Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India


“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. 

In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins.  

As long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. 

It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. 

The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). 

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. 

These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? 

We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. 

This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. 

It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Grand Old Ghost of George W. Bush

“I will not speak with disrespect of the Republican Party. I always speak with respect of the past.”
Woodrow Wilson




America is currently facing the highest pre-election jobless rate since World War II with an estimated 23 million Americans unemployed or underemployed. The number of Americans on food stamps has increased from 32 million to 46 million since Obama took office (source: USFDA). His signature healthcare legislation, as recently as June this year, had a mere 34 percent of the public in favour, while 48 percent disapproved of it (source: CBS News). The national debt increase is now officially larger under Obama’s watch than it was under all of Bush’s eight years in office; “The Debt rose $4.899 trillion during the two terms of the Bush presidency. It has now gone up $4.939 trillion since President Obama took office” (source: CBS News). The U.S. recession officially ended in June 2009, and the pace of recovery has been anemic at best and showing no signs of changing its current trajectory anytime soon.

History has also shown that no incumbent president has won re-election with a weak economy. George H.W. Bush got the boot in 1992 because of a weak economy (even though he had just won the Gulf war), Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976, Herbert Hoover in 1932, William Howard Taft in 1912. Both Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland were also unceremoniously dispatched by the American people because the economy was hurting. “In fact, this formulation holds for every case of a deposed incumbent going back to the 1850s, which is as far back as NBER’s data goes.” (source: The Daily Caller). There have been numerous analyses done by pundits, and even academics are scratching their heads and offering explanations that say the personalities of the candidates maybe playing a more important role today versus the pain people are feeling at the pump. Or that it boils down to Mr. Romney’s inability to connect with the people, the way Mr. Obama does. A few days ago a group of twenty leading conservatives accused ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN of rigging coverage to help reelect President Obama.” (source: Washington Examiner). However, history and conventional wisdom would suggest that all other factors matter little when the economic picture is bleak, painful and unemployment very high. So, the only question that remains to be asked is why is Mitt Romney not running away with this election, and why is this race even a contest?

Rather than look to history, biased polling and conspiracy theories, the Republican Party would be better served to take a long hard look within their own tent. With some honest soul searching they will find that all the answers lead back to George W. Bush, and the party he left behind after eight years of internal turmoil. When Bush won re-election in 2004 it was clear that the cracks that emerged during his first term had started to widen within the party. It resulted in the GOP losing both the House and Senate in 2006, which served to further widen these internal cracks, ensuring that the ideological earthquake that had been swelling within the ranks was now a forgone conclusion. There has long been a small but vocal minority within the Republican ranks that believed this country has been on an unimpeded road to liberal hell and damnation; dominated by feckless Democrats and lily-livered RINO’s (Republicans in name only) who have enacted welfare policies and created a culture of handouts versus hard work, slowly destroying the once strong moral and God-fearing social fabric of America. The attacks on 9/11 presented the perfect opportunity, and George W. the perfect patsy, to implement their ultra-conservative agenda. It would start with a strike first (ask questions later) foreign policy and be followed by a audacious reversal and re-drawing of society and domestic policy to lead us towards a more conservative promised land. However, it did not quite pan out that way as they clearly bit off more than they could chew in an attempt to reverse sixty plus years in one Presidential term.

The ill-conceived and poorly executed Iraq war only served to sidetrack from the half started war in Afghanistan and more importantly the hunt for Bin Laden. It also forced America to live beyond its means, at a time when her economic might and global leadership status were already in decline. China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa were all emerging as strong economic powers, feeling more confident about their place on the world stage and thus less fearful of American dominance, than ever before in history.  Meanwhile, an administration embroiled in trying to save face in Iraq totally missed the numerous red flags and warning signs within the over-heating housing marketing. While Bush is not responsible for the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, he is accountable for ignoring and not paying enough attention to the cracks that had started to show up in the housing market and broader economy, well before his treasury secretary informed him of the stark choice between a $700B bailout and total financial meltdown. At the same time, reeling from botched and hugely unpopular Iraq war, Bush had started to distance himself from Cheney and the Neocon’s; softening his rhetoric, seeking diplomacy in both North Korea and Iran, and giving the foreign policy reigns to his softer Secretary of State. By the end of his tenure, the Bush presidency not only looked and felt like an unmitigated disaster for the country but he had also shattered the hard right dream of taking back the country by reversing liberalism. Under Bush there had been an unprecedented growth in the size of government, never before seen deficits (all financed by borrowing from China), he championed immigration reform that would allow current illegals to stay, provided government handouts, corporate bailouts and extended unemployment assistance, and there was no more tough talk or threats of war with Iran or any other axis of evil power. This betrayal of almost all the most dearly held conservative principles by Bush led to further disenchantment within the Republican ranks and gave birth to the Tea Party. The Tea Party calls itself a grassroots movement for all the people but acts more like it is anti-government, anti-spending/bailouts/stimulus, anti-immigration and anti-compromise politics.

The Tea Party would not be a bad thing if it had a reasonable view about reducing the size of government, bringing down deficit spending, simplifying the tax code, reducing personal and corporate tax rates and overhauling and cleaning up Obamacare but the fact that it has refused to compromise or even sit down and discuss any of these issues makes it feels like their only agenda is to hijack the GOP and yank the entire party to the extreme right. Unfortunately, politics is about compromise by its very nature. Ideology is not. By holding a gun to the head of the GOP the Tea partiers have only served to hurt their chances of success. They have made the GOP look like the party of NO, and provided Obama a free pass, even though he has done little to reach out and seek compromise himself. If you ask the average voter they will say that the Republicans have refused to compromise or reach across the aisle. This growing movement within the party has also forced every GOP presidential candidate to lean further right and appeal only to the extreme right wing base of the party. We saw how John McCain’s VP pick to placate his base turned out, and now a once moderate, slightly right of center, and once imminently electable Massachusetts Governor has been forced to expend considerable time and energy trying to prove that he is conservative enough to his own base. Frankly, this is pretty much all that Romney has been consumed with so far and it is also entirely responsible for his choice of running mate and all his recent gaffes. The man is trying so hard to be someone and something he is not; in the bargain he has not spent any time wooing the electorate, or formulating a strategy to fight his opponent. Meanwhile Obama has spent all his time and money making Romney look like a man who is constantly flip flopping, on virtually every principle and dearly held belief, and has successfully painted him as a weak and ineffective leader who will bend to the will of his party, every time.

Finally, it amazes me how Republicans today behave like the eight years of Bush never happened. That by choosing to ignore all the harsh realities and problems faced by America under his leadership they will somehow magically bear no responsibility. Or that the electorate will simply forget. In this context, laying blame for ALL of America’s problems at Obama’s feet is not only disingenuous but an incredibly naïve and dangerous strategy. Americans are well aware that the grave problems facing this country have been in the making for a few generations. Social security, Medicaid, Medicare, federal spending and ballooning deficits are all cans that have been kicked down the road by both Democratic and Republican presidents alike. What’s more, the electorate today is completely disillusioned with both the House and Senate; much more than they are with the person in the White House. So blaming a president for all our ills, when it is Congress that has the power to act and solve many of them, is like cutting their nose, particularly for Republicans. Consider that during six of Bush’s eight years the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate, and for the last six years of Clinton’s, before that. They also won back the House after Obama’s first two years in office, so have controlled it for half of his presidency. So, as long as the party is unable to fess up to the skeletons in their own closet and admit to the many failures during the junior Bush years, every Republican candidate who is electable will be burdened by the ghost of George W. Bush. He will continue to haunt them until the party is willing to exorcise his ghost. Or, with each subsequent electoral loss, the party can continue to react by pushing itself further to the right supporting candidates who have no chance of being elected. They will only end up looking more extreme, older, largely white male and further and further out of touch with women’s rights and modern America.

The majority of Americans are thirsting for new ideas and real-solutions not no compromise ideology and zero accountability. It would serve the Grand Old Party well to remember that the voter is not a moron, (she is your wife)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why It Is Time To ban Mayor Bloomberg.


"A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or regard that quality in its chosen leaders today - and in fact we have forgotten."
John F. Kennedy

Late last week the New York City Board of Health passed a ban, pushed by Mayor Bloomberg, on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters.

Nobody disagrees that the problem of obesity has reached epidemic proportions in America and that childhood diabetes is becoming a hugely dangerous and growing problem. I also understand that reducing obesity will save taxpayers a lot of money and help to reduce healthcare costs and energy consumption. These are all good things. However, to pass a law to ban the sale of large sodas is a travesty.

There are two fundamental issues with the Mayor’s decision; I am insulted because he assumes that we are all morons or idiots, unable to make personal choices about what is good and bad for us. And yes, it is a personal choice, even if some of these decisions can affect society as a whole. This brings me to my second point, the method he has chosen (to achieve the right outcome – a healthier America) is a slippery slope that starts to involve the government taking over personal decisions and mandating and legislating what is good and bad for us. The single greatest cause of obesity is not sugary drinks; in fact, I would wager that poor eating habits, portion sizes, lack of exercise and low self-esteem are all major contributors to the problem. So why should he stop here? Why not restrict the portions that can be served in restaurants, or even have suggested entrées based on your body weight. Then let’s make theaters, ballparks and street vendors only carry healthy fruit and vegetable snacks. And why stop there why don’t we start fining parents whose children binge eat based on low self-esteem. Heck I have longed believe that many people today are not fit to be parents, so let’s start to issue parenting licenses that require prospective parents to pass a series of tests, just like we make them when they want to get behind the wheel of a car. After all, our politicians and government know what is best for all of us and only ever look out for our best interests. Of course, I exaggerate to make my point, but you can see how this path is a slippery slope that can lead to Saudi Arabia-esque society and not the America with the freedoms we now know.

The Mayor is right that we need to tackle this major health crisis and he is also right that cutting down on the amount of soda and sugary drinks people consume will help, BUT we need to achieve the same objective through education and by helping people to make better decisions about their health and their lives. Bloomberg himself also argues that the proliferation of marketing and advertising messages, particularly aimed at the poor and less educated make a certain segment of our population vulnerable to these messages. So let’s start by fixing the problem with a counter campaign that informs and teaches people about the long-term and serious affects these things have on our bodies, our lives and how they also affect the people around us and society as a whole. Let’s pass laws that make it mandatory for all fast food joints and other eating establishments to clearly show the calories, fat and ingredients that go into the food we are about to consume. Let’s start a movement using celebrities and role models to stop endorsing products that are bad for our kids. Let’s pass legislation that forces schools to have recess time again, and completely take corporations out of the school lunch rooms, so they can no longer dictate the menu based on their bottom lines.

The reality is that leaders today don’t have the courage, integrity or fortitude to solve the big problems that we are facing. This would mean taking on trade unions, school boards, celebrity donors and the same corporations that finance their re-election bids and fill their campaign coffers; not to mention the fact that their popularity numbers among voters would also plummet if they were to force them to face some of the cold hard truths. So instead they focus on the small, less relevant things or make up problems that simply divert our attention from the real issue. To make us believe that they have made some progress but it is really just a sleight of hand and solves nothing. Rather than take on the real and tough issues, Mayor Bloomberg, like every other politician, took the easy way out by making it more difficult for us to buy a 32 oz. drink.