Sunday, March 23, 2014

The holi of holies:power

Last week many Indians celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colours, at its vibrant best in India’s most populous, politically powerful and ungovernable state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Until 1977 every prime minister of India had been elected from Uttar Pradesh, which occupies the subcontinent’s most fertile country, between the two great rivers of the Indus and Ganges. With a population of 200 million - nearly ten times that of Australia - UP just about ranks as a country in its own right. A small town in Eastern UP, Mirzapur sets the time for all of India; Indian Standard Time is calculated on the basis of the clock tower in the centre of the town. And whoever “wins” UP has traditionally determined power across independent India, with some notable exceptions.

Once again in this fast-looming general election, UP is where the fate of the general election may well be decided. Holi this year was therefore destined to be more wild and boisterous than usual. Holi marks the arrival of spring after winter, a period of renewal and fresh energy. It is the inspiration for the Colour Run – an event spruiked as the world’s happiest five-kilometre run - where participants get plastered with paint as they run. Among Hindus the tradition marks the victory of good over evil and is also associated with the life of the young Lord Krishna.

Until recently few major blockbusters of Bollywood could do without a Holi song-and-dance routine. The most famous is one performed by India’s most popular actor, Amitabh Bachchan, in the 1981 movie Silsala. Bachchan used the song Rang Barse during the 1984 electoral campaign in his hometown, UP’s Allahabad. It helped deliver him the Lok Sabha seat by one of the highest margins in India’s electoral history. (Bachchan later resigned in disgust, describing politics as a “cesspool”.)
Throughout UP a particular local version of the tradition, the Lath Mar Holi, re-enacts the “naughtiness” associated with the teenage Krishna who famously teased his beloved Radha and her village friends, the Gopis. Today, men from Krishna’s village Nandgaon visit Radha’s Barsana and are playfully “beaten” with sticks (Laths) by the women from the village. Holi, in essence, is the great equaliser, as all hierarchies break down and there is a new joie de vivre and an affirmation of life in all its colours.

Eight of India’s 16 prime ministers have come from UP and the state sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha – more than any other state in India. Interestingly, UP was a creation of the British seeking to manipulate the geography of India to serve their interests after the first Indian war of Independence in 1857 - referred to by the Imperialists as the Great Indian Mutiny. The new state was initially called the North Western Provinces of Agra and Oudh, and in 1902 was renamed the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh and popularly referred to as the United Provinces or its acronym UP.
UP became Uttar Pradesh, or the Northern State, after India’s independence. In 1999, the hilly parts of UP were carved into a new state of Uttarakhand. There are continued demands for a further reorganisation of UP into new states in what is administratively one of the most poorly governed regions of India.

UP is a mirror of the complexities and contradictions of India. Religion and caste have traditionally played an important role in electoral calculations. Until the late 1970s, the Congress Party was able to translate the support of the upper-caste Brahmins, Dalits at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and the Muslim minority into an unbeatable electoral constituency. The Jat leader, Chaudhuri Charan Singh (representing the middle peasantry) was the only non-Congress chief minister until 1977.

The 1980s and 1990s saw this traditional caste and religious arithmetic collapse. The Congress’s political influence in the state declined as castes became more discreet kinship groups rather hierarchical steps in a social ladder. The upper-caste Hindus, including the Brahmins, moved to the more nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believing that the Congress was appeasing the Muslims. The Muslims themselves felt no longer protected under the Congress and built a coalition with the intermediate castes, led by the Yadavs, and the new Samajwadi Party. The Dalits' political awakening led to a revolt from the Congress (they believed that the Congress had used them as a vote bank) and the formation of the Bahajun Samaj Party.

2014 will witness at least a four-cornered contest in UP, with three prime ministerial aspirants all contesting from the state - and that is only one of the reasons it is so electorally unpredictable. Gujarat’s chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, will contest from Varanasi - one of the holiest cities for the Hindus. The Common Man’s Party (Aam Admi Party) leader, Arvind Kejriwal, has threatened to contest against Modi, while Rahul Gandhi of the Congress will fight from his regular constituency, Amethi.

The biggest opinion survey conducted so far by the television network NDTV suggests that BJP will be the main gainer and could win half of UP’s parliamentary seats. Indeed without winning at least 40 seats in UP, Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions could come to nought. UP has produced eight prime ministers but it has also been the slayer of many a prime ministerial ambition.

Traditionally, on the day of Holi, bhang with thandai (a beverage of sweet cold milk mixed with leaves and buds of the cannabis plant and topped with almond shavings) is drunk in the morning to give you that heady festive feeling. But with elections around the corner no bhang will be needed to raise spirits in Uttar Pradesh.

(Source: www.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Meerut Scar

When, in June 1977, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited Srinagar on the eve of the elections for the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly, he was greeted; it is said, by women singing a traditional Kashmiri anthem, the wanwun. “Desai was the prince”, they sang, “Who had arrived from Pakistan (Pakistanuk shahzad aww)”. Unruffled by this unexpected tribute, Desai quickly became a hero for the Kashmiris as he promised and delivered the only fair election in Kashmir’s history till then, even as his Janata Party aligned itself with the pro-Pakistan Awami Action Committee of Maulvi Farooq. For Desai, winning the trust of Kashmiris was critical to India’s strategic objectives; if that happened, Pakistan would remain for most Kashmiris no more than a slogan or a song. It is worth recalling this probably apocryphal anecdote to illustrate not just how the challenge before every prime minister  of India since 1947 has been to make the Muslims of Kashmir believe in and perhaps even celebrate the idea of India, but also the complex and ambivalent relationship that the people of Kashmir have had with Pakistan.

The ugly treatment meted out recently by the authorities of a Meerut university and the police to a group of Kashmiri students, who were said to be cheering for the Pakistan cricket team during the Asia Cup match against India, has just added to the disconnect between the Valley and the rest of India. It is precisely such events that demonstrate how that complex and ambivalent relationship manifests itself too often as a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of Kashmir and of the Kashmiri identity.

It is easy to forget that unlike most other parts of India, Kashmiris consciously chose India over Pakistan in 1947. If it had not been for the vacillations of Maharaja Hari Singh, there would have been no Kashmir dispute. The then most popular Kashmiri leader, Sheikh Abdullah, believed in the ideals of India’s freedom movement and was convinced that the Kashmiri identity would be more secure in Mahatma Gandhi’s India than in Jinnah’s Pakistan. In turn, a Muslim majority state that voluntarily acceded to India in 1947 lent tremendous strength to the construction of India as a vibrant, pluralistic state.

Despite the huge resources invested by Islamabad, few in Kashmir have ever really wanted to be part of Pakistan, least of all the dysfunctional state that exists today. Consider this. In 1947, it was the Kashmiri Maqbool Sherwani who led the resistance against the tribal invaders from Pakistan and sacrificed his life in defence of his cause. In 1965, it was the Kashmiris who revealed the presence of Pakistani infiltrators and foiled the Pakistan army’s Operation Gibraltar. More recently, it was the Kashmiris who resisted the “foreign” militants who had been sponsored by Pakistan.

And yet, Pakistan has loomed large in the Kashmiri imagination and continues to do so for a variety of reasons. In his masterly study, Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott emphasises the importance of subtle everyday acts of resistance as an instrument of protest. Cultural resistance and non-conformation is often an articulation of the collective anger of a traumatised people. In this case, pro-Pakistan sentiment is simply a symbol of anger against India. Pakistan is the choice that Kashmiris did not exercise, but each time India makes yet another mistake, Sheikh Abdullah’s decision is called into question. Pakistan is the “alternative” Kashmiris have to prevent India from taking them for granted. In failing to understand this paradox, the authorities of Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Meerut (led — not surprisingly — by a chancellor who is a retired IAS officer, a pro-chancellor who is a retired general, and a vice chancellor who is a retired police officer) have failed India.

Remember when the disconnect with India intensifies, Kashmiris are ready to support just about anyone else — not just Pakistan. On October 13, 1983, at the first one-day international between India and the West Indies in Srinagar, Kashmiris booed the Indians and cheered for the West Indians to the point that the visiting captain, Clive Lloyd, said  he could never expect such a reception even in his hometown, Guyana. Twelve Kashmiris were arrested for digging up parts of the pitch that day and were acquitted only 28 years later for “lack of evidence”. Many spent several months in jail, and later formed the backbone of the militancy. One of them, Showkat Bakshi, became a top commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. He later told a newspaper: “I was a kid then, and we were simply protesting against holding the match here. I was arrested and put behind bars for four months initially and booked for waging war against the country. For the next six years, I was continuously harassed — so much so that I picked up the gun.”

A whole generation of Kashmiris has been born and has grown up during the worst years of violent conflict. They have viewed India through the traumas of militancy and the lack of any form of governance. Two years ago, more than a 100 young Kashmiris were killed during largely peaceful protests. But there is a change. More and more Kashmiris are now realising that there is an India beyond bunkers, security forces and corrupt and corrupted politicians. It is the vibrant India of entrepreneurs, professionals, civil society activists and the robust and free media, among others. The authorities at the Meerut university have unfortunately deeply damaged the Kashmiris discovery of this India, hopefully not beyond repair. The first substantive political engagement of the new prime minister should thus be to reach out to the people of Kashmir, particularly if the BJP were to be elected to power, given apprehensions about the party in the Valley. And in doing so, the BJP will merely be strengthening the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who, on his first visit to the Valley, had recited lines from the Kashmiri poet Mahjoor: “Wala ho baghawano, nav baharuk shaan paida kar, pholan gul gath karan bulbul, timay saman paida kar (let us celebrate the arrival of a new spring, let the flowers bloom, and the birds sing in this paradise)”. Not surprisingly, he remains — apart from Desai — the most popular Indian prime minister in Kashmir.

(Source: The Indian Express)

Friday, March 7, 2014

World’s largest democracy goes to the polls: an expert’s guide to the Indian election

The great Indian festival of democracy has just begun…
General elections in the world’s largest democracy are always a reflection of the complexities of India and its stark contradictions. The 2014 parliamentary elections, announced on Wednesday, promise to be even more argumentative and confrontational than the 15 elections held in the past, as 815 million adult citizens decide who is going to govern India next, with polling in 28 states spread over nine phases from 7 April to 12 May.

The votes will be counted through Electronic Voting Machines on 16 May and a new government should be in place shortly thereafter. At the centre of the election is the contest between the ruling Congress Party-led United Progressive alliance and the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. While the contest is, at one level, about leadership, governance and policies, elections in the country are more fundamentally about the idea of modern India itself and its abiding faith in the ability of its citizens to make the right choice.

When in 1947, India - independent from British rule - opted to be a constitutional democracy, few gave it much of a chance. Democracies had thrived where there was a reasonable degree of homogeneity and where the basic needs of citizens had been met. In contrast, India’s diversity – linguistic, ethnic, religious and regional – was overwhelming and it was home to some of the world’s poorest. But except for a brief period between 1975 and 1977, Indian democracy has not just thrived but succeeded beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic.

The puzzle of Indian democracy is even more fascinating because countries within the region (detached from the British empire at about the same time) and parts of Africa and Latin America which experimented with democracy have had a less fortunate tryst with the ballot box. What has been responsible for India’s success with the democratic political system? Was it the benefit of a wise leadership at birth that was committed to the democratic way? Was it India’s comprehensive constitution that created an elaborate system of checks and balances that would prevent India’s descent into authoritarianism? Was it the policies of affirmative action that would allow for social mobility and prevent a popular revolutionary zeal? Was it the steel frame of the conservative bureaucracy that ensured that institutional processes rather than individual whims would define the way India would be governed? Or was democracy, as the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen would put it, part of a long-standing civilisational tradition of debate, dissent and even heterodoxy in India - almost part of the DNA of the “argumentative” Indian?

Academics will continue to interrogate the wonder of Indian democracy, but for the next two months India, Indians, and the world outside can enjoy this riotous festival. Louder, bigger and more colorful than the Mardi Gras, the Carnival and La Tomatina put together, the 16th Indian general election promises to overturn many stereotypes.

Will the traditional electoral arithmetic based on calculations of caste, religion, and language prevail? Or is there a new pan Indian sentiment for good governance and new opportunities that will be decisive? Will it be primarily a two-way contest between the BJP and the Congress (with smaller regional parties aligning with one or the other)? Or is there a chance of a Third Front? And what are the chances of the new Aam Admi Party (AAP: the common man’s party) which made a stunning recent debut in the state elections in the country’s capital? Will the 100 million young, impatient and assertive Indians make a difference? Or will the old order rule the roost again? Will an agenda for absolute economic growth take precedence over more inclusive growth – even while there is, in reality, no such Manichean choice?

But most attention will perhaps be paid, by the media, to the leadership: the feisty oratory of the BJP’s thrice-elected Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi who invites extreme passions; contrasted with the mild almost reclusive style of the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, who even his admirers admit has not lived up to his potential; and the steely determination of the man against all odds: AAP’s Arvind Kejiriwal.

PS: I am writing this from my hotel room in Lutyen’s New Delhi in the early hours the morning: the imposing Parliament building just visible from my room. Each time the elections are announced, my latent nationalism comes to the fore and I am proud, as ever, to have been born in this country. We may not have solved the country’s problems, the stark poverty outside the hotel is just one reminder of the challenges that exist, but to give a billion people a voice, a chance, to decide their future and future of the country – everything else fades into insignificance.

(Source: The Conversation)