Tuesday, August 30, 2011

See no politics, hear no politics

Recent developments have strengthened my sense that Anna's movement is making a positive impact in the fight against corruption, even as I continue to have strong reservations about both the anti-democratic tone and the immediate goal (a strong unelected official). In particular I find myself agreeing with Aamir Khan, someone I've always respected, that there's nothing wrong with peaceful protest in a democracy. His suggestion to peacefully picket houses of MP's will also, I believe, cause the latter to appreciate the second word in "elected representatives". In this direction, I'm also strongly supporting the current demands of Team Anna to have a right to recall as well as a right to reject. These are both well within the ambit of democracy. Not surprisingly, the government is squirming at the thought while the opposition senses an opportunity.

Now for my worries. There has been an article circulating to the effect that Anna Hazare's methodology as applied by him in his "model village" Ralegaon Siddhi is heavy handed and undemocratic, as well as excessively tolerant towards caste-based discrimination. (Some of these accusations were also made about Mahatma Gandhi and in both cases they have a ring of truth.)

I'm particularly disturbed by Anna's reported view that it's OK to publicly flog drunkards in the village (according to the report he did the flogging himself) because, in his words "If you want change, it's sometimes necessary to be tough." Many including myself feel tough action is called for when men regularly get drunk and beat their wives and children instead of supporting them. However -- and this is one important way in which Gandhi differs from Hazare -- beating these men back simply cannot be the solution. 

There are two more aspects of the Hazare agitation, more due to his supporters than himself, that worry me today. I think people need to take them seriously. One comes to mind in the light of actor Om Puri's recent rant describing politicians as "ganwars" (loosely translated as "village idiots"). A large proportion of urban India despises the rural base of politicians which they see as the root of the problem. If only we smart city people could run the country, goes the thinking, everything would be fine (in reality, I fear it would only be as fine as Satyam under Ramalinga Raju).

This urban-rural divide has occurred in recent memory in  Thailand and torn it apart, for substantially similar reasons. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was popular with the rural poor and widely reputed to be corrupt, and the country saw violent confrontation on the streets between his supporters and those of businessman Sondhi Limthongkul. In the end elections were held and Shinawatra's daughter (note added later: I meant to say "sister") is in power. The analogy is incomplete because the Shinawatras are not any kind of villagers themselves, unlike the Laloo Prasad types at whom the Om Puri barb was presumably addressed. Clear the real issue is about the rural/urban origin not of the politician but of the people he or she represents. (Om Puri has repented and he's sensitive enough to understand he shouldn't have said it, but I'm sure the statement has already resonated with many).

I'll end by describing the second worrying aspect of the movement. This too is embodied by a superstar, none other than Lata Mangeshkar. Recently, India's current nightingale emitted the following tuneless tweet:  "I don`t understand politics nor do I have an interest in it. But I feel, our country should be free from corruption, so I lend my support to the cause Anna Hazareji is fighting for". Anyone who claims to be uninterested in  politics is deluded or lying -- politics permeates our life. And I wonder why it should be permissible to support a major national movement without understanding the basics of it. Thankfully, this lazy lady is counterbalanced by the energetic Aamir Khan who tells us he studied the different versions of the Lokpal Bill in detail before offering his opinion.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Anna, I will set you free

It's rare for the Indian National Congress party to sing songs made famous by the Beatles, and if they have now suffered this fate they have only themselves to blame. Ignoring personal beauty (this is important) today's Anna perhaps resembles the girl of the Beatles song, who was once captivated by the singer but later asks him to set her free because someone else loves her more. In the present case the new lover corresponds to many millions of Indians who have been totally won over by Anna's charms. But cleverly, Anna doesn't ask to be set free, she simply refuses to eat. The Congress is left with no option but to sing "give back the ring to me and I will set you free" and one guesses they are now collectively wailing the lines of the chorus, which goes "What am I, what am I supposed to do? Oh oh oh oh oh oh".

But this is no three-minute song. It's at the same time the most deadly serious and hilariously comical thing to happen to India in decades. Indians very correctly want to be done with corruption, after all these years of being done in by it. But the proposed remedy - creating a "magical" position with virtually unlimited powers - seems to me at first sight to be disastrous. I'm not the only one to think so. A large number of serious people have observed that there is no magic wand to eliminate corruption, and an "ultimate authority" that supercedes the democratically elected sounds suspiciously like a dictator. My cousin Cheeta points out that an all-powerful Lokpal sounds suspiciously like what General Ayub Khan promised to be when martial law was declared in Pakistan in 1958 and he made himself President through a coup. In the beginning he was supposedly disgusted by the level of corruption and promised to cleanse his country of it, but eventually he was himself mired in accusations of corruption and nepotism and ended up rigging the 1965 presidential elections in his own favour.

So when a friend recently called to ask whether I would be joining a protest at Azad Maidan, I replied "I'm not a supporter of Anna Hazare". This friend was shocked at my lack of involvement. I didn't bother to remind him that, not so long ago, he (my friend, not Anna) had paid a bribe to try and get a job in a state-run organisation in Bombay. My pleas to him not to pay the bribe had gone unheeded at the time. This reinforces my concern about the present movement: should it be so easy for people who themselves indulge in corruption at the first opportunity to go around shaking their fists at elected politicians? When the list of people jumping on to this bandwagon includes rather suspicious businessmen and shady politicians (not to mention Varun Gandhi, in a class by himself) I feel this movement, even if its leaders are sincere, is pointing in the wrong direction. An emphasis on personal transformation and incremental change would seem to me more practical and ethically correct.

And yet, after the events of yesterday and today, I find my position a little shaky. Movements cannot be tailor-made, so the one that would be to my liking as I've described above may never happen. It might be more sensible to focus on what is actually happening and see if it has a chance to make some impact. And here I begin to see some rays of hope. The arrogant behaviour of the ruling party's most arrogant leaders has backfired and the Anna Hazare movement has got them on the run (they run mostly in circles, of course). Public enthusiasm and confidence, whose absence was always the main problem, is now growing exponentially. This cannot fail to spread some fear and alarm among corrupt sections of the government, bureaucracy, police and industry. In the prevailing atmosphere, even a small-time cop trying to make 50 rupees from a traffic violator might tremble at the thought of being reported or exposed. Conversely a citizen being forced to pay a bribe for what is rightfully theirs is sure to be more courageous and resist. A few incidents in this direction are already being reported. So I begin to think some good things could come out of this movement whether or not it achieves its stated goal.

Then again, I'm not totally sure. Abundant silliness is not the sole prerogative of the Congress party, but the birthright of all Indians. One wonders what to make of the blogs, emails and texts  going round, most of them indicative of the infantile outlook of my fellow-countrymen even as these historic events play out. Here's one charming example posted in April:

Is relay news channels are supporting Anna Hazares protest and fighting against the Corruption then from tomorrow IPL matches are going to Start so ban publishing the news on this IPL matches because this may effect Nation wide protest and divert the issue of corruption. 

And another:

let us citizens of India start no tax movement & non cooperative movement as gandhiji did. than and only than this government will undeerstnad. also this way our hard earned tax money will be saved.

Who could resist such a noble idea! But the one that finds most favour with me personally is an SMS that reads as follows:

My dear frnds. If all the black money comes back to India then-
Beer 8 Rs
Vodka 20 Rs
Whisky 35 Rs
Soda 1.25 Rs
At least now support ANNA!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Play it again, Shammi

The actor Shammi Kapoor passed away early this morning, marking the end of an era of which I have some interesting memories. When I was four, my parents bought a flat on the third floor of a newly constructed apartment building, Blue Haven, in Bombay's Malabar Hill area. Shammi Kapoor bought flats 1 and 2, which came with an attached garden, on the ground floor of the same building. As a result I saw him quite often in my childhood.

Usually this was when he was about to drive off in one of his many foreign cars. I vividly remember his Ford Thunderbird coupé, which consisted of a few miles of engine followed by a relatively small passenger cabin with two gigantic (or so they seemed to me) beige leather bucket seats. It could barely make the turn up the steep curving driveway of Blue Haven. I never managed to enter this car, but was luckier with his Chevelle Malibu in which I managed to get a ride when his son Micky (as we knew him) drove it to Breach Candy, probably at the age of 15.

My parents were not Bollywood fans and so, paradoxically, though I knew our neighbour was a famous actor I had not actually seen any of his films. I would go to flats 1 and 2 to play with Micky (we are the same age) but never encountered his father except on special occasions like birthdays. Then in 1965 when I was 9, I was out somewhere and I remember my parents receiving some shocking news and taking me home in silence right away. Shammi Kapoor's wife, the charming Geeta Bali, had died of smallpox. Even before we reached home, municipal officers had arrived and we were all vaccinated against smallpox there and then.

The next day, standing on the staircase, I watched the coffin being taken out of the building. Thereafter Micky and his sister vanished for some time, and we heard they had been sent out of town to relatives for a while. Some years later Shammi Kapoor married the charming and elegant Neila Devi who had a brisk no-nonsense air about her and took over the task of rearing the children with evident affection and grace. She came from the princely family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. I clearly remember once on her return from a foreign trip with her husband, Micky asked her if she had brought him the present she had promised to bring. She replied "I'm a Rajput, I always keep my promises."

Until her marriage Neila had been unconnected to Bollywood and had not seen Shammi Kapoor's movies! Shammi undertook to screen them for her at home on his 8mm projector. The kids in the building were invited, so I had the unique experience of watching such entertaining movies as "Dil Deke Dekho" and "Teesri Manzil" while the character dancing and singing and gyrating his hips on-screen was sitting right behind me. Around the same time Micky played a new song for me on the gramophone at his home, it was "badan pe sitaare lapete hue" from "Prince" and the movie was only released much later. Shammi Kapoor's songs were typically sung by legendary playback singer Mohammed Rafi, and I always associated the latter's voice with the former's face.

Two more memories from the 1970's are worth recounting. One day I answered the phone at home and a rather furious male voice asked for my mother. When I asked who was speaking, he said "Shammi Kapoor". It was unusual for him to call us, but it transpired that a lady living some floors above his flat had flung a bucketful of water onto his garden and drenched his guests. He was relying on my mother, whom he respected greatly, to sort things out. Another memory is of the time he came into the table-tennis room. This was just before he directed "Manoranjan" and he had become rather overweight. He asked if he could play with us and then, bulky as he was, roundly defeated all the kids of the building including myself.

In the early 1990's when I was no longer staying in the building, I learned from the papers that Shammi Kapoor had become an "internet guru". He was the first person I know of in India outside academia who talked so enthusiastically about the social possibilities of this novel phenomenon. It was typical of him to become fascinated with this at a time when others his age (notably including senior faculty members at TIFR!) were desperately trying to find reasons to ignore it.

One Bollywood film that I did manage to see soon after its release, in 1967, was "An Evening in Paris". In an iconic scene Shammi Kapoor, clad in an orange-striped bathrobe, dangles under a helicopter and sings "aasman se aaya farishta" to Sharmila Tagore while she is water-skiing. She responds with "You silly!" and "Don't be silly!", lines that - as some may recall - were a staple for heroines of 1960's Hindi films. Shammi remains undeterred by these accusations and, still singing, winches himself down from the helicopter onto a boat from where he approaches Ms Tagore and eventually bundles her into the helicopter. At this point she undergoes a surprising change of heart and admits that she loves him. Some will say it was the lure of a free helicopter ride, but I believe she had finally noticed that her suitor was "tall, athletic, lively, fair complexioned, green-eyed and with handsome features" (to quote Wikipedia).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Malice and/or incompetence

I'm under some pressure from my brother and cousin to restart blogging, after a gap of around a month. Actually both of them have their own blogs, on which they've never posted anything -- which is a pity because both are eloquent and thoughtful people who love a good debate. So, with a faint hope that they will reciprocate, I'm now back to blogging and hope to be more regular.

Of late I've been fascinated by incompetence. It's hard to get away from this subject, obviously, but -- as a result of some trains of thought sparked off during conversations -- I've had the occasion to think a little about it.

When the 2G spectrum scam started to break, accompanied by the publication of the fascinating Niira Radia tapes, I found myself explaining the situation to non-resident Indian friends/relatives on two separate occasions. When I mentioned that A. Raja was accused of having defrauded the nation of 10 to the power 12 rupees through corruption, each of them independently asked whether it was clear that he was corrupt -- could he not have been just incompetent? They pointed out that when a new technology was involved, as well as a novel procedure such as auctioning spectrum, it was quite possible the the politician in charge simply didn't understand the issues well enough.

Probably without knowing it, these people were following the suggestion of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is supposed to have said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". It's remarkable though that I've never ever heard a resident Indian suggest incompetence may have been involved in the 2G case, or any other. On the contrary, most people I talk to in India (and everyone I don't talk to) is certain that malice aforethought must be at the root of India's corruption scandals. As for the more complex possibility that some money is lost through corruption but a possibly larger amount through incompetence, this level of complexity seems too baffling for people to deal with.

Which is sad, because I think the complex answer is closest to the truth. Incompetence could be a far larger problem in India than corruption. Even if my estimates are false (for example suppose incompetence and corruption cause equal losses to the exchequer) it's critically important to examine the role of incompetence in a developing country like ours, as well as its possible remedies (for that matter, it's important to critically examine the role of corruption and its possible remedies, instead of getting hysterical about it one moment and participating in it the next moment as most middle-class Indians are apt to do).

There are many fascinating points to ponder, but on a working day I don't have time to start pondering them. Let me close this short posting with an observation that obsesses me these days. Incompetence is not a static property of a person. In fact everyone can better their competence level by simply making a conscious decision to do so, and following up on it. Whatever administrative incompetence I see around me (and sadly I see a whole lot) seems to persist for one or more of the following reasons:

(i) competence is not rewarded and incompetence is not objected to,
(ii) labelling someone as incompetent is used as a self-fulfilling prophecy,
(iii) people are neither advised nor helped to improve their competence through training,
(iv) for ego reasons, incompetent people in powerful positions will not accept their limitations or seek help from others.

In this, I believe India differs in a major way from the USA or Japan. Our people are surely just as smart, but theirs are encouraged and even helped to become more competent to the extent possible. In these countries incompetence is not confused for malice, which it isn't. And when an incompetent person becomes more competent by whatever means, the system happily adjusts to the new reality instead of insisting that the old labels remain on the person. In India, by contrast, we look the other way at the incompetence of powerful people (sadly this is often due to the Peter Principle and may not be completely remediable by training, even assuming powerful people would consent to be trained) but the incompetence of the lowly is assumed to be a permanent feature.

I wonder how much these differing world-views originate in religious differences that permeate culture. Interestingly the Wikipedia page on redemption in theology identifies the concept only within Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. How does redemption play out in Hinduism and Islam, and does this affect our attitude towards incompetence in the workplace? That's your homework question.