Thursday, November 26, 2015

The aglet era

Not many people wear shoes with laces any more.

"Oh Desi Babu! You haven't written a post in almost a year, you are too lazy to tie your own shoelaces, and you have the gall to talk about shoes with missing laces?!".

You might say that, if you have been missing my posts.  But you still have to admit the fact that people are slowly forgetting the use of those long stringy thingies called shoelaces.  Most shoes are slip-ons nowadays, and even formal shoes are made with fake laces attached.

In that context, a few weeks ago, a long forgotten word suddenly came to my mind -- the aglet. If you have seen a shoelace, the aglet is a small metal band at its end. While the long shoelace is what keeps the shoe in place, the aglet is what holds the shoelace together. Had there been no aglet, the strands making up the shoelace would go their separate ways.

Ok, ok, enough about shoelaces and aglets. I haven't written for almost a year because I have been busy. Aren't we all? Big events happened while I was gone, including the fact that India got a brand-new majority government, which was hang-gliding in the seventh heaven until a few days ago, when elections happened in Bihar. And as someone, who was born in that state, I have always been interested in what the Biharis are up to. And it seems that the Biharis were recently up to something big, which has resulted in an electoral defeat for India's ruling party, the BJP, in spite of the fact that they pulled out all the stops.

But honestly, how did Mr. Amit Shah's BJP lose Bihar, after he called in the cavalry? With the big horses.

Many will tell you that the BJP was not able to differentiate "right wing"  development (aka jobs) from "left wing" development (aka electricity, roads and water). Many will tell you that the right wing caste equations (upper castes tying up with lower castes) got overwhelmed by the left wing caste equations (the middle castes staying put in terms of their voting preferences). And many will tell you that the right wing tried its best to polarize the voters, which could have worked, but it didn't.

I will tell you that it was the aglet. And that it signals the beginning of the aglet era in Indian politics.

Those of you who have watched "The West Wing" know how the white house runs on the predictions of polls and pundits. How the president is running a continuous campaign while he is in the white house. And how people, who can hold together the various threads of the senate, the congress and key public issues,  into a format that the president can run his agenda by, are the people who run the country.

For the lack of a better word, I will call such holders of threads, the aglets.

In India, we have largely been unaware of such people, and even if they have made significant contributions to famous campaigns, they have largely been ignored when credits have been handed out. Such an aglet -- Mr. Prashant Kishor -- played an important role in winning  the national elections for Mr. Modi. After the victory, he was largely ignored. So, he decided to take his business to the other side, which had so many threads, that it was ready to turn into a fluffy little ball. Instead, he put the strands together, and held them tightly, like the aglet. And when this shoe fell, man, did it hurt.

So, what does this bode for Indian politics?

In my opinion, we have come very close to the way a western style democracy is run. Pollsters, pundits and professional campaign managers, will play an extremely important role in India's future elections. Mr. Modi was the first leader to make use of social media to convey his message to the masses -- expect many more leaders to follow suit in the coming days. Over the next two years, several key states will go to the polls. And it is my prediction that we will see several aglets holding the threads, and perhaps keys, to those elections. In all, perhaps, it is good news for India, where opinions of people will count when policy is shaped, and governments will not be closed to public opinion, once they have been elected for five years.

The era of the aglets is here!

A few weeks ago, I was talking to an old Bihari gentleman who was "let down" greatly by his own people and their recent election. I told him that I write a blog and was considering writing a post about the elections.

"Don't do that!" exclaimed the gentleman, sounding exasperated.  "Those people do not deserve anything to be written about them."

"Sir, then what do you recommend I write about? I haven't written anything on my blog for almost a year." I asked. Looking down as if he was contemplating on the question, and staring intently at his shoes, he finally opened his mouth.

"Write about shoelaces my friend --  if you must."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sanskrit, German and Owls in Athens

After a long time, India has a right wing nationalist government, that does believe in the supremacy of the ancient Hindu culture. And, just in case you don't know, the ancient Hindu religion was often known as "Arya-Dharma", or the way of life of the Aryans, who used a specific religious symbol, the Swastika, quite frequently. It is said that Adolph Hitler was quite influenced by this religion, and incorporated bits and pieces of it into his Nazi ideology. But, that is where the similarity ends.

Decades before Hitler, a scholar with his head screwed on right (as opposed to Hitler), had come to some startling conclusions about the cultural roots of the ancient Indian tribes, and those of Germania. Max Muller, with his comparative studies of ancient religions, had concluded that the Nordic and Indian concepts of God, could be traced back to abstract descriptions, that were later incarnated into "beings" that became gods. Today, Max Muller is celebrated as a scholar who brought two ancient cultures together, and showed them how similar they were, in more ways than one can imagine.

And today, those two cultures are involved in a very public display of discord.

A few years ago, the Indian government had decided to teach German in a chain of government funded schools. In order to stop the "linguistic indigestion" associated with the instruction of too many languages, they had allowed the children to choose between Sanskrit and German, two languages that Max Muller had shown to be more similar than different.  And, it seemed to be working quite well.

As the new government assumed charge, it decided to enforce its old ideology that things ancient and Indian, were superior to things foreign, and that a thorough cultural grounding was required for all Indian kids.  And so, all instruction of German was to be stopped immediately, and replaced with Sanskrit. This has triggered a nationwide debate over if students can choose a language that improves their prospects of employment in a global world, as opposed to choosing a language that provides them with a strong cultural grounding.

Trust me when I tell you that it is an extremely difficult question to answer. I say this with some authority as I have formally studied both Sanskrit and German, and I personally feel that both had a positive influence on me, during my formative years.

Sanskrit was a compulsory language for my generation, which saw very little of a "non-English" foreign language, taught in schools. When we went to college however, we could study such a language, but it would typically be French or German. And by that time, we would already know all the Sanskrit that we could ever learn -- the Shabd Roop of Deva would still occasionally appear in our nightmares, and German would let us understand what the Nazi general in the war movie was up to, when he addressed his secretary as "Meine Liebchen". Both langauges, it seems had their own use, and they were never in direct conflict with each other.

By allowing the replacement of Sanskrit with German, the previous government made an important statement -- that Sanskrit, was expendable. Depending on what you believe in, it may or may not be. One has to ask if the Germans, whose culture we are so willing to adopt, would so easily allow the instruction of an Indian language in their schools, where most of the curriculum is taught in German. If this reciprocal arrangement is not possible, we have to seriously analyze what our kids gain from letting go of a piece of their heritage, in exchange for a language that was never truly theirs. There is a lot of talk about educational and employment opportunities in Germany, but those can still be pursued if someone takes up German in college.  A short course is all one needs to understand what is being said, when it is Auf Deutsch Gesagt.

So, this debate should not be about Sanskrit or German, but about what the policy makers are going to do about the poor kids, who studied German for a couple of years, and would face significant hardship now, if they had to switch to Sanskrit. This is a delicate matter, that can only be remedied with empathy and lenience. And German could still be offered as an optional foreign language, for those, who would like to learn it.

One of the funniest phrases that I ever learned in German was "Eulen nach Athen tragen". Roughly translated, it means "carrying owls to Athens". Apparently, there was once a time when there were too many owls in Athens, and carrying any to this ancient seat of culture was considered a futile exercise. In some ways, this phrase means the same as our famous Indian equivalent of "Ulte bans Bareily Ko", that I once wrote about. Both phrases, refer to a wasteful expense of time, that no one needs to indulge in.

This entire debate on Sanskrit versus German, has indeed been a wasteful expense of time. Perhaps, it is time for us to move on to things, that are more productive. All an owl needs, is a rat to feed on, it doesn't really need to know if the rat is Indian, or German. And it certainly does not mind, if it is taken all the way to Athens, before it is fed.

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Field Marshal

In my years in the land of the free, whenever the conversation turned to India's freedom movement, my American friends would ask me if Mahatma Gandhi was our "George Washington". My answer would always be an emphatic no.

To me, George Washington was the general on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north. "In the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in the air." Of all the founding fathers of the United States, he is the most revered. His military skills were so valued that it is said that long after he ceased to be president, the reigning president, John Adams wanted to bring him back as a General during the Quasi-war with France -- to "scare the French."

George Washington was the only American leader, who could "scare" a reigning superpower at the time.

And that, always brought me back to our own founding fathers and the empire that they took on. Having read all I have about Bapu, I understand that he worried the British a lot. But scaring was reserved for only one national leader, with the same stature as Gandhi. If the British were truly scared of an Indian independence leader, it was Netaji Subhash, because, he wanted a military end to the freedom struggle. The last thing that the British ever wanted, was another 1857, and so, Netaji scared them -- like no other leader did.

During the second world war, Netaji's INA was charging on India's north-eastern frontier.  For a few months, in a small part of Indian territory, the Indian national flag flew. That part of India (Hind) was made independent (Azad), and Netaji became the Indian general on horseback, who took on the redcoats and drove them out. To me, the leader from India's freedom struggle who was the closest to what General George Washington was to the Americans, is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. No one even comes a close second.

And that brings me to the fresh controversy that is brewing in the air. The newly elected Indian government, wants to honor Netaji Subhash with India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). And since Netaji has never been honored (posthumously) due to a controversy surrounding his death, the new government feels that it is time to give Netaji his due. The people who oppose this thinking say that Netaji was way above this award, and giving him the award after it has been conferred on "lesser mortals", would tarnish his stature. So, I thought that I would give you Desi Babu's opinion in this regard.  

The only other Indian leader of that stature who has never been given the Bharat Ratna is Mahatma Gandhi, since the father of the nation is "above" the award. It is well known that the person who conferred that title on the Mahatma was Netaji Subhash. In addition, Netaji gave a modern perspective to India's freedom struggle and was known to be responsible for India's state symbol and the state salutation (Jai Hind). The only person in the history of the Indian National Congress that ever took on Mahatma Gandhi (and defeated him) was Netaji.

So, if Netaji has the same stature as Gandhiji, how exactly should we honor him?

One option is to do nothing, like we do in Bapu's case. We do not confer posthumous awards on Bapu, although, we do give out awards in his name. Perhaps, we could do the same for Netaji.
The other option, is to confer a military honor (bold emphasis needed) on Netaji. The highest civilian honor does not quite cut it, but honoring Netaji, who always considered himself a military man, should be a military matter.

In the year 1976, during the American bicentennial, General George Washington, the General on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north, was promoted by a special act of Congress to "General of the Armies" (equivalent to Indian Field Marshal), the highest military rank. Only one serving officer in American military history, received the honor before. This posthumous conferral was unprecedented, but if any American deserved this stature, then it would be Washington.   

So, in Desi Babu's opinion, the government should consult the military top brass and through an act of parliament, create an honorary title of "First Field Marshal". India has two field marshals already, but in the order of precedence, as the first general in command of the army of Azad Hind, Netaji needs to be first.

The Bharat Ratna is an award for civilians. A soldier of Netaji's stature, deserves a military honor of the highest category. And, as the Americans showed two hundred years after their independence,  it is never too late to do the right thing.