Sunday, May 18, 2014

The great Indian rock opera

Not content with outsized newpaper headlines and celebrations in the streets, the Indian public apparently now wants to know what's going to happen next! Patience was never our virtue, was it!!

I can tell you with complete confidence that I don't know what's going to happen next, and nor do you. We have a new government and its job is to govern. Some opinionated individuals are completely certain that it's going to be a huge success, others are equally certain it's going to be a gigantic failure. Again, I can tell you with complete confidence (where do I get all that stuff from?) that it's going to be somewhere in between.

India is very much a nation of conflicting demands. For many decisions the government has to make, there will be some group that benefits and is pleased, and another that loses out, and is unhappy. There is, however, one kind of person who's in for a severe disappointment. From the tone of some of the blogs/emails/tweets going around these days, a number of people believe our new PM is going to solve their personal problems ("Dear Modi-ji, my neighbours are renovating their flat and the drilling noise keeps me awake on Sunday afternoons, so could you please...."). These people are not likely to get their wish. For obvious reasons the following lines from a wonderful rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, have been rattling around in my head:

Christ you know I love you
Did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God
So tell me that I'm saved

Jesus, I am with you
Touch me, touch me Jesus
Jesus, I am on your side
Kiss me, kiss me Jesus

It may not please Mr M to be so closely identified with a leading figure of a different religion, but the feeling is certainly in the air. And the analogy actually gets more interesting. The above song continues with the apostle Simon the Zealot persuading Jesus to incite the masses against the Romans:

What more do you need to convince you
That you have made it and you're easily as strong
As the filth from Rome who raped our country
And who've terrorized our people for so long?

There are all too many candidates for the role of Simon in today's India! My own favourite choice would naturally be journalist Tavleen Singh. How surprising that she didn't dig up these lyrics when there was still time to fling them at the family she hates so much - especially given some uncanny resonances...

What seems most unlikely though, is that Mr M will respond the way Jesus (in the rock opera) did to Simon:

Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews
Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is
Understand what glory is
Understand at all

No, if there's a person of Jesus-like modesty in our government then he is presently vacating an office, not moving into one.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Right-turn coming up

I must start by complimenting myself on my admirable restraint - having not written a single blog post during the run-up to the elections. So whichever way my country goes next, it cannot possibly be my fault! Moreover I've cleverly chosen what might be the most uninteresting moment in which to blog: after voting is complete, but just before the results are declared.

More seriously, though, the world is seeing a significant shift towards the right-wing and it's no surprise that this is also happening in India. As an example, the UK Independence Party is poised to win the European Parliament election in the UK a week from today. UKIP is described on Wikipedia as a "Eurosceptic, right-wing populist" party and it is particularly opposed to immigration to the UK by Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians. Right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) are doing well in Europe. In India it's reasonable to expect that the BJP is going to perform well in the present elections as the exit polls predict, though the details are far from clear.

The right-wing outlook is, broadly speaking, hostile to "outsiders" (however they may be defined), positive about the role of majority religion, and friendly to business. In very rough terms I suppose both supporters and opponents of the BJP would agree with the above description of its philosophy, though they might list the three attributes in different orders. Similar descriptions can be applied to UKIP, PVV and other European parties like the Front National (France), Lega Nord (Italy), the Danish People's Party, and Golden Dawn (Greece). And yet, for many reasons these parties don't generally see eye to eye with each other. Partly this is because one person's fellow-citizen is another's dreaded immigrant: right-wing Greeks don't want Pakistanis at their borders, but right-wing Britishers don't want Greeks at their borders. And this is only a small part of the enormous differences of outlook. Politics is a complex thing and it is rare for any group to fit a mould. For example Marine Le Pen's Front National is not particularly friendly to business. Golden Dawn is fascist to an extent that would cause other right-wing parties to cringe. Geert Wilders is pro-gay but denies climate change, while the BJP - I imagine - would have precisely the opposite view on these two issues.

It is worth trying to understand the right-wing point of view better, especially if one does not share it. As Spinoza nicely put it: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them”. But a more particular reason, specially in India and specially today, is that this outlook is gaining dominance and one has to live and work with it in the foreseeable future (and perhaps also struggle against some aspects of it). So it's best to be mentally prepared.

I expect this will be a long discussion and it would be pointless to put down all my thoughts in one go. So I'll just make a single important point. Voting in an election involves serious levels of compromise. It's not possible to have a candidate made-to-order, and still less a party that you completely agree with. So, what exactly do you do if - say - you favour big business but would like religion kept out of the public sphere? On the other hand, what if you oppose the majority religion but are even more opposed to minority religions?  Or, if corruption is a huge issue for you but so is governance, and you worry that a small newly-arrived party simply lacks the experience to provide the latter? In all these cases, you may end up voting for a party despite feeling discomfort about some of its stated policies. And I think that's likely to have happened on a large scale in this election. This is important because what the future government does is still subject to checks and balances (through the opposition, the courts, the press etc). Through these agencies citizens must assert the specific values for which they voted, rather than quietly accept the full package we will be getting.

(Disclosure: I personally voted for the excellent Mr Subhash Ware despite some discomfort about his party, on which I blogged here. Regardless of what I said at the time, I believe AAP has an important role to play in Indian politics and hope it gets the chance to do so.)