Mumbai: Before & After – 3

07 Dec


What should politicians do now?

Short answer: Get out of the way. Or rather, shut up and get out of the way. Long answer:

There are roughly four (often overlapping) things a politician is supposed to do in service of his nation:

1. Leadership – our present Prime Minister is Dr. Manmohan Singh, who is the gentlest, most soft-spoken, nicest Sikh in the world. Right now everyone is piling on him because in times of stress we would like to see a more warlike Singh in place. But even if we threw him out of office and brought in someone who could yell a little louder who would we get?

The one certainty is L.K. Advani an 81 year old man whose best years were spent playing second fiddle to the acknowledged star of his party. The last time he had an original thought was when he went to Pakistan and said something mildly appreciative of their founding father and Mumbaikar M.A. Jinnah. The outsize reaction to that minor slip ought to have taught him better than to think outside the party box.

Queuing up behind him are Rahul Gandhi (the girls at St. Stephen’s think he’s cute!), Narendra Modi (he makes money and he frightens little Muslim children!), Mayawati (she’s discrimination-free if it’ll win her the prize at the end of the rainbow!), Laloo Prasad Yadav (he’s so funny you forget he’s terrible at everything!), Mulayam Singh Yadav (Amar Singh, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani come free!). The sole South Indian in this mix is Prakash Karat (he has no money!) who might well be the Communists’ choice if pigs started taking flight and they won the general election.

It’s a long list of intellectual and moral pygmies. And given that the younger set in Parliament is made up of people who got the job thanks to blatant nepotism (Scindias, Deoras, Gandhis et al), this isn’t going to change any time soon.

2. Representation – domestically, this takes place when there’s something at stake for the politician involved. Like money or the chance to meet their favorite movie actress, etc. R.K. Laxman didn’t pull the stereotype of the absent politician who only shows up when votes are at stake out of thin air when he used it again and again in his cartoons.

Take Govinda for example. The man lives in Mumbai, the city gave him pretty much everything he has to his name – including a Parliamentary seat. And here’s how he rewards it. Despite living in the same city! There’s the odd politician who is involved in his or her constituency, of course, but by and large? Not so much.

And internationally, when was the last time you saw India do something other than play defense? In decades past, we had no pretensions to superpower (economic or otherwise) status, yet we were able to present India’s needs and concerns to the world at large. We were poor, we were struggling, we were trying to find our feet in a volatile nuclear arms race between two countries thousands of miles away – and we were able to communicate the impact of these issues on our country.

These days we hear a lot about this club and that at the UN, we talk about how important we are to the global market, and our hackles rise when someone calls us a third world country – and somewhere in the middle of all this, the challenges faced by half our population in terms of poverty, education, health, technology and infrastructure are glossed over. It doesn’t fit our image of us, you see.

And yet this is where we can truly make a difference in the world. I know I sound like a hippie, but common sense should tell you the needs of five hundred million people (more or less depending on the issue at hand) are not to be taken lightly. Especially when they echo in so many other countries, particularly in South America and Africa – two continents where India is trying to establish a stronger economic presence. (See? I’m talking about moolah, I flunked hippie school!)

3. Legislating – if only we had tougher laws, everything would magically become better. Except for that part where it doesn’t, that is.

If locking people up for indefinite periods of time, torturing them, and then executing them would make this world a better place then we should all immediately switch our political sympathies to “Communist” and beg the CPI and CPI(M) to work together to bring about a Soviet-style state.

Laws aren’t a magical silver bullet that takes care of all crime and terrorist threat. At the end of the day they’re just words in a big book that few people read and then mostly so they can figure out how to tweak it.

I’ve said this before, to the point I suspect of sounding like a broken record to those of you who are regular visitors, but the entire Constitution needs an overhaul. Any halfway decent lawyer should be able to tell you that it’s riddled with loopholes, confusing amendments and outdated laws. Slapping extra laws to the leaking whole isn’t actually doing anybody any favors.

I’m sure the government (whoever heads it next year) will come up with some draconian measure to prove to us that Steps Are Being Taken. And those steps will be used and abused the same as all the ones that preceded it because you need policemen who feel empowered to carry them out and prosecutors who know they won’t be asked to kowtow to political considerations when they go up against defense lawyers who probably figured out a loophole in the law before it even made its way on to the books.

4. Governance – much of the rage against politicians that we’ve seen in India over the past ten days or so stems from our acceptance of corruption as a necessary evil.

We know that we live in a country where corruption is a way of life – we don’t need fancy lists compiled by international organizations to tell us that. We live it every day. It doesn’t matter to us whether we’re 130 on the list or 97, whether we’re doing better than the Philippines or worse than the Maldives, the fact is it exists and we know it exists.

And the reason we put up with it is because we labor under the belief that this is how the system works. Grease a few palms, exchange a couple of favors, look the other way – and in return we (mostly) get what we want and the country chugs along peacefully. It’s why we don’t cavil at the security arrangements of not just our ministers but their kith and kin. We don’t inquire too closely how a government employee suddenly makes enough money to make most entrepreneurs turn green.

The assumption is that if you’re a politician, you must be defrauding the public in some way and be a born liar. Just throw us a sop now and then, the bureaucrats are running the country anyway and the people are making money, all you have to do is nod your head along to the most popular decision and we’ll manage the rest, thanks.

But this covenant has been broken. We knew it was falling apart long before this because we could see it in a million things the government (irresptive of political affiliation) has done or rather not done over the past few years, but the siege of Mumbai was the last straw. There we were, queuing up to pay up like the chumps we were, and the fat cats had double crossed us.

The rage was instant and bewildering to the politicians who’d gotten used to getting away with murder. When the BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was put on the spot about his “women in lipstick and powder” comment, the most significant part of the quote to me was the pasrt most people left out – when he asked “Can this be the opinion of the common man?”

He wasn’t just dismissing the protests on the street or being crudely sexist the way the media was portraying it; he simply couldn’t imagine that this was how the common man viewed his hallowed person. He was Somebody after all. Policemen saluted him when he walked past. How could this be?

This attitude, to me, is simply remarkable.

You’d think they’d have some inkling by now how much they’re despised by ordinary citizens. How few of us actually expect them to do their job. It’s a testament to their air-conditioned, commando-enforced cocoon that they literally have no idea about the depth of our angst and are under the impression that we would care about their itty bitty little feelings getting hurt when we express our low opinion of them.

But it does make me think: if I say I believe in democracy but I have absolutely no faith in those who represent me within that democracy, then what is the implication here?

I’m still trying to figure it out. In the meantime, the next post will be a listicle of Actually Possible Things To Do.

[Previously: Pakistan, The Indian Muslim]


Posted by on December 7, 2008 in Life, Personal, Politics


16 responses to “Mumbai: Before & After – 3

  1. Overated Outcast

    December 7, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Exactly … the sense of entitlement of our politicians is so deep that they are since the initial shock of being question for the first time wore off, the anger of being questioned came out. Last I heard, most politicians are now actually scared to come on TV shows discussing the state of the nation. And those who do, request to be referred to as “public servants”.

    But our I&B ministry has come to their aide. They have issued an advisory to all the news channels to stop the continuous post-Mumbai coverage and not “instigate” the public.

    That’s so Dick Cheney, no?

  2. Vikram

    December 7, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Amritha, I dont necessarily think the next PM has to come from the list you have put up, few would have guessed Dr. Singh would become PM in 2004, this is one of the better things about a parliamentary, a good PM (which Singh is) does not always have to be a charmer/petty politician (which he is not).

    Btw, have you heard of Kiren Rijiju, I have a post comparing him with the other young guys here.

    What we really need is a proper, ‘scientific’ assessment of the 545 MPs we elect (and on a local level, the MLAs, councillors), so we can really tell who is doing their job and who is not.

    What happens in India is that the petty politicians like Lalu and Rane, get all the attention and all the media attention. And people like Rijiju and Gulabrao Gawande are barely mentioned, why do even care about what people like Naqvi say.

  3. Kokonad

    December 8, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Ok, you made it snow in my Firefox.

  4. Mamma Mia! Me A Mamma?!?

    December 8, 2008 at 1:32 am

    A very compelling article. My wishlist is pretty simple…EDUCATED, well-spoken men and women in both houses.

    Is that too much to ask for?

    Sigh…maybe it is!

  5. Aroon

    December 8, 2008 at 2:11 am

    And ya also on the list should be to chuck that marathi thai patil from her presidents seat.. right now only one name comes to my mind to head this country, APJ Abdul kalam and i know he would never take it up

  6. Amrita

    December 8, 2008 at 9:37 am

    OO – what?! Publiic servants?! How the mai-baap fall! Does this mean they’re gonna try and live on a public servant’s salary? Ha! And the I&B has always been a bit sinister hasn’t it? Shades of soviet style dispensation of propaganda. The DD main offices were right behind our house in Delhi and it always reminded me of 1984.

    Vikram – thank you for that link. I left a longer comment on your post. Naqvi’s entire career is based on one simple premise – Token Muslim.

    Koke – coz I’m awesome like that. 🙂

    Mamma – probably so. I’m not against illiterate people getting elected actually. It’s ignorance and venality that bugs me. Plenty of the people running the country today have an education – and they’re dumber than a box of bricks. The only reason they have a job is because they know whose ass to kiss when.

    Aroon – lol! Let her trundle around yaar, it’s not like she does anything. APJ 😦

  7. M

    December 8, 2008 at 11:19 am


    have you made it snow or are my eyes acting up (I’ve heard old age will do that to you…:-))

    Very depressing read, not that you could help that…I didn’t realise we’re so short of “good” politicians!
    I’d like to see some of the leaders in business take on some of teh challenges of running the country – surely they could do better?


  8. Aaren

    December 8, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    I’ve been following this series with extreme interest. Very well put; most of this stuff I agree with. Look forward to the rest!!

  9. ravi nair

    December 8, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Shame that a country of over ONE BILLION people cannot have one qualified Indian man or woman lead it. The way this Sikh kisses her behind makes me want to puke.

    1. Send the Italian lady and her kids back to Italy.
    2. Abolish the present form or government and have a Presidential style of government
    3. Makes the most sense to a lot of us Indians-have the army rule India, discipline the chaos and clean up public life :-).
    4. Put all the current leaders in Jail for life.

    Wake me up when any of the above happens please.

  10. Amrita

    December 9, 2008 at 10:33 am

    M – I did make it snow! Well, WP made it snow! It’s this annual thing they do and I love it! It is kind of depressing but the truth is that for all the criticism the Indian bureucracy faces, it’s what keeps India ticking. So on one hand, it’s no loss really. Just, we’re a country that doesn’t have much direction.

    Aaren – thanks 🙂

    Ravi – or you could just change your name to Rip van Winkle 🙂

  11. Patrix

    December 9, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    I don’t know why but I remember that RK Laxman cartoon quite well and even its caption which doesn’t not appear – “Postponed Postponed All Decisions Postponed”

  12. ravi nair

    December 9, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    Lol-Amrita good one

    BTW after living here in Florida near Miami now, I’m perfectly happy not seeing any snow ever again.

    18 years of snow was bad enough for me 🙂

    Rip Van Winkle.

  13. Ramesh Srivats

    December 11, 2008 at 3:58 am

    Hey what about Mallya, Karunanidhi, Laloo & Karat?


  14. Amrita

    December 11, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Patrix – that’s why I love Laxman so much even though he’s basically been doing the same cartoon every day for years. He always finds a way to say the same thing in a new way and it’s always something you know you could well hear.

    Ravi – I can understand the feeling. Although the last time I was in Florida, the damn place was freezing. Florida hates me 😦

    Ramesh – thank you so much for that link, esp coz of that small govt post you wrote. It’s got me thinking.

  15. mumbaikar

    January 1, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Talking about Jinnah – the founder of Pakistan.

    Jinnah House in Mumbai was Jinnah’s India residence. This is where he met his wife – young Parsi girl Ruttenbai who he married after she turned 18. Jinnah was 41. All is fair in love. This house has a log of gistoric significance to Pakistan and India.

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