Saturday, 29 January 2005

Comic Relief

I cracked up when I read this. And have been laughing ever since. Enjoy!!!

and here’s a follow up

Is negative voting a negative idea?

The Indian Express, in the lead editorial on January 26, has criticised the concept of negative voting and says it smacks of a negative attitude to politics rather than a constructive attitude to reform.

Well, perhaps it is. Or is it?

The issue of negative voting has been in the public domain for long. But what many people did not know was that it is possible. Just before the 2004 elections, the Indian Liberal Group, of which I am a member, put out a note telling people exactly how to go and register a negative vote. Several ILG members in Mumbai exercised it.

I am completely taken up by the idea of negative voting. For several elections now, I have stopped voting according to parties, because I feel there is absolutely no difference between the Congress and the BJP (those are the only two choices for me). Therefore, I have gone entirely by the candidates they have put up. I believe it is important to get people with integrity and people who will perform into the various levels of elected bodies. (Voting for the sundry other candidates has never been an option for me because I don’t know them or what they represent; also quite a few are absolutely shady or frivolous characters.) Sometimes the choices have been very clear because of the outstanding nature of the candidates concerned. But sometimes I have been hard put to choose between the two parties because the candidates have been equally lacklustre but also have not evoked extreme negative reactions and thus warranted a negative vote. In such cases I have voted for one or the other out of instinct, which has not been proved wrong.

But what would I do if I had to choose between a Sajjan Kumar of the Congress (a key accused in the 1984 riots and who had been seen leading the rioters and who arranged for a huge crowd to come and protect him when the police came for him sometimes in the 1990s) and Narendra Modi (ok, he’s not from Delhi, but you get the point)? What do I do if my choice is between D P Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Taslimuddin and Mohd. Shahbuddin or sundry other criminals wanted for rape, murder, extortion, kidnapping etc.? Between Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav, who have no compunction about fanning casteist and communal sentiments (if you’re wondering how I can call these two communal – a term we have all reserved for the BJP – that will be a subject of a subsequent piece)? Between Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi (both condoning corruption and indulging in casteist politics)? Or, assuming that I vote on the basis of ideology and not individuals, what if there is no party that represents my ideology of a free and open society?

I could stay away from voting. But I am told it is my duty to vote. But it is also my duty to vote responsibly. So my conscience is torn between two conflicting duties. The only way I can fulfil both duties is a negative vote.

Now the Indian Express argues that this is `middle class dissatisfaction with politics’ that `should not be confused with dissatisfaction in general.’ It also says the purpose of elections is `to elect a government, not simply express vague dissatisfaction.’

Vague dissatisfaction? The Indian Express grossly underestimates the extent of discontent that is seething under the calm middle class exterior. Someone (either Surjit Bhalla or TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan) had written about the middle class seceding from India (I will be writing on that too at some stage) and I think this is an extremely serious problem which papers like the Indian Express are glossing over.

In any case, how are ordinary people to express dissatisfaction? They can write letters to the editor, but how many can be published? Taking to the streets is an option, but is that a desirable one? The vote is the only weapon people have.

The editorial says `negative dissatisfaction is not an answer to the question of who should rule’. But who rules you (specifically, the quality of who rules you) determines how you are ruled. And voting is the only way for you to decide the quality of your elected representatives. If you elect good men and women to your local body/state assembly/parliament, your level of dissatisfaction will also go down.

There are, we are told, several other ways to express dissatisfaction. One of them is not turning up for election. But going to the polling booth and registering a protest vote also ensures that someone else doesn’t go and vote in your name, something that happens all the time.

A negative vote is one way for people to show that, yes, they have a stake in and believe in the system but want a change in the way it operates. I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. It’s far more positive and constructive than merely going and voting without applying one’s mind. It signals a desire for reform. When I say, through my vote, that I will not vote for X,Y,Z or A,B,C, I am saying we need better people in politics.

The editorial does not suggest what should be a positive or constructive attitude to political reform. (Well, it does talk about enabling more people to run for public office, but I don’t think there is anything barring you and me from standing for elections.) One way would be for people who are dissatisfied to get into politics. But not everyone (and this cuts across social and income groups) has the time/money/stamina or inclination for politics to do this. Does that mean that they should reconcile themselves to being ruled by thugs, fanatics or simply incompetent and corrupt people?

A negative vote is a compromise path between armchair fulminations and time-consuming activism. It may not be the best option but is the only one available now.

Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin

In my first post, I had posed the question: `why does questioning why Sonia Gandhi did not take Indian citizenship for 20 years mean that you are a jingoistic nationalist who is against people of foreign origin ruling the country?’

Let me explain the statement. I am most definitely not against an Indian citizen of foreign origin becoming prime minister. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to choose between Laloo Yadav/Mulayam Singh Yadav/Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi as prime minister, I would have Sonia Gandhi any day. (If the only choices were Laloo, Mulayam, Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee and Jayalalitha, I’d ask him to go ahead and pull the trigger.)

But since it is claimed that Sonia Gandhi is as Indian (or more Indian, as a lot of the profiles on her are now claiming she is) than any one of us and that she always considered India her home, then certain questions cannot be avoided. The main one for me is: if she did accept India as her home (and stopped speaking in Italian, eating pasta or wearing western dresses after her marriage, as a recent profile will have us believe, never mind various photographs we have seen over the years), then why did she not take up Indian citizenship till the 1980s? I vaguely remember the controversy being raised in the media and it was only after that incident that she applied for citizenship.

That is the only problem I have with Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. Don’t tell us that your heart always beat for India when it took you a controversy to apply for citizenship.

But I have a problem with Sonia Gandhi per se. It has nothing to do with her parentage. It was about her competence at one point of time, but she seems to be working on that. Nor about her Hindi or lack of it.

The problem I have is with the assumption that the Gandhi family has some kind of divine right to lord it over the Congress Party and the country. That is the only reason Sonia Gandhi was brought to lead the party, reluctant though she was. So my objection to Sonia Gandhi would have remained even if she were Indian born.

I am equally opposed to Maneka Gandhi. People generally tend to absolve Maneka Gandhi of this dynasty perpetuating charge. But wasn’t her umbrage with Mrs Gandhi and subsequent split with the family because Sanjay Gandhi’s mantle was not passed on to her? She worked her way up in politics only because she was forced to.

And let’s not get taken in by the BJP’s fulminations about the Gandhi family dynasty. After all, it is not above using the same name (only it couldn’t get it to work). What else could explain getting Maneka and her son Varun to join the BJP amid much fanfare into the party before the 2004 elections? Or appointing Varun, a complete greenhorn, to the national executive? By the way, the buzz goes that the young boy apparently had the gumption to demand an office bearer’s post! Clearly, this belief in the divine right to rule is clearly imprinted in the DNA of all branches of Indira Gandhi’s family.

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Why this blog and why this name?

Well, I’ve been observing public discourse in general as well as participating in a minor way in the liberal discourse on various issues. I was getting increasingly uneasy with the kind of stridency in public debates/discussions. People have stopped talking to each other, whether in the print or electronic media or, even in private conversations. Instead they are constantly talking at each other. There is no give and take of ideas or thoughts. `I am right and you are wrong and I am not going to agree with you, so don’t try to persuade me,’ is the unspoken refrain in all conversations. Sometimes it’s not unspoken.

What’s even more disturbing is the extreme polarisation of views on practically anything. It’s my white versus your black. I am always white and the other person is always black. There is no space for greys. The BJP is always wrong and the non-BJP is always right or vice versa depending on your ideological leaning. If you are pro-reforms, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P Chidambaram are always right and a complete free market is the only solution to all ills (even your domestic squabbles). If you are against reforms, Ahluwalia and Chidambaram are always wrong (and that vermin Surjit Bhalla should be exterminated); Sitaram Yechury and Jean Dreze are always right and the State must continue to manufacture sliced white bread.

And then there are the labels. If you speak in favour of economic reforms, you’ve sold your soul to the IMF-World Bank-MNC combine and don’t care for the poor. If you speak in favour sectoral regulators and social security, you’re a statist or, worse, communist. If you say the NDA government did some good or criticise the Haj subsidy, you’re a Hindu fundamentalist or a good Hindu (depending on who you are speaking to). If you criticise Narendra Modi and Murli Manohar Joshi, you’re a leftist pseudo-secularist or a genuine secularist (again, depending on whom you are addressing). And if you are constantly seeing merits in either point of view, well, tough luck, you’re a IMF wallah one day and a jhola wallah the next; you’re a Hindu fundamentalist one day and secularist the next. More likely, at the end of it all, you’ll just be one confused soul and will find yourself paying the price of not aligning with one or the other ideological camp.

Whatever happened to nuanced stands? Why does questioning why Sonia Gandhi did not take Indian citizenship for 20 years mean that you are a jingoistic nationalist who is against people of foreign origin ruling the country? Why does asking what business the State has to manufacture bread mean that you want poor people to starve to death? Why does crediting Arun Jaitley for his his pro-reforms stand mean that you are also endorsing his staunch support for Narendra Modi? Why does saying that public investment in certain kinds of infrastructure is necessary mean that you are advocating state intervention in the economy?

It’s all to do with the tyranny of political correctness. And with ideological groups appropriating various terms. The left has hijacked the pro-poor platform; and the sangh parivar has set itself up as the only group speaking for the Hindus. Nobody is trying to wrest these platforms back from them.

I am personally against any kind of fundamentalism, religious, ideological, fiscal, economic or whatever. That is why this blog and the name.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a freethinker as `a person who rejects accepted opinion, especially those concerning religious belief’. In a world where liberalism, the free market, communism and socialism have become as rigid religions as Hinduism or Islam or Christianity, I find myself constantly at loggerheads with one or the other school of thought as I refuse to subject myself to any form of ideological fundamentalism. Why unrepentant? Because I find I am often forced to be defensive about the views I hold because labels are being thrown at me.

My basic ideological leaning is towards liberalism and an open society and, to that extent, I have a revulsion towards socialism and communism. I not only find them irrelevant and outdated but they also carry within them the seeds of tyranny and dictatorship. But my liberalism is not one which demands an unquestioning obedience and blind genuflection to liberal shibboleths. Nor can I ignore the merits of an argument that those opposed to my beliefs have.

I have one set of liberal comrades who believe that if the communists say something, the opposite must be true. And another set says that if the BJP-sangh parivar combine says something, we must say the opposite. I realise both the loony left and the rabid right can evoke such extreme reactions among the most mild-mannered people but if even liberals abandon the path of sanity, how are we better than either of those fanatical groups?

I have been labelled a Hindutva type as well as a pseudo-secularist. My left leaning acquaintances think I am a economic liberatarian while some of my liberal comrades in arms think I am just a shade lighter than socialist pink.

But I am nothing more than an unapologetic free thinker, who refuses to be tied down to or get straitjacketed within any one dogma. Or accept any label.

What this blog will do

This blog will be my own personal soapbox, if you will, on which I will from time to time sound off on various issues, trying to separate unrelated issues and steer clear of ideological inflexibility. Above all, I will try and explain what liberalism means to me at a personal level. I will not be politically correct and I will not pull any punches.

I will also put up writings that i feel deserve to be read more widely.