Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Indian politician in the spotlight

The mood in Bombay is rather vociferously anti-politician. Some have suggested they give up their "Z" class security and bestow it on the common man (or woman, one hopes). One citizen interviewed outside the Taj suggested that any politician coming near the site would be killed.

Strong stuff and rather rhetorical. What would a more factual perception be?

The Maharashtra state government has come across looking rather pathetic. Vilasrao Deshmukh was totally unimpressive on TV and R.R. Patil, who's spent his time saving the city from dance bars, had nothing useful to say (later he was heard saying something to the effect that this was a "minor incident", the exact words quoted were "bade shahron mein aise ek-aadh haadse hote hain", about the stupidest observation one could make in his position). These two did not convey any proper sense of urgency and they offer a poor contrast to the energetic city that this is fabled to be.

The Prime Minister Mr Manmohan Singh looked like a deer caught in the headlights. His frozen expression and way of speaking through clenched teeth did not particularly reassure. However, he did use the strongest words that he's ever used and briefly scored a victory when Pakistan agreed to send the head of ISI over. Which was undone when Pakistan denied they had agreed to such a thing.

The failure of Indian intelligence agencies is the single biggest issue here and both the state and central governments seem very much at fault for lethargy and incompetence, not necessarily personal but certainly systemic.

So do I now agree with Mr L.K. Advani, whom I criticised in my blog yesterday? Not in the least. He has contrived to use the terrorist attack in Mumbai to try and further the cause of his BJP party and of Hindu bigotry in general. That is the lowest a politician can stoop, and this kind of behaviour from someone projected to be a Prime Ministerial candidate leaves me speechless. One can only hope these tactics won't work.

Unrepentant about what he said some days ago, today he has tried again: "The energies of intelligence agencies were diverted to nail the so-called Hindu terror which enabled the Mumbai attackers to go undetected", a transparent and self-serving lie. He and his younger (therefore more dangerous) counterpart Narendra Modi were hounding ATS chief Hemant Karkare for pursuing the Hindu terrorists (not "so-called" but real), but have discovered after his death that he is a hero. Reportedly Modi offered Karkare's wife Rs 1 crore (merely to score political points! In such a situation the only right thing would be for the Government of India to give her the money, so if Modi had cash to spare, he should have routed his money through them). She is said to have refused his money, and if this story is true then it's very much to her credit.

Sometimes I think the BJP exists only to make the Congress look good.

And what of Raj Thackeray who has pinned his career on divisive politics of the worst kind? Text messages circulating for the last three days have, rightly, labelled him a coward. He was quite active "saving Bombay from poor Bihari taxi drivers", say the messages, but where is he now when North and South Indians of the NSG are rescuing his city from terrorists? His brand of politics now looks pathetic and if the terror attacks have the effect of removing his party from our lives, that would be welcome. Let's not forget that his movement is capable of causing as many innocent deaths in the future as we have seen this week.

People are wondering if the recent attacks will be a turning point in Indian politics. I'm doubtful, but from the lineup I've described above it's easy to see that no major player currently on the scene deserves our support, except possibly the well-meaning Manmohan Singh who - just for being well-meaning - towers far above the rest.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Blasts and echoes

I'm impressed with people who were able to blog effectively about the terrorist attacks in Bombay as early as midnight on December 26 (two hours after the start of the attacks). For me, living just off the edge of Colaba causeway and within hearing distance of grenade explosions at the Taj and Oberoi hotels, it's been a numbing experience where I could not find a voice. My usual tone, of flippance mixed with irony, just doesn't sound right at a time like this. Nor can one resort to other "easy" emotions like cynicism.

By now I'm speaking again, and I want to say that the response of the city has been fantastically positive. The police and armed forces have been immensely brave, though the lack of preparedness of the former has been something between pathetic and tragic. Pathetic is the state of the under-trained and under-equipped cops who are quaking with fear but bravely standing where they are told to stand. Tragic is (was) the state of the senior cops who rushed into battle perhaps underestimating its seriousness and paid with their lives.

The news media has teetered between moderately careful and responsible reporting (NDTV, Times Now) and plain dishonest sensationalism (Headlines Today, India TV). Headlines Today should earn everyone's undying contempt for stringing together video images of the Taj hotel burning, adding canned machine-gun fire and music (MUSIC!!!) and making a kind of "catchy theme" out of the result. Shame shame.

As for the citizenry, their resolve for the city to rise from the ashes has never been stronger. SMS messages received by TV networks stress the importance of national unity and professionalism in dealing with the new challenges. Divisive politicians, are you listening? Apparently not. Here is what L.K. Advani had to say on TV today: "Both the central government and the state government have a lot to answer for, but today's not the day for me to dwell on that." He dwelt on it though, didn't he. Who was Home Minister when terrorists identical to these infiltrated Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001? My contempt for this person and his perenially divisive behaviour - and hypocrisy - knows no bounds.

Monday, November 24, 2008

That's Shirley progress...

I recently noticed that the current President of Stony Brook University is a woman (the name is Shirley Strum Kenny and I'm assuming "Shirley" isn't a man's name nowadays). That is intriguing because the Presidents of Princeton and Harvard are also women (in a pleasing irony, the latter replaced Larry Summers who acquired notoriety and lost his job after suggesting it was time to "admit" that women are basically not good at science...).

In 1976 when I joined Stony Brook for my Ph.D., I didn't have the impression that women were considered possible candidates for being President of a major U.S. university, so the situation today represents progress for the feminist cause. (On the other hand the President of Princeton is a Shirley too, so could it merely represent progress for the cause of women called Shirley???)

Jokes apart, the situation illustrates a feature of society I have noticed over a long time. Historically certain groups (ethnic minorities, gender- or age-specified groups etc) are deemed unfit for a certain activity or position and thereby marginalised. After many years of struggle, a slight change is brought about, with the conservative faction of society reluctantly (and condescendingly) agreeing to "give them a chance", but remaining basically hostile. After this, the few people given a "chance" are put under a microscope. Any possible sign of failure is interpreted as evidence in support of the conservative view that their group was no good in the first place.

But then comes the second and more enduring transition. After years of hawk-like watching, and presumably not finding enough ammunition, the right-wingers sort of give up on this particular target. Then, and very rapidly, it becomes commonplace for people in this marginalised group to occupy the positions they were formerly denied. Statistically some of them do well and others not so well, but overall it becomes clear that there was never any reason to keep them out in the first place.

If my (admittedly simplistic) description above contains some truth, then doesn't it just mean that conservatives are the real problem?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama, the race issue, and Indians

Obama's Presidential victory has quite correctly served to highlight the history of racial discrimination in the USA. For people not well acquainted with this history, the Wikipedia page on Martin Luther King is a good place to start. It links to dozens of other pages on the shocking atrocities against blacks in the US over the years, and the civil rights movement that brought about major change.

I was wondering how Indians (I mean Indians from India, not Native Americans) are reacting to the Obama story. One would imagine we would all be ecstatic that "a black person like ourselves" is soon to be President of the USA. This has indeed been my dominant emotion and I was very powerfully moved by the Obama family photo on the front page of Hindustan Times yesterday. But I would be surprised if this feeling is universal in India, or among Indians in the USA.

It is an open secret that a lot of Indian Americans look down on African Americans, and even use a derogatory Hindi word for them which I am not going to quote here. So it's quite possible that many of them are right now, in their suburban New Jersey homes, making faces at the thought of being ruled by one of "those people". In the days of apartheid too, not every Indian in South Africa cared to be a Gandhi and many of them jockeyed hard to place themselves in a subtle racial position, inferior to whites but superior to blacks.

The situation in India today is not so different. Dark skin is looked down upon here, very blatantly in many cases, particularly when it comes to choosing a bride. Advertisements in India inevitably contain fair people (except in the South these days, as I note with some pleasure). Many Indians believe the skin hierarchy is perfectly acceptable and - like their South African relatives of old - they would like to occupy an intermediate position in this hierarchy.

Which is why the following article in The Earth Times Online made me quite happy. It says that tribal people in the Eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have celebrated Obama's victory. According to the article "Their leaders still complain of racial discrimination." From other Indians, presumably. With touching simplicity and optimism, a tribal leader, Bahura Ekka, is quoted as saying: "Black people have always faced challenges in the world. We believe that racial discrimination will end after Obama's election as US president."

If only!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I want my America back - Springsteen

Though I'm now happily back in Bombay and enjoying the warm, humid and comforting weather, and even - to a small extent - the cheerful crowds on the streets, my recent stay in Princeton has left me infected me with a sense of involvement in the politics of the USA.

As many of my readers surely know, a good liberal "blog-newspaper" to have emerged in recent years is the Huffington Post. This sticky morning in Bombay, while Obama is poised to win but the complete results are still awaited, I was browsing HuffPo and came across an article by Bruce Springsteen, a musician I admire as much for his songs as for his politics. So I shall point all of you to it. Before you go, let me direct your attention to two great lines. One is "Whatever grace God has deemed to impart to us resides in our connections with one another", a stark contrast to the far-right view that God has imparted a sort of infinite, lifetime-warrantied, maintenance-free grace to the US. The second great line is "I want my America back". Now go ahead and read Springsteen.