Better Local Governance: Electing vs. Assigning

Much of the US was a structural shock to my system. When I first heard that such key offices as Commissioner of Police and district attorney was elected rather then appointed from a national, rotating pool, for example, I was aghast.
Popular punditry often conflates democracy with the mechanism of elections, but elections today are the epitome of a rigged game, favouring only those with the connections, funds, and social identities most accommodative of popular prejudice. Consider the USA, for instance. A country predicted to soon become – amongst much media headlining – not predominantly white, has not had two black senators serving simultaneously in their version of the parliament. Politics by colour of class might seem regressive on the surface, but the continuing structural violence against groups incapable of sponsoring enough elected members to the House is for all to see.
In the wake of the police brutality at Jadavpur University, though, I have had to reconsidered my deeply rooted colonial stance. On the one hand, it seems generally sensible to select and train officer-level police personnel (that is, those who bear arms and make the decisions) at a national academy, than to accept any average eighteen-year old who hasn’t ever left his home town, and present him with the privileges of uniform.

On the other hand, however, there are such civil positions as deans and chancellors and registrars of universities. These fine women and men used to be elected to office from a group of their peers, and in many places perhaps still are. This ensured two things:

  1. The person entering office has spent enough time within her new domain of authority to be familiar with its workings and its idiosyncrasies
  2. And s/he has earned the respect and confidence of his/her peers to be elected to be the the boss of them.
The two combined is likely to encourage a situation of greater campus democracy, instead of the detached show of might we’ve witnessed. An administrator with an organic connect can help avoid a great deal of avoidable trouble to students, faculty, university productivity, and the public image of the political party at the helm of state-assisted units.
Of course, to be fair, there are several possibilities of exceptions I am not exploring here, and in the general scheme of revolution and resistance this might seem a little dull. But with the #hokkolorob movement intensifying without a clear goal except protesting to tyranny, tedious matters such as this is worth considering.

How to Manage the Media: A Guide for India

An interesting aspect of the police brutality at Jadavpur University today has been the response of West Bengal’s most powerful media house’s response to it. As my former classmate and friends SD and PP have pointed out (that latter rather colourfully, much to my delight), the ABP house – as evinced by their print reportage in the Anadabazar Patrika – first chose to speak of the protesting students as a disturbant, a ticking bomb, a threat imminent to ‘shikkhajogot’ (the world/sphere of education).

Then, this morning, the mob that aided the police in beating up and molesting the students made the mistake of being carried away by their licence to violate, and assaulted a Star Ananda journalist (Star Ananda being the house’s television channel). And ABP instantly snapped around and bit a chunk off its former allies.

Of course, in the coming days the state shall broker peace with ABP, and after a few TRP-boosting stunts (perhaps a few studio debates, a special report on campus violence and gendered crimes), ABP will drop the matter completely. But the lesson helmspeople of the Indian state need to learn, once and for all, is that the media is not the same as party cadres. Their loyalty, when not backed by cash or other tradable commodities, is revoked when a kick is delivered to their groins. Unlike the junior cadet waiting to rise in ranks or the senior member waiting for their next ticket, they don’t accept it as a regrettable accident in a mêlée. Besides, attacks on journalists will give media houses higher viewership than parroting a party line anyway.

So be nice to your media partners, parties. It’s part of their payoff package. And breaking the deal will cost you.

Jewish = Muslim

Indian hardliner ‘nationalists’ have plumbed solidly for Israel in the current conflict.

Palestine deserves destruction, they say, because it has housed terrorists who have been annoying Israel for decades. Israel has been patient. No one can say Israel has not been patient. But now it has struck, and it will rip threats to its nation out by the very roots, and stomp on them till they’re dead, dead, dead!

Now, it so happens that Palestinians are mostly Muslims. And that is what triggers the orgasm of approval from our ‘nationalists’, not their sense of fairness or balance. Indian ‘nationalism’ exists superficially to combat ‘western culture’, but it’s roots draw true sustenance from Islamphobia, and fear of Muslim dominance in the state. So for them, Muslim-bashing anywhere is always good news. Couched in Israel-Palestine dynamics, they see the constant ‘oppression’ of a patient India by rabid Pakistan, and wish fervently that India would ‘teach a lesson’ to Pakistan in similar fashion.

There is just a tiny problem with this analogy, and it is this: Palestinians ‘terrorised’ Israel because Israel was carved out of Palestinian land without their consent, to house a specific religious minority.

Much, in fact, like Pakistan was carved out of British India – in the face of immense public opposition (and suffering).

So when Indian ‘nationalists’ go berserk with righteous joy at the suffering of Muslims, and defend Israel’s violence fervently, they should remember that in their tortured “West Bank is the subcontinent” analogy, Israel is really Pakistan.

The delights of your ignorance, my fellow patriots. The delights of your ignorance.

The Answers in the Catch

Having just found my father’s tattered copy of Catch 22 in our last unpacked box from home, I have been catching up on my Joseph Heller after years.It is wonderfully liberating to read a book from an era where depth of thought was not alienated from wit, and wit was not alienated from a social conscience. I look around at popular culture today, and find far too many fart jokes getting in the way of pro-people critique of power, which is what comedy is supposed to achieve politically. Instead, people are now convinced that comedy is ‘just a joke’.

Chew on this bit by Heller. He is a very funny writer, and Catch 22 is a very readable book, but it also raises questions we’d do well to think about from time to time.

“Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing absurd about risking your life for your country!” he declared.

“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

“Anything worth living for,” said Nately, “is worth dying for.”

“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for.”

Review: Home Deli, Mumbai

(Cross-posted here: http://www.zoma.to/mynLq)

With a joy I can scarcely express in words, I am now free of my vomit-inducing, vampiric shithole of a workplace. Since the final conversation with my divisional head yesterday, I couldn’t stop humming. Several times I actually broke into song. My life was a dull monochromes full of mentally-unstable monsters, and in a few minutes, it was transformed into a vibrant landscape of happiness. The joy, the joy, the joy! Swimming, painting, sewing, travelling, friends, family, writing, baking – here I come!

The only thing I will miss about the job (apart from a few people) is being able to order regularly from Home Deli. Since I’ve been ordering from the place days before I actually saw it, I assumed it was a semi-swank corporate-neighbourhood joint, dispensing as they did delicious chicken-salad and ham-pineapple sandwiches, plus pizzas practically baked in cheese. Turns out it’s a spanking-clean hole-in-the-wall, with friendly – and occasionally a little saucy – staff.

It’s one of the joys of Bombay, I suppose, that even inexpensive holes-in-the-wall serve something as local as a bangda-thali right along with ham-and-cheese toasties and celery-onion sandwiches with house-made mayonnaise. Indeed, for the vegetarians around Prabhadevi, Home Deli provides a certain amount of pure-veg coolth. No longer do you have to settle for masala toast (although it does cost you forty bucks less). You can have grilled paneer in your sandwich, wok-tossed vegetables, corn and leafy greens… and lots and lots of cheese. If you eat everything, order the ‘non-veg sandwiches’ (as the menu puts it). They vary between excellent and very good, and come with finger-chips and coleslaw. The coleslaw is rich enough to put between two pieces of bread and made into a whole new sandwich, so it’s a win-win for you whichever way you look at it.

For people who prefer more substantial lunches, I personally recommend the Chinese set-meal. It comes with the day’s starter, a large portion of vegetarian or chicken fried rice, a gravy-dish with either vegetables or chicken, and a little dollop of sauce and salad. Sometimes, the starter is disappointing – such as three tiny onion rings – but on other days it is a meal in itself, like a heap of batter-friend cauliflower (yum!). So ask for the day’s special before you order. Of course, if you wish to spend more, you can order individual dishes – there will be enough to share between two people. The dishes mentioned above come between Rs. 65 to Rs. 150.

The two things I’ve never tried at Home Deli are their biryani and their thaali. I am picky about my biryani, and I didn’t fancy unpacking a huge meal of dal, chawal, subzi, fish, chutney and curd on our tiny cafeteria tables. Now that I’ve left the job though (yaay!), perhaps some day I shall just amble over with my Kindle, and have a nice, long, sit-in desi lunch there.

Indian Elections 2014: Close-up 3

From Maheshwar Peri’s blog on Outlook India:

I was an undecided voter. I was exploring my options. UPA II did not deserve another chance. Modi personally never gave me good vibes. Blame the publicity, but I never saw any compassion in him, even in BJP posters. But BJP was still an alternative because AAP was not fit and ready to govern, at least for five more years. I had a lot of issues with AAP. So I was veering towards BJP despite my discomfiture. We still have to make a choice and NOTA is not an option for me. I wanted to vote for stability. For me, Gujarat is one of the better governed states. I also did not want a Baba, Amma, Behenji, Netaji, Didi or Bhayyaji to be the next Prime Minister or even interfere in governance.

As I kept expressing myself without bias on Facebook and elsewhere, the Modi fans went after me. They were organized, belligerent and at times scary. Many questioned my intelligence and a few even my integrity. Last night, I analyzed few people who took it on themselves in leading this charge—the hardcore Modi fans (I personally don’t think there is any BJP left). And what I found was revealing. Throughout the posts, I saw hatred, criticism or trivialization. No serious discourse based on facts and reasoning. Liberal use of epithets like “Sickular”, “Paid Media”, “Khan-gressi”, “Pakistani Agent”, “Traitor”, “ISI Agent”, “CIA Agent”, “Saint Topiwal”, “Fakeriwal”, “Aaptard” was common. The name calling was personal and perverse.

I encourage each of you to do a similar exercise. I can’t even wish them off as over-enthusiastic supporters. They are so committed to Modi that it is well nigh impossible to be objective in future. Unknown to us, we have created a lynch mob. But then, they have only learnt it from their leader who had used the “Mian” in Musharraf, and the “James Michael” in Lyngdoh to create insecurities and mass votes. Even as a PM aspirant, he peddles epithets such as “Shahzada” (Rahul) and “Pakistani friend” (Arvind Kejriwal) and vitiates the discourse. A leader who has only created a legion of followers but no second line of leadership needs a stronger opposition in Parliament. The checks and balances have to be stronger.

The agenda for positive change, good governance and development are mere statements that have got lost in the election carried forward by his followers. What started off as a positive campaign soon descended into bullying. Development is no longer the narrative. The bias was such that the same people who quoted Time (“The Under Achiever” cover on Dr.Manmohan Singh) started criticising and questioning The Economist and The Guardian for ‘interfering’ in India’s internal affairs. Hypocrisy has become synonymous with politics.

And then yesterday, a beast amongst us slapped Arvind Kejriwal. It was ferocious. It was brutal. It was inhumane. It was meant to physically hurt. As AK held his face, it was heart-breaking. He had a black eye and a swollen cheek. And the BJP bandwagon took to the streets and launched their attack in a highly synchronized manner. It was celebration time. The slap was a butt of jokes. AK was despised, derided, laughed at, attacked, and violated. It was appalling. Each time as I watched the slap, my heart wept. Is this the society we have come to be?

Last night, My decision was made. There was greater clarity. I don’t want a society where hatred wins over love, violence over peace, anger over amity, frown over smile, sternness over calmness, negativity over positive feelings. I don’t want a society where the mobs decide the agenda cleverly planted by a handful of people (we have seen it in 1984 and 2002).

I decided. I will vote with my conscience. I will vote for peace. I will reject divisiveness. I will vote for change. I vote to bring in a good opposition in the parliament. I vote for AAP.

Indian Elections 2014: Close-up 2

Yesterday on the train, I heard a rehash of a recent Facebook conversation I’ve had. A group of people (mostly supporting Modi) bemoaned the decline of the nation since independence, the growth in corruption, the general rotting of the social and moral structures – the usual cheesy whine (if you forgive the lame pun). To the last person, they blamed politicians and the government for this, and agreed with each other that nothing good could ever come of India.

The people on my Facebook, bless them, have the long view of greater good, and hence they oppose the dictatorial politics of Narendra Modi. My co-passengers on the train were blinded by the irrational hope for a majoritarian government, that will put troublesome minorities in their place and enforce righteous discipline. But both groups missed the mark, in my opinion, because they both disowning the responsibility they had, as members of the voting public, in nurturing our poisonous, sectarian political climate. It is our susceptibility towards divisiveness, after all, that has trained our politicians to believe that on-record religion and ethnic talk and off-record violence is all they need to sail into office. And if we want a stronger India, we have to shake off our personal discomforts with difference, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us initially.

And honestly, despite a political system so rotten it stinks, I don’t personally think India is beyond hope. Quite the contrary, in fact (although I do have my moments of hopeless cynicism). But if we are to actually go beyond moaning on social media and thriving on the “likes” and “shares” our oh-so-politically-aware commentaries earn, we need to first drop the automatic, frothing-at-the-mouth defensiveness and admit straight up that our own prejudices and apathy got us into the mess we’re in. It got us the politicians we have, the scams we pay for, and the social policing we suffer. A thriving citizen’s media is a great thing, but active involvement in communities and local politics is the only way this country will actually develop (and by that I don’t mean sprout more shopping malls).

If we want a better future, we absolutely HAVE to take ownership of our past. So stop getting mad when someone says you’re part of the problem. Everyone in a failing society is part of the problem in some way or another. Own up to it, and then try to grow beyond it. A seed doesn’t burst into a tree in thin air. It needs the dark and dirty depths for a strong beginning. This election season, that’s probably a good analogy to bear in mind.

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