Sunday, September 30, 2012

We don’t need no stinkin’ FDI

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It was déjà vu all over again. Manmohan Singh staked the future of his government on a policy measure. A regional party with a government in Bengal threatened to withdraw support unless the decisions was rolled back and then went ahead and withdrew it when the government refused. And the government was bailed out by the Samajwadi Party. It felt like we had seen the same sequence of events take place before. Now I know how people who watch a Madhur Bhandarkar movie feel.

There was also a lot of fake tension in the air and the oft-repeated drum of ‘mid-term elections’ was being beaten again. Everybody knew there was no chance of that happening, but it didn’t stop them from pretending that it can. There was a smörgåsbord of disingenuity to choose from. Teevee channels cut into their heated discussions about who would form the new government to show various groups of politicians exiting from each other’s houses while the b-roll displayed animated graphics about how many seats each party had in the Lok Sabha. Well placed newspaper articles seemed more interested in the third-front than the political parties who would actually constitute it. The only person who they were able to convince was ‘tragedy king’ LK Advani, who thought that all his efforts of sending positive vibes into the universe so that it may one day grant him his one wish were finally coming to fruition.

After flailing about for the past few years, taking one hilariously stupid decision after another and throwing everything they could think of at the wall in the hope that something sticks, the Congress was finally able to deliver a genuine one-two political punch to its opponents. The BJP, as always, was more clueless about what to do than a blind, legless kangaroo trying to manoeuvre a four-wheel drive. They were so disoriented, they even asked for a special session of Parliament so that they could disrupt it again. After that didn’t work, they brought out another useless political weapon from their arsenal, the ‘Bharat bandh.’ Apparently, the BJP wanted to send a message that it cares so much for the common man that it is going to make life difficult for him to protest against the government making life difficult for him. Blocking the roads, making people late for work, getting passengers stuck in trains and at the station, bullying people into not earning their daily wages, breaking shop windows; being an asshole towards people for no logical reason is great political strategy. Even the BJP’s current Indira Gandhi & future LK Advani, Narendra Modi, got into the mix. He made jokes about how the government’s decision about FDI in retail had been taken to benefit Italian businessmen. This ‘joke’ would have been hilarious if not for the fact that there are currently no Italian ‘retail chains’ clamouring to get into India. In fact, Italy is not exactly known for its ‘retail giants.’ And really, the central government is getting heat about foreign investment from the guy who has logged more frequent flier miles than Amelia Earhart touting his state as an attractive destination for foreign investment? Maybe he should talk more about how much he hates foreigners and their dirty neo-colonial money at the next ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit.

The Congress & the TMC proved that they were no Ross & Rachel. Their ‘will they/won’t they’ tension was getting on everybody’s nerves. If Mamta Banerjee thought that the Congress would run to the airport singing “Please Don’t Go” to stop her from leaving like the last dozen times, she was mistaken. The Congress was sitting in its apartment, looking at photo albums of happier times, telling itself that it had to finally put an end to all the abuse. It could not spend its life with someone who treated it like a doormat.

Unfortunately, the Congress repeated past patterns by aligning itself with another high-maintenance regional ally, the Samajwadi Party. Its leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav told the press that even though he hates the Congress and thinks that it’s a blot on the face of humanity itself, he is still going to align with it because he wanted to keep ‘communal forces’ away from government. That familiar trope is always used by mortal enemies in Indian politics when they want to form governments together. Yeah, let’s get the old secular band back together again, for one more terrible performance. And who is more secular than the guy who claims to be an honorary 'Maulana’ so that everytime elections roll around he can patronisingly pander to the most fringe elements of a minority community?

Being made to witness the same things again and again. Now I know how people who watch a Madhur Bhandarkar movie feel.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Manmohan Singh’s Last Stand

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the past couple of years haven’t really been the ‘best years’ of Manmohan Singh’s life. He has been humiliated by both friend and foe. Insulted both in public and in private. Called names to his face and behind his back. Each new day brought with it more pain, more heartbreak and more damage to his prostrate. He couldn’t look at a newspaper without having an ulcer. Now, he could tolerate being pissed on by the Indian press; those wankers have always had it out for him. He wasn’t also bothered by what the people of the country were saying about him; it’s not like he needed their vote or anything. What he couldn’t digest was when his friends in the foreign press started to shit on him. The very people he had nurtured like a constituency. He had given them scoops, actual exclusive interviews, not laughed and thrown them out of the room when they offered suggestions on how to fix the economy. Was his back hurting their knife?

Thus, he decided he had to do something. He wasn’t going to be remembered as the man who couldn’t get things done. If he couldn’t make the government work, he was going to douse the whole thing with petrol, take a match to it and burn it to the ground. If he couldn’t convince his asshole allies, he was going to try to convince the people. He knew the country was angry at him. So he tried to bring the romance back. He came home early from work one day, cooked us our favourite meal, cleaned all the dishes and wrote us a card promising to be nice to our parents when they came for a visit. He even made an iTunes playlist of all the songs we used to listen to when we first started dating. Songs like “Fiscal Fever” and “Don’t auction my gold!” and “Reform! Reform!” And then he put on his happy face and held a press conference to make the announcement for new economic reforms, pretending that he believed that people had a right to know what their government was upto. He also sent his least smug minister to give an ‘exclusive’ interview to all the news channels and argue in favour of these policies.

And lo and behold, the narrative changed.  No more was he the Manmohan Singh who presided over one of the most corrupt governments in the history of the country. No more was he the Manmohan Singh who wanted to spend a large amount of taxpayer money to give freebies to people who could not afford them. No more was he a leader of a government which had garnered the reputation of being so lethargic that they couldn’t even pass a stone. He was back to being the champion of fiscal prudence. The only one who could jump-start the economy. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Foreign Correspondent.  

The analysts were clear: this was a game-changer! Old economists who had spent the past few years yearning for the Manmohan Singh of yore were quietly jizzing on television about how Singh had finally taken the bull by its horns. They believe that between FDI in multi-brand retail stores and the new season of KBC, we are going to eradicate poverty for once and for all. Even Lord Meghnad Desai and his hair – which, full disclosure, will be a huge beneficiary because it is large enough to house at least two Wal-Mart stores – were batting for the new economic reforms.

However, not everyone was impressed with the economic reforms announced by the Prime Minister. Most of the government’s allies and the opposition were dead set against his attempt at resituating the economy. Overnight, all of them seemed to have turned into card carrying members of the proletariat; they appeared to be very worried about the plight of the common man. What about families living below the poverty line? What about the friendly, neighbourhood ‘kirana’ store? What about the people in the unregulated sector who supply the fertilizer to those who sell synthetic milk?

Nobody made an actual economic argument. Everyone was battling on emotions and rhetoric. One side thought that just the announcement would bring in so much money that every person in the country would be swimming in it like a regular Uncle Scrooge whereas the other side proclaimed this as a bigger sell-out to ‘foreign powers’ than when in 1757 the Nawab of Bengal had appointed the East India company as its official tax collector.

If only there were some tools available to measure the impact of economic policies.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Copycat Democracy: Gangnam Style

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

I thought it would be a good idea to let him see where I work, so I invited him along. As soon as we entered my office, he began making a ruckus. Not only did he start shouting at random people, he began to break off pieces of the furniture and throw them at the cubicles on the other side of the isle. We were unable to do any work that day and had to suspend our proceedings. Serves me right for trying to celebrate ‘Bring Your MP to Work’ day.

Watching the Democratic National Convention while politicians in India continued to punch democracy in the face, gave a lot of people on twitter some pause. They were wondering why our polity is not more like America’s. ZOMG! Obama let a pizza shop owner give him a belly-to-belly suplex-hug. When will Sonia Gandhi/LK Advani/Manmohan Singh/Narendra Modi do that?

Whenever something terrible happens in our politics (which is almost every alternate day), people are always wondering why we couldn’t be more like America. We always want to adopt other country’s traditions..P.A. Sangma even called for a Presidential debate like the ones they hold during American elections. Which was great except for one thing: Presidents in India don’t really set policy. They’re supposed to sit there and parrot whatever the Prime Minister and his ‘council of ministers’ tell him. What would have Sangma and Mukherjee argued about in their hypothetical debates? That who would use better cutlery while entertaining creepy heads of state? Let’s import a system without first understanding how it works! Not that there aren’t things wrong with the American system; as some fellow once said, I like it but I have some notes.

Democracy is the art of selecting the person you feel will do the least damage to the country, even though sometimes a couple of people who care about actual policy and wanting to do some good manage to sneak in. In India, we don’t elect politicians based on their policy credentials. We elect them based on their last name or if they have the same caste as us or if they promise us a free colour teevee after the election. No one who is serious about tackling corruption or enacting laws that would benefit a large swathe of the populace will spend large amounts of illicit money providing potential voters with more alcohol than the other guy. The system of democracy always seems greener on the other side of the fence (unless the country on the other side of the fence is Pakistan. Then it’s a land so barren that it has less life than Mars). For example, many analysts in America have argued for a multi-party system’ while in India, we once lived under Prime Minister Deve Gowda, the best argument against a multi-party system.

People also lament the fact that we don’t have an Indian ‘Jon Stewart.’ That’s because as a country, we don’t have a sense of humour. We tend to take things very seriously. We get so worked up about shit that doesn’t matter. We even arrest people for ‘sedition.’

Sedition is blasphemy by another name. Both consist of perceived crimes against man-made symbols which must be protected from imaginary assault and both don’t belong in a democratic country. We think symbols of our democracy are more important than our democracy itself. These ‘symbols’ have survived wars, famine, emergency, assassinations, currency devaluation, coalition governments and terrorist attacks. Nothing is more insulting to them than the fact that we presume that they cannot handle being mocked by a shitty cartoonist.

We are unable to laugh at ourselves. We turn everything we like into a revered object that we expect everyone else in the world to also treat with ‘utmost respect.’  And we’re ready to gather into a mob and go on a rampage if they don’t.

In a healthy democracy, no god, no person and no symbol should be above being mocked.

Not even Sachin Tendulkar.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Against All Odds: The Unmukt Chand Story

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As someone douchey enough to think that he doesn’t need any personal heroes, I thought I had found one this week when I heard that some guy called Unmukt Chand was battling his college administration to let him sit for his exams even though his attendance record was not as good as they’d like it to be. He even had a minister intervene on his behalf! Finally, the world was coming around to enacting policies I had been advocating for so many years. Maybe the dream I had of the government pumping whiskey instead of water into our taps was not that far away!

Alas, this was not to be. My bubble burst when I heard that Unmukt Chand was not some teenage rebel who believed that he could change the world but the captain of the under nineteen cricket team which had recently won the world cup. He’s probably a nark who has never woken up with a hangover because he goes to sleep at 9pm everyday as he has to get up early in the morning and head to the stadium for ‘net practice.’ Ugh.

The silver lining is that his college finally relented and taught everybody else in his batch an important lesson about life in this country: you can do anything you want as long as other people deem you as someone ‘important.’ We don’t believe in any of that crap about equality or all people being the same. Who do you think we are, some socialist European country which doesn’t even have a cricket team?

I am old enough to remember when some guy called Jaspal Rana was everybody's favourite sports prodigy, having been awarded the Arjuna award when he was eighteen. Even he couldn’t get his college to extend to him the same privilege vis-a-vis his attendance and he had to join some other institution. But that was Rana’s own fault. We just don’t care about shooting as a sport. Not all of us are regional recruitment officers for dacoits in UP.

This is my problem with sportspeople who aren’t on the men’s cricket team (haha, it’s hilarious that a women’s cricket team even exists. If they’re watching cricket too then who will make the snacks when we invite all our office buddies to watch the match at our house?). They expect people to give a crap. Look, if you want us to pay attention, make your sport more interesting. Add a wicket or two. Or a pitch. And enough scandals so that even if the team we cheer for loses the match we can console our bruised egos by trying to convince ourselves that the match was fixed.

We can overlook how boring your sport is if we can be assured that you will win something. We even cheered for the '”great” Khali when he won his first WWE championship. So what if the WWE does not pretend to be anything other than a soap opera with pre-determined results? At least that tall, garbled bose speaker won some gold. That’s more than I can say for our Olympic contingent.

We were so embarrassed at the Olympics last month. We had to hang all our heads in shame because we did not do well at that global ‘P.T. class.’ Now, we can’t show our face at any international meet without being pointed and laughed at by countries with more medals than us, thanks to the incompetent sportspeople who don’t play cricket. Not having stadiums & infrastructure to practice in or any token financial assistance so that you have access to basic nutrition or not having anybody besides your family & stadium staff cheering for you is no excuse for such a lacklustre performance. How can a country of billion people not produce even a single gold medal winner? Okay, even if a substantial amount of people among the billion are busy playing ‘hunger games,’ what are the rest of us doing? Look at China. They won so many medals. Granted their government took care of the members of their Olympic squad and provided them with all the things they needed to propel them to victory but . . but. . . we have freedom?! I bet if cricket was an Olympic sport we’d have won more medals than Michael Phelps.

This is why I still think Unkumt Chand’s story is very inspiring. It should make for a great movie: Boy sees some guy playing cricket on teevee. Boy decides to be like that guy. Boy starts to learn how to play cricket. Boy gets access to coaches, training facilities and support from family to continue to have a single minded focus on achieving his dream. Boy battles all the odds and despite facing stiff opposition from unrelenting opponents like puberty and attendance registers, boy leads his team to world cup victory.

I’d watch that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Toothless in Tehran

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

All eyes were on Tehran this week as it hosted the 16th summit of nations belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM summit is the largest collective of tyrants, misogynists, homophobes, racists, scumbags, genocidal maniacs, conmen, busybodies, sociopaths, dirty Harrys and mouth-breathers this side of the Republican National Convention.

After the end of the Second World War, the world was divided into more cliques than a high school in South Bombay. All the jocks from the rich countries banded together in 1949 to form NATO and all the countries which grew up in tough neighbourhoods decided to tolerate each other’s existence to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955. However, outside of the UN, for the countries who didn’t belong to these two groups, there was nowhere to hangout. So in 1961, Nehru, Tito, Naseer, Sukarno and Nkrumah decided to get together and form a club consisting of all Goths, geeks, dorks, pacifists, poets, emo teenagers, mama’s boys, and hippies in the world who – at least on paper pretended not to be aligned to either of the two competing fight clubs – began calling themselves the Non-Aligned Movement.

Now, in 2012, with the cold war only existing in Jason Bourne novels, FPS video games and Vladimir Putin’s worldview, the NAM summit seems to have outlived its usefulness. When it was founded, India was part of all the countries who still needed a support group because of their oppressive colonial past. Nowadays, most heads of states attending the NAM summit oppress their own people and make them suffer atrocities that are equal to or sometimes infinitely worse than what happened when they were occupied by foreign powers. Like the host Iran, where a whole generation has been imprisoned both mentally and physically; where being gay is a crime punishable by public execution. Or Zimbabwean President and Hannibal Lector’s cousin, Robert Mugabe, a man who has jailed/killed/maimed more than half the population of his country and has led it to an economic apocalypse wherein the Zimbabwean Dollar is less valuable than the currency used in ‘Monopoly.’  

India still attends the summit mostly because of its obligation as a founding member and to prove to other countries that we’re totally not in the tank for America, even though in reality we totally are. We like to tout our non-aligned credentials, but we’re not really non-aligned anymore, are we? We’re part of the G20. We’re part of the ‘countries who can have nuclear weapons for some reason while the rest of the world cannot’ club. We pledge billions of dollars for funds to bailout financially irresponsible European countries. We’re like that guy who gets promoted to senior management but still shows up at the bar frequented by all the factory workers to prove to himself that he’s still the working class hero from every Springsteen song even though everybody else at the bar resents his presence.

We’re able to tread this thin line because we avoid taking a stand on important international issues for as long as we can. Most of the time we don’t want to say or do anything because we fear that anything we say or do will be used against us with regards to Kashmir. We can always be counted upon in the international arena to muddle the waters. We didn’t even vote against the falling Gaddafi regime, even though Gaddafi hated us and it was obvious to everyone that he was on his way out. Our stand on Syria is to ask both sides to lay down their weapons and talk. Basically, what we’re saying to all the people in Syria being massacred by their government is to stop defending themselves and try to talk to the guy trying to stamp them into oblivion. Because that always works out so well!

Our foreign policy is like that guy in a ‘modern’ Hindi movie who loves the girl who wears skirts and smokes and believes in casual sex but still ends up marrying the girl who dresses conservatively and knows how to cook because she reminds him of his Mom. The ‘social media outreach’ of our Ministry of External Affairs consists of getting our diplomats to tweet the links to every article they read on the Internet. Most of the time we only hear from the ministry when they hold a press conference to denounce the latest Times Now news report of some Chinese cat breaching the sanctity of the India-China border. And they do it with the smoothness of a battered woman denying spousal abuse “Ha ha, nothing happened. Everything is cool. The black eye? Well, it was nothing. I just slipped and fell into a fist. . . I mean from the stairs. Yeah. I fell from the stairs and broke my eye. What makes you think otherwise?

But, hey, there’s nothing another fruitless bilateral Singh-Zardari meeting won’t fix!