On issues that matter …

Bal Thackeray – A Bombayite’s Analysis November 19, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 12:58 pm

I write this as a quintessential Bombayite; as one whose identity was intrinsically woven into the idea, the ethos, the feeling that was Bombay. The occasion? The passing of Bal Thackeray, the man who I consider was singularly responsible for changing identity.

My analysis, however, is aimed to be objective and not in the least personal.

1. Thackeray was born in 1926: Considering he was born well into the pre-independence era, although he professed an almost jingoistic version of nationalism, he was not in the least influenced by the Congress culture or by Mahatma Gandhi or even the freedom movement.

2. Thackeray’s CKP, middle class, Marathi speaking orientation:  It is obvious that he was born into an upper caste, educated, not-at-all-deprived background that was already politically active. His zeal for preserving the Marathi identity could have been his father’s legacy which he perhaps took on as a means towards an end.

One does not know what the turning point was or if there was any, but once he became the sole driver of the cause, he seems to have found his niche in regionality and the ‘end’ remained within the geographic borders of Mumbai, at best Maharashtra.

He built an empire on the foundations of something as intangible as ‘pride’ – Marathi pride. Which is also the reason why his empire remained regional. Although he did not necessarily play caste politics, his target base was always middle class and Marathi speaking.

3. He was a cartoonist in Free Press journal: Needless to say, it shows his intellectual orientation – of seeing things in different dimensions and using the tools of the media to ultimately spread his ideology.

He knew exactly how ‘soundbytes’ work and how to use them. He knew exactly how the power of communication and by extension, the power of media works. Although a journalist in a sense, he did not however, believe in the concept of journalistic ethics.

4. Control of Municipal corporations and a single stint in the state assembly:

I would see the Shiv Sena’s control over the municipal corporation as merely his narrow vision of localizing his politics. Political strategists would ideally begin at the grassroots, build their bases in municipal corporations and eventually go national.

But then, Thackeray was no visionary. He was content with ruling over a city – almost with a vengeance. A city, for which he had no greater vision than a change of name, a chain of low-cost food stalls and lower-level clerical jobs for his people. He never envisioned anything bigger either for the city or for the people who followed him.

And so in electoral politics, he never rose beyond the municipal corporations. The only time his party came to power in the state was with an alliance partner and not on its own merit.

5. His undermining of democratic processes: Thackeray’s lack of respect for democratic processes was evident in the way he imposed his will over the people through sheer muscle power and permeating a culture of fear. Interestingly however, he painstakingly built a parallel state over the past several decades, shakha by shakha (RSS style) with mini power centers in the form of pramukhs at each of these shakhas.

6. Power and Thackeray: 20 lakh people came out onto the streets of Mumbai for his funeral. Something no leader, political or otherwise, might be able to command anywhere in India today. These are people, whose lives, imaginably were touched by Thackeray somehow. But unbelievably, such a massive support base could not bring his party to power in the state in so many years, which again proves the inherent dichotomy of Thackeray’s power politics.

Thackeray was a genius of sorts, in that he knew how to identify and tap impressionable minds with aggressive energies, make them feel important and that’s it. He neither let them rise above their economic class nor social class. He never let their aspirations go beyond seeking to rise up to the lowest rung of the ladder.

His power also came from courting the rich and the famous and the glamorous not by overtly cultivating their friendships, but by covertly tapping into their weaknesses.

He wrested Mumbai from the clutches of the strong communist dominated trade unionists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But did he give Mumbai a better alternative for that? Perhaps not.

7. The State honor for Thackeray: That could at best be a political decision for the Congress government in the State.

8. Thackeray’s single most achievement: The taming of a city. The city on which he ruled. But the city which gave him all the power and influence, got nothing in return from him. It not only lost its name, it lost its very identity, its ethos, its culture, its cosmopolitan fabric.

9. The future of the Marathi identity: I can say the situation in Maharashtra is similar to what happened in Andhra Pradesh after N.T. Rama Rao. NTR, as he was known, rose to power with his “Telugu bidda” (Child of Telugu)… the equivalent of the Andhra son-of-the-soil credo…

NTR is credited with actually giving Andhraites their identity as separate from being clubbed together as “Madrasis” by the rest of the country.
It was thanks to NTR that Telugu as a regional language, and Andhraites as Telugus became known.
So to answer the question what happens to the Marathi psyche, is the counter question: What happened to the Telugu psyche after NTR? Andhra found another identity as the IT hub thanks to Chandra Babu Naidu. And they rose globally to be easily identified on the world map.
There is hope for Maharashtra and the Marathi manoos… they just have to find another identity… and hopefully this time it will move away from the “Municipal corporation” identity and become a global one.

Right to life November 17, 2012


For many Indians who may have seen Ireland through an Indian filmmaker’s creative oeuvre, a not so dreamy version of this quaint European country has been revealed over the last couple of days.

Suddenly now, Indians know that Ireland is a Catholic country with conservative laws
where social and religious edicts take precedence over personal choices.

And that revelation comes in the wake of the death of Savita Hallapanavar, a young Indian origin woman who was working as a dentist in Ireland.

In what has become an international issue of debate, and renewed the pro-choice protests in Ireland, Savita’s death was allegedly the result of strict catholic laws followed by the hospital she was admitted to for pregnancy related complications. The hospital apparently refused to medically terminate her pregnancy despite repeated requests by Savita and her husband, because “it was a Catholic country” and abortion therefore was illegal. Savita was admitted to hospital on Oct 21 and died of septicemia on Oct 28.

Now the Irish official spokesperson has clarified that Irish law does permit termination of pregnancy in medical emergencies, and that the Irish government is investigating the matter with the doctors who were treating Savita.

My heart goes out to Savita’s family which has suffered this loss and I hope all this public debate does not end up in loss of dignity too for them, what with the shrill voices of all those unconcerned who will gladly offer sound bites to the media.

While the unfortunate death itself has caused women’s rights activists in Ireland to rise in mass protest demanding that the archaic laws of Ireland be changed, in India, the debate in the mass media has taken on a framed tone about how an ‘Indian’ was treated in a ‘Western country’ and to a larger extent on religion and social discrimination of women there, instead of focusing on the larger pro and anti-choice debate in the western countries.

But wait, why all this debate in India? Just because this family happens to be of Indian origin?

With no disrespect meant to Savita’s grieving family, I think this issue simply should not be debated in this country. With dozens of media cameras going off in their face, Savita’s Bangalore-based parents righteously “demanded” that the Irish government should change its laws. I can understand their grief; but not the gripe of the many others who are simply demanding a change of Irish laws.

I wonder if all those making such demands today of the Irish government have ever demanded that the Indian government should implement stricter laws to tackle the increasing crimes against women in India?
For a country that records such high numbers of bride burnings, rapes, molestations, trafficking, domestic abuse, and most importantly female infanticide, it is beyond irony that it should be sitting in judgment to teach the Irish how they should handle their laws.
It is the intrepid Indian media that ridiculed a federal minister who advised women of this country to assert their right to something as basic as a toilet. This is a country whose village elders endorse honour killing of women who choose their life partners as against marrying someone of their family’s choice. This is a country whose police and just random men thrash women in public, who they deem as immoral. This country’s doctors comply with parental wishes and kill girl children even before they are born.

So, give me a break, Indian media and self-appointed protectors of women’s rights. Save your energies and breath, and let the Irish investigate their apparent lapses.



Towards a Direct Democracy November 10, 2012


After almost a year of acrimonious campaigning and more than $2 billion in campaign expenditure later, Washington D.C. is back exactly to where it was: in a Congressional gridlock.

The Republicans are perhaps still recovering from the Sandy-style election night results. But thanks to his decisive victory President Obama has already gained a head start on political posturing, a lot of which we have heard, well, many times over in the last four years.

Just two days after being declared victorious in the elections and even before his tears of gratitude towards his miracle-worker staffers have dried (by the way, I am convinced those were real, and not PR managed, tears that he shed while thanking his amazing campaign staff ), President Obama is already making his trademark direct appeals to the electorate. He wants the people to push House representatives to pass the deficit reduction package – that includes spending cuts, more taxes for the rich and less for the middle class.

As with all his other bills throughout his first term, President Obama is racing against time. This bill has only till the end of December to pass or come January 1, and taxes for 114 million middle class Americans will go up. The operative words are: 98% Americans; less $250,000 annual income; a balanced approach.

That spells S-O-C-I-A-L-I-S-M and frankly, I see nothing wrong with it – not the spelling, I mean the spirit of it. With the American Dream becoming frustratingly elusive for hard working Americans (unless one happens to win a lotto jackpot) I am sure not many would mind this not-so-capitalistic language, especially if they open their mind to the prevalent abusive language of crony capitalists.

So, before the nation braces itself for another made-for-television, edge-of-the-seat, last-minute gridlock drama, the President has already taken the fight to the people. “Now you have a choice to make,” a White House email appeal to the American people says. “This debate can either stay trapped in Washington DC or you can make sure your friends and neighbors participate.”

And that’s what’s been President Obama’s USP ever since he realized that Washington DC runs on politics and not policy or principle – go straight to the people, make democracy work by forcing people to participate and actually use the democratic tools at their disposal to exercise their power.

A thumping victory at the polls is perhaps only a vindication of his cunning understanding of the real democratic tools of power – the people themselves.

Now, when the President says in his remarks from the White House, “The American people understand that we’re going to have differences and disagreements in the months to come…but on Tuesday (Election Day), they said loud and clear that they won’t tolerate dysfunction”, he is reminding the people that the real barrier to their progress is Congress and that the onus of getting it to work is on the people.

He has thrown the ring-side bleachers to the nation’s capital open to Americans, not just to watch as spectators but to join in the fray.

I must say I like this. I would subscribe to this version of democracy. And this according to me, is Direct Democracy.


Srirekha Chakravarty








Fast and Furious November 5, 2012

As I sit to write this, I am filled with immense sadness over the state of the Indian democracy. Every once in a while we see or hear of events that defy sane explanations. And they make us question our own ethical reflexes, which seem to slow down owing to existential compulsions or simply insensitivity to reality in a mass media induced mass society.

Okay, I am riveted by the story of Irom Sharmila, a social worker and former newspaper columnist from Imphal in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur. Known as the ‘Iron Lady’ – not for her physical stature, but for her unflinching determination – Sharmila, has apparently, completed today 12 years of an indefinite fast she has been on, to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

I do not need to go into the local political history to understand the situation. Because, somehow, I am unable to wrap my mind to comprehend how a young woman could be so dogged in her resolve, how strong of her convictions, and how resistive to the simple temptations of hunger for 12 long years.

Sharmila, who began her fast unto death to protest against the killing of 10 persons in an alleged encounter with security forces in the year 2000, is routinely ‘arrested’, produced in court on charges of attempted suicide, besides being force fed (through a tube) in a hospital ward that has been converted into a prison cell.

The whole situation to me is bizarre, if not morally disturbing when I think of the state of the Indian democracy, the almost criminal negligence of the state and federal governments, the indifference of the Indian media in not finding her story sensational enough to focus their attention on, and just the fact that a human being could be subjecting herself to such physical torture for a larger social cause beyond any personal gain.

We know Mahatma Gandhi has fasted during his lifetime, for a larger good, but we do not know if he would have survived it for such a long period. More recently, we saw Gandhian and social activist Anna Hazare undertaking a fast to demand legislation against corruption, but we know he could not keep it up beyond a few days.

12 years is a long time. And to not have eaten for so long, it’s not even civilized anymore.

Someone, anyone who matters, please just let her eat.

 Srirekha Chakravarty



Sandy ramblers November 1, 2012

Calamities, especially the natural kind, sprout philosophy it would seem, even if a post-modernist kind, considering the notion of the sheer powerlessness of human beings to deal with them.

Sandy, the Frankenstorm (bless the guys who coin such terms) has uncannily inspired some perverse reactions from nerds (this one is for psycho-social experts to analyze) who spread rumors through fake Twitter messages and posted fake storm photographs on blogs and such. Was it nervous energy on witnessing what seemed like a preview of an end-of-the-world, ‘Day After Tomorrow’ like scenario, I wonder.

Anyway, since the world is still more or less intact and I am here enjoying uninterrupted power (unlike tens of thousands of storm-ravaged New Yorkers and New Jerseyans) I want to be allowed to ramble a bit (this too could be one for those psycho babblers to analyze).

Okay, what triggers this train of thought is the massive power outage in the wake of Sandy – of scenarios where babies in incubators in hospitals and patients on ventilators could be dying; of people suffering extreme heat or cold for want of power; of tons and tons of food being damaged and medicines having to be discarded; of stem cells, embryos, unfertilized ovular eggs, blood in blood banks, transplantable human organs all of them being wasted owing to the power outage… of stranded passengers and of hung up critical computer programming…

Well, you get the idea of course…

Here we are living through what we cockily call the information or technological era, and I wonder how many of us, including the economic stake holders of this era, really ever consider that technology is but a slave of energy or power. Of what use information and communication systems, mass media, social media, Internet, and all those operative words of the times we live in, if there is no power?

So okay, the earth still has some fossil fuels in store, the high seas still have oil and gas, water in rivers is still flowing, and hey, we still can continue to produce corn and when all of these get exhausted, we have an endless supply of energy from the sun and we have nucler power. If that sounds positive, then here’s the dampner – imagine the very real scenario where monster storms and tsunamis are damaging nuclear power plants and the likely fallout.

To philosophize would be taking the easy way out here because hope, fate, destiny seem but mere words when a lot of the suffering caused by elemental nature is accelerated, if not exacerbated by human nature.

Well, since I have lived to not only see another day but also have had the privilege of using devices essentially run on electricity to write this, I guess, I will just take things as they come.

Tomorrow is another day, if at all!

 Srirekha Chakravarty