Thursday 25 December 2014

Why the Coming Canadian Elections Matter to Indians

In October 2015 Canada goes to the polls, the results of which could have profound significance for India. This may sound strange. Canada is a huge country, blessed with enormous oil reserves, hydroelectric power, vast wheat fields and untold mineral wealth. Canada has enviously the world’s largest fresh-water reserves. And it has a population less than 3% of India’s. It is a dream for many Indians, mostly from Punjab, to settle there, for real estate prices are lower than in India, and mortgages are available for the asking. A member of the rich G-8 group, Canada has a closer relationship with the United States than even Britain.
And yet despite its great wealth potential, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Canada has been growing at an alarming rate, as it has in India, for the last few decades. The top decile [10%] of its population owns over half of Canadian wealth. The top 1% of India’s population owns almost half of Indian wealth, and its top 10% close to three-fourths. The bottom half of the population of both countries own less than 5%! Worse, the bottom 10% of Canadians are drowned in debt and own nothing at all, while the pro-rich Indian banking system refuses credit access to the poor.
While there has always been great wealth inequality in North America and in India, the rapid widening of the gap in recent times has been a product of the application of ‘Reaganomics,’ by ideological American economists, who continue to persist in a blind belief that helping the rich and the very rich will somehow trickle down some benefit to the masses of the poor. Their one major scheme to lessen unemployment has been to shower incentives on the rich, and cut their taxes. The economists and government planners have turned a blind eye on mega-scams, poncy schemes, and financial recklessness. When things have gone horribly wrong, and the market has crashed, they have blamed governments for trying to save their people from catastrophe. While rich Canada has only 25 dollar billionaires, India has 51 dollar billionaires in its shameless list, while half of its children are malnourished, and hundreds of thousands of farmers have committed suicide.
The Liberal Party has had a long track record in Canada like the Congress Party in India, and both have mired their reputations with corruption scandals. The Canadian Progressive Conservative Party like the Indian BJP have yet to follow progressive economic policies. Till recently, the New Democratic Party of Canada [NDP] was as inconsequential in politics as the Indian left. Then the placid Canadians woke up to the fact that their leaders were not delivering social justice or even simple fairness in their governance. For the first time in Canadian history, the so-called marginal NDP became the official opposition in Ottawa after the 2011 elections.
In the coming contest next year, the NDP, which does not command the support of rich donors like its great rivals and exists on small donations from the people, offers a slew of people-centred policies to correct the country’s lop-sided economy. The NDP promises better child care and public health services, higher employment and pensions, better housing and a more secure future for new immigrants. South Asians, especially professional Indians, have traditionally voted in conservative fashion, for the Liberals or the Conservatives, since their policies are very similar and support the better-off sections of the population. They should see it as their duty to their adopted homeland to support the NDP’s policies which will help the great majority.
If the NDP form the next government of Canada, it will blow a big hole in the credibility of right-wing economics in the heartland of North America. It will show that the ‘Chicago’ economists and their Reaganomics had nothing better to offer than selfish schemes for the rich to help themselves at the cost of others and the nation. So far, the Indian government’s economists have shown little ability at original thinking and have slavishly followed Western styles in policy making. A people’s victory at the polls in Canada might influence the government here to re-focus on the plight of the poor, the 'Dalits'[once called untouchables] and the indigenous tribals, women and farmers, the urban slums and the unorganised sector.

Saturday 13 December 2014

The un-Hindu Taliban

The term ‘taliban’ means students. So it is right to say that VHP and RSS leaders like Togadia and Mohan Bhagat are ‘taliban,’ since they are trying hard to understand Hinduism. That they are misunderstanding what they consider is their religion is largely the fault of the competitive and politically charged atmosphere of India today, the distortions brought by colonial education into our culture, and their personal self destructive egotism. The recent attempt by a few of their followers to ‘convert’ people of other religions to what they think is Hinduism is a pathetic revelation of how far they have strayed from the gentle beliefs of their ancestors. There can never be any ‘conversion’ to Hinduism, any more than one can politically convert a person into humanity.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that Hinduism was not a religion, but ‘a way of life.’ As an honest and practising Hindu he was quite truthful when he said he was ‘a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Jew,’ as well. These strange statements are quite understandable and acceptable to ordinary Hindus, though perhaps others need some help to divine their meaning. More recently during a furious debate, Swami Ranganathananda, president of the Ramakrishna Mutt, refused to have the order politically categorised as ‘Hindu.’ Swami Vivekananda began his famous address to the parliament of the world’s religions in Chicago in 1893 with the words ‘Sisters and Brothers of America,’ because that is exactly how he perceived them to be. He also requested everyone not to be like a frog in a well.
Over a few thousand years a wealth of spiritual and philosophical search into the nature of existence, ethical conduct, the substance of enquiry, and physiological and psychological wellbeing has been grouped together as the Vedas, as Smrithi, as Upanishads, and commentaries upon all of this. Several main philosophical traditions were traced out. Among many, perhaps the two best known are those observed by Shaivites and Vaishnavites, though even the Lokayatas, who disbelieved in the existence of a personal God, were counted within the family of such traditions. All religious traditions were considered different spiritual paths, free for the individual to choose, from Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and not ritual worship to later traditions that came into the land of the Hindus, including Islam and Christianity.
While meditative and spiritual practice was unique to every individual, which hence informed an understanding of Sanathana Dharma, ordinary Hindus came to accept the centrality of Adi Sankara’s exposition of Advaita. Brahman which is beyond all qualification creates, and gives rise to the yugas, and even to Ishwara and the time-based incarnations. The life path of a person, which seeks through individual practice for the unity of the individual Atman with Brahman is personal, unique, with or without the guidance of a guru. While ethical behaviour in this world, towards people, and all creation is an essential part of this individual search, rendering this spiritual quest into the confines of a political platform is the very anathema of Hindu spiritual exercise. An understanding of the concept of Maya or material illusion implies that the present is a conditioned reality and we must seek beyond its fluctuating manifestations. To define Hinduism in terms of this present-day ‘nonreality,’ and under even narrower terms to suit party political pressure is to emphatically deny the wisdom of the Hindu sages.
Failure of the spiritual vision is not unique to other religions, and such failure corrupted Hinduism as well. Political expediency, as found in Manu’s writings in the post-Buddhist post-reformation period, became cultural encrustation, which in time was transformed into the religiously sanctified practices of caste and gender oppression. Once again, we see a failure of spiritual vision in India. In this, the post-colonial period, some Hindus are seeking an assertive identity, similar to European nationalism, which brought imperialists enormous power, and their people untold tragedies in two world wars. It is possible that a few in the VHP and the RSS will succeed in creating a new sect or religion, maybe called ‘Hindutva,’ modelled on a narrow unspiritual politicised vision, similar to that of the Taliban. They might debate, quarrel, fight and threaten each other with conversions, but they will remain one small marginal sect among others in this vast human sea which does not recognise exclusivity of religious authority December 13, 2014

Friday 12 December 2014

Affairs of the Mind

Much heat was generated among the moral police when some youngsters organised a Kissing Festival in Kerala. This was of course put down, once again reaffirming that Indians are uncomfortable with any manifestation of carnality, even with the innocent kiss. Since the days of the Bhakti movement, the ideal that love should only be spiritual has left an indelible mark on the Indian imagination. Indeed, if we think of it, this tendency to forswear bodily contact is exemplified in our everyday discreet ‘namaste’ salutation.
Our Prime Minister has declared he is a confirmed celibate having dedicated himself to the nation, and so were the previous BJP leaders, Atul Behari Vajpayee, and Dr. Abdul Kalam. As it happens, the earlier saga of the freedom movement is also replete with asceticism, the relationships of Indian leaders and their female devotees being markedly spiritual.
Everyone knows now how the father of the nation battled against his libido having decided to be celibate at the age of 36. The tall and beautiful Madeleine Slade, daughter of an English Admiral, was commanded by him to shave off her golden locks so that she could serve him as Mira Behn without rousing those feelings in himself that he so deplored. She was of course in love with Mahatma Gandhi. She was to write: ‘I saw his slight figure sitting on his cushion on the floor, I felt, a strong sensation of light coming from his direction, it was a light I felt rather than saw till it exploded behind my eyes.’ In 1925 she wrote him her first letter. ‘My being is filled with a great joy and a great anguish. The joy of giving all I have to you and to your people and the anguish of being able to give so little,’ and signed it as his humble and most devoted servant. Poor Madeleine soon grew into the role of a sanyasin, though like most women around him she could rarely suppress jealousy of the others.
Long before Madeleine’s encounter with Indian leaders, Margaret Noble, an Irishwoman, met Swami Vivekananda in 1895 in a London aristocratic drawing-room and was enchanted by his ‘majestic personality,’ in saffron robes and a red waistband, sitting crosslegged and reciting Sanskrit slokas in a deep sonorous voice. She was to write later: ‘Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something.... The arrow has found its place in the bow. But if he had not come! If he had meditated, on the Himalayan peaks! ... I, for one, had never been here!’ Irresistibly drawn, she followed him to Calcutta in 1898, when he gave her the name of Nivedita and made her a Bramacharyin. The Swamiji found her ‘a real lioness—to work for Indians, women especially. India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all, the Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted.’  In his ‘blessings’ to her he wrote her a poem:
The mother's heart, the hero's will
The sweetness of the southern breeze,

The sacred charm and strength that dwell
On Aryan altars, flaming, free;
All these be yours and many more
No ancient soul could dream before-
Be thou to India's future son
The mistress, servant, friend in one.
And Nivedita thought of him as her ‘King,’ and she sublimated her feelings considering herself to be his spiritual daughter prepared to serve the cause of India. Her grandfather had fought for Irish independence, while her upbringing in Church schools had readied her for a life of service and sacrifice. She died nine years after Vivekananda in 1911 and on her epitaph in Darjeeling are the simple words: Here reposes Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India.
Nivedita contributed many articles to a semi-revolutionary journal, Karma Yogin,  edited by Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. In search of him came Mirra Alfassa, born to Sephardic Jewish parents who has emigrated to France from the Ottoman Empire. She had received an elite education in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and mixed easily with great artists like Rodin and Monet. Both her marriages failed. She went to Africa in search of esoteric knowledge since she had experienced visions as a teenager. She remembered one: ‘This music was being played, and I was up there – I was fourteen – and there were some leaded-glass windows - white windows, with no designs. I was gazing at one of them, feeling uplifted by the music, when suddenly through the window came a flash like a bolt of lightning. Just like lightning. It entered-my eyes were open-it entered like this, and then I... I had the feeling of becoming vast and all-powerful. And it lasted for days. She sought a spirituality not found in everyday Europe. Finally she was introduced to Sri Aurobindo, and remembered that years ago she had dreamt of a dark figure she had called Krishna who had guided her inner life. She said unlike Judaism where God is depicted as the judge of mankind, in Hinduism He was its ‘Lover.’ She returned to Pondicherry in 1920 and was acclaimed by Sri Aurobindo as the spiritual ‘Mother,’ who continued to be consulted by Indira Gandhi and other leaders over the next five decades.
In the pantheon of India’s spiritual leaders during the early years of the 20th century the third name that comes effortlessly to mind is that of Jiddu Krishnamurti, once anointed by Annie Besant and other Theosophists as the semi-divine ‘World Teacher.’ Rosalind Williams, a beautiful and vivacious American became a friend and confidante who married another close associate. By the late 1920s Krishnamurti had discarded the role thrust upon him by the Theosophists, though he still remained a great teacher to everyone. According to an account written by Rosalind’s daughter, her parents became estranged soon after, and Krishnamurti and Rosalind had an intimate relationship, perhaps an affair, over several years, though they all lived together almost as a family.
If here we have a hint that a great Indian guru can have a relationship other than the normative spiritual one, this acceptance would be strongly advocated by the beautiful and rich Argentinian writer, Victoria Ocampo, who adored Gurudev Tagore, twice her age when she met him. He had gone to South America on a tour, but forgot everything and stayed with her in her stately home in Buenos Aires for months. Tagore’s biographers insist it was a platonic relationship, though some of his Purabi poems, acknowledged to be addressed to her, are of the love ordinary mortals can understand. Though she never followed him to India, she found ‘the days are endless since you went away.’ After his death in 1941, she said: ‘I guard everything I learned from him so that I may live it. So that I may live it as long as my strength permits me.’ She had thrust upon him as one memento of his visit an armchair, and it became the object of several intimate messages, for once when he was ill and sleepy she had bent over him and he had held her breast. As Thomas Mann says: ‘Truth demands the hard confession - that thought and spirit come badly off, in the long run, against nature.
This primacy of the platonic even coloured the famous relationship Pandit Nehru had with Edwina Mountbatten, though with other partners he was known to be very much a ladies’ man, and she had quite a reputation in England as the centre of many male admirers, whom her husband gallantly accepted into the household. And yet Pamela Mountbatten writing about the historic affair insists it was platonic, and even Edwina is known to have told her husband that ‘it was mostly platonic.’ Quite.
Even within a marriage, such as between Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sharada Kabir, the platonic motive seems to predominate, for most of their time together she was his nurse. She had married him out of deep admiration, and even changed her name from Sharada to Savita to get rid of the last vestiges of her Saraswat Brahmin background. She said he loved her for her intelligence. ‘He may have appeared strict to the outsider, but towards me, he was always very loving. He almost trained me - he used to show me how to sit, how to talk, even how to make chapatis! Whenever he took me for important functions, he would personally pick out which saree I should wear. He would get irritated if everything didn't go according to his instructions. Yet, he never made me cry even once in his life.The idyll ended within eight years with his death, and she was hounded by some of his followers for having once been a Brahmin, and even his son accused her of having caused his death!
The other famous marriages that come to mind were short and gave little happiness to the women. Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, after escaping from British India, spent a few years in Germany and Austria, where he secretly married his secretary Emilie Shenkl. Soon after they had a daughter, he had to leave in 1943 for the Far East to lead the Indian National Army. He never returned. Emilie was not treated well by the Germans and she was left in obscurity for many years till Netaji’s brother welcomed her as a family member when he visited her in Austria. She never visited India. Dr. Kotnis who had gone to help Mao Zedong during the Long March died like Dr. Bethune, his Canadian colleague, of overwork, and both are honoured in China, but little is known of his nurse wife, Guo Qinglan, or their son Yinhua [meaning Indian-Chinese].
The one great romantic story that lives from that period is about Jinnah and how he won the heart of Ruttanbhai Petit, the 16 year-old daughter of the rich Sir Dinshaw Maneckjee Petit. Ruttie as she was known was ‘the flower of Bombay,’ a veritable fairytale princess with beauty, brains, charm, and talent. Her father forbade them to meet again, but they were very much in love, and waited till she reached majority. Sarojini Naidu wrote to Sir Syed’s son, about their marriage: ‘The child has made far bigger sacrifices than she realises but Jinnah is worth it, he loves her.’ Ruttie followed him to London, and they had a daughter, but soon they parted never to meet again since he was committed to his politics. Within years she was dead of cancer, and it is reported that the only time anyone saw Jinnah break down in tears was at her funeral. She had written a last pathetic letter to him. ‘Try and remember me as the flower you had plucked, and not as the flower you tread upon.
Not all was tragic in that famous period, however. Aly Khan, father of the present Aga Khan, made up for all the spirituality he must have found around him by having roaring affairs, with the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, while still being married to Rita Hayworth, the star of that age. But even he could not match the libido of the earlier Maharajah of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, who not only had many maharanis and countless concubines but is reported to have given Simla its Scandal Point. As Natwar Singh puts it succintly: ‘Every temptation was available to him and he resisted none.’ A persistent rumour has Curzon banning him from Simla after being caught in flagrante delicto with his daughter. Some historians have doubted the veracity of this rumour, for if it happened, it would have been around 1905, when he was hardly 14 and Irene, Curzon’s daughter only 8. But then, in later life, Irene seems to have matched the young maharajah in raunchiness, so we can only hope that since the child is the father – and also the mother – of the man/woman, they really gave good cause for Curzon’s ire. And we may also end this piece in the hope that the young leaders of India’s next generation will give us a really good fairytale romance that will be roses, roses, all the way!

Misunderstanding Financial Inclusion

After sixty years of independence the Indian banking system has come to the slow recognition that financial inclusion is important as a social good. It has yet to understand that it is a vital first step for steady national economic growth. This misunderstanding has a hoary class heritage which places the centrality of economic welfare in the interests of the wealthy, whose actions in self interest would result in a trickle down effect to sustain the vast masses of the poor. The greater the support to the people at the top, through tax cuts, veiled subsidies, and special benefits, the greater the national growth, and the better the survivability of the masses. In this reading, the masses of the poor are seen like beggars, incapable of economic initiatives to help themselves, let alone the nation.
Recently, the government sent a strong signal that it is unwilling to be the sole cash provider for the public sector banks [PSBs], which have racked up huge non-performing assets with defaulting corporates, while being unable and unwilling to reach out to the poor because of high administrative costs. Dissolving government-held equity into private hands may improve financial efficiency of the PSBs, but this measure is quite unlikely to increase financial inclusion since private players would want to minimize risks even more. The RBI is planning to licence small banks as a way of increasing outreach lower down the class hierarchy and into rural areas, but as the chairperson of the SBI has warned these private units would find it hard to enlarge business, update technology usage, and also maintain a profit margin all at the same time.
Certainly these small private banks may offer competition to local moneylenders, and also mop up some deposits that might otherwise go into chit funds and similar instruments. Some will also act as banking correspondents of the big banks. But it is unlikely that financial inclusion will be achieved by them, if this is to mean reaching significant amounts of much needed credit on time into the hands of farmers and their associations, self-help groups, and petty businesses in the informal sector. Adventurism by micro-finance institutions led to disaster some years ago in Andhra Pradesh. Similar mishaps will occur if the RBI and its bodies are slack in regulating these new small banks. However, firm regulation on the other hand, plus the necessity to maintain workable profits, will result in these entities restricting credit supply to the needy, and increasing the interest burden on the poor. The poor after some experimentation may decide to continue business with known local moneylenders.
The best route for sizeable financial inclusion would be for the SBI and other national banks to own a controlling interest in new small banks created for the specific purpose of serving the poor, and cut administrative costs by staffing them with specially trained local village youth. Middleclass city-based managers would not know local realities, and ultimately limit ‘banking’ to ‘moneylending.’ Local village managers would know local realities, and work with the community to employ the money to the best advantage.
Such an approach to extend financial inclusion to poor communities can be safely monitored by empowered constitutional PRI bodies, which as of now exist only in name. Such demand-side management would blazon out a growth path for wealth to gush up to the top from economically creative communities at the grassroots. This idea is far from new, for it goes back almost 80 years.
Demand-side management of the economy has been thoughtlessly discredited by the  Chicago School eggheads, and Reaganomics, to which we owe much of the world’s ills. This happened despite the well-known work of the great British economist, John Maynard Keynes, and the successful practical application of his theories, first in the New Deal of the 1930s created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to restart the American economy, and later in the Marshall Plan to revive the destroyed economies of war-torn Europe after World War II.
The elite ideology that continues to prop up state support for the wealthy all around the world, despite rapid and catastrophic boom and bust cycles is founded not only in class self interest, but also based in the real intellectual isolation of economic decision makers from the world inhabited by the masses. It is such intellectual isolation that resulted in the great revolutions, but the elites of the world nowadays control massive firepower, and disperse disaffected people with the help of charitable organizations, handouts, loan mafi, food coupons and gamesmanship. It is India’s tragedy that top economists from Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Raghuram Rajan continue to be mesmerized by the elitist notion that wealth trickles down from the top. This is no more than bad economics and selfish ruling-class ideology, thrust upon us by Americans as part of their hegemonic power-play.