Democratic Dictatorship: Indians v/s India

Come August 15th, (India’s Independence from colonial imperialism from the British in 1947), Indians (at least a handful of them) are yet again setting up the stage for another showdown. Yet again, it is against a common public enemy, although this time, the “enemy” aint no outsider. But India itself. Or at least it’s government & the constitution (which I feel is, arguably, representative enough of a nation)

Over the past year or so, India (& its various institutions) has been under fire from all quarters –

1. The government, for abusing its powers to no end with one scam after another surfacing like potholes in monsoons.

2. The bureaucracy, for silently spreading corruption deep into the very fabric of democratic processes which were essentially the reason why we threw out the British in the first place.

3. The media, for it’s drama-like portrayal of public issues and its unacceptable political polarization inevitably leading to skewed opinions and further fueling public outrage.

And then comes along a man, white clothes draped, a white cap adorning his balding head, hands folded in humility to represent an image cognizant of the “aam aadmi”. Mr. Anna Hazare. A man, who has over time achieved almost the impossible. Common public acceptance of his ideals and methods. Playing on popular consciousness, Anna is well-intentioned, but ill-informed –  and in his recent campaign against corruption, least about public policy and the democratic process.

He is a fantastic crowd-leader, one who captures mass imagination through his self-restrained acts based on gandhian principles which are irrefutable in India. So, here we are again… in the 21st century…. still resorting to out-dated methods of expressing public discontent. For sure one might still argue their relevance, and rightly so. But I have serious doubts on the outcomes of such acts in current times.

But coming back to Anna’s recent agitation against corruption, his intent is well understood and accepted. But the civil society that he represents seems adamant to bring the government down to it’s knees. Such blatant and thoughtless badgering of the very institution which has kept this totally diverse and chaotic country still together is only reflective of  the myopic vision which plagues the civil society. Media plays a role in endorsing the civil society un-challenged instead of acting as a transparent and un-biased medium and thus discharging one of the most fundamental democratic provisions of free speech.

For starters, the civil society’s demands in the Jan Lokpal Bill are more emotional than rational. I am willing to bet that not a very significant % of the population even knows what the Bill entails and what its implications will be. The civil society is acting like a bollywood hero who promises justice to the down-trodden and exploited masses against the rich.

The entire stand-off between the civil society (who behaves like the self-appointed messiah of the masses) and the government (alienated by the very people they are supposed to represent) is fundamentally on the issue of corruption.  It is only sensible to spend a few minutes here to delve deeper in this concept itself. Firstly, the word is poorly defined and lacks scientific rigor while being assessed. Bribery is by far the largest indicator of corruption. And politicians, by default, are assumed to be corrupt. Much in contrast to the judicial approach to any case- innocent until proven guilty. Politicians today are stereotyped as the messengers of evil and accused of self-aggrandizement of public wealth.

And that stereotype is the key motivator behind Anna’s and his civil society’s agitation. The eroding public wealth in light of the recent scams has dealt a severe blow to public trust in the government. Such angst & discontent is very likely to over-ride logic and reason – the basis for any public policy debate in a democracy. And that is exactly whats happening in the context of the Lokpal bill standoff.

What the civil society proposes is to setup an independent ombudsman with (literally) un-limited investigative and executive powers capable of bringing the entire public services setup of the country down in a single sweep. This bears scary resemblance to a dictatorial setup of government. In essence, the civil society proposes a dictatorial form of democracy. Where democratic principles are “enforced” out of fear of persecution rather than “embraced” out of free will. The civil society is unsure on how to govern this governing body itself and prevent it’s own structure from being infected by corruption. They give loose suggestions at best to tackle the issue of governing the watch-dog.

While I don’t patronize the government here, nor allow them any opportunity to redeem themselves from their indiscretions, I still believe in the democratic processes that mark the very identity of India’s democracy. Being the size that we are, given the diversity we reflect in our cultures, one must not forget the role of these government institutions in keeping the country from falling apart & drive its economic growth. Public policy in a Democracy needs time. And it must have that to be able to deliver results.

So, on the coming 15th August, when Anna sits on his well-campaigned fast-unto-death against corruption, I hope that he doesn’t misguide the massive public support he enjoys in the wrong direction and lead them to demand, what I call, a Democratic Dictatorship. Fingers crossed.

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I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I spend 500 bucks on a grand buffet without blinking an eye, but then, I will bargain for 5 bucks with the auto-driver… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I treat a girl I met a few months back in a 5-star restaurant, but then, I will treat my childhood buddies for only a vadaa pav & a cutting chai… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I drive an expensive car with latest features like on-board GPS, Bluetooth enabled integrated speakers etc, but then, I will find the cheapest mechanic to service the brakes… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I hate all the reservations in the Indian Education System and complain about it all the time, but then, I myself get forged “Creamy Layer” & “OBC” certificates made to gain admissions… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I loathe at corrupt politicians making tons of black money & express my open support to social activists, but then, I will ask my supplier to avoid making a formal invoice so that I can save the 14% government tax & convert the entire invoice amount in black… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I expect honesty from the government in all their dealings, but then, I will submit false rent receipts to claim House Rent Allowance to avoid Income Tax… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I feel like running over all those maniac pedestrians on the street who think their “fathers own the road” (Tere baap ka road hai kya??), but then, I will look with absolute contempt to that a**hole car-owner trying to speed through a crowded street (Badde baap ki aulaad hai kya?)… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I curse the idiot at the check-out counter of the store for taking so long, but I will scorn at the ‘impatient a**hole’ behind me when I’m at the counter myself… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I only eat at Italian, Chinese, Mexican, American cuisine restaurants in India, but then, I will carry bags full of Indian spices when going to these same countries … Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

I take pride in my “modern” & “western” up-bringing with parents who “encouraged” me to talk in English since childhood, but then, I will still touch my grand-parents feet & visit the temple/church/mosque on all religious occasions… Yep, I’m an Indian & WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!

Above all, I may hate a lot many things about India (and Indians)… be it the corrupt government, bad roads, poor infrastructure, exorbitant fuel prices, unruly crowds, cheating shopkeepers et al, but my blood will boil at the slightest abuse of my country(and my countrymen) by any foreigner!

Yep, I AM an Indian &…

WE ARE LIKE THAT ONLY!!!

NAAMASTHEY INDEEYYAAAH!!

It is indeed an amusing sight to watch an “I-am-an-all-American-American” greet a fellow passenger who happens to be, well, Indian! Unless the American got confused between an Indian, a Pakistani or even a Bangladeshi, considering we all (almost) look the same. Now, we wouldn’t want that confusion, would we? 😉

So this Indian, politely (as dictated by his culture) returns the greeting by a simple –Heyllo Mr. John from Ameyrika! It is indeed very nice to meet you too!! (are you getting the Indian accent here? I hope you are!) From generations, Indians always find it honorable for a white man to greet them and so they must return the greeting (Ok, I may be taking it over the edge here, it’s probably no real big deal to be greeted by a stranger in a flight sitting right next to you).

So, here we go. What possibly could an American and an Indian talk about? Obviously, our CULTURES (Or whatever there is left of it thanks to Justin Beiber). But not this American, & DEFINITELY not this Indian. These two both have travelled extensively, difference being, they both have travelled the other’s country! The American has been to almost every state in Southern and Western India (even the country-side) while the Indian boasts about his knowledge of the “United States of America” 🙂

But this post is not about the Indian incursion of the American society (there are countless other cross-over blogs & write-ups for that). Instead, this post is an account of a 9-hour flight sitting next to an American who has come close, very close, to understand India (& Indians), maybe more than what we Indians understand ourselves.

His journey to India began 10 years back when he entered the world of I.T. India being the “Mecca” of I.T no one worth his salt in the I.T world can avoid at least 1 pilgrimage to India. But his work has taken him far beyond the chaos of the Indian I.T cities into the heart of the country – the villages! His experiences with people from every walk of (Indian) life have taught him a great deal (We could probably confer the title of “Indian Connoisseur” on him). Much beyond the now popular Indian head wobble (shaking the head sideways to express acknowledgement is one of the most popular traits of Indians), this American has come to realize why doing business in India is more insurmountable a challenge than sending man on moon (or did we? Well, that’s a different controversy altogether!).

On one of his trips to the villages of Kerala, where he was working with the local healthcare department of the health ministry to promote awareness of hygiene, he planned to conduct a series of seminars (the classic American style baby!!!) Only to realize post a few months, that none of the suggestions were getting implemented! Flummoxed, he tried very hard to understand his failure. Not one to give up, he summoned his Indian counterpart for a meeting. During a lunch break, his Indian colleague gets a phone call from his wife. She is complaining to him about their kid fidgeting with the brand new rice cooker delivered a few days back. The husband asks the wife to keep the kid away and immediately summon the local technician to “install” and “demo” the cooker. Hearing this conversation, the American can’t help but realize why his strategy didn’t work earlier. He asked the Indian on why he insisted on getting a technician for a demo for something as simple as a rice-cooker! Being engineers, shouldn’t he be doing it himself reading the manuals?

The response he got was his “Eureka” moment. He stumbled upon one of the most fundamental of Indian consumer traits. “Why do it yourself when you can get someone else to do it for you real cheap?“ He then set out to hold small “demos” in all local clinics. While this took considerable time, the results he achieved were beyond his own imagination!

On yet another such trip in the hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh, he closely observed the difference in the way organizations are structured in India as compared to the West. While in the west, a junior executive can directly voice his/her opinion to the senior management w/o any fear, in India, the juniors wouldn’t even as much as sit on the same table as their seniors! The American was increasingly bemused by this behavior and had to struggle to break these “hierarchical barriers”. Being “white” helped as all Indians, regardless of their position on the corporate food chain, respect a white man’s words like a gospel truth! But it wasn’t without a lot of (oh and it was a lot!) effort to get the “Seniors” share the same table as their “Juniors”.

With each such experience (there are many more) the American got more “Indian-ized”. He also crossed one of the most treacherous paths in India; that of regional divide – where North Indians prefer to keep a distance from their traditional counterparts in South India. He now boasts of knowing how to describe India to his friends back home. A country where pre-disposed dogmas & superstitions can literally stall a business deal, where “do-it-yourself” is un-heard of, but where people can be very welcoming to a foreigner, deftly camouflaging their strong under-currents of regional disagreements.

In the midst of the discussion, both the Indian & the American are rudely interrupted by a voice – an announcement on the arrival at the destination. But the word “destination” is such an oxymoron for these two. For their journeys in to the other’s world are far from over. Maybe the Indian has similar stories to share of his experiences with the American society…

As of now, they both fasten their seatbelts as the flight approaches final landing. The temperature outside is 55 deg F with a clear blue sky. Hope they had a good time flying with the airline & here’s wishing them a pleasant stay…

Ofcourse, I am an Indian!

Ofcourse, I am an Indian!!

But who are those “chinkis” from the North-East? & the South-Indians. They all look the same. And worse, they all talk the same too. Oh and these I-am-an-Aryan-civilization-descendent north indians. Who do they think they are to be so self-aggrandizing? not to mention their insufferable (and unimaginably obnoxiuos) attitude! Oh, and before I forget, these gun-totting biharis who have no sense of society or civility. Not to mention the shrewd and cunning gujratis who are quietly amassing wealth in the stock exchange at the cost of other people’s money! and amidst all these, the quint-essential Mumbai-ite (or is it Mumbaikar?) who tries to distance himself from the rest of the country under the pretext of being a culture of its own. Does he forget that it is the people who define the culture & not the other way around. Talk about a misplaced identity crisis!

Today, I see unprecedented hatred amongst Indians based on regional identities. Who needs a Pakistan to spread terror in our country. We indians (or should i say, Biharis, Maharashtrians, Tamilians, “chinkis” et al) are sufficient enough.

Yes, I am an Indian. But not before my regional identity. So while I hoist the tri-color on 15th August and hold my head high for my country, I am still angry with that “south-indian” auto-driver who duped me yesterday.

So when did this regional divide escalate to such proportions that it has become a threat to the notion of “One India” itself. Maybe it will be of good measure to recall a time from the yester-years, the India under the British Raj. A strong national sentiment of independence was motivation enough for those Indians to forget their regional identities or differences. One can argue here that not many people migrated to different areas of the countries except the political fraternity to even ignite a conflict based on regionalism. Most of the movement was fairly limited to one’s state with the occasional visit to a different state mostly for pilgrimage purposes. Maybe it was this reason that no conflict (at least not of the magnitude that we see today) arose which could potentially jeopardize the entire freedom movement itself. Ironically enough, the very fact that India is a secular state is mis-interpreted only as being all-encompassing of religions alone. But being secular really means to accept and acknowledge individual differences for a united whole. Obviously this implication does not manifest itself in the Indian context.

Times have changed. With the years, people have moved around and about. But for most of the decades that ensued, this monster stayed relatively quiet. Maybe the trigger came with the Indian IT industry. Suddenly South India became the talk-of-town with the Infosys & Wipros and the TCSes of the world suddenly going on a hiring spree across the country! And now you have hordes of north indians flowing into south indian cities. And its a cultural shock for most of them! Even basics such as language is a challenge. Not to mention the always trickling influx of people from across the country into Mumbai. A city, which is arguably the melting pot of the country, somehow loses out to be a kaleidoscope for the rest of the nation. Instead, its too busy involved in carving out its own identity distinct from the very country it is part of.

This cultural alienation, although inevitable, can be overcome by simply accepting its existence in the first place. The Indian society is akin to a thaali, where different flavors (read cultures) co-exist, while not necessarily mixing with each other. Of course, the problem arises when one flavor tries to expand its boundaries (mostly politically motivated, and sometimes cultural conflict driven). Often, our lack of appreciation of a different culture leads to grouse generalizations and stereo-typing of people around us. So if an auto-driver in Chennai charges you thrice the actual amount, you would instinctively generalize and blame the entire local population! And conveniently forget about the same problem back in your own city!

I confess, I have done the same stereo-typing myself. Being a Mumbaikar, I too have, for a long time, seen myself as “different” from the rest of India. But not anymore. I have come to realize that being an Indian is not just about standing up for the national anthem or taking pride in having a larger military than Pakistan or winning in cricket.

For me, being an Indian is about accepting every other Indian the way he is. No matter where he is from or what he speaks.

Burhanpur: Shah Jahan’s 1st choice for the Taj Mahal!!!

Its a lazy Sunday afternoon in Mumbai. Mom has just finished winding up her chores and has come & sat besides me in the living room. While I was watching some interesting show on Discovery Channel, my mom casually remarks- “How long has it been since we last went out of town together?”. My eyes quickly turn around towards my mom as she finishes. And true to my wandering soul, I instantly blurt out (as if those words were waiting to see the world beyond my mouth) – “Lets go to Burhanpur”.

Within minutes (well, it could have been an hour), I use the power of the Internet & get my train tickets booked for the next evening (I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to get confirmed tickets that late). And as is a custom before every travel I embark on, I call up a friend to tell her I am leaving (much to her chagrin since she longs to travel but never gets the chance).

Train travel in India is an experience in itself. A kaleidoscope in every sense as you come across people from places you may have never heard of!!! The train pulled in Burhanpur station 30 minutes late (it follows IST – Indian Stretchable Time). I was only glad to get off the coach and into the fresh air of Burhanpur. Our community people have thronged this sleepy city off the Tapti river for the past several decades. Thanks to our community, this city has gainfully enjoyed a lot of tourism and allied businesses. Our mosque and its compound is by far the cleanest and most picturesque man-made structure in the entire district!!!

Coming to a religious place has never been my idea of soul travel. However, Burhanpur has always endeared me towards it. Not only for the mosque and its unique reverence, but also the priceless history associated with it. From Shah Jahan’s office as a Governor to the 600 year old Jama masjid (Courtesy the Moghuls), not to mention the “Shahi Hammam” or the Royal Bath of the immortal Mumtaz Begum (In whose honor, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal). Interestingly, Mumtaz was buried in Burhanpur for almost 6 months. And, it was here that Shah Jahan actually started work on the Taj Mahal!! However, the place wasn’t well suited and posed logistical challenges and hence the location was shifted to Agra. The ruins of a lost monument still lie there, maybe searching for someone to finish a job left incomplete.

I chose to make the most of my trip (true to the fundamental human trait – GREED). I took a 2 hour city trip in the most traditional of all Indian transports. The taanga!!! (A horse-cart for my friends who don’t know Hindi). Sitting at the back, I was indulging in the experience of a place where rich history had given way for modern-day sustenance measures like the power-looms and gold embroidery works (It was pitiful to see such abject poverty in a place once ruled by the Moghuls). What was really interesting about this tour was that sitting behind, I saw these sights going away from me (as against in a car or bus where you see them coming closer as they pass). I instantly felt a strange disconnect. As if I was being pulled away from that place and being forced in a different, more hostile world… As I traveled through the narrow city streets, the obviousness of the truth became apparent to me. It was a glimpse into Bharat…. And it was more saddening than ever for someone coming from India.

But not all is lost. I had the yummiest mawa-jalebi ever!! ( an Indian sweet). I gorged so many of them, that my mom was worried I would fall sick for over-eating!! From there on, we went to this isolated dargah on the outskirts of Burhanpur. Another popular destination, its characterized by its location. Right in the middle of nowhere!!! Took a cab almost an hour to reach it through a labyrinth of roads (Thats what the locals call that strip of mud flattened by the ones who have braved them before us). The endless fields that stretched as far as the eye could see made me stand in awe of the magnificence of nature only to realize that was not true nature itself. It was man’s desperate attempt to “consume” a natural resource for its own sustenance (agriculture for the uninitiated).

Overall, a trip worth remembering. Not just for a glimpse into a part of History, but also a walk beyond the boundaries of India and into the realms of Bharat. My search shall continue….