Friday, 11 July 2014

Jaitley's Budget That Might Have Been (But Wasn't)

John Greenleaf Whittier hit it on the noggin: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'"

My feelings on reading about Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's maiden budget were akin to being socked across the face with something bloated and wet. After Narendra Modi's dramatic election win in May, we have all been treated, like the IBM salesman's bride, to rousing speeches about how wonderful it's all going to be. We were told that the socialist-shackled economy was going to be unchained and a powerful, roaring tiger set free at last. Many of us had virtual goose-pimples at what was going to happen.

But when the time for action arrived, what we got was this timid left-of-centre budget that may well have been authored by the previous government, with its discredited populist model of pretending to help people by looting them.

Tchah!

Swaminathan S Aiyar summed up his assessment of the Modi government in one damning sentence, "Sher ki soorat, khargosh ka kaleja" ("Face of a tiger, liver of a rabbit"). Ouch!

Having let myself be carried away by the hype of radical change, I had begun to predict what the budget was going to contain. Let me swallow my considerable embarrassment and share this list. 

I believed the thrust of the budget should have been about retooling the Indian economy to redirect it away from the primary sector (agriculture) and towards the secondary sector (manufacturing). A once-in-history opportunity has opened up for India with the rising costs of Chinese manufacturing and the aging demographic of China, and India should move post-haste to inherit the mantle of the world's factory. The opportunity to dramatically raise GDP and living standards through this one shift alone is unprecedented.

And so, I imagined that these would be the major policy announcements:

1. Fiscal discipline and a healthier exchequer by ending all subsidies - food, diesel, electricity, etc. (This could be gradual, say over 2 to 3 years, to prevent a sudden shock to the system, but the government needs the courage to stay the course and not roll back these measures.)

2. To offset the pain of the sharp price rise from the removal of subsidies, a drastic overhaul of the tax laws is required to help the middle classes keep more of their money - a high exemption limit of Rs 500,000 a year, and a flat tax of 20% thereafter. To avoid tax arbitrage, corporate taxes should also be reduced to a single flat rate of 20%, with no exemptions, loopholes or surcharges. All employee benefits should count as personal income to avoid fringe benefits rorting. Simplicity and low-overhead administration should be the name of the taxation game.

3. Labour laws should be drastically simplified, and should allow hire-and-fire for firms of any size, without compensation. The incentives this creates for setting up enterprises will offset the uncertainties created by the lack of job security for workers. The lower classes who are hit by the rise in prices should see some relief through increased opportunities for employment.

4. Land laws should be simplified to allow takeovers by government and private industry with one-time cash compensation and nothing more (definitely no guarantees of employment). The aim should explicitly be to drive agricultural labour and small farmers out of farming and into industry. Farmer suicides are a symptom of unviable farming practices. Getting small farmers out of farms and into factories is the most humane solution to the problem.

5. FDI upto 100% should be allowed into every sector, including defence and multi-brand retail. The message should be that India is open for business.

6. The Companies Act should be dramatically simplified to incentivise the growth of industry, with a complete end to license raj. It should be easier to do business in India than in Hong Kong.

7. The legal system should be simplified and the capacity of courts should be raised manifold to allow speedy disposal of cases, especially land, property and other civil cases.

8. The money saved through cutting subsidies (in the lakhs of crores) should be used to develop hard infrastructure - primarily new factory towns, expanded ports, roads and railways to connect factories to ports, and improved communications. Funding could cover the gamut of Public-Private Partnership models. Global manufacturing companies should be able to come in with a complete absence of red tape, set up 100% owned factories in the Indian hinterland, acquire land at reasonable rates, hire (and fire) local labour, develop and operate their own roads (and levy tolls), develop and operate ports, and push goods out into the world as fast as they can make them. The stated aim should be to take over from China as the world's manufacturing hub within 5 years, and the government should pull out all the stops to make that happen.

9. The bulk of the remainder of the revenue that accrues to the government should be spent on "soft infrastructure" that raises human capital - primary healthcare, primary education and trade-oriented training and certification. The aim should be to tap into unemployed youth and make them employment-ready in the shortest possible time. Higher education is a relative luxury and should be largely privatised, with foreign universities allowed to set up local centres. The elite will fund themselves in a variety of ways to acquire university-level education.

Further in the area of soft infrastructure, a powerful antitrust body should be established with the clout to order the breakup of the largest corporate entities if required. Capitalism without a liquid market will distort rather than develop the country. Additionally, a pragmatic environmental clearance board should be set up that works with industry for sustainable development instead of acting like a blocker.

10. States should be cut free of the central government's apron strings, with only infrastructure projects of national importance to be funded by the central government. In all other respects, the states should be made to compete with each other to attract foreign investment, skilled labour, tourism, etc. A time-bound plan should be announced to introduce a Goods and Services Tax (GST) across the country, say within a year, with revenue flowing to the states. 

Through all of this, the positive message that should be conveyed is that a new era has arrived and there are huge benefits to be reaped. While there may seem to be big risks and disadvantages, the bold and the enterprising will become prosperous beyond their dreams. The sense of excitement that such a budget unleashes will overcome the fear and negativity that arise from generations of socialist conditioning.

Alas, this was all a dream, and we have now woken up to the reality of Jaitley and his rabbit-livered budget.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Kashmiris Should Beware The Exasperation Of The Liberal Indian

"Beware the fury of the patient man", said John Dryden a long time ago.

I'm one of the most liberal-humanist specimens one could find, subscribing as I do to a near-libertarian philosophy (I only draw the line at gun rights) and a deep and abiding suspicion of governments, corporations and society itself as forces inimical to the individual.

Still, Kashmir vexes me. If I can blurt my feelings out in one short sentence, it is that Kashmiris should stop being so precious.

The fuss they make about an Indian prime minister visiting the state! Shutting down an entire state in protest?

Kashmiris (and by that I mean the Muslim separatist agitators) need to take a long hard look at themselves, their environment, and their choices.

An independent Kashmir is not what Pakistan has been fighting for, and the people of Kashmir will experience a frying-pan-to-fire situation if they ever find themselves out of the Indian union. True independence is easier dreamt about than achieved.

Kashmir as an independent state is unlikely to be viable, in either an economic or social sense. Kashmir is a landlocked state that will depend on the goodwill of its neighbours to survive economically, and that goodwill is going to prove a scarce commodity since both India and Pakistan will be put offside by Kashmiri independence. Socially too, as Miraiz Umar Farooq himself admitted, the Kashmiri Muslim populace is itself divided into Wahabi, Salafi, Barelvi and Deobandi sects, not to mention the Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Not to put too fine a point on it, Muslim sects have shown time and again that they will turn on one another with murderous ferocity the moment they are left alone with no external enemy to unify them. Iraq and Syria are the latest tragic examples. Kashmiris should be careful what they wish for. The killings will not stop after independence. Only their ability to blame the Indian army will.

Who is it in Kashmir who wants independence anyway? Only Muslims in the Kashmir valley. The Buddhists of Ladakh and the Hindus of Jammu know better than to trust their fate to the tender mercies of a Muslim majority, and would opt to stay with India. The examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh serve as a reminder, if one is required, of what happens to religious minorities in Muslim states. If it comes to a plebiscite, India will play its cards so that Kashmir is splintered even further. After all, the will of the people is the will of the people, and if the Ladakh and Jammu regions vote for India, who can deny them their choice?

Lastly, as economies go, India is ramping up while Pakistan is winding down (although the terrorist state may take another decade to finally sputter and die). If Kashmiris are smart, they will try and latch on to one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, because that is what India is projected to be.

India has had enough of the Kashmiri stalemate, and it's not just Hindu right-wingers who want to see an end to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir as codified in Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The move to repeal Article 370 has broad support across all Indians, and it will happen sooner or later. Pakistan is not in a position to stop any Indian moves within its own territory, and the world (i.e., the West, Russia and China) has no more sympathy for Muslim separatist movements. It's only the Muslim world that could back Kashmiri separatism, but even this support is hardly likely to be unanimous or whole-hearted. Middle Eastern regimes are wary of extremist monsters like the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), so the Indian government could receive covert support even from many nominally Muslim countries in its face-off with Kashmiri separatists.

All in all, the Kashmir issue has festered for too long. Pakistan needs to disappear (which it will) and the Kashmiris need to set aside their juvenile ideas of independence and come to the party. The Indian juggernaut cannot be stopped, because things have reached a stage when even liberals have had enough.

Friday, 20 June 2014

India In Danger Of Repeating Sri Lanka's Deadly Error

Pluralistic societies must beware of elevating one group above all others. The day Sri Lanka made Sinhala its state language and Buddhism its state religion was the day it sowed the seeds of its longstanding ethnic strife. The revolt of the Tamil linguistic minority has been put down at great cost. But the Sri Lankan government does not seem at all serious about pursuing genuine rapprochement or providing autonomy to the Tamils within a looser federation. Far from learning a lesson from those lost decades, elements of the country's political class and clergy now seem to have turned towards baiting the Muslim religious minority, and another round of bloodletting appears to be on the cards. As one who has visited that beautiful country and interacted with many of its smart and gentle people, I can only shake my head in sorrow. Sri Lanka's problems are needless ones of its own creation, all because of a fundamental lack of governing wisdom.

India has long escaped such a fate, thanks to the abundance of wisdom on the part of its founding fathers. The early tussle with the Muslim League on the one hand and the Hindu Mahasabha on the other must have convinced the leaders of the Congress of the desirability of establishing a secular state that treated all its religions equally. And while Nehru came perilously close to imposing a single language (Hindi) on a country where over 60% spoke another language, he wisely stepped back from the brink in the face of protests. India has enjoyed rare harmony in its public life because religion has largely remained a private matter, and its unique "three language formula" has given individuals, governments and private organisations pragmatic ways to communicate.

Over time, a remarkable sense of Indian nationhood has begun to develop (even if it has frayed slightly around the edges thanks to vote-bank politics). Free of heavy-handed imposition, Hindi has spread even to traditionally non-Hindi regions, often thanks to the subtle charms of Bollywood. At the same time, English has spread among the relative elite, forming a link language for the educated class. All wholesome developments, one would think.

The party, however, seems to have come to a rude and abrupt end with the election of Narendra Modi's BJP in May 2014. At first, the focus of the government seemed to be on economic development, and in that endeavour, the prime minister won quick support, including from many erstwhile critics. A potential sour note was religion. The BJP has always been known as a Hindu party, and most public attention has been on the likely relationship between a BJP government and its non-Hindu citizens. While Modi has been careful to project an inclusive image, there have been some disturbing incidents of violence carried out by radical fringe groups with a more hard-line Hindu agenda. The old fault-line of religion has therefore come under renewed strain.

Disturbingly, another old fault-line has been needlessly opened up.  Initially, Modi's preference for Hindi over English in his official communications was ascribed to his relative lack of fluency in English and his understandable preference for a language in which he was more at home. But continuing reports of the government's edicts in favour of Hindi over English have begun to raise eyebrows. The home minister, Rajnath Singh, who was noted for his past statements that the English language has destroyed India's culture, has begun to crack the whip to ensure that the sole language in which his ministry does business is Hindi.

It's clear where the Hindu right is coming from. They are aware that opposition to their Hindutva ideology comes primarily from two broad groups of people - religious minorities and the English-speaking urban middle class. Nothing less than a culture war is now on to undercut the power of these groups. In terms of religion, language and class, the Hindu right wing has identified its foes and begun its offensive.

The world has its eyes on India's old religious schisms, so the government will probably tread carefully there. But the other war (the linguistic/class war) is equally dangerous, and here the government has fewer checks on its actions. 

There are at least four problems with the Modi government's lurch to a majoritarian agenda:

1. The mandate that the BJP received in the recent election was for its plank of economic development. Starting a culture war when there are pressing economic problems to be solved is not just a betrayal of that mandate but a luxury the country cannot afford.

2. The purpose of language is communication. The existing three language formula has served India well, allowing people and organisations to negotiate a suitable common language to communicate in without coercion. There is no reason to ram a language down people's throats unless the motive is to disenfranchise a group of cultural enemies. In addition, insistence on an "official" Hindi, quite different in flavour from the everyday Hindi favoured by most speakers, is counter-productive. Official Hindi is often unintelligible even to Hindi speakers, and is an impediment rather than an aid to communication.

3. Then there is the whole hypocrisy angle. Politicians who rail against the English language, such as Rajnath Singh and Mulayam Yadav, see no contradiction between their public stand and giving their own offspring an English language education and sending them abroad to study. They obviously know which side of their bread is buttered (or if they so prefer, which side of their roti is makkhandaar), but will not acknowledge that English is an aspirational language for millions of their countrymen and could help to improve the career prospects and living standards of the next generation. It's one rule for them and another rule for the masses.

4. Finally, although English is in many ways a "foreign" language to India, its very foreignness makes it neutral. It does not belong more naturally to one group of Indians than to another. If English is to be replaced by Hindi, all Indians who speak a different Indian language automatically become second class citizens, because their own languages are relegated to secondary status behind Hindi. When one Indian is forced to speak to another in a language that is not their own but is native to the other, it creates a power asymmetry that will be deeply resented. It is no way to build a nation.

Those who point to countries like Japan, Korea and Germany to argue that India should have its own national language are missing an important distinction. All of these countries have a single language of their own, so it is natural for that language to be the national language. India has 22 official languages, all of them equally Indian. How can any one of them be termed the "national" language without making the others seem less national? In the same vein, wouldn't anointing India a "Hindu" country alienate citizens of other religions who are every bit as patriotic? It is for this reason that majoritarian politics is dangerous in pluralistic societies, and it is highly inadvisable for a country to create second-class citizens out of its religious and linguistic minorities. Sri Lanka is a warning to the world, but it appears that India cannot see what is, in a geographically literal sense, right beneath its nose.

The Modi government and its ideological fountainhead (the RSS) appear to have overreached themselves. They have turned the country's colourful diversity into ugly difference. And with their roughshod tactics, they have brought their government's honeymoon to an abrupt end.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Rationalism As A Tool For Literary Criticism

As a rationalist, I'm always thrilled to see incisive analysis based on hard logic applied to subjects whose treatment has traditionally been reverential and unquestioning. Religious and quasi-religious texts have generally escaped critical analysis, but so too have some established classics in literature.

For an example of how a quasi-religious epic like the Mahabharata can be interpreted if one is only willing to approach it without reverence is illustrated by Seshadri Kumar's answer to the question on Quora, "What was the sole [motive] of Krishna behind the Kurukshetra war?"

As an example of a traditionalist Hindu answer (which is a supreme shrug of the shoulders - "God works in mysterious ways"), one Quora member says

Bhagavad Gita (Chapter IV-7)

"Whenever there is decay of righteousness O! Bharatha And a rise of unrighteousness then I manifest Myself!"

This sholaka form Bhagvad Gita answers the question why a war was essential; it was done to re-establish the Dharma and to teach the generations to come that whenever there is rise of Adharma, establishment of Dharma would be done by the Lord himself or by his messengers. 

Another member answers in a similar vein

At the beginning of the Mahabharata, there's an anecdote on how mother earth comes to Vishnu, to request Him to reduce her burden. Similarly, the rishis ask Him to save them from Kamsa. And Vishnu decides to take a poornaavatara. He descends to Teach and Establish Dharma and Fight and Destroy Adharma.
Seshadri Kumar cuts through to the heart of the matter, not letting the claimed divinity of Krishna get in the way. And his answer is illuminating.

I applied similar logic when discussing Shakespeare's play Hamlet with my son, and in the process, I discovered the major character behind the entire play, who only has a small role in the play itself!

Shakespeare's plays have enduring appeal because they speak to people in a highly personalised way. They are ambiguous and nuanced, and they lend themselves to alternative interpretations depending on the reader's point of view. Indeed, the same person revisiting a Shakespearean play many years later would get a different message from it.

This was indeed my experience. I had first read Hamlet long ago in my youth, and when I discussed it today, I found I was thinking about it very differently. When I was much younger, I took the entire play at face value and thought I had been able to appreciate it for what it was. I couldn't have been more wrong. Today, I realised that I had changed enormously as a person since I last approached the play, and consequently, it seemed a completely different story. The big change in my life has been my move away from being a religious believer to being an atheist or a rationalist. And when I thought of Hamlet today, I realised that the one aspect of the story that stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb was the ghost of the old king.

As a rationalist, I now know that supernatural phenomena like ghosts simply don't exist. So did Shakespeare do nothing more than write a silly ghost story?

Not so fast.

I applied the same logic that Seshadri Kumar did to the Mahabharata. I assumed that the play was literally true, i.e., that the characters all did see and do the things they have been depicted as seeing or doing.

Now, the play became a lot more interesting. If there was no ghost, then who was it that Hamlet, Horatio and the soldiers saw at the beginning of the play? It must have been a flesh-and-blood person, but what was his identity?

To answer that question, we need to ask ourselves what the ghost actually did. And the answer to that question is that the ghost incited Hamlet to kill his uncle in revenge for the murder of his father.

Now why would someone impersonate a dead king to incite the murder of the current one? Well, as the detective at the scene of a murder might ask, who stands to gain from the crime? Who is the beneficiary? And indeed, the answer is clear at the end of the play. It is Fortinbras, prince of Norway, who arrives in Denmark in time to see the ruling family dead and the kingdom ready to fall into his lap.

Who is Fortinbras anyway? He's the son of King Fortinbras of Norway, who was killed by the elder king Hamlet. The younger Fortinbras has been gathering an army to attack Denmark in revenge, but has been restrained by his uncle the current king of Norway.

Now that's very interesting. So Fortinbras wants to attack Denmark under its current king Claudius, avenge his father's death and win territory for his kingdom. He's thwarted by his uncle in his plans to attack Denmark outright, and so he goes on a campaign against Poland instead, for "a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name". The campaign against Poland is therefore just a smokescreen. Although Fortinbras made a vow before his uncle "never more to give the assay of arms" against Claudius, it's clear he intends to achieve his purpose by other means. Denmark is always his primary target.

So, now that we have a suspect and have established a possible motive for his act, let's look at the options one would have in Fortinbras's place, now that direct military action is ruled out. The most obvious route is to look for and exploit schisms within the Danish ruling circle. After sufficient investigation, the murder of the elder king Hamlet by Claudius must have been uncovered, and in the process a potential ally (prince Hamlet) identified. But Hamlet was oblivious of his father's murder and would have to be told. Why would he believe an outrageous story like that? What proof could Fortinbras furnish to Hamlet to convince him of Claudius's guilt? None at all!

That's probably why Fortinbras decided to use the stratagem of impersonating the king's ghost and telling Hamlet the story from the old king's point of view. As a superstitious man (like most people were in that society), Hamlet would not dare ask the ghost for proof. He would accept the story without question. And that is exactly what happened. With the seeds of doubt planted in his mind, Hamlet then set about doing all the things he had to do before the play ended. And once Denmark's ruling family lay dead, Fortinbras mysteriously appeared to claim the Danish throne and avenge his father.

A dark night, a bit of makeup, and an armor that hid everything about a face except for the eyes exposed by a visor - that was all that was needed. (It need not have been Fortinbras himself who impersonated the dead king. It could have been anyone from his entourage who had similar features.) The plan worked brilliantly. Hamlet was so convinced by Fortinbras's story that after some hesitation, he set about planning his revenge. The later scene of the ghost when Hamlet is alone with his mother is probably Hamlet being delusional. His mother can see no ghost. It is entirely in his own imagination, unlike at the beginning of the play, when Horatio, Bernardo and the soldiers can all see the ghostly figure in armour.

And so this is Shakespeare's clever story of Hamlet - a story of how the young prince Fortinbras of Norway avenged his father's death and won a victory over his enemy Denmark by setting the prince of Denmark against his own uncle. The entire play was about how Fortinbras's brilliant plan to conquer Denmark succeeded.

As with Seshadri Kumar's analysis of the Mahabharata, my own analysis of Hamlet from a rationalist point of view led to an answer that should really not be surprising in hindsight.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Modi's Tenure - A Retrieved Reformation?

The genius of O Henry shows in his stories, full of clever insights into the human condition, with humour, pathos and the mandatory twist at the end. One of the nicest is A Retrieved Reformation, the story of a professional safecracker called Jimmy Valentine who changes his ways, decides to live a straight life and marry the girl he loves - a banker's daughter. But the law is catching up with him for his past. At the story's denouement, a detective is waiting to arrest him at the bank owned by Jimmy's future father-in-law. An unexpected moment of drama occurs when a little girl gets locked inside the bank's vault. Jimmy is forced to risk losing it all by revealing his true identity when he decides to crack the vault and save the child. Moved by that selfless act, the detective who has come to arrest him pretends not to recognise him and leaves.

An O Henry-esque story is playing out in India with the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister. Regardless of Modi's vaunted skills as an administrator and a no-nonsense decision maker, one aspect of his past that he has been unable to live down is the planned rioting and huge loss of life that occurred on his watch in Gujarat in 2002, in which mainly Muslims were targeted and killed. Modi's complicity in the riots could never be proven "beyond the shadow of a doubt", the standard required to secure a conviction under the "innocent until proven guilty" legal system. However, the evidence for it, although circumstantial, is still substantial. A secretly recorded sting video of a few key players in those riots (one of whom was later sentenced to life in prison) reveals that Modi not only knew about, and encouraged, the riots, but also used his power as Chief Minister to protect the perpetrators and thwart justice later on.

Warning - some of the admissions here are graphic and chilling

Today, this man is India's prime minister, elected on a plank of development. There are millions of people who are quite willing to forgive and forget whatever happened in 2002, provided he delivers the economic benefits that he has been promising - benefits that even Muslims will enjoy, as people keep pointing out. It's a Faustian bargain made by the electorate, and not one that can be easily condemned. After all, the alternative to Modi's BJP was the Congress, with its staggering tradition of corruption and its own dirty list of planned riots and killing over the decades. In a near-binary system, a rejection of one party automatically means the elevation of the other, and so the BJP's turn at power was probably the only realistic outcome.

For his part, although Modi has consistently denied involvement in the riots, he has hinted obliquely that they will not occur again. He has promised to make development his sole agenda, and there are strong reasons to believe that he is sincere. Indeed, he cannot afford another conflagration on his watch. It will put paid to his hopes of leaving behind a legacy in which he is remembered as 'Vikash Purush' (Man of Development).

But all this still leaves one with a philosophical dilemma. Must we always be forced to choose the lesser of two evils? And by what measure do we decide which is the lesser evil? How do we view crime, punishment, expiation, reparations, forgiveness, and reconciliation? The Nuremberg trials and the African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions offer very different models of closure. One deals with "justice" of a retributive kind, the other of a pragmatic way to let people move on. The Nuremberg model has been attempted, and it has failed. Modi has been officially acquitted by the highest court in the land, and the legal option has therefore run its course. Reconciliation seems the only realistic way to move forward, but what we have today is an uneasy limbo. The main element of reconciliation is remorseful acknowledgement. "I'm sorry I murdered your family" is what many people in Rwanda said to genocide survivors, and then they all moved on. There has been no such acknowledgement by Modi or the BJP, just a promise of economic benefits that aren't quite called reparations. It's like corporations paying compensation to victims without admitting wrongdoing. Muslims are expected to collect the economic benefits of a Modi government and forget 2002.

Although I have always harboured deep misgivings about Narendra Modi, I have reconciled myself to his election victory and to the fact that he will probably serve more than one term as prime minister. The previous Congress government was so bad that he can only be an improvement, and he is sure to want to prove himself with a vengeance, so he will almost certainly effect many welcome changes and be rewarded with a second term.

But it is not for me to reconcile myself to anything. I lost nothing in 2002, except in a vicarious humanistic sense. It's the Muslim community that has to do the reconciling, and it is admittedly harder for them, just as it has been hard for the Sikhs to reconcile themselves to the Congress party after the 1984 riots. Modi could make it easier for everyone by apologising and seeking forgiveness. That would be the best way for the country to move forward, but I suspect that is not going to happen. The hardliners in his own party would view that as a betrayal.

There is an old Jewish principle that I have read about, which says there can be no forgiveness without apology. Even with the best hopes of Indians realised and an economy that grows at a stellar rate over the next few decades, without true reconciliation that comes from an apology, India can achieve no more than Trishanku's heaven.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Liberal India's Fear Of The Unknown

Why is Narendra Modi's possible victory causing so much dread in so many Indians?

Is it just a mindless fear of the unknown, as some have suggested? Or is it the insight from Organisational Behaviour that culture is always more important than strategy?

The latter idea takes a bit of explaining. It is the observation that an organisation with a healthy culture will have the wherewithal to adapt to circumstances and try various strategies until it finds what works. A organisation with a brilliant vision and strategy but with a toxic culture will ultimately fail. It will lose customers, it will be punished by the stock market, and its executives may even go to jail.

This wisdom about culture trumping strategy every time is as true of countries as it is true of corporations. A country with a tolerant, pluralistic culture can leverage its diversity to its advantage. Its elected governments learn to be inclusive and fair, pursuing balanced growth over unequal development. In contrast, a society that pursues "purity" (by whatever ideological criterion) risks not only losing the advantages that diversity brings with it, but even weakening itself. Germany exemplifies the latter, where a popular vote in favour of strong leadership in 1933 resulted in utter devastation in just 12 short years. Historical analysts have written tomes about the various reasons for Germany's catastrophic fate, but ultimately, the reason can be stated in a nutshell. The cause was the German populace's willingness to cut corners on culture because they were impatient for a leader with a vision and strategy.

This is the real reason why many Indians fear the advent of Narendra Modi, his fervent followers, and all that they represent. This is not primarily about the 2002 riots, although one could view that as a symptom of what is to be feared.

It is the general mood of impatience, and the willingness to cut corners to achieve objectives. It is the elevation of strategy over culture.

India's culture of pluralism and tolerance did not come about with the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1950, or because of the moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the couple of decades before that. Rather, the inherent culture of India from time immemorial has always been pluralistic and tolerant. In fact, this culture is what shaped the philosophy and strategy of leaders like Gandhi. It is this culture that made a progressive, secular, democratic constitution an easy fit for a country with such an ancient civilisation. But today, this very culture has come under threat from the grassroots up. There is a chill in the air, an increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism, with friends and clansmen turning against one another with rare hostility over political difference. Even during the Emergency of 1975-77, one could trust one's close friends and relatives when criticising Indira Gandhi's government. Today, hundreds of thousands of friendships have been strained (most visibly on social media) because of political difference. Many more people are choosing to maintain a discreet silence rather than voice unpopular opinions.

In this stifling atmosphere, one mollifying mantra is chanted to drown out all others - Development. Development will heal all the wounds that intolerance may inflict, so the theory goes. Elect a "strong" leader, suppress all contrary opinions, watch the country grow at a rapid pace, and finally everyone will benefit, majority and minority alike. It's an appealing argument. Unfortunately, that's also the classic fallacy of neglecting culture for strategy.

The toxic culture of intolerance for dissent that we are witnessing has been commented on by many writers, including Sagarika Ghose and Aatish Taseer. And ironically, the invective that is heaped on such people in the guise of rebuttal serves to underscore their arguments. India is sliding towards a more dictatorial culture, one personified by an emerging political leader but also one that is eagerly fanned by his willing followers.

Indira Gandhi had to pay goons to silence her opponents. Modi's goons (of both the white collar and the blue collar variety) do the job willingly, out of righteous conviction - the conviction that the ends (a strong economy) justify the means (a markedly less liberal society). Such stories do not end well in either fiction or in history, as JK Rowling and 1930s Germany can tell us.

And this is why liberals fear for India. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Echoes Of Hymns Past

The name "Saravana Bhavan" came up in conversation today. This is of course a famous chain of restaurants that originated in Tamil Nadu and now claims to be the largest chain of vegetarian restaurants in the world.

The name set off a curious chain (if you will) of thoughts in my head. I remembered hearing a religious song long ago with the words "Saravana Bhavana" in it. My own parents didn't play much religious music in the house, but when I used to visit my grandmother in Madurai (which was once or twice every year), I would get to experience a different kind of lifestyle and culture. I remember my aunt playing the song "(S)kanda Sashti Kavacham" (or "Kandar Sashti Kavasam"), a song in praise of Lord Muruga (also known as Karthikeya or Subramaniam).

Since everything is on YouTube nowadays, I was quickly able to track down the song. Hearing it with adult ears gave me a different sense altogether. As a well-designed piece of music, it has few parallels. The tune is catchy, being quite melodious and repetitive, with some variation to keep it from becoming too monotonous. It employs alliteration and onomatopoeia. I guess the devout would also find the lyrics very moving.

Speaking of lyrics, I could only understand about half the words, since I have never formally learned Tamil (the formal and colloquially spoken forms of the language are very different). I found a clip on YouTube with lyrics, and I realised with dismay that not only was my vocabulary inadequate, my ability to read the script was so far below par that I could barely keep pace with the song. If I had to sing karaoke, I would fail miserably. I guess that's what comes from growing up in another linguistic state from your own. I can read Kannada faster than I can read Tamil, and I can read Hindi far faster than either Kannada or Tamil. Hindi was my second language at school, and Kannada my third, and of course, I never learnt Tamil formally at all. Not surprisingly, my skills in these languages follow that order. I taught myself Tamil in my late teens and early twenties when studying at IIT Madras. On my weekend city bus trips to visit my local relatives in Madras (now Chennai), I would look out of the window at the shop signs (which were in both Roman and Tamil scripts) and try to decipher the Tamil words. Gradually, I got better, to the point where I can now read and understand cartoons in Tamil. (My ambition is to improve to the point where I can read Kalki's classics in the original - Ponniyin Selvan, Sivagamiyin Sapatham and Parthiban Kanavu.)

[It's related to my belief that if Indians studied the history of the Pallavas and Cholas more and that of the Mughals less, they would have greater cultural self-confidence because of the emphasis on victories and successful power projection far afield rather than of defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders. And no, I'm neither jingoistic nor one of those Hindutva types, just someone impatient with the attitudes of servility and diffidence that have sapped the Indian character.]

Anyway, here is "Kanda Sashti Kavacham". I enjoyed it, and I hope you do too.

Kanda Sashti Kavacham - The odd references to cat's hair (11:08) and suchlike are added curiosities