Monday, March 26, 2012

Let’s get fiscal

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the budget day approached, the nation got ready to celebrate this non-religious holiday very religiously. Students were assigned essays to be written on why budget day is their favourite holiday. Everyone in the workforce cancelled all their appointments. Restaurants were offering their patrons special deals on drinks and appetizers to induce consumers to do their budget watching with them. Television channels dusted off their annual glimpses-of-various-finance-ministers-showing-off-their-budget-briefcase video. Twitter users were remembering Bengali stereotypes to make terrible Pranab Mukherjee jokes. Economic experts were taking a break from giving a discourse on other issues and concentrating on second guessing the finance minister. A number of think-tanks even came up with alternate budget suggestions, which they released on the day before the budget presentation (because obviously the most important financial document of the world’s fourth largest economy is prepared the same way I used to study for all my exams: by pulling an all-nighter). India was ready to get fiscal.

I was watching news television the whole day so besides breaking into a terrible rash, my only take away from the budget broadcast was that somehow I would have to back-pay all my taxes again, going back to 1962, for some reason. I was so outraged that I joined a Facebook group protesting this blatant power grab. As I was about to sign a strongly worded online petition, I ended up using the ‘Google machine’ and found out that my object of outrage was only a clarification of an old law, something that is not a punch in the face of the constitution but a normal budgetary procedure.

Can you blame me for not cutting the UPA any slack? This government has fucked up so many times the country has fuck-up fatigue. It has less inertia than a 101-year old man pushing his own wheelchair. A government so rudderless it makes a sunken Italian cruise liner seem like it knows where it’s going. A government which meanders from crisis to crisis and yet has the temerity to act like a ‘mean girl’ towards anyone who suggests that they might not be the most awesome thing to happen to the country.

Things are not helped by the fact that our free press- the supposed vanguard of our democracy- has the attention span of a schizophrenic sociopath suffering from attention deficit syndrome. There is no sense of proportion. Even minor governance issues are trotted out as do or die situations. Mid-term elections have been just around the corner ever since this government has been elected. The media is so eager to badly analyze a horse race that they have no qualms in disingenuously engineering a crisis every other week. 

They spend less time vetting the messiahs they force upon us than the amount of time the McCain campaign spent vetting Sarah Palin. Montek Singh Ahluwalia was supposed to be Manmohan Singh 2.0. He was everybody’s dream finance ministerial candidate, until it turned out that he had no idea where to draw the poverty line. Laloo Prasad Yadav was the best Railways minister in the history of the country until reports came out that he was pulling an Enron. Anna Hazare turned out to be less Ben Kingsley in Gandhi and more Ben Kingsley in Sweeny Todd. Rahul Gandhi was India’s ‘youth icon’ until he was unceremoniously dumped for India’s new boyfriend, Akhilesh Yadav.

Now, whatever you do, don’t blame me for being distracted by all these shiny objects. Blame stupid people for doing stupid things and those crass reporters for reporting every non-story as breaking news. The navel was already visible; all I did was gaze at it. Don’t shoot the recipient of the message! In fact, I get so angry at the media for reporting a non-story that I will punish them by continuously watching and/or reading every new non-development update about stories which don’t deserve to be extensively reported on. Don’t tell anyone, but, sometimes, I even go out looking for things to be outraged about. No, no, I don’t have any ulterior motives when I do that! I follow these stories ironically! Do you think I like feeling superior to stupid people? Don’t Simon Cowell me, bro.

A government which refuses to govern. An opposition which is even more incapable. A media which has a shorter attention span than an infant. A people who match the government’s sense of apathy.

At least the captain of the Costa Concordia had the decency to abandon ship.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fantasy Elections and slick politicians

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most strangely popular hobbies of sports fans is to participate in a fantasy league. A fantasy league is sort of a fan’s wet dream come true. It gives them the one thing that they think will help their team win the game. If only they could choose the players! Yes, the best judge of a team’s strategy is the guy with a beer belly shouting things at the television who has never played a sport in his life.

Such sentiment is not limited to sports fans, though. There is an amateur pundit in all of us. From the day the last vote in the assembly elections was cast, to the day the counting began, the punditrati was busy playing fantasy elections. The news anchors, political analysts and party spokespeople spent three days holding discussions on hypothetical results. Though no party would accept the fact that they would do as badly as the results predicted, the harsh rhetoric of the past few months had been already forgotten and everybody was in a conciliatory mood. Old tropes were being dusted off and called into service again to sugar-coat any future cynical power grab. Each party was ready to work with their sworn opponent, ‘for the good of the people of the country.’ Ah! We are so lucky to be living in a utopia in which our politicians are so patriotic that they don’t let mere principles stand in their way.

The Congress used this time for a soft launch of ‘Operation Don’t Blame Rahul Gandhi.’ Everyone from Rita Bahugana to the ghost of Arjun Singh went around saying that if the Congress did bad in UP the blame was to solely rest on their shoulders. The BJP took turns giving dubious reasons for the absence of Narendra Modi from the campaign trail to having to explain why having 15 contenders for a single post means that everybody in the party is on the same page.

Then, as the election results came in, alliances were being built in the television studio. As the largest party in all the states staked their claim to form the government with Arnab Goswami, common sense conclusions were being presented as an ‘exclusive’ (BREAKING: Water will quench your thirst. Remember, you heard it here first!). The only narrative anyone was paying attention to was the emergence of Akhilesh Yadav as the new star of Indian politics. Since he is a blank slate in the public imagination, it’s easy to project people’s hopes and aspirations on him. He’s young! He can speak English! He uses an iPad! He caused a tectonic shift in Indian politics as the people of UP rejected a scion of a dynasty for the scion of another dynasty!

However, in six months, everyone will be asking whether Akhilesh is “losing his mojo” when he is unable to clamp down on the law and order problem in UP (because how do you clamp down on the very people whose support you need to stay in power?). And then, in 2014, when some other party gets more seats than the SP in the parliamentary election, everyone will ask whether he was “all hype and no substance.” There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that a government led by Akhilesh will be any different than a government led by his father, but who knows! Maybe Chief Minister Michael Corleone will be the one to take the family business legit. 

It was also hilarious to watch the exberts on twitter dance on the grave of Rahul Gandhi’s political career. Because in India, political careers hinge on one victory or one loss! That is why the career of a young, promising MP called Atal Behari Vajpyee was ended in 1984, when his party was routed in the election. Who knows, maybe he could have gone on to become Prime Minister! And has anybody heard from former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha after she lost two consecutive elections? I bet she is planning to go back to acting in movies right about now.

People forget that Indian politics is like the Hotel California. You can check-out any time you like but you can never leave. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Swing when you’re winning — Is hockey the new cricket?

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

The crowds in the stand were on the edge of their seats. Not because the action on the field was exciting, but the seats were really dirty. The players on the field were ruthlessly perspiring. Not that they were worried about the outcome of the match, but because half of them hadn’t paid their monthly rent and the other half wanted the game to end soon so that they could leave early and avoid the rush hour traffic. The world was watching. And by the world we mean all the five people staring aimlessly at the television in the local pizza parlour called The World. As the clock ran out of batteries half an hour before the match was supposed to end, the boys in blue raised their hands in victory. The country was ecstatic! Finally, the Indian team had won a match! After all those weeks of poor performance, a small glimmer of hope! This one victory would make up for all that disappointment. The reason for this euphoria was that the Indian Hockey team had qualified for the Olympics.

Wait a minute, HOCKEY? All this ecstasy turned into uneasy befuddlement. Hockey was a real game? It wasn’t just something invented by a crafty bollywood producer so that he could make a movie about sports? Holy Baichung Bhutia, batman!

After a few minutes, the feelings of befuddlement turned back into ecstasy again. The important thing is that India won something. We are so starved for glory that we’ll take anything we can get. Even a kid born to Indian-American parents who wins the Oklahoma State Spelling Bee.

As if on cue, the news channels began to project Hockey as the new cricket. The new hope of a billion people! Curiously, ever since our population passed the one billion mark, the whole country has begun to wish for the same desired results. A billion people wanted AR Rahman to win an Oscar. A billion people wanted Anna Hazare to win the Hunger Games. A billion people wanted Sania Mirza to win . . . well, anything.

Thus, a billion people spent the next two days obsessing over Hockey. Teenagers were exchanging their cricket jerseys for whatever Hockey players wear to cover themselves whilst they are on the field. This was also the first time in our country’s history that so many hockey sticks were sold in the same day for non-riot purposes. Television and print journalists wondered aloud whether all the attention we pay to cricket is at the cost of other sports. They weren’t interviewed because not many people knew they existed, but I assume if all the barefoot javelin throwers and those shooters without a practice range could speak, they would disagree with this sort of sensational journalism. “We’re fine. Don’t worry about us!” is what they would say, while soliciting local businessmen for money to buy equipment & uniforms.

Fortunately, things went back to normal two days later when the Indian cricket team finally won a match. Whew! Welcome back, cricket! Don’t ever leave us again! Did you know a hockey game takes less time to play than a Rotary Club T-20 match which allows ‘one-tip out?' And hockey matches have penalties. How rude! It’s not a gentlemen’s game until its longest version takes up the better part of the week and the match still ends up in a draw.

This short-lived buzz over hockey must have woken up the officials of our Olympic organization committee. One minute they were stretching and rubbing out sleep from their eyes and the next minute somebody brought to their attention that there had been a large human tragedy in Bhopal in 1984, and that most of those victims are still suffering from ailments and a lack of justice. The committee must have been really moved by the plight of the victims because they were outraged enough to go on their annual pilgrimage to EmptyGestureland. They decided that the one thousand ‘officials’ accompanying our ten Olympic athletes would boycott the opening and closing ceremonies, unless the organizers removed Dow Chemicals-the current owner of the company responsible for the tragedy-as their main sponsor, Yes. That will show them! If they don’t listen to us and remove their main source of funds at the last minute, we will not attend an event at which we would have been barely noticed to begin with. Who do they think is organising the London Olympics, the ICC?

Each sports association in this country seems to be competing with the others for the gold medal in stupidity. Maybe that’s the one sport we are really good at?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The cherished myth of the Noble Dictator

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Ever since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, almost every subsequent election in other parts of the world has had a candidate promising ‘change.’ Like in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, LK Advani tried to be that candidate. Because nothing says change like an octogenarian politician who has spent the last four decades as a member of parliament and has been a prominent member of three governments.

Then it was Nick Clegg, who after a good performance at a debate was hailed as the UK’s version of Obama. Even though Clegg has the wit of a bottle of home-made disinfectant and the charm of a stale box of Pringles. Nobody in England even wants to have a drink with him as constantly hearing about how mass-marketed alcohol beverages are causing malnutrition in Somalia is a real bugger. And all a bloke wants to do after a hard day's work is sit in a pub, make some jokes about how the fat chick flirting with the bartender looks like Wayne Rooney and watch some bleeding rugger on the telly, so shut your pie hole and pass the crisps, Nick. Even insane asylum escapee and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinajad wasn’t impervious to borrowing cheap marketing slogans from the leader of the great Satan. Thanks a lot for ruining all elections, Barry. 

As in everything else it does the Indian media’s Obama obsession borders on the creepy. What they don’t realize is that if Obama was born in India (maybe he is? All irrefutable evidence may point to his being born in Hawaii, but who am I going to believe? My lying eyes or a racist & kooky con artist?) he’d get an engineering degree from an IIT, go abroad to work for an MNC and come back to India ten years later and write a terrible book about the whole experience. And even after Obama has jumped the shark, the media continues to look for a person to fit into their pre-existing narrative. Is it Mayawati? No, she’s turned into a megalomaniac dictator whose goal is to put a statue of herself in every house in the country. Is it Anna Hazare? No, he was already a megalomaniac dictator before most of the popular journalists could misinterpret their first fact. Is it the chief minister of a prosperous state who shall remain unnamed? Never mind. I don’t want letters from those people.

The latest messiah who was unable to deliver us from all evil was Mamta Banerjee. Last year, her ‘poriborton’ campaign was all over the news. She was going to bring change to her home state after three decades of misrule! She was going to turn Calcutta into London! She was going to use her powers to change the axis of the earth and force it to revolve around West Bengal! However, what came as a surprise to no one but the hard working men and women who ask silly questions on television, Ms. Banerjee turned out to be a megalomaniac dictator. Even a horse wearing blinkers could have diagnosed her malignant dictatorship. All the symptoms pointed in that direction: Erratic behaviour. Disregard for public opinion. Paranoia. Not allowing any other leader in the party to develop a following large enough to challenge her authority. Denying reality. Blaming all the problems the people are suffering from on the previous regime or a more powerful outside entity. Her relatives treating the state like their own personal fiefdom. And now, she wants to paint the capital city in her favourite colour! That usually happens when politicians get that funny feeling in their stomach and decide that they are in this for the long haul. Though most dictators come from very diverse backgrounds, they all end up as graduates of the dictator school of hard knocks.

Of course, in India, we love leaders who pretend to be strong and decisive. Nothing gives our emasculated populace a bigger boner than a leader who doesn’t care for other people’s opinions. Consultations are for weak people! Real men take decisions impacting a large number of people based on what they feel in their gut! A large swathe of the country continues to want a benevolent dictator. When history has taught us that those two things do not go together. Even with all the current nominal checks and balances in place, most governments in this country commit highway robbery in broad daylight. Yet, somehow, people believe that a person with unchecked powers will be inclined to combat corruption.

So what if Indira Gandhi placed her sycophants in every position of consequence and sowed the seeds for the systematic rot we see now and every action of hers was determined by the need for self-preservation, but hey, at least the trains were on time.