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Sunday, November 4, 2012

The jargon of american politics....

Guess every country has a jargon of its own, developed to deal with its own political institutions and the situations that arise from them, even if superficially, they are all writing in English- USA, or India, or Britain.

In 2000, the US jargon for a presidential race that was nailbitingly narrow was "too close to call".

Most Indians had never heard the phrase, and even less had even the faintest idea of what it meant; "to call", meant, for us, to call someone on phone!!!

Fascinatingly, as the US heads for another close elections, new phraseology is tumbling out of the US media.

'Minnesota and Nebraska have come into play" : which means that they are now being taken, by one side or other, or both, as swing states, after having been seen as solidly Republican or Democratic all this while.

'Obama and his surrogates have flown to Ohio" : surrogates means those who represent the candidates, and are in  a sense, an extension of the canddiate, such as Michelle Obama or Bill Clinton.

"spin rooms"- where the candidates' political and publicity managers interpret and try to put their candidates in a positive light, especially after a debate

'endorsement"- wherein a newspaper or politician endorses a candidate's views, and asks the electorate to vote for him.

And many, many, more, which are intelligible only to Americans.

Just like, "booth-capturing', 'defection", 'vote-bank", "tent-wallah", etc are unique to Indian's politics!!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Shibboleths of American Politics....

The Wikipedia (the only dictionary and encyclopedia in vogue these days!!) defines a shibboleths thus:
"A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/)[2] is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people. It also refers to features of language, and particularly to a word or phrase whose pronunciation identifies a speaker as belonging to a particular group."

Like so many other Indians, I have been watching the run-up to the Presidential elections in the United States, and it is fascinating to look at it, especially from the viewpoint of an outsider. Nikita Khrushchev (as did, indeed, the entire Communist movement) had a simple view about this whole thing, when asked whether, the debates, the advertisements, the primaries, the caucuses did not really prove that the USA is the most democratic country in the world, with the fairest election processes: Khrushchev claimed that well, the whole discourse was conducted within some narrow doctrinal parameters, which were never questioned by either of the candidates, and that what looked to everybody like two alternate approaches was just the sparring between two elites for control of the state. In other words, the US system did not allow truly divergent or new views to emerge.

I rejected the Communist/Soviet view of the US elections a quarter century ago, but now, as I grow older, I am struck by the correctness of that description.

Each Party, and its candidate have some views, which is neither questioned by their own people, or even by their opponents. Even more, both parties have identical views on these topics, even if nobody else outside the US accept it.

Some examples:

1) Both parties spar over how close Iran is, to building a nuclear weapon, and how to put an end to it. No one, not a politician, not a single TV/Internet columnist even asks, do we have a right to stop the programme, even Iran is really building one? In the rest of the world, or atleast the developing world, in India or Iran, the debate would be larger, and  the first question that would be asked, would be, what right do countries which themselves have had atomic weapons for 60 years, to stop others? Not only that, but also, if Israel can have weapons, why not their opponents? Like Khrushchev predicted, the debate never addresses the larger issues of disarmament or even-handedness in dealings in the Middle-east. It is a shibboleth: only some countries can be allowed nuclear weapons.

2) Not in a single debate or in any video clipping or news article have I come across a figure for what percent of GDP the US fiscal deficit is. In any other part of the world, countries would be judged on their deficit using this tool, as also whether they are falling into a debt trap because of excessive borrowing. The most basic of economic textbooks always make this distinction: borrowing may be bad for an individual, but not necessarily so for nations. Since a large part of the US electorate thinks  that government borrowing is "morally" wrong, this is another shibboleth that cannot be demolished. Unlike what both parties think, in the rest of the world, the view is simple: you can neither tax your way out of a depression, nor cut spending: it will only make a recession worse. A country's borrowing can be said to wrong, in economic terms, only if the debt servicing takes up a unacceptably large portion of its expenditure. I am yet to come across figures indicating that such a scenario has come about, and yet, this is a shibboleth, which neither parties question: the deficit is bad, and we have to have "balanced' budgets...

3) 'Shipping" jobs out: the reason the standard of living in the USA is so high is because of free trade, which has led to cheap goods from across the world landing up in the US,  at prices which are low because of  the cheap labor costs abroad. If Americans would carry out manufacturing at home, sure, unemployment would go down, but then the costs would rise, and the US would become a high-cost economy, like the European Union, and unable to compete in export markets across the world, like the Europeans. It would probably make more economic sense to just continue to import workers, and goods, and have a high standard of living, and pay out unemployment allowances, than have a inflationary, uncompetitive economy, but, again, this is a shibboleth, and China and India are the bad boys....

And a thousand other shibboleths, on abortion, on foriegn policy, on taxes, on the military,...any of which would be debated, if only by a fringe party in the Westminster-style democracies, but not here, in the world's 'greatest democracy"....

And, funnily enough, the last shibboleth: that the presidential system, with the executive being closely tied to legislative sanction, which has deadlocked the US in a deadly class warfare, is the any other country, overhauling a system put in place 230 years ago would have been an election issue....not here, though!! In other words, whether the Republicans win or the Democrats do, it will have little effect, as the other party would ensure that none of their agenda is implemented, by controlling either the House of Representatives or the Senate, or both.

Sitting in the sunny and benign autum of Delhi, reading both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post on my Ipad, and watching the campaign on Fox and CNN,  I feel as though I  am watching gold-fish in a bowl, interminably circling each other, unaware of the large world outside their bowl....fascinating....America has perfected the art of navel-gazing!!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The New Age Woman?

Today, after 17 years of tying rakhis to cousins, friends, sundry relatives, my daughter simply refused to tie any rakhis to anyone: her reason: she did not need any "protection" from anyone, and that she could take care of herself. More pertinently, she did not like the attitude of weakness it conveyed. So her puzzled cousins met her, paid her the "fees" for tying the rakhi, even though she did not tie one, and she sat there, a principled objector to tradition. Guess it reflects the 21st century woman: one who sees her male peers as not only equals, but also finds it difficult to accept societal conventions which imply  inequality. May her tribe increase!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The true life of villagers living in Sanctuaries...

I'm just back from a trek to the Govind Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttaranchal, and it has caused me to question my longheld beliefs about Sanctuaries, and about Government policies towards those villagers who live in them.
Govind Pashu Vihar is a 995 square kilometer sanctuary for snow-leopards, musk deer, civet etc etc, and I trekked through three villages- Sankhri, Taluka and Seema.
The villages had no power, no running water and no electricity. There was no mobile or landline connectivity. And ofcourse, no roads. And no fuel, except firewood.
 All this, because the forest department does not allow roads, or power pylons, or water pipes in a forest reserve.
To talk to each other or the outside world, villagers have to walk for days, to Purola, the nearest town.
With basic amenities absent, the other signs of civilization, too were absent, such as medical care.
Wherever I went, i was approached by villagers asking for medicine for fever, or stomach-ache, or diaarhoea.
There is no employment, and the villagers have, the locals say, taken to poaching and illegal collection of rare Himalayan herbs to supplement the income they get from their meager fields.
The villagers have reportedly been offered land outside the sanctuary, near Dehra Dun, but they have declined, as they feel it is too less.
Prices are stratospheric: Maggie costs 40 rupees a pack, and without roads, a porter takes 400 rupees a day to transport anything to anyplace.
All these days, I supported the classic government policy : no development inside Sanctuaries, and allow the villagers to stay inside, as they have for centuries, with the rights to collect forest produce.
But now, after the seeing the blighted lives of the villagers, my views have undergone a change: do not build roads, or allow electricity, or have water pipes, but do relocate them. Forcibly, if required.
However, whatever happens, let there cellphone connectivity in the sanctuary: this is the 21st century. Solar panels are used to recharge phones in the villages, and the  phones are used as torches and for playing songs. The panel below cost 2500 rupees:
Imagine catching water from a stream, and then picking up firewood, and then tending a fire to cook the food, and then walking for hours to talk to someone, and then as darkness draws near, lighting a lantern for light: and all this, just 500 kilometers from Delhi as the crows flies, in the 21st century. Sounds romantic? Try doing it for a lifetime.....

Sunday, April 29, 2012

April musings...

Its been a wonderful april for Delhi: whenever the temperature started climbing, or anyway on most days when it did, the sky clouded over, cool winds came in, and it drizzled. In other words, magic weather for those of us who endure the terrible heat of Delhi.

So, what with the brilliant sunshine, and the breezy weather, here are a few breezy musings, written in the style of the much lamented satirist Behram Contractor, India's answer to Art Buchwald, who used in write in Bombay's (yes, Bombay) Midday:

Like, this summer, there is going to be no power cut in Delhi, because i'm sure, what with the elections just a few months away, Sheila Dixit would have ordered the Electricity companies to buy power at whatever the cost, and supply it to Delhiites. Nothing loses you votes faster than the electorate sweating it out in the Delhi heat, unable to sleep because of the mosquitoes.

Like, I mused, does Amitabh Bachan really tweet and blog to the extent he does? If it is being ghost-written for him, well, all I can say is that the tweets are so typical of Amitabh that this ghost writer must be the best one in the world...

Like, what with all these convictions for corruption, you would expect government offices and officers to become more law-abiding, but somehow, it never seems to happen...

Like, cellphone companies are getting away with murder, overcharging their customers in a variety of ways. If you dont fall in line, hey presto, your outgoing calls are barred. So, just get a dual sim phone, like I got this April: that way, you will never be at their mercy again.

Like, whatever happened to armchairs? cant find one anywhere in south delhi. One shopkeeper told me nobody buys em anymore because there is no space in anyone's home for them. Interesting. But I wonder: does anyone nowadays truly, truly retire, and put their feet up, and lean back on their armchairs?

Like, I used to wonder why pretty girls in Wodehouse's novels were called April. Now I know: if April can be this beautiful, why not name your girls April? It must have been dazzlingly beautiful in the Riviera in April, where Wodehouse lived....

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Best Little Library in Delhi

Imagine reading the latest books at just 10 percent of the cover price.
And best of all, not having to store those books in your space-starved home for the next 50 years, and religiously dusting them in dusty Delhi everyday. That's what you can do with the best little library in Delhi, called Eloor Library, tucked away in a basement in South Extension.

Delhi,for all its boasting about its restaurants, its art galleries, its museums,has little to boast about when it comes to libraries.
Especially what are called, in towns and cities across India, as "lending libraries":libraries, which for a small sum of money, and refundable deposit, let you read books.
After years, nay, decades of searching, I finally found Eloor.
It is packed with the latest bestsellers, and the books are brand new, and the air-conditioning is superb, and boy, can you get the typical fragrance of the newly printed page there..
All you have to do is deposit 1,000 rupees, borrow books upto that amount, for a rent of ten percent of the book, and keep the book for two weeks. Or if you want to borrow more books, deposit 2,000, and borrow upto that amount. And if you want to keep the book longer, pay a rent of one percent of the book per day.
What's more, you can suggest books you would like the library to buy, and they will get them for you, and phone you up and inform you that the book has come...
Ah, the excitement of hunting for a book, rather than the tame act of buying it off a bookshop!!
I have been carrying the visiting cards of Eloor, and giving hundreds of them away, stiff with worry that they will close shop if they do not attract a big enough clientele.
You can see what they're all about at:
The Address: D-31,South Extension-1, Delhi 110049.
Landmark: Its in a lane which is three lanes away, parallel and behind South Ex Part 1 market.
Am I unashamedly plugging some chappie's stuff?? Yes, I am. Coz this will change your life!!
P.S : Eloor closed its doors in Delhi in 2014, due to lack of profitability. They invited their customers to come and pick up books to the extent of their deposits, and clients sadly did so. I believe Eloor continues to function in other cities, like Chennai, where rents are lower, and citizens read.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Delhi, and quakes...

In 2001, when the earthquake hit the Kutch, and killed 1,00,000 people, I was there for ten days, covering it for AIR.
People had been pole-axed by falling walls and columns in the very act of fleeing, and rigor mortis had set in their limbs, freezing the terror on their faces.
In one street in a Patel village, hundreds of corpses lay that way, each frozen in its own attitude, and I remembered the Mahabharata's description of the end of Dwarka, with the earthquake devastating the town, and sea rushing in...
Over 100 aftershocks hit the place in the succeeding two weeks.
In the last 11 years, in Delhi, there have been atleast half a dozen bad shocks, and it brings a sense of deja vu...
Last week, I had called in a couple of officers working with me, and we were having an accounts meeting, when my room on the fifth floor of my building started to heave.
The table shook from side to side, but both the people with me seemed to blissfully unaware of what was happening. Strangely, it seemed stupid to run out, or hide under a table as prescribed by our earthquake drill-master.
The people with me did not look too scared, but I was, having visions of building collapse.
If there is a even a fairly strong quake in Delhi, millions will die, as most of the buildings have been built without the ability to withstand quakes.
But then, life is cheap for us, right?
The town of Anjar lost some 10,000 people in the 2001 quake. When I went to Anjar, I found a memorial there, in memory of the five hundred people who had perished in 1956!! And the memorial had been inaugurated by Nehru. However, Anjar blissfully continued to build without an earthquake-resistant building code, and paid the price half a century later.
Delhi, too, will pay the price one day for this stupidity.
Let's hope it does not happen in our lifetimes...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

National Highways or racing tracks for the rich?

Last week, I drove all the way from Chennai to Kanyakumari,a distance of around 800 kilometers. I was on NH 45 till Madurai, and then NH 7 from Madurai to Kanyakumari. The highways were fantastic, and almost deserted. The high toll had driven the traffic off these newly built roads, onto the State Highways. The tolls were around between 40 to around 70 rupees, and an average of around 1 rupee per kilometer. So for my 1600 kilometers from Chennai to Kanyakumari and back, I must have spent around 1,700 rupees in tolls, enough to deter most of the people in Tamil Nadu, who would not be able to spend that much.
It was a pity to see the road, smooth, four laned, with a central divider strip planted with flowering bushes, so deserted.
The state highways were like they always were, narrow, with two lanes, huge potholes, and deadly traffic.
I and my father had a week-long debate on whether the government was correct in confining the newly built National Highways to the well-off, as we drove down and came up from Kanyakumari.
My Master's Degree in Public Policy had equipped with some tools to analyse this situation, but they failed in the face of my father's simple statement that it was morally wrong to keep the masses off such roads.
The theory says that roads are public goods, and that the State should step in provide such goods when any private person or entity finds it too expensive to provide the good, since the benefits, or "externalities" of public goods are such that a huge number of people are benefited.
In other words, by having great roads, the benefits, ranging from cheaper fuel consumption, to lower transport charges, easier access to schools and hospitals, are so high that it should be paid for by the State, since a private individual would find it difficult to collect the charges for such goods.
But here was a situation in which a clearly public good had been given to the private sector, who had provided the good, but at such high prices that there were very little benefits, or benefits only to a very few well-off people. In other words, fuel consumption would be high because most of the traffic stuck to the state highways, or access and duration of travel would continue be as painful, as most of the people would continue on the old roads...
The argument, that the State was forced to ask private companies to build these "build-operate-transfer" highways, because it did not have funds, is debatable: the private companies, too, raised funds from banks and the capital market, and there was no reason why National Highways Authority of India could not have raised the funds.
I finally had to agree with my father: it was crony capitalism at its worst. The roads were being operated by shady companies who had bribed politicians, or were actually front companies for politicians, and they were asked to toll people and build these roads (the politician took his cut and outsourced it to the actual contractor) in preference to NHAI itself collecting the tolls and building the roads, because such "sweetheart" deals are what are the bread-and-butter of India's political class today.
So the multi-billion rupee highways are now basically racing tracks for the rich, where they tear down at 150 kmph on their Toyota Fortuners and Hyundai Accents....

Sunday, January 15, 2012

whatever happened to???

Guess one of the things about growing old is that, more and more, you start asking, whatever happened to...??

Like, I wondered the other day, whatever happened to Rajesh Khanna? I know he's alive somewhere, but why is there no mention of him, no pics of him in the media or any other place?

Whatever happened to transistors? I used to see people, atleast workers, carrying them around a few years back, but all i see now are car radios, and people listening to radio on their mobiles. Guess the transistor, with its extendable antenna is now history...

Or, whatever happened to music videos? I remember it was mandatory to release the video with every new rock or pop song, but i dont get to see them any longer...all i see on TV is the Michael Jackson/Lionel Ritchie stuff, or Enrique Inglesias' old they release them anymore, i wonder?

And, whatever happened to those weekly music countdowns? everybody, whether BBC Radio or MTV or V used to have them, and it was a nice, comfortable way of knowing what's on..but all I can see now are reality shows on MTV...

And, whatever happened to "stickers"? As a kid, in school, we used to crowd around any kid who brought a big Richie Rich sticker to school, and our dreams at night were of stickers. The kids now could not care less about stickers, and i do not see them any where...

Or, does any kid collect anything anymore? We used to collect stamps, or cigarrette cases, or marbles, or coins, or matchboxes. Every kid was supposed to have a 'hobby", usually something to do with collecting : when you got to know a kid, you would ask him his name, and then his "hobby". I remember my daughter collecting Barbies, and then "Tazos", shiny discs that came with chips. Wonder any kid has time to collect anything now, what with the SMSing, the Facebooking, the tuitions and the TV.

Guess our parents would have a hell of a lot of 'whatever happened to....??" cropping up everyday, and that, more than anything else, binds them together, this growing old with the memories of an era which has gone by....