Friday, April 29, 2011

What makes a speech great?

I am one of the minority in US who does not think great of Obama's oratory. Obama puts me to sleep. I've attempted to hear his speeches many times and I'd be snoring after 5 minutes. Before people jump at me saying "republican" let state unambiguously that I love to listen to Bill Clinton. If Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke about health care reform in 2 rooms I'd go to Bill Clinton's room. While I was mulling on this topic I wondered about how some speeches get to be called "great speeches". As an avid one-time debater and orator I've collected such CD's and read quite a few of the so called "great speeches".

Today every school boy in US knows about Lincoln's famous Gettysburg speech, "a government for the people by the people". A historian, Gary Wills, wrote a Pulitzer awarded book, just dissecting that speech alone. But in its day the speech was not reported prominently. The speech received mixed reception in the press, in fact there are several versions of the speech, Lincoln spoke for just 2 minutes. With the passage of time and with the perspective that time enable us to appreciate of events today the speech is one of the most celebrated. Any speech attains greatness primarily from the significance of the historical background in which it is delivered, secondly from the words chosen in that order. Lincoln's choice of words rose to the occasion and remains great.

Sometimes only a fragment of a speech will attain the status of a classic and would be oft quoted. When US was literally and metaphorically shell shocked after Pearl Harbor FDR gave his famous, "a date that will live in infamy" speech. Only those words remain etched in public memory because they perfectly captured the sentiment of a nation. Amongst the nearly hundred inaugural speeches only one American President's inauguration speech is noted and quoted (rather mis-attributed), "ask not what your country has done for you, ask what you have done for your country". JFK, rather his celebrated speech writer Ted Sorensen, had plagiarized the words of Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran and used the words out of context. Khalil Gibran addressed the words to corrupt Lebanese politicians thus "Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert." Its a citizen asking a politician if he had done anything for the country. JFK, a politician, inverted it to ask citizens. Even Obama's ardent admirers felt let down with his inaugural address because in their mind he was inheriting JFK's mantle of orator-politician. 

Winston Churchill was the uber-historian-biographer-orator-politician. It was said that he took the English language to war against Hitler. Amongst his many speeches a couple stand out for some key passages that remain unrivaled in the history of public speaking. The first is his speech delivered to the House of Commons when he took over the reins from Neville Chamberlain delivering the immortal lines, "I've nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat". Hear him say the word "sweat" (near the minute marker 3:29), that's the bull dog warrior for you.

He is addressing a nation that was in dread. He does not promise anything easy, he lays it out clean and honest. He does not even promise a quick victory. He stated bluntly, "we have before us many, many, many long months of struggle". Faced with an enemy like Hitler Churchill could easily label him evil and say unequivocally, "you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the long and lamentable catalogue of human crimes". Note that Hitler's tyrannies for which he will be loathed by the ages were yet to begin and whatever he had done against Jews in Germany was yet not very well known to the outside world. I've often wondered why did Churchill choose to say "never surpassed" instead of just "unsurpassed". If we read the line again then the choice becomes clear, unlike saying 'tyranny unsurpassed' the words 'tyranny never surpassed' has a staccato stabbing effect. He then declares the goal very clearly, 'victory, victory at all costs'. The speech nevertheless finishes with hope, 'come, then let us go forward'. The speech itself could be analyzed for mastery of the art of rhetoric. 

During the course of the war Churchill would deliver many memorable speeches with lines that are now committed to memory by every student of history and literature. The last famous speech he gave was in US. After the war cold war had erupted and Churchill saw it with a clarity that was not apparent to many at that time. At Westminster College, Fulton he delivered what is now referred to as the Iron Curtain speech, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent" . This speech is famous for the clarity of vision that was stated plainly without befuddling the issue. There is no Obama type "on the one hand and on the other hand" hand wringing. 

While I exult in Churchill's rhetoric I wonder too how come we never speak of Adolf Hitler's speeches. Hitler was known to be a great orator too. Hitler had charisma and a magnetism that did make him a successful politician. Yet by the nature of the evil he unleashed and that he was defeated perhaps has made pass by his oratorical skills. After all history is written by the victors.

All of the above pale into insignificance before Martin Luther King Jr's most famous "I've a dream" speech. (Aug 28th 1963)
A member of the oppressed class came to the capital of a country and flung rhetoric unmatched and shamed a nation's conscience. The speech was not extempore, parts of it had been delivered in earlier speeches. The language, the delivery, the structure and above all the historical significance, even its own day, all came together to create the greatest speech ever delivered in human history. 

Another of MLK's speech is marked out for reasons of sentimentality. The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, TN he delivered a speech that was prophetic. He delivered what is now called, 'I've been to the mountain top speech' . MLK, the preacher, alluded to how Moses died before entering the Promised Land. Moses could only glimpse it from a mountain top before the Lord took him. MLK in words that continue to haunt, said "Like everybody I like to live a long life, longevity has its place but I am not concerned about that now, I just want to do God's will. I don't know what will happen tomorrow,....I've seen the Promised Land, I dont know if I will get there with you but I want you to know that we as a people will get there". Next day MLK, aged 39, was assassinated. In 2009 Barack Obama paid respect to MLK saying that today "the dream of a King comes true". This speech is considered great because of what happened later thus rendering it a dreadfully prophetic speech.

In the vein of rhetoric matching a historical occasion, as an Indian-American, its impossible for me to not mention Jawaharlal Nehru's speech when India was born. Nehru, with his opening lines "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny" soared effortlessly on scales of polished rhetoric and sentiment.

The lines "we redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but substantially" alludes to the painful partition that was underway. Nehru is supposed to have told Padmaja Naidu "I was reminded of the images of our beloved Lahore going up in flames". Capturing the essence of the moment were the words, "a nation so long suppressed finds utterance". The speech was supposed to be extempore. Amongst all the speeches cited this is possibly the only extemporaneous speech. The second occasion when Nehru found the words to address the nation at a moment of exceeding tragedy was when he had to announce the death of his beloved Bapu.

Just as MLK's last speech is appreciated because a tragic event made it prophetic and hence lent a certain greatness likewise is Ronald Reagan's most memorable speech exhorting Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". The speech, as the wiki link quotes a Time magazine report says, was little noted in its own day. Yet, today when Communism is buried and the Berlin wall remains as dismantled pieces in museums across the world (and in people's homes too, my aunt who lived in Germany at that time has a piece).

Reagan was famous, or notorious depending on the readers political leaning, for labeling Soviet Russia as "Evil Empire". That moral clarity is brought out in this speech that he delivered in front of the Berlin wall. Reagan, in short simple lines, drew a contrast between the prosperity of the west and decrepit state of all communist states. Prisons and houses both have walls but with a key difference. The walls of a prison are there to prevent people from leaving of their own free will. Communist Russia erected such walls. Jamming radio waves, disallowing foreign broadcasts, severly restricting travels of its citizens and finally a wall to keep them inside. A wall complete with, as Reagan points out, "dog runs, barbed wires".  Suddenly he gets blunt and says in words that are simple yet forceful, "Mr Gorbachev, 'tear down this wall'". Listening to an American President challenge an oppressive regime with moral clarity and with words that are unambiguous the German crowd, waving American flags, erupts into an applause.

Amidst all these speakers where does Obama fit? Nowhere. His most famous speech, possibly the only one he will be remembered for, is the one he delivered in John Kerry's 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama, a partisan ideologue, waxed eloquently about how "there is no red America or a blue America, there is only the United States Of America". His body language and gestures betray a nervous speaker, which he was. The words are trite, given that it was said to a partisan crowd that was there only to applaud he naturally was rewarded with a raucous applause. The one other speech that his admirers might point to is his speech on "Race" that he delivered to defuse the Jeremiah Wright crisis that almost derailed his run for the presidency. I found it to be a pabulum yet his palanquin bearers ranging from Cornel West to the common voter thought it to be scholarly. Krauthammer, as always, differed.

The success of Obama the orator was chiefly possible ONLY because Bush had been President. Barack Obama owes his Presidency, Nobel Prize and his fame as intellectual etc only because there was George W Bush as president for 8 years. As Obama's ratings plummeted, especially during the health care reform, his supporters wondered where was Obama the candidate who could sway thousands. He was, in their view, talking more like a professor, endlessly prevaricating, endlessly hand wringing. It is a frustration that only seems to grow by the day.

 Historical background, latter day events, choice of words, clarity of vision, the indefinable chemistry that a speaker shares with the audience all go into making a speech as a great one for the times to come. Obama fatally falters in articulating a vision even when a historical revolution in Egypt comes across he delivers a speech that was shamefully inarticulate. Words are not a problem for Obama, articulating a vision is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gandhi and Lincoln: A Life of Evolving Ideas.

Joseph Lelyveld's, just released, "Great Soul:Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India" created a furore in India. Gujarat government immediately banned it before anyone had read it. The furore centered around two issues. First, and the most inflaming, was Lelyveld's imputation that Gandhi might have had bi-sexual impulses. Second was Lelyveld delving deep into how Gandhi, the one who became Mahatma, was forged in South Africa. A recent sad trend in India is for Dalit leaders and Dalit opinion makers to trash Gandhi as racist while uncritically praising Ambedkar. Everyone can choose whom they want to idolize but when we choose to trash someone we need some justification. Meena Kandasamy, a Dalit activist, ruffled a few feathers by quoting Gandhi from his days in South Africa, about blacks. A post office used to have two entrances, one for whites and another for the rest. Gandhi had written that "Kaffirs" (referring to blacks) should not be clubbed with Indians, the latter being superior to blacks. The quotes supplied by Meena Kandasamy were accurate. The online edition of Gandhi's "Collected Works" has them verbatim. [“Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized - the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.” ~ CWMG, Vol. VIII, pp. 135-136] So shall we label Gandhi as 'racist'?

The 2011 Pulitzer for the best book on an American historical subject went to Eric Foner's "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery". Just as Indian kids learn about how Gandhi was a Mahatma, American kids learn how Lincoln ended slavery, though a tad little less hagiographic.  Lincoln, as anyone with a little deeper knowledge of history would know, had very jaded opinions on blacks. While he was strongly anti-slavery he did not believe that all men were 'created equal' as Jefferson, the slave owner, wrote in "Declaration of Independence". Foner, writes, "while his racial views changed during the Civil War, he never became a principled egalitarian.."

A little perspective helps us to appreciate Gandhi better. The institution of slavery remains America's 'original sin'. George Washington who decreed that his slaves are to be free men after his wife's death in his lifetime would go to great lengths to recapture a slave who had escaped. Thomas Jefferson famously sired an illegitimate child with a slave while declaring that all men are created equal. It would be childish to  decry all of them as arrogant hypocrites. Far from it they were struggling between what they knew was right versus what was possible when a country was being willed into becoming. Abraham Lincoln became president fully aware of the slavery issue and knew full well that as President he would have to address either wholly or in part. In a sort of historical passing of baton Lincoln was killed 4 years before Gandhi was born in 1869. Unlike Lincoln Gandhi was born into a society that was steeped into racism for centuries and lacked an intellectual framework that challenged such evil. Anti-Slavery abolitionism, intellectual opposition to slavery were rigorous in America for a long time, in fact ever since its birth. Slavery in America did not gain the religious sanction, or at least to the level that casteism enjoyed in India. Gandhi's stay in London was not a period of intellectual fermentation. In fact he went to great lengths to keep his famous promises to his mother. It is this man who came to South Africa.

Eric Foner admirably cautions, "the problem is that we tend too often to read Lincoln's growth backward, as an unproblematic trajectory toward a predetermined end. This enables scholars t ignore or downplay aspects of Lincoln's beliefs with which they are uncomfortable- his long association with the idea of colonization, for example- while fastening on that which is most admirable at each stage of his career, especially his deep hatred of slavery". Foner then invites the reader to trace lIncoln's "growth, as it were, forward, as it unfolded, with sideways and even backward steps along the way".

Thanks to the movie Gandhi is even more sanitized and fossilized. Most Indians who have never read a full length biography of Gandhi are shocked and swayed when Meena and others fling accusation from selections that lend heft to their personal agendas. The same Gandhi who wanted separate doors for Indians was also one who would later slap his wife for not cleaning the toilets of a low caste ashram inmate. This was the same Gandhi who would choose to stay in the huts of outcaste when he toured. He would eat their food.

Lelyveld has done a signal service to Gandhi in fleshing out the evolution of Gandhi. Every schoolboy in India knows how Gandhi was thrown out of a train because he was brown skinned. Lelyveld adds a little known fact. Gandhi wrote about that incident to the train company and got a free ticket to travel first class again, which he did complete. In a long life like that of Gandhi's there are always new events that can be teased to throw some new light. Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Napoleon, Einstein are all a biographer's delight.

Gandhi lived through a very tumultuous era. He judged appropriately within his time. Malcolm X is a firebrand Afro-American leader who was famous for his violent speeches that, unlike Martin Luther King Jr, decried any pacifist approach towards white America. In Malcolm's view both races could never co-exist. Till last month the most famous biography of Malcolm X was the one by Alex Haley. Manning Marable's recently published biography had a shocker. Malcolm X had met with the violence prone white racist group KKK (Ku Klux Khan) to negotiate separate living spaces. Its akin to a Jewish leader negotiating with the Nazis. Marable goes on to write that after Malcolm X parted ways with "Nation of Islam" his views on racial reconciliation started to mellow and mirror King's approach. Lives like that of Gandhi, Malcolm X, Abraham Lincoln etc were all lived amidst very turbulent times, they were involved in redrawing centuries old social boundaries. Their lives caused tectonic shifts and they themselves had to first undergo such shifts within themselves.

It is one thing to call Hitler an anti-semite but to call Gandhi anti-Dalit only portrays an amateurish attitude towards a very complex life. Anyone is free to disagree with his convoluted, at time nonsensical too, logic of preserving components of Hindu religious structure but to attribute malicious intentions is sheer injustice. Let us learn to appreciate lives in their rich spectrum. Very rarely in life do we come across sheer evil like we saw in Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Even rarer, or shall we say never, is to see complete unsullied good.

A short note on Lelyveld's biography. Leyveld is no cheap sensationalist. He is a Pulitzer awarded writer who has worked in South Africa for decades. When evidence emerged that Jefferson had a child through a slave within hours that information was incorprated in the guided official tours at his residence in Monticello. Annette Gordon-Reed who wrote a biography of that episode was awarded a Pulitzer and to cap it was also selected as a "MacArthur Genius". Jeyamohan, a noted contemporary writer in Tamil, chides America for indulging in such tabloidism and slyly imputes a Christian conspiracy behind such maligning of a historical figure loved by Hindus. He forgets that America is the country where "The Last Temptation of Christ" was screened. Also see my earlier blog on free expression in USA . 

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Book I love Most

I’d name “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant as the book that best mirrors my soul. “Story” pips the post against “Atlas Shrugged”. 
First published in 1926, the book has never been out of print for 85 years. Durant’s magnum opus, “The Story of Civilization” spanning 11 volumes written over 3 decades is out of print. “Story of Philosophy” is still the most loved introductory book on Western Philosophy possibly outselling the more scholarly “A Brief History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell.
Durant had completed his doctoral thesis in 1917 and was teaching at Columbia University when he started writing on western philosophers for the “Little Blue Book Series”.  These books were intended for the working class and were extremely popular. Simon and Schuster evinced an interest to collect these lectures into a book and thus was born “Story of Philosophy”. Dr Durant had divided the book into 11 chapters with 9 chapters focusing on individual philosophers starting with Plato, running through Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Kant etc to Bergson with roughly 50 pages devoted to each. The last two chapters dealt with “Contemporary European Philosophers” and “contemporary American Philosophers”.
In his preface to the second edition published in 1933, Durant, very disarmingly, notes “many of the criticisms were disagreeably just. The Story of philosophy, was and is, shot with defects”. That, was from an author whose book was successful and is being re-published in a revised edition. Then he charmingly apologizes for excluding scholastic philosophy, “forgivable only in one who had suffered much from it in college and seminary and resented it thereafter as rather a disguised theology than an honest philosophy”. Throughout the book Durant’s sense of humor and candor adds levity to an otherwise tough subject. He regrets having omitted Chinese and Indian philosophy and says he atoned for it in the first volume of his “Story of Civilization”.
Page after page after page is filled with quotes he has gleaned from prodigious reading to illustrate the subject at hand. He draws on Browning, Plato, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky in the first page to outline the uses of philosophy. “We are like Mitya in the Brothers Karamazov – ‘one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions’”. The quintessential western attitude of self-deprecatory humor is evident when he quotes Cicero, “there is nothing so absurd but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers”. When he is not quoting others the accumulated wisdom of his readings is distilled into shining prose, he differentiates Science and philosophy, “every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement”.
Durant rivals a screenplay writer in introducing the philosophers. Racing through how geography of Greece contributed to its politics and culture he culminates with Critias being killed on a battlefield, “Now Critias was a pupil of Socrates and an uncle of Plato”. With that line he then open the scene for Socrates. His transition from the chapter on Aristotle to Francis Bacon is sheer mastery of drama. Within one year Alexander, Demosthenes and Aristotle had died, Durant writes the closing passage of Aristotle, “within twelve months Greece had lost her greatest ruler, her greatest orator and her  greatest philosopher…For a thousand years darkness brooded over the face of Europe. All the world awaited the resurrection of philosophy”. One could imagine the drums roll with the curtain falling in between two acts. Then comes Francis Bacon.
Will Durant wanted to reshape how history was written by historians. He called his approach “integral history”. He would not write about historical events in isolation but present them as ‘integral’ to a larger picture. In just a paragraph Durant gives a vivid portrayal of England in the time of Bacon. “Her literature blossomed into Spenser’s poetry and Sidney’s prose; her stage throbbed with the dramas of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Ben Johnson and a hundred vigorous pens. No man could fail to flourish in such a time and country, if there was seed in him at all”. The very first paragraph on Schopenhauer presents in highly stylized prose in most succinct nature the cultural setting from Schopenhauer sprang forth.
The biographical sketches are brief and filled with wit. The chapter on Voltaire abounds in sharp wit and many a tongue-in-the-cheek remarks. The romance of Voltaire and Mme Du Chatelet is famous. Chatelet was married, no surprises to a marquise. With her husband’s knowledge, we are talking about the French here, she took Voltaire as her lover,  “the morals of the day permitted a lady to add a lover to her ménage, if it were done with a decent respect for the hypocrisies of mankind; and when she chose not merely a lover but a genius, all the world forgave her”. Why was Schopenhauer so pessimistic? Our teacher turns a psychologist here. Schopenhauer’s mother, a famous author herself, was domineering and considered her son a competitor. “A man who has not known a mother’s love-and worse, has known a mother’s hatred-has no cause to be infatuated with the world”.
The care to introduce the philosophers is matched and sometimes exceeded by how Durant gently leads us into the complex ideas that those philosophers spent a lifetime to craft and expound. Baruch Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ is considered to be the most abstruse philosophical text alongside Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. Durant cautions us, “Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid”. The teacher in Durant shines when he, a tad patronizingly but wonderfully, suggests “Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s ‘Spinoza’ or Martneau’s ‘Study of Spinoza’; or better, both. Finally read the ‘Ethics’ again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second time you will remain a lover of philosophy”.
Immanuel Kant has the reputation of being the most obtuse philosopher. How could the hoi-polloi approach a book that Kant’s contemporary returned half read saying he feared insanity if he completed it? Durant the teacher becomes a cartographer. “Let us start at various points on the circumference of the subject, and then grope our way towards that subtle centre where the most difficult of all philosophies has its secret and treasure”. Then he plots the “roads to Kant” via Voltaire, Locke and finally Rousseau. Each section, less than a page, is like a master composer leading the listener through scales of ascending music which then bursts into a full symphony.
What about criticism? There is ample measure of it. Each philosopher is succinctly criticized by Durant the philosopher. He does not merely echo some opponent’s criticism but wears the robe of a judge himself. Francis Bacon is considered the father of modern science, especially experimental science. The Royal Society, in England, has a bust of Bacon as its patron saint. Bacon is chided that “while laying down the law of science, failed to keep abreast of the science of his time. He rejected Copernicus and ignored Kepler and Tycho Brahe”. Not content with that chiding Bacon gets scolded too, “In truth, he loved discourse better than research”. His work was “full of repetitions, contradictions, aspirations, and introductions”. Having criticized him sharply Durant then applies a balm, “he (Bacon) broke down under the weight of the tasks he laid upon himself; he failed forgivably because he undertook so much”.
Only death, the finale, remains. Francis Bacon contracts illness experimenting with a fowl to find how flesh can be preserved from putrefaction by being covered with snow. Bacon’s words in his will are cited “I bequeath my soul to God…My body to be buried obscurely. My name to the next ages and to foreign nations”, Durant the closes with, “The ages and nations have accepted him”. Nietzsche, insane in the twilight days of his life, hearing a talk of books muttered, Durant says, his face lit up, “Ah! I too have written some good books”. The concluding line is profound, “He died in 1900. Seldom has a man paid so great a price for genius”. Schopenhauer is concluded with the lines, “in an age when all the great seemed dead he preached once more the ennobling worship of heroes. And with all his faults he succeeded in adding another name to theirs”.
What impressed me deeply was Will Durant’s prodigious effort in reading not just the principal texts but biographies and criticisms. Out of his accumulated reading he weaves a tapestry that is rich and can be done only by a person who did not merely read but digested and subsumed all that he read in his bones and blood. Without that kind of assimilation the style of writing that glides from persona to another, from one idea to another, from one era to another is not possible. To that he adds a typical Western mind that does not stand in mute wonder in confronting hallowed names and much revered ideas. Foibles, fallacies and weaknesses of person and theory are not swept under a rug. Nor do we find tabloid sensationalism. Especially when dealing with Bacon’s personal weaknesses (he was corrupt and imprisoned) or Voltaire’s many foibles Durant is very conscious of their cultural milieu and is gentle. Durant does not shy away from playing favorites or discarding that which he considers inferior. He chooses Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato as the best to read amongst many. He picks his favorites amongst Bacon’s essays.
Francis Bacon in his essay on “Books” says there are books to read, skimmed and a few to be “digested”. “The Story of Philosophy” fits that last rare category of books to be digested.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thiruma and Ramadoss: Perils of Caste Politics.

This is a distasteful topic to write and will be even more distasteful to read. I ask the forbearance of the reader. As much as it might be disgusting to write in a certain vein using certain terms (caste based) I am convinced that anything less would be dishonest. Better to be disgusting than dishonest.

A month back when the Tamil Nadu election shenanigans started Tamils in USA started dividing along caste lines disguised under ideology. If somebody supported a party, his/her (usually 'his', Tamil women are silent on politics) caste would be cited as the reason by others who did not agree. Amongst friends charges of casteism flew thick and fast. One blogger tarnished another for the latter's support of DMK as thinly disguised Mudaliar casteism. The latter challenged the blogger to apply to Ramadoss the yard stick the blogger had applied to criticizing DMK. Needless  to say the blogger was Vanniyar. Amongst friends, most are now US citizens and well educated, knowledge of who belonged to what caste is common place. NJ has caste based organizations which draw quite a crowd.

It is a common trope that lack of education is the root cause of casteism. I am disappointed to say that nothing is further from truth. Education, exposure to wider world, being part of a mature democracy in USA/UK etc etc have done absolutely nothing to mitigate caste impulses of most Tamils. Some Tamils in UK, I hear, are very particular about marrying off their children on caste lines, social ostracism akin to what is practiced in villages is not unheard of in UK.

I am no sociologist, nor do I aspire to be one. Many might find what I say is unfair or skimming the surface. However I'd ask the reader to pause, digest and THEN criticize.

I ran a cursory glance on the list of DMK alliance. One fact struck me. DMK had practically ceded contesting in most reserved constituencies to VCK (Thiruma). VCK in turn cheerfully says that even if DMK falls short of absolute majority they (VCK) would support it unconditionally from outside without asking for any share in the ministry. Of course then down the line the same VCK would then decry how Dalits are not represented in the corridors of power and for good measure would concoct conspiracy theories spun around the usual suspects, Brahmins.

VCK, in its website, laments "காலமெல்லாம் காடு கழனிகளில் உழைப்பதற்காகவும் தேர்தல் காலத்தில் வரிசையில் காத்திருந்து வாக்களிப்பதற்காகவும் மட்டுமே பிறந்தவர்கள் என நெடுங்காலமாய் வஞ்சிக்கப்பட்ட மக்களை அமைப்பாக்கவும், அரசியல் சக்தியாகவும் வளர்த்தெடுக்க வேண்டும் என்கிற அடிப்படையில் விடுதலைச் சிறுத்தைகள் கட்சி இயங்கி வருகிறது". If something passes for sleight of hand that passage gets the prize. Since 1930's, the much debated Poona pact, reserved constituencies where ONLY Dalits could contest have been in existence for 82 years. Here is VCK claiming that Dalits were only used as vote banks and lacked political power. DMK, the party that endlessly calls itself pro-backward, has been in power on and off for 45 years, with brief interludes by its ideological twin ADMK. (Staunch DMK sympathizers might cringe at that characterization). Here is VCK's chance to stake a claim to some plum ministry and leverage it to further the interests of their community yet they choose to "enthrone Kalaignar", in the words of Thiruma.

Thiruma, as part of ADMK alliance in 2006, called MK as traitor to Tamil race and challenged MK to prove if he had done anything of consequence for Tamil. He then called forth his people to vote for ADMK. Today, 5 years later, in 2011 he is singing MK's praises and is calling forth his people to vote for DMK. For 2004 what does VCK list as Thirumaa's accomplishment, "நாடாளுமன்ற பொதுத் தேர்தலில் தி.மு.க அணியில் தாழ்தப்பட்ட சமுகத்தினருக்கு உரிய 'அரசியல் மதிப்பு' மறுககப்பட்டதாக சட்டமன்ற உறுப்பினர் பதவியிலிருந்து விலகல்.(3.2.2004)." ( Incidentally in 2006 VCK got 9 seats from ADMK, in 2011 they got 10 seats from DMK. Probably the one extra seat is what they refer as " உரிய 'அரசியல் மதிப்பு'".

In the page that lists Thirumaa's achievements what struck me was how few issues were Dalit centric. Let's take two very recent issues that really affected Dalit community. First, the Ambedkar law college incident where one group of students (Dalits) beat another student (Thevar) mercilessly. The fracas had a larger background of Thevar students pointedly refusing to add the name of "Ambedkar" to a college function notice. One can guess why and easily trace the arc of hatred. Thiruma was missing. More recently tens of Adi-Dravida students blocked Mount Road in Chennai causing a gridlock. THe issue was the deplorable condition of Adi-Dravida hostels. Frontline (as DK/DMK people endlessly point out, 'Brahmin' owned) ran a detailed story that laid bare the gross decrepit state of those hostels. The food served was such that no human being could eat, rooms were no better than toilets, gangs controlled occupancy of the rooms and much more. Thiruma's voice was conspicuously absent. His beloved Kalaignar was the CM, hundreds of crores were being spent on these hostels. Needless to say who ran the mafia that controlled room occupancies. The achievements page has ZERO mention of any struggle to uplift access to quality education, access to hospitals in Dalit villages, no agitation for ending two-tumbler systems, no policy paper by educated Dalits on challenges faced by Dalit graduates, one could go on. Thirumaa as MP has posed only six questions in 2+ years since he became MP, not one of them pertained  to any burning issue of Dalitsonly six times in the parliament, only 3 of those speeches have anything to do with Dalits and even then they were not of any substance. 

Reservation quota is a pet topic of Ramadoss and Thiruma. Quota are presented as cure-all panacea for any ills that may plague their societies. Its not out of place to note that nearly 50% of PMK candidates are crorepathis, as  per their own election affidavit, including a history sheeter, Guru. Nearly 50% of all candidates are crorepathis (not one of them is Forward Community, all are BC/MBC). 

Whether its Ramadoss or Thirumaa or any caste leader they all do serve a constructive purpose when they start out. Ramadoss made it possible for many in his community get ahead thanks to his tree-felling agitation that garnered a seperate quota for MBC's. The bane of reservation is that the first few years or a decade only benefits the applicants there after the creamy layer corner all the seats. Today if one analyzed the so called backwardness of many students admitted, especially in MBBS, it would be difficult to point to any student and say "he is a true beneficiary as intended". Put simply Ramadoss' grandchildren, studying in premium convents in Delhi, are eligible for quota just like any dispossessed Vanniyar. It is anybody's guess as to which child would ace the +2 exams and really enjoy the fruits of that quota. 

Ramadoss and Thirumaa have done gross injustice by treating their communities as voting blocks. Its sad that the  people too, by giving their loyalty, do injustice to themselves. Does it matter to a Dalit or Vanniyar that KamalHassan named his picture as "Mumbai Express" or that Khushbu advocated safe sex? Yet both Thirumaa and Ramadoss, aided by their goons, caused havoc to both Kamal and Khushbu.Khusbu ironically is campaigning for Thiruma's alliance. (Another irony is a North Indian girls with a HIndi tattoo campaigning for DMK, a party that once tarred any Hindi hoarding in TN)

Ramadoss sets the standard for unscrupulous politics. The man who vowed that neither he nor his family will seek power shamelessly barters for his son's Rajya Sabha seat. This man, who Thirumaa exults as "thamizh kudi thaaangi", sent his son to Montfort school. My cousin, a die hard admirer of Ayya Ramadoss, was transfixed by how eloquently Anbumani spoke at Johns Hopkins University. The same cousin, like other Ayya followers, then cheers Ayya for fighting for Tamil medium education. 

Both Thiruma and Ramadoss cheer the "heroine" of the election, DMK's manifesto. Veeramani, enthused that the DMK manifesto for 2011 is a heroine just as 2006 manifesto (promising color TV's) was a hero. Veeramani then proceeded to sternly tell tamils that voting for DMK is the only way to stave off Arya rule that is waiting to take over and spoil Tamils. While Kalaignar TV and Tasmac spoiled Tamils Veeramani went missing. The DMK manifesto is totally silent on funding better schools, providing good teachers, more schools, student accessories etc. Ramadoss, now wants exclusive quota and Karunanidhi cheerfully says "I've never said no to him, I'll gladly concede this". A friend commented, with no compassion, "now FC students will have to study even harder, this is good". Today FC's need to score 99.5% to get MBBS or Anna University. I don't know what that friend meant by "study harder". Hitler treated the Jews no worse. 

Thirumaa would shriek every now and then on Eelam. He met Prabakaran and started thinking he was one himself after all did not his party's logo sport a tiger too. Incidentally a descendant of a member who was murdered in Keezhvenmani, the most notorious caste conflagration, is contesting the election. There is no support for her from any so-called Dalit enthusiasts. DMK government, supposedly friends of Dalits, was then blamed for in its inaction leading to Keezhvenmani. If Rajaji had been CM, Veeramani and his ilk would be croaking till today ad nauseum about Aryan conspiracy. Even today this conflict is not spoken of in bold unvarnished terms without raising the shackles of many 'caste' hindus (euphemism for non-brahmins who practice casteism).

Politics makes strange bed-fellows. VCK being part of ADMK, a Thevar dominated party, was an irony given the number of fatal clashes between both communities going back all the way to 1957 Immanuel murder. ADMK enshrined Muthuramalinga Thevar as a demi-god, renamed Chamiers Road in Chennai as 'MuthuRamalinga Thevar road'. "Guru Poojai', celebrating Muthuramalingam, became a huge affair during Jaya's first tenure, Madurai would be tense and paramilitary forces would be needed to keep the peace. When MK named a bus corporation after a Dalit, Madurai burned. Journalist Vasanthi who went to Madurai recorded how even 10 year olds swore death to anybody who boarded those buses. Whether its a ten year old or Facebook group moderator casteism is alive and kicking. Education, age etc are nothing when it comes to such animal instincts.

Today VCK and PMK are bed-fellows. Vanniyars are instrumental in preventing Dalits entry into temples, notably the Draupadi temple. Burial grounds are still separate for Dalits. Pappapatti and keeripatti panchayat elections are bywords for anti-Dalit violence. Only the communist party fights for desegrating Dalits who live behind walls in some towns. No wonder Thirumaa is not vocal on any of that. Instead he is vocal on Tamil, Eelam, Babri Masjid etc that are of no concern to a Dalit villager. He claims that his friendship with Ramadoss has prevented caste clashes in the south. Is this is how one has to maintain peace one wonders?

Thiruma's politics has been counter productive, misleading, and of no use to Dalits. His failure to speak out on issue owing to political compulsions is inexcusable and questions the very need of his party's existence. Ramadoss's politics while yielding fruits in the short run has proved to be inimical and again, of no use, to vanniyars. 

Politicians focus on short term gains and even by that standard both of these leaders, especially Ramadoss, have torn into the fabric of the state. Today TN stands divided along caste lines as never before. While it was a practice of political parties to field candidates along caste lines today that is the first criteria. Every election analysis by individual or vernacular magazine starts without mentioning what caste is dominant in a constituency. Only then does the analysis go into the needs of the constituents. Reservation quota politics is largely to blame for this state of affairs. India has enshrined casteism in an iron framework. 

DMK which came to power having as its main cause the upending of Brahminical hold on power (a questionable trope by itself) has much to answer for why caste parties exist despite having had access to untrammeled brute power for 50 years. That each caste, every one of them listed as backward or 'most-backward', feels they need to have their own political outfit despite the fact that the dominant political parties paid homage to uplifting each supposedly backward community. What is the rationale for PMK's existence? Why did DMK fail  to address that community's need within its political framework? Why VCK? Where did DMK and ADMK fail to give expression to the aspirations of Dalits? That castes felt the need to organize exclusive political outfits to further their interests show cases the failure of the polity. 

Another dimension I see to the rise of caste parties is that such exclusive organizations nurture a confrontational attitude. When Vanniyar, Thevar, Dalit, Chettiar etc all jostle within one political outfit there would be a tendency to be more accommodative. The diversity of a political party brings an ideological sheen that passes purely sectarian concerns. Caste parties take sectarianism to a level that tarnishes its members and creates schisms that are more permanent.

The election results on May 14th will hold the key to the future of TN.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Obama Pivots Towards Re-Election

The Obama administration has a profound sense of irony. Obama announced his formal re-election bid on Monday. The same day his administration reversed its position to prosecute 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in a civil US court. KSM will now face a military tribunal in Guantanamo.  In a very revealing comment Tom Daschle, mentor to freshman senator Obama, said in a documentary that he advised Obama to run for presidency despite being a freshman senator. Daschle said he told Obama "since you are new you will not have any votes to defend". Yes, that's how Obama started, emboldened that he had nothing to answer for. After 4 years Obama will have a lot to answer for.

When Obama delivered his, barely noteworthy, inaugural address he chided Bush for undermining the image of America with military tribunals and Guantanamo. Bush was wistfully looking away into the heavens while the pompous lotus eater delivered platitude after platitude after all never having had the need to shoulder any governing responsibility Obama had sailed into office powered by bromides.. Actually for all those who liked some parts of Bush's presidency especially the clarity on the necessity of wire tapping, Guantanamo, military tribunals, advocating a surge strategy to shore up a sagging war, tax cuts etc Obama is our candidate. On every one of those President Obama brazenly overturned candidate Obama. At least he is not ideologically beholden.

The problem for his beloved left wing is that he is not ideologically beholden. When Obama and Pelosi presided over the worst drubbing Democrats had received in a generation the chatterati were busy lecturing how he should learn from Bill Clinton but everyone wondered would he learn. Learn, he did, in lightning speed. Obama replaced his outgoing chief of staff with a dyed in the wool Wall Street veteran sending his worshippers into an apoplexy. To add insult to that injury, in what he dressed up as pragmatic politics, he shook hands with republicans extending the much reviled Bush tax cuts. Does anybody remember how every democrat shrieked from every available roof top how those tax cuts were for the rich and how they HAVE to be rolled back? Obama was its cheer leader only to abandon it with zero concessions from the republicans infuriating the left.

Obama's constituency is less than glassy eyed now. Many independents have deserted him by the droves. Republicans who voted for him are no longer in his camp. The left is mostly bitter. When he named abrasive foul mouthed Rahm Emmanuel as his Chief of Staff the 'Change' candidates sheen started dimming. When he appointed one ex-Clinton official after another the 'change' devotees started scratching their heads as to why they did not vote for Clinton herself. Finally he capped it off by appointing Hillary as secretary of state. The real rub was re-appointing key Bush appointee Defense secretary Robert Gates. Of course his spin masters went overdrive calling him a Lincoln for our ages. If appointing ones electoral foes is all it takes to become a Lincoln then one could argue that any cigar smoking politician is a Churchill re-incarnated.

Obama, to his credit, also has several signal achievements. Health care reform is still a battle that is far from complete. He completely muddled the reform then regained the initiative  but failed to sell it as an achievement. Ending 'dont ask don't tell' for the military making it possible for Gays and Lesbians to serve openly corrected a long standing sore point in the last bastion of moral conservatism, the US military.

All the rest pale into insignificance before the gargantuan task of steady the US economy that was staring into the abyss. Though Bush took the key unpopular decisions Obama continued them (yet another reason for those like Bush's leadership on crises t o support Obama). He again angered the left appointing as Secretary of treasury a typical Wall Street guy, Tim Geithner. He continued to anger the left by re-appointing Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman. Now the left was wondering if the Obama Presidency is nothing but soaring (as they call it) oratory papered over Bush+Clinton appointees.

The economy, no credit to Obama, is doing better. That its not doing better is entirely due to Obama and democratic congress muddling over the so called Financial regulation. Unemployment while edging down is still at 8.9%. Under-employment is much higher. Housing is stuck. Home prices fell appreciatively last year and continues to fall.

So, can Obama be defeated? Yes. Is his defeat to be taken for granted? Not at all. In the post-world-war-II presidency only three times have sitting Presidents been defeated. Gerard Ford lost due to the shadow of Watergate and his pardoning of Nixon. Carter was defeated for his defeatist attitude. Despite winning a war and despite the economy starting to rebound an increasingly out of touch George H.W.Bush lost. Reagan and Clinton won the presidency by convincing Americans that they need to change their president and that they are better off with a new comer.

A republican candidate has to convince average Americans that they would fare better under a new president. Name calling, whining about Obama, scaremongering etc will not win the presidency. A candidate has to articulate an alternate vision, convince voters that he/she would deliver it.

While Obama has fired the first salvo, Republicans are still sitting out. Obama is now setting the agenda. Obama's money machine is now going into overdrive. Obama is widely expected to become history first $1 Billion candidate shattering all spending records. Of course he will decline public funding. In 2008 he broke his handwritten pledge to take public funding. Of course a few editorials bemoaned that hypocrisy his spin masters won the day saying he needed to unshackle himself to face the republican message machine and thinly disguised corporate donors. Today the same reasons are offered. It was a blatant lie in 2008, its a blatant lie in 2012.

While many names are doing the rounds amongst republicans no one is a clear front runner. This is a first for the GOP which believes in anointing a candidate unlike the raucous Democrats. Any republican candidate has to raise money for a lengthy primary and then raise more money to face Obama the money machine. Note that any money Obama raises is reserved exclusively for the general election.

A sitting President has some formidable advantages. He owns the bully pulpit. He is still the President anything he says or does is effortlessly afforded important news cycle. His constituency is out there to propagate and defend his positions free of cost.

The challengers are not without advantages either. In debate after debate during lengthy primary season Obama will have to endure partisan criticism on prime TV with no way to offer defensive repartees. An entire year would go by before he could offer face-to-face rebuttal. While Obama's cash advantage is forbidding, that alone cannot guarantee an electoral win else Rockefeller would be president. Obama himself learnt that lesson during the Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio primaries. Despite being the presumptive nominee he outspent Hillary 3-to-1 only to lose. Despite his cash advantage over McCain his win, while solid, was not a landslide and was not an easy one.

In a final ironical twist Obama enters his election year having invaded a Muslim country. I intend to blog separately on the Libya War. Suffice it to say yet again President Obama conveniently overruled candidate Obama. As candidate Obama had said US President can send armed forces into a conflict, without express approval from Congress, ONLY when there was imminent threat to national security. At all other times, then candidate opined, the President has to seek congressional approval. As President he gladly sent US armed forces into combat, in a situation that has no imminent threat to US security, without even meeting congressional leaders let alone getting Congress' approval. Coming to think of it I wonder is there any position of his that he has not repudiated.