Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Thackerays

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Last week, the country lost a man of great influence. A man who ended up changing the politics of his home state forever. A man who didn’t need to win an election to make the government apparatus bend to his diktats. But enough about Ponty Chadha!

In a just world, the demise of such an important man would be all everyone would focus on. However, if you turned on the teevee, all you heard about was the death of an old, obscure politician called Bal Thackeray. News anchors couldn't stop talking about how great this man was.  Even Arnab Goswami, who shows his independence by interrupting politicians of all political parties, suspended his usual persona to show us his gentle side. You could see that he was holding back his own tears while he was talking about the passing of this great messiah. After all, this was the person on whom Arnab had based the character he plays every night on India’s #1 variety comedy show, Times Newshour. In fact, perhaps for the first time in its history, everyone on Indian television seemed to be in agreement that the country had indeed lost its most magnanimous leader. Perhaps such a tragedy merits such unifying gestures. Even the members of the Hindi Film Industry – a group of people who cannot even agree on a name for their industry – were steadfast and united in their praise for the departed. The last time India had been united like this, Emperor Ashok was earning his stripes and establishing his candidacy for lending his name to the National Emblem. If there was any doubt to his greatness, would millions of people gathered for his funeral? If there is anything history has taught us it’s that if millions of people worship a person, he can never be evil.

I then realized that I should get out of my ignorant stupor and use the Google machine to find out more about such a dear leader. But I was shocked and astounded! There was no mention of the Bal Thackeray everyone was talking about on teevee. But there was lots of information about another person named Bal Thackeray, who lived in Mumbai too and wasn’t the omnipotent force for good that the our Bal Thackeray was. In fact, I couldn’t find any information about the original Bal Thackeray. The person Pritish Nandy called one of his ‘finest friends’ with whom he could always enjoy great conversation along with a warm glass of beer and whose death made Lata Mangeshkar feel orphaned. Someone seemed to have scrubbed all the archives of the news reports which point towards the contributions made by the original Bal Thackeray to the development of the country that his supporters evangelize about.

Though I must admit that reading about what Bal Thackeray’s namesake had been upto was quite a horrifying experience. He appears to have used Balasahab’s name to create a boilerplate for anyone who wants to rule through hatred and fear. Start by creating ‘an other’ by misleading a large group of people (united only through a single attribute which they share due to the accident of birth) into believing how their share of happiness is being stolen by another large group of people (united only through an attribute which they share due to the accident of birth). Pretend to be the messiah who will save them from this group and their usurping tendencies. Beat some members of the villainous group but do nothing to help your so-called own people.  Insulate yourself from any criticism by convincing people that anyone who dares to question you is insulting not only the proud traditions of your people, but is spitting on the legacy of the great ancient king himself and must be put down like the diseased-ridden animal they are. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Bal Thackeray is not dead. He will live through every instance of an innocent teenager being arrested for daring to share his opinion on the Internet. He will live through each time a mob ransacks a home/office/clinic because they didn’t like what the people residing/working there said. He will live through every work of art which is prevented from being shown to the public because it hurt someone’s made up sentiments. He will live through every filmmaker who goes to the house of a politician with an apology for their supposed transgression and a request to call off their goons.

Bal Thackeray made sure Gotham city will always have a Bane.

Along with a lot of dark nights.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dude, Where’s My Patron?

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As the festival of lights screeched its way into the calendar like a rogue firecracker, the city of Delhi got ready to say goodbye to the scorching summer and welcome the wavering winter by decking up its houses in different shades of lights. The ones belonging to minimalists were decorated like they were being prepared for a showroom opening, the dreamers had decorated their houses like they were characters out of a YashRaj movie and the large dwellings housing the extra enthusiastic were decorated with enough lights to power an entire solar system.

Of course, winter in Delhi also means another seasonal session of Parliament. Our MPs get together for a few days next month for another epic wastage of taxpayer money. Recently, we were provided with a preview of things to come when the leader of the opposition and potential prime ministerial candidate (pro tip: if a member of the BJP is able to breathe, then they’re a Prime Ministerial candidate) gave a speech specifying her legislative priorities. If on any day of the session her party sticks around for more than ten minutes before rushing to the ‘well of the house',’ she plans to introduce bills penalising those who dare to defy her religion by referencing names of mythological characters in movies and on teevee. She also talked about protecting cows from being slaughtered. The last time she was in the news for strongly advocating a policy position, she had demanded that the Bhagavad Gita be made the national book, after a small court in Siberia was entertaining a petition to ban it. Seems like she really has her pulse on the important issues of the day!

Now, Mrs. Swaraj is neither joining PETA nor appearing on the cover of Vogue wearing a saffron fedora anytime soon. These are the issues she talks about because she knows that these are the sort of issues that are going to get people to talk about her. She has to be seen doing something! You think talking about child malnutrition or illiteracy is going to get her on prime-time? She knows her constituency well. They’re going to be quite happy that she’s pissing off the asshole secularists by trying to legislate a belief that exists solely because some dude said something hundreds of years ago. Holy foolproof argument, batman!

Anyway, we don’t elect our politicians to lead. We elect them to be patrons. We want extra gas connections, free colour teevees and subsidised prices. Get your 'sound economic policies’ off my lawn.

We don’t need a government run by professionals who know what they’re talking about. That is why we ended up with an environment minister who thought global warming was a hoax and a health minister who thought that late night teevee was the best method of birth control. We’re happy enough if the government is being run by someone with whom we can establish some sort of kinship. Like in UP, where the two main parties spend all their time in government avenging “their people.” One of the first thing Mayawati does after taking office is to transfer anyone with the last name ‘Yadav’ holding positions of consequence in the police or the bureaucracy to posts which are considered as ‘punishments,’ replacing them with her people. Then whenever Mulayam wins back power, one of the first things he does is to transfer those people back. 

Elected officials - whether they are in the ruling party or the opposition, whether they are an MP, MLA ,a member of the municipal corporation or local panchayat - can do a lot to change the lives of their constituents. But most of our elected officials are not there to do real things. They have favours to payback and coffers to fill. If they spend their time in office learning about the issues that actually affect people, when will they find time to earn enough kickbacks to be able to pay for the next election campaign?

And no one really bothers to burden our ‘lawmakers’ by asking them questions about policy. The latest ‘comeback kid’ of Indian politics, amateur comedian Laloo Prasad Yadav has been getting lots of coverage lately. Most of the articles focus on the fact that he’s making jokes at his rallies again, which, for some reason, translates into him becoming a strong contender to win back the state! Having lost a number of elections doesn’t mean that Prasad has to now offer specific solutions to people’s problem. That would be silly thing to do! Instead, he has generously offered to award the chief ministerial post to a member of any caste, should he win the next election. Who wouldn’t like to elect such a progressive leader?

Now please excuse me while I courier my local MP my proposed thousand page draft bill that bans the use of the word “chillax.”

Let’s just hope he can read?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Young King and the Selfish Giant

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

As he waved to the cheering hoards after his victory speech, Obama looked like a vanquishing hero from a big-budget Hollywood movie. This would be the perfect place for the credits to roll in the inevitable Obama biopic that will be made starring Will Smith as Barack, Halle Berry as Michelle - in an Oscar-winning portrayal that will finally revive her career – and the armour suit from the original Robocop movie as his Republican opponent, Mitch(?) Romney. It is a great story! The opposition threw everything they had at Obama. Continuous denial of his legitimacy, allegations of voter fraud, blocking legislation that would help the economy recover, blaming him for things that Bush was responsible for and using dog-whistle rhetoric to keep reminding their base that he’s black. Yet he still came out ahead, winning a decisive victory by pulverizing Romney in the Electoral College. And the non-crazy half of America and the rest of the world heaved a sigh of relief when they found out that the next commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world wasn’t going to be a cartoonish Bond villain slash Business Consultant. The End.

Hopefully, the movie version would be better than election day coverage we saw on teevee. It was a prime example of why news viewership is at its lowest ebb.  Al-Jazeera was continuously wondering how a country could change its President without first having a huge number of people gather and protest in a large, historic park. What do you mean the President leaves office after losing an election? And the military has no say on choosing the winner? You must have a really kind emir! The BBC World Service was bemused that anyone would want regular, timely updates about an event that could potentially have an impact on their lives. Oh sure, you can have election coverage. But, first, here’s a six hour documentary on making biscuits. Meanwhile, CNN seemed to have been broadcasting from a dystopian future in which humans only exist as holograms and the dominant species on earth is made up of large screens which constantly need to be swiped. As the night progressed and Obama’s path to victory began to look apparent and it became clear that at least for the next four years a majority of Americans had vetoed the Republican party’s plan to install a President named after a glove,  Fox News – America’s election HQ for racists, bigots and wearers of adult diapers –  was self-destructing on live teevee. One of their analysts, Karl Rove, even called the swing-state of denial for Romney. That was because he had been given millions of dollars by anonymous billionaires to spend on defeating Obama and he had nothing to show for it. Karl Rove was last spotted outside a bus station, offering to give a hand-job in exchange for a ticket to Mexico.

Watching Indian news channels was a real learning experience. Apparently, Obama battled ‘anti-incumbency’ to keep his ‘vote-bank’ together and was at an advantage because of still being able to maintain his image as a ‘youth-icon.’ The most important issue in the election was ‘friendly relations with India.’  And no matter who won, they would cancel all outsourcing to India, forever.

Our journalists seemed confused by the events of the day. Not that I blame them! America has such a strange way of selecting their President. The political parties in America choose their leader a long time before election day so that the voters can at least get to superficially know who they are voting for. The large number of people present for Obama’s speech had gathered there voluntarily without being provided with any alcohol or poultry related incentive. And they were cheering not out of subservient formality, but out of actual love & respect for their political leader. Americans don’t realize that choosing your leader can be hard work. This is why real democracies just let the party high-command pick them.

Now, here’s what we won’t see in the movie: collateral damage from drone strikes, secret kill lists, the war on whistleblowers and the continued dominance of the military-industrial complex.

But, hey, that’s what crappy sequels are for!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Barack the Vote, America

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

In a couple of days, when a majority of Americans get in line to vote for the next President, it would behove them well to remember 15 September, 2008, the day when Lehman brothers filed for bankruptcy and bought the global financial system to the brink of collapse, while the Bush Administration did nothing; or maybe 29 August, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded the town of New Orleans causing extraordinary damage to both life and property while the Bush Administration did nothing; or maybe 1 May 2003, when President Bush gave a staged speech on a navy vessel declaring the end of the Iraq war with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner in the background; or maybe even back to 6 August, 2001 when during his daily ‘presidential brief’, Bush was presented with a classified document titled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.’, a warning that subsequent events revealed wasn’t heeded. 

Earlier this year, during the Republican National Convention, as Mitt Romney accepted the nomination for President, the crowd applauded tepidly. The convention didn’t look like a meeting of happy party members enthusiastically nominating a Presidential candidate. It appeared to be more like a Klan meeting. An auditorium filled with resentful people who were angry at the world for moving on and leaving them behind. A whole swathe of people with low I.Q’s yearning for a past which only exists in their head. A political party whose members had resigned from reality and were more than happy to live in the bubble where they felt safe and happy. Just like their guns, you’d have to take their bigotry, ignorance and fear from their cold, dead hands.

In the movie Game Change, Ed Harris’s John McCain warns Julian Moore’s Sarah Palin of letting the extreme wing of the Republican party co-opt her. Holy Foreshadowing, Batman! Because that’s exactly what happened. Not only did she become the uncrowned leader of the extreme wing of her party, she became its mascot. Yes, the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower is now the party of a reality teevee star who denies climate change, hates gay people, has nothing but contempt for anyone who has read any other book besides the bible and thinks Barack Obama is an Islamist Atheist Communist Terrorist-hugger. (They can’t even reconcile to the fact that a single person cannot be all these things at the same time.)

In the Republican bubble, the guy who ordered the kill on Bin Laden and drops bombs on terrorists using his killer flying robots everyday is soft on terrorism. In the Republican bubble, the guy who saved the American auto-industry from receding into oblivion and saved the global economy from collapse is hurting economic growth. In the Republican bubble, not constantly wanting to bomb every country in the world in alphabetical order is ‘going on an apology tour.’ In the Republican bubble, a person whose life has been investigated, examined and analyzed to such an extent that even his letters to his college girlfriend have been made public still remains ‘unvetted.’  In the Republican bubble, passing a healthcare law that has eluded five previous Presidents and is based on a successful law enacted by a Republican Governor is the sort of tyranny last seen during the Third Reich. (Oh, and by the way, the healthcare law was the only achievement of a one-term Governor known as Mitt Romney. Wonder what happened to that guy!)

When Mitt Romney first started running for office back in 1994, he pretended to be more liberal than his opponent, Edward Kennedy. He pretended to be a pro-choice, gay rights advocating, independent minded, moderate Republican. Even though he lost, he used the same shtick to become Governor in 2002. However, by the time he had started running for President in 2005 moderate Republicans were an endangered species. By 2011, when he announced his second run, moderate Republicans had become an urban myth, like unicorns or a person from Bangalore who doesn’t constantly talk about the weather. So post-2011 Mitt Romney became a ‘severely’ conservative candidate who wants to ban abortion & gay marriage, repeal the healthcare law and cut taxes for the mega-rich. Now he was for deporting undocumented immigrants, building a large fence on the border with Mexico, constantly hugging Israel and denying the existence of global warming. However, since we live in the era of YouTube, for every position taken by conservative Mitt Romney, there is a video of moderate Mitt Romney advocating for the opposing side. Even chameleons escaping a garden full of predators change colour less often.

Romney’s stated foreign policy goals are too unrealistic even for a Tom Clancy novel. He wants to start a trade-war with China and has been constantly talking about bombing Iran to prevent them from making a nuclear weapon. However, during the foreign policy debate with Obama he jettisoned all the previous positions he held and basically took the stance that he’d have the same foreign policy as Obama except he’d be more racist.

Not that Obama is a President who metaphorically walks on water. He’s made more than his share of mistakes and hasn’t been able to deliver on some of his campaign promises. He hasn’t been able to close Guantanamo Bay, his stance on drug use is purely political and he has expanded the Imperial Presidency. Yet, with him you know where he stands on most of the issues. And he doesn’t falter from doing the right thing just because it comes with a political cost. Mitt Romney is a shape-shifter who tries to fit into whatever mould he imagines you want him to.

The world is still recovering from the after-shocks of the last Republican presidency.

Let’s hope America doesn’t saddle us with another.