Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 1

What has been touted as the semi-finals before the Grand finals in May 2019 just got over in India and the results from the 5 state elections are finally out. Though there have been surprises, more than the eventual result, the extent of the win or the loss from whichever side you look at it, has been more surprising. While in 3 states the margin of victory to the victor has been phenomenal, in the other 2 states, it’s been quite small. There has been many analyses and take aways of the verdict from pundits in the last few days but, to me, there is an important one. Which is, never before in recent times you have such confusing signals emanating from the voter from the heartland states. Before I go on to elaborate my hypothesis, honest disclosure. I am not from these states. I had not travelled to theses states in the run up to the elections. I have not had “elections on my plate” to gauge the mood of the voter. So my take aways are nothing more than armchair punditry based on what I gather.  So please keep a container of salt ready by your side as you read this.

This week, let me dwell on Rajasthan which according to me is quite interesting.

  • From BJP’s point of view, though they would like to spin the defeat in Rajasthan as extremely close and well fought out contest, in reality it has been a huge defeat. One cannot and should not gauge the extent of defeat based on opinion poll predictions or exit poll results and conclude that the fight was closer than expected. In reality, there has been a swing of 6.2% away from BJP resulting in a loss of 90 seats in an assembly of 200 compared to the last elections in 2013! This is not a narrow loss.
  • As per most of the commentariat, there have been very few plausible reasons to explain such a big defeat for the BJP.
    • First up, one of the reasons attributed was the outgoing Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s arrogance/attitude! Really? Raje is not new to the voters of Rajasthan. Before this term, she served the state as a Chief Minister for 5 years from 2003-08. She has been a MP and MLA from Rajasthan many times. She came to power in 2008 with a massive mandate defeating the Congress! So did people come to realise about her arrogant attitude only now? Or is it that she started behaving arrogantly only in the last few years?
    • The second reason attributed is – Rajasthan voters have the habit of throwing out the incumbent government and opt for a change if one goes by the trend in the last 20 years! Hence it is said that BJP giving way to Congress was on expected lines. Does it mean that people don’t care about governance and just throw out the incumbent government for the heck of it?
    • Coming to governance, Raje in the last 5 years, presided over the most reformist government among most of the states in India. Soon after she took over, Raje did the unthinkable in India of initiating labour reforms – a long-standing request from entrepreneurs and India Inc. What should have helped in attracting investments and aid economic growth, apparently has not worked, it looks like.
    • If I am not mistaken, under the support and supervision of economist Bibek Debroy, Rajasthan Government passed a bill to repeal whole lot of archaic state laws to make governance simpler.
    • In the context of UP, we are often told that people are no longer interested in Mandir politics but in development. But in Rajasthan we are told that people were unhappy with the Raje government when it decided to re-locate a few Hindu temples to give way for Metro in Jaipur!
    • Agrarian Distress – is the other reason attributed for BJP’s loss in Rajasthan. In most of states today including Rajasthan, agrarian crisis is not arising out of shortages (supply side) but due to a problem of plenty. In the sense, farmers do not get the right prices for their produce due to the excess supply. Hence the demand for higher MSPs. I don’t think higher MSPs will solve the problem in the long run, as it will shortly fuel very high food inflation which is again a bigger monster to handle, for the Government. The solution lies in raising farm income without raising MSPs beyond a point. For that, the issue to fix is the demand side bottle necks.  As I understand, some of the reforms undertaken by the Raje Government like creation of one agriculture market,… were supposed to take care of rationalising the licensing of mandis,… Have they not worked??? May be more ground needs to be covered here.
    • As you can see from the above points, Good Economics has not yielded Good political returns.
    • At the same time, it appears that the Raje Government’s waiver of farm loans of up to Rs. 50000 hasn’t worked either! So Good Populism has not yielded results also!

If you are an election strategist for the BJP, you many tend to conclude that these reforms or populism are of no use to win elections may decide to have a strategy to just pander to emotive issues. In Rajasthan have the emotive issues worked?

  • While the Raje Government started off well with the above focussed development agenda, I do believe that it lost its away trying to pander to extreme elements within the BJP. The government was practically silent during the entire Padmaavat episode when lumpen elements were running amuck.
  • In Alwar, there were violence due to cow vigilantism which the government was guilty of promoting. However cow vigilantism failed to come to the rescue of BJP in this region, where the party lost 16 of the 18 assembly seats!
  • So raising the pitch on emotive issues hasn’t worked either.

In the final count, the difference in vote share of just 0.5% may also indicate that while there has been a 6.2% erosion of vote share for the BJP, the anti-incumbency has not been strong enough to significantly dent the voter base of BJP. Hence, one will extrapolate the state election results and predict that BJP will face a rout in 2019 Lok Sabha elections at his own peril.

But in this state elections, what have the voters voted for or against? Was it

A positive vote for the Congress? Or

A Negative vote against the BJP? Or

Negative against the BJP at the Centre or State? Or

Neither a positive vote for the Congress nor a negative vote against the BJP?

Hence, my hypothesis that the voters while booting out BJP have also sent confusing signals as to why they have done so!

Post Script: When you know that he has been a CM twice over before and failed to win a second term in Rajasthan why would you again make Ashok Gehlot the CM for the 3rd time? This was a great opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to put his stamp and I guess, he let it go!

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T.M.Krishna – A Musician then, an Activist now!

So, T.M.Krishna (TMK) did manage to sing in Delhi yesterday, at the original appointed date though under a different aegis. Originally TMK’s concert was to be under the aegis of SPIC-MACAY and supported by Airports Authority of India (AAI). Quoting some bizarre reasons, AAI pulled out of the event and SPIC-MACAY had to cancel/re-schedule the show. It was clear that the reasons for the cancellation were not straight forward as they were professed. It was more to do with people from the Right wing trolling TMK for his views against the Central Government, his open rebellion against the Carnatic establishment, his open declaration to sing songs of other religions on Carnatic concerts and in general for going against the tide on many issues related to music and everything else.

As an ardent follower of Carnatic music, I have been following TMK for many years now. He is a talented singer and among the younger generation of singers, he is right at the top. I live in Mumbai and I usually don’t miss his concerts as long as they are in the weekends! While on stage, you can see through his passion and involvement in his music. Usually he is so consumed by his music, I wonder if he really sings for the audience or himself! His style of singing is very different. In Tamil, we say ‘Konjam izhu izhunnu izhuthu paadarathu’ (Stretch and stretch while singing) He doesn’t usually sing the very popular Kritis which people generally are familiar. He picks up not so familiar and tough Kritis and delves into them. And in the past few years, one can notice that he doesn’t stick to the established format of a Carnatic Kacheri. One can cite many examples but his rendition of the Kriti ‘Hiranmayim,…’ in Raga Lalitha or the more popular Krishna Nee Begane,… in Yaman Kalyani are samples of his talent and brilliance. In the current crop of singers, in my books he is right up there.  Watching him, his expressions and his way of communicating with his co-artists on stage itself is an enjoyable experience.

 Being a genius that he is, naturally he has got a big following among Carnatic music lovers. But, I see that something has changed. And this is not all of a sudden. As per me, it is since 2013 when his book on Carnatic music titled “A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story” got published. Till then, TMK was a gifted Carnatic musician but with the release of the book he also became an author and a controversial one at that. (Confession – I haven’t read the book yet and it is on my bucket list).  In the book, TMK kicked up quite a bit of storm questioning established thoughts and ideas on Carnatic music not leaving even the spelling and saying it is not Carnatic but “Karnatik”!!! In the run up to the release of the book and after, TMK started ruffling quite a few feathers!  And since then, I have been noticing that among the Carnatic followers, he has become a bit of enigma! An individual who is extremely talented in singing but who is a rebel and an eccentric!

True to his now established image of a rebel, TMK stopped singing in main line Sabhas during the very popular December “Season” in Chennai. He started a parallel forum called “Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival” to take the Kacheri to slums of Chennai. TMK even kicked off “Kacheri on the move” in a moving bus in Chennai during the season – all in an attempt to take Carnatic music out of the Sabhas to the streets! Such initiatives soon earned him the Ramon Magsaysay Award early in his life in 2017 and as the citation claimed in recognition of “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”!  And also a bunch of critics! Still, he went about his mission of breaking the class divide that exists in Carnatic music by collaborating with transgender community on stage in his Kacheris, setting Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s lines to Carnatic music and singing them in his concerts and so on!

In the meantime, I observed that TMK also started articulating his thoughts on matters outside the music domain as well. He started taking up issues related to environment strongly. His ‘Porambokku paadal’ music video was an initiative to use music to highlight the environmental damage done by the Ennore Power plant. Soon, we started seeing him being part of many other issues like taking on Hindustan Unilever against dumping toxic Mercury in Kodaikanal,… He is now a regular columnist and the topics are not restricted just to music. He is a strident critic of the present Modi Government and anything to do with Right wing!

Now in my known Carnatic fans circle, I see a sea change in their outlook and attitude towards TMK and his music. He is no longer the genius he was a few years ago in their eyes when he just limited himself to Carnatic music. He is today labelled a leftist, Naxal supporter and a publicity seeker! He is today accused of raking up issues which is not his domain just to stay in limelight!

I am not hence surprised that TMK is subject to constant trolling on Social media.  Even his erstwhile fans are calling to boycott his concerts as he is a “gone case” as per them! This is where I have a big problem. As I mentioned before, I am an unapologetic admirer of his craft. I am in agreement with some of his thoughts and ideas. I don’t agree with him on many counts. His take on M.S.Subbulakshmi for example, I thought was a lot of conjecturing. Yet, I have no problem in listening to his music. When I listen to his music, I don’t think of his views on Indian politics or Narendra Modi!

There could be a happy ending here! By constantly trolling him, the right wingers and others are in the verge of achieving something that the Carnatic aficionados haven’t been able to, all these years – That of taking Carnatic music beyond the ears of just South Indians! I heard that TMK had a full house in Delhi yesterday at the concert with people even standing for full two hours to listen to his music! And If I go by the tweets with #TMKrishna, I can make out that many probably went to a Carnatic concert for the 1st time in Delhi yesterday and came out intrigued by the form of music!

Today, Thodur Madabusi Krishna might have turned an activist. But he is a musician first. And an extraordinary one at that. So, my appeal to fellow Carnatic followers is, if you don’t like his views, ignore them! But, leave him alone. But, it doesn’t make any sense to call for a ban on his singing! Lest, Music’s loss could become some political party’s gain!

Image courtesy: India Today

Kaala, Sarkar and being “Social media Ready”!

What is common between Kaala and Sarkar – both Tamil films released in the past few months? Many. But, beyond the obvious like both films featuring mass heroes with political ambitions, storyline with a political thread etc, etc. there is an important commonality. Both Kaala and Sarkar show Social media playing an important role in the scheme of things of the respective protagonist to take on his adversaries. In Kaala, when pushed to a corner by a scheming politician over usurping common man’s land in the name of slum rehabilitation, the hero (Rajinikanth) takes his fight to Social media and brings entire Mumbai to its feet. All the galvanising of people and spreading of message happen through Facebook videos, Tweets and WhatsApp forwards! Sarkar goes a step further. Even with just couple of hours remaining for voting, the hero (Vijay) is shown attempting to garner support among the remaining voters through Facebook live videos! Before that, he uses tweets strategically to set the narrative. As a non-conventional politician who is thrown into the thick of political action all of a sudden, Vijay and his young team’s “Go to Market” is basically Social media in the film!

 

Whether society mirrors films or films mirror society is still an open debate.  However, it is clear that the respective film makers of Kaala and Sarkar drew inspiration from the Jallikattu protests which happened in Tamil Nadu in the year 2017! Much to the surprise of all, Social media played a very important role and engineered a revolution in Tamil Nadu or so it is widely believed. For the first time, politicians came up to this rude awakening that their opponents can be just some faceless Twitter accounts and trending hashtags and not necessarily the conventional microphone wielding, venom spewing opposition faces!  As it happens normally, writers and film makers take their own creative liberties of what they see around themselves and do a bit of indulgence.  So is the case in these 2 films!

In India, we are already in election mode. Come May 2019, we have the Lok Sabha polls coming up where Narendra Modi is seeking a historic re-election. The moot question is, like how they show in films these days, can Social media be the game changer for parties in their quest to win in 2019? Like in these movies, can politicians and parties win by just harnessing the power of Social media?

I remember way back in 2008, it was Barack Obama who first demonstrated the power of Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter for his presidential campaign. Since then, Social media has been drafted into political campaigning everywhere and it’s been gaining ground slowly and steadily.  So much so, we saw how companies like Cambridge Analytica were exposed attempting to influence swing voters by just targeted messaging over Social media like Facebook.  In India, I guess the early ones to hop on to the Social media bus were Narendra Modi in 2014 and Arvind Kejriwal for 2015 Delhi elections. They used Face Book and Twitter effectively to communicate to the young and urban voters that time! Today, my guess is that almost all parties have a backroom of Social media warriors across the country/state to manage their presence in Social media! And lo, new careers and job options have opened up – Social media managers, Data Analysts, Hashtag managers, video editors and so on!

While Twitter and Facebook have been prominently used in in the past for campaigning, I feel that in India for 2019, WhatsApp will hold the key. With over 200 million users of WhatsApp in India (as of Feb 2018) which is 4 times of what it was in 2014, WhatsApp is easily the fastest growing medium available. Combined with the rapid growth in smart phone adoption and data consumption thanks to cheap data plans, one doesn’t have to look further to deliver targeted messages. So move over SMSs and recorded voice messages!  WhatsApp forwards are here! Even the main stream media feeds on what is happening on WhatsApp these days!

One logical question would be if Social media remains an urban phenomenon and hence will it have any impact in rural India at all?  The growth in internet access and WhatsApp penetration have been traditionally higher in urban India than rural India. However rural India I’m sure is catching up. As per a survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in mid-2017, “One-fifth, or 20%, of rural respondents said they used WhatsApp daily as compared with 38% of urban respondents. But the growth in the share of active WhatsApp users has been sharper in rural India, doubling in a year’s time.”

With the adoption and usage of smart phones and WhatsApp being the highest among youth, targeted political messaging becomes easy, quick and probably cheap with WhatsApp! And as election approaches, WhatsApp groups are all busy engaged in political debates usually triggered by a forward message or a news clip! And this is how narratives will be set moving forward.

I am not for a moment saying that as they showed in Kaala and Sarkar, candidates and parties can win over the voters by just using Social media alone! Real life is more complex. However, a smart party/candidate would not ignore the potential of smart phones, Social media and WhatsApp in particular in their media mix for 2019. And would rather focus on the same seriously.

I understand that BJP is already making itself “WhatsApp ready” for 2019. Traditionally the party has been depending on its “Panna Pramukhs” to do booth level mobilisation of voters and they will be now replaced by “Cell phone Pramukhs” it seems! Whether being “WhatsApp ready” will take them ahead of the others in the elections remains to be seen, but it is clear that they have a head start and it can be crucial in close contests!  In 2019, it could very well be Abki Baar WhatsApp ki Vaar!

Kaala and Sarkar may be ordinary films but the makers have provided worthy lessons for political leaders and parties on the importance of being “Social media ready” to take on their opponents. The question is when will parties become “Social media ready” to address common man’s issues? To see that day, like many fellow Indians – “I am waiting”!!!

Single party majority sarkar or Coalition sarkar?

Last week, parts of a speech of our National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval made headlines. Speaking at the Sardar Patel memorial lecture, Doval said that India needs a strong, stable and decisive government for the next 10 years. He also predicted that weak coalitions will be bad for India.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of another speech made by Y.V.Reddy, Former Governor of RBI some time in 2017. “Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments… So, in a way it is consensus based… in Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government,” Mr. Reddy told a Washington audience on September 27.

From the two specks of wisdom, we can assume that while the former spoke from security point of view, the latter did from economic point of view.  While I don’t remember many reactions to Y.V. Reddy’s opinion then, Doval’s speech has triggered a lot of rebuttals, primary one being, this piece from The Print’s Shekhar Gupta where he has argued that majority governments in the past including that of Rajiv Gandhi’s in the 80’s and the present one of Narendra Modi have not been better off significantly than the few coalition governments we had in between!

Without going back too much back in time, I would like to focus on the present majority government of the BJP in this post. By the evening of 16th May, 2014 when it was clear that BJP against all expectations and pre-poll predictions, was hitting the half way mark on their own, there was euphoria all around. Even among the non-BJP loyalists, there was visible excitement of how a majority government can decisively take the country forward without having to constantly look over its shoulders. By nature, coalition governments formed mostly through post poll alliances come with the spectre of instability. So, here was a government finally which had the numbers on its own and a two third majority with its allies. So, can’t blame the public at large including the author if they thought that Acche Din finally arrived for India!

In India, we have had a long history of taking one step forward and few steps backward. Unfortunately this did not change even with a single party government with a decisive leader at its helm as we found soon enough in 2014. We soon found that adequate majority in Lok Sabha is not enough and that the government needs numbers in Rajya Sabha also to be effectively called as a “true majority Sarkar”! And for that, the wait needed to be longer – another 5 years or so!

As per me, the virtues of a single party majority Sarkar got exposed when this government failed to get the amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill passed. In his 1st meeting with the Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi was reported to have got the feedback from most of the CMs (including of the Congress) that the tough and impractical clauses in the Land Acquisition Bill presented the single biggest challenge in getting many infrastructure projects off the ground.  The government went about making changes in the provisions and tried to pass the bill. But couldn’t get the bill passed through in Rajya Sabha where the Congress and the Left blocked it effectively. The majority government then tried to use the Ordinance route many times but finally gave up, coming under the cloud of Rahul Gandhi’s Suit Boot Sarkar jibe! As we speak, in spite of this Government’s intent and drive towards kicking off many infrastructure projects, land acquisition continues to be the biggest impediment in meeting deadlines for large game changing projects!

Here, I feel that a coalition Sarkar of the stable type as NDA-1 run by Vajpayee or the UPA-1 run by Manmohan Singh, would have handled this differently. By engaging with the respective oppositions through dialogues and agreeing to give and take on a few provisions. Since many Congress CMs were on board on the changes to the Land Acquisition Bill, dialogues with the Congress party leadership through some of these CMs would have probably done the trick leaving the Left isolated on this.  As we all know now, in the initial days of this government, its single point agenda was to isolate the Congress. What if the government had given the status of the Leader of Opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha as a quid pro quo to getting their support to a few important bills in the Rajya Sabha? Machiavelli or our own Chanakya would have been proud, isn’t it?

In spite of this initial setback though crucial, I do believe that the Modi Sarkar was flying high in that period. From bringing Swachh Bharat to national discourse to bringing back India at the top of investment destinations worldwide, Modi Sarkar could not make a single false move, but that was till November 2016! With the confidence in the Indian economy back and aided by windfall gains from low crude prices, one thought that the Universe was finally beginning to conspire to make India successful.  Again that was still November 2016!

In November 2016, Modi Sarkar took on the Universe and went ahead with Demonetisation. What seemed a master stroke initially to suck out black money, soon turned out to be an ill-conceived and ill – executed move that set the economy back by a year or so.  The much lauded ‘Jugaad’ mentality of Indians came to party, the result of which we could finally get to see.  As much as 99.3% of the junked 500 and 1,000 rupee notes returned to the banking system!! While it is to the credit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government came out unscathed with its credibility intact or grown even after this very huge miss-step, I wonder if a major decision like this could have been taken without taking the coalition partners into confidence if it was a coalition government. And in the same token, I do feel that the collective wisdom of a coalition cabinet would not have let this move go at least without proper checks, balances and preparations!

I certainly would not add the introduction of GST as a miss-step of this government as many are doing, as I firmly believe that GST was a long-awaited reform and in the introduction of the same, Modi Sarkar learnt its lessons and behaved like a coalition government in listening to and taking all parties on board. The result is there to see. GST is a reality now and after initial hiccups as can be expected from any path breaking reform, the benefits are trickling down with the GDP showing clear signs of recovery in the past few quarters.

A majority government led by a decisive leader provides for great optics particularly from foreign countries’ point of view. And that has its own benefits as major powers would like to believe that the Government/leader they are engaging across the table has the backing of the popular mandate. However, in practice, I have now come to feel that a coalition government led by a party with a fair share of numbers led by a decisive leader may be ideal for a diverse country like India. In that, we do get the advantage of the collective wisdom of alternate views while, the virtues of the decisive leader are also not missed out.

Or going a step further, a majority government with a decisive leader which behaves like a coalition government by not taking key, strategic decisions without passing by the collective wisdom of alternate brains!  In short, institutionalizing the “GST Introduction model” for all key decisions!

So going back to the speeches of Y.V.Reddy and Ajit Doval, both may be correct. In parts! Just that like in many aspects in India, the ideal situation may be somewhere in between!

Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

140 Years of a habit called “The Hindu”!

On the 20th of September, the very popular newspaper from the South – The Hindu completed 140 years since its first issue! In these “cash out and exit” times, one cannot but acknowledge and revere the newspaper for 140 years of sustenance and survival. For those from South India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular and for those who were born in the pre-liberalisation era, The Hindu is not just a newspaper but a habit!

I presently live in Mumbai and I don’t read The Hindu daily these days and my Hindu reading is limited to when I travel to Tamil Nadu. On and off, I do get to read some interesting articles from The Hindu which land in one’s social media timelines!  This week, my memories flash back to my growing up days when reading The Hindu daily was a karma one performed religiously.

I probably started reading The Hindu newspaper when I was in class 2 or 3. Initially it was just the last page which was the Sports section where one would catch up on the previous day’s action mainly of Cricket and later Tennis! I have vivid memories of writer Rajan Bala’s lucid writing on some of the test matches accompanied by some fantastic action pictures from the cricket field.  Once Rajan Bala moved on from The Hindu, the cricket column was taken over by R.Mohan. Both were extremely knowledgeable of the game and with their command over the Queen’s language, brought the nuances of the game in front of our eyes in the pre-TV era. The following day in the school, we used to discuss not just the game but also the style of writing and the language used. Such was the impact of the writing on us!

Gradually, we graduated from the last page sports columns to the first page political news and also the Sunday supplements. The Hindu those days had an impeccable reputation for being factual and accurate in News reporting. So much so, the joke those days was that even if a murder happens in broad day light right in front of its office at the Mount Road in Chennai and their reporters saw it with his/her own eyes, the news will get published only after the police FIR was filed and police confirmed that it was indeed a murder!

For many in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu was the teacher for the English language! The newspaper was seen as an ultimate authority on the language. One could hardly find a mistake in the spelling or the grammar those days. These days it is no more the case, I’m told. ‘Know your English’ – a weekly column which used to appear in the newspaper was extremely popular and as kids we used to read the same with immense interest and curiosity to discover unknown aspects of English!  If today, I am in a position to write this blog in half decent English, some credit certainly goes to The Hindu!

After being in the habit of reading The Hindu, whenever I used to travel outside Tamil Nadu and got to read other English newspapers, the difference used to be glaring! One, The Hindu those days was in the forefront of adopting technology, though from a very conservative and traditional ownership background. So the typesetting and page layoutting were top class. You will never find an article in the first page with “Continued in Page ….” line. I see this even today in papers like The Indian Express! The reproduction of photographs even in the B&W era was again of highest quality. Talking of adoption of technology, I clearly remember that The Hindu was the 1st to use “facsimile” technology to transmit and receive pictures from outside when reporting events outside of Chennai. Those pictures used to carry a line (received through facsimile technology!). That fax as a technology became very common place later is a different aspect altogether. When The Hindu adopted it, it was a pioneering effort.

As far as I remember, political reporting of The Hindu used to be pro-establishment. It never used to taken an antagonistic line. But, I reckon that this changed when N.Ram took over as the Editor. Ram as an individual is known to be unapologetically left leaned and since him taking over the reins, one can clearly say that the paper ceased to be neutral.

It was under Ram’s leadership that The Hindu broke one of the biggest corruption story of the country namely the “Bofors scandal” which broke the back of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Any pretensions of The Hindu being pro-establishment ceased after that. Somehow, for reasons not very clear, The Hindu didn’t pursue the Bofors story to its logical conclusion. In fact, journalist Chitra Subramaniam who was the architect of that story had to continue her expose in the Indian Express later!

When I moved to Bombay in the late 80’s, no filter coffee and not able to read the The Hindu every morning, meant serious withdrawal symptoms! The Hindu used to be available only with select newspaper vendors that too in select suburbs like Matunga! The day’s paper used to be available only by 4 pm. Initially for a few Sundays going to Matunga in the evening to have filter coffee and pick up the Sunday Edition of The Hindu was a routine that I did not miss. Slowly, one got weaned over this habit and started getting used to The Times Of India albeit very, very reluctantly!

Today, when I go to Tamil Nadu and pick up a copy of The Hindu to read, I do see it as a pale shadow of its former self! The language is no more engaging and the political reporting has clearly moved from being neutral to be clearly biased. And I notice that this is what many of my folks also felt.  Even those who were very loyal to The Hindu those days, talk of it with a tinge of irony!

Probably this is a sign of the times where not just The Hindu, but media in general have lost their moral compass and have started to pursue an agenda. Even amidst this, I do feel that The Hindu commands a sense of respectability among its peers. With Times of India invading into the South, The Hindu is no longer the dominant newspaper it used to be till the beginning of this decade. Still in these days of 140 characters of Twitter journalism, for The Hindu to chug along for 140 years, is no mean achievement. To the habit called The Hindu, here’s wishing another 140 years of a re-engineered future!

Postscript: While on the newspaper reading habit, please do read my humorous take –‘Paper Vandhaacha?’ (Read here) on how the newspaper is intertwined with the lives of a Tambrahm mama!

Pic Courtesy: The Indian Express!

Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.