Monday, September 23, 2013

On testing the way the wind blows

A few days ago, former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Kumar Modi reportedly tweeted: “Advaniji has failed to gauge the public mood”. He said LK Advani should have declared Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the coming general election.

It is no secret that 'Advaniji' had held prime ministerial hopes for over twenty years, and now it’s too late. His brand of politics has been sharpened to rapier point by younger men. So he has had to finally endorse Narendra Modi at public rallies.

Let us, for a moment, forget who is less suitable between the two men. Instead, let’s examine Sushil Modi’s lobbing of unsolicited 140-character chunks of advice at 'Advaniji'.

On the face of it, this sounds like good advice. In a democracy, elections are a reflection of public will. If people are discontent and thirsting for change, they’ll let you know. And it is true that a politician ceases to be significant if he disregards the electorate. A good politician is aware of, and sensitive to, the public mood.

But the problem with Sushil Modi’s advice is that it reduces leadership to mere politicking. It takes away from a politician the right to be a leader. It expects a politician to bow to ideas that please a sufficient number of people in order to win an election, and trample upon truth and Constitutional rights lest he/she is punished with powerlessness. In effect, it reduces a leader to an unthinking, spineless slave of the majority view (or whatever passes for the majority).

I don’t know if Advani’s misgivings about Narendra Modi’s leadership are moral. I doubt this. But I also think that our leaders owe us a personal moral compass. We need them to stand up for their own beliefs rather than just kowtow to the ‘public mood’.

Where have all our true leaders gone? This is our constant complaint. We imagine governance as a ship lost at sea. We think of politicians as wicked pirates (except they’re not fighting fit). But we forget what goes into the making of true leaders.

Think of the men and women whose names went into history textbooks for steering modern India through her independence struggle. MK Gandhi survived (and ultimately fell to) assassination attempts, not by the British but by Indians, who did not like his ideas on caste or religion. In nineteenth century India, notions of pollution-purity were the norm. Most leaders were upper caste and most of the country was illiterate. If public approval was all they sought, they would never have endorsed universal suffrage.

Inter-communal marriage was very rare in the 1920s. But Aruna Asaf Ali chose to risk public antagonism for the sake of her own values. Leaders like C Rajagopalachari risked political exile when they walked away from the party they helped to build.

It is not the job of a leader to be the public. A leader represents us, yes, but he/she must work for more than public approval. The job description includes upholding the Constitution; enforcing laws; making laws for a future; rejecting what is unworthy in our present; making justice a broader, more humane reality.

Sometimes this means being in conflict with the majority. If 51% of India wanted that 49% be turned into landless labourers with no access to drinking water, should a leader care about ‘public mood’? What if it’s 65% and 35%? What if it’s 78% and 22%? When does it become right to allow ‘public mood’ to dictate political decisions?

A good leader is someone willing to work to reshape popular ideas, redirect public energy and risk public displeasure. As far as gauging the public mood goes, any politician can do that.

[A version of this was published in DNA]

Friday, September 20, 2013

More than a database of grief

There is a stockpile of shared grief within each of us. It threatens to render the taste of life ash on our tongues. Each riot, every famine, each genocidal attack, racist attack, each horrific moment of hate. The maps of the world, of our place in the world, of our identity are marked by pain. And we go on. That is the thing. Without knowing why we suffered, or how to learn to trust again, we go on.

Survival is an instinct but our individual and social can matter only if we let go of past pain and find fresh reserves of trust, veering more and more and more towards the side of justice. And trying not privilege the grief of one race, one religion, or one gender over the other.

'Ground Zero', was written for The Small Picture which appears in Mint, beautifully illustrated by Prabha Mallya.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Saying it with the body

There is something about a rally or protest that announces itself even when it is not announced audibly. Like girls walking down the street in rows two or three thick, a fantastic array of colour and style. You stop to look. When you see the first fifteen or twenty, you wonder if it is for a festival. When you see fifty, and none of them conforming to any particular dress code, you know it is a rally.

You see that some of the girls are wearing clothes that would be considered outrageous on the street even in a foreign country where skirts, leggings and shorts are the norm. Then you see a girl wearing nothing but a thong (or a g-string; it is difficult to tell from a distance). Another whose breasts are bare except for her nipples. A few brave men too.

Only after hundreds have walked past, you see the placards. It is a Slut Walk in Melbourne. But you no longer need placards to tell you what this is about. Girls wearing next to nothing march beside girls in frilly frocks down to their ankles – they said what they had to say with their bodies. Mainly, that bodies are what they are. Clothes are what they are. What they are not is an excuse for violence.

Witnessing this Slut Walk reminded me that flesh has its own power. Not just the power of sex or seduction, but the power of truth. To bare oneself as a statement of fact: “This is what a woman looks like. So?” To wear their womanhood on the streets was inconvenient (for one, it was just too cold and windy) but it is not a call for violence.

                                             [Photo courtesy Nicolas Low]

Watching those women put to rest certain doubts for me, personally. In India, there had been several debates about Slut Walk – its viability or lack of cultural sensitivity. Did it make sense in a nation where little girls are raped everyday, and where women are often raped in front of their families?

Finally, I think it does make sense. Because people all over the world are frightened of the power of the human body. They are also afraid of those who veer from the norm, for there is power in both – conformity and non-conformity. And all human societies are based on power struggles.

Since it is easier to gain power through attacking a woman walking down the street than to lead an army, or build a fortress, or even just to fight a court case against neighbours, that is precisely what happens. That is why, in India, a bunch of village 'elders' can order an eight-year-old to marry into the family of her rapist. Because it is easier to impose further punishment upon her and her family than to punish the rapist, or risk annoying his family.

And that is why a bunch of criminal men can attack a group of women in Mangalore, because they are at a resort. Because it is easy to do so. Because they can argue that women going to resorts of their own volition, for whatever purpose, is akin to prostitution. Because they claim to speak for India when they say such women deserve to be hurt. They do this because the rest of us are too frightened of the body, of its truth, to challenge them.

We find ourselves shamed by our body, again and again, because we fail to speak up for it. But watching those women in Melbourne, I was finally convinced that the only way to reclaim this power of the body is to stop denying it.

First published here

Monday, September 09, 2013

Legislating filial love

A few months ago, I read about a law that makes it mandatory for Chinese citizens to visit elderly parents. 

My immediate thought was that this is an unimaginative, if not un-implementable, law. My next thought was — have matters really come to a pass that the state must legislate family relationships? 

Then I remembered that India had also passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, in 2007. It asks children to maintain a ‘normal’ life for parents, but didn’t mention emotional needs. In China, parents have been suing children for neglect. Some reports mentioned ‘ill-treatment and abandonment’, others refer to ‘filial piety’. So, the government is saying that their ‘daily, financial and spiritual needs’ should be met by grown children. In theory, it’s a reasonable expectation — children should visit aging parents. They should call, and Skype, and express affection. But if they do not want to, can a law make them? Even in India, few parents have the heart — or the physical energy — to drag negligent offspring to court.

It is impossible to seek affection legally. And I am not sure it is a good idea to force young (or middle-aged) people to pretend at love. Besides, if affection is being made a legal construct, perhaps lawmakers should also consider the truth of family life. Not every parent considers the emotional needs of a child. Many parents assume they’ve done their duty if they just cater to physical needs, and make him/her employable. It is foolish and unjust to expect that all children will grow up to lavish affection upon all parents.

Indians are like the Chinese when it comes to family expectations. In one report, a Chinese woman was quoted as saying that in their culture, parents invest in children as a support for their old age. I can imagine lots of Indian parents expressing similar views. But I cannot imagine that children like being treated as some sort of emotional-social security plan.

In the Chinese context, everyone is pointing fingers at the one-child norm. It is estimated that by 2050, every third Chinese will be a senior citizen. But the problem of more and more old people and fewer young people is a global one. 

There was another report from Japan, where it is estimated that by 2020, the market for adult diapers will be larger than that for baby diapers. 

India already has 100 million senior citizens and by 2050, every fifth Indian will be old. Not only do we not have universal pension coverage, most pensions are too small to allow an aging, ill person to survive independently. 

Most Indians cannot afford the basics — clean water, safe housing, a varied diet, decent education — even for small children. Steady jobs are hard to come by. 

‘Parents’ emotional needs’ are low on the list of priorities. And though that is not a justification for the abuse or neglect of the elderly, we must not forget that there is also an emotional cost for children — to know that there are ways to keep parents alive and healthy, but not the means.

So, what should children and parents and the government do? For one, we can start investing in the future instead of waiting to reach a point of crisis. Senior citizens need an upgrade of skills in middle age. They need access to legal aid to ensure their property is not taken away. They need regular events and public spaces where they can meet other people of all ages, and they need community-supported retirement homes and hospices. Even if those are not ideal choices, the choice must exist.  

First published here

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Some thoughts on a 49% (or 4.9%) view of democracy

Last week, I’d mentioned the Majority and its role in keeping a democracy healthy.

Our rulers are decided by a majority vote. It could be just 51%. This is frustrating for the 49% who voted against. But still, elections are a much better way of deciding power struggles than building armies and turning each others’ homes into crematoria.

What, then, happens to the 49%? 

If your representative loses, the assumption is that your values, your financial interests, your ethnic group have a smaller chance of flourishing.

In a country like ours, an electoral minority is often confused with a caste or a religion, but it could also be a tribe, a region. It could be any group that will not be able to influence decisions on the strength of its numbers.

But if you keep feeling neglected or exploited, you begin to look for ways to create a fresh electorate, one where you are not such a minority. Hence, new states. Like Telangana. Or Gorkhaland. Or Uttarakhand. One of the reasons people who live in remote hill villages demanded a separate state to be carved out of Uttar Pradesh was that they were never heard in faraway Lucknow.

Sometimes, people find that a geographic separation has not worked out. So, they make demands that are directly linked to an ethnic group. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, there were reports from a World Adivasi Day function held recently, that many adivasis felt they’d be better off with an adivasi Chief Minister. Yet, in a state where adivasis are not a numeric majority, this is difficult.

As for minorities, well, there’s a majority even within the minority. This group always finds itself trampled upon by those who claim to represent them. You might survive (depending on your wealth and education) but you find yourself constantly pushed into the minority corner, unable to participate in law-making.

Eventually, you’re going to ask what these words should mean to somebody like you -- nation, independence, culture, law.

Consider linguistic minorities. Hindi became the national language because it was the single-largest language in India. Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, even Bhoti-speaking people found themselves swept under the carpet of ‘Hindi’.

Governments correspond with barely literate citizens in a language that even I am flummoxed by although I’m firmly, fluently Hindi-speaking. Those who do not speak the Hindi that a ‘Hindi-speaking’ state uses are not even acknowledged, forget being included in consultations with officials.

Or, consider how India got saddled with marriage laws that were followed only by upper-caste Hindus. Or why there is so little room for the wisdom of communities who lived quite happily (am assuming a lot here, but happy in the marital context being construed to mean a system that is tolerated and passed down over generations) through different marital practices, including polyandry.

Songs, sexual freedom, history, progress - everything can be held hostage under this heavy blanket of ‘majority’ or ‘mainstream’. Hundreds of millions among us must abide by someone else’s morals, someone else’s ideas about prosperity, someone’s version of the truth, because the minority view will be crushed. And those who do the crushing will escape, unpunished.

The majority or mainstream turn arrogant if they stay powerful for too long. They speak in the name of ‘all’, take liberties with common resources, or hurt others. This is possible because their representatives protect them, in lieu of electoral fealty.

Does this hurt the nation? 

Well, that depends on who gets to define ‘nation’. If the idea of India belongs to each citizen in equal measure, then yes, it hurts. To be a free citizen is to have the freedom to live by your values, legally practice your culture, but not be allowed to impose this on anyone else, not even on your family.
First published here.
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