Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are these the voices that will find answers for young India?

Aashti Bhartia’s book is an important tool in understanding the substance ­— or lack thereof — in the next generation of leaders. It asks questions that youth want answers to, writes Mahima Kaul

At Aashti Bhartia's book launch, one of the panelists commented that the only thing missing from the book was a chapter on Aashti herself. He wasn't wrong. To understand the real strength of her book, the Introduction chapter is crucial. Bhartia is not a political journalist, although she has clear interest in the subject. She is instead, a storyteller. Vote of Confidence attempts to tell the stories of 17 of India's young members of Parliament, fleshing them out as more than media cut-outs. This storytelling is guided by her admitted curiosity about these MPs. As she writes, "I was intrigued by the idea of poking around Ministries, figuring out what the young politicians are up to, and clearing the cobwebs of party politics."

This curiosity helps keep her essays interesting and informative. In explaining each person, she gives some background about their parties and the issues most concerning the state, and it helps even the most casual reader build up context. Bhartia admits that she chose her MPs rather randomly — she wrote about those she had read about and those who could give her some time — and she laments that she has only featured one woman MP. Nine of the 17 MPs are hereditary MPs, but that is perhaps reflective of our democracy in general.

The chapters have no standard format. Some are almost completely interviews while others paint portraits. There's even a love story or two mixed in! I found some chapters more compelling than others — those were typically the ones about the lesser-known MPs and their struggles to build a political base in their constituency. In some ways, this book offers great advice to future political aspirants. Ghanshyam Anuragi (SP) talks about how he would visit post-mortem houses, hospitals and police stations regularly when he was out of power, to lend a helping hand to those in need. He even collected donations to fund weddings for those couples who couldn't afford one. Ajoy Kumar (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha) runs though a different area of Jamshedpur every morning when he's there, ending at a tea shop. That is where he picks up on what people are talking about. Janadhana Swamy (BJP) talks how one can convince the authorities that you are a "good product" and you should contest elections, revealing he joined the BJP and requested an interview with the CM to discuss his ideas before he actually asked for a ticket. Meenakshi Natarajan (Congress) talks about sloganeering and the importance of being able to design a movement around an issue.

The book allows, through its many essays on hereditary MPs, to delve a little deeper into what always seems like the "poor-little-rich-boy" syndrome with star kids. Most people know about Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia's stories already. But then there are cases like Nilesh Rane, formerly of the Shiv Sena and now the Congress, who was offered a ticket as part of a settlement the Congress Party had with his father, Narayan Rane. The fast talker muses about the demise of the Shiv Sena, dishing on the stylings of Bal, Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, as well as Sonia and Rahul Gandhi before telling Bhartia, "I don't talk that much." Bhartia notes the ease with which Deepinder Hooda has been able to clear projects for his constituency, Rohtak, as his father is the chief minister of Haryana. But she also notes that instead of typical Haryanvi bluster, Hooda focuses on using statistics and data to "drop references to what project was promised and what work was done after he visited the village last..."

In one of the more interesting chapters, Bhartia profiles two politicians who stand on opposite ends of the development debate in Orissa: Sidhant Mohapatra and Kalikesh Singh Deo, both of the Biju Janta Dal (BJD). The former is a famous movie star in the state who once played a Naxal in a movie, leading to him understanding and sympathising with the cause. The latter, from royal lineage and with a strong business background, believes in "a trickle-down theory, assisted by government-led social development." In contrast, the weakest chapter for me is Jayant Chaudhary (RLD)'s profile, which is more about politicking and numbers than his personal story.

Bhartia's book also has moments when her relative freshness into the world of politics reveals her naivety, and that, in my mind, cements her voice as the voice of the typical Indian youth looking for some answers. She is impressed by Janardhana Swamy's scientific past and his passion for public service, only to be disappointed to learn his name featured in a suspect land deal later. She muses, "I can only hope he doesn't prove himself lazy in years to come, fattened and jaded by politics." She isn't able to force Deepinder Hooda to delve into detail about how he would solve the problems of Khap Panchayats and Jat-on-Dalit violence in Haryana. He pleads his own version of the Fifth by telling her various incidents did not fall under his constituency. And despite ex-movie star Mohapatra's pro-Naxal stance, after the 2010 Dantewada incident, where Naxals killed CRPF soldiers, he doesn't really bother to discuss the complexities of government response with her when she calls.

Like a patchwork quilt, Bhartia's book goes from state to state, story to story, struggle to struggle, weaving for us colourful portraits of India's new youngest politicians. Along with it is the voice of the urban educated youth who wants to know where to begin understanding politics today. To answer that question, you might want to start right here!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Empire of the Sun

I was sitting in my hotel room at the Gold Coast, discussing the next day's plans with my roomies Emmy and Jo. Jo mentioned trying to avoid rush hour in Brisbane, and I started laughing. Emmy turned to me and said, "I love you! Anything happens here, you say this is nothing, you should come to India and see!" I laughed even more and told her, "When you see rush hour in India, you'll know why I'm laughing at Brisbane traffic!"

Emmy was an highly adventurous young Swedish girl. She'd left her boyfriend behind to travel alone, and despite some stabbing guilt at the fact, she was determined to try everything, which included scuba diving and bungee jumping. Jo, on the other hand, was far more cautious, preferring a smoke and a drink accompanying her loud laughter and group of new British friends. I had found myself with a curious mix of characters as I attempted to see Australia without the comfort of my own friends from back home. I had come on a fellowship at the University of Melbourne, and once done, took almost three weeks off to travel the length of the East Coast of Australia.

Travelling by yourself, even if you are with a group, is a wonderfully lonely and liberating experience. I went camping along the Great Ocean Road, sharing my tent with a 18 year old French hairdresser called Tressy. I spent hours sitting on a bus alongside Andreas, a German who runs a golf club in Nuremburg. I befriended Nina and Puck, two Dutch girls I later caught open air concerts in Melbourne with. I met the wonderful Anne, in her late 60s, not letting the passing of her husband dampen her enthusiasm for life. I met Steve, a Canadian student and history buff, who I drank and talked politics with. The cast of characters kept growing as my experiences kept building, and in part they did because Australia just expects you to go have an adventure. Its that kind of place.

Unlike India, there is no long history of a bloody independent movement in Australia. There is no caste system, no glaring poverty, and no serious problems outside of alcoholism. Australia was established as a British penal colony, after the explorer James Cook declared the island as "terra nullis" (no one's land) despite it having inhabitants -- the Aboriginals. Over time the convicts, many of whom had been arrested for petty crimes, were allowed to remain on the island as free men. Cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth were established, while a large portion of the country remains uninhabited because of harsh terrain. The relationship between the original inhabitants of the island, the Aboriginals, and the European/British Australians has been complicated. A misguided attempt to mainstream Aboriginals in the 1960s resulted in the horrifying chapter called the "stolen generation" where babies were taken away from Aboriginal families and given to "white" families, with no contact with the biological family. In 2008, the Australian government made an official apology for all the past wrongs by successive governments to the indigenous Aboriginal Australians. But the ordinary (read: white) Australian seems removed from all this. The oldest buildings date only to the 1880s and there isn't a majestic sense of history one experiences in India, or Europe or any of the old civilizations. There is, instead, a deep and fierce appreciation of all things natural, and lifestyles that don't revolve around urban jungles. The country hasn't been hit by a recession and the mining industry has kept it affluent. Beaches, mountains, farms and waves. That is what you can expect from an Australian adventure. The fact that it isn't weighed down by a sense of self importance makes it one of the most fantastic experiences for a traveller. I felt that in Australia, more than any other place I’ve been to, you had to be ready to physically let go. Be ready to take that plunge.

I'm a journalist, so I'm rather used to travelling and meeting new people. But this was different. Outside of the holidayers (which would include me), the backpackers I met were so refreshingly different. All were either British or Europeans. Most were in Australia on work-stay visas which means that you can find a city, get a casual job such a bartender, make some money and travel again. And when you're cashed out you rinse, lather and repeat. Many of them young -- between 19-25 -- they were going from city to city deciding where they'd like to set up base first. "I'm staying in Byron Bay for a few months to learn English," said the German Anne. Best friends from England, Becky and Kim, hadn't yet picked a town to call home. Everyone had a story that was a mixed ball of apprehension, adventure, homesickness, and enthusiasm. Kim and Becky both had similar reasons for doing this -- one big adventure before they settle into what they imagine will be a routine life back home. It’s the ultimate "finding yourself" journey. I was marvelling at this complete freedom to just leave your home, come to another country with no job, no plan, not even a degree to fall back on (in some cases). Its helpful to be part of the exclusive "White" club which allows these kids to jump in and out of each others countries -- and I have to say, I felt a little jealous. One evening, while were sailing around the Whitsundays, I told Alan, the resident hottie, that I can't imagine doing the same. Indians -- and only affluent Indians -- often use studying abroad as the excuse to go experience other countries. And while its a rather generous gift from the parents, for the most part, its understood that the grades and resultant job better be worth it. The weight of expectations are heavy on our shoulders, with the entire family invested in your achievements. "My parents are so supportive with everything I do," I was telling Alan, "but I can't imagine them saying, alright, go to Australia for a year and discover yourself. No need to get a real job as long as you have adventures!" It just isn't in our DNA.

This made me wonder if given the choice, would we still be adventurous? (Without the added benefit of alcohol, I might add!) I spent a night at Kroombit Park, a cattle ranch. After an evening of successful clay pigeon shooting and some superbly embarrassing mechanical bull riding, I spent the next morning quad biking around the ranch. It was fantastic! Later, as I lunched with Al, the owner, I asked him if any Indians ever came around. (Keep in mind it is a beef exporting ranch, and he probably had a mini heart attack that an Indian had arrived in the first place!) Some, he said rather carefully, but they don't like to participate. The further way I from my cultural reality, the more keenly aware of it I was. Challenge accepted, I thought to myself, I'm going to do whatever I can possibly do.

So I did. Some camping, trekking, surfing, sailing, snorkelling, quad biking, mustering goats, finding frozen banana stands, bowling…. That’s not all: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian Open and Andrew Llyod Weber. Add to that walking around Melbourne and Sydney for hours, bobbing my head to 'Empire of the Sun' on my ipod, smiling to myself. But, most of all, add to that a sense of freedom from the complicated histories that keep us in chains. It's enough to make me book my ticket back there.

Reprinted in the Outside Inside Literary Magazine (with some changes):

Thursday, May 03, 2012

It's mainstream vs social

Mainstream and social media share an increasingly uneasy relationship.

The Abhishek Manu Singhvi CD scandal brought into focus the increasingly confrontational relationship between social media and mainstream media. When a court order kept the mainstream from broadcasting the CD, social media took centrestage in spreading it online and keeping a buzz about the scandal for days. Many termed it as a "victory" for social media. Others slammed social media users as "eternal voyeurs" and wondered why they seemed to be above the court order. In return, blogs went as far as to title a post, "Why the Indian MSM (mainstream media) Wants Social Media Dead".

A quick recap: after the CD leak, Singhvi moved court to stop certain media organisations from telecasting it. The Delhi High Court gave an ex parte order that "the defendants (media house), their agents ... are restrained from publishing, broadcasting and disseminating or distributing in any form or any manner..." However, people caught hold of the video and kept linking it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. It went viral. Singhvi resigned from all political posts and settled the matter out of court. In his statement of resignation, Singhvi's bitterness at the role of social media was apparent: "in either event it raises no public interest issue... contumacious internet violation of a flagrant kind." I will save you a Google search: contumacious means to be wilfully disobedient to authority.

There are questions to be asked. Who was the 13 April court order aimed at? Is Singhvi's proposition that an internet violation took place true?

The order was explicitly binding on only specific organisations (Aaj Tak, India Today Group and Headlines Today). The rest of the mainstream media showed remarkable restraint. In the case of the video being linked on social media, it was users' prerogative, as they were not covered under that order even though Singhvi's statement suggests otherwise. However, there is another angle to consider. Social media users would have broken the law only if the video content itself was objectionable. "If the video is judged to be 'obscene', then under s.67 of the Information Technology Act, 'causing [obscenity] to be transmitted', is also a crime," says Sunil Abraham of the Center for Internet and Society. So, the question is, was this video obscene? While my journalistic integrity did not extend to watching the video, I've been told it has neither nudity nor explicit sexual activity, and cannot be considered obscene. Therefore, it appears that social media has functioned well within its rights.

What remains, then, is the view that social media "should" be restrained. How? A court order could stop users from linking the video online, but it would only be applicable in India. Also, there are already provisions in the IT Amendment Act 2008, which allows for "offensive" material to be removed by the intermediary, or site blockage by the government. Twitter has already announced national policies of censorship, although this incident would probably not qualify for such a drastic action. Sunil Abraham adds that the court could also give a "John Doe order" against prospective offenders that enables the IP owner to serve notice and take action at the same time against anyone who is found to be guilty. However, this step is to be taken with caution. In criticising the existing order on the Singhvi case, Arun Jaitley wrote in an editorial that "a pre-publication injunction (should) ... be exercised with great caution specially in a case of libel and slander," because in this case it was yet to be proven that the CD was indeed fabricated.

It seems there is offline outrage about online outrage. However, for mainstream media to call for restraint on social media based on their own actions seems to be hypocritical in this particular instance, because they did so only because of a court order. One need to look at stories ranging from the Mumbai attacks to the Arushi Talwar murder case to understand the invasive nature of mainstream media in India. What is more worrying is that the mainstream media is equating itself with social media in some ways, wondering why it needs to have editorial checks if citizens can gossip away on Twitter. In return, social media is counting its victories against the mainstream in a manner that suggests that the two consider each other competitors. Although most conversation on social media would not exist without mainstream news sources, ultimately their function in society is not the same. The media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy, while social media is considered an "unofficial" channel. If either is found indulging in illegal or harmful activities, they can and must be checked. But, in the end, it serves freedom of speech to keep the two functioning in context, not in confrontation.