Monday, April 24, 2017

Chetan Bhagat gains respectability through syllabus

Ratnakar Tripathy

As a student of popular culture with a number of academic publications on the subject, I have had many occasions to question my own fascination for the popular and even the crass. It is not a simple question to answer but an obvious answer may be that it is a good way to find access to popular concerns and attitudes among the common folk who are least interested in a Hazari Prasad Dwivedi or a Milan Kundera. Like it or not, unlike politicians or administrators, students of human society do not get to wade through the minds of the common folk. Even anthropologists deal with a small sample of population and are wary of generalizing too far or at all. But does inclusion in a BA elective course on ‘popular literature’ amount to an elevation of rank? Chetan Bhagat seems to think so and there is little we can do by way of disabusing him of his fancy. According to a recentreport, Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’, Bhagat’s book will be taught along with fiction novels by American novelist and poet Louisa M Alcott, English crime novelist Agatha Christie and British novelist JK Rowling. ‘Five Point Someone will be part of the Popular Fiction paper in the General Elective, which is offered to second-year undergraduate students pursuing honours and programme courses under the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS).’

Bhagat’s glee at this development comes mixed with his well-known arrogance and the tweets below fully reflect the delusions of a pulp writer who sees a towering literary figure when he looks in the mirror.
‘Am honoured DU added my books to their course. Literature is about being open minded, reading the classics as well as the contemporary.’
‘Elitistaan theories trying to diss me and literary value of my books have failed miserably with DU adding my books to their course. Sorry.’

He may be right in assuming that to be popular is not the same thing as to be bad. Novelists like Premchand and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and even Rabindranath Tagore have remained immensely popular as anyone visiting a book fair in 2017 will find out in minutes.  But the converse is not true – popularity on its own does not make anyone great either. Those who have read Bhagat and found him gifted with a storyteller’s ability also understand that his English prose is neither here nor there. It is not even a form of Indian English and seems interesting for allowing you a peek into the minds of the English speaking Indian middle class and that is absolutely the upper limit of praise one may grant him.  Imagine a reader who will hold Bagat’s novels in high esteem and place him alongside Bhalchandra Nemade or Shreelal Shukla or even a Vikram Seth.

Unlike politics or even economy, art and literature are ruthless arenas where you cannot presume equality. Ranking a work may be an eternally debatable issue, but there are clear lines to be drawn. Who knows may be in my doddering old age I might feel nostalgic about Karan Johar’s movies, and fondly hum ‘kal ho na ho’ but I am sure I won’t place him along a Tarkovsky. In sum, Bhagat represents the aspirational classes of India but his aspirations this time round have run into an insuperable roadblock.

French Sanity in a Crazy World?

Emmanuel Macron, Source - Wikipedia
From Indonesia, China, India, Middle East, Russia to Europe and America; the world is awash with Authoritarian Politicians winning elections after elections. Anti-liberal, Ethno-nationalistic, intolerant, non-secular politics is spreading like wildfire. In Indonesia, liberal centrist President saw the defeat of his trusted ethnic Chinese team member to someone who played Muslim religious card unabashedly to win a critical Governorship of Jakarta. In China, there never was a hope that Xi Jinping would introduce any baby steps for liberal democracy. But midway through his minimum 2 terms tenure, Xi is going for a total power grab. The concentration of power in Xi's hands is exceptional by even standards of Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, in India, PM Modi might not have turned to more authoritarian politics while he establishes hegemony in Indian Politics after the UP win. But nurturing the atmosphere of 'intolerance and illiberal politics' - that is proceeding full speed on Modi's watch, and it is not a surprise given how vested RSS is in Modi Raj. 

Vladimir Putin of Russia is the leader of the class when it comes to non-democratic, anti-liberal and ethnonationalism politics. His regime has been killing journalists who dare to expose his culpability, killing his political opponents, taking the art of 'influencing foreign elections' to a whole new sophistication; all while grabbing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine. What is so disheartening is to see leaders after leaders of the world ready to ignore literally murderous politics of Putin (murder of People as well as the murder of Democracy and Freedom) and willing to embrace him. Trump may have been stopped for now from  'his consumption' in the marriage to Putin, but just look at the stupendous 'political acceptance' French Leader Maria La Pen offers to Putin. Vladimir Putin has pioneered a murderous, fake news based politics while draping in election credibility patina; all in the service of enriching himself and continue his hammerlock in the Russian Empire.

Except for the brief infighting when Turkey forces blew a Russian aircraft, the deep bonding between Putin and Turkey boss Erdogan continues to flourish. By arm-twisting ordinaryTurks and by undertaking manipulations in the election process; he just amassed total power in Turkey

Putin, Erdogan are the pace setters in this club of illegitimate, politically corrupt power holders who set the anti-liberal, anti-secular agenda at the global level. With regional enablers like Egypt's Sisi or Hungarian Orban or incumbent intolerant Polish regime; there is a lot of company to Putin-Erdogan. Politics of African nations hardly has any bright spots when thoroughly corrupt Zuma continues to be at the helm of South Africa. As an example of how little things change politically on the African Continent, look how the Congolese leader fleeces money from his own people in mundane things like Passport. Except for Argentina, Chile and few other smaller countries; things are not particularly encouraging in South America too. The continued insanity of Maduro Government in Venezuela and the stable, but lacking in credibility, government in Brasilia; are the manifest examples of continually broken political system in South America. 

Given this global context, one wonders whether humanity is heading towards anti-liberal, anti-secular, non-democratic, 'power by any means' era all across the globe. To save us from that nightmare, we need to stop this 'anti-global, anti-liberal' Tsunami. One of the few countries one can expect to rise to that occasion is France, the birthplace of contemporary secularism and liberal democratic order. 2017 French election naturally provides that fulcrum and the first round clearly shows that substantial voters in France are ready to re-engage Centrist arguments of Liberal and Secure Polity. That is the heroic job Emmanuel Macron has done

Macron and France have an unprecedented opportunity to grab the mantle of global leadership in reasserting the Liberal, Secular and Rule-based Global Order. Sure, global trade and current global Capitalism have problems and it leaves local employment in doldrums. But the answer to that is not 'blow up everything' politics[1] while adopting chauvinistic, illiberal, racism-tinged anti-sematic corrupt politics. By electing Macron as the president of the Fifth Republic, maybe France will show the world a path forward.[2]


[1] I am sure the preview of this 'blow everything politics' as exhibited by Donald Trump in first 90 days or so would not have been reassuring to many French voters. Buyer's remorse may not be there for Trump's American voters, but he would have alarmed enough Europeans in the process though. The flip side of these developments is it will nudge Trump Administration more towards the traditional liberal world order foreign policy successive American Administrations of both parties have adopted since WWII.

[2] If Angela Merkel gets elected for her fourth chancellory term in 2018 - which seems more likely, the core axis of Europe will stabilize; providing much needed political booster shot to solve Europe's problem. While Trump Administration gets its act together on foreign policy which is in shambles by design or by ineptitude; rejuvenated Europe will be a much-stabilizing political force for the whole world. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Commentary: 16 opposition parties clamour to ensure that EVMs remain tamper proof

A good and conscientious journalist’s worst moment in life may be when after a coherent and sensible analysis of election results he is told that the EVMs were found to be tampered with. I don’t know about others but I would definitely go into deep depression and it would take me a long time to recover from the shame of plying my flawed wisdom with misplaced élan and smugness.  But that is a subjective issue. The real point is that lately doubts have been raised about the EVMs being susceptible to systematic tampering. Recently after the UP elections, Mayawati raised the issue and just yesterday AAP’s Kejriwal brought it up forcefully. The reaction in the press has been ludicrous. They are both being jeered all over for being bad sport. There is no evidence that any member of the press tried to go deep into the issue but the prevalent despise for Mayawati and Kejriwal seems to have become the common policy. The Election Commission has termed the stray instances such as the Dholpur election in MP supposedly to be cases of malfunctioning but the allegations of tampering have persisted with claims that the incidents are not isolated but ‘systematic’.

The contradictions between the sublime ideals of democracy and the actual procedures are hardly matters to be ignored or to be pushed under the rug. Just view this brief show by John Oliver on gerrymandering in the US elections and you will fully appreciate the significance of foolproof procedures in a democratic system.  Similarly, a well-known columnist points out the implications of booth wise display of election results where the issue of privacy raises its head. Quite simply, if a candidate gets to find out that you voted against him, will he take vengeful measures against you? So on the whole the issue here is that of ensuring that people trust the EVMs and are able to clearly see whom they voted for through Voter Verified Paper Audit Trial (VVPAT).

In the light of all this, this report acquires special significance. Whether the opposition parties are able to come together on a political platform against the BJP juggernaut is far less important than their united efforts to ensure the trustworthiness of the EVMs. That the Election Commission has agreed to hold an all-party meeting instead of giving specious arguments in the defense of the EVMs claiming total infallibility is equally welcome. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Show Time for the Commander-In-Chief

What a fabulous day to impress Core Leadership of Chinese Communist Party:

- Donald Trump hosts Xi Jinping and his wife at the glittering Mar-a-Lago;

- Donald Trump basks in the glory of Gorsuch confirmation all delivered by Republican Senators by busting the Democratic filibuster;

Pretty impressive. Donald is winning, winning and winning. Great way of pressurizing China, by exposing her inability to explode bombs anywhere on the globe by a simple click of a button. Let us see if Xi yields Donald anything or like a seasoned politician just withers away Donald's good day.

The truth is Donald has been a wounded beast for weeks, searching desperately for a 'win'. Exploding few 'bombs' in distant places is always an easy route available for an American President. 

President Trump's missile attack on Assad regime is justified. Sure, there is no UN Resolution for that. But Assad went a step too far to use Chemical Weapons. To leave him without any type of consequences is simply accepting a total breakdown of the global order. That Trump refuses to completely discard the existing global order is a big, big statement given that his campaign has been an insurgency against the established order. Needless to say, it is all work of seasoned players like Defense Sec. Gen. Mattis, NSC Advisor Gen. McMaster and others in Trump's strong security cabinet (devoid of Bannon now). President Trump has done well in enforcing consequences when an errant dictator crosses the red line.

But the tough part comes after this 'shock and awe'. All said and done, Trump has not completed his homework here. There is no 'well articulated Syrian policy' from this Administration. What happens the 'day after' and how does Trump Administration want to manage the Syrian Conflict is very critical. There is no room for 'hold your cards to your chest' style Trumpian negotiations in this highest order poker game. Trump Administration must articulate what is the 'end game' here. Is removal of Assad the eventual goal or just to stop him from using Chemical Weapons is the objective? 

It needs to be made clear that Trump Administration is entirely willing to play the hardball with Putin's Russia while Putin's Client Assad is pummelled mercilessly.[1] Trump Administration must be fully ready for emboldened ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Iran because of these attacks. We are in the familiar territory of Bush's Iraq quagmire. 

Donald Trump has shown sufficient instincts in not going the way of Bush's Iraq War. There is no appetite among today's Republicans or American Public to fund another entanglement in the Middle-East. But Obama Administration also showered missiles on Libya to remove Gaddafi, and in the end, the world landed with a failed state of Libya. 

So it is far more critical what happens next. Would Trump Administration quickly develop a coherent policy for the end game in Syria or the same 'on the fly' approach of Trump Administration is at play here? For an American President, it is much, much easier to conduct military fireworks in far away places; but dealing with consequences is far difficult. Especially when your foreign policy homework is still work in progress.


[1] As Vladimir Putin starts to internalize that Trump Administration is no friend of 'his interests', we are likely to see some explosive 'kompromat' against Donald Trump coming out; provided it exists. If no such compromised information gets revealed and Trump continues to be tough to Russia; he wins the politics of his RussiaGate scandal. The fact that Trump is willing to risk any such compromising revelation by Putin is a big political win for Donald Trump. Democrats will have to up their game in that case - just playing anti-Trump card will not be sufficient.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Oh how much our national conversation has changed

Ratnakar Tripathy

'Dialogue Des Sourds (Dialogue of the Deaf)' by Isabel Miramonte
Try an experiment – google for news pages from your favourites daily from four years ago and place them along with pages from today, and you begin to get an idea of how far things have changed in these years. The basic concerns of the people may not have changed that much really but the topics of national conversation reflected on our media platforms are now radically transformed. We are now a nation and society constantly talking about kosher food, appropriate clothing, and the permissible things to say in the wider society. We are very concerned about our sexual mores and the liberty to meet and interact among young boys and girls, about the right dose of reverence to be shown for symbols like the national flag and the anthem, about the due respect for major gods and minor deities, and about myriads of things that were earlier left to the individual, the family and the immediate community.

Not anymore! I suggested the experiment not because I believe that people haven’t perceived the enormous changes and I am the only guy around who has his eyes wide open. The reason I suggest this is sometimes the enormity of change in its incremental dosages gets split into many days and weeks and one may end up staring hard at yesterday’s pile, forgetting the larger mounds crowding our courtyards and street corners. No one I spoke to in recent times claimed that things have remained more or less the same since the last few years.  Of course, men and women from varied backgrounds differ when it comes to making sense of the change. There are those who wear a glint in the eyes and speak in the language of hope but are mostly unable to specify or pin down the exact contours of this hope. There are those who see a great danger and decline but are saddened by what they perceive as lack of political alternatives – it is depressing to talk with such people these days because every alternative posed in front of them is shot down with a cynical finality that I find highly disquieting. These conversations invariably end up with references to analogies from different eras and parts of the world, as if the chosen historical patterns are waiting to replay in India all over again. But I find the boldness of optimism far more oppressive. I am not sure I understand this hope very well but it seems to be more of a wait for a series of miracles than something substantial. I find it strange that after so many years of habitual dismissal of promises made by politicians of all sorts during the Congress era, we now have a climate of easy, no, completely facile hope. I feel this hope is based mainly on a sense of executive vigour and a rhetoric so virile that it seems to guarantee that a time for decisive action has come. If the voter decides that the proposed ‘decisive actions’ have been drawn from his own dreams and agendas, or even related to them at all, it is difficult to douse his raging wishfulness. There is no denying that we are dealing with a rather widespread pathology except there is no telling exactly how widespread it is. But I find it wrong to assume that the metastasis is complete. I do intuitively feel that after the big high we will see a phase of depression and extreme anger. It’s just that we cannot predict the moment when the tide of anger will come rushing in and the grinning faces will begin to gnash their teeth in fury. Just now I see a very thirsty populace rejoicing at the sight of a water tap and even admiring its beauty. It is reluctant to turn the tap to make sure it delivers water in the fear that the hope may turn out to be a vain one. So we are in a state of tense wait hoping that a naïve child will step ahead and yell out an appropriate label for the emperor.

My main question is do we have a government or a system of representation where the chosen leaders seem to care for the citizen or our democracy is just based on the skill of luring the voter into a five year trap of self-inflicted suffering?  These days it has become rare to talk of suffering, even as the magnitude of real pain mounts at a fast pace. We are going through times when the language of the victor has taken over completely and wars are being fought on the behalf of the common man on several fronts – food, attire, religious faith, sexuality, sundry opinions on personal issues, all of which featured in the media quite rarely till recently. Whether and for how long the voter will continue to tolerate or endorse these battles is what will determine the future of our democracy, of course.