Thursday, 24 March 2005

The ant and the grasshopper

This was a wonderful email going around. Just had to put it up.


The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.
The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.
Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies in the cold.


The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.
The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.
Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.
BBC, CNN, NDTV show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.
The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be that this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?
Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration outside the ant's house. Amnesty International and Kofi Annan criticise the government for not upholding the fundamental rigths of the grasshopper.
The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support for the grasshopper. Opposition MPs stage a walkout from Parliament.
Left parties call for a Bharat Bandh in West Bengal and Kerala demanding a judicial enquiry.
Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act (POTAGA) with effect from the beginning of winter.
The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA, and having nothing to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government and handed over to the grasshopper in a ceremony covered by BBC, CNN and NDTV.
Arundhati Roy calls it "a triumph of justice".


The ant dies of starvation, and the grasshopper dances away the winter and summer. Come next winter the grasshopper knows nothing about building or maintaining a home. He searches for the ant, but there are not ants anymore. So the grassshopper dies too.
Arundhati Roy comes back to claim an award for predicting the environmental collapse that contributed to the extinction of the ant, and then the grasshopper. She donates the money to build a centre for environmental justice.

Saturday, 5 March 2005

Hum to anything karega

This is an ad line of a car, which is a take off on a Kishore Kumar number – hum to mohabbat karega. It could well apply all those acting in the name of secularism. Nothing demonstrates this more than when, on Day One of the Jharkhand imbroglio, a young Congress leader RPN Singh blithely told NDTV, `arithmetic can be bought, secularism can’t.’ So now we are to believe that secularism is justification enough for the rape of democracy! Strong words but no words can be strong enough to describe what Syed Sibte Razi did.

But let’s not blame the young man. He probably doesn’t know any better. After all time and again he has (like all of us have) seen very senior politicians justify all manner of unprincipled alliances, rationalise supporting or taking the support of the likes of Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mulayam Singh Yadav or worse (believe me, there are worse) in the name of secularism. So he was probably under the impression that paying obeisance to the word secularism is the best way to earn some brownie points.

The problem is that secularism has come to be identified with, not anti-communalism, but pure and simple anti-BJP-ism. So, opposing the BJP combine is reason enough to strike deals with other communal and caste-ist leaders. I recall a conversation I had with a Communist Party of India (CPI) leader in the mid-1990s about this whole thing about communal politics. There was some elections going on and this person was lamenting that the candidate from Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party – the Samajwadi Party – in his constituency was distributing calendars with the picture of Ram to the Hindus and with some Muslim symbol to the Muslims. `Look at how they are using religion during the elections. It is very sad,' he said. I asked why the CPI was allying with the Samajwadi Party. `Because we have to stop the BJP. It is communal,’ was his reply. He was dead serious. I remember Kishore Kumar warbling `joota polish karega’ in this song. Anything to win my lady love, he was singing. The CPI leader could well have been singing the same line in the context of keeping the BJP out.

So Mulayam Singh Yadav can distribute religious calendars and openly pander to the Muslim votebank with ridiculous sops (like making schools in UP declare half day on Friday to enable students to attend Friday prayers, a step that was withdrawn within two days), which even the community itself may be embarrassed about, but he is the upholder of secularism. Laloo Yadav can use a hastily put together report on the Godhra carnage in the elections, but he is a bulwark against communalism. Ram Vilas Paswan can openly proclaim that he is wooing the Muslim vote and yet can say with an absolutely straight face that he is the only truly secular politician in the country. All three may have chargesheeters with the most heinous crimes to their credit but that’s alright because they are the poster boys of secularism. (Come to think of it, is that surprising? When Indira Gandhi can emasculate the institutions of democracy and her favourite bahu can go one step further, what are a few murders and kidnappings?)

The upright Manmohan Singh is forced to take a criminal like Taslimuddin into his cabinet because otherwise the Rashtriya Janata Dal will pull out and that would be a blow to secular forces! The Left tried to persuade Paswan to support the RJD in Bihar – after the elections threw up a hung assembly – in the interests of secularism. Despite the RJD’s dismal record of governance, and the caste killings in Bihar, the Congress and the Left will always support the RJD because otherwise secularism in Bihar is under threat. Who cares about the people of Bihar? Words like secularism are more important. Caste killings are okay but killings in religious riots are not. (It’s another matter that they are never religious riots but riots engineered by goondas of all political hues – red, green, saffron, pink.)

Secularism means that religion should be left in the private domain. No political party in the country can take credit for that. Secularism is also the opposite of communalism. But can any of the parties claiming to work in the name of secularism be termed as not communal? No. That’s why I say secularism in India has just become a synonym for anti-BJP-ism. It’s a negativist, not positive, principle. It’s an affliction of not just the politicians but also of the liberals (both the left leaning ones and the economic right ones).

The BJP is also to blame for stoking this kind of sentiment by taking up dubious causes just because they are perceived as hurting Hindu sentiments. Just like the actions of the Yadav duo and Paswan probably embarrass the Muslims, the actions of the BJP often embarrass the Hindus.

What this negativist attitude results in is the kind of actions we saw in Jharkhand. And what may perhaps happen in Bihar.

In the interests of true secularism, we need an informed and cool-headed public debate about the meaning of secularism and how it should play out in public life. But is there scope for such public discourse in the country today?

The foundation of civic and responsible society

I am part of a mailing list discussing the possibilities and scope for liberal politics in India. Since the recent state assembly elections, and especially in the context of the formation of the Gurgaon Residents’ Party and its participation in the Haryana elections, the group has discussed the poor turnout of Gurgaon’s upper middle class voters, which was especially glaring since many of them supported the formation of the party.

An observation by one member of the group, Dev Chopra, was particularly insightful and posed an extremely relevant question about the responsibility of citizens. Is it something that will – or should – surface once in five years or however frequently elections may be held?

Here’s what Mr Chopra had to say:

`Would any of the leading lights of the GRP consider assessing, what percentage of the public owning their newly constructed homes, in the last 18-20 years show their Completion or Occupation Certificates BEFORE living in or renting out their property? One will not be surprised to find that 50-60 percent just ignore that statutory requirement. In Phase II of DLF . . . alone, one may discover at least 300 properties being used for commercial ventures, so as to make a quick buck, thereby contravening the residential "ambience" of the area. The typical Delhi city problem of: a) over construction, b) commercialising the residential areas, c) ignoring local laws and installing booster pumps for water--hurting the neighbours, d)installing big transformers and pollute the neighborhood/s, and so on. Self interest and not civic sense rules the roost here.’

`Their focus is more on "encroaching on public land, outside their boundary walls to make green patches, with flowerpots, iron railings on both sides of the road, thus further narrowing the road for vehicles to cross by" unconcerned with community needs.’

Indeed, can one be a responsible voter if one is not a responsible neighbour or citizen?

There are many I know who will argue that completion/occupancy certificates, zoning laws, encroachments etc are all appurtenances and consequences of a statist economy and that they actually lead to the kind of politics we have. That’s something that could be the subject of a passionate debate but the larger point is the complete lack of a civic sense that gets extrapolated on to political participation, even if it is just going and voting in an election. If I don’t care enough about my neighbourhood, will I care about the country?

I had touched upon the issue of low voter turnout in a previous post – Why the urban middle class doesn’t vote – and while that’s one part of the story, the other part is what Mr Chopra has pointed out.

If we see nothing wrong in installing booster pumps to draw out water, thus depriving someone else, we won’t find anything wrong in what politicians are doing all the time, hijacking public money/resources/facilities for their own use. It’s so much easier to fulminate over the quality of people in public life in our drawing rooms, but voting for a party or candidate that stands for clean, value-based, principled politics is difficult. Because we are afraid that if we do get a more principled politics, we will stand to lose our cosy little worlds which we have created through bribes, use of influence, blatant misuse of the law etc. And I, for one, don’t think a liberal politics can be built on a foundation of complete lack of civic sense.

What does the liberal credo say about civic duties and responsibilities? I think this issue needs to be studied and debated by all those who want a more liberal, value-based politics. It’ll be a long haul, but who said building something, especially something absolutely new, was easy?