In the Middle of Nowhere

12 Sep

Given that wealth is hard to measure, the middle class has often been defined in terms of income. Gary Burtless defines it as families earning anywhere between half of median income ($24,000) to twice as much ($96,000). Frank Levy, based on Census data for families in their prime earning years, pegs that range between $30,000 and $90,000. This seems much too wide a ‘middle’ to be meaningful. These incomes likely reflect very different lifestyles and options. But the definition is slippier still. The World Bank defines the middle class as people making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

The middle-class has been described as a rentier class with no social basis but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist system, with the top .01% gaining significantly more than the next .09%, who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric, and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose hands success seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense-making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism — it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. The successful are caught in the need for ascribing their success to their own ingenuity and hard work.

The moralism of middle class can be better understood if we look to its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the middle-class in the Victorian era was its extreme moralism — railing against the corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rabbits poor — and trying to define meritocracy as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society — inclusive yet elusive — inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Media and the Middle Class: Example of India

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way – especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade – as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong-based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels — including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself – at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment.

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and the new generation that took reigns of that media – the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intentions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till the early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers trod lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured foreign channels carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign-bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of native media led by clawing young brigade. The recruits to the media industry – young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of middle-class discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with a shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading Times of India with its Leisure sections (something which was started by Washington Post Style Section in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a cause of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: Connaught Place

14 Jul

The romance of a Delhi summer can be savored by conjuring up just one image: the vast, cool corridors of Connaught Place.

The Raj-era building, built between 1928 and 1934 though formally opened in 1931, was based on the designs of World War I veteran Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect to the Public Works Department. Russell had worked in India before the War as an assistant to the famous John Begg, who along with George Wittet is generally credited with developing the Indo-Saracenic style. Thankfully, due to exigency or choice, none of Begg’s influence invaded Russell’s design aesthetic, which was dominated by the understated yet stately stucco neo-classical style popularized by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Russell’s aesthetic, however, did carry distinct echoes of Italian architecture- The opulent gracefully executed Tuscan loggias on both on both levels (the upper-level structures have been increasingly converted into offices) being the defining features of Connaught Place.

Growing up in the eighties, Connaught Place, with its massive arcaded colonnades, circular columnar geometry which was never oppressive, upscale if slightly frumpy shops, as opposed to upscale shops now which have interior designs that are almost always preternaturally youthful, with humming air conditioners, when air conditioners were a rarity, was a source of wonder and awe. It was also the only place where one saw foreigners in Delhi. They, almost always in their sunglasses and shorts, walking unhurriedly yet purposefully.

Going to Connaught Place meant going through India Gate and parts of Lutyens Delhi. As we neared India gate, the temperature dropped a few degrees as bus gathered pace and air shed its molten edge in the leafy embrace of trees, and over the grassy expanse of the maidans. Suddenly the furrowed brow of the bus passengers relaxed as we entered the non-gridlocked, beautiful, stately, tree-lined Delhi, and a near bonhomie was restored.

Getting down at Barakhamba Road, I remember always taking a few seconds to take in the faint yet pleasant excitement of being in this glorious commercial hub, feeling happy, and almost dreamily becoming aware of the pleasant rush of traffic and how the car horns sounded different — more sonorous, here. However, the two things that I remember most about going to Connaught Place are the shoe shops and Nirula’s. If mom wanted a sandal, it had to be from the Liberty shop in Connaught Place, and the Bata shop there was considered absolutely irreplaceable for men’s shoes. The air-conditioned Nirula’s with its exotic pizzas, which never tasted good but were ravenously consumed, and burgers, and ice-creams was heaven, albeit a heaven in which the feet and heart were as timorous as excitement complete.

On the way back home at night, happy with the day, the relatively empty bus with its dull yellow light seemed positively romantic. As we passed the ice-cream wallahs with their fluorescent lights covered in colored cellophane, and the strolling families, near India gate, the adventure was complete.

Akshardham: “Spiritual Theme Park”

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

Shining India: The Marvel of Marble

26 Sep

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid-30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course, the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers, a majority of the total passengers, belong to the super elite for whom pretending patience in front of fellow elites is important and also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia—skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreigners in our line wondered. I wondered too.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

Bijli, Sadak, Makaan: Art at the Crossroads of Infrastructure and Culture

25 Jun

The questions that Ashok Sukumaran asks of us are to the say the least, unusual. The way he asks them is more unusual still. Yet these are questions are uniquely applicable to India – especially an India that is in throes of globalization, and a technological revolution. Mr. Sukumaran through his art asks us to question the meaning of public and public space, the adequacy of current communication media, the meaning of being digital, and the role of art and the artist in helping pose and answer these questions.
Mr. Sukumaran is foremost an astute and nimble observer. He is also a precocious talent and an incisive questioner. He doesn’t practice art that is produced and hung in galleries and for the intellectual consumption of the cultural elites, who consume art for the singular purpose of negotiating their social and cultural status.

Mr. Sukumaran practices media art. In other words, he doesn’t limit himself to a medium; he uses whatever is necessary to convey a point or understand an idea. And often this means going outside museum or gallery spaces and on to the city street to answer (or pose) questions that can only be understood in the public realm.

In this recent recurrencies project, Mr. Sukumaran explores, via reconfigurations of urban electricity, “new and old ideas of equitability, exchange, pleasure, negotiation, and sociability.” In the installation, 14th-road: where we live, “a remote switch hangs from a tree across the road from [the artist’s] apartment, connected to the lights in [their] balcony”. Mr. Sukumaran uses this setup to see how public infers what this is, what is allowed and what isn’t. People who flick the switch, as the notes alongside reveal, are wary of the claims that artists make about ‘redistributing connections’; they ask questions about how the apparatus works, how much it costs, call to see if there is a “secret meaning” etc.

It is interesting to see how the social structures and expectations become exposed as the days progress. We get to see certain ‘street level epistemologies’ of meaning, authority, social relationships, and technology. When I asked Mr. Sukumaran whether he was concerned about the fact that some of his pieces had become public spectacles, he said no. In fact, he said, spectacle – mingled with the anxieties, expectations of authority, etc. that it invokes – is sometimes the perfect mechanism to explore the relationship between society and authority.

“Infrastructure is culture,” says Ashok Sukumaran while explaining how access to infrastructure comes to define what is possible within a society. There are two particular facets to how we can understand the impact of infrastructure – firstly society rations access to infrastructure in a way that is largely commensurate with its existing hierarchies and priorities, and secondly and more importantly infrastructure– be it electricity or telephone or the Internet – tampers with the existing social hierarchies, and creates its own. Infrastructure comes with its own command economies – be it the petty government Babu or the humble Chowkidar – society installs gatekeepers or gatekeepers emerge as society lays down mechanisms for distributing infrastructure. Infrastructure also signals what is permitted and what isn’t. It thus sets up norms of behavior and social conduct. There are a host of questions that Mr. Sukumaran brings to the table around this issues – how do we react when the norms are broken? Who creates these norms? How are these norms institutionalized and then propagated and socialized? What are the power structures that underpin these norms? How is infrastructure and access to it understood on the street – by the doodhwalla and the fruit juice operator and the Mumbai housewife? These are only a small set of questions that Mr. Sukumaran has been trying to answer. He has many more.

Ashok Sukumaran was born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father in 1974. Mr. Sukumaran spent his childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj which still hosts a somewhat eclectic, variegated set of people, according to Mr. Sukumaran. He describes his childhood as fairly normal, middle-class and “very dal-roti” except for some exposure to Japanese toys and electronics that his relatives sent from Japan. Mr. Sukumaran traces some of his fascination with technology to the access he had to these “smuggled” goods.

After finishing school, Sukumaran went on to study architecture at the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. A certain amount of architectural training is distinctly visible in his work. A fascination with form, color, and space are very much on display, but in a mode that is quite different from traditional design. After finishing up with SPA, Mr. Sukumaran worked for some time as an architect. He says that during this time he got to work closely with local mistris and artisans and found the experience unique and deeply satisfying. Mr. Sukumaran often collaborates with local electricians and decorators and finds it an integral part of producing his art.

In 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sukumaran landed in the Los Angeles to study at the Department of Design|Media Arts at University of California, Los Angeles. Being in this politically charged and emotional moment was edifying in some ways, according to Mr. Sukumaran. After graduating from UCLA, Mr. Sukumaran worked at a variety of places including as the project director for NANO, “an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science at LACMALab, Los Angeles.” He has also harvested a slew of prestigious residencies and awards including winning the first prize in the Universal Warning Sign Design Competition for his breathtakingly creative ‘Blue Yucca Ridge’ at Yucca Mountain, the first Sun Microsystems ‘ZeroOne’ residency, and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award for 2005 for his “poetic yet pragmatic” project SWITCH, a subset of the recurrencies.net project described above.

It is a testament to his ability that Mr. Sukumaran has managed to create an impressive body of work in the short span of about four years. Both the variety of questions he has dealt with and the techniques he has used to explore them are striking.

Mr. Sukumaran’s quest for answers to complex questions around society and technology has often extended into the digital realm. Mr. Sukumaran has tried to explore what it means to be digital. In particular, he questions the seemingly infinitely tensile, manipulability of the digital by exposing both the “hard chemical” and “soft social” processes that underpin the digital.

Mr. Sukumaran, to his credit, in spite of the success and accolades that he has received, continues to struggle with the role of art in society. He stridently believes in the importance of art and argues that art is one of the only places left where one can ask meta cross-disciplinary questions. Yet, he seems deeply perturbed by the commercial expropriation of art, and the Kuspitian notion that Contemporary art is merely busy with making clever commentary. To that end, Mr. Sukumaran has striven to distance himself from the commercial aspects of art and dispense with the elitist pretensions of art by deliberately choosing to raise his questions outside traditional venues, and forms.

Final Words

Contemporary Art would still live, defying Donald Kuspit, on the strength of artists like Mr. Sukumaran who produce art with self-conscious rigor and perceptive incisiveness. The hope is that such threads can make the much-abused Contemporary in art intellectually invigorating, fertile, and genuinely provocative.

Bibliography

UNESCO Portal

Sun Microsystem’s page on the artist.

Thwarting Failure in South Asia

19 Jun

Six South Asian countries are among the 25 states likeliest to fail on the “Failed States Index”, co-created by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace. The same six countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – (in the same order) were also featured amongst the top 25 in last year’s rankings.

The Indian subcontinent, it appears, has the highest density of states in danger of ‘failing’ in a geographical region, aside from a broad swathe of Central Africa running from Sudan to Guinea. Nearly half a billion people live in the states marked as likely to fail in the subcontinent.

Any failure of state within the subcontinent is likely to have an impact well beyond the borders of that country. In fact, that is exactly why US-based think-tanks and magazines create these ‘failed states index’ to begin with. The co-creators of the index argue, citing the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy – filled with the typical hyperbole that garbs most US security policy documents – that the impact of state failure is likely to be ‘global’. Even if we discount such assertions, the likely impact of state failure in the subcontinent is certainly worrisome, especially for India.

Before we analyze the impact of state failure in South Asia, let me diverge briefly to formalize what we mean by a ‘failed state’.

What is a ‘Failed State’?

One may argue that if a state fails its people, it is a ‘failed state’. But formally a ‘failed state’ is defined as one with a weak government, political instability, and insecurity. State Failure, according to Center for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland’s State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings (Large PDF document – 255 pages) has been defined as a state that may have one or a combination of the following –

  • “Revolutionary wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict between governments and politically organized challengers that seek to overthrow the central government, to replace its leaders, or to seize power in one region.
  • Ethnic wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic, religious, or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes in status.
  • Adverse regime changes. Major, abrupt shifts in patterns of governance, including state collapse, periods of severe elite or regime instability, and shifts away from democracy toward authoritarian rule.
  • Genocides and politicides. Sustained policies by states or their agents, or, in civil wars, by either of the contending authorities that result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal or political group.”

India in a ‘Dangerous Neighborhood’

There are a variety of factors that underpin the instability in the region—resurgent Islamic fundamentalism combined with military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh (two different degrees in both countries), Taleban in Afghanistan, ‘Maoists’ in Nepal, the hermetic authoritarian regime in Burma, and Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka.

Troublingly, a lot of the problems, like Islamic fundamentalism, that plague ‘failing states’ in South Asia can travel well across borders. There is already evidence to the fact that Maoist success in Nepal is having an effect of emboldening Maoists insurgents in the eastern part of India. And if problems in Bangladesh were to set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India, it is likely that the widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east India would escalate into sectarian violence.

Given the fact that India has tangible, probable, and immediate threats, and given India’s crucial role within South Asian politics, it is but obvious that India should play a crucial role in mitigating some of the issues precipitating state failure in its neighborhood. India will have to play its hand deftly though and the choices will not always be obvious. For example, India has for years on end enjoyed a cozy relationship with Nepalese Royalty but has had to put in its weight behind the political parties and the Maoists who wanted the Monarchy scrapped. On the other end India, which has long argued for democracy in Pakistan, has established a healthy working relationship with Musharraf government and even made some moves towards meaningful negotiations over Kashmir.

While India has shown great pragmatism in dealing with some long-running and some ‘unexpected’ political upheavals, it doesn’t seem to have a coherent long-term strategic perspective on how to foment stability in the region. Part of the reason is that India doesn’t really have the bargaining power, as in resources or military muscle, for a more aggressive foreign policy. However it does enjoy a fair amount of credibility among the major powers within the world, and it is time that it use it to chart out a longer term policy towards it neighbors. The key components of the policy should be an enlightened economic policy – for example, making compromises towards creating a regional free-trade block, a more active role in diplomacy – say for example complimenting the role of the Norwegians and the Icelandic delegation in Sri Lanka, taking lead in thinking about ‘sustainable development’ and environment – especially important given the enormous impact that global warming can wreck on the region, marshalling resources from the Western countries for the basics – education, health, and basic infrastructure, and working with authoritarian regimes where necessary to urge for more moderate and sustainable policies.

…to be continued…

‘Wax’ing poetic

23 May

“India has a growing middle class estimated at 300 million people.” Emily Wax

300 million is an astounding figure and just a shade below the US population. If indeed India has a “growing” middle class that is 300 million strong, then the US and the rest of the world better take notice. There is just a small problem – the figure is almost entirely meaningless.

The middle class is a phenomenally slippery concept. The term was initially used to refer to the urban bourgeoisie. In its modern avatar, it was meant to refer to people who could afford certain amenities. As amenities have become the norm in the West, calls have been made to redefine the term again. The term itself though has a lot of emotional cache and almost 90% of the people in the US, according to a survey in 1992, thought themselves as middle class. Statistically, we can define “middle class” as the class of income earners that is within one Standard Deviation of the mean. But for a country like India where the mean wage is less than $2/day, the statistical definition as above would be thoroughly bankrupt.

Main Course: Pass me the knife, please

Let’s briefly analyze Wax’s claim about the numbers in Indian middle class. According to World Bank, India’s GDP was $796 billion in 2006. Assuming that all economic activity was produced by the 300 million (about 1/4th of the real population) and the gains spread equally among them, Gross Income Per Person would be $796,000/300 = $2600/year or $7/day. All hail this “middle class”.

It is fashionable to use terms like “middle class” and then attach numbers like 300 million but both the term and the number are grossly inaccurate.

Newspaper Gestalt

Over years, stories on the economic miracle in China and India have become de rigeur in newspapers. The stories are uniformly bankrupt for they fail to get even the basic figures right and put things in proper perspective.

A new foreign correspondent to India, like Wax, is expected to file in his/her share of these formulaic stories along with the expected special report on the heartrending poverty in rural China and India.

There is little hope that we will ever have better coverage or even that different topics will be covered, except the occasional Shilpa Shetty-Gere kiss induced frenzy, given that most foreign press reporters go to other countries with doltish prior hypotheses, look for confirmation, confirm them, and sigh with relief and move on to their next story. The whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that the tour of duties for journalists have shrunk.

Interview with Lisa McKay

9 May

This is the second interview in a multi-part series that will end with an analysis of ethics etc. that underpin BC, and blogs in general. The first interview with Christopher Rose, Comments Editor at BC, can be accessed by clicking here

Lisa McKay is the Executive Editor of Blogcritics.org. Lisa has been with Blogcritics.org since August 2004.

The interview was conducted via email a couple of months ago.

You joined BC at a time when BC was much smaller than today. Tell me a little more about how you came across BC and what led you to join it.

I came across BC a few months before I actively joined, while I was in the process of looking for good sources of movie and music reviews. It was unlike anything else I had come across – it still is, really – and I started checking in on a daily basis to read stuff. Eventually, I worked up the courage to post a comment here and there and then decided that maybe I should actually join the site and try to get some writing done.

You work full time, are a mother of a young son and a wife. How do you juggle your responsibilities?

Actually, only two of those facts are true at present – my son just turned 21 and has been away at college for the past couple of years, so juggling parental responsibilities hasn’t been part of the equation for a long time. Having said that, I think that people make time to do the things they want to do if they want to do them badly enough. My husband and I both have pretty intense interests outside of our work and our family life (which includes a lot of shared interests), and we’ve been very supportive of each other’s pursuits, so part of it is that I have a built-in support system, and part of it is that I’ve become very good at multi-tasking and prioritizing. Even so, I wish I could use all 24 hours in the day sometimes.

While writing an article about why you chose to ‘come out’, if you will, and start writing under your real name, you say that part of the reason was to lay claim on the articles that you have written. This works both ways – now people know whom to hold accountable when they see a ‘perceived’ injustice or have an ax to grind. Has blogging under your real name been a problem? How comfortable do you feel about commenting and blogging about contentious topics?

It probably says something about the nature of what I write that using my real name has never been a problem. The place where the discussions really seem to get personal is in the political arena, where people seem to take everything to heart and can get quite ugly when they disagree. I don’t have the stomach for that type of discourse, so I stay out of that particular venue. I have opinions on pretty much everything, and I have no problem with expressing them when asked directly to do so, but I really don’t see those contentious discussions as serving much purpose. There are a lot of people who like to “argue” just so they can call names – it has nothing to do with actually listening to what other people are saying – and I just don’t have the time for it, as I see it as unproductive.

At the heart of your decision to blog under your ‘real name’ is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

While I understand the reasons that many people have for remaining anonymous online, I do believe that a false persona makes it easier to say things that one might not say when using one’s real name. The faceless nature of the Internet makes that easier anyway – even when using a real name, I think many people say things to faceless strangers that they would never dream of saying in person. Accountability online is certainly a different animal than it is with print media, or with television or radio journalism. This is still in many ways the wild, Wild West, and I think one probably has to work a bit harder in the blogging arena to build up a reputation and to build trust among one’s readership. Once you’ve built up that trust, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a pseudonym or not – you maintain integrity the same way you would if you were using your real name, by doing your homework and being honest.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

Certainly, the biggest change was when we went from a self-publishing site where anyone could publish just about anything they wanted to, to what we have in place right now, where every piece that’s published has been edited. We work very closely with our writers to make sure that we publish polished and well-written pieces while still retaining that which makes us unique, which is our multitude of voices. Our strength has been our continued refusal to homogenize what we do – writers find it easy to feel at home here because we don’t have an editorial “voice” in any of our content areas – we ask our writers to be excellent, but other than that, we ask them to be themselves. I am not sure there are many places with a readership as big as ours that can offer that.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

We’ve certainly had our share of policy discussions about the open comments policy. As is the case with every site that allows open comments, we get our fair share of flakes and cranks and just plain ugliness. We have yet to come to the point where we squelch that in favor of having more civil conversations, and I think that’s another area where we’re unique. We do have a comments editor who applies our very liberal comments policy with a very gentle hand, and I think that’s about all the control we’re going to have on that for a while. Our open attitude toward accepting new writers seems to work very nicely now that we have editors in place. People are either excited about the challenges and take advantage of the opportunity, or they leave because they don’t make the cut or they don’t want to put in the work. In either case, that works to our advantage, and it’s raised the level of our writing tremendously. BC’s growth has been a really organic process, at least from my vantage point. There have been growing pains to be sure, but we move past them pretty quickly.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of blogcritics.org for the future?

That’s a great question. I wish I had a crystal ball. The quality of what we publish just keeps improving – we’re attracting some really amazing writers, and the section editors are continually working to shape coverage and come up with new ideas. I envision us getting bigger and better.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

Well, I think we’ve set some editorial standards over the past couple of years in terms of what we will and will not publish (in terms of quality, not content). I can’t see us without those any more – we’ve really raised the bar, and the writers have really risen to the challenge. This is part of the process by which we become accountable.

How do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

Well, it depends on what you’re looking for, I think. The blogosphere has certainly democratized the whole process of criticism, which isn’t to say that everything everyone writes is good, or even worth reading. Sometimes you want to stand around the office water cooler and talk with your friends about the film you saw this weekend, and the blogosphere can certainly provide you with that, and sometimes you want an informed opinion about something, which is what real criticism entails. I think one of the neat things about BC is that we provide both; we have some very enthusiastic reviewers who can give you a very entertaining man-in-the-street opinion about something, but they aren’t necessarily approaching it from an academic point of view, and we have other writers who are incredibly well-informed, educated, and knowledgeable about their area of expertise, and they offer a very different perspective. The challenge and the beauty of the blogosphere, in general, is that the reader needs to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. In general, we may need to wade through more stuff, but in the end, I think it sharpens our powers of discrimination and makes us better consumers.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

I don’t think it’s the blogosphere’s job to hold the mainstream media accountable. I think that’s our job as citizens, and we’re failing at it miserably. We have the media we deserve. The roles of the blogosphere are as varied as the folks who populate it; I don’t think it has a defined role or is “supposed” to be one thing or another. It’s a tool, a means of communication, a marketplace of ideas, of commerce, of social interaction – it’s a way of organizing, presenting, and retrieving information. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, and it’s continually evolving. It is whatever we want it to be at any given moment.

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

As soon as people figure out that there’s money to be made somewhere, things change. Certainly, that’s happened in the blogosphere, but a lot of the people who are Internet entrepreneurs are also in the business of putting the tools of production and commerce into the hands of the end users. That’s us, and that’s a good thing. I think the business models we used to have changed, and are continuing to change. Since I have no business background at all, I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess as to how this is going to look in five or ten years’ time. If you told anyone twenty years ago what we’d be doing online now, they wouldn’t have believed it.

Selected Ethnography of Marketing in India

7 Apr

Biscuits (cookies) in India are marketed for their glucose shakti (power), bathing soaps for their ability to get rid of germs, hair oil for its efficaciousness in keeping the lice away, and a “fair and lovely” cream for its eponymous abilities (fair=lovely). We have popular biscuits made by Britannia, a popular red tooth-powder that leaves chalky marks on your teeth and turns your spittle red, neem (mainly known for anti-bacterial properties) soaps and toothpastes, a farmer (kissan) brand ketchup, Brooke Bond tea (after English tea retailer), clinic shampoo, kwality ice-cream, and prickly heat powders. We have multiple competing mosquito repellents including the popular “tortoise” mosquito coil and ‘good knight.’ We have ads showing joint families cheerfully celebrate and lighting fire-crackers and earthen lanterns after getting their houses painted with Asian paints, or buying a Maruti car, or for that matter a Chetak (after the horse of Rana Pratap Singh) or a Hero-Honda. Our movie studios often have introductory banners that are full of religious signage.

India is a poor country. It is a post-colonial country. We are as nostalgic about British era quality as we are about the merits of herbal remedies; though popular herbal concoctions like Chyavanprash contain mainly sugar.

India came of age, the IT age that is, celebrating its kissans (farmers) and jawans (soldiers). India entered the age of economic liberalization with its own baggage of history – colonialism, and its familial structures, religion, and government propaganda. The specificity of ads, the perversities of the pitches, all are merely scavenging over the body of this skewed, troubled body politic.

I grew up in this strange India. I grew up drawing my houses with slanted tiled roofs even though I lived in Delhi which only had flat-roofed houses. I drew spare free-standing houses, in the middle of nowhere, with a long winding walkway and green brushes even though I had never seen such houses while growing up. I drew colonial beauty — the mimesis of colonial aesthetics in India is deep and resonant. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were government “servants.”

Commercial advertisement traditions in the country are still cognizant of India’s deep poverty – they focus on the practical and not merely the aspirational though that is rapidly changing. I suppose as the economy grows the ratio of practical pitches to aspirational pitches increases. It is an artificial line – the line between practical and aspirational- and a line that blurs often, but a line nonetheless. The fact remains (for now) that most Indians haven’t reached a level of material comfort where each additional major or minor purchase isn’t looked on as something that materially and significantly improves comfort.

India in some sense is a prime market for marketers, except of course for its soul-sapping poverty. Indians, ever aware of the social position and with brains hardwired to equate price with quality, are almost always willing to buy something costlier that shows better taste or portends better quality. Of course, their instincts are roped in by positive social perception about buying something for a “good value”. There is little doubt in my mind that the most successful advertisements will make both pitches. Similarly, the most successful advertisements would also pitch to both its modern commercial aspirational soul, and its traditional religious soul.