Saturday, July 11, 2009

After thoughts...

Just returned from a trip to Mumbai. I met a Career Counsellor whose help I sought for mu future plans and options after St. Stephen’s College. At this point, I am horrible confused about where my career is headed and what I intend to do after my College finishes. I hope all goes well but my disastrous exams and the tension of the results really do not help.
At one time, Mumbai was the most developed and urbane city in India. Those days, Delhi was nothing but an upcoming city where the people had not quite embraced ‘urban’ or ‘metropolis’ like tendencies. Anybody who visited Delhi in the 1990’s came back with the same old sob story of how the city was full of people who steal and stories such as underwear advertisements on the walls of the Red Fort. Modern day Connaught Place was a far cry from what it was even ten years ago. The general perception is that Delhi is still unsafe, which could be true as well.
Yet, I have no doubt in saying that Mumbai is now a city in decline. The death knell of the city has rung and there are multiple reasons for this. To begin with, Delhi getting statehood has helped the city a lot in budget allowances as in India grants are made looking at population density and Delhi, being a city state scores very high on that count. The Bandra- Worli Sea Link is not the toast of the city but few remember that it took ten whole years, and five Chief Ministers to finally complete it. If this is the case, we can well imagine how much time would the sea link till Haji Ali and subsequently till Nariman Point take. The city is permanently stuck in traffic and travelling in Mumbai is nothing short of an ordeal. The public transport is strong but overcrowded and in desperate need of reform. Few could have imagined Delhi getting such a superb Metro ten years ago.
Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena have always complained of the poor treatment being given to Mumbai for decades now. This reasoning is partially true as well. But, even if something is totally true, it becomes false and regressive the moment parties such as the Shiv Sena open their mouths and merge it with their style of politics. Population influx remains a big problem in that city. Every day, thousands of people enter the city in search of a better living and hoping that this city changes their life into heaven. This has produced mixed results. Most importantly, the burden on the resources has been tremendous. Everywhere in Mumbai one sees slums. These slums are not ordinary slums but scores of immigrants who are caught in the political cross fire in Maharashtra. The Maharashtra government has never had a long term slum rehabilitation plan and this has hurt the fortunes of the city. Illegal colonies come up and they are legalised for ulterior motives and the Congress Party has scored the most self goals in this regard. The city airport to is unable to cope with the needs of the passengers and there is acute infrastructure shortage.
Another thing that was notable was the number of Raj Thackeray posters and Maharashtra Navanirman Sena flags all over the city. It is very clear that Maratha pride still sells in Maharashtra and it is also true that there is rampant poverty among Maharashtrians While I too am a firm believer in the principle of meritocracy, let me also make it clear that the idea that low jobs in offices which require little skill must always remain with domiciled people. This principle is not a fundamentally unsound one. Where little skill is required and jobs that are not very technical, the unemployed youth of that particular state must get preference and this is the only way to curb unemployment. But, the blatant appeasement of Maratha people be it the Shiv Sena and the MNS or the State government which promises to build a Shivaji statue on Marine Drive like the Statue of Liberty and the 90:10 SSC quota is taking it too far.
Elections are also due in Maharashtra and as it appears now, the Congress- NCP combine has the edge over the Shiv Sena and BJP alliance. Raj Thackeray also has a very crucial role especially in the Mumbai- Thane and Konkan regions. This is the first election for the Shiv Sena after Narayan Rane and this will affect its prospects in Konkan too. Raj Thackeray will affect it in Mumbai, as he did in the Lok Sabha polls and the party not very strong in Western Maharashtra which still looks up to Sharad Pawar. The Congress and NCP have many strong leaders in their fold ranging from Ashok Chavan, Chaggan Bhujbal, RR Patil, Jayant Patil and the former Chief Ministers from both parties who serve in the cabinet. The BJP is caught in an intense turf war between Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari while I cannot think of anybody from the Shiv Sena except Udhav Thackeray who can take over the CM char. Manohar Joshi is a spent force and Subhash Desai and Ramdas Kadam are political lightweights. This may well be a good chance for Thackeray Jr. to become another Omar Abdullah and carry the legacy forward. Otherwise, the Congress- NCP may well enter its third successive term in government in Maharashtra.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Postscript- thoughts on the verdict...

As the final results of Election 2009 are out and the UPA begins government formation processes once again, it is clear that this election ended much sooner than expected. The fears of a hung parliament with hectic post-poll lobbying and stitching up of coalitions never happened and by the afternoon of 16th May, it was fairly clear who would form the next government. The mood outside 10, Janpath said it all whereas gloom descended over the BJP and Left Party offices at New Delhi. Till the other day, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa were considered the major forces in this election. It was clear that no government, especially a BJP-led government was possible without these two ladies. The media showed how Mayawati readied her houses in Delhi to entertain leaders and an over confident Jayalalithaa declaring that she will come to Delhi only on the 18th and then decide whom she will support. In the end, these women had to eat their words and there was only one clear winner- Dr. Manmohan Singh and the Congress party.
How should one look at the mandate in 2009? Was it a victory for the ‘secular’ parties? Was it a vote for stability? Was it a vote against the BJP or did it mean Rahul Gandhi got an endorsement from the electorate? The Congress party may think otherwise but the man of the match, the top scorer, the leading wicket taker and the best fielder of the elections was Dr. Manmohan Singh. In Dr. Manmohan Singh, we saw a stable, sincere and honest leader who was able to lead a country in its hour of crisis. The urban middle class, which was once the solid vote bank of the BJP drifted away to the Congress precisely due to that reason. In Delhi, a large chunk of Sikhs voted for the Congress despite Jagdish Tytler and Sajan Kumar being stripped of their tickets. In Mumbai, the Congress was successful only due to their creation, Raj Thackeray and it is clear that Maharashtra would have seen a different result without the MNS in the electoral battle. But, most importantly, the pro-poor and pro-people policies such as the NREGA and the farm loan waver helped the UPA all over the country. Even those allies such as Lalu Yadav and Ramvilas Paswan and leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav had to eat their words when the results poured in. Moreover, the efforts of Rahul Gandhi helped the party in Uttar Pradesh where it won twenty one seats. Whether or not this result means the Congress has made inroads into Uttar Pradesh only time shall tell but putting up strong candidates and Rahul Gandhi’s efforts have surely paid off. The Congress swept Rajasthan but the surprise of the elections was the results in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where smart alliances and risk taking took the Congress through. Nobody expected the Trinamool Congress to do so well in these elections and everybody had virtually written off Karunanidhi in these elections. Infact, Sonia Gandhi even cancelled her rallies in Chennai and even they were held, she never said a word against Jayalalithaa.
As for the BJP, almost nothing went right for it. In the beginning, the party put up a brave face saying only the initial trends does not favour them. But, by afternoon the writing was on the wall and it was clear that the NDA had not done so well. Yet, the party itself did not suffer too many loses and the margin of fifteen seats considering a direct reversal in Rajasthan is something that can be covered up for. But, it raises larger questions on the road the party will take from here. For one, the period of ‘Mandal-Kamandal’ seems finally over and the BJP seriously needs to rework its strategy as to where it has to go from here. For one, it has totally alienated its urban middle class vote bank and even when it declared the extension of exemption of taxable income, it ended up looking like a foolish party as they had done nothing in their stint while the UPA has increased the exemption limit.
In this election, the UPA outsmarted the NDA in almost every way. Wherever the Congress was perceived to be weak, it forged alliances which paid of well and in places where allies were being unreasonable and they had chances of revival they went it alone and their seats in Uttar Pradesh and vote share in Bihar are impressive. Today, the BJP is the second largest national party and the principal opposition but it is not an all India party. The party is absent in Kerala and lacks allies in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Also, it is high time it changes its approach to politics in India. The BJP today has no leader of national stature and the in the second rung leadership, the only leader it has who is capable of bringing the party together is haunted by his ability or inability to unite the country and his actions in 2002. The party has a weak President and no leader of national statute to combat Rahul Gandhi, as of now. Also, a change in ideology and moderation would also help. In reaching out to the ‘aam aadmi’ the party has forgotten its middle class base which it needs to consolidate again. Historically, it has always targeted the middle class and the urban upper middle class, whose support it must seek again. Also, the party needs to reach out to the youth of the country who do not support it, even in families who have traditionally voted BJP. With Rahul Gandhi at the helm and the Congress going so strong, the days of the Congress versus the rest have begun and the BJP surely does not want to be in the position the Labour Party was in Britain between 1979 and 1997 when Tories dominated the politics there. Not only do they need a Tony Blair who will reinvent that party, they would need it soon.
The Left has failed miserably and this has been their worst performance since a long time. The cracks have also appeared with Buddhdeb Bhattacharjeee taking a different line and the others too demanding a change of guard. Only time will tell where the Left reaches but for now its time to introspect what went wrong.
But, for now Singh is King and the people have no doubt reposed their an honest and sincere leader and not only a family as the people going to rule the country and their blind supporters want us to believe.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My first day at the NGO...

As a first timer and a volunteer, hoping to understand what Right to Information Act is all about, I found myself at the Janpath office where I thought I could see at close heels the manner in which the Act functions. My first task, as told by Ms. Panki and others was to attend an open session held every Saturday when people from all over come to the centre and seek help in filing their RTI application and seeking counsel on how to tackle the various problems they have faced with the establishment.
Many of us ‘knew’ or pretend to know the difficulties the common man faces and it is thought of as fashionable in our circles to constantly empathize and associate with the plight of the millions who are constantly waging war against an establishment that is not only exploitative but also unwilling to accommodate the deprived and the poor. Like all such self proclaimed concerned citizens of the country, I entered the centre but I am sure to leave a changed person.
In those two hours there, I did see at close quarters the completely different world in which many people live and more importantly the importance of RTI as a weapon not to cure but perhaps to serve as an affective means to seek information and change the system as well. I was able to problems ranging from land related problems to boat tragedies to even marital and police irregularities. While the scope of every application was completely different, the recurring theme of how the system has rotted and needed change and accountability ran constant. The police in India no doubt needs urgent reforms and it is sad to see that ‘justice’ is enforced in India via forced confessions and harsh beating if the police line is not toed. It was also unfortunate too see how the common people are blissfully unaware of their rights and privileges. I was shocked to see how people were cheated of their lands in front of their own eyes and that too with their own consent. Moreover, they did know the vitality of a legal document; many of the papers contained no signature which could enable them to carry on their fight for justice. It was a pity to see these people come here and fight against a system that has been the cause of their ruin.
This is exactly where I see the role of the Right Information Act and the role of bodies such as Janpath in serving as a platform to help these people secure their basic rights and in their quest for a better life. Yet, I also believe that this is only half of battle that is won. One can provide them with all the logistical support they need but the question of providing them with easy legal aid cannot be ignored. From what I am told, the state run centre for legal aid is in a total mess and little is expected from it. It is beyond doubt that assisting their appeal and providing legal aid are complementary and there shall be a time when such a thing shall indeed become a reality.
Meanwhile, it is indeed necessary for the youth to wake up from the ‘elitism’ and be accustomed to the harsh realities that plague the world around us. The problems of the people are many and one Janpath cannot solve all the problems of the people. The fact is that we have for long remained oblivious to the social disparities and social injustice that has surrounded us and till we continue this state of oblivion, it is impossible to say that India is a superpower to reckon with. When we celebrate the eleven years of the Pokhran nuclear test today, let us not forget what we forgot while making the bomb; the progress of millions and this is one such bomb which if explodes shall destroy not a part but the entire nation.