Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Tale of Two Elections

On 6 May 2010, the United Kingdom went to the polls. On the whole, the Conservatives got the most seats (306) after winning 36% of the total vote. Labour got 29% of the vote which gave them 258 seats. The Lib Dems got 23% of the total vote, but got only 57 seats under the First-Past-The-Post system. Naturally, one of the first demands the Lib Dems made when negotiating with potential coalition partners was that this system be replaced by one of Proportional Representation.

England, especially the southern heartlands, fell to the Tories. Scotland turned out largely for Labour and gave them 41 seats out of 58. The Scottish National Party did pretty badly and won only 6 seats. The Conservatives got just one seat. In Wales too, Labour ruled the roost with 26 seats out of 40 (a drop of 4 seats). Conservatives came second in Wales with 8 seats while the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru got 3 seats each. These results caused Minette Marin, a very sensible journalist who writes for the London Times to call for Scotland to be cut loose, since the Tories will have an absolute majority in an English Parliament and it is unfair for English matters to be decided by a Parliament with MPs from Scotland and Wales which have their own legislative bodies.

A week before the elections, I had wondered if the UK would break up after the elections For the moment, the answer is No, but the possibility can’t be entirely ruled out. I mean, Tory supporters in England cannot ignore the fact that it is support for Labour in Scotland which prevents the Conservative Party from gaining an absolute majority in the British Parliament. However, the weakening of the EU in recent times will act as a dampener for those in England and Scotland who want their respective nations to part ways. As long as the EU is stable, a partition would be painless, but without the EU, separation will be painful. Further, the fact that the Scottish National Party came off worse than they did in the last election shows that separation from English is not particularly popular in Scotland. However, it must be noted that Scots don’t as a matter of principle use the Parliamentary elections to show their support for the SNP. That show of strength is reserved for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Under the First-Past-The-Post system, a coalition government comprising of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has come to power in the UK. This coalition government has produced a document which sets out the agreement between the two coalition partners. The Lib Dems have given ground on many of their policies, notably immigration and tax cuts. However, they got the Conservatives to agree on a referendum to decide if the First-Past-The-Post system should be replaced by Alternative Voting.

I couldn’t help comparing the UK elections with the elections held in India almost exactly a year ago. The main difference in the conduct of elections is that India uses electronic voting machines which allow results to be produced in the jiffy. In the UK, the votes are manually counted. India has 417 million voters while the UK has a little less than 30 million. India claims that its voting machines are tamper proof and I believe that claim. It is tough to get access to a voting machine and even if you do, there is no software to tamper – votes are stored on micro chips. However, I did read a BBC report which said that a few US Scientists have managed to hack into a voting machine

This year, the UK had a high voter turnout and many polling stations were not equipped to handle that, as a result of which, many voters were turned away and could not vote. Of course, the number of people turned away was in the ‘hundreds’, a small number in my opinion. Ever since I came to the UK almost eight years ago, I have voted in elections though I am still an Indian national. This is because the UK allows all commonwealth citizens (and India is still in the commonwealth) to vote, even in the Parliamentary elections. This time, I had opted for the postal vote. This meant that postal ballots and stamped envelopes were delivered to me many days before the elections. I only had to mark an X against my chosen candidate, sign and post my ballot paper so that it reached its destination by 6 May.

I have never voted in India. This is not because I didn’t want to vote or am apathetic, but because, from the age of 18 till the time I left for the UK almost ten years later, I was a nomad shuttling between hostels and work places and towns where my parents lived. Electoral Rolls in India are a mess and it is no easy matter to get your name into one, unless you have lived in a particular place for a very long time. I suspect there are millions of nomadic Indians like me who have never voted because their names don’t figure in electoral rolls. On top of that, India doesn’t have the postal vote except for government employees engaged in election duty. As a result of this, not only are millions of Indians living outside India deprived of their right to vote, even Indians in India who are forced to travel on election day or be in a place other than where they are registered to vote, cannot vote. Of course, it is no easy matter to provide for postal votes for so many people, but I just couldn’t help noticing.

If you are a British national, you get to vote, wherever in the world you might be. Britons of Indian and Pakistani origin who live in the sub-continent, have postal ballots delivered to their homes by post. Every time elections are held in the UK, there are claims of postal vote fraud. This year there was a BBC report which said that in Mirpur (in Pakistan) which has a large number of British nationals of Pakistani origin, men went door to door collecting postal voting envelopes which they would or could then fill in the way they wanted. Despite this controversy and the administrative hurdles notwithstanding, I would like to see India implement the postal vote. Even if it can’t do that, it could set up a few (tamper proof) voting machines at each Indian embassy or consulate and allow Indian passport holders to vote. The votes would then have to be redirected to the respective constituencies, which will be a huge problem. Another problem would be that the voting machines used for NRIs would need to display practically every candidate in India. May be the Indian government could create a few NRI constituencies, with an MP each for NRIs in the Americas, Europe, the Middle-East and Australia.

India’s 2009 Parliamentary elections took place on 5 days, staggered over a period of one month, starting from 16 April 2009 and ending on 13 May 2009. This was because violence by terrorists and others and other disruptions was anticipated and the security forces could only be spread around by so much. The votes were counted on 16 May 2010. Thanks to the electronic voting machines, the counting process took only a few hours, though.

The Congress Party won 201 seats, the best ever performance by any party since 1991. However, it still didn’t have a majority in the lower house of Parliament which has a total strength of 545 members. The United Progressive Alliance of which the Congress is the main member won 262 seats and came to power without much ado. Unlike in the case of the UK, the coalition was already in place and the usual horse trading did not take place.

India has had many coalition governments in the past, formed after the election results were announced and I can’t remember any of them announcing joint policy statements with the same clarity as the one announced by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Usually, the largest party’s policies are implemented, with support from the coalition partners on a case-by-case basis, which means, the support may be yanked away at any time.

The most interesting outcome of last year’s elections in India was that Dr. Manmohan Singh got to continue as Prime Minister, though he did not stand for elections. Actually, ever since Dr. Manmohan Singh was made India’s Finance Minister in 1991, he has not stood for elections, except in the 1999 Parliamentary elections when he stood for the South Delhi constituency and - lost. Now, I am a big admirer of Dr. Manmohan Singh, his integrity and his various reforms since 1991, but it is no easy matter to stomach the fact that the Indian Prime Minister does not have the confidence to face the electorate. Surely, the all powerful Congress Party can find him a safe enough seat to contest the elections?

The Indian Constitution does not require the Prime Minister to be a member of the Lok Sabha or the Lower House of Parliament, which is entirely composed of directly elected representatives. No, the Prime Minister may be a member of the Rajya Sabha or the Upper House, the Indian equivalent of the House of Lords. One can only imagine the consternation that would be caused in the UK if a Lifetime Peer from the House of Lords was sought to be made the Prime Minister.

According to this Government of India website, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s address is in the Kamrup district of Assam. I doubt if Dr. Manmohan Singh has ever been to Kamrup, let alone live there for any part of his life. Yet, he has been elected to the Rajya Sabha as a resident of this place.

Almost all members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by State Legislatures for a term of 6 years on a revolving basis (one-third resign every two years) and each state has a quota. Assam is a Congress stronghold and ever since India’s independence, the Congress Party has been in power in Assam except for brief interludes. Therefore, getting the legislators of the Assam State Assembly to elect Dr. Manmohan Singh to the Rajya Sabha as their nominee must be the easiest thing to do. And not a very ethical thing, since Dr. Manmohan Singh is not a resident of Assam, a requirement to be so elected. Of course, no one in India bats an eyelid regarding this. To be honest, even I am not too fussed since I’d rather have an unelected Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Indian Prime Minister rather than an elected goon. Jawed Naqvi has written an interesting article on this topic in the Dawn.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Book Review: Lucy Kellaway’s In Office Hours

Stella Bradbury is Head of Economics, Strategy and Planning at Atlantic Energy. In her mid-forties, married to a documentary marker (who happens to the youngest ever BAFTA winner) with 2 kids, Stella has everything going for her at work and at home. Yet Stella embarks on a wild affair with a trainee, putting at risk her career and her marriage. Bella Chambers is a secretary at Atlantic Energy. Pretty at twenty seven, she is a single mum with a seven year old daughter and spends a certain amount of her time keeping her drug addict ex-boyfriend at bay and away from her daughter. Bella too has an affair at the same time as Stella – with her new boss James Staunton, who has just finished an affair with Julie Swanson. Bella is aware of James’s affair with Julie for she used to be Julie’s secretary and has read all her emails. Bella also knows very well the fate of a woman who has an office affair. When Julie’s affair with James ended, she had to leave Atlantic Energy.

What is it that makes people have office affairs? Especially an extra marital one. An office affair, by its very nature carries a certain degree of risk, unlike one conducted with someone from outside the work area. The risk increases substantially if it happens to be an extra-marital one. Why then does Stella plunge into an affair with a trainee many years younger? Stella would not have looked twice at Rhys Williams if she had met him outside Atlantic Energy’s imposing office. Do office workers tend to look at colleagues, be they bosses or sub-ordinates, in a different light than they would if they weren’t colleagues? Before she starts her affair with James Staunton, Bella wonders how on earth Julie Swanson found James attractive when he is a balding man of average height with a largish bottom. As for Stella, she initially finds her new trainee Rhys Williams to be arrogant, incorrigible and …..lazy and ticks him off.

In Office Hours’s author Lucy Kellaway writes a regular column in the Financial Times on office and management. Her column “pokes fun at management fads and jargon and celebrates the ups and downs of office life.” Kellaway’s curiosity about all things connected to office life is only too evident in her latest book. Other than exploring why the two women have office affairs, In Office Hours takes a dig at everything from office jargon to the way bosses listen (or don’t listen) to their subordinates, to bonding sessions (which Kellaway really loathes), to the politics within the secretarial pool, to the less than even handed treatment women receive in terms of pay and how women are perceived by their male colleagues.

Kellaway doesn’t need any more accolades about her ability to delve into office life and expose its quirks and quibbles for her readers, but how does In Office Hours measure up as a work of fiction? Kellaway’s characters are flesh and blood characters and only too believable though when dissected, they are full of contradictions. For example, Rhys Williams is shown as being street smart and good at driving bargains (he negotiates a discounted rate at the hotel where he has his trysts with Stella) though he quotes poetry all the time and we are told that he read English at Jesus Colleague, Oxford. James Staunton is not flamboyant or chirpy or even well-dressed though he is head of External Relations and goes on to take charge of Press Relations as well, after Julie Swanson departs. I am not convinced that Staunton fits the profile of your typical pres officer, but I guess Kellaway has met more Press Officers in the course of her 25-year long career with the FT than she can wave a stick at whilst I can count on the fingers of my hands the ones I know and so, I’ve decided to give Kellaway the benefit of doubt on this one.

Kellaway does not hesitate to stretch her fiction writer’s license to the fullest extent. For example, when she hosts a party at her home, her husband talks of filming at a deprived part of Wales. It turns out that Rhys Williams grew up there. During a business dinner in Moscow, Stella watches as a blonde six-foot model caresses Atlantic Energy’s CEO’s thigh as his Russian counterpart fondles a young girl’s breasts with sausage fingers. Stella’s and Bella’s feelings for their lovers progress from aversion and loathing to love in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mills and Boon novel. For Stella “the cocky confidence that had once enraged her delighted her.” As for Bella, though James is alternately temperamental and cold and not attractive at all, he makes her feel like the person she’d like to be rather than the person she is. And what’s more, both women individually meet up with girl friends they don’t entirely like and spill the beans even before either affair is fully developed.

It’s not just the employees of Atlantic Energy who are caught in Kellaway’s net. Even their spouses and kids find no escape and are painted in the nude by Kellaway. Does James’s wife Hillary drive him into the arms of other women by her extreme behaviour at home? Does Charles the documentary maker nudge his wife Stella into having an affair with Rhys by his preoccupation with his work and his general indifference to hers? A keen observer, Kellaway’s eye notices interesting trivia about human behaviour all the time which makes for interesting reading. For example, we are told that Charles dislikes mention of his Bafta since it reminds him that there have been no recent triumphs.

For a Londoner and especially for someone who works in London’s financial district (as I do), In Office Hours is littered with mentions of Wagamamas, Prets, bike couriers and other comforting accessories that make the City a place fit for human habitation and work.

However, the biggest drawback in this book is that, it drags a lot, especially in the middle. For sure, In Office Hours is a brilliant excoriation of office life, but once I reached the middle of this three hundred and forty three-page novel, I found the going tiresome - page after page of how people behave in office. It is as if Kellaway has crammed in everything she knows about offices and the people who work there into this book. The usual Kellaway column in the FT is a delight to read, but it is not more than a few pages long. What made the going especially weary was the feeling that I knew how the book would end. After all, doesn’t the novel begin with Stella and Bella putting their affairs behind them and making peace with themselves?

However, towards the last fifty odd pages of the book, Kellaway the fiction writer redeems herself. I thought I knew how the novel would end since I knew that the affairs do come to a close. But hold on, Kellaway has a few surprises in store for her readers. The affairs do end, both of them, but not so tamely and the manner of each ending has an element of surprise which relieves the tedium of the previous one hundred and fifty odd pages. We know from the start that Stella and Bella are in it for love. However, what about the men? Is Rhys an ambitious trainee trying to sleep his way to the top or does he love Stella? The answer to this question can be found before one gets half way through the book. Why does James Staunton, a man who has just finished one affair embark on another with Bella? Kellaway saves the answer and doesn’t tell us till the end.

I found myself comparing Kellaway’s book with Michael Crichton’s Disclosure which I had enjoyed a lot, lot more than I enjoyed In Office Hours. From what I remember, (I read it over fifteen years ago) Disclosure too deals with office politics. A male executive is at the receiving end of amorous advances from his female boss. When he spurns them, he is accused of sexual harassment. The protagonist takes his case to court and of course … finally wins. In addition to sexual harassment, Disclosure also deals with office politics and corporate intrigue. The main difference between Disclosure and In Office Hours is that the former merely tries to tell a story with a lot of drama whilst in the latter, Kellaway tries to lay bare as much of Atlantic Energy and its personnel as she can. The story is secondary for Kellaway and this gives large swathes of the book the feel of a business school case study. Despite that, this book is a good read for anyone interested in office life, human nature and in finding out what the work environment does to human beings.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Iraq Needs a Tito

When elections were held in Iraq in the last week of March, to the pleasant surprise of a lot of people including myself, the secular Iraqiya coalition headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won the most seats. Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition of Shia parties came second with two seats less than the Iraqiya coalition, which though secular, is largely supported by Sunnis.

Like Nouri Al-Maliki, Ayad Allawi is also a Shia, but is a former Baathist and is secular. Trained as a doctor, partly at London University, Allawi has spent over thirty years in exile outside Iraq, of which a large part has been in the UK.

Even though the elections got over some time ago, a government is yet to be formed. The various parties have been bickering over the count and the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission had ordered a recount. Now it appears that the State of Law coalition of Shia parties is allying with the Iraqi National Alliance which includes radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, with the backing of, or rather prodding by, Iran.

When the US led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein, the Shiites of Iraq were the biggest beneficiaries. Suppressed by Saddam, they are now able to use their superior numbers to have their major say in a country they increasingly dominate. Iran is also a beneficiary, since both Shiite coalitions (State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance) have ties to Iran and depend on Iran for moral, if not material support.

When the elections got over in March, it appeared that Iraqis had rejected sectarianism and had voted for a secular government. I had commented in one of my posts that may be the US could after all salvage something out of its Iraqi debacle if a secular government came to power, rather than one headed by a Shia coalition that was close to Iran. May be I was too optimistic too soon. Of course, the Shia coalition, even if cemented, will have its own share of problems. Moqtada Sadr can’t stand Al-Maliki since it was Al-Maliki who had ordered a crackdown on Sadr’s Mahdi army two years ago and chased them off the streets of Sadr City in Bagdad and in Basra. The Mahdi army is now being revived.

What Iraq needs is a politician with a stature similar to Josef Broz Tito, the titan who in the aftermath of the Second World War kept Yugoslavia unified, though it was composed of diverse nationalities (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes and Montenegrins) and religions (Serbian Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims). Someone who can force Iraqis to look beyond their sect (Shia or Sunni) or race (Arab or Kurd) and think of a unified Iraq, which guarantees equal rights for everybody. Tito had kept Yugoslavia non-aligned and powerful, able to punch above its weight in global politics. A secular and democratic Iraq that is not under Iranian control, if one merges, would easily be the most powerful Arab state in the world.

Ayad Allawi is a great guy (check out his resume on Wikipedia), but can he do for Iraq what Tito did for Yugoslavia? I doubt it. It must be remembered that Allawi is a former Baathist and I have always taken the stand that the secular Baath party is in general, a force for good in the Arab world. If Iraq is to find its Tito, it must necessarily look to the rank of former Baathists for its saviour. The Baath party continues to be banned in Iraq, so many years after Saddam Hussein’s execution.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Don’t Hang Kasab

Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab is to be hung by the neck until he is dead. I think it will be a mistake to hang Kasab. No, I’m not saying it’s wrong to hang him. No, only that it will be a mistake. There are instances where the death penalty may be justified. In August 2004, Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged in Kolkata after he was convicted of the rape and murder of a schoolgirl, a punishment I feel was justified.

In my opinion, the ideal punishment for Kasab would be to imprison him for life. No, I am not saying that he should be given a ‘life sentence’ of 14 years, as life sentences under the Indian Penal Code go. I would like to see Kasab put in prison till he dies of natural causes. I would like to see the tax payer’s money spent on keeping Kasab alive. If Kasab catches pneumonia, he should be given medicines to cure him. If Kasab sprains his ankle while doing callisthenics in the prison yard, he should be allowed to wrap his ankle in a bandage. If Kasab catches diarrhoea as a result of the prison diet, his stool sample must be tested for pathogens and he should be given the appropriate antidote. Kasab should be in solitary confinement for most of his lifetime sentence, but he should be allowed to mingle with the rest of the inmates once in a while so that he doesn’t go insane. Kasab should be allowed periodic access to newspapers and journals, especially from his home country Pakistan, so that he knows what he’s missing.

Kasab came to Mumbai to kill people until he was himself killed. His handlers in Pakistan wanted him and all his comrades to die so that there would be no evidence linking Pakistan with the Mumbai assault. Kasab succeeded in his first objective. He was a killing machine indeed. Men, women and children perished even as he laughed and sprayed them with bullets. However, his second objective, to get killed and become a martyr, remains unfulfilled. Is there any reason why he should now be allowed by the law to succeed?

Killing Kasab will make a martyr of him. Imprisoning him for the rest of his life will set an example to his ilk.

Added Note (11 May 2010): My desire to see Kasab kept alive in prison for the rest of his life does not blind me to the fact that even if the judge wanted to award such a punishment, he could not have done so in the absence of an amendment to the Indian Penal Code 1860 (IPC). There is a crying need to modify the IPC so that judges have the option of awarding “Imprisonment for Life” as a punishment rather than having to choose between imprisonment for 14 years and a death sentence.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

What’s To Be Done With The Catholic Church? – Part II

Around three weeks ago, I had blogged about the child abuse controversy plaguing the Catholic Church. In my previous post, I had wondered if the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule played a role in making child abusers of priests. I mean, there are child abusers all over the world. Mostly men, they form a very small portion of the world’s population. Statistically, it is inevitable that some Catholic priests will be child abusers, just as some teachers, some policemen and some doctors will be found among that roll of disgusting people. It is even more inevitable that a child abuser is likely to be someone who has access to children and who is trusted by them.

Can we say that Catholic priests are more prone to abuse children than other sections of the population? I mean, just because a man is forced to remain celibate, can it be said that he is more likely to ‘turn’ into a child abuser?

Here’s a very interesting article on the BBC which says that the answer to all the above questions is No.

As this article rightly says, the problem which most of us have with the Catholic Church is not just that the abuses took place, but that there was a serious attempt to deny them and to cover them up. This problem goes right up to the top (of the Church).

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Book Review: ‘Curry is Thicker than Water’ by Jasmine D’Costa

Jasmine D’Costa is a banker from Mumbai with over 25 years of banking experience who now lives in Toronto, Canada, and writes full-time. In case you’ve ever wondered if it’s possible for a finance professional who has crunched numbers for two and a half decades to write fiction, D’Costa’s debut work settles the issue with a thumping Obamaesque 'Yes You Can'.

'Curry is Thicker than Water' is a collection of short stories about Indians set in Mumbai and Goa and Nagpur. The best thing about D’Costa’s writing is that though her language is very simple and basic and she writes about ordinary people and events which are not very unusual (for India), she manages to give her stories and characters an exotic tang.

In one of her stories, ‘She Married A Pumpkin’, in my opinion the best in the collection, the prettiest girl in town is discovered to have a fault in her horoscope. A fault which will cause her first husband to die soon after the wedding. The stream of suitors keen to marry her stops after this discovery. There is of course a solution. If the girl marries a pumpkin first, she can then safely marry a human being. Was D’Costa inspired by Aishwarya Rai who married a tree before she married Abhishek Bachchan? May be. In any event, the pretty girl marries a pumpkin. The marriage liberates her. She can attend parties and functions and do all the things married women do. So, when a (human) suitor approaches her parents again for her hand, should she bother to remarry? Do read this story to find out.

The opening story ‘The Elephant on the Highway’ is as humorous as the pumpkin tale, but not all of D’Costa’s stories are in a similar light vein. In ‘Eggs’ the mother destroys her son’s dreams – for a very good reason. You end up feeling sorry for both, may be more for the son than the mother. In ‘Two Wives and a Doormat’ a drunkard's two wives team up in a manner reminiscent of the two sisters in law from Deepa Mehta’s Fire. No, they don’t become lesbians. I’ll leave it to you to read the story and find out what they get up to. In ‘Cobras and Pigs, Holy Cow’, neighbours of different faiths, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, weave spells and black magic on each other in a glut of superstitious frenzy.

The last story in the collection, 'The Guest at my Grandfather’s House' is the weakest story of the lot, since it is meant to keep the reader in suspense till the end and one is able to guess the answer to the mystery before one is halfway through. Despite that, D’Costa’s narration keeps one engrossed in the tale.

An eminently readable collection and I hope that we get to read more such good stuff from D’Costa.