Modi and the Politics of Inauguration

Can you inaugurate something that’s not ready?

If you’re Prime Minister Modi, you can. You parade yourself in an open top jeep, with scores of security guards and attendants, and inaugurate 9 km of a proposed 96 km expressway, that was first proposed in 1999.

The next morning, your followers wake to full-page announcements where your Union Minister of ‘Road Transport & Highways…’ proclaims:

“Congratulations to NHAI and Welspun Group for completing the green and sustainable Delhi Meerut Expressway in record time”.

For a government perpetually in PR and campaign mode, why bother with the details, namely that only one tiny phase of the project is ready?

Talking of campaign mode, it doesn’t harm the party that a by-election is around the corner, and it just happens to be a stone’s throw away from the expressway. Campaigning inside the constituency would be a violation of EC norms, so let’s find a new way of fingering these outmoded pseudo-democratic traditions.

Seizing share of voice in the political marketplace is Modi’s forte, and he leaves the opposition flat-footed several times a week. Every institution – governmental, corporate, or non-governmental is recruited for the purpose.

Opponents can cavil, but the moment is passed.

Finicky folk can point at the facts, but this is a post-truth world.

There is a larger issue with public projects. In our country, especially, large projects span several governments, as they go from conception, through planning, to debate, costing, land acquisition, tendering, and execution. The Delhi-Meerut Expressway was first mooted in 1999. The idea was written into the NCR Transport Plan 2021 in 2005. Chidambaram announced it in his 2006 Budget speech. At one stage, it was to be built by the UP state government; in 2013, it was confirmed that the central government would be responsible for the project.

Given these massive gestation periods, infra-success has many fathers. What matters is who proclaims paternity loudest. Right now. Modi is doing that.

 

Icarus, and Doping in Sports

Last night, my son and I were comparing notes on the Giro d’Italia, one of the Big 3 European cycling races, and speculating whether Chris Froome would be able to win the stage.

Waiting for race updates from the Guardian blog, I was bemused to see a photo of a spectator taunting Froome with a massive mock-up of an inhaler – Froome is fighting a legal battle for his rights to his last two racing titles over the salbutamol levels in his blood.

The next race update showed that Froome had raced down the last descent at an average of 53 km. an hour, with a peak speed of 80 km, and was now clear in the lead for his fourth grand tour in a row, a record unbeaten since Eddie Merckx, who retired in 1978.

Thinking about drugs in sports, I turned to ‘Icarus’ on Netflix, a riveting ‘accidental’ documentary. By a bizarre set of circumstances, a playwright and stand-up comic, Bryan Fogel, found himself in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Director of the Russian anti-doping center, and filmed the drama that ensued. It’s tough to believe that Grigory is not a masterpiece of film-writing and casting, as he is an engrossing, complex character, who happily helps Bryan Fogel devise a personal doping program that will beat the anti-doping system.

Meanwhile, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, is crawling over the Russian lab, suspecting that the Russian sports system is not as clean as it claims. Grigory bails out, flies to the US, and with Bryan’s help, turns whistle-blower. The New York Times carries a massive story, the WADA gets in on the act, and given the amount of data Dr. Rodchenkov is able to offer up, concludes, “I can confirm, for years, that spectators have been deceived. The desire to win medals superseded their collective moral and ethical compass, and Olympic values.”

The 2016 Rio Olympics were weeks away, and WADA recommended to its parent organisation, the International Olympic Committee, that Russia be banned from the Rio games. The IOC passed the responsibility for the decision on to individual sports federations; eventually, 111 Russian athletes were banned, and 278 took part.

Given the time frame, and the paucity of data from Russia, I would assume falseness in both sets of Russian athletes. Having seen the film, I suspect the number of athletes on doping programs who came to Rio was significantly more than those not on drugs who stayed away.

This is probably true of most professional sports – the doping docs stay one step ahead of the anti-doping docs, and in some cases, the two are the same. For a top-level athlete, its probably safe to assume that your competitor is doping. Looking for that tiny extra edge to get on top, it must be really tough to stay away from the magic mushrooms.

Is it even worth trying? Is the Olympic promise of a drug-free games achievable? Or would a laissez faire approach be more honest – find the training regimen, needles and pills included, that sails your boat…

Flower Power, at 50

The first rock musical, HAIR, opened on Broadway in 1968.


It captured the spirit of Hippiedom with the exuberance of protest, inspired lyrics, and the shock value of a nude scene. It ran on Broadway for 4 years, in London for 5, and was adapted into a film by celebrated movie director Milos Forman. A generous cousin gifted me the double album set of the soundtrack, and its songs deeply informed my teenage years.

Ten days ago, I got to see a traveling production of Hair in Munich, and I had this strange sense of traveling into the past to look at the present.

Hair was a protest against the Vietnam war, and the draft; a plea for love, peace, and clean air.
 
It was a paean to the solidarity of youth, to the joys of sex – of all kinds, and free love.

It was a celebration of drugs.

 
And, yes, to the freedom to wear your hair long.
 
In the context of the late 60s, the demands that Hair made of society were truly fringe. And yet, its appeal, which was quite unprecedented, could be seen as a pointer to how widely change was sought.
 
5 decades later, so much of that change has been wrought, particularly in the US.
 
Though wars may still rage across the world, annual deaths have trended vastly down since the late 60s, and Max Roser has an amazing set of graphs (https://goo.gl/images/ZtP9wY) to show the changes. And draft, a central theme in Hair, was removed in 1973.
 
‘Free’ Love, meaning sex outside of marriage, barely merits mention today; same-sex intercourse, and marriage, have wide-spread acceptance, and increasingly, legal sanction. In June 2016, President Obama dedicated the Stonewall Monument in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, to honor the LGBT rights movement. In November of that year, Kate Brown became the United States’ first openly LGBT person elected Governor.

During World War II, smog in Los Angeles was so bad that people suspected a Japanese chemical attack. But the US Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970, and progress has been rapid. California is still vulnerable to forest fires and thermal inversion, but air pollution in the US is not a major public health hazard. Meanwhile, 14 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India.

And drugs? 64 % of American citizens support the legalisation of marijuana. In 29 states, you can smoke it for ‘medical use’. And legal annual marijuana sales crossed 10 billion dollars in 2017.

Long hair? Man-buns is now a thing.

I don’t want to make too much of a point of this, but I was really struck by how the performing arts can anticipate change, and, perhaps, just perhaps, influence it.

Namaaz, public spaces, and religion

Over the last couple of weeks, the practice of namaaz in the open spaces of Gurugram, Delhi’s southern neighbor, has become a deeply contentious affair. Hindu vigilante squads heckled and intimidated the worshippers till they dispersed.

When civil rights groups brought the matter to the Haryana government, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was quoted by NDTV as having said, “it wasn’t right to pray in open spaces.”

“If there is shortage of places for offering namaz, it should be done in personal spaces, inside homes,” Mr Khattar added.

I agree with Mr. Khattar. Religion is a private affair, and should have no demand on public spaces. I hope he holds to this view during the kawariya season this year.

Every July, millions of observant Hindus spill onto the streets of north India, ferrying water from the Ganga, at Hardwar, and at Garh Mukteswar, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana. Recent estimates put the number of water carriers, called ‘kawariyas’, at 32 million. Governments of the northern states, including Delhi, through which many of the busiest routes pass, make extensive arrangements for the welfare and security of these pilgrims.

Roads – sometimes entire highways – are blocked, schools are closed, law and order becomes sensitive, and meat shops are shut down for fear of offending religious sentiments.

Here are some news clippings of the impact that the kawariya season has on public spaces and private lives every year:

“We found that the entire Delhi-Hardwar highway was closed to non-pilgrimage traffic. Our bikes went so fast it felt we were going to take off! On the way, there were places for us to rest and eat – all free!

Business Standard, August 10, 2013

“The Ghaziabad administration on Monday declared a seven-day holiday for all educational institutes located along NH-58 for the ongoing kanwar yatra. Schools, colleges, and management and engineering institutes along the highway will remain closed till August 1. It’s the first time such an order has been issued in UP for kanwar yatra. “The order is applicable to all types of educational institutes,” district magistrate Nidhi Kesarwani told TOI.”

Times of India, July 26, 2016

“Huge force would be deployed along NH-58 for people’s security and also to maintain the traffic. A large number of policemen in civil clothes will also be among the Kawariyas.” Inspector General, Police, Meerut range, Uttar Pradesh.

India Today, July 31, 2015

Besides this, all meat shops on the Kanwar Yatra route in the Ghaziabad district have been ordered to remain closed. All eateries on the route have also been instructed not to display non-vegetarian dishes till Maha Shivratri celebrations on July 21.

Financial Express, July 10, 2017