Tuesday, April 30, 2019

CONVERSATIONS FOR OUR FUTURE


In the Lok Sabha elections 2019, most voters faced the proverbial horns of a dilemma. These voters who want a non-communal, non-corrupt government have, on the one hand, voted for a particular party whose record in combating communalism and corruption belies its lofty rhetoric of upholding values of honest politics and secularism. On the other hand, some may have voted for a new party, whose unique selling pitch is its tirade against corruption, and whose new-ness has ensured that it has no real record of malfeasance.

However, these two choices—though made in desperation—have a fatal flaw built into them: they are stopgap solutions and have consequences for the future of the polity, society, and the environment for the next 10 or 20 years. As far as electoral representation is concerned, if the abovementioned dilemma gets resolved momentarily by choosing the lesser evil, throughout the next several decades, we shall only be electing the lesser evil.

One can appreciate why many voters are desperate. The Indian first-past-the-post electoral system with the minoritization of thousands of communities often leaves people with little choices other than the short-term, stopgap ones. Often, voters operate based on guesswork over how best not to waste one’s vote, and also get some short-term benefit by choosing the lesser evil. More often, one hopes that the short-term choices have no long-term destructive consequences.

It is crucial, therefore, to have a new type of political conversations, which ensures long-term solutions to our current problems. Our powerless-ness and hopeless-ness during elections should encourage debates over long-term changes in politics, society, and environment. As many have started to recognize, deepening democracy and combating communalism and corruption cannot happen during elections alone. What we do and say after an election, anticipating the next, buffers us from powerless-ness and can truly give us a choice. Accordingly, we can think of education, workers’ rights, and environmental protection as part of a multi-pronged strategy for providing us with better choices during elections.

We must have political conversations over issues that are useful in the long-term. Education is fundamental if one is to live in an empowered society. In recent times, Goa has seen the demand for government aid for English as a medium of instruction at the primary schooling level. In terms of higher education, we are witness to spirited fights for securing the right for education and employment in universities through affirmative action.

The importance of education and the discrimination therein should impress upon all the need for affirmative action in our schools and universities. The empowerment of a generation of young persons, otherwise excluded from these spaces, will create a citizenry that contributes to equal or equitable social relations. Currently, schools and universities are battlegrounds where the marginalized lose out to the privileged. The reason is that schools and universities have not provided equal opportunity for all. By leveling the field through education, the electoral process will see the participation of young voters who are not easily swayed by demagoguery or false promises.

Another theme for a political conversation is migrant workers and the bogey of ‘vote-banks’. Some of us get enraged by ‘vote-bank’ politics when the truth is that it denies a large section of the population their basic rights. These workers provide vital labor and hence, rather than rail against the ‘vote-bank’, we need to be sensitive to the matter of their fundamental rights. Securing the rights of workers such as minimum wage, health insurance, housing and enforcing these rights in good faith empowers a constituency to be not exploited by the vote-bank politics of the national and regional parties.

Protecting the fundamental rights of migrants have advantages for locals as it strengthens the rule of law internally. One can see an interesting parallel with the denial of basic rights to migrant labor and the crisis facing Goa’s mining-dependent, or the locals. In the case of the mining-dependent, the government had no safeguards against rampant illegalities and the economic fluctuations of an industry based on the whims of the global capitalist players. The mining-dependent, much like the migrant labor, are expendable in the larger scheme of the capitalist-party politics nexus. The mining dependents form a large group of people whose destiny depends on the goodwill of politicians and big businesses. They, too, vote but hardly control their destiny.

Thinking of workers’ rights and mining dependents, we can easily see the connections with environmental degradations. More and more people are pushed into doing the work for large, capital-intensive industries like mining and construction in the name of ‘development’. This ‘development’ often occurs by flattening forests or filling prime agrarian land. Every successive election sees an intensification of the destruction of the forests and the communities that call these forests their home. Together with the communities which depend on agriculture and mining, the forest-dwelling communities form another chunk of voters. It is best if the electoral process does not deny these communities an independent say, so they also contribute to the common good.

In each of the issues I have discussed above, there is currently a tremendous opposition from privileged members of our society, blinded by the caste and class privileges they enjoy. In such a context, a change in political conversations emphasizing social justice above everything else will alter the rules of the electoral game. Taken together, then, an emphasis on equal access to education, securing rights and protection for workers, and preventing environmental degradation promotes the empowerment of many voters who vote due to powerless-ness rather than out of free choice. Without truly empowered voters there are no democratic choices.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 May, 2019)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

IN LIFE AND DEATH: POLITICS AND POLITICIANS

In Goan politics, the politician is an indispensable cult figure, one whose image is more important than his or her ability to discharge his or her public responsibilities. The unexpected presence of the ailing Pandurang Madkaikar, Cumbharjua MLA, for the first time in public in 11 months, at the floor test of the BJP government, a few weeks ago is a case in point. Madkaikar, who suffered a brain stroke last year, has been away from public life all this while. Despite his ill health, Madkaikar contributed, or was forced to contribute, to the cutthroat power struggles, even though he has not discharged his public responsibilities and was dispensed from his minister’s post since last year.

In the images beamed by local news channels, Madkaikar looks cheerful although he is clearly not fully fit. Two attendants hold him steady as he slowly inches his way to his seat. Once seated, he does not appear to be comfortable. But he manages to joke and chat with his colleagues while two uniformed guards keep a close watch throughout. During the decisive moment of the floor test, Madkaikar raises his hand with difficulty—another attendant helps him.

To be fair, Madkaikar is not the only one who has clung to power despite ill health while being unable to function in a public capacity. There was former MLA of Mapusa, the late Francis D’Souza, who clung to his position. It was common knowledge to his constituents in Mapusa that D’Souza would frequently be away for treatment. The former CM, the late Manohar Parrikar, is, of course, the most recent example of clinging to power as the CM. In Parrikar’s case, the BJP and the Chief Minister’s Office went on a propaganda blitzkrieg to convince all that the CM was in good health.

In the farce that is contemporary Goan politics, Madkaikar’s public appearance at the floor test showed the BJP government in poor light. There was simply no able second-rung leadership—a comment oft repeated following Parrikar’s demise as well. Surely, the people of Goa deserve better. Especially since the in-fighting amongst various elected representatives has plunged Goa into an uncertain political future while the destruction of its people and landscape, initiated by various governments, both present and previous, is continuing unabated.

The lack of substitute leadership stems from the fact that Goan politicians jealously cultivate their own cult. They make themselves apparently indispensable to the voters as well as their followers. Many political commentators have stressed that Parrikar was the one who cultivated a cult following for himself more than anyone else. Parrikar’s close friend and mentor, Subhash Velingkar was one of the commentators who gives the best insight into Parrikar’s functioning. Reflecting on Parrikar’s political career, Velingkar noted to a local news channel that Parrikar was “dictatorial” by nature. He was often unable to work with the rest of the leadership in his party.

Velingkar and many other commentators allude to the ‘cult of the personality’—a figure like the kings and queens of olden times—in Parrikar’s functioning and rise to power. In fact, all politics in Goa operates through the ‘cult of the personality’. The constituent or the voter is expected to be beholden to the politician in a patron-client relationship, while in a democracy such a relationship is theoretically and legally not necessary. Parrikar, though the best example, is not the only one who assiduously cultivated his own cult. Others, like Madkaikar too, cultivated their own cults.

Whether driven by naked ambition, a greed for power, the persistence of their supporters, or social circumstances, politicians like D’Souza, Madkaikar, and Parrikar enable and sustain a politics of the ‘cult of the personality’. This leaves truly little room for efficient leadership to emerge and thrive. Rather than having leaders who lead, we only have rulers who want power and nothing but power. These rulers, in fact, serve those who fund their campaigns more than the people who vote for them. As such the most important function of democratic politics—to govern society efficiently and look after the welfare of each of its members—becomes a marginal issue in the grand scheme of cutthroat power struggles.

Think about Parrikar’s compromises with the casino and mining companies which have almost destroyed the rivers and forests and think also about his belief in Hindutva which has furthered the already existing social and communal fractures in Goan society. To think, then, of Parrikar’s legacy as an indispensable leader and cult figure is to realize the damage done by cult figures to the social fabric, culture, environment, and polity.

One of the reasons why the ‘cult of the personality’ marks our electoral politics is because our society is fundamentally stratified by caste and class. The severely stratified society makes it easier for politicians from dominant groups to become godfathers to leaders from the Bahujan underclass. The leaders from the Bahujan underclass find it difficult to rise and survive unless they compromise with the agendas of their groups. The result is dismal for a democratic polity: subaltern groups are further marginalized and minoritized simultaneously with environmental and cultural destruction.

In life and in death, the careers and legacies of politicians have lasting scars on the landscape, the culture of the land, and the future of the polity. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 4 April, 2019)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

WHEN EMPOWERMENT IS CHILD’S PLAY


In January this year, many Goans watched a video on social media and Whatsapp of a Swedish acapella group, Vocal Colors, rendering a beloved Goan song Tambdde Rosa. The Swedish acapella group were Goa to collaborate with Child’s Play India Foundation led by Dr. Luis Francisco Dias. The Foundation was set up about 10 years ago with the aim of training underprivileged kids in classical music and continues to do so today. The story of the Foundation’s inception and work provides important lessons for a deeply unequal society as that of India.

A former gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Dias moved back to Goa from the United Kingdom to set up the Foundation in 2009. So, why did he leave an established medical practice in the UK? As happens with so many who pursue careers in medicine or engineering or suchlike lucrative professions, Dr. Dias felt his calling to be elsewhere. His heart was not in medicine. When he encountered the opportunity to work in the UK, Dr. Dias thought that he could exploit the numerous musical opportunities available there while he worked as a doctor. And exploit them he did!

But there was also something greater than self-interest that was nagging Dr. Dias. He saw the great inequalities, especially amongst poor children, in India, and felt it was unfair that some should have opportunities and others not. Could something be done about it? Could classical music be the way to do something about it? The Foundation started gaining shape once Dr. Dias witnessed the performance of the El Sistema Orchestra and the Buskaid Soweto String Project Orchestra. The Foundation, while taking its inspiration from El Sistema, a movement founded in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, share something in common with it as far as an unequal society is concerned: the belief in the transformative power of music.

So, what is the vision of the Foundation? According to Dr. Dias’s public presentations, the Foundation is driven by the idea that, in an unequal society, deprived children need to be systematically given opportunities. At the core of this idea is also the belief that the inner potential of underprivileged children will only be developed if they are given a chance. And one can easily agree with this vision. Deprivation in India commences with the lack of opportunities at birth, especially in the case of the underprivileged. This starts right at the level of formative education and is more severe in the formal and institutional level with gross inequalities observed in schools, colleges, and universities. The Foundation, therefore, uses music to overcome the flawed educational system currently in place in India.

And it works! I had the privilege to attend one of the Foundation’s annual concerts back in 2015. A large part of the audience was composed of the parents of the Foundation’s trainees. These parents were easily distinguishable, mostly daily wage laborers and domestic helps, by their clothes. These are parents who can pay for expensive private schools and coaching classes. Neither could they afford expensive extracurricular activities. Yet, like any parents, they were brimming over with pride to see their children perform on stage. While this is not evidence for equality, one saw the transformative power of music in action. For a few heartbeats they could see their children excelling; their talents identified, honed, and channeled fruitfully. The purpose of education is precisely this, and the Foundation through its efforts gave us proof that their vision is potentially empowering.

More privileged parents, frustrated with the schooling system of today, talk about alternate ways and encourage their kids to also think out of the box. Rahul Alvares, a Goa-based environmentalist, is one such former kid, who wrote a delightful account of taking a break from school when he was 17. The book, Free from School (1999, 2nd edn. 2005), details how Alvares found his true calling of environmentalism by pursuing his interests. As important as Alvares’ book is, one always wondered how such a thing would be possible for underprivileged kids whose parents lack personal networks and money, especially since Alvares’s interests took him to various corners of the world? Child’s Play Foundation, as a charity organization, provides the vital institutional base for underprivileged kids to explore their extracurricular interests, indeed it fosters this.

One could very well ask if, in the ten years of its existence, the Foundation has produced a prodigy, a Mozart or a Beethoven for our times. But that is not exactly the job of the Foundation and it is also not what one should expect from such an organization as the Child’s Play. The idea, it seems, is not to create one genius but to allow as many children as possible access to music so that it fosters positive values that are useful as adult members of the society. For, if a society structured as ours is, to reward accidents of birth, and thereby takes away opportunities from most of the children, a radical act of correction would be to create those very opportunities to those who do not have any.

Therein lies the lesson. It is important to create opportunities for children so that they can work hard to develop their talents. As a society, it is important for us to recognize that opportunities need to be created both within and outside the schools. The educational system in India only rewards individual merit of those who are already equipped with systemic privilege and cutthroat competition. But as Dr. Dias recognizes, the solution lies in the privileged working at democratizing access to opportunities. Fortunately, we do not need time to tell us if such a vision will be successful on a wider level. The pride felt by the parents of Child’s Play children itself shows that, in their small way, the Foundation has already made a difference.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 March, 2019)