Monday, June 20, 2011

TN Voter Revolts and Media Sleeps.

It is often said that democracy is messy but in reality compared to its alternatives democracy is the least messy. Representative democracy with all its faults remains the best form of governance. The smug literate Indian voter has often looked down upon his/her illiterate counterpart who votes. When the results of TN election were announced on May 13th it was the largely illiterate voter who had the last laugh. In many ways we should thank the poverty stricken, less educated voter for it is ONLY they who saw through the arrogant power gambles by Karunanidhi.

How arrogant and venal must Karunanidhi be to think that the voter can be hoodwinked by a comedian? Many long time DMK sympathisers shook their head at seeing a party once known for literate orators now rely heavily on a comedian's campaign. A party which once took pride in blackening with tar Hindi words in Railway stations now begged a Hindi actress with a Hindi tattoo on her hand to campaign for them. Irony was that Thiruma, a member of the ruling coalition, once harassed that same actress as a self styled custodian of Tamil morality. Wikileaks cables now show how Karthi Chidambaram had bragged about bribing voters. "Thirumangalam formula" will see us  through crowed their supposedly educated supporters.

On May 13th the TN voter delivered a stunning verdict that left no cover for either DMK or their palanquin bearers. Now the question was "how did nobody see this coming", "how did none of the polls predict this". DMK was shattered beyond belief. Stalin, heir apparent, limped past the finishing line. Azhagiri fort was pulverized to dust. The verdict was so humiliating that Karunanidhi did not even wait for the final tally he tendered his cabinet's resignation within a few hours of the trend emerging. DMK expected the going to be tough but nobody saw this coming. DMK genuinely expected that their Insurance scheme, free housing schemes, money doled through self help groups, Rice at Rs1 etc (not withstanding free TV's and other freebies) would serve as a firewall to protect their turf. "Thirumangalam formula" would secure the seats that were in play thus cumulatively securing them a second term. Whenever I used to talk to both DMK supporters and general public about the inflationary aspect of many of these so called "schemes" I always got one response "the poor don't care, the illiterate do not care, this is all fancy economics you are saying".
See my earlier blog . When I told a person, not a DMK supporter, "well they get rice at Rs1 but vegetable prices are sky high, food inflation is in double digits according to the government itself", the reply was "the poor do not realize and they will not care".

Well the poor care because they are hungry. The poor care because they now see how their children are being deprived. It does not take a PhD in economics  to realise that Rs1 rice alone is not enough. Actually its the PhD in economics who might be numb to reality and prattle about ideology etc. A poor man is pragmatic, he has no alternative.

Seeing Thirumaa and Ramadoss being drubbed today many pontificate that caste politics has been discarded by the voter. Again its the smug educated voter who has never seen the intelligence of the electorate. DMK lost, against much expectation, in 2001 only because they chose to align with caste based parties and doled out seats based on chest thumping by caste party leaders like Kannappan. Ramadoss is often cited as holding a loyal block of voters. That's a wonderful myth. In the past when he contested alone he was drubbed. In recent times his candidates lost pathetically. Ramadoss did become a force to reckon with initially because he did get some fruits for his caste but after the quota agitation success there was nothing else to fight or win. His family's corruption became an eyesore amongst his community. Thirumaa is the worst leader that Dalits could beget. He has no idea of what Dalits need. Jaya's wonderful advertisement showing how he ranted against MK earlier and contrasted it with his fawning today was the best attack ad of the election.

Interpreting a mandate is often a reflection of the person's own subjectivity. Many supporters of Eelam who felt deeply betrayed by MK rejoiced and called this the price for betraying Eelam. Some started calling Seeman, a third rate director and rabble rouser as the next force in campaigns. Eelam probably affected a miniscule voter's decision. TN voter gave DMK a comfortable win, contrary to expectations and desires, in 2009 general elections while Sri Lanka burned and MK carried out a farcical fast. Vaiko, eelam's most sincere and vociferous supporter was trumped at the polls against an unknown. Just watch his election speeches in those days. Vaiko was thundering fire and brimstone about Sri Lanka, about using radar donated by India, about Bofors guns from India AND he lost. As the cliche says "All politics is local". Eelam was a marginal issue.

Why did the media, at all levels, miss the voter fury? Very simple. There is no professional journalism in India. Its all the more true at a regional level. To be sure even in USA we do have our share of surprises. When a republican won from a senate seat held for 40 years by Ted Kennedy in Massachusettes it sent shock waves. But the media was not blind sided like it happened in Tamil Nadu.

NYT report would go to a village start off from a villager, narrate his woes, then flesh out the grinding effect of food inflation, give a human dimension to the story by emphasizing how his/her children are malnourished take the theme on a big picture level, tie it to the inflationary policies and finally conclude with the villager again. This kind of in depth reporting is alien to Indian journalism.

When we talk of corruption again the literate smug intellectual retorted in two modes, "do you think the poor care", "is Jaya incorrupt?". A villager may not care about 2G spectrum or its astronomical sum. Yes Jaya is shamefully corrupt. But the corruption of the past 5 years was of a scope that was staggering. Corruption had eaten into each and every facet of governance thus sticking on the face of the poor like an octopus. Again other than sensational reporting on 2G there was little sensitive in depth reporting by any media. Also for the first time people saw first hand how each minister came to amass hundreds of crores thanks to colleges. Corruption was not even done surreptitiously it was brazen, gargantuan and inescapable. The reporting of that side was seriously hobbled by how the powerful could muzzle media and journalists. Journalists had to fear for their lives if they wrote of Azhagiri or Veerapandi Arumugam (who also is bigamous like his leader and many other colleagues).

Power cuts was another albatross. A few days after the election Karunanidhi announced even more draconian power cuts, now including even Chennai. If MK had announced it 3 months before the election even he would have lost from Thiruvarur. Coimbatore, India's Manchester, erupted in revolt. Thousands of people marched in the streets in a spontaneous protest. No political outfit rallied them, nobody paid them to rally, no biryani packets were used to entice crowds. Yet such an event was grossly underreported. It was a inside news item in a vernacular news paper (Dinamalar). Again the journalistic infrastructure is pathetic that no article could weave a tapestry out of the hardships due to power cuts. In 2011 lack of electricity hobbles job creation, spikes unemployment, affects hospitals, affects the poor weaver, the small scale industrialist who employs tens of poor graduates or unskilled labor. Yet I could not find a single journalist who could write a compelling story on this articulating the seething anger of the people.

Opinion polls are another mess. The media in Tamil Nadu, especially TV, is sharply divided along partisan lines with absolutely no objectivity. The vernacular press also is partisan to a great extent. Amidst this sea of mediocrity and crass partisan reporting opinion polls were a joke.

Sun TV beamed endlessly the hundreds who milled to wave at Vadivelu. Media wrote that in Vadivelu maybe DMK had found a trump card. Yet when the results were announced the joke was on DMK/ Vadivelu and the media. Yes many probably still do love to watch Vadivelu but life is different reality. The sophistication showed by the Tamil Nadu voter should send a stern message to Jaya more than MK. Let Jaya heed the message and realize that in 2016 she could be where MK is today. Well she knows that all too well, could she have forgotten 1996. Its pathetic that MK forgot 1996 could happen to him or completely ignored the lessons of 2001.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tamil Enthusiasts and muddled ideologies.

This week's issue of Vikatan had an article titled "தமிழ் மட்டும்தான் சொத்து". It was about one Mr Radhakrishnan whose house in Pondicherry is quite unique. The photo below should tell you why.

The walls of the house have verses proclaiming glory of Tamil and verses that demand a primacy for Tamil in education and all walks of life. The walls are also adorned, as you can see, with photos of Tamil literary savants like Bharathidasan, Maraimalai Adigal, etc and here is the curiosity, photos of Ambedkar, Karl Marx, Lenin, Prabhakaran and finally the mandatory triumvirate of C.N.Annathurai, M.Karunanidhi and E.V.Ramasamy Naicker. Unsurprisingly, rather as expected, a distinct omission of Bharathi.

Interestingly the same issue of Vikatan had another article, "பெரிய மனிதரும் அரிய புத்தகங்களும்!" about a person who has a library of Tamil books with very rare editions like G.U.Pope's translation of Kural etc. N.P.Ramasamy of Kovai had this to say "எஸ்.எஸ்.எல்.சி. முடித்த பின்பு, திராவிட இயக்கத்தில் சேர்ந்தேன். அப்போது திராவிட நாகரிகம் சார்ந்த புத்தகங்களும், உலக புரட்சியாளர்களின் வரலாறும், பொதுவுடமைச் சிந்தனைகொண்ட புத்தகங்களையும் படித்தேன்". Soviet Russia, Che Guevara, Prabakaran etc have a mystical hold on the imagination of Tamil literature lovers. Again knowledge of history or awareness of facts are mere inconveniences. Just like Radhakrishnan of Pondicherry, Ramasamy of Kovai has a fondness for Prabakaran, "'எனக்கு வயதாகிவிட்டது. எனக்குப் பின் இந்தச் செல்வங்களை பாதுகாப்பது யார் என்ற கவலையே இப்போது தினமும் என்னை அலைக்கழித்துக்கொண்டு இருக்கிறது. பிரபாகரன் தலைமையில் ஈழம் மலரும்; அப்போது இந்தப் புத்தகங்களை தாய் மொழியை மதிக்கும் அந்த நாட்டுக்கு கொடுத்துவிடலாம் என்று இருந்தேன். சோனியாவும் கருணாநிதியும் சேர்ந்து அந்த நம்பிக்கையை கேள்விக்குறி ஆக்கிவிட்டார்கள்." It is stunning that two people with nothing but a shared love of literature and language should have such ideological affinity. This affinity is not accidental its characteristic.

When I meet or read an English literary enthusiast its almost impossible to know his/her ideological lineage or political affiliations. With Tamil literature enthusiasts I've no such problems. I draw a distinction between enthusiasts or lovers of literature against creators. Most enthusiasts or lovers of Tamil literature, especially non-brahmins, are clearly defined by the following: Fealty to Dravidian ideology as 'defined' from time to time by DK or DMK (never ADMK), blatant communist or muddled socialist leaning, avowedly anti-capitalist, a thirsting for bygone glory reflected by admiration totalitarian Prabakaran, fanatically chauvinistic to the core on linguistic issues and to cap it all anti-brahminism. Many of these actually contradict one and another but that never matters. I've never understood this cocktail of politics, economics and linguistic chauvinism. What can I say if one has portraits of Ambedkar, Marx, Lenin and Karunanidhi in the same row. 

I can understand one's love for a language, I can understand one wanting to see one's mother tongue become lingua-franca and have a cherished place in daily life. Once a person told me "you are anti-Tamil because you hate Kalaignar, you hate Anna". I wondered what has one got to do with the other. If you did not accept the literary genius of C.N.Annathurai or Kalaignar you become ipso-facto anti-Tamil. 

EVR had called Tamil a language fit for barbarians and exhorted Tamils to study English. It was the advent of DMK that created an ideology that mixed up everything, understanding very little of any of the components. What is worse serious non-partisan academics have been swept aside and chauvinistic shallow hacks posing as academics have taken their place peddling nonsense as received wisdom. When I read Dr M.Varadarajan's (Mu.Va) "History of Tamil literature" I was stunned to see him emphasize that the term "Muthamizh" (Three forms of Tamil -- Drama, Music, Poetry) is a recent invention. As he progresses  to discuss that he sheepishly says "there is no drama in Tamil, we don't have any works of drama that would qualify for that genre". A DMK party hack would cry hoarse about "Silappathikaaram". Silappathikaaram only talks about how street plays were conducted. Silappathikaram is not "King lear" or "A Dolls House". Jayakanthan, referring to Manonmaniam, another pet example of dramatic Tamil, said "its a fourth rated recreation of a third rated work". The tragedy is not the general population buying this charade of dramatic Tamil, the real tragedy is its a rarity to find any so-called Tamil scholar to disagree with it. 

Tamil enthusiasts love to believe anything and everything that would glorify Tamil. Tamil music is another fertile ground for politics and ideological posturing. Carnatic music, to some extent fairly and to some extent unfairly, is seen as the preserve of Brahmin's hence Carnatic music is seen as another battlefield in challenging the Brahminical order of supremacy. If Harold Bloom, Yale university's legendary Shakespearean, wrote a book on 'English Music' he would be laughed out. But in Tamil Nadu people with dubious credentials would freely talk about musical traditions and how Tamil had it all. For a Tamil enthusiast no field is alien, anything is fertile ground to wade into and claim primacy for Tamil texts, often by contorting evidence and more often with no evidence. Anbazhagan, a minister and a lackey  to Karunanidhi, would write a lesson for Tamil textbook equating Kural and Newton's 3rd law. Only a Tamil enthusiast will have the audacity (I am being polite here) to claim Kamban knew of atomic fission.

Only in Tamil Nadu have politicians become arbiters of literature. Today what most Tamilians understand as 'characteristics' of Tamil culture and Tamil as language comes from Karunanidhi who has cast a long and shameful shadow on Tamil academia. Only in Tamil Nadu could a person like Vaiko be hailed as 'literary exponent'. Only in Tamil Nadu would Karunanidhi's opinion be more important on a question regarding Tamil than any scholar (if one such still remains). DMK's two leading lights C.N.Annathurai and Karunanidhi have completely obliterated impartial scholarship and have monopolized the academic framework of Tamil. Its a phenomenon thats worthy a sociological study by itself. Silappathikaaram is hailed as "Epic of Tamils", Kamba Ramayanam is derided as pornography. The inherent contradictions in both claims, the lack of academic merit in those making such accusations were never given a thought to. Silappathikaaram, a male chauvinistic epic with references to Karma written by a Jain is hailed as "Epic of Tamils" while it completely contradicts every pet ideology of DMK. 

Why did I say that Radhakrishnan (what a name for a DK member) had unsurprisingly omitted a portrait of Bharathi? Nowhere in the world was a poet of Bharathi's stature shunned because of his/her caste. DMK incessantly promoted Bharathidasan against Bharathi who was derided as "paarpana Kavi" (Brahmin Poet). This, against Bharathi. Only the venal minds of DMK and its ideological adherents are capable of such shameful acts. A leading contemporary Tamil writer recently wrote in his blog that in the last 5 years whenever recommendations had to be sent for Jnanpith the explicit command was "see to it that its not a Brahmin author". Asokamithran, a giant in Tamil literature, being Brahmin is shunned. Its thanks to U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, that much of what we know as Tamil literary texts even survives. It was M.G.R., a malayalee, who created a university for Tamil. Tamil Bibles, translated from Hebrew and Greek by Brahmins is a veritable treasure to read. The Tamil Christian hymns too richly borrow from Hindu imagery. 

During a visit to India I bought some Tamil texts. "Purananooru" (400 poems on war and life) has a rich set of poems by poet Kapilar. Kapilar's poems dwell on the generosity of King Paari, Paari's death by treachery, Pari's daughter's being destitutes etc. Would I ever read a book that would take those 10+ poems, situate them in historical context, set out the details of their friendship etc without a shred of jingoism or mixing up political ideologies? Not in a 100 lives. So many books could be spun out of that collection of 400 poems yet none that is accessible to lay or even a discerning interested reader is available. If such a collection of poems and such dramatic lives were in English literature some professor would have turned it into a Pulitzer prize winning book. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

2012: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs and Jobs

Amidst the euphoria following the killing of Osama I told a friend that when it comes to 2012 elections this will be a blip in the radar for Obama. My friend, an Obama supporter, grumpily said "oh you are just voicing your wish". Today Washington Post released an opinion poll that has landed with a thud. 59% of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of economy. Mitt Romney, the lead republican candidate, is in a statistical dead heat with Obama. To rub it in, amongst registered voters, Romney leads Obama. Romney is a candidate with many vulnerabilities.

Team Obama is very well aware that George Bush Sr lost to Clinton after winning a war only because of the economy. James Carville, Clinton's strategist, famously said 'Its the economy, stupid". When asked if he had felt the effect of recession, Bush, floundered and appeared out of touch. Bill Clinton, the master empathic politician gave a warm answer and rode to a landslide victory glossing over his numerous sexual affairs. Only starry eyed ill-informed supporters felt that killing Osama will guarantee a win for Obama. Within a month what changed?

The manufacturing index fell 6.9 points  in May compared to April. At an anemic 53.5 manufacturing while nominally expanding its barely about 50 the point at which it would be 'contracting'. Last month employment figures were a pathetic addition of 54,000 jobs, the lowest in a year. Unemployment is stuck at 9.1%. Underemployment is at a staggering 8.5%. People who have stopped looking for a job and hence NOT counted in the unemployment figures is a whopping 2.2 million. Reading the Bureau of Labor Statistics report its grim.

As if all that did not sound grim enough comes the housing report. US housing is measured by the Case-Shiller-S&P-Index. Robert Shiller one of the developers of that index is reputed economist and author of bestseller "Irrational Exuberance" which foretold the 2001 dot com crash. The housing index delivered a massive blow to the recovery. US home prices have dropped 4.2% in first quarter of 2011 AFTER declining 3.6% in last quarter of 2010. The index report delivers a jaw dropper, "Nationally home prices are back to their mid 2002 levels". I bought my home in 2003. After 8 years its worth is exactly the same as it was 8 years ago, possibly less. Today's WSJ had a lead article citing a major report by Corelogic, leading provider of mortgage data, amongst US households that have a second mortgage on their homes 40% are underwater.New home sales is at record low . Consumer Confidence index is down 5.2%.

Today Obama hosted a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor. An ominous question was "are you worried about a double dip recession". Obama in his professorial manner opined "I am not worried about a double dip recession" (watch for republicans to recycle that video) and proceeded to give a long winded answer that was anything but an answer.

Barack Obama won the presidency purely by blaming Bush and promising the skies. In 2012 he will have to defend his record. Liberal economists gleefully pointed out that Bush was presiding over the worst job creation since Herbert Hoover. Barack Obama will win that prize handily.

To be sure Obama is only partly responsible for the unemployment situation. Technology and globalization have wiped out many jobs that, as Biden openly said, will never come back. Some parts of this unemployment is "structural". There is no way to see the dotcom era level unemployment. The financial crises that Obama inherited was unprecedented in scope or kind. The usual playbook responses were highly insufficient.

Life is not fair. Obama was not fair to Bush when he conveniently blamed everything on Bush glossing over the fact that the financial crises had seeds sown during Clinton era. Repealing Glass-Steagall act, failure to regulate derivatives, long term easy credit, later democrat controlled congress using Fannie and Freddie to further social engineering etc. Such inconvenient truths were all buried and a trope of Bush, the Texas oilman, is responsible emerged. The presidency is a job that Obama applied for knowing the crises thats engulfing hence he has to take ownership for what has happened under his watch.

Closely allied with economic worries a serious debate is emerging on role of government. US debt is staggering and every economist of every hue is crying for reform. In the backdrop of Euro zone crises Americans are seriously questioning the role of public sector. Federal employees and state employees unions are under a sharp focus for their generous benefits and unsustainable pension guarantees. Obama has presided over expansion of government unlike any before.

A republican candidate's success will depend on how convincingly they can portray the economic quagmire as the 'result' of Obama policies AND what alternatives they can provide. Just blaming Obama is not going to help. The economic uncertainties that are being spun out of Obama's and democrat controlled (until recently) congress to regulate business punitively is doing serious harm. The Dodd-Frank legislation that regulates financial institutions has become a legal nightmare spawning agencies that are sending big banks into a tizzy. Chuck Schumer, ranking Senate democrat, who voted and championed it is now decrying its effect. WSJ ripped into his hypocrisy . Schumer now says that the that new derivatives rules "will inevitably result in significant competitive disadvantages for U.S. firms operating globally."

WSJ had a wonderful article on how complex and Frankenstein like Dodd-Frank has become. The article says that the growing paper trail is 20 times taller than Liberty Statue. Many rules set forth in the legislation are yet to become laws. The federal agencies like SEC are simply crushed by the burden. Its a classic case of a panacea becoming an infection. The uncertainties and complexities have severely affected the profit making of financial institutions with a direct effect on hiring.

Obama, one time community organizer and an instinctive hater of capitalism, ranted against "fat cat bankers" endlessly. The administration and its minions pilloried Wall Street. It was populist in 2008. Obama repeatedly exhorts business to hire and spend their profits. Businesses are balking, not out any malice, but merely out of a hesitation due to uncertainties surrounding hiring costs. The regulations that fly out of capitol hill added to the gargantuan health care bill has created a very uncertain climate for hiring. All of this is justified criticism against Obama. 

The tax battle is looming ahead. Obama, an open socialist, is committed to playing Robin Hood. The Bush tax cuts that Obama extended, much to his supporters' anger, is due to expire in 2012. Obama has made it clear that he will make that issue for the elections. Obama wants to raise taxes on homes making $250,000 and above. In his opinion those making $250,000 (as couple) are rich and should pay their 'fair share'. Of course what he labels as 'fair share' is from his vote-bank angle. In 2008 he could get a pass on that. In 2012 there is voter fury against Unions and benefits finagled by arm-twisting Unions. Obama's class warfare rhetoric will not fly easy in 2012. Unions, taxing the rich deserves a blog of its own.

Mitt Romney, to be sure is not a shoo in. He has to survive primaries and convince republicans of his conservative credentials. I'll reserve discussing the candidates themselves for another time.