Sunday, December 30, 2018

How to rescue democracy: Liberal education will teach us to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason

Another series of elections has come and gone. Like an imminent surgery, an election has a way of crowding out all thoughts from the mind and turning the focus of politicians to populism and free giveaways, forgetting the difficult job of economic and governance reform. The results of the latest state elections have reminded us that Indians are by nature sceptical and not shy to change their leaders. The grand certainties of 2014 have suddenly become the grand doubts of 2019.
From earliest times, the Indian temper has been comfortable with uncertainty, beginning with ambiguity over how the cosmos was born in the famous Nasadiya verse in the Rig Veda and the doubting neti, neti (‘not this, not that’) method of Advaita. I believe our questioning nature is a strength in building citizenship and democracy. Unfortunately, our educational system, instead of nourishing inquiry, does everything possible to kill it through a rote learning system. The ascendance of technology, engineering and ‘useful subjects’ has displaced the old-style liberal education that promoted inquisitiveness. A few excellent private liberal arts and sciences institutions are coming up, and they offer some hope for the future. Most of the older ones have faded into mediocrity.
In these times when ‘liberal’ has acquired a bad odour, it is worth reminding ourselves that it shares a root with ‘liberty’. Liberal education is a method of learning rather than mastery of specific content, teaching one to reason and providing the confidence to judge for oneself. A liberal education befits a free human being, one who is capable of governing himself and participating in collective self-government. This ability translates at election time in distinguishing a charlatan from a sensible and sincere candidate. In the recent elections, it would have exposed the disastrous idea of farm loan waivers which rewards defaulters and punishes honest farmers, aside from bankrupting the states’ treasuries, leaving no money for real agricultural reform.
If a liberal education is not only about book learning but an approach to learning, any subject – even manual labour – could be part of the curriculum, and help shrink some of our caste prejudice against working with our hands. When we study something for its own sake, it reinforces our early curiosity as children and builds upon our civilisation’s ancient sceptical temper. Indeed, an interrogation of the Upanishads and the epics with a modern mind can be as valuable as reading Homer, Shakespeare and Marx.
A liberal education can also help to raise the tone of our political discourse that has plunged to great depths in recent years. All parties were responsible for the shameful lack of civility in the recent elections. Rahul Gandhi contributed to it with his persistent ‘chowkidar chor hai’ with regard to the Rafale fighter deal. He did not censure his functionaries who made obnoxious remarks about Modi’s mother’s age or cast aspersions on his father. It is to Rahul’s credit that he apologised for a former minister’s insulting reference to Modi’s occupational caste. Earlier references to ‘maut ka saudagar’ by Sonia Gandhi were equally ‘uncivil’.
BJP is no better. Modi has been guilty of uncivil language about the dynasty. A Gujarat minister falsely accused the late Verghese Kurien of diverting funds from Amul to Christian missionaries. Modi did not repudiate this aspersion on a bureaucrat who has made India the world’s largest milk producer. All parties, especially AAP and Shiv Sena repeatedly abuse opponents – for example, “son of Khilji” is a sickening reference to Rahul’s foreign origins.
A liberal education is beneficial in cultivating the habit of respectful engagement in a community, dedicated to finding workable answers rather than resorting to insulting innuendos about the ethnic identity of opponents. It also leads generally to a centrist position in politics, eschewing the extreme right and left. The political centre is accommodative, tends to harmonise social and cultural contradictions and appeals to the average voter, especially the minorities. Hence, most elections in India since Independence have been won by moderate candidates. Even the Modi wave in 2014 was the result of Modi adopting a centrist promise of vikas and jobs, which attracted the aspirational, young voter. It is quite another matter that the promise has not been fulfilled and Modi is a worried man today.
Finally, approaching education in a liberal manner can also make us better human beings. By freeing us from the demands of getting a job and making a living, it offers the freedom to reflect upon existential questions of who we are and why we are here. It turns our attention away from ourselves to our place in the world, making us see that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This ‘self-forgetting’ is always good for building character. When combined with action and experience, it leads to prudence (phronesis) as Aristotle suggested – to do the right thing to the right person, at the right time, in the right manner, and for the right reason.
But how can a poor or middle class Indian family afford the luxury of not preparing its children for a job? Surely, a four-year undergraduate American liberal education is a luxury that most Indians cannot afford. Indeed it can, if you view liberal education not as content but as an approach to learning; it should begin in primary school and go right through postgraduate education. Liberal education is not an end but a means to prepare a young person to become a thoughtful member of society. It does not exist in isolation from making a living or becoming a good citizen. It merely reminds us that there is more to life than consumption and production.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Gays and colonial brainwashing: Learn from India’s open, exuberant past and respect those who differ from us

Times of India | September 12, 2018 - 19:41

My son is gay and i no longer feel reluctant to admit it. He has been in a loyal, happy relationship with his partner for 20 years and my family and close friends have accepted it gracefully. I didn't dare speak about it in public, however, for fear of bringing him any harm – that is until 12.35pm on Thursday when the Supreme Court (SC) decriminalised homosexuality. My wife and i suddenly feel as if a great burden has lifted. The chief justice's wise words continue to ring in my ears, "I am what I am. So, take me as I am."

For 157 years, Indians have lived under a tyrannical colonial law that was contrary to our country's ancient spirit. Meanwhile, the English realised their mistake – that "sexual orientation is natural and people have no control over it" (as the court's judgment said) – and they discarded the law in Britain long ago. Tragically, the colonial brainwashing went so deep that this un-Indian imposition remained on India's statute books for 71 years after the colonisers left.

I was too young in August 1947 to understand what it meant to be politically free but i was certainly old enough to celebrate our economic independence in July 1991. And on September 6, 2018, i was not too old to applaud our ‘emotional independence’. India is a country in transition from tradition to modernity and it is just as important to speak and act freely about our emotional life as our economic and political lives. For too long we have repressed emotions and lived with patriarchal stereotypes. Secrecy is unhealthy for a wholesome society.

Although the judges quoted great Western writers in support of their historic judgment, they could also have cited classical Indian texts, which show remarkable tolerance for gender ambiguity. The epics are full of stories about men turning into women and vice versa, and they are told matter of factly without guilt or shame. There are plenty of examples in Vanita and Kidwai’s book, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.

India’s is the only civilisation to have elevated kama or desire and pleasure to a goal of life. Along with the three other aims – artha, ‘material well-being’, dharma, ‘moral well-being’, and moksha, ‘spiritual well-being’, we are expected to cherish kama’s ‘emotional well-being’. We are constantly reminded about dharma, our duty to others but the thought escapes us that kama is a duty to ourselves. The extreme pleasure of sex is, perhaps, recompense for the loneliness of the human condition.

In the Christian tradition, in the beginning was light (in Genesis). In the Rig Veda, in the beginning was kama and the cosmos was created from the seed of desire in the mind of the One. Desire was the first act of consciousness and ancient Indians called it shakti, the source of the sexual drive and the life instinct. In contrast, desire was associated with ‘original sin’, guilt and shame in Christianity.

We blame the Victorians for the prudishness of today’s Indian middle class but lurking deep in the Indian psyche is also pessimism about kama. More than 2,500 years ago in the forests of north India, ancient yogis, renouncers and the Buddha were struck by the unsatisfactory nature of kama. The yogis sought ways to quiet this endless, futile striving. Patanjali taught us chitta vriti nirodha to still the fluctuations of the mind. The ascetic god, Shiva, burnt the god Kama when the latter disturbed his thousand-year meditation; hence, desire exists ananga, ‘bodiless’ in the mind. Bhagavad Gita’s answer is to learn to act without desire but it is difficult to achieve it when ‘man is desire’ according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Opposed to the pessimists were optimists, who thought of kama as a ‘life force’, a cosmic energy that animated the cell and held it in place. Since kama is the source of action, creation and procreation, their optimism culminated in the first millennium in Sanskrit love poetry and an erotic text of manners, the Kamasutra, which is not a sex manual but a charming, surprisingly modern guide to the art of living. In the clash between the optimists and pessimists emerged kama realists, who offered a grand compromise in the dharma texts, stating that sex is fine as long as it is within marriage.

Into this pre-modern world entered the British with a pessimistic overhang of what George Bernard Shaw contemptuously called ‘Victorian middle class morality’, and they enacted laws such as Section 377. Fortunately, a more optimistic age began in India in the 1990s when the minds of the urban young began to get decolonised, reaching a peak in 2009 with the landmark judgment of Justice AP Shah of the Delhi high court on same sex relationships.

There was a regression for a while after 2013 when the higher court reversed course, but after Thursday’s SC judgment, a new era of kama optimism has begun. It will take time for a court ruling to overcome prejudice in society, especially at a time when right-wing vigilantes appear to lose their rational faculties over ‘love jihad’, Valentine’s Day (which should be renamed ‘Kamadeva Divas’, as Shashi Tharoor has suggested) and ‘Romeo squads’ run amuck.

The SC judgment implies that to be civilised is to say: I prefer the opposite sex but I do not object to you preferring the same sex. In a free, civilised country we must learn to respect those who differ from us. The state should stay out of the bedroom and let us learn from our open, exuberant ancient traditions, where the secret to a rich, flourishing life lies in the harmonious equilibrium between the four goals of life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Amazon vs Walmart: Take advantage of the coming battle of giants by freeing India's farmers

In the uproar surrounding last week’s acquisition of Flipkart by Walmart, the true significance of the world’s largest e-commerce deal escaped everyone. Headlines screamed about the coming battle in India between two American giants, Amazon and Walmart. News channels narrated a Cinderella story of two youngsters who started selling a few books from their two bedroom flat in Bengaluru and created a company that was worth $21 billion ten years later, making a hundred of its employees dollar millionaires.

Nationalists moaned about the takeover of an Indian by a foreign company. Economists saw it as a coming of age of India: following China’s example, India too would now join up with one of the most powerful global supply chains, giving a major impetus to our exports, accelerating foreign investment and jobs in the country.

India’s young start-up community was excited that the deal was a role model of how an Indian entrepreneur could be handsomely rewarded for the hard work in building a company. And our tax department was salivating over the bonanza in capital gains from the deal.

All this is true but none of it captures the full story. Yes, May 10, 2018 was a historic milestone in India’s economic history when Walmart, the world’s largest retailer announced a $16 billion acquisition for a 77% stake in Flipkart, India’s largest online marketplace. It was a lot of money to pay for a company that was losing money and not expected to break even in the next five years; some had even predicted the demise of Flipkart. When the deal was announced, the price of Walmart shares fell in its home country and investors lost $10 billion.

What most observers failed to grasp are the true benefits to India, which emanate from Walmart’s competitive advantage over Amazon. It is able to deliver fresh, high quality vegetables, fruits and other farm produce via a legendary cold chain which it has perfected in 28 countries. Neither Amazon, nor Flipkart has this.

Reliance also tried to do a Walmart in India in its foray into ‘Reliance Fresh’ but it failed. It is also good news for kirana stores. Walmart has been operating a chain of 21 Best Price wholesale stores, supplying to over a million retailers in India. It now plans to convert many of them into ‘partners’ for its last mile delivery to the Indian home.

It will upgrade the kirana store’s skills in inventory management, digital payments, and logistics technology. Thus, it has neutralised the earlier hostility from the trade. The real story in the emerging e-commerce battle is the potential transformation of India’s agriculture and kirana store.

A respected management consultancy firm has estimated that the Walmart-Flipkart venture will require infusion of significantly more capital – Walmart has already announced $5 billion – and this could create roughly a crore new jobs over time. It has already made a strong start by sourcing 97% of its goods from Indian medium and small enterprises, exporting $4-5 billion each year.

This trend will accelerate. In line with its global practice, the new Walmart operation will source 95% of its goods locally. Plus, the jobs it will create in logistics, cold chain, warehousing, distribution and delivery, add up to 10 million jobs.

I sometimes wonder why i pay Rs 20 per kilo for potatoes when the farmer receives only Rs 5. My potatoes travel some distance, i realise, from the farm to the mandi to my kirana shop, and each person in the chain takes his cut. Still, the Rs 15 gap seems excessive. Analysis shows that in countries where large supermarkets operate, the gap is smaller because farmers have long term contracts with large retailers and they invariably receive higher returns because of eliminating middlemen.

Yes, it is arthiyas and wholesalers in the mandi who will lose. But i refuse to shed tears for them since they operate a corrupt cartel which exploits the farmer. A typical farmer harvests his crop, loads it on a bullock cart, travels 30 km to the mandi, where he is often forced to sell at distress prices fixed by the cartel. The arthiya knows that the crop is perishable.

Aware of this corrupt system, the central government has created a model reform act, scrapping the ‘agricultural produce marketing committees’ (APMC). But only a few states (like Maharashtra and Bihar) have implemented it. The reason is that the corrupt APMCs provide black money to politicians to fight elections. The e-NAM portal was supposed to provide online information to farmers in surrounding mandis, but like most government programmes it has been a flop.

In contrast, global retailers like Walmart invest in cold storages, airconditioned trucks and grading facilities, and connect the farmer to food processors; this saves post-harvest losses and increases farmer income. Given the pervasive APMC cartels, the benefits of Walmart’s entry will thus only be confined to a handful of states. This is a great pity since a third to half of India’s food crop rots.

If he is serious about doubling farmer incomes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a choice. Will he pick up the phone and tell chief ministers of BJP ruled states to abolish APMCs, or will he accept the corrupt cartels that finance his, and other parties? If he is true to his election promises to end corruption and double farm incomes, he will free farmers to sell their produce to anyone they choose, freeing them from the clutches of the ‘APMC Raj’. Only in this way will India take the full advantage of the coming battle of the giants.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

गुस्से के युग में अपनी जीवनशैली को श्रेष्ठ न मानें

संदर्भ... देश के हर वर्ग में बढ़ता रोष व असंतोष और रोजगार बढ़ाने पर पूरा ध्या न केंद्रित करने की जरूरत

प्रत्येक नए वर्ष पर मेरे पड़ोसी महोदय बहुत प्रयत्नपूर्वक संकल्प लेते हैं और उतनी ही फुर्ती से जनवरी खत्म होने के पहले उन्हें तोड़ भी डालते हैं। हम आमतौर पर साल के पहले हफ्ते में मिलकर एक-दूसरे को अपने संकल्प बताते हैं लेकिन, मैं जनवरी मेंम्यांमार व दक्षिण-पूर्वी एशिया में था तो हम पिछले हफ्ते ही मिल पाए, जब मेरी पत्नी ने उन्हें एक मग मसाला चाय के लिए आमंत्रित किया । 'तो बताएं इस साल आपका इरादा कौन-से संकल्प तोड़ने का है?' मेरे पड़ोसी ने कबूल किया कि उनका एक संकल्प तो राजनीति और धर्म पर कम गुस्सा करने का है।

पंकज मिश्रा की गहरी दृष्टि देने वाली किताब 'एज ऑफ एंगर' के मुताबिक हम क्रोध के युग में जी रहे हैं। राष्ट्रवादी राजनीतिक आंदोलनों के फिर उदय ने भारत सहित पूरी दुनिया का ध्रुवीकरण किया है। हम हमेशा मौजूद हिंसा से गुजर रहे हैं, जिसे अल्पसंख्यकों के प्रति नफरत और राष्ट्रवाद के विषैले रूपों से ईंधन मिल रहा है। दक्षिणपंथी अतिवादियों की हिंसा के बराबर ही उदारवादियों का अहंकार है, जो सहिष्णुता के नाम पर उन लोगों के साथ ठीक वैसा ही असहिष्णु व्यवहार करते हैं, जिनकी आस्थाएं उनसे अलग हैं। खामियां दोनों तरफ हैं और 2018 के लिए मोदी के श्रेष्ठतम संकल्पों में से एक यह होना चाहिए कि इस विभाजन को भरें, सोशल मीडिया में अधिक सभ्य बहस लाएं और हमारी ज़िंदगियों को अधिक शांत बनाएं। भारत आज उपद्रवग्रस्त और असंतुष्ट राष्ट्र है। बुद्धिजीवी वर्ग मोदी पर गुस्सा है कि वे देश का ध्रुवीकरण करने का प्रयास कर रहे हैं। वमपंथ अब तक 2014 में उनकी विजय को पचा नहीं पाया है और यह देख स्तब्ध है कि उनकी लोकप्रियता बरकरार है और 2019 के लिए कोई विकल्प नहीं दिखा ई देता । हिंदू क्रोधित हैं, क्योंकि बुद्धिजीवी वर्ग ने उनकी हिंदू पहचान को उनके लिए शर्म का विषय बना दिया है।

हिंदूत्व पर सतत जोर देने से मुस्लि म खुद को असुरक्षित महसूस कर रहे हैं। दलित और ओबीसी गुस्से में हैं, क्योंकि वे भाजपा के उच्चवर्गीय पूर्वग्रह के कारण अपमानित और बहिष्कृत महसूस कर रहे हैं। मध्यवर्ग क्रोधित हैं, क्योंकि भारत की आर्थिक नीतियों ने हमारे देश को पूर्वी और दक्षिण-पूर्वी एशिया के देशों से बहुत पीछे कर दिया है। इन सारी वा स्तविकताओं के भारत के साथ आम आदमी की नाराजगी है कि अंग्रेजी बोलने वाले श्रेष्ठि वर्ग ने 'आधुनिकता के श्रेष्ठतम फल' हथिया लिए हैं। वंचित नाराज हैं कि मोदी ने रोजगार और अच्छे दिन के वादे पूरे नहीं किए। इन सारे लोगों के गुस्से को पहचान पर जोर देने का तैयार औजार मिल गया- गुजरात में पाटीदार, हरियाणा में जाट, राजस्थान में गुर्जर, आंध्र में कापुस और असम में अहोम आंदोलन इसी के लक्षण हैं।

गुस्से में आमतौर पर कि सी प्रकार का बदला लेने की इच्छा अंतर्निहित होती है, यह इच्छा कि गलत करने वा ले को तकलीफ पहुंचनी चाहिए। बेशक यह तर्क हीन है, क्योंकि गलत करने वा ले के कष्ट भुगतने से शिकार हुए व्यक्ति की तकलीफ खत्म नहीं हो सकती या जो हुआ उसे उलटा नहीं जा सकता। गुस्से का जवाब यह है कि या तो इस पर तब तक हंसा जाए जब तक कि यह चला नहीं जाता अथवा कोई करुणामय उम्मीद जगाने वाला नेता खोज लिया जाए जैसे महात्मा गांधी, मार्टिन लूथर किंग या नेल्सन मंडेला, जो लोगों को क्षमाशीलता का महत्व समझाए। क्रोध का विरोध करना न सिर्फ हमारी मानवीयता बल्कि विवेक को भी रेखांकित करता है। भारत जैसे महात्वाकांक्षी देश में तो यह और भी जरूरी है। राजनीतिक गुस्से का एकमात्र फायदा यह है कि यह हमें बाहर निकलकर वोट देने को बाध्य करता है।

फिर क्रोध की राजनीति की सही प्रतिक्रिया क्या हो? महाभारत में युधिष्ठिर का जवाब था क्षमा और सहिष्णुता । उन्होंने दुर्योधन को जुए में चालबाजी के जरिये उनका राज्य छीनने के लिए क्षमा कर दिया। द्रौपदी चाहती थी कि वे सेना खड़ी करके बदला लेकर राज्य वापस छीन लें पर उन्होंने जवाब दिया कि जुए में हारने के बाद उन्होंने निर्वासन में जाने का वादा किया है। इसी तरह युद्ध के बाद उन्होंने धृतराष्ट्र को भी माफ कर दिया और उन्हें सिंहासन पर बैठाकर उनके नाम पर शासन करने का प्रस्ताव रखा । विद्वानों का मानना है कि चूंकि महाभारत 500 वर्षों में विकसित हुआ है तो युधिष्ठिर का पात्र बौद्ध सम्राट अशोक के अहिंसा के आदर्शों से प्रभावित रहा है, जिनके धर्मस्तंभ 'सभी नस्लों के लिए सम्मान' का संदेश देते हैं। लेकिन भीष्म ने युधिष्ठिर को कहा कि शासक का काम क्षमा करना नहीं बल्कि न्याय देना है।

भारत में सारी सरकारें धार्मिक व जातिगत पहचानों को पुचकारने के कारण समूह के ऊपर व्यक्ति की प्रमुखता पर जोर देने में विफल रही हैं। धर्म दुधारी तलवार है। जहां यह हमारी भ्रमित, अनिश्चित निजी ज़िंदगियों को अर्थ प्रदान करता है वहीं यह एक विशिष्ट पहचान भी निर्मित करता है और यह जल्दी ही सार्वजनिक रूप से खुद को व्यक्त करने लगती है। प्रतिस्पर्धात्मक लोकतंत्र में धर्मनिरपेक्ष राजनीति अपने आप सामने नहीं आती। पश्चिम में राजनेता ओं को राजनीति से धर्म को पूरी तरह हटा ने के लिए प्रेरित करने में सदियां लग गईं। इस्लामी जगत अब भी इस समस्या से संघर्ष कर रहा है। भारत में सहिष्णुता की परम्परा रही है, जिसे महात्मा गांधी ने फिर जागृत किया । मोदी लोगों को याद दिलाएं कि साधारण भारतीय देश को हिंदू पाकिस्तान नहीं बनाना चाहते।

समस्या तब शुरू होती है, जब धर्म राजनीतिक क्षेत्र में प्रवेश करता है। किसी धर्म में विश्वास करने वाला तो स्वाभाविक रूप से यही मानेगा कि उसकी पद्धति श्रेष्ठतम है। धार्मि क विश्वासों से दूर रहने वाले धर्मनिरपेक्षवादियों को भी धार्मि क नागरिकों के दृढ़ विश्वासों को महत्व देना चाहिए और भारतीय राजनीति को मुस्लिमों के लिए हिंदू घृणा के लेंस से देखना बंद करना चाहि ए। हिंदुओं को नीचा दिखा कर वे उनके रोष को मजबूती देकर उन्हें हिंदुत्व में और गहरे धकेल देते हैं। सबसे बढ़कर तो यह है कि हर किसी को यह मानना छोड़ देना चाहिए कि उनकी जीवनशैली ही श्रेष्ठतम है।

मोदी को साम्प्रदायिक हिंसा जरा भी बर्दाश्त न करते हुए अपना पूरा ध्यान जॉब पैदा करने पर लगाना चाहिए। अर्थव्यवस्था में जान आते ही इस्लामी और हिंदू दोनों तरह के धार्मिक कट्टरपंथी अपने जॉब में डूब जाएंगे, अपने बच्चों को अच्छे स्कूलों में भेजेंगे और सामान्य मध्यवर्गीय जीवन जीने लगेंगे। चूंकि युद्ध की बजाय शांति का आकर्षण अधिक होता है, व्यापार-व्यवसाय उपलब्धियों की राह के रूप में धार्मिक श्रेष्ठता व विजयों की जगह ले लेगा।