Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I'd rather be Anna - An open letter to Ms. Arundhati Roy

Ms. Roy,

I watched your sit-down with Ms. Sagarika Ghose from CNN-IBN via the internet, and I tried to understand the reasons that you laid out for your disenchantment with- and lack of confidence in- various Lokpal Bills that have been proposed - Jan Lokpal Bill by Team Anna, Aruna Roy and colleagues' version, and the government's Lokpal Bill. But I could not. Probably because you said a lot without having said anything.

At the end of this video, all I wanted to ask you is: What would you rather have done, and how? What do you think can/should be done to tackle the scourge of corruption? What are your ideas? How would you mobilize the opinion and the masses around your ideas? How would you ensure that participation in the movement is not skewed by and for a certain sector of society? Pray tell us. We need more disparate voices in order to come up with an effective bill, and yours can certainly be one of those voices, for people listen to you when you say something.

Now, please allow me to go point-by-point about the whole host of "issues" that you say leave you skeptical about the Lokpal Bill, what it can/may accomplish and the movement. I am using the major phrases that you used during your conversation with Ms. Ghose in order to pin-point the 'reasons of your disenchantment with the movement and the bill':
1. Its an NGO driven movement, has Magsaysay Award winners linked to Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, hidden agenda? - Aren't you just implying a 'guilt by association' here, that is if there is any guilt at all?! If I didn't know better, I'd say that the 1997 Booker Prize that was to be your claim to fame, was awarded to you by an organization whose principal sponsor is a company that manages hedge funds and commodity futures - Man Group. So by your standards, you should be the last one to be associated with social movements. But then, the sponsor of the prize when you won it was a company called Booker Group - this company derives a bulk of its billion pound profits from coffee, tobacco, alcohol, among other things. You'd probably know more about how these three industries are exploitative of not just natural resources but of peoples as well, and in more than one way. Now isn't it ironic that you accepted the Booker Prize awarded to you by these guys happily, even though these companies are the very epitome of businesses exploiting globalization and embracing new-imperialism, that you so thoroughly now despise. Will it be ok if we called this your double standard and hypocritical stance on things, as you so comfortably chose to do when talking about Team Anna's members and question their intentions and motives?
2. World Bank's Agenda (increasing political accountability, strengthening civil society's participation, creating competitive private sector, instituting restraint on power, improving public sector management - increasing penetration of
international capital) - the only "questionable/nefarious" goal in this list, if one is at all, seems to be 'creating competitive private sector'. So may be 'resource exploitation' by MNCs is one of the agendas behind what bodies such as World Bank/IMF/UN end up promoting, and that too at the expense of the welfare of the native peoples in these resource rich but socially stricken countries. If anything, putting in place the mechanisms (such as anti-corruption laws) that will allow people to question their own government's dealings with external players, will only help limit their exploitation. Isn't it? Now someone will make profit off of all the business, but then that is the cost that has to be paid in a setting that is not utopian.
3. NGOs taking over government's agenda - going by the yardstick that you ascribe to, aren't other movements, lets say the ones that you espouse so dearly e.g. Sardar Sarovar Project, also taking over government's agenda by being unwilling to allow the government even the slightest wiggle room when it tries to address those issues. Instead of suggesting solutions to tackle the issues, all that you and your ilk do is raise hullabaloo about what is wrong with something. Please also try to suggest some remedial measures.
4. Anna Hazare being a passive-vessel/figure-head for the movement - may be this is the case or may be it is not. Only Anna and his team's inner circle will be privy to that I suppose. The way I look at it, as austere a lifestyle as Anna embodies in this day and age when hoarding material possessions is a measure of success and even ones virtuosity, there are no monetary/material/political-ambition incentives for him to have embraced this movement. So you may fault him for letting his team hijack his agenda, if that indeed was the case, but you may not fault him for the purity of his intentions. I'll put such a face to a movement everytime. Won't you?
5. Medha Patekar and Prashant Bhushan's credibility - I don't know what to say, other than that 'innocent until proven guilty'! You did not offer any explanations.
6. Maoists and India Against Corruption (Jan Lokpal Bill) movement seek overthrow of government, parallel oligarchy, research committee comprised of eminent people selected by self-proclaimed leaders of civil society - if overthrow of the government was indeed the goal of this movement, "they" would have let Anna die, and the aftermath of that alone would have ensured an uprising (and I am sure an armed one and bloody) the likes of which haven't been seen in this country for a long time.
7. Currency of social transaction in unequal society from bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to the very top, perpetual economic inequality - corruption is rampant because both the parties that are involved, the one seeking bribe and the one bribing, have an incentive to do so, irrespective of their socioeconomic status and wellbeing. It will be easier to disincentivize bribe seeking than it will to disincentivize bribe giving, don't you think? Jan Lokpal being proposed will have mechanisms built in it that achieve precisely that.
8. Why aren't corporations and NGOs under Lokpal's ambit - I agree with you, they should be. And if I recall correctly it was suggested on the floor of the house as well, and I believe this is something that will be considered when the standing committee convenes.
9. Media's role in this movement - I agree with you that media saw this movement as an opportunity to have eyeballs glued to the TV screens, and they had wall to wall coverage of the spectacle that this movement was to become. Moreover, media did not help deliberate the provisions of various Lokpal Bill versions as diligently as it should have.
10. Mobilization from BJP and RSS - I ask you, so what if BJP and RSS were involved. Isn't it their democratic right to participate and dissent. Don't they have as much right to have an opinion in the matter as anyone else? If your concern stems out of the fact that both these organizations have right-wing tendencies, then you need only think about the calm and peace with which people participating in the movement conducted themselves. What do you say?
11. One man's regressive piece of legislation - just earlier you said that you think Anna was only a figure head and not the original brains behind the proposed bill or the movement. I am sure you see the contradiction of your statements there, don't you. Even if you think of Anna's Team alone as the overarching architects of the bill and the movement surrounding it, other members and groups from the "civil society" were and are surely welcome to put forth their points of view once the standing committee begins its hearings. If that is not the democracy at work, I don't what is/can be.
12. Aggressive nationalism, chants etc., communist history of vande' mataram, and national flag's waving and exclusion - so would you rather have had five thousand people go on a fast-unto-death at Ramlila Maidan? They needed to vent, and feel a sense of camaraderie while working towards a common goal, and slogan shouting and music and prayers helped them channelize their emotions and energies, instead of doing something more drastic and destructive.
13. Anna going to private hospital at the very end - Dr. Trehan and his team were attending to Anna. Dr. Trehan is one of the founding members of Medanta Medcity, and as he was responsible for Anna's well-being, he chose to take him where he thought he could best take care of him. Having said that, may be it would have been appropriate to take Anna to AIIMS or Lady Harding or Maulana Azad Medical College. But then, I am certain that your criticism would still be the same.
14. Spontaneity and size of crowds, comparisons to Babri Masjid demolition - are you kidding me, with comparison to Babri Masjid demolition mob? I mean, really? Did you not see that for the most part, the two weeks of Anna's fast and the peoples' participation in the movement was peaceful?
Spontaneity - social networking tools via internet did play a role in mobilizing opinion as well as crowds, there is no denying that, in some huge numbers I might add. If you were looking for the rural participation, that was ofcourse sparse. First we need to inform people in remote villages about the bill, its provisions, and the movement itself. Part of that responsibility will certainly lie with the elected representatives from those areas, if not all of it.
15. Anna's persona, not like Gandhi, not his own man, not in-charge - I don't know about that. You yourself have called this bill as 'one man's regressive piece of legislation'. Moreover, Gandhi was "in-charge" because there was this largest political party of the country that he had the backing of and that he was backing. Would you have been supportive of Anna and his movement if he was openly affiliated with, lets say BJP or RSS or BSP or with Congress for that matter?
16. Fast-unto-death for Jan Lokpal, not interested, but interested in other issues ... - I don't know what to say to you. Anna chose a fast-unto-death as the tool of his choice to make his point. I think it was a move out of desperation more than anything else, and by the way, he was the only one on a fast. Where on the other hand, there are thousands of Naxals up in the arms killing people willy-nilly. What means would you have preferred he and his supporters adopted?
17. This movement cannot be a precedent for protest movements of future, this has been a privileged protest movement - I reluctantly have to agree with your first assertion, but I cannot with the second. It would have been a privileged movement if the corporate houses had chosen to fund the movement, and had their banners all across Ramlila Maidan! But that was not the case. As far as I know, donations consisted predominantly of small sums of money donated mostly by people with limited means i.e. those who even value the tax rebate that they can avail from such donations. Now, if you are saying that people who showed up at the ground were more privileged than the ones whose causes you champion, I'd have to call you on that. The setting of the protest was such that it was literally in the corridors of power. Do you think it would have drawn same coverage and participation if it had been in some remote village of Jharkhand? I am sure it would not have. But even so, if the provisions such as citizen's charter and disincentives for irresponsible office holders are anything to go by, beneficiaries of it won't just be people who live in urban or semi-urban settings. People everywhere will benefit from this bill - only, most of us will need to be trained to avail of it correctly. RTI is a good example of that happening, isn't it?
The reason police did not use force or was reluctant to use force may have been that the government had started on the wrong foot from the very outset by jailing Anna. But, why do you choose to ignore the fact that the crowds that had gathered at various venues in cities and town across the country were peaceful as such a mass movement can be. But then you have already made up your mind, so enough said.

As far as your article titled 'I'd rather not be Anna' that appeared in The Hindu on August 21, 2011 goes, even if I were to accept the examples that you have cited in your writeup on face value, I do not agree with the conclusions that you have drawn from them. But still, I'll go so far as to say that your concluding remark was spot-on. I am certain that you'd agree me when I say we need more disparate voices in order to come up with an effective bill. But, wouldn't you agree with me that today we don't just need critics and cynics who can point to the problems with almost anything and everything, what we are desperately in need of is some creative and effective solutions for those problems, and people who can come up with those solutions.

Ms. Roy, once again, my only question to you is: What do you think can/should be done to tackle the scourge of corruption? What are your ideas? How would you mobilize the opinion and the masses around your ideas? How would you ensure that participation in the movement is not skewed by and for a certain sector of society? Please enlighten us.

- I'd rather be Anna. Actually, I'd rather be Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, but that is a whole another ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Jan Lokpal Bill - four more "stages" to go

Over this past weekend I keenly followed the goings on in India vis a vis the 'India Against Corruption' movement, led by Anna Hazare, seeking the introduction and subsequent passage of a Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen's Ombudsman Bill) that will be stronger and more effective than the one Indian government (Congress led ruling coalition) had proposed. It was ofcourse a relief to learn that Anna finally decided to break the fast unto death that he had undertaken on the thirteenth day. It was certainly very satisfying too see the show of support by thousands of people across the country for this campaign against corruption, and for a strong Lokpal. It was also good to see the spirited discussion on the issue in both the houses of the parliament - there were some very good speeches made, especially by the leaders of the opposition.

But, when the speaker banged her gavel to adjourn the house just seconds after the minister had read the "resolution" adopted by the house affirming the government's agreement "in principle" with Anna Hazare and his team's position, I was left with a sinking feeling of not-much-achieved-after-all-this. It took an aged Gandhian's fast-unto-death that lasted almost a fortnight, tens of thousands if not a couple of million people coming out on the street all across India, and almost six months (since the beginning of this movement) for the government to even accept that the sort of measures to tackle corruption suggested under Jan Lokpal Bill were worth considering. And all that our elected representatives in the parliament could come up with was a lame resolution suggesting their agreement "in principle", which if the proceedings in both the houses that day were anything to go by, wasn't nearly as unanimously adopted as the ruling coalition was suggesting. I was also surprised to hear Anna say later that we had won only half the battle, when in my mind nothing substantial had been achieved and this parliamentary resolution was nothing more than political hogwash.

So, to temper the increasing feeling of discontentment and disenchantment that I was coming down with, I decided to learn more about how the mass movements usually evolve. One of the very informative resources I found was an article titled 'The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements' by Bill Moyer. This actually is an abridged version of 'The Movement Action Plan (MAP)' laid out by Bill Moyer almost exactly twenty-five years ago. Upon going through MAP and the eight stages of a successful social movement I realized that maybe Anna was right in saying that we have won only half the battle. Now that I have a better understanding (than what I had a couple of days ago) of how any social movement of significance may unfold, it does seem that we have only been through stage four (Take Off!) yet, and there is still much that will have to be done vis a vis keeping this movement alive and kicking until the goal of instituting a strong Lokpal has been achieved.

So if you also wish to reaffirm your faith like I was able to do - right below you will find the 'The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements'. There is also another graphic below that - this one lays out four different activist roles that any social movement has - very insightful stuff. A must read for everyone in my opinion, but especially for activists and wannabe activists.
The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements

The Four Activist Roles

Here is hoping that stages five, six, seven, and eight are not very far off in this movement against corruption and for a strong Lokpal.

Viva la Revolution. Inquilab Zindabad. Jai Hind.

Friday, August 5, 2011

24.Rxd4!! - The Move of The Game of The Century

I've known how to play chess since I was a kid. We played chess at home, in school, and at my college. Now I play chess with my computer, and I also play chess online. But somehow I had never gotten around to understanding chess by way of its notations. Oh how I wish I had learnt that while I was still a school going kid.

What got me interested in learning about chess notations was a random search I did one day for 'the greatest game of chess ever played'. Too much free time at hand I guess. The chess match that seemed to have been called 'The Game of the Century' turned out to be the one played between Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov in 1999. I watched the very first youtube video that my quick google search returned. In this video, Kevin from '' goes move by move and explains the possible rationale behind both Kasparov's and Topalov's moves. One of the top comments for this video says, "24 minutes flew by". And I sure had to agree. Its an engrossing game of chess and some of Kasparov's moves were beyond comprehension when he made them but turned out to be brilliantly well thought out.

For a few days I just kept finding myself thinking about this game, and revisiting this video time and again to try to go through different scenarios had Kasparov made a different move or had Topalov responded with a different move. It was during one of those days that I searched for Kasparov's impression of this game that he played with Topalov. I was happy to locate a chess website that had this game move by move, complete with annotation from Kasparov - with his explanations of the moves that he made, the moves that he didn't make, and the moves he thought Topalov could have made to save the game. But my happiness was shortlived, for I wasn't particularly conversant in the notations of chess. That is when I decided to learn the notations of the game of chess. And I have to say, now that I am a little conversant in chess lingo, I am able to enjoy chess all the more.

If at some point in your life you've played chess, and still like to play chess, watch the video with commentary about this game below. If on the other hand you are a die hard chess fan, like the one I am turning into now, go through the entire game with Kasparov's annotated commentary here: Also, you'd ask what is so special about the move 24.Rxd4!! - Kasparov sacrificed his Rook with this move, all in the build up to some beautiful lines and ultimate resignation by Topalov. You shall have to see for yourself why this move was so crucial in this match.

For those of you who already have kids or are expecting some soon: for god sake teach your kids how to play chess. They will thank you for that. If it were upto me, I'd gift each kid and his/her family 'checkmate! my first chess book' by Garry Kasparov.

Have fun chessheads.

The Chess Game Of The Century:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The US "Debt Debate" - Voices of Reason

Just yesterday President Obama signed into law the latest debt increase. The issue of raising of the debt limit was as contentious as they come - atleast this time around. The bone of contention was the proposed tying up of the debt limit increase with deficit reduction measures. Democrats and Republicans slugged it out in the run up to the final deal that was reached on July 31, approved by the lower and upper houses of US congress just before the deadline of August 2. If the congressmen and senators from respective party are to be believed, this deal has been a big compromise for both parties. On the other hand, commentators of major cable news channels and most business experts have denounced this deal as a (very poor) result of congress' inability to function. Most of the blame, atleast in liberal media circles, has been attributed to the rigid stance of the right wing of American politics, the first term congressmen from the 'Tea Party'. They were dead set against any hike in taxes or as it has been oft referred to, increase in revenue for tax-hike has long been a taboo phrase in the capitalist economy that is US.

Having followed this "debt debate" a little bit, it seemed to me that the most sane voices in the entire conversation were those of Independent Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Republican Congressman Ron Paul from Texas. Some would argue that these two gentlemen represent the very extremes of their American political spectrum. Well, even so, what they have to say makes sense. Moreover, I don't think that the 'Tea Party' folks are really true to the principles that they espouse. If they did, they would think and act more like Congressman Ron Paul. Similarly, many of the progressives are as right of the center as most right wingers.

If you want to listen to just the voices of reason, and not to all the hullbaloo surrounding the debt debate, there are a couple of youtube videos below. There is one each from Senator Sanders and Congressman Paul. The best commentary from a media personality about the whole affair was by Keith Olbermann of Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

Senator Bernie Sanders:

Congressman Ron Paul:

Special Comment by Keith Olbermann: