[Reader-list] Old articles of mine I dug up
sarang at flomerics.com
Sun Aug 31 15:17:58 IST 2003
While sorting out an old box this relaxed labor day weekend, guess
what I found? An old floppy with a few of my random musings and other
stuff dating between 1996 and 1998. I thought I had lost these
forever, but here are three written between 1996 and 1998 that I
would like to share with all of you.
In those days, India had not seen a BJP prime minister yet. The stock
market collapse on Wall Street, the full flowering of the Indian IT
industry, the formation of the NDA, Vajpayee's victory in March 1998,
the Indo-Pak nuclear tests, the Lahore summit, the Kargil war, the
ignition of the second Intifadah in Palestine, the ascendancy of
George W. Bush, the tragedy of 9/11, the attack on the Indian
parliament, two Indo-Pak near-wars, the invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq etc. were all in the future. Boy, was it a long time ago!
The Last Cosmopolitan
(A very personal tribute to Mexican literary giant Octavio Paz who
died last week)
Sarang Shidore, May 1998
I first came across Octavio Paz almost by accident. A friend lent me
a book of his. Curious, I began reading. Before long I was in a
different reality. The story of a nation unfolded before me - its
birth and growth, the paroxysms of its defeats and triumphs, its
impenetrable masks and its brilliant fiestas, its hidden soul sublime
and the open sores on its body. The book, The Labyrinth of Solitude,
is probably Paz's greatest work of prose. It played a major role in
winning him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990.
The Labyrinth of Solitude attempted the impossible - a meditation on
the character and complexity of the large, diverse nation known to
the outside world as Mexico. A monumental enterprise, but for Paz -
a poet, philosopher, and political analyst - it seems almost
effortless. The reader is taken on a journey from a world of Mexican
masks to the enigma of the Conquest, then the Revolution; followed by
a scathing analysis of the state of post-revolutionary Mexico, and
finally a dizzying commentary on the dialectic of solitude. In
between, Paz treats us to a feast of interludes - a commentary on the
17th century Mexican nun, the visionary Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a
contemplation of Death, a lamentation on the brief flicker of hope
provided by the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, and what surely
must be the most in depth exposition of a swear word (chingar) a
writer has ever attempted!
While The Labyrinth of Solitude established him as an enormous force
in the literary world, Octavio Paz is remembered as much for his
poetry as his prose. In fact, he always insisted that he was first
and foremost a poet. His poetry was interwoven with his razor sharp
understanding of cultures around the world. From his epic poem
Sunstone to his poems written in India, the range of Paz's poems
demonstrated the power poetry can reach to craft a plethora of
fascinating images. It was not for nothing that he once called
poetry "the eroticism of language".
The Labyrinth of Solitude was followed by a series of other works on
topics as diverse as Mexican-American relations, Buddhist logic,
Japanese poetry, contemporary international politics, and eroticism.
He also continued his reflections on Mexican-ness with the essay "The
Other Mexico", written immediately after the terrible massacre of
peaceful student demonstrators by the Mexican army at Tlatelolco
Square, Mexico City in 1968. The incident so shocked Paz, that he
immediately resigned his post in the diplomatic service as ambassador
to India, returning to his native land to campaign against the
The Other Mexico is a trenchant and sophisticated analysis of the
Mexican political psyche with its provocative search for the long
shadow of the living, breathing other; as Paz puts it, the
"....gaseous reality formed by the beliefs, fragments of beliefs,
images, and concepts which history deposits in the subsoil of the
social psyche.....the existence in each civilization of certain
complexes, presuppositions, and mental structures that are generally
unconscious, and that stubbornly resist the erosions of history".
As with most Latin American literary figures, Octavio Paz was an
intensely political individual. In his youth, he went to Spain to
aid the Republican effort of the 1930's against the fascist forces of
General Franco, a cause that was the romantic ideal of leftists of
the time in every part of the world. A self-confessed Marxist then,
Paz however quickly grew disillusioned with Stalinism, and critical
of the Latin American intelligentsia's idolatry of Soviet
totalitarianism. These ideas may seem obvious to us today, but 50
years ago Paz's opinions were considered heresy among the
intellectuals of his country - his flaying of the "soulless" Soviet
state, a stubborn insistence that man was more than a means of
production, and a passionate belief in the idea of democracy; a
belief that Paz repeated time and time again throughout the decades
since then, always claiming that he was criticizing socialism "from a
socialist viewpoint", as he once put it.
In his later years, Octavio Paz enraged many Mexican intellectuals by
first voicing his suspicions of the revolutionary Sandinista
government in Nicaragua, and then harshly criticizing the leftist
rebellion in the state of Chiapas that grabbed international
headlines on New Year's day in 1994. Some felt that Paz had gone too
far, and had ignored the root causes - poverty and repression of the
indigenous population - that they claimed had sparked the rebellion.
It was especially ironic, considering Paz's long-held admiration for
the turn of the century revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata - who the
rebels claimed as their inspiration. Many observers also condemned
what they saw as Paz's naive faith in Mexican president Carlos
Salinas, who later fled into exile when evidence emerged of massive
corruption and influence peddling during his tenure.
Paz was no less sparing of the vagaries of liberal capitalism. In
recent times, as the United States emerged as the unqualified victor
in the Cold War and as the newly liberated countries blindly embraced
free markets, Paz warned of the excesses of our ideas of progress, a
failure "by us moderns (to undertake) a critique of time and of its
senseless and ultimately illusory acceleration". In his recent work
on love titled "The Double Flame", Paz mourns that "capitalism has
turned Eros to an employee of Mammon...the power of money and the
profit motive have turned freedom to love into slavery."
For myself, Paz's connection with India was a special bonus. His six
year stay there as Mexican ambassador led to a lifelong study of
Indian civilization, expressed in his many poems and a book
(published in 1995) titled "Vislumbres de la India". Although Paz
declares with a great deal of humility in the preface that the book
is "a child not of knowledge....but of love", nothing could be
further from the truth. Paz begins by commenting on the
contradiction that had overwhelmed him on his first visit to India,
"the coexistence of Hinduism and Islam....one the strictest and most
extreme form of monotheisms .....(and the other) the richest and most
varied polytheism. In one, the ideology is rigid and simple; in the
other the variety of doctrines and sects induces a kind of vertigo".
After a series of commentaries on Indian history, including Gandhi
(whom Paz called a "saint....not to be judged, but venerated") Paz
concludes with an ominous view of the rise of Hindu nationalism in
India, which coupled with the strain of Islamic fundamentalism
present in Pakistan, makes the critique of the two "....an enormous
enterprise (which) must be undertaken in historical circumstances
that are particularly unfavorable".
But Paz is at his delightful best when he turns his poetic
imagination to celebrating the joy of classical Sanskrit poetry. Few
contemporary writers have shown a greater command over the subject.
With a sumptuous selection of excerpts from poems written between the
3rd and the 12th centuries by several great poets (Kalidasa, Bilhana,
Dharmakirti, Jayadeva, Bhojyadeva), Paz reminds us that classical
Sanskrit poetry "....is a composition that expresses the drama of
being human; its sensations, its sentiments, its ideas....erotic,
satirical, philosophical; a song and meditation on song....". Its
neglect in the West he adds, "is inexplicable, and certainly unjust".
Vislumbres de la India concludes with an essay titled "A critique of
liberation", a somewhat skeptical view of the path to liberation
expounded by Krishna to Arjuna. Paz's own viewpoint is a more or
less qualified rejection of Krishna's message. Here we see the
Octavio Paz true to the roots of his own Catholic-based civilization;
an observer who is unswerving in his belief in the cause of activism
to save another's soul, while discarding the idea of detachment to
save one's own.
The most striking thing about Octavio Paz is not that he is always
right, but rather in his ability to encompass the enormous breadth of
the various civilizations of humankind, far beyond his own Mexican
roots. Few thinkers knew so much about the human enterprise; even
fewer could place themselves away and above the plane of earthly
existence and grasp the essence of the character of this experience.
And fewer yet could blend poetry with politics, metaphysics with
literature, analysis with imagination, the way Paz did.
In our age of modernity, programmed with the mantra of bigger, faster
and better; enchanted with the notion of linear progress - an age in
which pop culture is in danger of reducing us to a set of
trivialities - the concept of a classical cosmopolitan mind seems
rather old-fashioned. Our last great cosmopolitan voice, Octavio Paz
- unorthodox, irreverent, full of surprises - has departed, leaving
us in a labyrinth of solitude. Adios, amigo!
The BJP's Triumphant March
August 25, 1996
The Indian election results are in, and the once mighty Congress
party has been decimated. And the biggest gains have been made by
the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
To any mind wedded to the concept of a tolerant, multi-ethnic nation,
this cannot but invoke a sense of trepidation. After all, the BJP,
the political arm of the avowedly Hindu nationalist Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), rose to prominence in the late 80's through
a strident campaign that espoused Hindu cultural nationalism. This
campaign culminated in the destruction by angry mobs in December 1992
of an ancient mosque in the town of Ayodhya, that some Hindus believe
was built by Muslim invaders by destroying a shrine to the Hindu God
Ram. In the riots that followed, more than 2000 people were killed.
It would be a mistake, however, to characterize the BJP as a "Hindu
fundamentalist" party, although it is in alliance with the Vishwa
Hindu Parishad (VHP) - a fringe group of religious leaders, some of
whom want to enshrine the hierarchical caste system in India's
constitution. Much of the BJP leadership neither wants nor can hope
to change India's egalitarian constitution in such a radical manner.
Nevertheless, the BJP does stand for an oblique "Hinduism first"
policy. Time and again, its party's leaders including their
relatively moderate Prime Ministerial candidate, Atal Bihari
Vajpayee, have stated that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation with
a historical identity that has scope only for Hindu heroes and Hindu
myths. The most visible sign of the BJP's "Hinduism first" stance
can be seen in its support for a policy that would turn away Muslim
illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while unconditionally accepting
all such Hindu migrants. In fact, Mr. Advani one of the party's top
leaders, claims that just as Israel is a Jewish state in the sense
that it is the natural homeland for all Jews, India too must
assertively identify itself as a Hindu homeland.
The reality that the BJP has clearly won the largest number of seats
of any bloc makes it imperative that President Sharma call upon Mr.
Vajpayee to form a government. However the real question for
millions of Indians today is - what will the legacy of the BJP's
triumphant march be?
Of course, to leave a legacy a party must dominate the national
government for more than just one term, and we don't even know yet if
Mr. Vajpayee will be India's next Prime Minister. However, even if
the Centre-Left manages to cobble together a coalition this time
around, it is very likely that such a government will not last long.
The long term trends in India's socio-economic structure such as
accelerating urbanization, a growing middle class, and an increasing
sense of being Indian rather than belonging to a particular caste or
a clan, indicate a natural BJP mandate, if not now then in a few
years. How will the BJP respond to such a mandate?
To put the election results in perspective, we must note the
continuing strength of regional, socialist and backward caste based
parties across the length and breadth of India. With a number of
strong regional leaders, this so called left continues to exert
considerable influence at the state level. In a likely scenario, the
Congress party (if it survives as a united grouping) will be reduced
to one such player, influential but by no means dominant. The roots
of Indian political diversity are deep, and it is difficult to
imagine the BJP maintaining a monopoly of power in the centre as well
as in the states.
Also, to ensure its re-election , the BJP must woo the backward
castes and cannot afford to alienate completely even India's sizable
Muslim, Christian, and Sikh minorities. A BJP government is then
likely to keep "Ram under wraps"; support Hindu nationalism in
rhetoric, but not much in action, and maintain to a large degree the
current system of laws. This will happen not by the RSS core of the
party becoming suddenly more tolerant, but by the imperatives of
governing an incredibly diverse country such as India. Economic
reform policies initiated by the previous Prime Minister Mr. Rao will
be more or less maintained, with occasional bouts of anti-foreign
The greatest danger of a BJP legacy is not likely to be in domestic
politics, but in foreign affairs. Since independence, India has by
and large been at peace, having fought four wars in the period. The
wars, chiefly with arch-enemy Pakistan, were brief. The country
suffered none of the devastation Europe did during World War II, or
the Middle East has throughout this century. The Indian people do
not have a recent searing experience with military conflict.
Although many middle class Hindu moderates frown upon the crude
communalism provoked by the BJP, they eagerly embrace the idea of
Indian nationalism, where a resurgent, prosperous India aggressively
protects its interests, if necessary by hurting others'. This
feeling is most obvious, among other things, in the support for a
military solution to the armed insurgency in Kashmir, a sudden
perception that illegal immigration from Bangladesh somehow
significantly affects India's interests, and India's stance that
justifies its own nuclear program, while branding Pakistan's as
"illicit". This sense of strident nationalism resides most strongly,
not in India's villages, but among the small and large cities - and
even there among the enormous, fast growing middle class. Will a
newly prosperous, urbanized, awakening Indian giant, with eight times
the population of Pakistan and Bangladesh, fifty times that of Sri
Lanka, pursue a policy of mutual respect with its neighbours?
The answer, I believe, is sadly no. What the BJP's core leadership
cannot and will not do within the nation, it will do beyond. An
increasingly aggressive India is almost certain to pursue a policy of
progressive militarization of the Kashmiri conflict, deployment of
advanced weapons systems on its borders, a recourse to the "fence
mentality" of anti-immigrant (especially Muslim) paranoia, and in an
extreme scenario the instigation of internal conflict in Pakistan and
The consistently irresponsible policy pursued by Pakistan's military
dominated government of providing arms to Kashmiri terrorist groups
cannot but add fuel to the fire. But in the end, India's superpower
status in the region makes it responsible for going a little more
than halfway to achieve peace.
Mr. Rao has tried to do just that. But the BJP can turn the clock
backwards. A basically tolerant nation such as India is in danger of
stooping to a level that is not compatible with the ethos of
international brotherhood. Democracy cannot avert this impending
situation, as historically the foreign policy of a nation is one that
is the least open, the least scrutinized by its people, and the most
open to manipulation by its leaders. After all, Pakistanis and
Bangladeshis do not vote in Indian elections, and the suffering
caused across the border is unseen and invisible.
Nevertheless, in an increasingly globalized world, it is about time
that we Indians came to our senses and realized that in the long term
our neighbors' problems are our problems and vica versa. We cannot
solve all the problems that may arise between us and them, but we can
indeed behave responsibly and minimize the potential of conflict.
And that is why, when all is said and done, we must reject with a
passion and wholeheartedness the BJP and all that it stands for. For
their thinking represents a form of national tribalism , where the
strong dominate the weak, and loyalty to the tribe is the supreme
test of morality. Will we Indians have the moral courage to desist
from that path?
(Sarang Shidore is an engineer working in the Bay area)
A NEW FAULT LINE IN INDIA
By Sarang Shidore, Nov 27, 1997
(This article was written 24 hours before the collapse of the I.K.
With the latest threat from the Congress party to withdraw support
from the United Front government, the 14 party ruling coalition
appears closer to the brink of collapse than ever before.
If an election were to be held in India tomorrow, almost every
political party would lose ground. One of the notable exceptions
would probably be the BJP, which has been on a steady, surefooted
march to power since 1989.
The battle between the BJP - a conservative, nationalist party that
has brilliantly created a coalition of the urban middle class on one
hand and many upper caste segments of the rural vote (in the north)
on the other, and the heterogenous parties that comprise the United
Front, is often portrayed as a left-right contest. This is certainly
true, in the sense that these terms were defined in Europe a few
centuries ago; the policies of the "right" contain elements of
irredentist religious nationalism, whereas at least some of the
member parties of the left are home-grown socialist or communist
parties. However, to fully understand India's political future, we
must see this emerging contest as also a contest between regionalism
and what could be termed as "centralism".
Naturally, the continuing presence of the Congress party - a national
party - makes it a genuine three way contest. However, if one is to
believe that politics that lasts is almost always a politics that
results from a contest of ideas, the Congress party has little to
contribute in this area. In fact, it can be argued that the
continuing demise of the Congress (the potential Sonia factor
notwithstanding), is precisely because the party is no longer a party
The dominance within the United Front (UF) by parties mainly based in
their regional constituencies is obvious. A little less obvious has
been the corresponding asymmetry on the right. The BJP, although
possessing many seasoned, politically adept leaders at the national
level, is remarkable for its paucity of the same in the states. Many
of the state governments led by the BJP have foundered in either a
display of weak leadership leading to dissidence, or as a result of
The absence of a lucid regional vision in the BJP is also obvious on
many other fronts. Although vocal on many a national issue (as well
as some non-issues) ranging from illegal immigration and Article 370
to the entry of foreign multinationals, the BJP tends to be silent on
the issues that matter to India's villages - caste, land, literacy,
and general rural development. It claims to have an economic policy
for the entire nation, and does indeed boast of the presence of many
economist within its ranks. Yet, its core constituency on economic
issues is primarily made up of two groups - the traditional small and
medium traders (banias) of the north, and the upwardly mobile,
educated, professional middle class of the large cities - neither of
which is rural. The party of eloquent men of letters such as A.B.
Vajpayee has little to say to India's villagers.
But to capture power in India, a party must win the rural vote. This
the BJP has attempted to do by opening up another front - the highly
emotional issue of the Ram temple. Designed to exploit the dark side
of rural superstition, the recourse to the naked manipulation of
faith for political purposes has indeed worked. It has however, also
cost the party a lot of goodwill among many tolerant Hindus, not to
mention the loss of some potential coalition partners.
There are exceptions to this exclusively centralist orientation of
the BJP, those being its two main political allies - the Akali Dal in
Punjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, both regional parties. The
alliance with the Akali Dal though, is really an alliance that was
formed in line with the old dictum "my enemy's enemy is my friend",
the enemy of course being the Congress party. In terms of ideology
the parties couldn't be further apart. It must be admitted that the
alliance with the other regional party, the Shiv Sena, is based on
both ideology as well as convenience for the BJP. However, this is
more of an exception. If the BJP finds other regional allies in the
years ahead, it is likely that the Shiv Sena model will be the
exception, and the Akali Dal model the rule.
The UF is made up of three primary components - the Communists, the
regional parties,and the caste based groupings. The Telugu Desam in
the state of Andhra Pradesh., the AGP in Assam,and the DMK in Tamil
Nadu (which is also allied to the TMC) fall into the second category.
The so-called national parties - the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi
party - are really a collection of discrete groups drawing strength
from a particular state, or a certain caste. In fact it can be
argued that the communists are effectively regional blocs themselves;
mainly from the states of Kerala and West Bengal.
The cleavage of the Indian political scene into two broad fronts of
centralism and regionalism is only an extension of the historical
nature of Indian civilization, which has always resisted extreme
concentration of power through its centrifugal tendencies. These
tendencies ultimately have at their roots India's vast diversity of
religion, caste, language, economy, and culture. Emperor Akbar, the
great Mughal, knew this only too well, and created a strong, stable,
and just empire by building coalitions with regional chieftains in
the spirit of devolution. The age of empires is long gone, but in
our era of democratic politics, we still need the vision of that
ancient sovereign. A spirited debate on the Centre-State issue is in
The need for this debate grows stronger as states formulate
independent economic policies in order to attract investment and jobs
on one hand, and increasingly fail to resolve the contentious
resource-sharing issues between them on the other. The result - a
widening disparity between states that follow sound policies and do
well, and those that don't - will be one of India's greatest
challenges in the 21st century. Will we as a people have the vision
of the wise old emperor to find a way?
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