Sunday, November 30, 2008

V.P.Singh -- Feet of Clay (1931 - 2008)

Vishwanath Pratap Singh (25 June 1931 - 27 November 2008), V.P.Singh, could not have chosen a worse moment to pass into oblivion. He died as a nation watched, benumbed, the unfolding terror drama in Mumbai, his death was practically unsung and unnoticed barring the unavoidable mention in a 1 column obituary and some belated editorials.

V.P.Singh had a reputation for unassailable integrity that Rajiv Gandhi, now middle-class hero and press darling christened 'Mr Clean', inducted him as Finance ministry. The budgets drawn by V.P.Singh were hailed the best after C.D.Deshmukh, the license-permit raj was dismantled block by block. However it was his "raid-raj" that catapulted him to fame or notoriety depending on how libertarian you are. Those were heady days of scandal. The irascible editor of Indian Express, Ram Nath Goenka, along with his crusading editor Arun Shourie and accountant Gurumurthy, formed a troika of tormentors of India's most powerful businessman Dhirubhai Ambani. Into this rich cast of backdrop V.P.Singh walked tall and fearless throwing the book at every erring businessman, finally shocking everyone by arresting much respected octogenarian S.L.Kirloskar. In a country where the law is structured in such a way that no one can be completely law abiding this was seen as sheer arrogance. Kirloskar's business empire employed thousands, created a town and finally but for India's laws would have been India's own Toyota (India:Midnight to millenium , Shashi Tharoor).

At a convenient moment Singh was transferred to the defence ministry. Indian army headed by much acclaimed Gen K.Sunderji had organised the then largest defence exercise "Operation Brasstacks", Pakistan was rattled and a game of brinkmanship ensued. In a nation of illiterates the sory of corruption, long accepted as the norm, broke to the front pages of newspapers about buying a cannon for the army. Rajiv, now erstwhile Mr Clean indulged in chicanery and political skullduggery that alienated just about everyone. Raids on Indian express, leaked reports of diaries of arms dealers, not a day went without something sensational. Rajiv finally dismissed Singh.

Discarded Singh became the reluctant messiah, the new Mr Clean. A by-election in Allahabad became a national event. Allahabad, ancestral town of Nehru's, carried a emotional quotient. Rajiv went all out, he had money, the government was his, no trick was too low to indulge. Arun Goyal, who portrayed Rama in Ramayan, appeared in full costume at Congress rallies and assured everyone of Rama's blessings if they voted for Congress candidate, Anil Shastri, son of Lal Bahadur Shastri who in turn was Singh's mentor. Not even the Bard could have written up such a political drama with Oedipal overtones. Singh, penniless, campaigned on a motorcycle and trounced Anil Shastri with over a lakh of votes difference. The political re-alignment that changed India forever began that night.

Singh and an unlikely motley crew of politicians with not much in common went from one large alliance after another, Jan Morcha, Janata Dal and finally "National Front" in 1988. The country was seething with dissatisfaction at Rajiv. Drama, again, was not in short supply. Jethmalani's "10 questions a day", nationwide raid on Indian Express, expose after expose in The Hindu on Bofors, forgeries done to discredit V.P.Singh were exposed, en-masse resignations from Lok Sabha (idea of filmstar turned politician N.T.RamaRao), Opinion polls made psephology the new in-thing in extremely disorganised Indian journalism, Arun Shourie and his ilk became household names, India was cauldron to put it mildly.

The nation faced an election. V.P.Singh was now the media darling, the new Mr.Clean, the new middle-class hero. There he was, an ill financed politician tearing down India's most venerated political clan traveling on the pillion of a motorcycle holding panchayat style meetings. He would ask the crowd "bekari me unka license" (Rajiv's license on unemployment referring to rising unemployment and a clever pun on Indira's slogan 'bekari hatao' - Unemployment get out). The crowd roared back lustily "radd radd" (cancelled), a beaming V.P.Singh would thank "Faisala ho gaya" (Judgment given) and move on. India Today predicted that Rajiv would get 195 MP's compared to 450+ MP's in 1984. The prediction was on target. Prannoy Roy and his stylish crew brought live telecast of election to Indian drawing rooms.

The nation was in disarray, hung parliament became a new word to learn. Rajiv, in a moment of grace, chose to sit in the opposition benches though he could have technically staked claim to form government as the single largest party. V.P.Singh became the PM with an extremely dramatic background leading to his nomination. A little known rustic from Haryana, Devi Lal, was named Deputy Prime Minister. Now it was V.P.Singh's turn to show his feet of clay.

The government lurched from one crisis to another, mostly courtesy Devi Lal and his son Om Prakash Chautala. The Meham by election, "Mayhem in Meham", was sheer embarassment, Chautala though assured of victory went all out to make it impressive and indulged in booth capturing on an unprecedented scale. V.P.Singh went on live TV to hold a press conference (the first and last by an Indian PM as far as I know), he was grilled by 20-something reporters. Finally after having had enough Devi Lal was dismissed. He responded by holding a rally in Delhi with thousands carted in from Haryana. L.K.Advani meanwhile was doing his best to tear asunder the country with his rath yatra (he now says it was Pramod Mahajan's idea). After much dithering Singh had Advani arrested. Advani withdrew his support to Singh's government.

In a final act of desperation that came to characterise his tenure Singh announced the implementation of "Mandal" report giving 27% of seats in all educational instituitions to so called "OBC's" (other Backward classes). OBC's, naturally hailed him as messiah. Violent protests erupted across the country, spearheaded by SC/ST's who saw these OBC (which had rich Thakur's, Yadav's, Patels etc) as oppressors. True to form who is "backward" or how is "backwardness" defined were all left conveniently ambiguous. Anybody born into the right caste could now claim to be backward not withstanding their political clout (Yadavs and Thakurs) or individual economic well being. CHildren of chief ministers and ministers were "backward".

Singh had no way of surviving politically yet he indulged in rank oppurtunism cloaking himself in the mantle of "social justice". He was voted out of power. In whatever decency that was left in him he made a mark by putting the no-confidence motion to vote on the floor of the parliament refusing a horse trade.

Out of power, Singh later exulted when AIIMS had its first candidate under Mandal. By now he was diagnosed with Leukemia and was being treated in Memorial Sloan Kettering, USA while less fortunate Indians got treated by Mandal doctors. He finally died at Apollo, a plush private hospital, some Social Justice that was.

Obituary in Business Standard

Monday, November 24, 2008

The White Tiger - Book Review

The "White Tiger" debut novel by Aravind Adiga won the Booker Prize for 2008 and caught my attention. Aravind Adiga is a citizen of the world, born in Madras, educated in Mangalore, Syndney, Columbia University, Oxford etc .

The book is very simple narrating the letters written by a presumptuous self-styled "white tiger", entrepreneur from Bangalore, to Chairman Wen Jibao of China. Its a satirical narrative by a man born in a North Indian village who becomes the car driver of a wealthy landlord, moves to Delhi with the landlord's son, witnesses and narrates the parallel worlds of India. Untold wealth, corruption, hypocrasies, caste system etc all residing comfortably cheek by jowl with dire poverty, slavishness, rank oppurtunism etc. For any normal Indian there is nothing much knew to learn. There is no eye popping wisdom here, no Naipaul like penetrativeness.

When I somebody raved to me about Sashi Tharoor's "From Midnight to Millennium" my response was "its a book for the average westerner to read on his flight to India and touching down at the airport wants to say 'I know India'". The purpose it to write a light book with all seriousness but just serious enough to skate through without taxing one's mind too much. I do not mean to insult those books, such genre has its place too. So is it with "White Tiger". Its a skating narrative that takes the reader from rigid village caste politics, to habits of the worker class, to corridors of political brokers, the hypocrisies of each class (who said only the rich are hypocritical) all within some 270 pages.

One thing which really struck me was the Capra-esque depiction of political corruption. Adiga does not use labels, just oleagenous titles like "Great Socialist", any politician in India would fit that. Frank Capra's "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" is similar, Capra does not label "democrat" or "republican", a fact that might be noticeable only to a discerning reflective viewer. (Am I complimenting myself there, maybe).

Its a book to be read and passed along to friends.

The turnout that wasn't -- Election 2008

Nearly 120 million voted in 2004 Presidential elections, one of the highest turnovers until 2008. There was mainstream media screaming about hours long queues, the exponential surge in democratic voter rolls, the astronomical surge in youth voting, of course a generational promise to be fulfilled and experienced for Black voters, we all expected to break the 2004 record by a mile and half. I was curious to see the data. Guess what the final tally stands at an impressive 126 million. Impressive certainly, but given the hoopla one could be forgiven to thinking that the numbers would be eye popping. It is not. So what happened to those queues that we saw in Atlanta, Florida, Georgia, NC (25% in Raleigh had finished voting through early balloting).

Here is my surmise. Ever since the Florida recount mess up in 2000 there was constant chatter of how the villainous Republicans would disenfranchise Blacks, poor voters etc. This is the 24 hour news cycle so lets add demos by Princeton Univ Prof who showed how "easy" it is to divert votes from Obama to McCain by changing just one microprocessor in 5 minutes. The show was moderated by a Black comedian. All this left first time voters and especially Blacks with an apprehension and not wanting to be seen as not having done their bit they thronged early. Then the rest, also fearing long lines on election day, thronged earlier because after all every so called "expert" (where do they grow) was pontificating on record breaking turnout, election machine break downs, oh there was Lou Dobbs as usual ranting on somebody subverting democracy.

Against all that backdrop the early voting did indeed surge and take the sting out of election day. Amidst the euphoria of Barack being elected nobody bothered to call the networks to task on fear mongering and plain exaggerations.

PS: For ages leftists ranted about how conservative neocon judges in US Supreme court selected George Bush. Nobody squeaked a protest when the SAME SC sided with democratic state official of Ohio on a technicality in preventing a widely accepted fraud by ACORN in registering voters in Ohio. Of course for every left wing nut who rants on Florida for Al Gore there is a right wing nut raving about how Daley "fixed" Chicago for JFK. What goes around comes around.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The other side of Hollywood - Part1 - Honoring Teachers

What is it about the teacher-student or mentor-fledgling relationship that so fascinates Hollywood? So many of Hollywood is shamelessly pilfered under the "inspired by.." canard in India but there is one wonderful side of Hollywood that has never been imitated, sadly and that is the genre of "inspirational mentor" movie type.

One could go as far as "To Sir with Love" starring Sidney Poitier and list out numerous movies that portray, many times real-life stories, teachers who sought to make a difference in a student's life or a school. Sometime back I was arguing with a School principal from Tanjore about teachers inflicting sadistic punishments, not just corporal caning but plainly sadistic stuff like asking students to kneel in hot sand with temperatures touching 80-90 deg F. Impositions, insults, crude remarks all abound in Indian schools. The principal defended it saying "how else can we deal with unruly kids from slums". I told him go watch "Dangerous minds" a true story based movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer about a teacher who made a difference in a school situated in crime prone low income area. Watching Hillary Swank starring "Freedom writers" is a moving experience. Again, same theme, teacher who goes way beyond to make a difference in a down-trodden neighborhood.

Even a fictional movie like "Akeelah and the bee" has a wonderful touching story about a girl trying to rise beyond her poverty stricken life to win the spelling bee contest. Laurence Fishburne turns out a nice performance as the tutor. The tutoring sessions are portrayed realistically.

Richard Dreyfus as the music teacher in "Holland's Opus" is career highlight performance. He was nominated for the Oscar but lost to Mel Gibson's epic "Braveheart". One of the key dialogues in the movie is when a stern principal pulls up Dreyfus for being a clock watcher, she tells him "you (as teacher) must be a compass to the students". When she retires she gifts Dreyfus a compass. Finally due to cost cutting Dreyfus himself loses his job as music program is cut. The climax is one of the most moving scenes. A despondent Dreyfus leaves the school but comes upon a surprise gathering in his honor, his old student and now governor gives a welcome "Glenn Holland wanted to be rich and famous (referring to his dream of being a composer) but he i s neither. He is not rich and is not known beyond our small community. However there is not a single soul in this audience that he has not touched". That movie, its side story of Rowena, deserves a blog by itself.

Robin Williams excels as teacher in "Good Will Hunting" and "Dead Poets society". If only we were taught poetry like he does in "Dead poets society". Even "The School of Rock" has its nice warm turn with Jack Black as music teacher instilling in school kids a love for Rock and "Led Zeppelin".

For a nation that honors its teachers with "Teacher's day" we have done nothing but then as I often say "I can count on one hand the teachers I can remember with respect out of the many in my 16 year academic stream".

Well mentoring does not have to be only in the confines of classrooms. "In search of Bobby Fisher" with its quasi-historical narrative portrays mentoring of a chess prodigy. The mentor is Ben Kingsley (he is of Indian origin with real name as Krishna Bhanji). There are few others like "Hoosiers", "Coach Carter" are good ones too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Are women more independent thinking and more ethical?

For long TIME magazine used to declare a "Man of the year" for its last issue of the year. It started in 1928 as an idea to fill up the year end issue became a tradition, then a parlor game of expectations and criticisms. In an age of political correctness Time renamed that honor as "Person of the year" to be gender neutral. In 2002 three women (Coleen Rowley-FBI, Sherron Watkins-Enron and Cynthia Cooper-Worldcom) were featured with the title "The Whistleblowers". Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper had warned their respective upper management about the impending collapse of their companies due to fraudulent accounting. Coleen Rowley had warned her superiors at FBI bout 9/11.

I wondered how in a year 3 whistleblowers were identified and how come all were women? During the historic primary season of 2008 a good number of women commentators wrote "I shall not vote for Hillary just because she is a woman". When McCain, seeking to capitalise dissatisfied Hillary voters, nominated Sarah Palin whose ideology is largely at odds with most women voters women just flocked t o Obama. Unlike that, save a paltry 4-5 commentators, I did not see many Afro-American men comment "I shall not vote for Obama just because of his race". Men were a bandwagon effect. Women watched out for themselves.

Women are supposed to be more particular on protecting their self-interest, a laudable capitalistic virtue that in actuality they defy stereotyping or a collective bandwagon.

Even in common life women are prone to be standard bearers for codes of conduct than men. Man is said to be the last animal domesticated by woman.

Before we heap unqualified praise on women let us not forget somebody like Indira Gandhi who proved that she can far surpass men in unscrupulousness and vindictiveness. So also Jayalalitha.

Rounding up on the election term thought. Women as campaign managers (for Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton) were huge disappointments. Of course the candidates need to take a rap too but one wonders on the thread of commonality. The chief fundraiser for Obama is a woman.