Saturday, February 25, 2017

Do we belong? YES WE DO!

“I have a question in my mind: Do we belong?” Sunayana Dumala asks

The answer is YES, you and we all Indian Americans who have come here legally belong to this country. 

Some in politics might want to push us aside, but remember we are from the country of a man who for 19 years struggled to give voices for 'poor workers and foreigners' in another foreign land. A century back MK Gandhi did that in South Africa. Son of this land - MLK - exactly followed Gandhi's footsteps to secure voting rights for children of slaves in this country. So rest be assured Sunayana, if the mighty 'British Empire where Sun never set' gets shaken by a scantily clad man with just a stick and charkha, if centuries-old prejudices get answered by another man with no guns; we will take this Republic through Trump Years too - with our dignity and rights preserved. 

We owe it to Srinivas and others that we Resist any racism and hate crime. Some worried about exactly such 'hate crimes' in Trump Era. But yes, Steve Bannon, we have seen many rascals like you and have survived those too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The politics of name calling in UP elections

by Ratnakar Tripathy

It is a sign of our times that every time you complain about the low levels our political lingo has stooped to, the very next day one more abyss shows up and the touchstone for what is a bad word and what isn’t reaches a new low. So does it help really to complain or should one wait for the ultimate even though what the ‘ultimate’ means in the case of the 2017 assembly elections in UP?  Like every quarrel in the street and in the school, the first point of dispute and quite often the last is who started it. But I do remember right since my childhood I have seen two kinds of verbal duels – one that kept on escalating till both the parties got tired and the disinterested audience got bored for lack of a clear outcome, and the ones that rapidly ended up in fisticuffs. That is why I now believe the whole verbal game in politics just now is to help each other degrade themselves as far as possible to show an utter, utter lack of civility. You may take it as an attempt to create a level ground form where each one may start a new round of fighting. So even as we complain about the declining levels of political discourse let me assure you this can be an endless process till a new beginning is made. The problem in the meantime [and daily life always means in the meantime] in the case of UP however, is the audience is not hanging around for entertainment but to make a wise vote, and there are vital governance issues at stake. I am not sure the voter all over the world remembers that, which is becoming a major problem with the modern democracies. The popular expression ‘the buck stops here’ seems to apply equally or more to the voter rather than the top man in the hierarchy.

To come down to specifics, in the last few days and indeed for quite a while our honorable PM has indulged in what may be called a ‘politics of acronyms.' The idea is to twist the opponent’s name into a new and damaging full form. To take an example, PM Modi claimed that Mayawati’s party BSP is ‘no longer Bahujan Samaj Party but 'Behenji Sampatti Party'. By way of retaliation, BSP Chief Mayawati hit back at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, terming him as 'Mr. Negative Dalit Man,' while addressing a rally at Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur amidst the ongoing assembly elections in the state. Akhilesh Yadav did not waste much time either and said he ‘will ask the biggest superstar of this century (Amitabh Bachchan being the brand ambassador of Gujarat) not to promote the donkeys of Gujarat.’ There is not much guessing to do here to see who Akhilesh is referring to. The fact is as the seven-phase elections in UP proceed, political workers are getting overwrought, nervous and tired of repeating the same cant, the same development jargons, the same electoral goodies when they feel the need to rise above the platitudes, this is the kind of rubbish they come up with.  

This is why I feel that the trouble with our political discourse is not that politicians are using bad language but that they seem to say the same thing with various degrees of tweaking. Of course, as experts on the whole gamut of structured ideologies, we the commentators see a great deal of difference among the parties. But does the ordinary voter see things systematically and inter-connectedly? I do not think so. They seem to look at the rhetoric as some kind of a mosaic where some of the features seem appealing, and some do not depending on the voter’s interest or fancy.

According to the political pundits, the one thing that appears to apply universally in the 2017 elections is there is no wave in favour of any party visible on the ground. The voter is thus looking neutrally at the parties in the fray. With each one promising development in more or less the same vein, the voter may not exactly be torn by a dilemma. In fact, the voter may not be concerned with the lofty ideals of development at all and perhaps more concerned with security for himself and his neighborhood. Really, the voter may have all come down to the level of the utterly basic and no one seems to have noticed. So the fight in UP may be determined by the voter’s appetite for either peace or conflict in the society – the trouble is aggression and violence seem very exciting when not happening at the doorstep and peace can seem such a dull idea. But these are matters so deep they are almost subliminal and not open to quick journalistic analysis. I am not sure even a voter really knows what is going on within. On 11th March next month when the counting of votes takes place, we will, of course, know for sure if UP wants peace or is itching for some avoidable excitement.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Enemy of American People?

It is sad and shameful that on American President's Day - when we Americans commemorate and thank services of all past and the sitting president of this republic - we have to take notice of the nasty, naughty and needlessly provoking sitting president of ours, Donald Trump.

A classic example of Trump diversion from his real problems is his needless provocation of Sweden in his Florida Campaign Speech. Having called out his nonsense, in a typical Trump fashion, he doubles down to spread more lies - like how the Sweedish Immigration Policy is not working. Who the hell Donald Trump is to poke around other countries for their policies? I guess Sen. John McCain is right - that is how dictators start: pillorying Media and then meddling in affairs of other nations. This is the playbook Adolf Hitler tried to bring calamity over the Europe and all over the world.

But then Donald Trump is not going to have such a smooth ride in 2016. There are folks in Media, even his sympathizer outlets like Fox has a journalist who knows where is the red line and then there are folks in his own party who will do what it takes to keep an independent Media and Judiciary.

The truth is Donald Trump wants to make all these diversions because he cannot govern, forcing his lieutenants in 'perpetual mopping business'. He is also probably hiding some dirty, treasonous, nefarious deals with Russia as well as other bribes. These may be dark days for Media, but American and Global Media will need to be vigilant and not allow another Erdogan or Putin in this land.

I guess this President's Day should be a wake-up call for we Americans in stopping a tyrant president who wants to squander all that his predecessors achieved over centuries.

Monday, February 13, 2017

As exit and other polls in India lose their sheen

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The results for the assembly elections in Punjab, UP, Goa and Manipur will be announced on 11th March after the last round of voting in UP and Manipur takes place on 8th March. So the whole of February and the first week of March will be a nail-biting punishment for the political parties and their workers on the ground. The only likely excitement in the meantime may be some attempts at tampering of the EVM machines. In fact, the AAP leader Kejriwal has already brought one such instance from Punjab to attention when unknown persons were allegedly allowed access to the EVM boxes and there is a video with men handling the EVM trunks doing the rounds in the social media. Clearly, everyone is tense in an election which has seen an unusually multi-cornered contest with several parties in the fray. One way to spend the tension and suspense-ridden days is to indulge in wishfulness and assume a posture of supreme self-confidence. But the political parties especially the ruling BJP seems to have found a more substantial way to boost its morale – by organizing polls of various sorts indicating a clear victory for itself. Most of these polls are completely opaque and starting with the sample size and its demographics, the methodologies seem gravely flawed, in case someone is even willing to discuss the details. The entire exercise is thus a publicity stunt aiming to influence the voters through the various rounds of voting. The questionable assumption or hope here is that the voter will be influenced by the poll news at all. In fact the Indian voter now has a good idea of the general tilt of the media houses and this insight is seeping deeper even among the quasi-literate public. This is a sad reflection on the state of the media in India today but that is another story.
November 3, 1948: President Harry S. Truman, shortly after being elected as President, smiles as he holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune issue prematurely announcing his electoral defeat. This image has become iconic of the consequences of bad polling data[courtesy: Wiki]

To come to the main point of this piece, despite the knowledge that exit polls are not permitted during the electoral phases in February and March, a Hindi media behemoth ‘Dainik Jagaran’ has gone ahead anyway and published the results of its exit polls. The Election Commission took a prompt notice of it however and has asked the polling officers to file an FIR against the paper. Dainik Jagaran on its part claims that their report on exit polls was ‘inadvertently’ published on its English site and was immediately removed. The statement went ‘We clarify that we fully comply with the directions which has been issued by Election Commission of India and are in the process of filing a detailed fact-based response with the ECI clarifying the position’. It is difficult to say how credible the excuse is but the firm that carried out the survey for Dainik Jagaran has this to say about its activities and business – ‘Resource Development International is an organization engaged in Business Advisory, Performance & Business Consulting, OD & HR Consulting, Training & Development, Executive Search & Resourcing, and Behavioural Coaching’. The business firms commissioned by the parties are quite likely to make a quick buck from tailored polls and have the skill and the lingo to reach results and conclusions they have been briefed to arrive at. All this nervousness is only an indication of the closeness of the fight and the yet ill-defined impact of demonetization on the current elections. What is however happening in the process is a demeaning of the various polls although I never quite understood the value or the veracity of these polls. What emerges from all this is apart from the grievous omission of worthwhile news in the press we now have manufactured lies being hurled at us on a daily basis. The only relief may be that the voting public is already wary and aware and more than one report in the recent days has claimed that voters in Punjab and elsewhere have been found to be deliberately misleading the journalists. Let us say this cruel sport on the part of the voter is fully deserved by the Indian media even if the few sincere journalists find it a painful distraction.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Trump Hubris

Staff Artist - Nandu
One can understand how much policy and political garbage Trump produces by looking at these 3 things in just 3 weeks:

1. Trump and GOP wanted to kill ObamaCare on Day One. By now we all know, Trump Administration sees 2018 as the realistic date. Well, come Mid-Term elections of 2018 and we will see how much gumption Republicans have to throw what is relatively working.

Prediction - at this point likelihood is that ObamaCare will stay as is, or in similar form for many years to come. If at all Republicans will do something, they will land up improving it further. So much for Trump's bluster there. Of course, former President Obama and Americans would not have any issues in renaming it as "Trump Care"!

2. Steve Bannon thought he is the 'president' and he could push his White Nationalist agenda unchecked. Well, it seems like there are lot many Americans who still feel this Republic be run as per the Constitution - with Checks and Balances.

Good luck Donald Trump with your divisive agenda of 'banning Muslims.'

3. Trump thought he could pull a 'smart one' on Xi Jinping of China by using Taiwan as the bargaining chip. Of course, it was suicidal for Taiwan; but by now we all know Trump does not care about his clients. The important question was whether any such approach would have succeeded in the first place. We now know the answer when Trump himself submits for One China policy. I guess Trump is learning the reality 'fast'!

The real painful question is why so many Americans fell for this 'con artist'. There may be some answers here and there, but reality is a larger group of Americans just abdicated their duty of thinking through consequences in their 'hate of Washinton'. Of the remaining ones, significant Americans just could not overcome the 'Hillary Hate'.

Americans and rest of the world simply do not know, how 'bad' this show is going to end.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Commentary: Tamilnadu’s legacy problems

Tamilnadu has been among those states in India where political parties have revolved around a single presiding figure. Unlike other states where this applies equally with some variation, in the case of AIADMK, there is no family member claiming seriously to continue with the legacy of Jailalitha. This may be good for democracy in the long run but is clearly creating a muddle in the AIADMK which recently saw a coup of sorts against the incumbent CM, O. Panneerselvam which ended up in his resignation. He now claims it was forced on him by V.K. Sasikala, the general secretary of the party. This has led to resentment against Sasikala, the current pretender. There are even allegations doing the rounds that Sasikala may have ‘caused’ the death of Jailalitha, although the murky details seem nullified by the medical report available thus far.

The present report gives you a sense of where Tamilnadu politics stands at this moment and the various possibilities and unlikely scenarios that are being flung around in the press and the social media. Clearly, even as the shenanigans at the top continue, the common Tamilian is disturbed by the worrying developments in the wake of Jailalitha’s death. The sentiment was carried eloquently by a young rapper Sofia Ashraf and the video has gone viral on several platforms. 

Monday, February 06, 2017

The curious case of Nagaland unrest

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Nagaland Map 
It is very rare to see a news report on the North east of India in the mainstream Indian newspapers, except to depict violent incidents, a sentiment deservedly reciprocated by the average North-easterner who refer to ‘India’ as a foreign country in their daily conversation. So often when they intend to visit Delhi or Chennai, they say they are heading for India. Often too when you land up, say in Mizoram, you are an Indian arriving ‘abroad’. The attitude varies from state to state of course. Recently, a newly appointed governor to a North east state even claimed that the Indians know more about the USA than their North east neighbor. It would be a tall order in such a case to expect Indians from other states to be aware of the diversity within these states in terms of tribal groupings, languages and religions.

The situation with intelligent news coverage may be getting even worse now as it becomes difficult to find reliable news in print or on TV even about one’s immediate neighbourhoods in India and the North east does not look like a great exception anymore. Reports emerging from Nagaland in recent days however seem near unanimous in informing us that ‘Angry mobs protesting against holding of urban local body (ULB) polls with reservation for women burned down several government buildings in Nagaland’s capital Kohima on Thursday, prompting the administration to clamp prohibitory orders and deploy additional security personnel.’ This report is part of a series in local and mainstream newspapers that suggest a deep rift within the Naga society. The same report goes on to state ‘Nagaland’s powerful tribal organizations are opposed to holding of ULB [urban local bodies] polls with 33% reservation for women. They say it violates Article 371A of the constitution that grants special status to Nagaland and safeguards its traditional laws. Tribal laws do not allow women in administrative positions.’ So the question naturally occurs – are the Naga tribes even more patriarchal than the people from the plains such as Bihar where the men are coming to terms with reserved seats for women in local and state bodies?

Things as usual are not as simple as they seem. Patriarchy or not the fact is the Naga tribes look at a very seminal intervention in their social system and norms by the Indian state as entirely welcome. This is what makes them angry to the extent of burning government buildings and public properties, not the patriarchy on its own. This is not the first time that we see deep seated political anger find expression in a somewhat convoluted way. The problem in Nagaland and other areas of the North east gets further compounded by the internecine conflicts within the societies both among the tribes and communities as well as within them. This has often led to the creation of partisan factions with loyalties that undermine inter-tribal unity and prevent the rise of leaders of greater stature who may rise above the narrow interests of the smaller groupings. The way democracy often plays out in such contexts is that the smaller groups are left disgruntled and are often driven to violence. The Indian state has not been much help in this regard – if anything it has had a tradition of playing one group against the other to retain some semblance of control over these sensitive border areas. So by way of rhetoric what we often end up with are scenarios of highly complex conflict – men against their own women, tribal bodies against elected representatives, and eventually the state versus the nation at large. No wonder that in the midst of the emotionally charged and historically convoluted context any talk of fresh beginning simply means going back to square one. This is why the latest reports indicate that the Nagaland Congress party has appealed to the centre to declare president’s rule in Nagaland and announce a fresh round of general elections, measures that seem more like a distraction than a remedy.          

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Positive Wave in UP and Negative Wave in Punjab

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The BJP’s only advantage in Uttar Pradesh may have been what seemed like an unending fracas among the different factions within the Samajwadi party till some days ago. It seemed unlikely that Mayawati’s BSP would have been the sole beneficiary of the internal wrangles within the SP and some of the SP votes may have turned up in BJP’s kitty. But there is a sea change now and we already have the beginnings of an SP wave that may bring the Akhilesh government back to power in Uttar Pradesh. The analysts in the press have covered more or less all the factors at play, including caste, development issues, earlier track record, the recent failings of the BJP due to demonetization, the fast fading image of Narendra Modi, the internal strife within the BJP and its lack of solid leadership within the province. But there is a subliminal aspect that has gone largely unnoticed or underemphasized – even the most unnuanced reading of the recent handshake between the Congress and the SP will not fail to notice the subservient role played by Rahul Gandhi in all the images circulating in the media. It may sound like an over-subtle point here but may become the clinching factor in determining the voter choice in the forthcoming assembly elections. Within a matter of weeks Akhilesh has managed to project the image of an honest rebel capable of taking on his own father and uncles, an undaunted risk-taker and then finally a figure that can wrap within its fold the national figure of Rahul Gandhi and the towering though now largely titular figure of the Gandhi-Nehru names. There is enough evidence from the photos and footage in the media that Akhilesh is finding acceptance among a large swathe of voters in Uttar Pradesh. Unlike other partisan groups who have been routinely showing the BJP as victorious in their polls, the CSDS-Lokniti outcomes linked here draw the picture very differently. 

The Aam Admi Party [AAP] on the other hand is having a similar run in Punjab where it has managed to upset everyone with its rising popularity – it is now openly alleged that the BJP-RSS combine have instructed their followers to vote for Amarinder and the Congress rather than waste their ballot on the SAD-BJP combine. If this is really true, the BJP is surely convinced that there exists a visible and irreversible negative wave against the Badals. Interestingly in this case, the AAP has not declared its CM candidate and is letting Arvind Kejriwal’s image do the job for the time being, although AAP has repeatedly ruled out the likelihood of Kejriwal moving into the CM chair in Punjab. Here again Kejriwal cannot make the fatal mistake of claiming to lead a government in Punjab, the reason being he comes from Haryana and no Punjabi worth his salt will accept such chieftaincy. But more important that AAP has a long way to go and Kejriwal cannot on all occasions place himself in the CM bracket, thereby also scuttling his image of a prominent national figure. In this sense Kejriwal very much like Modi may become the chief star campaigner in various states but with no claims on CM-ships. 

The picture that emerges from both Punjab and Goa seems bleak from the BJP viewpoint and there are signs that the party now plans to take measures it often does when cornered – create communal tension and raise the temple issue in UP. BJP seems to be doing both weaving its development rhetoric with provocative communal propaganda at the local level. In the coming days this rhetoric is likely to become more strident. But this will only ensure that the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh get into a tighter huddle and instead of splitting their votes between the BSP and SP decide to go whole hog for Akhilesh. So Akhilesh has a lot to rejoice these days though this is unlikely to make him smug, lucky as he has been to skip and escape so many insuperable hurdles lately.         

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trump Troubles Start

How is banning people of certain countries going to improve the security?[1] You always need to do the hard work of identifying 'potential terrorists' among ordinary citizens, and the goal needs to be to do that search by minimizing hassles to everyday people. With blanket bans, you are destroying lives of people, making them live in fear. That is how Fascism starts. Your Green Card, your valid Visa or your American Passport; none of those things can save you if you are a political opponent.[2] 

By trashing Media as 'political opponent', Trump has effectively nullified American Media. There is nothing 'worthwhile pressure' Media can build in America to alter Trump policy. Today it is Muslims from those seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia). More Muslim countries are most likely to get added. Then anytime Indian PM Narendra Modi does not do things as asked by Donald Trump, India can very quickly come on that list too. With India, the number is large and by impacting those millions in Tech Industry if Valley Businesses get affected - so what? Tanking Economy does not bother Donald Trump and especially so of Tech Industry in Bay Area which did not vote for him. But same will be the case of Texas Corporations and Auto Industry in MidWest. All will get impacted, but that would not matter to Donald Trump so as long as he does not pay the political price.[3]

In Democracy, such political accountability is expected to come via elections. But when a good number of Americans (I know so many of those young American voters) who do not take voting seriously, who do not see the value of stopping extremists like Donald Trump; we have diminishing hopes of things changing soon. Meanwhile, with a delusional president who thinks his opponent got millions of invalid votes; the business of disenfranchising a large number of voters is in full force.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are still with the understanding that they will be able to 'ride the tiger' of Donald Trump all the way to enact their ideological agenda. Unless and until they have 'used Donald Trump' thoroughly to achieve the ideological transformation of America completely, whatever political 'pain' of sticking with Trump is; it does not get repaid in full. For Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell (Reine Priebus and Mike Pence have already crossed to the 'darker side' to count them as any credible conservatives); the investment in Trump has to pay, and until that, Republicans in Congress are just going to accept the collateral damage of Trump devastation.   

In American Democracy, you need ways to build the political pressure on Republicans so that they would find the price of sticking with divisive and destructive policies and politics of Donald Trump unacceptable. In a dysfunctional democracy, citizens and impacted people do not get those mechanisms to enforce any kind of political accountability. That is where America has landed itself. 

Indeed these are dark days for America, and they are about to get darker before getting any better. 


[1] - I get it when Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn are deciding Tump's National Security; their thinking would be: "we want to alert countries of the world by pointing and browbeating these measly seven countries. That way rest of the world gets the message that 'if they want their business with the USA not disturbed; they take all the precaution of not sending any suspect terrorist." But to start by second guessing rest of the world when it comes to terrorism is precisely following the playbook of Fascism - 'you start with distrusting other countries'. That is what contributions from Messers Bannon and Flynn are going to be to Trump's National Security policies.

Some sane people have suggested that Senate Republicans need to 'stand up' to Trump and they need to do it now. I think Senate Republicans refusing to confirm Trump Sec. of State nominee Tillerson; is one way to drive that message - unless the ban is removed and influence of Fascists like Bannon and Flynn reduced from National Security, Tillerson does not get confirmed. That will be a taste where these Republicans want to 'draw a line'. I am not hopeful, but still would like to see if there is any life left in working of the American system.

[2] - Many in Media have adopted an approach where not to get distracted by Trump's utterances but to focus on his deeds. I saw the merit in that approach since it was pointless to react to every utterance of Donald Trump. First, that is what Trump wants - he always needs the oxygen of attention from others. Second, that is his ploy of pushing agenda while distracting people. Third, the guy is a ceaseless machine of attention grabs. You are not going to keep up with a lifetime's worth of Trump Narcissism. But now is the time - Trump has done something which is actually, concretely damaging lives of people, people's businesses. So we in Media who adopted this approach of 'watch Trump and criticize him when he does something' need to come forward start calling Trump's stupidity very clearly.

[3] - I know some Valley-based Indian Americans who made their wealth via Tech Business and who have been backing Donald Trump's clueless politics. Kids of these wealthy Indian Americans are now employed at 'plum positions' in these Tech Companies. It will be interesting to watch as 'assets' of this second generation Young Indian Americans start to vanish due to wrong policies of Trump; whether the older first Generation of Indian Americans will continue to support Donald Trump. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Film Review: Two plus two – not so simple!

by Uday Oak

Just like one routinely says “it’s not rocket science”, implying rocket science is something very complex, very special, way beyond reach of average individuals. Similarly, “it’s as simple as two plus two makes four” is a commonly used refrain.

A short film, just about eight minutes, makes one think. And think. And think. This film, made in Persian language, way back in 2011.

Students sitting in a classroom. Teacher arrives. There is an announcement on the PA system. And there is an upheaval. Revealing anything more would be sadism.

The points that hits you right between the eyes is, the film doesn’t point to anything or anyone in particular, and yet it points to the whole world within and beyond our perceptions and thoughts. There is some symbolism, but it is more in the ‘hint’ category and not in the ‘cacophonously preachy’ category. In fact, the director has avoided using any visuals, colors or sounds that would peg it down to a particular culture, country or a society.

And that is the biggest success of the film. In a short span of eight minutes, it breaks the shackles of routine boundaries and sets your mind free. You are free to think and interpret this film in any way you like. In that sense, it is like a Zen story or haiku. So short, and yet so deep and long!