like me, in their 40s with a political sensibility that is part-old and part-recent, these are confusing times. Personally, I am well aware of the dangers of echo chambers. As a researcher, the easy trap of preaching to the converted is something we discuss all the time. I am used to analyzing my own speech, writing, behaviour and I put everything under the scanner.

Even so, I am deeply uncomfortable about this point we seem to have reached, when facts are junked almost entirely and we seem consumed by the political narrative. We forget that it is change driven by evidence that will eventually drive policy, innovation and investment, the factors we need to evolve, become economically stronger and deliver a better life for India’s people.

As Kaushik Basu points out in his recent piece Look at the facts of demonetisation, Modi’s ‘master stroke’ is a perfect example of a move that has been a total failure in its own stated objectives, but yet touted repeatedly as a success by a political establishment that seems to have simply erased the word failure from its vocabulary. I would be perfectly ok if they said something like: We tried our best. It did not work out as planned. I would be happy to admire the immense boldness of the move if the analysis of its outcomes were honest.

But the politics of today does not allow me to take a nuanced position. It does not allow me to be neutral if I am not also silent. For example, the critique of demonetisation offered by my colleagues and me (read our two opinion pieces here and here and listen to our podcast here), for instance, was read by several as anti-Modi anti-BJP rather than an honest analysis of what we observed in our research. Those who engaged with the content were rarely our critics, but there were many who judged us by the titles of what we wrote. There were those who refused to engage, insisting on slotting us into a particular narrow political spectrum.

Why is it that we have become so averse to complexity? Why does everything now have to be black or white, yes or no, aar ya paar? For a nation full of fence sitters, why is being politically non-aligned, or simply cautious, now a cardinal sin?

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Mr Modi, the critics are the ones you should be talking to

It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China‚Äôs senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”

This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?

Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.

Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.

For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.

Random musings on #politics #youth and #citizenship

I haven’t opined on Indian politics for a while. To tell you the truth, I’ve been ruminating, taking it all in. And here are some randomly picked thoughts from the thousands that buzz around my head.

#1 Let’s stop comparing AAP’s Delhi election win with the 2014 general elections!

I’m really tired of the over-analysis, the conspiracy theories and the general building up of expectations. The truth is that any new government will take time to settle and move forward. And really, can we compare Delhi’s politics with India’s? My quick thoughts: The AAP win is a good jolt for the BJP and hopefully has sent them scrambling to their desks to actually bring out the many policies that are “being worked on” at this time. For AAP, my big question is: Is there a method to Kejriwal’s politics or is it a case of learning to swim so you don’t drown! I’m hopeful, but given his huge mandate, I’m afraid citizens will have to play the triple role of whistleblower, class monitor and audience-giving-polite-applause! Not something we’re used to doing really!

#2 Young people’s politics is confusing and their apathy disappointing

I’m constantly apalled at the strong streak of conservatism among the young today. On Valentine’s Day, I met a young neighbour and asked after her V-Day plans. She didn’t have any. And what’s more, she told me her parents were devastated and upset about her being single and not so ready to mingle! Survey after survey of youth in India have pointed towards a tendency to support the status quo. The Yuva Nagarik Meter survey brought out in Jan 2015 showed these disturbing trends among Indian youth, trends that are consistent with other surveys in recent years:

  • Youth are ignorant about basic civic issues like democracy, rule of law and human rights
  • They are dimly aware of citizenship: “Only 35 percent of high school students consider themselves citizens of India. Nearly three fourth do not know that the legislature is responsible for enacting laws,” as per a Huffington post report
  • They have internalised stereotypes on gender and social justice- 50% are intolerant of migrant workers from other states, many believe that “household help do not have the right to demand minimum wages”

#3 Youth apathy combined with high expectations impacts poll results

I’m not surprised therefore, that we are seeing more absolute mandates than before when elections happen. I think young people are impatient for change but might not really want a radical rethink of positions. Also, they (and it’s not just the young) are given to pass quick judgements and move on if their expectations are not met.

#4 How much does your politics alter your perceptions?

I’m not a BJP supporter and certainly not overawed by the PM’s rangeela personality and flavourful brand of politics. I have a number of friends who are in the opposite camp as well. Many of these left-leaning friends of mine have been upset about something. They claim that previously ‘moderate’ friends who voted for Modi on the plank of development must speak out against the BJP’s divisive politics. There’s a fair amount of hurt going around and the PM’s very recent press statements on religious freedom will, I suspect, add flame to the fire rather than settle things down.

I’ve been arguing with the moderates and leftists among my friends, who tend to shout down anything Modi says or does, on the need to give a fair hearing to the positions brought forth by the current government. Critique them by all means (if possible, constructively), but being obstinately obstructive might not really help! And I’ve been trying hard to follow my own instincts, that tell me that an unconsidered extremist position is a bad one, whether your politics is conservative or liberal is besides the point.

Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

The elephant in the room: Will/Can the BJP address environmental concerns?

A surprising number of people I know reasonably well, who had offered no opinions or shown enthusiasm all through the build up and during the polls, broke their silence yesterday after BJP’s victory was safely established. My first thoughts are about why people are so reticent about their political leanings or current feelings. If you’re right wing, it’s OK! Why be apologetic about it? As I began to read what people put up on FB, I began to see that for the majority of people on my timeline, their vote was in favor of stability and development. They believe that Modi can provide the sort of leadership that can bring the bounce back in the economy. For people like my driver and maid, they are hoping Modi brings life to the agro sector and most importantly, brings prices down. Fortunately, I do not know too many people who would like Modi to send the Muslims to Pakistan, etc etc. I do know a couple though, but like they say, one doesn’t always choose one’s acquaintances!

Let’s agree for the moment that the mandate is for a better economy and better governance. Looking at the analysis, I think its pretty remarkable that entire communities chose to abandon their traditional leanings and voted for the BJP, at times against the logic of caste or region. It’s a big responsibility for the BJP now, to steer the nation back onto course. Media is working overtime to offer opinions on what Modi’s priorities will be- economic growth, foreign investment, controlling inflation, reviving the farm sector, taking away the malaise of the subsidy, making people more self-reliant, assuring justice for all especially minorities, etc etc. No one is really talking about the big elephant in the room: environmental sustainability.

Kafila promptly carried a piece on this yesterday, on the dangers of the BJP government being a surrogate of the corporate sector sans checks. Among other concerns, environmental sustainability is something that those of us who work in the development sector have been really worried about. It seems that a government that plays to the corporate sector won’t bother too much about this. [For those who will jump on me at this time and tell me the UPA was as much a corporate surrogacy as Modi’s will be, let me tell you that this is not the time to compare the Congress’ crony capitalism to the BJP’s. That point is moot now, with the majority mandate. ]

When it comes to the environment, big the problems still remain. India’s record is dismal. We’re going downhill fast! Food security is a concern, toxicity in food and water is causing epidemics of lifestyle and other diseases. Pollution levels in cities are peaking. We’re not healthier humans, we’re probably getting sicker and sicker. I don’t think we can afford five years of turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, especially if we are looking to make more investments in infrastructure and industry. I don’t buy the idea that its all right for the developed world to worry about the environment, while developing nations like India should first focus on growth. Climate change is a reality, however much the extreme right in the US denies it! India’s only salvation will be in finding innovative ways to achieve growth in a sustainable manner. This impacts every sector. Our ways of production, of eating, living and traveling, of disposing waste, all need to change if we want to build a better future, sustainably.

I am also equally concerned about social equity in the context of neoliberal economic thinking, but am less paranoid there because I know the BJP will have to, in some way, benefit the vast electorate that has supported it this time. In my work, especially at micro Home Solutions, I’ve always pushed for a market-based approach, but its not always possible to do that owing to the lack of transparency in our system. How Modi will address social concerns therefore remains to be seen? The Gujarat model hasn’t any good answers and its something the new government will need to work on, I think.

I’ve made no bones about my own political leanings. They definitely do not veer towards the right. As a proud Indian, however, and a believer in the democratic system, it is my duty to support the government in power with good counsel in my own field of expertise. This piece has been written in that spirit. I see myself in the role of the enabler as well as the watchdog and critic, as a person who can make a small contribution to ensure India doesn’t take the road to disaster while thinking it’s taking the road to progress!

Yes, to remember Dec 6th is important, for me! How the Babri incident changed my world, etc

Each year on the 6th of December, newspaper editorials remind us of the Babri Masjid episode in Indian history. I can hardly believe two decades have gone by when I watched the TV screen in utter horror and heard the mixed opinions of the adults we knew and trusted. I grew up in Lucknow and my family was very much liberal and rather left of centre in their political leanings, though never directly involved with anything political. I was brought up in the post-independent ethos of secularism and socialism and held these two as non-negotiable values of life. For the most part, I still do.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement burst my ‘the world is a good place’ bubble. For the first time in my life, I realized that there very radically different belief systems at work even in my little world, that these were contradictory in nature and could create confrontational and tremendously uncomfortable situations.

I was aghast to find that ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ who I thought of as harmless and ‘nice’ were capable of unleashing a diatribe of hate against Muslims. That they had been silent so long and felt empowered to speak after the Babri Masjid incident perplexed me no end. I kept thinking whether I had simply not been exposed to that side of them, or had chosen not to see it, or had they developed these opinions overnight. I didn’t realize that this was the subtext of many conversations to come in the future, that this would test my own beliefs repeatedly, push me against the wall and take me far, far away from God as propagated by religion, any religion.

I remember watching that inflammatory CD that did the rounds at that time, the one that clearly shows BJP leaders egging on kar sevaks, and bodies being dumped in the Saryu. The inane jubilation and naked hatred, the meaninglessness of it all. The sense of jubilation around the room and the sadness in my parents’ eyes.

Life changed after Bari Masjid. No doubt about that.

So many visuals flash past me from those few weeks. No school. My attempt to visit a friend, only to find her street cordoned off by the police, curfew declared and spending many hours worrying if she was safe. The policeman ushered me away urgently and I could literally watch the tension on the other side of the barricade.

The confusion of other people my age, our hesitation in discussing any of this, not knowing what belief system the other follows. The silence. The subsequent breaking apart of a city that had lived in relative harmony for centuries. The segregation of religion, but also of class. The search for security. The changing definition of security. My people, my own, keep out the ‘other’. I wasn’t aware of all this before. I still live in acute awareness today, hoping against hope that people will rise above this and find a more meaningful way to view their lives, their world.

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