Friday, January 30, 2015

UAE cricket team

In the cricket world cup, I will be following the fortunes of the UAE team keenly. Why? Because one of my cousins, Krishnachandran (he is my mother's sister's son) will be playing for it. It was his brother's wedding that I had attended a couple of years ago.

I had never thought that a relative of mine would be playing in the world cup. And this is not any relative. His whole family is close to us. Imagine playing on those big grounds in Australia against the top  players in the world! This is the first time I will be watching him play.

Don't be surprised if there are big celebrations in my house if UAE wins the world cup!

Announcement in Malayalam Manorama Newspaper about Kitchu's (his pet name) selection

Friday, January 23, 2015

The need for an opposition in a democracy

In this splendid talk, the sociologist Prof. AndrĂ© BĂ©teille says that encouragement of dissent and opposition is the essential distinguishing feature of a democracy.  Dissent  and opposition are part of any society but in a democracy, they don't go underground but are acknowledged and encouraged. He says that in a democracy, one must learn to  live with a certain amount of disorder and learn to deal with them through discussion, debate and dialogue. It is better to allow free expression of dissent rather than be overtaken by a sudden explosion. In his book Anti-Utopia, he writes:
There is no way in which change can come about without the displacement of some norms and values by others. Nor do all conflicts over norms and values end by tearing apart the fabric of society; indeed, the suppression of such conflict may as easily lead to that outcome. It is important to acknowledge their presence and even their necessity, and to create and sustain institutions to negotiate them. This cannot be done by wishing present conflicts out of existence, or hoping for a future in which no conflicts will arise.
In 1957 Congress won the general election by a big margin and it also had power in all the states except Kerala. C. Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji)  was worried about the implications of the lack of  a strong opposition for the heath of Indian democracy. He thought that India needed a strong two-party system but he was initially reluctant to start a party because he  felt that he  was too old, had been a Congressman for long and was personally too close to Nehru.

He set out his views in an article (which  is given in Makers of Modern India where he said that without a strong opposition 'the semblance of democracy may survive but real parliamentary democracy will not be there' and 'government will inevitably become totalitarian'. He wrote:
In a democracy based on universal suffrage, government of the majority without an effective opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in  one bundle. The two-party system steadies movement by putting a fairly equal load into each pannier. In the human body also, two eyes and two ears aid a person to place the objects seen and heard. A single-party democracy soon loses its sense of proportion. It sees, but cannot place things in perspective or apprehend all sides of a question. 
Before the 1957 general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan, who had been campaigning for opposition parties, clarified his position in a letter to Nehru (quoted in Makers of Modern India).  He said that this was not because of any dislike of the Congress but because of certain principles:
According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on track...[A]s a socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people...between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil...
If the fears of totalitarianism can be there with Nehru at the helm, it cannot be lesser under anyone else. The last time such a big majority for one side happened before the last general election was when Rajiv Gandhi came to power with an even bigger majority. At that time I was too young to know that this could be a problem. It is unlikely that evil lies solely in one group and virtue is the exclusive preserve of the other.  The salutary message from that time is that even with that kind of brute majority, it took only about thrree years for Rajiv Gandhi to feel the heat. People always seem to reach for the sun like Icarus and fall back to earth.

Ashis Nandy gives the reson for continuous opposition: 'Yesterday's dissent is often today's establishment and, unless resisted, becomes tomorrow's terror.' And if continuous opposition increases undesirable elements to the extent that democracy is hollowed out, we have to conclude that Ambedkar was right: '...if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.'

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ambedkar's warnings

The main reason for my reading Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha was that there were many people in the book I knew nothing about - Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jyotirao Phule, Tarabhai Shinde, Hamid Dalwai, Syed Ahmed Khan and Verrier Elwin. Many people in the book raised issues that are relevant for current times and I will write about some of them in the next few posts. (You can watch a discussion about the book here.)

Ambedkar is the only person who figures in two sections in the book. The first set of writings by him are on caste where his undelivered speech 'The  Annihilation of Caste' is well worth reading as also his criticism of Gandhi. The second selection of his thoughts are about the Constitution. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, he issues three warnings:
If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In a country like India, where there is a significant level of poverty and illiteracy, leaders who give something to those people will inevitably acquire demi-god status among them. It is more surprising to see educated people treat their favorites as beyond criticism. These leaders seem to have a mindset similar to that of Ferdinand Marcos as described in this talk by Ashis Nandy. Marcos told a friend of his at a party:
You know, everybody thinks I am a despot but  actually I am a democrat in my heart. But these Phillippinos, they are totally ungovernable and undemocratic in the spirit, so I have to guide them like a strict schoolmaster towards a strict democratic Philippines and that  is held against me.
Ambedkar's third warning had to do with equity:
The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. 
For discussions about various forms of inequality, the different meanings of equality, the distinction between rights and policies, and the relationship between distributive justice and institutional well-being, you can check Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of Andre Beteille.

14/01/2015 - One link added.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Suresh and I - II

The clonus and stiffness that I have as a result of my stroke is often mistaken for anger especially by people who are not familiar with my reactions. For eg., if Jaya and the nurse are busy talking to some people, I have to make some noise in order to attract their attention in case of some emergency like urine.For this, I have to make some effort which will set off the clonus - my hands and legs will become stiff. To a casual observer, it will look as if I am having a fit. When the nurse notices me and I indicate that I want to pass urine, she will ask, 'Why are you getting angry for that?'

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins talks about the problem of communicating over long distances. For example, it will take about 4 min. for radio waves to travel between earth and Mars. In such a case, conversation in alternating sentences between people on the two planets  would be difficult and often a message would not be timely. A similar difficulty arises when I try to converse with eye blinks. And if Jaya is not present, then the problem is increased because of misinterpretations.

I now generally keep quiet and just listen to what everyone else is talking about. And if the conversation doesn't interest me,  I drift away. For eg., I was recently re-reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (which I had written about a couple of years back).  I had just read a problem in the book when I had a visitor. After the  introductions, I listened to to him for a while and then drifted away since the conversation didn't interest me  and started thinking about the problem which was as follows:
In the correctly solved additions below, each of the five letters represents a different digit, EA being a two-digit number. What is the value of B +D if 
 A    C
+B   +D
__   ___
C    EA 
Suddenly I heard the visitor say, 'He is listening so intently to what I am saying!' I had no idea what he had been talking  about!

Perhaps it is because there are always books near me (which apparently is not a common sight) that people seem to think I know everything.  (At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?) This becomes embarrassing because I am generally dazed and confused about how to make sense of the mess in the world, like Raj Kapoor in this song. The problem is increased because of  my mode of communication which forces me to give a yes/no answer and most questions cannot be answered in this way. And I am reluctant to say 'I know' about anything because I will know only some aspects of it.

For eg., I was once asked, 'Do you know about Tiruvalluvar?' I don't want to sound Clintonesque but it depends on what is meant by 'know'. If it meant whether I had a general idea of who Tiruvalluvar was, the answer would be 'yes' but if it meant whether I knew his Tirukkurals, about his contribution to Tamil literature etc. the answer would be 'no'. I will wait for some clarification but if after some silence, I am forced to blink (I can't stare unblinkingly forever) after some time, the person may conclude that I know quite a bit about Tiruvalluvar. How many such instances of my non-existent knowledge there are is anybody's guess.

This illusion of knowledge that I seem to have acquired made one physiotherapist say, 'I am trying to be like you!' If he meant the mythical Suresh that I keep hearing about, I will second his opinion. He sounds a cool guy, the Superman to my Clark Kent. As Borges said:  “The original is not faithful to the translation.”