The “New India” mirage amidst the Deras!!!

It’s just been over 2 weeks since the Prime Minister, from the ramparts of the Red fort, in his Independence Day speech, talked about taking the country forward with a pledge to build a New India. Among other things, he essentially meant that the India of tomorrow must shake itself off from the past, leave aside past prejudices, let go its insecurities and have its priority singularly on development. For a country with demographics by its side, this made ample sense.  The youth of today are more concerned about their aspirations and dreams and less attached to worldly emotional issues which plagued India in the past. Or so it appeared till a couple of days ago.

On the 25th of August, when most of India was celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi with great fervour, by evening, parts of Haryana and Punjab were on boil. By now, it appears that over 36 people have lost their lives. Hundreds have been injured. Public and private property worth millions have been ransacked. Normal life in this part of the country has come to a standstill. Neighbouring and related areas have been on high alert. All this due to mob violence unleashed by supporters of a self-proclaimed Godman by name Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, following his conviction on nothing less but rape charges. And I hear that in preparation for tomorrow’s judgement day, schools and colleges will be shut, Internet services have been suspended and curfew is to be continued throughout the day!

My first brush with Dera Sacha Sauda and its head Gurmeet Singh was in June 2009. It was a Friday and I was getting back home from work late in the evening. As I was nearing Mulund, a north eastern suburb of Mumbai where I live, it resembled a riot hit town. Armed police were in the streets in full strength and I could see groups of Sikhs huddled together engaged in animated conversations. This was a first for me in Mulund, usually a peaceful suburb where a mix of people including Gujaratis, South Indians, Maharashtrians, Christians, Sindhis and Sikhs live in harmony. As I waded through the tense streets and reached home, I came to know of the genesis of that situation. That evening Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh had visited Mulund and was seen shopping in the Nirmal Lifestyle Mall. The choice of Mulund was not by chance, as I could sense later. Mulund had a decent Sikh population who settled after partition in Govt. established settlements. So were Sindhis. A group of Sikhs who spotted him there immediately gathered a few of their brethren and started shouting slogans against Gurmeet Singh. Singh has been a target of Sikh ire back home in Punjab after he dressed up as Guru Govind Singh, the last Sikh Guru to which the orthodox Sikhs took strong exception. When crowd started swelling up and they attempted to block the way of the Gurmeet Singh, his body guards opened fire in which one Sikh businessman got badly injured. He succumbed to the injuries in the hospital soon. As this news spread, mobs spilled into the streets demanding action against Gurmeet Singh.

The next day – Saturday saw a more organized protest with more and more Sikhs, brandishing swords and lathis, blocking trains, buses and other vehicles demanding action against Singh and his body guards. Gurmeet Singh’s cavalcade was intercepted in Navi Mumbai and his body guards were taken to custody. It took a few days for the situation in Mulund to return to normal.  Here was a man whose body guards could just open fire and kill people at free will that too, in an alien city in broad day light for showing dissent. Ironically, all the 14 accused (basically body guards of Gurmeet Singh accused for firing at a mob and killing one person) were acquitted by the court in 2011 for lack of evidence!!! This was when my antenna went up first, about this self-styled Godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, as one who ticked all the boxes for an emerging power centre who could bend things at his will.  He, by then had won over even the orthodox Sikhs as well and of course political parties.

Coming back to the events of the past 2 days, all the arson, violence and the mindless protests by thousands of people were actually against the law taking its course.  And that too for a crime as heinous as rape of young girls (not one or two but many) within the premises of the Dera.  The fact that many news reports of the shady happenings inside the Dera for so many years didn’t stop the public from continuing to follow and support this so called Baba is startling in itself! What is of course not is, political parties rubbing shoulders with these Godmen from time to time. Any individual who appear to have some influence on few thousands of people, become a natural ally of choice for political parties. In this, no party has been an exception.

In India, this story of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is not alone. We have had similar exploitative tales of Sant Rampal in the north, Swami Nithyananda in the south, Asaram Bapu in the west and so on. What explains this mindless following by people of these so called Godmen, even after seeing them exposed in the past?  While at the outset one could come up with different reasons like faith, belief, upbringing and so on, I guess in the core of this, is “Insecurity”. Insecurity among people of all hue – literate/illiterate, Rich/Poor, Urban/Rural, Upper Class/Lower class, Young/Old, and Men/Women.  Insecurity about their future. Insecurity about their position. Insecurity about their existence. It is this insecurity that these conniving Godmen tap into, quite successfully over a period of time.  So, at the centre of the rise of a Baba lies the insecurities of We, the people!

Till such time, we don’t shrug of these insecurities which, I feel is tied to India emerging as an undisputed developed nation and continuing to stay so for a few decades, enough to cleanse the minds of a couple of generations, New India will remain a mirage where Deras will continue to hold sway. Just as one did a few days ago.

Pic credit: Bollywoodlife.com

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Lal Krishna Narayana Murthy!

On the 18th of August, just as trading in the bourses started in India, Vishal Sikka, CEO and MD of Infosys decided to extend his working day sitting in San Francisco till late hours to announce his resignation. Within minutes, his farewell note to his staff found its way to the media and a more detailed and emotional post was up on his personal blog. The “Moving On” post happens to be his first post in 15 months!!! The Infy scrip which was faring well the last few days in anticipation of the “buy back” announcement on the 19th, took a battering and ended up 10% down by end of the day. And during the course of the day, Infy Board stood behind Sikka and sort of blamed N.R.Narayanamurthy (NRN), for his dogged, open insinuations in the last few months which it claimed eventually led to Sikka’s exit. In the end, the self-proclaimed Kshatriya warrior capitulated as conspiracy theorists would add in good measure “to Brahminical dogma”!!!

Following this, water cooler conversations in offices and WhatsApp discussions were around this story as if the whole of India is invested on Infosys. But then, why not? For long, Infy was the bellwether for the Indian IT Industry. For Indians, It was a proud success story in post liberalization India.  In the success of Infy, there were many sub texts. The arrival of India in the global scene as a software power. The rise of Bangalore as another Silicon Valley. The ascent of the Indian Middle Class. The revenge of the Brahmins post the “Mandalisation” of India and so on. Some of these sub texts – real and some just façade as time would tell later!

Those were heady days for the Indian Software Industry and Infy was its leading beacon. There was not a single day in my memory when there was no positive news about Infy in the pink papers. Infy led the way and other IT companies followed. Visit of world leaders to India were not complete without a Tee off at the Infy golf course in Bangalore. Same for head honchos of global corporations.  A visit to the impressive campus in Bangalore was part of the itinerary for the chairman of Brother Industries, Japan – my previous company on his maiden visit to India. I heard later that his positive impressions in that visit hastened Brother’s investment plans in India. As Infy basked in that glory, NRN was inseparable. Slowly and steadily, beyond his business and his association with Infy, he became the conscientious voice for the country.  So much so, when UPA was searching for a successor for Abdul Kalam as President of India, an opinion poll threw up NRN as a strong candidate.

Though Infy was a story of 6 middle class entrepreneurs, the story of NRN was most visible. As the senior most founder he ensured his imprint was ubiquitous in Infy. When he sacked the other Murthy (Phaneesh) – till then the highest paid employee in Infy and head of Global sales on grounds of sexual harassment of a female colleague, NRN’s personal stock went up. “The day flying Business class reaches me to my destination 5 minutes earlier, I will shift from Economy to Business!” – This was NRN’s response to the question on why he continued to fly Economy on business trips at the top of his career at Infy.  NRN’s decree that the founders will not hang in and will hang up their boots at 70 was seen as a revelation in India Inc, where founders seldom retire. And when he soon walked the talk by stepping down as CEO for Nandan Nilekeni, it was seen as one of a kind of move. Till this point NRN had not made one wrong move. But after yesterday’s story, most of the ire got directed on NRN.

I was skeptical to the extent of being cynical when NRN chose to return to Infy briefly that too with his son in tow. Later, after anointing Sikka as the CEO and MD after an extensive search, when NRN stepped down from Infy for the second time, one expected that he would walk into the sunset quietly. The events in the last few months where NRN almost behaved like an activist shareholder frequently venting his ire on the affairs of Infy through the media shows that he too is a mere mortal. To be fair, I am certain that NRN would have tried to represent the concerns of employees and shareholders over corporate governance at Infy privately to the board before going public. That he chose to resort to the media means that there is more to this than meets the eye.

Cut to Goa, June 2013. The BJP National Executive was meeting in what was not another routine Executive meet. In the meet, it was clear that the path will be cleared for the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, to become BJP’s PM candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Lal Krishna Advani, BJP’s tallest leader and architect of its growth till then, chose to skip the meeting.  He then subsequently sent in his resignation letter when Modi was chosen to lead the party’s campaign. Ironically it was the same Advani who played a stellar role in shielding Modi on his role in handling post Godhra riots in the very same Goa in 2002! Even after the spectacular victory of BJP in the 2014 polls, Advani did not have one word of wholesome praise for the chief architect of the win namely Modi but chose to credit “All party kaaryakarthas”!!! And in many public appearances along with Modi in the last 3 years, he hasn’t displayed too much benevolence in accepting Modi as “the” new leader for the BJP.  When the history of BJP is written, Advani will certainly occupy a significant space unless otherwise he chooses to become a footnote with his continued petulance.

That brings us to the point of the “Art of letting it go”!

Whether it is NRN, Advani, Mulayam or Ratan Tata it demonstrates the fact that stepping down, giving it up and walking away into oblivion doesn’t come so easy for humans.  But for forced reasons like health or regulations, can and do leaders walk into the sunset gracefully and remain there? Pranab Mukherjee, the recently retired President of India when asked what kind of legacy he would like to leave he said, “Don’t want to leave a legacy.  Will melt into the mass”!! Hope Lal Krishna Narayana Murthys of the world heard that.

The “Art of letting it go” is certainly fading and it’s time we make it a “Science”.

 

 

 

Mera Swachh Bharat Mahan!!!

It’s now 4 years since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi espoused the dream of a Swachh Bharat during his 1st Independence Day speech. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” said the PM as he launched the Swachh Bharat Mission.  On 2nd October the same year, the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched throughout length and breadth of the country as a national movement. After the initial dust and noise and just when we as common citizen almost forgot about the mission, it was back in news recently. All for the wrong reasons.

This time over a set of hoardings which were put by the Railways ministry in Delhi Railway station to educate people about the need to pick up trash and use dustbins.  Meant to promote the Swachh Bharat drive, the hoardings showcased apes evolving into cleanliness conscious humans leading up to Dalit icon Dr. Ambedkar using a garbage bin.  Enough for the most productive factory in the country today namely the ‘Outrage factory” to go over drive on social media to insinuate Railways and the Government of lampooning Ambedkar! To be fair, the campaign also used other icons like Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi and even the latest craze in town – Baahubali in the same context.  The hoardings have been pulled down since then. A classic example of how in India we routinely miss the woods for the trees and chase wrong priorities. Instead of an outpouring against this, probably an assessment of how the programme is working and coming up with ideas to make it work could have done Ambedkar proud and the PM happy.

On the eve of the Prime Minister’s next I-Day Speech for which he is crowdsourcing thoughts, I would like to look at how the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has fared so far.  First up, there have been many positives since the campaign kicked off:

  • The overall sanitation coverage in the country as per reports has increased.
  • Few states have become “Open Defecation Free” – a clear target the Prime Minster outlined of making the entire country “Open Defecation Free” by 2019.
  • Toilets are being constructed in towns, villages and even in cities. Even in Navi Mumbai I have seen a few E – toilets which have sprung up along the highways since the campaign started.
  • Dustbins have been placed in many places though they may not be sufficient.
  • I hear that in Varanasi the Ghats have been cleaned and they are spic and span now thanks to the efforts of an individual – Temsutula. Similarly in Mumbai, different Citizen’s Movements have taken up cleaning of the Versova Beach and now other beaches. I understand that the Centre has picked the Versova Volunteer model for cleaning up many beaches across the country.
  • We frequently see from the Railway minister’s twitter handle pictures of many “Super Clean” Railway stations from across the country.

So far so good. But just as I suspected, while the Prime Minister’s initiative made cleanliness part of our country’s discourse, it has not been into our conscience.  In Mumbai, the notorious paan spitting out in the open has not stopped nor it hasn’t come down even. In my own office building, which got a new coat of exterior paint few months ago, one cannot miss the red splash of paan juice in the corners of stair cases when you decide to take the stairs down. Or for that matter, endless cigarette butts right under the “No Smoking” sign.  Banana peels are back near the roadside corner shops. Sights of garbage overflowing onto the street from the common garbage bins and the overbearing stench of the same are regular now.  Empty packs of Frooti, Lays chips and the like lay strewn all over the place where people gather for leisure and this is from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

If Swachh Bharat movement is about cleaning and cleaning alone, I would admit that it is probably beginning to work.  But if you look at the movement as a mission to “Reduce” cleaning in the first place then it is tottering.

If one looks at Japan, (a country, you could say, that suffers from a neurotic disorder of maintaining cleanliness) for pointers, it is interesting. Strange as it may sound – they have fewer dustbins in public places. The underlying thought being – “Why litter in the 1st place?” Of course where they have bins, it will be a dozen of bins in rainbow colours to separate different types! More importantly, the need to clean your surroundings is ingrained as part of school education. I’m told that in Japanese schools there are no Janitors. Instead school children are taught and encouraged to do cleaning themselves. Thereby an important lesson is indoctrinated which is “If you don’t want to clean, don’t litter!!!” Tidiness in Japan is not a result of billions of Yen spent on cleaners, dust bins or Clean Japan campaigns. It’s due to people following one fundamental principle – “Don’t throw garbage in the open”!

Japanese children cleaning in schools

Back to our country, it is clear that any amount of Swachh Bharat Gyan cannot make the present and older generations to make an attempt to stop littering in the open. Our hope only is with the next generations. May be we need to follow the Japanese model of moulding our children early by making them clean their surroundings at home and school daily. So that they understand the premise that if they don’t litter they don’t have to clean. In my earlier posts on this (read here), I had mentioned that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning but to cease the need for cleaning.  Well, in order for the Swachh Bharat Dream to come true, let the next generation actually do some cleaning. Time for a new slogan – “Mera Swachh Bharat Mahan”!!!