Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Take on the Poll outcome from Tamil Nadu

The AIADMK-led alliance was expected to do much better than it did from Tamil Nadu. The logic of alliance arithmetic was behind this expectation. J.Jayalalitha, after all, had managed a pre-poll alliance that consisted of the PMK, considered strong in the Northern part of Tamil Nadu as well as the MDMK and the two Left parties with a thin but stable voter-base across the state. And by endorsing the demand for a Tamil Eelam, in her party’s manifesto, she seemed to ride a wave.

The crowds that gathered at the meetings by Eelam supporters where the speakers categorically called for a vote against the DMK-Congress candidates suggested that Jayalalitha will end up determining the course of Government formation in Delhi.

The poll outcome, however, bears out that the tragic events in Sri Lanka, which certainly is a humanitarian tragedy involving the Tamil speaking people, did not determine the choice of the voters. The defeat of Vaiko from Virudhunagar as well as the fall of all the seven candidates of the PMK reflects this. The MDMK chief, after all, had emerged as the face of the Tamil Eelam cause and the PMK chief too had been speaking up on similar lines for almost a decade now. Notwithstanding the fact that they have done precious little while holding offices in the Union government.

The MDMK and the CPI (M) had won one seat each. And that could be credited to the alliance that the two parties had with the AIADMK. These two constituencies – Erode and Coimbatore) happen to be in the Western region of Tamil Nadu where the ruling DMK-led Front could win just one constituency; Nilgiris won by Union Minister A.Raja. Union Minister and Congress candidate, E.V.K.S.Elangovan, must be regretting the fact that he happened to contest from that region. And same is the case with another Congress favourite, R.Prabhu. The AIADMK has pretty much managed to retain its hold in this region. The party had more or less swept the polls from here in the 2006 elections to the State assembly too.

The other big message from the results is the decimation of the PMK. After having managed to be on the winning side each time since 1998, Dr. S.Ramadoss never seemed to have an occasion to sense the erosion of his support base. The DMK-led combine, meanwhile, appears to have benefited immensely from its alliance with the VCK. Thol. Thirumavalavan, who has won the Chidambaram Lok Sabha constituency could also ensure that the DMK win a number of seats in the Northern parts of Tamil Nadu. Union Minister T.R.Baalu owes his victory in Sriperumbudur to the alliance with the VCK. Recall the resistance from sections in the Tamil Nadu Congress to the inclusion of the VCK in the combine! Thirumavalavan’s pro-Eelam stance had offended them.

Well. The TNCC chief, Thangabalu could not benefit out of any of these. The same is the case with Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer. Salem and Thanjavur are among the constituencies where the VCK has emerged into a force as much as the PMK. It could be that that VCK’s cadre decided to ensure transfer of their votes in a selective manner. Those who objected to the VCK being taken into the fold seemed to have paid the price.

The DMK’s impressive performance, meanwhile, can be attributed to the performance of the State Government. The revamped Public Distribution System (PDS) in the State ensured that the larger sections of the middle and the lower middle classes were taken care when prices of essentials soared high (some months ago) seems to have helped the party. The fact is that the State Government had included pulses and spices in addition to rice at Re.1 a kg for distribution through the PDS. The sub-tract of the poll outcome story is that of M.K.Azhagiri’s election from Madurai. The impact of this on the dynamics of the DMK’s affairs will unfold in the months ahead.

It is another matter that the DMK lost the South Chennai constituency. It seems that the story of Chennai being the DMK’s citadel is no longer true. This fact and along with the AIADMK’s wins from the Western region as well as in other places (adding up to the 9 seats for the party alone) is a clear enough signal that Jayalalitha may be down but not out. The AIADMK continues to be a force across Tamil Nadu and it’s weakest link seems to be in the Southern districts; a part of the State where the party seemed invincible until some years ago. The party began losing elections from the Southern districts in May 2004 and the trend continues.

The shock, so to say, from Tamil Nadu, is the outcome from Sivaganga. P.Chidambaram did win. But only after two rounds of recounting and with a slender margin of a little over three thousand votes. He had lost from Sivaganga in 1999 to a not-so-well-known Sudarsana Nachiappan then. But then, Chidambaram was all alone then. He contested as the Tamil Maanila Congress candidate. The Congress party, then, had an alliance with the AIADMK and the DMK with the BJP. His defeat then was expected. It is a different story now. Chidambaram just scraped through even while the DMK nominee, M.K.Azhagiri in neighbouring Madurai registered an emphatic victory and the impressive performance of the front that he was a part.

There is also a larger message from the poll results in Tamil Nadu. The political discourse in Tamil Nadu is not going to remain bi-polar. The substantial chunk of votes that actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam has polled across the State is a signal towards the arrival of a third force in the State’s political scene. The DMDK
has the potential to emerge as the pivot of a political front to take on the DMK and the AIADMK when elections to the assembly are held in May 2011.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Visit to Dubai

An invitation to participate in the 8th Arab Media Forum at Dubai was indeed a pleasant surprise; and more so, when I found that Seymour Hersh, whose exposure of the My Lai massacre, was listed as a speaker in the conference. There were also sessions on the Media and the Palestinian Struggle on offer.

Well. The terminal at the Dubai International airport is a huge structure. It would have taken almost an hour to walk up to the entrance. But I did not have to. And once out of the terminal, my car was speeding away at 100 KMPH on the six lane road. The road signs warn you: This road is monitored by radar. And hence, you shall not drive at more than 100 KMPH. That is fine. But the road signs also prescribe a minimum speed: Not less than 60 KMPH.

And Raj, my driver, had his roots in Kerala. He, however, has lived most of his life in the Emirates and was enthusiastic about showing me the landmarks in Dubai. Lest someone gets the impression that Dubai has such landmarks, let me clarify at the outset: One building is bigger than the other and of course there is one that is still waiting for completion. It is already billed to be the tallest building in the world.

Dubai also boasts of the Palm Islands. It is distinct because the whole swathe of land, extending about 70 square kilometers of land, was part of the ocean (the Persian Gulf) was converted into land by men. Nakheel group, one of the world’s largest privately owned real estate developers set out on this project in 2001 to create the Palm Island. And now you have a huge hotel, several thousand flats meant for the up-market sections in Dubai and elsewhere in the world and of course several hundred villas meant for the rich from across the world. I was informed that most of our own stars from popular cinema own villas in Palm Islands.

The point is that there is no scope for any such civil resistance, in Dubai, as the campaign against big dams and elevated roads through the coasts. The political system in the Emirates does not allow demonstrations. Dissent is not permitted anywhere in that region. No wonder that the rich and the upper middle classes in our own land frown at democracy. They are denied of the ``right’’ to buy villas and flats on land that was part of the ocean and then boast of all that. The democratic system in our land also denies the rich the possibility of driving down for miles on end without having to apply the brakes. And that explains why the voting percentages have been low in places such as the Malabar Hill in Mumbai.

It is impossible for anyone to stir out of the hotel to see the place as one could do in any of our own towns. The scorching heat makes it impossible to walk around in the open for long. And in any case, you walk around only to see the villas, the flats and the commercial complexes. It is possible to hire a taxi but then the fares can be prohibitively expensive: Particularly if you have the obsession to convert Dirhams into Indian Rupees. And you stir out of your hotel only for shopping. Dubai is a shopper’s paradise they say. I recalled Rene Descartes postulation: ``I think, therefore, I am.’’

Well. In Dubai, you are not encouraged so much to think. ``I shop, therefore, I am’’ is what defines life in Dubai. Lest it is mistaken, this is not how the lakhs of workers, brought from across the South Asian nations, live when they are in Dubai. They live in small rooms; most often, in double decker beds and are provided access to a common kitchen, a common bath and a common toilet. They are taken to their workplace in Ashok Leyland buses (just that the steering wheel is on the left side of the vehicle) early in the morning and brought back to their living stead later in the evening.

Unlike the others who travel by air-conditioned cars the buses are not air-conditioned. But then, since they go for work before the sun gets scorching and return only after sun-set, they do not suffer the heat while commuting for work! It is another matter that they work in the open yards and suffer the heat without having the will to complain. They know that their options are limited: To put up with all that and live as animals or to return to their home-land and starve to death. They know that their monthly remittance from the Gulf ensures that their kith and kind back home go to sleep with food in their stomach. They also hope that they will also buy a car one day because some of those who lived this way, when they first came to Dubai, have managed to climb up the economic status!

Lest I sound negative, let me clarify that I did find something positive too. Dubai, as is the case with other countries in the region, is a crucible of nationalities from all over the world. There are people here from as many as 147 countries according to an officer from the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing. Well. The chairman of Nakheel, group, that is credited with creating the Palm Islands is a white; Chris O Donnell. And all of Dubai’s newspapers have whites working as Editors. They are all owned by the Arabs. And walk into any commercial building in Dubai and you will find men or women from nations across South Asia.

Shambugan, barely in his twenties is from Trivandrum. Employed in the Atlantis hotel, this young boy cleans up the wash basins in the washrooms there. Like him, one found young boys and girls from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Phillipines, Malaysia and Mauritious doing the same job. They also share a room that their employer provides as living quarter. I do not think that Shambugan would have bothered to clean the bathroom back home. He would have been brought up in a way that he found that to be a demeaning job to do. But life in Dubai makes you do that.

Likewise, there are men and women from all these countries working in all the departments in the hotel. And almost all drivers are from one of the South Asian countries. There is an Indian and that too a Malayali working as a policeman in Abu Dhabi, said someone whom I knew from my hometown and has been living the United Arab Emirates for thirty years now. He used to live alone when he first went there and was 18 years then. Even after his marriage, he was living alone there for several years. He had thought of returning to India after saving a decent sum. And when it occurred to him that it may not happen, he decided to take his wife and two children there and spent the rest of his life in the Emirates.

Well. Dubai is so many things to so many people. It is a concrete jungle. It is a neat and clean place. It is a shopper’s paradise. It is a crucible of cultures from all over the world. It is a hard life if you are a manual worker. It is a hard life if you are unskilled. But then, you earn more money than you would for the same work back home. And as long as you are prepared to live alone, your kith and kin back home can afford a life of an average middle class person. And if you believe in Descartes, you better resist the temptation of all the glitter and the speed and live where you are as you are!

As for me, the conference was a rewarding experience. I should say that Seymour Hersh was an inspiring experience.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The melting down of pre-poll rhetoric

With just the last phase of polling left, the political theatre has already shifted to the air-conditioned halls in New Delhi. And if the flurry of statements by leaders of the various political parties is any indication, it clearly suggests the intensity with which they will play games within hours after the counting of votes begin on May 16, 2009. Let us be assured that our leaders will not fail us in reducing the mandate by the people into a plaything.

Take for instance the exchanges that are now on between the Congress party’s Crown Prince Rahul Gandhi and CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat: Rahul says that the Left will support his party form a government at the Centre. Karat retorts that it will not happen. And even before the debate is taken further, we heard Mamata Banerjee, the Congress party’s ally in West Bengal making it clear that her Trinamul Congress will not tolerate the Left anywhere around. We are yet to hear M.Karunanidhi’s views on this. It is my hunch that the DMK leader will not appreciate Rahul Gandhi’s views particularly after the CPI(M) had taken its fight in Madurai seriously.

And as for Sharad Pawar, another important UPA partner, he has been maintaining that the Left parties are as much a natural ally of the UPA as much they are inevitable. Pawar has even ensured a tie-up with Karat’s party in Orissa along with Naveen Patnaik. Well. Karat has not explained why his party tied up with the NCP despite the CPI(M)’s opposition to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which exactly is among the reasons why the Left-Congress marriage broke.

Lest it be mistaken that the Left parties alone are guilty of being inconsistent. Let us take a peep into the absurdities that were on display from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. We heard Pranab Mukherjee wondering, as to whether Lalu Prasad Yadav will remain a minister in the Union Cabinet after May 16, 2009. Was Mukherjee giving a discreet message? Is it that he is likely to be the UPA’s choice for the Prime Minister’s job in the event Sonia Gandhi gets to decide who should be ``chosen’’ for that job? Well. Sonia may think that way but her son, Rahul has maintained that Manmohan Singh will continue.

Rahul perhaps knows that Mukherjee, being a political animal and a survivor from the time he arrived at New Delhi (as Sanjay Gandhi’s chosen man) sometimes in the mid-Seventies, will not vacate the throne for him. It is possible that Rahul was told about this by his sister, Priyanka. We all know that Priyanka has issued a certificate that her brother is eminently qualified to become Prime Minister. And Priyanka also held, in the same context, that she would like to see her brother married! I do not see any connection between the two but then Priyanka knows more than we do about Rahul Gandhi.

All that we know about Rahul Gandhi is that he is determined to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We also know that Rahul Gandhi has managed to charm a section of the English language journalists in Delhi and hence they have been seeing an ``undercurrent’’ in favour of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. Well. I have noticed the media talking about a Congress revival in the Hindi speaking region ever since 1993. And such talks were found to be baseless once the votes were counted.

This is not to say that Rahul Gandhi will lose. He will win and his mother Sonia Gandhi too will win. But then, a Congress revival is too much to hope for. The party’s candidates have been losing their security deposits in a large chunk of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh. And hence the Congress needs a tsunami like wave in its favour to revive. Undercurrents will not do. And the scene in Bihar is much worse. Even if Sonia and Rahul decide to contest from Bihar, they may lose.

This is why Rahul Gandhi has said that he expects the Left to support his party form the next Government as well. He may have had a brief session with his sister Priyanka one of these days and she must have told him that the Congress is too far away from a revival course. And that it is of no use dreaming of a 272 on its own and hence mend fences with anyone and everyone. And Priyanka’s brother, being what he is, simply came out and rattled that his party was sure of the Left behaving in a responsible manner.

Well. It is not as if the Left will do otherwise. The Left parties have all along behaved with a lot of responsibility and commitment. They have seen the BJP as posing a larger danger than the Congress and this is a well settled issue insofar as the CPI(M) and the CPI are concerned. The RSP and the Forward Bloc do not see things this way but will not chart another course. In other words, the Left will support the Congress-led UPA if that turns out to be the only way by which the BJP can be stopped from forming another coalition Government. But then, Karat and his comrades have difficulty in making that known as it is. They are still engaged in a battle against the Congress and cannot be expected to give a walk-over before May 13, 2009.

And after May 16, 2009, we will find many more leaders speaking of the imperative for the democratic set-up and thus justify their own quest for power. When the game gets going, we will find more serious leaders than a Rahul Gandhi entering the play-field. It is another matter that the game will be played with contempt for the rules and the players then will not even pretend to moral principles. Parties with just a couple of MPs and leaders of such smaller parties will have their own good times and happy hours then!