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27 September 2014

Statesman Modi Arrives On World Stage

The prime minister spoke like a leader with a large heart, sharing the plight of the marginalised classes across the world. He transcended his Indian nationality in doing so when he counted the people without basic amenities in billions, and urged all nations, especially the developed economies, to fight deprivation together.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the United Nations General Assembly on 27 September
Quite expectedly, Prime Minister of India Narendra Damodardas Modi held the well-attended house of United Nations General Assembly captive to his world vision this early New York morning when the attendance has otherwise been historically low. Beginning his speech with invocation of the Indian/Hindu philosophy of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), he soon moved on to mentions of developing societies as well as troubled spots around the globe. And for every problem, he urged the UN to come up with a concerted effort of solution-finding. The appeal for humanitarianism and unity as a solution to the problems of the humankind marked the arrival of Statesman Modi on the world stage.

Speaking further on philosophy, when Modi stressed living in harmony with nature, it was perhaps indicative of the new paradigm of progress that his government wants to set in India: Eco-centric development. It was, in all likelihood, akin to telling the world that our eagerness to grow did not mean we would wantonly trample over environmental concerns as the West did once, which it is now making up for. That is to say that the investments that would come to India must be for such industries that do not hurt Mother Earth, but sustain the flora and fauna, the water bodies and a clear, blue sky. To facilitate that, Modi said later in his speech, the developed economies should readily arrange for funds and transfer of requisite technology.

Pakistan received no more attention than (a) a snub for bringing the bilateral issue of Jammu & Kashmir to the international forum (which he doubted served any purpose) and (b) the humanitarian offer of help that India had extended to it during the recent floods in the region. It was up to Pakistan to create the right atmosphere and come forward for bilateral talks to address the outstanding issues between the two countries, Modi said. Implicit in this speech was a message for our western neighbour: This is no place to crib; behave like a member of the global family, not like a frustrated member of a section thereof.

Having told the world how important India considered its immediate neighbourhood that it began building closer ties with member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) right after the formation of the new government, Modi expanded his focus to the global arena. He urged the UN to expedite the proposed Comprehensive Convention against Terrorism. Indeed, the scourge of seeking political settlements through violence that resurfaces again and again in new forms and with new names, as he rightly pointed out, warrants a non-negotiable policy of the international community that would make even germination of terror outfits difficult on the soil of any country.

Modi affirmed about India’s commitment to worldwide peace and reminded the world how the country’s jawans had never been found wanting to serve in the UN Peace-Keeping Force as and when some part of the globe faced a situation where an international military intervention was necessary. It was as if our prime minister were rubbing it in: ‘Some countries try to solve militancy with dollars; we try to solve it with our young men’s blood.’

Why then doesn’t India commit its Army to, say, a crackdown of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq led by the US, an American might ask. Tacit in the message of keeping the UNPKF on the forefront was India’s displeasure about the United States and its allies superseding the UN in military interventions across the world where American interests are hurt. It was to tell the Americans we wouldn’t be part of their plans; we would only be part of moves ratified by the United Nations. “The countries that contribute to UN peace keeping with their forces must be included in the UN’s decision-making processes,” our premier said.

Taking the supreme international body to task for not making its 193 member nation-states work together to solve various crises, he questioned why separate sections of the globe should witness groupings like G-4, G-7, G-20 etc or any other group. “These numbers keep changing,” he said, adding even India was compelled to be part of such factions, in a clear reference to our membership of G-20. He exhorted the UN to work as “G-All”.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval among the audience at the General Assembly.
He certainly did not forget to reiterate India’s longstanding demand of expanding the UN Security Council. The transformation must happen by 2015, he demanded. Established in 1945, the UN will turn 70 next year. He asked the world leaders whether they would like to drag on with the old structure till the international organisation turned 80.

Along the lines of the NDA Government’s work in the last four months since it assumed office, the Indian premier highlighted the pitiable status of sanitation, electricity and potable drinking water not being accessible for billions of people: 2.5 billion, 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion people respectively. In this context too, he said, all nations must join hands to bring about better basic amenities to the poor.

Without mentioning India’s standoff with developed countries in talks under the aegis of the World Trade Organisation, Modi laid emphasis on accommodating each other’s concerns in agreements on international trade.

Philosophy returned towards the end of Modi’s address. He spoke of yoga as a means of human union with the nature, and urged the representatives of different nations to mark a day of the year as the International Yoga Day. “Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, harmony between man and nature, and a holistic approach to health and well being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

Linking the concept with environmentalism, the prime minister said, “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.”

The emphasis on nature and the roadmap of yoga appeared inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s address to the Parliament of World’s Religions more than a century ago, where the ascetic had explained to the clerics of different faiths how Hinduism was not a religion but a way of life everybody could follow.

Modi’s appreciation of technology and modern means of communication that India is now well acquainted with manifested at the General Assembly as well. He ideated that the world needed to communicate more using the cyberspace in general and the social media in particular, aided increasingly these days by smartphones. He mentioned his recent proposal of building a free satellite for SAARC nations in this regard.

The prime minister underscored the need to engage the youth and universities in international dialogues. He said there was a pressing need for nations to sit together and deliberate upon the mission the UN was set up for, how far it has travelled and in what direction it wishes to head.

A lot has been said about the fact that Modi would choose to speak in Hindi, which he expectedly did. But so had Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his tenure as the country’s prime minister. The novelty that Modi brought to the oratory on the world stage was more refreshing. Slamming the attitudes of cynicism and retirement to fate of disunity, he used a casual phrase we Indians are way too used to hearing: “Chhodo yaar, ab kuchh hone waala nahin hai” (Forget it, nothing will come of anything). This correspondent is not sure whether any other world leader has ever invoked the equivalent of Hindi colloquialism “yaar” in a speech addressed to the General Assembly. It is, of course, to be seen how pally with India that turns the world powers into. The good attendance mentioned in the introduction raises a lot of hope. Representatives of the world are clearly eager to do business with Modi-led India.

This article was sent for publishing to a web portal right after the end of the prime minister's address. Since the headline its editor chose for the write-up failed to uphold the central theme of the speech, it is being reproduced here with the original headline.

21 September 2014

Liberating Liberals From Lethargy

hen you get into something but end up not getting what you wanted from it, you use a euphemism to describe your stint: Experience. An optimist, I wouldn’t say I have wasted the last three years of my life chasing a chimera of vyawastha parivartan (systemic change). First Baba Ramdev and then KN Govindacharya promised India would change under their pressure, sharing with me kind of revised versions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s prescriptions for change. Then a senior journalist and close associate literally dragged me into the Aam Aadmi Party, forcing me to dump my ideological reservations against socialists Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav.
The virtual, non-committal and vocal socialists I have dealt with
I came out of each of the three groups, following experiences of serious discomfiture in the company of those who dream of bringing back the glory of Gupta-Maurya epochs to India and those who are simply control freaks, trying to impose the state on all affairs of individual Indians. But did I have a political choice when I made a foray into activism? Show me a political party, with a reasonable chance of contesting and winning elections, which is pro-consumer.
Much as the four-month new Narendra Modi government at the Centre has yet to start building an India that is diametrically opposite of Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh’s ‘welfare state’, as the then prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi repeatedly made a pertinent observation in his elections speeches that was a clear attack on socialists: Why is the eastern arm of the country lagging so much behind the western arm? Because, he reasoned, Indians from Punjab to Maharashtra never allowed a constituent of the elusive Third Front — comprising me-too socialist parties — rule any of its States.
Somehow this never crossed the minds of activists obsessed with socialism who, ironically, come mostly from States like Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and the eastern extreme of Uttar Pradesh. One wonders what the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Left Front for 34 years followed by the Trinamool Congress for the last three years and the Biju Janata Dal that has been unable to engineer an industrial turnaround in the face of belligerent activism have given them all these years that they want more of that style of governance, albeit with some tinkering of the prescription. Of course, neither the Indian National Congress nor the BJP is blatantly capitalistic, but that they are less socialistic is undeniable. The first opens up the economy when there is a balance of payment crisis; the second dares not open the market for competition too much because socialism is still the more popular ism in the country, and it can’t afford to lose the race of populism to the first.
Have you ever been invited to a seminar, a roundtable, a rally or a demonstration by followers of Ram Manohar Lohia or Jayaprakash Narayan? At the venue, look around and study the faces. They are mostly from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. If the organiser happens to be a Marxist, you could see some Bengali faces as well, and a few visages from one State of the country that is not in the east: Kerala. The overall demographics inside the Bharat Swabhiman Andolan, Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan and AAP aren’t any different. The trio may be headed by a settled Haryanvi (Ramdev), a migrant Tamizhan (Govindacharya) and a Haryanvi rootless wonder (Kejriwal), but the cheerleaders in their shows are largely Bihari or Purvanchali.
If I was desperate to hit the streets in a bid to ‘change’ the face of India and I couldn’t join any of the groups above, I could do what many like us do with not much of a political consequence:
  1. Not give a damn — militating against my ‘eastern Indianism’ — and mind my own business à la Punjabis, Jats, Marwaris, Gujaratis or Parsis (I refuse to believe I am sectarian; I can’t help but notice the distinct behavioural patterns);
  2. Fiddle with social media applications on my phone in office hours and sit in front of my home PC in the evening to express my despair on Facebook and Twitter;
  3. Join a party or ‘team’ that talks liberal economics alright, but fails to make a mark at the hustings.
N Jaya Prakash Narayana, founder, LSP
Talking of Option C, a party of the type I have been close to in this period is the Lok Satta Party. A ‘team’ of the kind I have been observing from a distance for the same duration is the Freedom Team of India (recently, they have formed a political party called the Swarna Bharat Party). As an observer in meetings convened by the LSP, I observed how no member could spare time for organisational work except on weekends.
As and when a meeting was convened on a Saturday, these well-paid corporate sector boys would arrive all the way from Gurgaon, share politically unfeasible ideas, and leave. If the weekend comprised two days, of which the Saturday was spent in this meeting where 15 odd guys spoke together and none listened, there was no Sunday when they would make a programme to hit the slums, explaining to the abject poor how economic liberty alone — and not a dole-delivering state — could extricate them from the rut. Since the poor have the numbers with them, we, the less populous middle class, stand no chance of making our kind of economics rule the nation. Elections in India have seen the UPA and NDA win and lose; the class whose misconception has always won is the poor; the class whose wish has always lost is the middle class.
The FTI members are a bit more mature, with a lot many of them having enough grey hair or bald pates on display. But they didn’t leave their drawing rooms or office canteens to communicate to the larger world outside. They talked among PLUs (people like us) who were already converted! Until recently that is.
Sabhlok with the logo of FTI that he founded
A couple of months ago I was elated to know that the team’s head, a bureaucrat-turned-advocate of classical liberalism Sanjeev Sabhlok met with a band of farmers in Rajasthan and successfully explained to them why the Indian Administrative Service must be disbanded. He reportedly asked them whether they could afford to pay their daily-wage labourers 12 months a year even when no crop season was on. When they replied in the negative, Sabhlok told them the IAS officers did a few months’ job but took home a year-long of salaries and perks. The farmers were convinced the IAS system must go.
Inspired by the example, some more of FTI/SBP members have left for distant villages and towns. Do I see an electoral prospect for them? Not so soon, given the similar professional profiles they have as the LSP cadre. There is one kind of liberalism an economic liberal has to overlook if he is looking for a political impact: Ayn Randism. Used to high life, the gentry find it extremely difficult to overcome the ‘I’ and stop fending for their families to plunge into the precariousness of politics. The Rajasthan experiment was a one-off case, maybe an abrupt rush of adrenaline, perhaps an effervescent soda that must fizzle out. Sabhlok can’t come flying every now and then from Australia, where he has settled after resigning from the IAS in January 2001, to cover the vast expanse of India’s poverty-ridden map. With the leader absent most of the time, motivation is bound to dip among his followers.
We liberals must give socialists what is due. They are ready to leave their families behind; we aren’t. They talk to the larger, effective constituency; we don’t. They are not lazy; admit it, we are. Hence, socialists will win elections; we will lose them (if at all we fight), and the concept of a maai-baap sarkaar will continue to rule India.
There is only one way out of the siege. Develop a sponsorship model for your activists. Pay the families of the politically surcharged corporate executives as they go door-to-door explaining to the people: India is free but Indians aren’t. Everybody loves freedom. If this model is adopted, we will win one day.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.