Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Modi@3: Patience

This month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the third anniversary of his historic election victory, becoming the first PM in 30 years to enjoy an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Now more than half-way into his term, a lot of supporters and critics are asking questions about what his government has achieved, and what another term for him would mean. A common theme seems to be the tension between the economic right and the social right, both of which are represented in the BJP but rarely see eye to eye (the former used to be with the Congress until Sonia Gandhi all but decimated that wing). The argument seems to be that post-demonetization and upping the ante on cow slaughter, Modi has abandoned the economic right and is pushing through with a social agenda personified by UP CM Yogi Adityanath.

There are several problems with this argument. For, the Modi government has undertaken several economic reforms, including the two top ones: GST and the IBC. These are major economic achievements, and were only possible after Modi's government stabilized the economy from the train wreck that it was when Manmohan Singh left office. Indeed, by wrapping up the Planning Commission and the systems of Five Year Plans, as well as the FIPB more recently, the intent is decidedly on the right. The grouse then appears to be that of speed - the argument being that not enough reforms have been undertaken. This is understandable from an economic perspective, but electorally, it is difficult (but not impossible). Winning a Lok Sabha majority is not enough, you need to shift the ecosystem of the country towards the right, and that is a slow process prone to failure at every step. The fact is, despite the massive mandate of 2014, there is no economic consensus in India, and people want quick results by any which way, which inherently limits the speed of economic reforms. That said, the glass is certainly more than half full.

What the economic right does not seem to appreciate is that they are in a coalition with the social right, and the latter have a much bigger grouse. On issue after issue over the past two decades, the economic right has won - from de-licensing to liberalization to ties with Israel, the economic right has prevailed. They may have not gotten everything that they'd have liked, such as labor reforms or enhanced privatization, but they have achieved a lot from the days of Indira Gandhi. It is the social right that has continuously been at the receiving end since the loss of territory during Partition. What has the social right gotten? The RTE act, balkanization of Hindu society, minority appeasement to the extent of Hindus having to hide their traditions, vicious attacks on Hindu beliefs, state-control and plunder of Hindu temples, legislatively-imposed personal laws... the list is endless. The Nehruvian-state is fundamentally anti-Hindu and depends on appeasing Muslims to sustain itself, despite Partition's promise of ending that. This is the grouse that the social right holds, and they are far more mad that a right-wing government has done next to nothing on any of these issues. Three years since that historic mandate, they have gotten more tokenism than anything else, while a Mamata Banerje splurges on madrassas in Bengal.

Therefore, three years after Modi's election, the economic right should be thankful that they have actually gotten the majority of the reforms. They should also remember that, on their own, they cannot win an election - the coalition of the economic and social right wings alone can deliver a government. And in a coalition, one side reaping all the rewards is not sustainable. Right now, the cultural right has a genuine grouse, and their glass has been emptying since 1947. The economic right needs to be patient and understanding, instead of throwing fits and making threats (as if Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi would do them any good!). 

A shameful bargain

President Donald Trump returned for Memorial Day from a nine-day, three-nation tour that saw him being played by the Saudi dictatorship like never before. Outside of all the pomp and gallantry, Trump has all but handed over America's Middle East policy to the Saudis, both in policy terms through a wholesale adoption of the Saudi posture towards Iran, as well as in military terms through a $110 bn sale to the absolute monarchy that is responsible for much of the world's Wahabbi terrorism. Ironically, the sale was facilitated by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner without a squeak from the Senate, which should have a say on such a large sale to a country that is currently at war.

Trump's complete and total servitude to the Saudis was on clear display, and gives an excellent template for other countries to sucker him - impress him, lavish him, and he'll sing like a canary. No wonder then that, after such a 'successful' trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump has caused a major diplomatic row through his tweets on Germany, which was not all to kind to him during the NATO summit (smaller countries are obviously too scared to even take him on, although on paper they disagree with him on several things). But perhaps the most memorably asinine part of the Saudi Arabian tour was Trump, and later his SecState Rex-T, condemning Iran's elections and calling for reforms, while sitting in a country that is an absolute monarchy where women are second-class citizens, by law. The irony is simply too much to miss.

I supported Trump during the campaign, so why am I whining now? Two reasons. Trump has already performed his most important function - defeating Hillary Clinton, for which we must all be thankful. Indeed, the spectacle in Saudi Arabia would've actually been along expected lines under a President Clinton. But more importantly, Trump was supposed to speak from his heart, and say uncomfortable facts - such as the fact that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, or that Saudi-funded imams have been radicalizing Muslims across the world, or that Saudi money has buttressed extremist groups, or that Saudi Arabia is causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Instead, we got a Trump who inaugurated an incongruent anti-extremist center in Riyadh - which is only less ironic that calling for free elections in Iran from Saudi Arabia.

Trump has been suckered. So was Obama, but he eventually saw through the Saudi (and Pakistani) double-game. How long will #45 take? 

Courtroom Drama as it should be

DENIAL (2016)

Produced By: Participant Media, BBC Films, and others
Director: Mick Jackson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, and others
Pros: Great story, excellent acting, crisp plot
Cons: None
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

When it comes to courtroom dramas, there's not much to select from. Aside from A Few Good Men and 12 Angry Men, I can't think of any that's managed to hold my interest. And that's why I was so pleased with Denial - a movie that was both courtroom drama as well as a Nazi-themed film, both of which I enjoy. The movie definitely joins the league of my favorite movies.

The biggest strength of the movie, as with any good movie, is its story, which is based on a book (and apparently real events - I paused for sometime to read Wikipedia!). There are facts (including filming in Auschwitz), and there are courtroom procedures, and the director does a splendid job of keeping the two in check to avoid making the movie too academic. On top of that, the actors, especially Rachel Weisz, pull off a brilliant performance that really holds the audience's interest. The plot was fast-paced but not confusing, and there was no information overload that could shake the audience off.

Overall, an excellent movie that I highly recommend. (OTFS)

A let-down

Spartacus: The Gladiator
By Ben Kane

It couldn't have lasted - years of reading great works on historical fiction had to eventually give way to a bad book. It is inevitable, it is the main lesson you learn from a PhD. And it happened. Ben Kane, an author that I recently became a fan of after his two books on Hannibal (I'm yet to find the third), disappointed me with the first of his books on the Third Servile War, or the Spartacus War. It's not that the book is historically inaccurate, but that there isn't that much historical record to go by, due to which Kane added a lot of his own imagination. That's fine - this is not supposed to be a textbook - but the additions were downright boring. And that's something I rarely say about a writer.

The book was boring. I skipped a lot of parts with a yawn and it didn't really make that much of a difference. Plots were stretched thin, unnecessary conversations were abound, new characters were introduced for seemingly no reason. Kane's description of the mechanics of war were quite good as always, but those parts were few and far in between. This is a huge disappointment, and I might just take a break from him for sometime. 

A Huge Mistake

President Donald Trump, in less than six months in office, seems to have made a huge mistake that may end his presidency. By abruptly firing FBI director James Comey, Trump has alienated Republicans, who rightly believe that Comey played a decisive role in stopping Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency, and also Democrats, something that Trump clearly did not bargain for. What was he thinking? Was he trying to cross the aisle to please the Democrats? If that's the case, then his lack of political experience has shown bright as the sun. The Democrats and their Establishment hate Trump, because he defeated their biggest insider, Hillary Clinton. Nothing Trump does can change that, but will only backfire on him because he does not really enjoy the support of the Republican establishment either.

Moreover, as it has turned out, Trump may be in trouble for obstruction of justice, which may get him impeached. Of course, as unpopular as he might be, both parties will think twice before impeaching him - Republicans for fear of a massive backlash from Trump's base, and Democrats for fear of having to deal with a real politician, Vice President Mike Pence. However, obstruction of justice is a real crime that got Nixon nearly impeached (he resigned first), and could get Trump into a soup that he may never recover from.

For now, this huge mistake has led to the Justice Department assigning a special prosecutor that Trump will (most likely) not be able to influence, but which may take all of Trump's current term to finish its investigation. This is a stop-gap move though, and Trump must be careful in the future. He is already very short on political capital, and is only a few mistakes away from becoming untenable. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Complete Double Standards

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the contentious issue of Triple Talaq of Muslim women, a practice that every Islamic country has banned, but which remains on the books in India through the convoluted system of religious personal laws. Going by some of the observations of the court that reporters are pointing out, it seems that the Court is determined to know whether the disgusting practice is really a core component of Islam or whether it can be struck down. This smacks of double standards.

That the Indian Republic has a distinctly anti-Hindu bias is no surprise - a simple reading of the RTI Act, sections of the Constitution that provide extra protection to religious minorities, the ownership of religious places of worship, and much more, all point out to the fact that, while declaring India a secular country, the founding fathers certainly seemed to believe in the Two-Nation Theory. The farce of a hearing in the Court simply reinforces that, for when it comes to Hindu cultural and religious practices, the Court seems to have no trouble in ending thousands of years of tradition. The chaos that reigned in Tamil Nadu after Jallikattu was banned by the Court is just a case in point, and it eventually led to the legislature having to step in to reverse the damage, for which the Court never seemed even mildly apologetic.

In the Triple Talaq case, the fact that the system leaves women to the arbitrary whims of their husbands, the fact that the future of children can be wrecked at the drop of a hat, or the simple fact that it is dehumanizing and causes particular angst to Muslim women, all seems to have been missed by the Court, which only wants to know whether the practice is sanctioned by Islam. So what if it is (it isn't, by the way)? Beheadings, lashings, cutting off hands and much more are also sanctioned by Islam (and practiced is the most Islamic country of all, Saudi Arabia). Does that mean they're OK? Where does the Court draw the line? And if religious traditions are really so important, what stops the Court from allowing the Ram Temple to be constructed at Ayodhya? If Triple Talaq is to crucial for Islam, then the birthplace of Ram is equally crucial to Hinduism, whereas Ayodhya does not even appear in Islamic scripture.

Let me call a spade a spade - the Court is as anti-Hindu as the rest of the Nehruvian government system. And because of the colelgium system, it is not going to be fixed by merely an election. When it comes to Hindu traditions, the Court is willing to run roughshod over all voices to impose its social view. But when it comes to minorities, specifically Muslims, it needs to be extra generous. If this is not Two-Nation Theory, what is? Separate electorates ("only Muslims can represent Muslims"), separate laws, separate courts - what was the need for Pakistan when India could've just continued to be a Mughal Empire?

I think that the Court is going to do nothing about Triple Talaq. The way it simply brushed off the related issues of polygamy and Nikah Halala points to that. In the case on Sec. 377 too, the court simply shrugged off its constitutional role in protecting fundamental rights, choosing to throw the ball at the legislature instead (but on Hindu traditions, it would never dream of waiting for elected representatives unless it is to clear the mess that the Court itself created). The court will simply say some wise words and leave it to the legislature. Welcome to the anti-Hindu Republic of India. 

A 21st Century Colony

Pakistani newspaper Dawn revealed details of a supposed long-term plan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of China's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that the Pakistani leadership has been selling to the world as the panacea to all ills of the country. As many commentators have rightly pointed out, far from some sort of benevolent Marshall Plan, the long-term CPEC plan is a textbook outline for the Chinese colonization of Pakistan, possibly making it the first colony of the 21st Century.

Consider this: the primary aim of CPEC is agriculture, to create raw materials that will then be shipped to manufacturing units in Xinjiang, which will then presumably shipped back to Pakistan and beyond. Sounds exactly like the East India Company. But that's not all - Chinese nationals are to have visa-free travel (obviously, it won't be reciprocal), a vast surveillance grid is to be established in all cities so that the Chinese can have a say in law and order, and Pakistani state television will have to broadcast Chinese 'culture'. And to add insult to injury, Pakistan is already raising exclusive military units to protect CPEC assets! Furthermore, none of this will be through aid, it will largely be through soft loans that Pakistan will have to pay back, or else. The less said about environmental clearances the better.

It is not the case that all foreign investment is colonization. Countries can work with each other to build infrastructure and assets - almost every emerging market does it. But the key is reciprocity and fairness - for all the concessions that Pakistan is making, it seems the Chinese have virtually nothing to lose except the risk of having to directly administer their new colony should it become unstable. And that risk is quite worth it given that CPEC gives China a direct land route to the Indian Ocean, thus bypassing the American armada in the Pacific. Pakistan, of course, hopes that CPEC will create infrastructure and hence, economic growth, but economic growth is not possible if the country is to be reduced to a supplier of raw materials - which is what CPEC seems to be primarily geared toward.

The worst, of course, has to be the fact that the Chinese have demanded a role in Pakistan's internal law and order mechanism through surveillance, and a dissemination of Chinese culture to a land that is completely alien to it, whatever the elite might think. These smack of British colonialism. Of course, for a country that seems to values Partition more than independence from the British Empire, making old mistakes should not be a surprise. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Humans of Manchester-By-The-Sea


Produced By: Amazon Studios, K Period Media, and others
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, CJ Wilson, Lucas Hedges, and others
Pros: Strong story, excellent acting, good music
Cons: Too long
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

The Academy Awards just don't gel with me - I've never heard of most of the nominations and I usually end up hating whatever movie wins anything at all, especially the big Best Motion Picture award. So when I heard Manchester By The Sea had won two of them, I had to think hard and deep about watching it, despite liking the trailers. I'm glad I did watch it in the end, though, because is is a well-made indie movie that you can't expect from mainstream movies.

The movie is very strong on two fundamentals - there is a strong story, and the director tries very hard to stick to the story without going off on a tangent (which he does a few times, unfortunately); and the acting is very good, with Casey Affleck delivering the performance of a lifetime and truly earning his Oscar, and Lucas Hedges also doing a pretty good job. This is no mean feat, for most movies made today lack on either or both of these (cough... Zoolander 2...), and just that much is really enough for me to like a movie. It is a very depressing film though, so don't go in hoping for an underdog story. Added to that are some very soulful renditions that dot the movie, which really helped me stay engaged.

And staying engaged was really a challenge, because at over 2 hours, it is a long movie, and a lot of the parts were unnecessary and tangential. I can think of at least two distinct sub-plots that could've been disposed of. It's very easy to stop concentrating on the film and come back after a few minutes, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference either. Still, on the whole, each of the sub-plots, even those I found unnecessary, added up to a beautiful movie. Watch it, certainly, and take your young adults with you too.  (OTFS)