Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why Nitish is not charmed by call for opposition unity

Ratnakar Tripathy

That Indian politics in its everyday sense is fast sliding from a state of excessive zeal to dire fatigue and anomie is becoming clearer by the day. While the critics of the present regime habitually look for a ray of hope in the opposition parties and find none, it seems wiser to follow the public mood of the voter, the government’s changing rhetoric at its different layers and likely developments within what seems a monolith of a regime with all the powers concentrated in the PMO. When one examines the regime as an executive engine and an agency of change, it becomes clear that there is little about it that seems lasting. If anything, the Modi regime is likely to leave behind a legacy of false starts and rather forgettable if not traumatic memories. The question is how soon will that happen? There is a certain persistence of hope among the citizens that continues to work as an emotional capital favouring the BJP in the minds of the voters – it is almost as if every time the voter may feel frustrated and angry with the present regime, the haunting images of a Rahul or Sonia Gandhi chases them back into what they see as a safer haven of the BJP. It is however becoming clear that the present regime, very much like the Emergency of 1975 will prove to be one more dead end for the Indian democracy – sometimes indeed, it is perhaps more important to learn pathways to be avoided rather than forge a clear path ahead. Such predicaments can seem like a psychological standstill or even an impasse but may represent a pause of political learning for the common voter.

Such is the context for any talk of opposition unity in the country. When recently Bihar’s Chief Minister was criticized by both RJD and Congress leaders for his inconsistent and ‘unethical’ support to the BJP over its presidential candidate Ramnath Kovind, till some days ago, the BJP-appointed Governor of Bihar, the ethical terminology failed to attract the ears of the voters. It is commonly known in Bihar that Nitish runs a regime in Bihar that is in equal measure supported and harassed by the RJD elements who would like a cut out of the government schemes and contracts. Nitish is not willing. Some say that Bihar’s prohibition of alcohol may be driven professedly by Nitish’s support among the woman voter of Bihar, but its real target were the RJD hyenas howling at the gates of Nitish. Banning alcohol has effectively decimated their largesse and a solid source of income. Similarly, when the Congress terms Nitish ‘unethical’, the question may be asked, despite the sublime abstraction called ‘opposition unity’, what can the Congress give Nitish that he already doesn’t have? That the Congress is a spent force at the centre is a fact that we must force down our gullets with great haste, as any hope of the Congress seen often as the lesser evil will seriously skew our political analysis. The Congress may indeed be a lesser evil but it is also completely effete and will remain so for a long time to come. If the Congress made substantial gains in the last Bihar assembly elections, it was largely due to the momentum that favoured the RJD and JD[U] and not the other way round.

As far as the ‘ethics’ of Nitish goes, he is stuck in a strange predicament. With a thinner voter base than the RJD in Bihar, he is reduced to playing the BJP and the RJD against each other on a daily basis and support for Kovind is no exception. As for the Congress, I am not sure Nitish’s already cluttered mental space will allow him to spare even a passing thought to a party wrecked by its top leaders despite its grand tradition. As for Modi-Shah duo, they will need more time to wreck the BJP but they are already at it on a daily basis. With these two megaliths gone, all you see on the Indian landscape of the future are small rocks, some stones and a huge expanse of fine gravel. If the Congress failed to run the engines of a heavily centralized structure, there is no reason to believe that the BJP with a much larger family of sister organizations will succeed at the same in the long run or even for a short term. Centralism as an ideology alone is not adequate for keeping a centralized structure intact and running. So if at all, the opposition’s strategic handshakes will only make sense during a regional election for some more time to come.        

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Native noises from Darjeeling: imposing Bangla can hurt Mamata

Ratnakar Tripathy

A scene from an earlier agitation at Mirik
If you thought Mamata provided one of the toughest bastions against the present regime, try a question mark to get real. Mamata seems to have shot herself in the foot when there was no need to do so. However uneasy, the Gorkha issue around Darjeeling was in a state of truce. Yes, they do want their own state and are not content with the autonomous council which they understandably see as an interim arrangement or even a base camp for the final climb to statehood. But they were being unusually quiet about their passion till Mamata’s attempt to impose Bangla on them roused them from a temporary slumber by imposing Bangla as a compulsory subject till class X. But as a newspaper edit put it ‘Longstanding issues such as the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal cannot be wished away with a magic wand.’ Indeed, Mamata went far beyond sitting idly and wishing. She provoked the Gorkha pride with her magic wand instead, poking it where it hurts the most. The Bengali sense of superiority may be meekly accepted elsewhere in the country and people may let it pass, but Darjeeling is the wrong place for articulating Bhadralok presumptions. Although the regime in Kolkata partly withdrew, announcing that the subject will be optional in the hill district, the damage is done. That the sleeping tiger has been stirred and the new phase of Gorkhaland agitation is now supported by all the hill parties will cause enormous glee in the BJP is obvious. BJP has had tie ups with Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha [GJM] during elections in the past and will not hesitate in granting statehood to Gorkhaland if it serves its purpose in cornering Mamata in her own domain.

The proposed Gorkhaland
What may follow is even worse – the West Bengal voter is unlikely to forgive Mamata for losing Darjeeling, their own backyard hill station and picnic spot. If you wish to assess the Bengali arrogance do have a look at this jaundiced take on the agitation – the article starts with ‘What is wrong if the West Bengal government wants to merely include Bengali as one of the languages in the state-funded school education curriculum?’ And then the commentator goes on to elaborate on what clearly seems the deep-seated Bhadralok bias that sees no difference between an argument and plain grumbling. 

‘Such unity among the people of the hills was last witnessed in the 1980s. Gorkhaland is a sentiment of the people of the hills, which you cannot afford to ignore. It can be suppressed for some time but can't be wiped out," Jan Andolan Party (JAP) chief Harka Bahadur Chetri said as tension continued to simmer, 11 days after the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite shutdown on 8 June’ reports another source’ – all this must seem like sweet music among the BJP top brass who have been eyeing at West Bengal as the next trophy to bag. The way Mamata has let matters escalate in Darjeeling has made her an enemy of the Gorkhaland movement in a rather personal sense and the bitterness will not evaporate easily, even she mends her ways in a hurry to ward off an upheaval at this stage, delaying the inevitable for the time being.


Monday, June 12, 2017

The democracy of fear and the fear of democracy

Ratnakar Tripathy

At a somewhat late age I realize that we intellectuals and academics have a life assignment that may be described fairly simply – to try and protect the rest of the humanity as well as ourselves from two malaises – first, an overwhelming sense of obviousness about life meanings and social order, and second when aspects of personal and social life seem too burdensomely mysterious, to simplify and unravel them. The sense of obviousness is one when you begin to feel that life has been emptied of all the mysteries and enchantments and everything is oh so obvious and clear – so much so there is no need to know any more than one already does. By too much mystery I mean a sense of being crushed by puzzles that seem unanswerable. This is no mean assignment but according to me, totally worthwhile. 

So at this present conjuncture in Indian politics when I went out to seek some light, some insight and hopefully some pearls of wisdom too, where did I find it? In this video by Ravish Kumar the well-known TV journalist from NDTV, known for his grassroots news coverage and his apparent humaneness as a reporter. I do not know Ravish personally although we do have dozens of common friends. What I do value as a real bridge between us is the fact that we both come from Champaran in Bihar, the place where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started his satyagrah against compulsory farming of Indigo by Bihari landowners a century ago. Several colleagues and friends of mine are currently busy organizing the logistics for a march within Champaran and from Champaran to Delhi later this year. I wish them well not simply for reasons parochial involving pride over coming from a clan rooted in Champaran, but because these are people who are chasing hope with the same desperation, affection and passion as I do, given the present predicament of our country.

So what has Ravish taught me? As someone trained in philosophy and inclined to carry the torch all my life, I have a bias for convoluted theories and a temperamental inability to talk and write without quoting Derrida and Heidegger and some sundry Indian thinkers too. I have to at times try hard to shed these philosophical callouses and think with the purity of one’s own mind.  This essay is an attempt to do precisely that.

To reiterate the question, what did Ravish teach me?

With apologies to those who do not read or understand Hindi, the simple lesson I learn from the longish speech is, the present regime is mainly about two things – it is trying on a 24x7 basis to instill in us a sense of dread and fear. Why should a regime that came riding on the back of a democratic system want to do that instead of feeling grateful to it for fulfilling all its appetite for power? Because Ravish says, it is a regime that shudders with fear of democracy and our votes on a 24x7 basis. So it is the good old bully from school trying to scare you because he is scared of your talent, your decency and warm human feelings.  Is that an oversimplification? Of course it is. But at a moment when you are seeking desperately for ways to ensure survival, you need a pointing finger clearly defining the direction for your attack and escape – you do not need an international conference for a broad exchange of viewpoints and perspectives.

Another reason why I found my wisdom in Ravish. For the past few years I have noticed that my friends, colleagues and acquaintances, mostly intellectuals and academics from India are divided into two groups with frequent overlaps – ones who have given in to a dark, broody gloom, and those who get hysterical within seconds after waking up in the morning and reading the trivialest of current news.  While I appreciate both the emotive predicaments, I have often been made to feel like an ever unremedied and irremediable case of pathological optimism, a genetic disorder to be despised and at times envied. I do not think however that I am afflicted with chronic optimism at all. I just feel that the gloom and the hysteria are both equally irrational and untimely. The situation is a bit like Geeta the little big book from our tradition. Right at the moment of urgent action, the great warrior Arjuna finds himself paralyzed just looking at the faces his arrows should hit – his grandfather, his gurus, and his playmate cousins of his childhood. Krishna then steps in and reminds Arjuna that it is too late and what must be done must quite simply be done, although many of his arguments cross the boundaries of the here and now, soaring above at cosmic heights.

Not that I have even an iota of Krishna’s rare package of wisdom and cunning, what is the one line Geeta moment here? [Remember half of Gandhi’s exegetes see him as a cunning baniya, and the rest see in him an untainted saint]. It is just this – while you hide and hesitate before a fellow countryman, albeit your ruler, you forget that he is quite likely more scared of you than you are of him.  I will now tell a story from my college days, a momentary digression from the conversation but I promise it will prove to be very relevant.

Once upon a time in my BHU hostel room I was invaded by a lumpen-bully batchmate of mine. He accused me rather arbitrarily of not returning his greetings. He shut the door behind him, looked me in the eye and said ‘what if I give you a tight slap in your face?’ I had no choice and no time to think. I said ‘I will give you a tighter one’ and those were days when I did some weights. The bully stared at me awhile and then rushed to me to put his head on my shoulders and hug me. What do you think the big bully man had to say? The hysterical bully told me ‘what? If a friend in a moment of anger gives you a slap, you will forget your long history of friendship and hit him back?’ this melodrama queen was actually teary eyed saying this and we sat down and exchanged some pleasantries, smoked a shared cigarette and parted.

So what is the moral I am trying to squeeze out of this petty anecdote and Ravish’s epic speech? The moral is the enemy is a human being, however evil. So Ravish’s stance is not that of a murderous gallant wanting to squish the enemy under a big thumb but that of love actually. He doesn’t want the rulers to evaporate in the white heat of his anger – he just wants them to come down the pedestal a few rungs and go home with their heads bent in common humility. He wants them to go home and relaxe and do things they may want to – such as not eat beef, not ask too many questions of authority and to blindly follow its dictates, to hug the national flag in the bed and enjoy peaceful sleep, to dream of killing Muslims without acting on the impulse, to believe that the Indian civilization is ten million years old and the mother of entire humanity, that women are meant not to love but to despise, and that drinking cow urine is a better deal than a pint at the club. Your agenda is much longer of course, but dear ruler sir, please do not try to impose any of it on a whole country and do all this at home in your privacy. The right to harmless madness must be counted as a major human right I believe, although I am not aware if our constitution explicitly dwells on it at all. These are times when the CCTV state will cart you to a psychiatry ward if seen making faces at yourself in the mirror, after all!

Gandhi would have been fine with all this talk and the video too and would chuckle toothlessly listening to the man from Champaran.

So have I made clear why this near worshipful piece on Ravish’s video?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Film Review: Wonder Woman

The underlying theme of Marvel and DC comics character based movie is 'good guys prevail over bad ones'. It is simple, after all the inspiration is from the world of comics meant for growing kids entering adolescence. Occasionally this fight or conflict is used to make a commentary about the way we live our lives. Being imaginary characters, the tradition of comics is to generally opt for 'beyond nation states or other prosaic identifications' so that it provides the fulcrum to make a meta-point about humanity. For any such meta-commentary to succeed, it is critical to transport the audience effortlessly to 'a station' where what characters are saying is heard in all earnest. That is the trick director Patty Jenkins has been able to pull off in this wonderful movie. 

Nowhere there is any pretension by Jenkins that this film is nothing but a make-believe story telling. It is all imaginary. But by crashing that 'fiction' in the hard and grim reality of World War I, by unravelling the 'innocence' of Wonder Woman slowly over the span of the movie; Jenkins created the space or context to ask the primordial question of humanity - why do humans become so reckless to kill off each other to an extent where extinction of humans from this planet becomes a real possibility? The director presents Diana's love for Steve as a proof that 'love' is a convincing answer for ills of humans and our proclivity to destruct one another.

The sequencing of major scenes, coherent unfolding of the plot, competent cinematography and reasonably good performances by Gal Gadot and Chris Pine; all achieve the purpose of taking the audience in a 'reflective mood' where the questions of 'war and peace' can be debated in a mature way. Too often in our today's politics, we are routinely turning our back to the reality and facts and refusing to ask and answer some obvious questions. It is only Diana's slow comprehension of how human mind interacts with other people makes it possible for us to ask these fundamental questions and prepares us to be receptive to answers which are so openly revealing in front of us. The director and scriptwriter were smart to demonstrate that in the end, it is few 'humans' who saved Humanity from the disastrous chemical weapons. Diana was the inspiration. She does only two fight scenes of significance - one to liberate a village when she answers the question of "when to help needy" by effectively saying "now" in an emphatic and spectacular manner.* The other one is when she makes her stubborn statement against the "hopelessness of the humanity" as cunning Iros has been waiting for ages for mankind to annihilate itself. While Diana wages these other worldly battles for morality of humans, in the concrete "here and now" world of humans; it is only the goodness residing among ordinary people who undertake heroics to bring us back from the precipice. The movie renders two parallel worlds - the grim and real world of "here and now" inhabited by Steve and his ordinary friends; and the ideal world of "where Humans ought to go", inhabited by Diana and Amazonian People. The beauty of the movie is by making violent and bewildering clashes between these two worlds, with full utilization of artistic freedom, the director has opened the audience for a larger debate; a classic use case of 'pure art' is fully attained by this movie.

* But alas, ultimately her saving of villagers does not work; they all die in the test chemical attacks.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Comey Testimony

Three things happened in the ex-FBI boss Comey's testimony:

1. There was no new ground broken which would have been called as new evidence of 'obstruction of justice' by Trump. All that big yawn you hear from Republican Congress members, it is because 'it could have been worse...' kind of relief Republicans are having.

2. But Comey laid his case effectively. Trump practically threatened Comey to end Flynn investigations, made it clear what he expected from Comey, then he fired him and finally went public saying Russia investigation was on his mind. It is difficult to see other than what is obvious here - Trump wanted Comey to end investigations and Comey paid the price for not obliging Trump. In a sense, there does not have to be a new evidence since Comey - with seven pages of written testimony and oral one today; established very conclusively that there was a clear attempt by Trump to stop Comey. This in itself is very powerful.

3. As Comey said, special counselor Mueller will have to determine whether Trump action constitutes an 'obstruction of justice' or not. But what Comey achieved is he made the 'liar' label stick to Trump. In the Court of American Public, more are likely to believe Comey's case that Trump tried to defame him and the Bureau untruthfully. Politically this is a big deal too. American Public knows not to take Trump literally and all politicians lie. (At least that is the 'meme' with Trump supporters!). But in this case, American People also know stakes are high.

Indeed far from unshackling himself, Trump will continue to be under a cloud with further loss of his credibility. Democrats are going to cherish this slow dripping.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Trump Exits Paris Accord

Source - NASA / Wikipedia
From a substantive point of view, I get what this Wall Street Journal Editorial is saying in endorsing Trump's action of ditching the Paris Accord. There is a merit in a viewpoint that getting prosperous now, having accumulated wealth now, is more important than worrying about a problem which will arise 50 years down the line. But there are a number of issues which remain unanswered in this line of thinking:

1. WSJ Editorial argues that Obama committed steep emission reduction targets for the USA but did not execute on the corresponding legislative action of aligning taxes to encourage such emission reduction. Ok, knowing Republicans controlled Congress for 6 years of Obama Era; we cannot recall WSJ Editorial chastising Republicans in Congress for not pushing any such tax alignment. Moreover, the right corollary of such an argument will be to urge Trump Administration to take an initiative to bring necessary tax and regulatory changes so that natural alignment happens between America's Energy Producers and the goal of voluntarily reducing greenhouse gases. WSJ Editorial does not do that but just could not resist itself in falsely criticizing Obama regime.

2. The accord sets voluntary targets. As the editorial says it correctly, the Paris according is nothing but an exercise in moral and social signaling. Given that, for America to reject when 190 countries have done so; it is simply an arrogant assertion of American Exceptionalism. It is bogus, egoistic and manically suitable for the Trump style. But in decades to come when the World is dominated by China and India, this arrogance of America is not going to help her anything. Wise Statesmen would have seen the merit of staying in the Accord but ensuring that American Industry does not pay any undue price. Meaning, this repudiation of a global according is going to be the poster child of Dumb Trump when it comes negotiating with rest of the world.

3. It is not as if rest of the world does not know how divided America is. But what this act will enforce is the futility of negotiating anything with an American Administration when the execution extends more than a sitting presidential term. In the case of Donald Trump, even Republicans cannot guarantee that he would last till next year! It is easy to imagine no nation with integrity or character would take an American Administration very seriously. In other words, Trump simply compounded his enemies and the way Bush's Iraq War continues to cost Americans; it is possible that Trump's mistake will continue to cost America for a long time to come - in terms any nation co-operating with America. Combined with Trump's refusal to confirm commitments to NATO, this American Administration has accumulated international damage of enormous proportion. Trump backing out of Paris Accord is going to open a void and equally an opportunity for China, India, and EU to fill that void. Political stars are aligned in these regions that indeed these nation states would step forward to lead the world. One should not be surprised few decades down the line when one would point to this Trumpian Exit as the genesis of the sunset of American Exceptionalism.

4. Trump said he was elected to protect interests of Pittsburg and not Paris. The question is by ditching Paris Accord, are Trump and Republicans going to bring jobs to Carbon Counties? When you are a political force which is ready to cut basic medical insurance of 20 million Americans; when you have an Administration which literally wants to cut the life line of millions of Americans in programs funded by Federal Government; there are no hopes that any such jobs will be created. Creating jobs is a hard work, and it needs a Government which is very agile, innovative and still willing to spend where it matters. No such dexterity is shown by Trump Administration nor by the current Republican Congress. One can imagine a Democrat campaigning in the Red Counties in a year or two, asking "has Trump brought you any jobs?".

The part which is more persuasive in the WSJ Editorial is when it says it is the American Private Industry which will innovate our way out. I would add to that the enlightened investor pressure as well. Ultimately Paris Accord represents a way of life humans want to follow on this planet, and that path is trying to pollute less of our natural habitat. It is cultural for sure. But there is nothing wrong in that. Humanity might have achieved more prosperity via Slavery, Apartheid, and Castism too. But that does not mean Humans allowed that. 

The essence of a religious faith is - do things what we think moral even though we can get away otherwise. Trump act of ditching Paris Accord simply does not take this high road. Sure, there are jobless folks in Pittsburg who need to be employed. But it does not mean the only path in finding jobs for those folks should be polluting more of this planet. There are many other ways to bring employment to Carbon Counties of America. But the exit of Paris Accord by Trump formalizes otherwise an expected behavior from this Republican Regime which refuses to work through alternatives while co-operating with rest of the world.