The Democratic Process

For more than two decades, I’ve been an ardent believer of democracy and the democratic process. I’ve been eager to vote. I’ve believed the wrong people and found some pleasant surprises.  I’ve been eager to vote. I’ve been eager (more in the last few years) to be involved in the political process. But I’ve also begun to wonder, in the last few years, if the democratic process and the system is perhaps flawed and not entirely meant for progress in India.

Democracy is based on votes of the majority. The majority wants and needs.

In a country like India, majority is an illusion. We are divided by geography, religion, caste, geographical cultures, religious cultures, language. And well, some times even skin colour. There are so many divisions but some mainline ideas unite us – one of them being the want to be a part of this country.

Not everyone wants to be a part of India, or a part of the state they are currently assigned to. They don’t want to be a part of the religion they are assigned to either.

And these ‘don’t wants’ form an important vote bank, as witnessed by the whole Lingayat politics in this year’s Karnataka elections.

Identity politics are very important for vote banks. Dalits, Muslim, Other minorities who have been told to be vary of the majority wave that can trample their identity. The ‘others’ who have been marginalised for so long that they would rather believe that their identity would be trampled again in the democratic state, if they did not have someone particular looking out for them. Even among the majority wave, many tend to differ. How do we define a religion that isn’t a religion at all but a collection of ideas that a vast pool of people gave a geographical name that became synonymous with the collective idea?

Each part of Hinduism can be broken into smaller subsects and individual identities, which is perhaps the future. The Lingayats, the Patels, the vokkaligas, Patidars and so on.

Politics works on two possible factors – Fear & Need. The fear can often give rise to a need or a need can give rise to a fear.

**

Who are these people who we supposed to vote into power? Who joins politics? Certainly not those who truly want to work for the betterment of the society. And the key requirement of these politicians is a vote bank. And a vote bank, contrary to popular belief, isn’t only about good work done that could translate into winning votes. While the good work does make a difference, it seems recently that more votes can be gained by keeping various sections dependent and under the thumb. The people who can be swayed with a promise – forever. A token effort, some money and the votes are won.

The only advantage democracy has is people retain the power to vote someone out of power. But that process, too, mostly works on paper. Because that process assumes every citizen is aware and participates in the democratic process. Whereas in a country like India, most of the voters are barely aware of what is happening beyond their little village. They are concerned about their loans, water and electricity issues and believe that the guy who comes once in five years would actually make a difference. And they listen to the few people who are making a difference – the kingmakers. They are swayed by money and hope. The educated class – a small percentage of voters – are the only ones perhaps thinking. But they too are swayed by identity and caste politics. After all, everyone wants to protect their own. The deciding voters are clueless for most part.

It is to the benefit of the politician to keep this status quo. To create a fear. A cause that will force people to vote for them. Each agenda is set based on a sub-region and these typically do not meet the true requirements for progress. Everyone promises a better life, but how many are voting just on that promise? Some vote for their identity, some for their money. Some vote because someone else told them to and some vote because they don’t know what is the alternative. In the end, when the results are out, fragmented by multiple purposes, nobody remains the winner – especially not the common man.

The democratic process, which intends to bring out the wishes of the common man, is fragmented and eventually, someone else ends up grabbing the power and we are back to square one.

The only slight, minuscule edge we have in this process is that every election, a small section of people might grow aware and vote for something beyond money, alcohol, religion and caste. But with a population of billion and growing, this is a tediously slow process – which means we remain powerless for longer as the majority leaves the decision making in someone else’s hands.

If the people who want to be voted are in it for the money and power, and the people who are supposed to vote for them are clueless – how does the process succeed?

Advertisements

Growth & Corruption

“The only way to peace is through war” a quote read in one of the prescribed books in university.

As I read one of the biographies about one of the companies in India, which is generally touted as a massive success story, I wonder if the only way to success is through corruption.

India is a country that suffers from a massive dynastic hangover. Be it a political party, the movie industry or the corporate world, it is filled with people who are ‘connected’. Apparently, who your father is or who you know makes a difference to your success or failure.

Despite, or due to, such dynastic philosophies, corruption has become an embedded part of our culture.

The only way a newbie can probably succeed is by bribing a few people. Yes, there is much being said about the new start-ups and their success stories. But watch closely and you can probably hear the tremors of them navigating the red tape.

I recently read the biography of the Ambanis, which had once been banned in India, or at least tried to. A few pages down, I realised why they tried to get the book banned. It paints a very ugly picture of the way the company was built, how it promoted corruption and the deep corruption embedded in some parties of the country.

Of course, nobody can ever prove what was and what is. Many of the participants of this story are long dead and gone, leaving behind legacies that are probably too massive to dig into. But you flip through the pages of media stories on them and you can read between the lines.

The Indian media today is in the worst possible situation today, with almost nil autonomy. If they were once coralled by the need for advertisement revenue, today they are directly held back by their owners and deep party loyalties.

The days of Khuswant Singh and Goenka are long gone, who put the truth of journalism before friendships and families. Today, we have reporters angling for a plum retirement plan, inciting NRIs to their own benefit.

The Social Media Wave is truly that… it builds up with one little news item, crests and then builds up again as a follow up, till there is that big 7th wave and it cools down for the next wave.

Freedom of Speech in India

There has been much debate about the subtle curtailing of Freedom of Speech in India. There have been arrests of various reporters and cartoonists for making statements against various political leaders. People have been arrested for posting simple status messages. 

Books about Hinduism have been voluntarily withdrawn by publishers, fearing a backlash. 

The most recent case is about a bunch of Kashmiri students who were booked under sedition for cheering Pakistan during a cricket match. A match that India lost. There have been a lot of tweets against this move, calling this an act against the basic right of freedom of speech. And actually, in general circumstances, I would have been as well. I mean, it is a sport, and they were cheering for the opposing team, so what the hell.

But an India-Pakistan cricket match has never been just sport. While I might not support a sedition case, I am definitely not okay with consciousness behind this. The cricket match between India and Pakistan has always taken on momentous proportions. It is the one chance for the common man to participate in the hate game towards each other. Do we really hate each other? Would we beat up a Pakistani if we encounter him? Or call him names? Perhaps not. But a match between these two countries involves religion and a whole bunch of animosity. 

And when it involves Kashmir – a valued and disputed area, it is a potential landmine. It is no secret that the two nations have been fighting for Kashmir since Bharath was divided in Hindustan and Pakistan. India has always maintained that Kashmir belongs to us, and the people of Jammu & Kashmir are very content to be a part of us. Now, I cannot speak for those people. I’ve never even visited there and all the people I’ve met from the region are people who’ve moved away generations ago. 

So the Kashmiris face additional pressure of always showing whose side they are on – India or Pakistan. They do not have the liberty to even cheer for an opposing team (if that is Pakistan) because that we are constantly fearing that it could show the population’s inclination towards Pakistan. Everyone looks for hidden messages in every statement. Of course, the Pakistani government did not lose any time in taking advantage of the entire situation by inviting the students in study in Pakistan.

Indians have always been passionate about cricket. If you choose to support England or Australia during match against India, you will be subject to a lot of ribbing from the others. But perhaps you will not be stabbed because there are no other connotations to supporting those teams. It does not speak of a conflicting religious affiliation. It cannot be used as a political lever by the powers above. 

A Kashmiri blog said ” I wonder if a boss, who is a Manchester United fan, will fire a Liverpool fan who is his employee just because MU lost the game against Liverpool. This is hilariously absurd.”

It would be absurd, if one did not take into account the other sentiments behind India and Pakistan. If you were living in England, your boss might not fire you but he would definitely make your life a little harder for a while. When Australia lost to Italy in the Football World Cup a few years ago, the Italians walked around proudly, but very cautiously. They did not want to particularly tell anyone they were Italian till the Australians regained their good-humored sporting nature. 

I wonder if the author of the blog has ever been to a pub in Europe when a football match is on. The scene can get quite crazy. Rivarly between sporting teams has always been around, and all politics and religion into that and it is a definite receipe for disaster.

But the blog very clearly lists why this match and the following reactions are so important. Supporting Pakistan has always been Kashmir’s way of showing rebellion against India. True, they would rather not be a part of either nation and would exist as an independent little country. But what do they really want? If the elections of 2008 were any indication, they would rather be a part of India.

If the riots of 2010 were any indication, they would rather be independent. I really have no authority to comment on this subject. Kashmiri Pandits I’ve met mourn the loss of their state and talk about childhood days in Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims I’ve met talk about the harassment by armed forces. But both have a common sentiment – the destruction of this land over territorial fights.

The Indian Definition of “Us” and “Our”

2013-14 has been a momentous year in Indian politics. Perhaps I have grown old enough to appreciate the nuances of politics, or the situation has gotten more interesting. We have had new faces come to the forefront, after decades of jaded, stern old men. 

Rahul Gandhi on one side – the favorite icon of cartoonists. His comments gave cartoonists and columnists months worth of fun material. 

Narendra Modi on the other hand – the controversial, progressive leader. He at least had some achievements to his name, albeit on the dicier side of how much was true. 

But for those who did not find either of these options acceptable, it was a tough path. 

And so came AAP – the aam aadmi party. The mango people party. The everyday man’s party. And hopes were rekindled. But in the short few months the party has been in power in Delhi, cartoonists have found a new love. 

But this post isn’t about AAP or any of these political parties in general. 

It is something that I just caught onto… the use of the word “Us” and “Our”. 

While one would believe that these words in a secular country like India would be all encompassing, they truly are not. They mean different things when speaking to different sections of the voters. 

For example, AAP’s reiterated stand they wanted to protect ‘hamari aurat’ and ‘aam aurat’. These statements were made after heinous violations of the rights of some African women, who unfortunately do not see any sign of justice currently. AAP went on to release the names and addresses of these women, who were accused of prostitution. Never mind that there is not a shred of proof of prostitution or drugs. 

Reading through tons of speeches made by people after this incident, I wondered if it was only me who was noticing the distinct ‘hamara’. 

While we claim to be a diverse nation and even celebrate the same, we are expected to be monotonous. Indians, by large, are expected to be Hindus, non-meat eating, non-drinking, traditional, temple-going crowd of people. 

Even as we claim that the discrimination against Dalits is a thing of the past, when I read through these speeches, I wonder if that is really true. Conversations of with some people in the past have left me wondering about their definition of Hindus. There have been people who have stated that Hindus are the “non-meat eating, thread-wearing section of people who actually are not even supposed to drink beer”. This was said with a beer in hand. And it restricted Hindus to the Bramhin and perhaps the Vaishya sect of the population. They would include the Kshatriyas but the Shudras were no where in this equation. 

I’m not going to talk about how these castes came along (we have a beautiful article on Wikipedia for that). But the mass definition of Indians refuses to consider even basic food preferences and restrict it to the smallest section of the population.

Likewise, AAP’s definition of our ‘hamari aurat’ coolly ignores the working woman, women from other cultures who have settled here for generations and are as Indian as you and me. The Chinese-Delhi woman, the African-Gujarati women. Yes, these people do exist and they worship the same gods that we do, if that is a point of contention. But in the worst case of racism seen in a while, all these people become outsiders with one stroke and hence, evil. 

Meat Tasting

Nearly 2 decades ago, 2nd Oct meant an early morning parade, some sweets and freedom for the rest of the day. Of course, the price of that freedom was a short speech about “Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation” that most of us snoozed through. 

Gandhi is a familiar figure for every Indian. You cannot miss him even if you are a visitor in India. His photographs are hanging in every single government office. His face plastered on all of our money. He was the guy, you will be told, who won us our freedom.

Well, you cannot deny that he was one of the freedom fighters, at least.  

For most part, I’m ambivalent towards Gandhi. He did what he had to during his time and I’m glad that his reign ended when it did, because I’ve a sneaking suspicion that we wouldn’t have progressed as much if he were around today. He had rather regimented views about things like globalization, or the concept that existed then. 

Of course, he was also the person, we are told, who fought for the rights of the oppressed. The Dalits. Or the Harijans, as he liked to call them. He told the rest of India aka the upper class India who followed this caste system, that these ‘others’ shouldn’t be treated as ‘untouchables’ and they were the same as everyone else. The term ‘Harijan’ is perhaps one of the most loathed words in the Dalit community. 

Though the term stands for ‘People of God’, the implication of the word is more patronizing rather than accepting. 

But Gandhi did fight for equality in his own way. He tried, in his way, to tell people to clean their own toilets, do their own work and stop discriminating against people based on what they did. 

However, 60 years after his death, we honor him by banning the sale of meat and booze on his birthday. This is supposed to be a homage to the man who tried to support equality. But we concede that Gandhi was an ‘upper-class’ Hindu. He was a vegetarian and stayed so through his life… not because of religion. Because he believed that meat polluted his body. He abstained from alcohol for the same reason. 

This edict has been irritating me for a while now. True, this perhaps is in line with Gandhi’s idealogy that we should lead a ‘pure’ life. Which means we should ask every Indian to eat the simplest of the simplest food on this day. We should ask them to clean their own toilets, do their own laundry and much more. Well, that isn’t going work to so we are gonna close every single meat shop, because that is the one way in which we can show that we are doing something.

I’ve a lot of vegetarian friends, and some of them have stayed vegetarian because they claim that Hinduism demands it. According to them Hindus are supposed to be vegetarian. And those rare occasions when they were convinced to eat meat, they felt miserable and sick about it the next day. 

My thought about this is simple – if we weren’t meant to eat meat, our digestive systems wouldn’t be able to take it. We are the most evolved creature on earth. So we are able to digest pretty much anything. Otherwise, our digestive systems would be suited to a particular kind of food.

Anyway, it seems to be that banning sale of particular things on Gandhi’s birthday is hypocritical and perhaps even goes against what he taught – acceptance of everyone. That was the first rule of his teachings, not vegetarianism. 

Majority of the country today is a meat-eating population. And the statement that Hindus are vegetarians is sheer nonsense. Even if you do want to believe in the caste system, apart from the Bramhins, everyone else ate meat. And Brahmins were a select few and sacred, which makes the rest of the population – the majority.

Of course, eating meat or not is a personal choice… but if you tell me you are vegetarian because your religion tells you to be and that I should be one too cuz I’m from the same religion, you are just asking for trouble.

Growth of an Idiot

It was perhaps 5 years ago… I was still a reporter, I read voraciously, I wrote a lot about big topics and used a lot of big words.

I talked about the economic recession and how the US should have seen it coming. I talked about India and how we were a miracle and I wondered how long we would be able to keep the miracle going. I spoke strongly against caste/religion-based politics. I voted against the BJP and thought Congress was the lesser of the two evils. I wondered how much could Rahul Gandhi contribute to Indian politics considering the man had never really spent much time with the aam junta to understand what the Indian mindset needed. Yet I cheered the entry of young blood into Indian politics, something that I thought was sorely needed.

I participated in rallies, I signed petitions to save the whales, the dolphins, the tigers, the women, the children, the leaf. I believed that journalists were actually the watchdogs of the country. Any country. I was inspired by journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Jose, Aniruddha Bahal and several others whom I knew personally. I strongly believed in what I wrote, and I believed that I wrote a fair story – giving both sides equal importance and allowing the reader to judge what was true and what wasn’t.

I really did believe that.

What a naive idiot I was.

5 years can be quite a short period. But sitting in front of the computer screen as flashes of today’s news pass me, I wondered if the world really changed in the five years or I was just a blind, naive idiot.

True, somethings I knew, if not the extent of it. The corruption in the country would have serious ramifications, I knew. I did know the extent of it. Rahul Gandhi would not really be useful in everyday politics, I knew. I did not know he was a puppet who couldn’t string two intelligent words together. I knew that the field of journalism was getting more corporate and commercial. I never realised the extent of it.

The reporters of yesteryears have faded away into photographs hanging on the walls and journalism textbooks. The key word today to be a journalist is how fast you can get the story and how long the story can stay in the headlines.

True, this could have made for such awesome news and policing. But when that turns into sheer greed for news, you begin creating news. No news stays long enough for people to absorb it. Now, it is about the girl who got raped, tomorrow it is about a child who got raped, day after it is about the politician who stole some money, and after that, some building that caught fire due to some issues in construction.

The world moves at a much faster pace. The capacity to absorb news and care about has also shrunk.

Scams, allegations of corruption and rape have become so routine that I nearly missed the whole Asaram Babu case. And perhaps I would have let it slide as “yet another religious guy” if someone on Twitter had not pointed out that this was the same guy who said the Nirbhaya, the woman who was raped in Delhi in Dec 2012 could have saved herself by calling her attackers “brother”. I would have perhaps forgotten about it if an old photograph with “tips” to keep women safe at night did not make the rounds again.

I would not have been no pissed if I did not get a message saying “It is Breast Cancer Awareness” time again and asking me to post a silly status message on Facebook.

All these social platforms have scrambled our brains into thinking only in form of “status messages”. You go to a restaurant and you think of posting “Awesome restaurant serving kebabs in blah blah blah”. I decided I would not post every little action of mine on Facebook about 4 years ago. My entire friends’ list of 500 and whatever people did not need to know where I was, what I was eating and what I thought of something. They were subject to that anyway when they met me.

There was a time when I read interesting articles through my friends on Facebook and had good debates which made me think. These days, I turn to 140 characters for that – Twitter and interactions with Twitter Handles. I do not know these people and that makes me think harder about the composition of this world.

I know how articles are written, I know how PR releases are made. I know why reporters choose the articles they do, I know why some of them choose the ones they do. I know the ones that are lazy, I know the ones that write articles to further their own agenda. The percentage of Vinod Jose and Tarun Tejpals in the world of reporting, I realised, are very very very less. The ones who became reporters in a journey of searching for the truth. The ones who do their research and are suspicious about all information.

My first disillusionment with reporting came when a senior editor asked me to withdraw my story because the PR of the company claimed it was wrong. The PR provided no proof, but was backed by a multi billion dollar giant. And the editor wanted to oblige. Why? I’ll never know. He wouldn’t get any favours from the company, so maybe he was just scared of his job. We fought and reached an agreement, making the story more balanced. But perhaps that was the beginning of the journey where I wondered if what we were doing was really free of bias, of favours and fear. If what I was doing was actually making a difference at all.

They say that reporters like a particular kind of place… a little shady, a little cheap. It was attributed to our poor pay packets. But it was just that we liked no-nonsense, simple stuff. Where a glass of rum was charged for what it was and not for the crystal container it was poured into. We were supposed to tear into pretense.

Last week, several reporters were fired due to ‘budget’ issues from a major network. I wonder if even a percentage of them would rethink their career stands, or just jump headlong into another company that offers better packages. Would any of them think of all the hours they poured into making stories and telling stories, shaping them to suit corporate requirements? Of how many people would be doing the same to their story now?

It is a dog eat dog world.

Five years ago, I argued for punishment for all wrong-doers, especially celebrities. One of them ended up in jail. Several more probably never will. This is a country that rewards dishonesty. This is a country that feeds on apathy and ignorance. Somewhere, I thought, we need to begin to change that. We cannot go back to the past and change much of what happened. We perhaps cannot even punish the ones responsible for some horrendous deeds. But we could start here, from our generation.

But tonight, even that thought seems futile. It seems we are fast headed towards a precipice, and everyone on the bus just woke up and know to do nothing else but to shout and wring their hands.

I am an idiot.

When India Starts Walking Back

I did something that I never thought I would do.

I googled Malllika Sherawat. Her name was trending on Twitter and there were a variety (pun intended) of jokes about her. All leading to her one statement (apparently in a pseudo accent) – “India is a regressive country.”

Now, I don’t particularly care about the woman. She’s in a long line of big-boobed women who’ve walked the halls of Bollywood. But there is something to be said about the way she’s managed to climb the social ladder and even grab a small interview in Variety. And even if said in a pseudo accent, her statement does hold a lot of truth, as very nicely supported by the banning of lingerie-clad mannequins as a measure to prevent rape.

Rape of women, not mannequins, just to clarify.

Anyway, now that we’ve given her the two minutes of fame… There was another small news article that almost missed by attention.

The Taliban have a new enemy apparently and its balloons. Yep. Pink balloons were handed out as a part of a ‘peace’ mission to people on the street. But the Taliban believe this is yet another attempt by the West to destroy their culture. 

I can’t help but draw a parallel between the laws passed in Mumbai today and Taliban’s extreme reaction to everything in the world. We, Indians, claim we are not like the Taliban. We claim to be a progressive country and that we highly value and respect individual freedom. 

But the closer we look, and more instances in the past few months makes me wonder if we aren’t actually regressive wearing the mask of progress. 

We are not able to handle criticism to anything and our reaction is to typically throw the baby out with the bath water. 

So far, in an attempt to protect Indian culture, we have beeped out all the ‘dangerous’ words on TV. These include, but are not limited to, ass, kissing, sex, fornication, weiner (!), butt, boobs, other sexual body parts and slangs for the same. We grossly edit out all instances of kissing on english sitcoms, while we happily play scenes of rape and pillage in hindi movies. We refuse to play movies like The Dirty Picture on primetime TV, but we are quite happy to show Indian versions of Big Brother, Roadies and other sleazier shows. 

And in our deep respect towards women, we ask them not to work beyond 10 PM, we try to force them into not being out past 7 PM, not being in pubs beyond 10 PM, not working at nights, wearing ‘full clothes’, not using cell phones. And our attempt to control rapes include calling the rapist a brother, not wearing short clothes, banning lingerie displays on mannequins as this creates a frenzy of lust in men, not eat fast food among other measures.

Of course, the solution for after rape has occured – assuming the survivor can prove her (I would like to say his but male rape is something that our country will not even begin to comprehend) pure character is to ask her to marry the rapist. Then the rapist is allowed to go scot free and his act isn’t considered a crime. 

Almost every college in the city has prescribed salwars as the ‘dress code’ for its students because it wants to make them aware of professional wear. 

But still, we are considered progressive.

Oh yes, we also believe that one needs to buy a license from the government every time he / she wants to drink in a particular city. We believe that people are old enough to vote / get married but cannot drink in some cities. We also believe in shutting the city down at 11.30 PM in an attempt to ‘reduce crime’. 

Of course, our culture would not permit legalising prostitution, creating strip bars or any such avenues of sin. 

Because we are progressive, as affirmed by our very patriotic Priyanka Chopra, former Miss World and current Bollywood actor. And yes, a pop star who had to go all the way to Hollywood to record her song because our country was too progressive.

Now, I love my country. We’ve a lot to proud about. But I’m never to agree that we are progressive as long as we have archaic laws like these and refuse to change them. As long as the cop on duty at 11 PM asks me why I’m out so late and alone and automatically assumes the worst about me. 

Perhaps it is the same in ‘developed’ countries. I don’t care. I’m not comparing ourselves to them. I want us to be better. I want people to realise that rape isn’t a sexual act and it is genderless. I want to stop wondering when the government will pass a law asking all women to stay at home after 10 PM or prescribe a dress code for daily wear. 

Till then, as outrageous as it seems, I strangely do agree that our country seems regressive.