Sunday, 22 April 2012

Peepli. Politics. Etcetera

I think Peepli [LIVE] is a brilliant movie. It is one of the best satire-political commentaries in recent times; times where our political class has become more and more thin-skinned of late. Often resorting to slander, corruption, political one-up-man-ship, pointless anti-ideology, and so forth, they can't react to criticism without putting someone in jail or staging a parliamentary walkout. Yet, there's more to Indian democracy than it meets the eye. Sure, I've been critical of it in recent posts ('critical' is my attempt at being politically correct. Ironic, no?) but deep down, in spite of all its flaws, I think we would be a whole lot better if we stopped a lot of pretence, and just embraced these flaws. 

The other day, for example, RR Patil was in my hometown. Why? Apparently, it seems, to inaugurate a couple of hospitals. And one of these happened to be very close to my place. So yes, I was expecting a lot of music, boring speeches, a gazillion microphone tests, and annoying firecrackers. But Mr.Patil's convoy just made a humble touch and go—much to the disappointment of the local authorities, who set off the firecrackers anyway.
However, there was a flip side to Mr Patil's visit—the roads were all done up neatly, the sidewalks cleaned, traffic was being managed efficiently—apart from his 40-car convoy (exaggeration, but you know). And I wondered: maybe the visiting-politician is a good thing. I recall the roads being done up nicely when the Thackeray cousins were here recently (not together, of course). Years ago, Sharad Pawar visited town in a helicopter. The roads done up decently then, as well. Now this brings me to the larger issue I intend to deal with in this essay—something I like to call the Peepli [LIVE] effect. Simply put, in India, the culture of politics is like a glorified culture industry of sorts, thriving on public popularity. And there are some reasons for it.

One of the reasons, of course, is that being in politics is the most effective ways of getting noticed. We’re a country obsessed with politics and politicians (this post is a case in point). In a small, humble town like mine, everybody who is anybody does anything to get invited to a rally, opening ceremony and the likes, especially if there’s a big name attached; bureaucrats, municipal chiefs, SHG representatives, housing society presidents, youth club leaders—in short, everyone wants a piece of the proverbial pie (apart from the apolitical observer, like yours truly).
Sure, the largely urban population remains somewhat distant from politicians (if not the political process as a whole). But fact is: we are all intrigued by politics and politicians alike (I wrote this post, and you-hopefully-are reading it. See what I mean?). Today, politics is about being noticed. It's about being at the right place at the right time (or the wrong time, as many netas, like Abhishek Manu Singhvi, have made fashionable). Saying the right thing (or, the wrong thing; fashionable once again) at the right opportunity. If RR Patil makes a controversial remark, it becomes a trending topic on Twitter (sadly, on the day in question, Patil made none).
As I looked at the women in flashy saris, and men dressed pedantically in neatly pressed shirt-trousers, I wondered, rather naively: What are they doing here? More importantly, why are they here? One answer, I suspect is this: as Tarun Tejpal says in The Story of my Assassins, the government will always be the maibaap (mother and father) of the people.

I suppose such is the nature of the postcolonial, post-liberalized Indian nation-state. The Nehruvian ideals of nation building are long gone; politics is not about serving the nation anymore (was it ever so?). It is, in very obtuse terms, a business of the image. With liberalization and the boom in the number of media houses, TV channels and newspapers—many of them run by politicians themselves—it is very easy to get noticed. And, I suspect it is this very allure of getting noticed which makes Indian politics as intriguing as it is. Either in opposition or in bed with it (this is a metaphor and has nothing to do with the Abhishek Manu Singhvi sex tape doing rounds on YouTube).

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Teri Marx Ki: Didi sees Red at every Left Turn.

The politics of West Bengal (or is it officially Poschim Bangla now?) have always intrigued political commentators in particular, and the nation as a whole. The last decade however was rather boring, because the Left front resorted to cheap publicity stunts, like withdrawing support to the UPA, only to lose the State Elections later on. Now, it seems, the politics of WB (PB) have become interesting once again. Thanks to Mamata Banerjee—the defender of the Bengali people, the bane of the UPA, and conspiracy-terminator par excellence. She, it seems, is never short of controversies and is an incredibly perceptive, and woman of substance (in this case, a healthy diet of machcher jhol and rice; or is she vegetarian now? Then again, name me one Bong worth his/her salt, who is one? And Didi, as we know, is worth quite a bit if, erm, salt—well, enough to spoil the best laid recipes of the UPA, at least).

There is no challenge big enough that Mamata Didi cannot handle (and not make them into trending topics on Twitter). After a shocking revelation that the Left was to blame for the number of crib deaths which plagued state-run hospitals, and that rape victims were in fact a part of a conspiracy to malign her state (those immoral, loose s****!), Mamata Didi has left no stone unturned to take the blinkers off the eyes of the rest of the nation. This woman is one the country’s most tenacious, albeit amiable chief ministers, whose seemingly “paranoia” driven, and “knee-jerk” reactions only appear so, because they are portrayed by a media bribed by the Left & the UPA.
And this time, history itself is on her agenda of reformation. Her target, the person after whom a Facebook group, ‘Why the fuck is Karl Marx in every freaking subject?’ is named: the German philosopher, Karl Marx and his partner, Fredrick Engels (the connotations of the term go beyond the academic nature of their, erm, partnership. Hey, the group says so, not me).

Now history, we know, is always constructed in an authorial voice, or the perspective of the “winner”, as many have labelled it. Therefore, claims Derek O’brien, Trinamool MP (and the once host of the best quiz show on TV; see, Mamata has intellectuals in her company; how can she possibly be anti-intellectual?) the decision to remove references to Marx (which is, about two paragraphs spread across three chapters, and roughly worth 10 marks in the state board exams) was an attempt to “balance history”. And that is indeed an amiable move, considering they now wish to burden children with the tales of Mahatma and Mandela (and Steve Jobs, too, if rumours on Twitter are to be believed). However, considering the whole issue, why Marx should be at the receiving end of this ‘balancing act’, still perplexes most people, as clearly the Soviets lost the Cold War, and China has embraced capitalism (so, if anything, Marx—or more so: the losing side always had him on their side. Even the Left-front was defeated). Such unprecedented political victory, that too by a woman (who does not have a wardrobe full of pink salwar-kameezes and expensive kanjivarams) has led a class of sceptical commentators (who have made the hash-tag: #arrestmenow as a trending topic in India) to question both, Didi’s motives and methods, the former they allege is paranoia, and the latter, fascism.

These sceptics could not be any more further from the truth. And the truth is: Mamata is one of the last remaining practitioners of Marx’s teachings. Yes, you heard that right. Recall the Singur fiasco: she ousted TATA Motors, a capitalistic enterprise, benefitting from the arbitrary and exploitative policies of a neo-liberal economy, and gave away the land to poor farmers. Of course, the fact that 9,000 people were deprived of a guaranteed job is but a minor divot in the credibility of her intentions. But as I always say, it’s the thought—or in this case, the ideological engagement—that matters. And this was actually a critique of the Left’s corruption of core Marxian values. Shame on them!

Now that she got a professor arrested for circulating cartoons of her online, she’s in the public cross-hair. Again (sigh). What she actually meant to do was, to chastise the man (erm, well, by beating him up, and arresting him; nobody’s perfect, you know) for not drawing a real cartoon and using Photoshop instead. She was also miffed at the wrong reference he made to Satyajit Ray’s story. After all, she has great respect of Bengal’s artistic and intellectual tradition. Why, she’s contemplating playing Rabindra-sangeet at traffic junctions even! What did the Left do for the intellectual and artistic tradition of Bengal? Nothing! (Note: this category does not include Jyoti Basu). This leaves us with a question, a hypothetical one, of course: would her…passion for Marx be any different had he been born in Bengal, and not Germany? Like I said, one can only speculate on this matter.
And tomorrow, if she decides to ban left-lane driving, it’s only because the new rule may perhaps improve lane-driving in Calcutta altogether; a long-shot, but a valid hope nevertheless. Even her decision to paint Calcutta in Trinamool colours, is based on the scientific notion that these colours happen to have a pleasing effect on the eyes. Nothing ideological in there, now, right? 

[This is a work of satire. And I do hope the Trinamool doesn’t understand what the word means and decides to hire me in their propaganda wing. Please don’t arrest me; I merely used the hash-tag to conform to Twitter trends, that’s all! Any resemblance/reference to people living or dead was, of course, intended—for the sake of credibility. And yes, you may think it’s unnecessary to write this little ‘note’, but you’d be surprised at the number of idiots who take satire seriously]

Saturday, 14 April 2012

"My name is Karl. And I am not a Marxist"

Mamata Banerjee is no stranger to controversy. Conspiracy, it seems though, is what really bothers her. Well, personally I have run out of jokes on her conspiracy theories regarding crib deaths, censuring newspapers, and labelling rapes as orchestrated by her detractors. And now she had to go and remove references of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels from the state higher secondary syllabus. And more recently—which is actually a day old—she got a professor arrested for circulating a “malicious, and derogatory” cartoon of her on the internet.
It was rather hilarious, until the Marx bit. But now, I’ve hit saturation point. I mean, there is a limit to how many times you can tweet about one person on Twitter. And like I said, I was running of jokes.

From a probashi (diaspora) point-of-view, I’ve always imagined how life in WB would’ve been like. I mean, apart from my annual trips to my ancestral home, and the two-day stay at Calcutta, I have never really explored the culture there, and nor have I had a chance to understand the politics of the state—at least, in a way I understand it back home, considering the Saffron legacy in Bombay and Maharashtra. Now, however, I am not too sure. I think being a distant commentator (and thus, far away from Mamata’s jurisdiction) is what I would prefer. Heck, I’m even trying to contemplate under what section she could charge me (to the utter horror of my dad). The thing is, honestly, I know that the politics of the Trinamool are fed by paranoia and paranoia alone; their ideology, so to say, is an anti-ideology—violently negating every (seemingly oppositional) belief system, be it political, ethical, cultural or moral.
So, without taking on the Trinamool and Mamata directly (mostly, because I don’t wish to recycle Arnab Goswami’s profound critiques) I think I should give a little thought to the ‘real’ victims of the Didi’s vendetta: Marx and Engels.

My first tryst was Marx was in the 10th standard, when I first wished to read Das Kapital, as much as I wanted to read Rousseau, or Jefferson—because back then, history had a way of inspiring the mind of a fifteen year-old, and the idea that I could bask in the ideas of these great men, ideas which inspired revolutions, was just fascinating.
Fast forward four years, when I’ve actually read quite a bit of Marx, well enough to see the naivety and sheer stupidity of Mamata’s move. And I don’t think Mamata’s solely responsible for this—the more widespread outlook on Marx, and Marxism, are often very crass and diluted versions of Marx’s original ideas. For example, almost everyone—every layperson at least—would equate Soviet Communism with Marx. While Marx’s vision of the Revolution did indeed encapsulate the establishment of a communist stage,[1] but he never envisaged a communist state—which is a contradiction in terms.[2] The later works of Marx are often his more scientific one; that is, his vision of the revolution isn’t merely a utopian one, but a scientific and logical one, which is rooted in the class inequalities and exploitation of the capitalist political-economy.[3]
The Communist Party of India’s (Marxist) attempts have also been an ideological corruption of several of Marx’s core arguments; the bourgeoisie social location of its top leaders, like Karat, Yechury and their well-rehearsed arguments against the neo-liberal economics, are examples of a few. However, the real issue here is not the CPI(M), but the problem of putting a Marxian ideology (once again, a contradiction in terms, insofar as Marx’s works are concerned)[4] in the multiparty political scene in India.
I’ve had the privilege of learning under teachers who’ve presented both the strengths and weaknesses of the bulk of Marx’s works, and under them, I’ve had the confidence to engage with (and critique) some of his ideas, which I wouldn’t have, had I not been interested in the philosopher as a na├»ve 15 year-old. And by removing the reference to Marx (for, they’re exactly that: references to Marx and Engels, in context of the Russian and Industrial Revolution, where they all but mention Marx for a mere paragraph or two) she’s sending out a very wrong, and erroneous message to the to-be intellectual van guard of tomorrow: the fact that someone else gets to choose and thus, to shape what we would learn; the ideology of the state, an ideology of paranoia. I agree with Derek O’brien when he says equal weightage has to be given to Mahatma and Mandela. But is Marx any more, or less, important? I don’t think so. For, as a friend of mine put it, in education, balancing is not synonymous with deletion.   
In one sociology class, we were debating the relevance of Marxian thought, one side of the argument stating that Marx’s works have lost their relevance now that the revolution he predicted never happened, and that even universities abroad don’t study Marx. Then again, on the other hand, modification of Marxian thought, like the new-Leftism of the Frankfurt School,[5] and very recent movements against neo-liberal economics, like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ have showed that the central arguments of Marx’s works will always be relevant, because of their deep engagement with the struggles of humanity. And as long as the debate rages, young people will find one way or another to read up on Marx, and by god, we need educational institutions which can guide students without corrupting the core ideas of an intellectual tradition. 
Marx’s sociology was, in many ways, incomplete. But which theory is otherwise? I think (arguably) his most central idea—that of economic determinism, has been proved wrong by both his critics as well as his successors.[6] But that only enhances his relevance, not diminishes it. In a country like ours, until we’re able to tackle the most basic, and human issues, the German philosopher would continue to influence as well as intimidate, many like me and my peers. But I cannot see a reason why Didi should be so bothered. I mean, by the extension of her logic, the next step would be to ban left-lane driving in West Bengal. Then again, to those of you familiar with WB traffic, there is hardly any lane driving, in the first place.


[1] Marx essentially sees history as dialectic, that is, it moves through stages with different competing interests between social groups; the stages he refers to are: primitive communism, where everyone owned everything; slave mode of production where the slaves had no rights; the feudal mode, where the serfs were tied to their lands; capitalistic mode, where the capitalist owned resources, including the labour of the workers; and, the stage of communism, where the capitalistic economy was dismantled, or overthrown.
[2] For the revolution to be successful, Marx predicted, it was necessary that the state, which is an apparatus to favour the capital-owning class, to “wither away”.
[3] In a capitalistic political-economy, it was in the state’s benefit to favour the capital-owning class as it ensured greater profits for the state. The population, for Marx, was effectively divided into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (haves and have-nots, respectively) and the latter were exploited by the former. Class struggle was thus, the basic premise of the revolution, for Marx.
[4] For Marx, ideologies or the “superstructure” (e.g. religion, political systems etc.) stemmed from the “base”, viz. the material or the economic sphere, i.e. the relationship of man to the means of production.
[5] By the mid-twentieth century, proponents of Marxian thought were disillusioned with the Soviet state’s practice of ‘corrupted’ Communism, and the blatant capitalistic economies of the West. Thus, a new wave in Marxian thought emerged, of which one of the most well-known is the Frankfurt Institute (1930s to 1960s).
[6] The Frankfurt School, for example, used the ideas of another sociologist, Max Weber, and argued against the economic reductionism of traditional Marxian thought, saying that ideologies and ideas were equally important as, and not entirely dependent on, the economic sphere of life.