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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that politicians come late for meetings. I am there well in advance, of course, for my appointment with the chief minister of Delhi. And then Sheila Dikshit springs a surprise on me by appearing 20 minutes before the scheduled time. But then, the lady — like that old ad for a ketchup brand — has always been different.

We are sitting in her living room in her official residence in central Delhi on a Sunday morning. “So tell me, what would you like to know,” she asks as she settles down on a cushy sofa.

A lot of things, actually. For one, the criticism that her government has been facing for its tardy work on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Or why Manu Sharma, convicted of killing Jessica Lal, was out on parole. Or, indeed, how she ducks all the knives that are chucked at her by her own party men.

But all that will come later. To begin with, I ask her how she looks back at her three-term tenure that started in 1998. “Thrilling, exciting and challenging,” she replies succinctly. Not one loose word there. No wonder she’s called a smart politician.

But she wasn’t born with a ballot paper in her mouth in Punjab’s Kapurthala seven decades ago. Her family was apolitical — but she was drawn into politics after she married a bureaucrat called Vinod Dikshit. His father, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a home minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Widowed young, Sheila Dikshit started helping her father-in-law in administrative jobs. She also worked as secretary of the New Delhi-based Garment Exporters Association. But it was when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and launched a search for people he could identify with that she fought her first election.

She stood and won from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, and was appointed Parliamentary affairs minister in 1986. She was later made a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office — a portfolio created for the first time.

“It was a huge learning experience working with Rajivji. He was extremely progressive and farsighted. Our thought process matched,” Dikshit recalls.

Is it the same working with Sonia Gandhi? “I share a very close, personal and political relationship with her,” says Dikshit. “She is an iconic figure for me,” she adds, looking at an artistic photo frame, kept on the table in front of her, which holds an old photograph featuring the smiling faces of the two.

Dikshit, however, had a falling out with the Gandhis after she lost the 1989 election from Kannauj. The political grapevine has it that the distancing happened because of Uma Shankar Dikshit’s demand that she be made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She was denied a ticket by Gandhi in the 1991 election but was finally rehabilitated by Sonia, who saw her as an ally in her fight against P.V. Narasimha Rao.

But her proximity to 10 Janpath has never stopped her detractors — and there are quite a few in her party — from attacking her. Among her top critics are party leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Her opponents have often described her as an “outsider”.

“I never felt intimidated by such comments. One can call anyone an outsider but it is the people who elect you and decide your fate,” says the suave, English-speaking politician, an alumna of Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House.

Sometimes, though, Dikshit is accused of making political gaffes. After Delhi journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was killed while driving home from work late at night, the chief minister’s reported remark “One should not be adventurous” drew flak from many. She came under attack recently for Manu Sharma’s parole, the request for which had been passed by the Delhi government. It was claimed that Sharma needed parole because his mother was unwell. But the “ailing” mother was seen at a media briefing in Chandigarh, and the son was found partying in Samrat Hotel’s nightclub Lap in Delhi.

Diskhit does not believe the Sharma incident embarrassed her in any way. “Why should it be embarrassing for me? I did nothing that was not to be done legally. I have been framed for being a political figure,” she replies. “But what Manu Sharma did was wrong. He shouldn’t have left Chandigarh,” Dikshit adds.

She speaks in her characteristic voice — soft and well modulated — but it carries conviction. In fact, her persona oozes confidence. The image of the chief minister in her trademark tussar block printed saris, worn in winter, or thin-bordered cotton print saris in the summer, is that of a favourite aunt — who may trip up now and then but is both pleasant and efficient.

We move on to the topic of saris. Dikshit is known to frequent handloom melas in the capital in search of good saris. She’s also picked up cotton saris from her earlier visits to Calcutta. “I used to frequent Calcutta when my father-in-law was the Governor of West Bengal in 1976-77. I have always been fascinated by Bengal’s art and culture but sadly the flavour has got lost in the past two decades,” says Dikshit, taking a quick potshot at the Left Front government in Bengal, while not naming it.

But despite her party’s differences with the Left, she says she has high regard for her Bengal counterpart — chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “I find him very accommodating and understanding. He has modern and progressive thinking,” says Dikshit, who worked with Bhattacharjee in the Central Advisory Board of Education during Arjun Singh’s tenure as the human resources development minister. Even as she talks about her “rapport” with the Left leader, she strives to point out that her appreciation for his rival Mamata Banerjee’s “hard work” is no less.

“I am thankful to her that she has upgraded a couple of stations in Delhi that needed urgent renovation. Things have moved pretty fast after she took over as railway minister,” feels Dikshit.

Not only that, Banerjee has also agreed to meet the Indian Olympic Association’s demand for a special train to popularise the Commonwealth Games of 2010, an event surrounding which Dikshit’s government has been roundly lammed for not completing the scheduled work — stadia, roads, hotels and so on — within the stipulated time. “I am nervously excited about the event,” she confesses. But “the stage will be set for action on time”.

And once the mega event gets over, she plans to go on a long vacation. As she talks about her travel plans, Dikshit suddenly recalls one of her “adventure trips” in Europe with her husband way back in the late 1960s.

“It was winter, freezing cold, and we were driving from Italy through the Alps to Britain. Neither of us realised that there was a car heater, which had to be turned on. A friend later told us how we could have avoided the bone-chilling cold in Switzerland. But by then, we had already driven for more than 12 days without the car heater. Whenever my husband and I recalled the incident, we had a good laugh at our foolishness,” she says and laughs again.

But it was not easy for this daughter of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi parents to marry a Hindu Brahmin. When her husband, a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, first told her that his parents would not accept her because she was from a different caste, her reaction was — “Oh my God! Is caste so important?”

But eventually the caste difference was overshadowed by love, and in 1961, a year after Dikshit got inducted into the IAS, she tied the knot with him at the age of 23.

“Though I am not a religious person I did perform a couple of pujas to keep my mother-in-law happy,” recalls Dikshit who, in her early days in marriage, had to cover her head with the traditional ghoonghat in front of her in laws.

Now, at 71, Dikshit is a bit of a loner. She stays alone in her sprawling government bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi. After a long day at the secretariat, she likes to bury herself in a book. And her favourite book, till date, is Alice in Wonderland.

She likes doing up her house — and the drawing room is tastefully adorned with mirrors, vases, picture frames and pots, all placed in strategic corners. “If I were not a politician, I would have been an interior designer,” she says.

A movie buff, she also drops by at the nearest theatre for late-night shows. Her all-time favourite is Yash Chopra’s romantic flick Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) — a film that she has watched 15 times.

But it is not Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ who has caught her fancy. “My latest crush is Shahid Kapoor,” she says skittishly.

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

 

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

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Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a ‘homecoming’ campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

He has stressed upon development and democracy, but it remains to be seen whether he will he abjure faith-based politics.

 

Sitting in his limousine, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, as he is popularly known as, rolled out a 32-second-long video message on Twitter on June 10. He said in Bahasa, “Let’s join hands, unite, and put our mind and energy to build a developed Indonesia.”

Ever since Widodo got re-elected for a second term last month, his focus has been on development. But soon after his re-election, he faced disruptions. As the final election results were declared, riots broke out in the capital city of Jakarta for over two days, killing eight people and injuring seven hundred others. Early reports suggest that apart from a group of paid thugs, members of the militant Islamist group, Front Pemuda Islam, attacked the police with rocks and petrol bombs.

Interestingly, these hardline Islamists supported Jokowi’s opponent, the former army commander, Prabowo Subianto. The grand imam of FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, addressed his election rally from Saudi Arabia via video call. Analysts call Prabowo and Shihab ‘bedfellows’, united by a common enemy — Widodo.

Widodo’s win could create trouble for the FPI. Its status as a legally registered social organization expires today, and there are chances that its appeal for re-registration would be rejected. Public pressure is mounting on authorities to do so. A petition called ‘Stop the Permit of FPI’, filed by Ira Bisyir at Change.org, has received over 4,81,665 signatures so far.

In this last term, analysts say that Widodo would give a fresh push to his liberal and progressive image, which was largely compromised earlier. In his previous term, the “hard-metal-loving secularist” failed to protect free speech, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and those of LGBTs. But Indonesians still pinned their hopes on him. They preferred to choose a ‘moderate’ Widodo, representative of ‘pluralist’ Indonesia, over a ‘conservative’ Subianto, representative of a ‘hardline Islamist’ Indonesia. Clearly, this is a positive shift from the faith-based politics, which is thriving elsewhere.

For example, across the Indian Ocean, Australia, a country whose politics has long been secular, recently re-elected the 51-year-old conservative, Scott Morrison, as prime minister. In 2008, while he was delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, he said that he derived the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness from his ‘faith’. While quoting the American senator, Joe Lieberman, who had said, “the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion,” Morrison asserted at the same event, “I believe the same is true in this country.” In April this year, Morrison, who holds regressive views on immigration and same-sex marriage, invited television cameras to film his Easter Sunday service at a church.

A similar trend is visible in India, which has re-elected the 68-year-old Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Like Morrison, Modi loves to wear his religion on his sleeve. A day before the last phase of the general election, Modi invited television cameras to film him meditating inside a cave near the Kedarnath shrine. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power by playing divisive faith-based politics, won 303 seats in Parliament. On the day of his victory, Modi had tweeted, “India wins yet again.” Perhaps he was referring to the India that has lapped up his politics of religious identity and Hindu majoritarianism.

Faith-based politics has played a leading role in the politics of neighbouring Bangladesh too. Bangladesh re-elected Sheikh Hasina Wajed last year. Wajed, a ‘secular’ leader, has been wooing the radical Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, for many years. She introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and also recognized the Qawmi Madrasa degrees. In return, the Islamist group’s head, Shah Ahmed Shafi, bestowed the honorific, ‘Qawmi Janani (mother of the qaum)’, upon Wajed. Like Wajed, who hobnobbed with the Islamists to garner the support of the large Qawmi Madrasa populace, Widodo chose the conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate to strengthen his candidacy’s Islamic credentials.

Now that Widodo has been re-elected, questions have been raised regarding his present term by his constituents who gave him a second chance. He has stressed upon development and democracy, but will he abjure faith-based politics? Will he revive the vanishing, tolerant Indonesian Islam? How is he going to do all this with Amin — he issued a fatwa opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism — as vice-president?

But what if Widodo adopts the political strategy of the leaders in his neighbourhood? What if he becomes like Morrison, someone who doesn’t like being labelled a ‘fundamentalist’ but has reservations about gay rights? Or like Wajed, who calls herself ‘secular’ but appeases religious extremists? Or, perhaps, like Modi, who talks of ‘inclusive’ India but doesn’t bat an eyelid when minorities get lynched on the streets?

This piece was published in The Telegraph on June 20, 2019.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/will-joko-widodo-revive-the-vanishing-tolerant-indonesian-islam/cid/1692739?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tt_daily_twit

 

 

 

 

How Indian kids conquered the English dictionary and became world champions of spelling bees

  • The 1983 Scripps National Spelling Bee had six Indian competitors. This year, they made up nearly a third of all entrants and seven out of eight winners were South Asian

If only Priya Damodharan had given the antihistamine medication loratadine to her 13-year-old son Rohan Raja when he needed it, he may have progressed further in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition.

“I kept this medicine out of Rohan and this medicine kept him out of the national bee,” lamented Damodharan, an Indian-American engineer who lives in Dallas, Texas with her family.

Raja was asked to spell “loratadine” but could not because he had never heard the word before.

The annual spelling contest is an American institution that has challenged the best young brains in the country for almost 100 years.

Raja finished 10th.

“He kept telling me: ‘You should have at least shown that medicine bottle to me, I would have remembered the spelling’,” Damodharan said.

Raja did not let the setback get the better of him and studied hard – medical terms and more.

A year later at the 2019 competition in May, held in Fort Washington, Maryland, Raja not only survived 20 gruelling rounds over four days, he was crowned one of the winners in a

historic eight-way tie

.

Seven of the champions were of South Asian heritage.

“I learned that hard work and patience always pay off,” Raja told South China Morning Post.

Since 2008, Indians have consistently been the top performers in the Scripps event.

In 1985, 13-year-old Balu Natarajan became the first Indian-American to win the competition. Now 47 and a sports doctor based in Chicago, he said there was a “special emphasis” on English in his home because his uncle had been an English professor in India.

But many Indian immigrants in the US have made teaching their children English a priority.

Shruthika Padhy, a 13-year-old from New Jersey who was one of this year’s joint winners, used to mix in words from Odiya, her mother tongue, while speaking English. Over the years, she refined her English vocabulary.

“These children learn their parents’ mother tongue from India. That means two and sometimes three languages are learned at home,” said Sam Rega, director of Breaking The Bee, a documentary about the South Asian domination of the spelling contest. “This often sparks a natural love for languages”

It’s not just the US where Indian children have been winning spelling contests. Earlier this year, Anushree Pathak won the GIIS Tokyo Spelling Bee Competition.

In 2015, Anirudh Kathirvel won the first Great Australian Spelling Bee event when he was just nine years old.

Parents like Sukhatankar and Damodharan “want to find venues for their kids to compete to excel”, according to Pawan Dhingra from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Massachusetts-based Amherst College, and spelling contests have become a popular choice.

Natarajan’s win in 1985 was an eye-opener for many Indians.

There were only six Indians in the contest when he first entered in 1983. This year, 30 per cent of the 562 contestants were Indian.

The number has risen steadily since US immigration laws were relaxed in the 1970s, allowing more Indians to got citizenship.

Scripps spokeswoman Valerie Miller said the organisation does not track the ethnicity of the spellers who enter because they are all “Americans”.

While some believe Indian children excel through learning things parrot fashion, Dhingra said “great spellers” know how to “break down words into their roots and language of origin” to come up with the right answers.

Some of the winners appear to be passionate about spelling.

Sohum Sukhatankar said his parents first tried to get him interested in music and table tennis but “his heart was into spelling”.

Typically, spellers spend three to six hours each weekday and up to 10 hours on weekends and holidays learning the roughly 476,000 words – including their roots, definitions and forms – in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Some get professional help.

Occasionally they stumble upon tricky words.

“Moazagotl” gave Padhy, who won the competition on her fourth attempt, a tough time in the 17th round of this year’s contest. Meanwhile, “gedanite” and “Gedinnian” confused Sukhatankar while he was revising the dictionary but diving deeper into their meanings helped him “remember and distinguish them”.

After a few years competing in regional and national competitions, Sukhatankar was confident enough to spell any word without difficulty on live television at this year’s Scripps event.

Now he has conquered the dictionary, he wants to turn his success into a business and is planning to coach future spelling bees.

But in Dallas, Raja has more immediate goals. He has been busy catching up with the Cricket World Cup on television and wants to be outside playing sport.

“I had to sacrifice everything for the bee,” he said.

The story was published in South China Morning Post on June 10, 2019: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3013901/how-indian-kids-conquered-english-dictionary-and-became-world

By Sonia Sarkar

As election results started indicating the Hindu nationalist BJP’s landslide victory by Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “India wins yet again!” It is important to understand which India he is referring to. It is not the secular and liberal India whose Constitution guarantees “freedom” and “equality” for all.

It is a new India which Modi started building little before the previous parliamentary elections in 2014. When he proposed to build this new India, he projected, “development” as its core agenda. But during his tenure in the last five years, this new India is being built upon polarization and chest-thumping muscular nationalism.

This India is not shaken by huge job losses because of demonetization and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), a government agency, the unemployment rate was at 6.1 per cent in the period of July 2017-June 2018, the highest since 1972–73.

This India could be easily taken into fold with grand advertising campaigns on flawed government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in haste. This India doen’t question why only 60 lakh houses have been built so far against the target of constructing one crore rural dwellings by March 31, 2019, since the scheme was launched on November 20, 2016. This India doesn’t question, how do the rural poor sustain to cook using LPG with the rising prices of gas cylinders, even if they got free cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana.

This India is not bothered that Modi had promised to double the farmers’ income but owing to huge debts, over 12,602 farmers and agricultural laborers committed suicide in 2015, as per the last available official data.

This India believes only in alienation.

This is a divisive India which believes in “othering” the minorities in the country, especially the Muslims, who needs to be shown their place.

This India doesn’t blink an eye when hundreds of Dalits and Muslims get lynched by state-backed self-styled cow vigilantes for trading cattle or for allegedly storing beef at homes.

This India celebrates when a Kashmiri is tied to the jeep of an Indian soldier who uses him as a “human shield.”

This India loves the barrel-chested Modi who has the guts to say, “Ghar pe ghuskar marenge( Will enter their home and kill them)” while referring to Pakistan. This India laps up BJP’s narrative of being the savior of the nation. This India, which voted for the “interest of the nation, “ is convinced by Modi’s claims that Indian Air Force carried out surgical strikes at the “terrorist nation” Pakistan, weeks before the elections, in retaliation to Pulwama attacks by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.

But ironically, this India also elects a terror accused, Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP’s candidate from Bhopal, to the Parliament, with a huge margin of over three lakh votes. The fact that she carried out a blast at Malegaon, a Muslim-dominated area in Maharashtra, perhaps, was the motivating factor behind electing her. There could be counter arguments that Bhopal has been the traditional bastion of BJP, and therefore, Thakur’s win was inevitable. A question which some liberals are asking is, even if it is BJP’s traditional seat, how could people vote for someone who hailed Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? But that’s the real essence of Modi’s new India, nobody is encouraged to think. It’s the herd mentality which rules supreme, be it when a Muslim is lynched on the street or a terror accused is elected to Parliament.

This India has also elected 28-year-old lawyer Tejasvi Surya from south Bangalore, who too won by almost three lakh votes. The face of educated urban and elite India, Surya, once tweeted, “BJP should unapologetically be a party for Hindus.”

Pundits have already dubbed Modi’s victory as the rise of Hindutva 2.0. Indeed, it is. This new India believes in the ideology of the BJP’s fount, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which advocates for a “Hindu Rashtra (an exclusive land for Hindus).”

Now speculations loom large over the next five years of Modi’s second term. A section of Indians who were always worried about this new India, being built over hate and bigotry, are asking some pertinent questions — Will there be jobs now? Will farmers get their debts waived off? Will there be normalcy in Kashmir? Will it be easier for Muslims to live in this country?

Modi has made an attempt to answer such questions by tweeting — “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India.” But these words have found no resonance with his new India. His cheerleaders have already started stressing democracy is all about majoritarianism, no space for dissenters, who are a minority now in new India. The sentiment is well-articulated in this tweet by a Modi supporter — “Take it or leave it, this is New India ready to take on the world… India is in good hands.”

Clearly, hatred and intolerance would continue to remain the lifeline of Modi supporters, even in the next five years.

The onus is on Modi now to prove that he understands the meaning of the term “inclusive” in its true sense. His words, spoken at the Parliament’s Central Hall — “sabka vishwas” should not turn out to be another “jumla.”

Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking, ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

It’s celebration time in Singapore. Exhibitions, heritage walks, light and sound shows, and fireworks — Singaporeans are spoilt for choice. Ideally, celebrations should make one happy; but it isn’t the case here. The ruling People’s Action Party is commemorating 200 years of the arrival of the British statesman, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, in Singapore with a bicentennial pageantry. Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking — ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

People are cynical about the government’s intentions as they suspect that the bicentennial is another attempt by the PAP to propagate nationalism before the elections in 2020. The apprehension is genuine. At the inauguration of the bicentennial in January this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Without 1819 (the year Raffles arrived), we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.” In this speech, which sounded more like a National Day address, Loong added, “For we are never done building Singapore. It is every generation’s duty to keep on building, for our children, and for our future.”

Loong’s critics say that the bicentennial is an occasion for the PAP to not only legitimize existing colonial policies and laws on repression and detention without trial but also drum up nationalistic fervour. The year-round festivities, which are likely to get bigger during the National Day Parade on August 9, will surely have a feel-good effect on voters because the people are now repeatedly reminded about the early turbulent days before the British, who turned Singapore into a modern port, arrived in 1819 and how the PAP took over the responsibility to make Singapore a first-world economy after decolonization.

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

This appeared in The Telegraph — https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/singapore-s-bicentennial-pageantry-and-scepticism/cid/1689767  on May 2, 2019

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

Bollywood’s jingoistic hero assures voters that he will stay put and work for the constituency

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of the macho man who felled many an enemy — to say nothing of the gruesome Pakistani villain — in Hindi cinema. But here he is, steering clear of all those jingoistic dialogues that made his films such hits.

Sunny Deol is on the road, canvassing for votes in Gurdaspur, a constituency in Punjab once held by Vinod Khanna, his senior in the Hindi film industry and in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, which lost the seat in a by-election after Khanna’s death, hopes to wrest it from the Congress. And Deol is seemingly just the right candidate for a party fighting the Lok Sabha polls on the proud plank of nationalism.

A dialogue from the blockbuster Ghadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is being played at public meetings. In the film, Deol plays a truck driver who fights Pakistanis to bring his wife back to India in the film. Speakers blare out the line: “Hindustan zindabad thahai aur rahega (Hindustan was, is and will remain free)”.

But Deol, who mostly waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his car, may have realised that the voter is more concerned about development than filmi dialogues. He does not speak much about nationalism and the enemy across the border. He no longer dons the saffron turban or the military camouflage cap he was seen wearing earlier in the campaign. He doesn’t repeat the line “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot)” at the rallies.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my nationalist roles. I am connecting with people to genuinely serve them,” he tells BLink.

For the BJP, 62-year-old Deol is a potent symbol of the establishment. He has played the role of a soldier, cop and spy — in Border (1997), Indian (2001) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) respectively. “Nobody else has done patriotic films like Sunny Deol has. He would work for the country just as (Narendra) Modiji does,” says BJP’s Gurdaspur president Bal Krishna Mittal.

The constituency in Gurdaspur, a district that shares a 110-km border with Pakistan, has its own set of problems. Heroin is smuggled in hollow pipes that come floating on the River Ravi from Pakistan’s Narowal, 50km from Gurdaspur. Two militant attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot were believed to have been carried out by terrorists from Pakistan. Speculation is rife about the revival of a movement for Khalistan — a homeland for Sikhs — with alleged support from Pakistan.

“Being a sensitive border constituency, the BJP wants to use the nationalism card in its favour,” political scientist Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says.

The constituents, however, are watching the electoral play with a fair dose of scepticism. They would rather the BJP addressed issues of unemployment, farmers’ debt and drug trafficking. Sugar cane farmers allege that sugar mills are yet to pay them their dues worth 85 crore for the previous crushing season. There is agrarian debt, and 60 per cent of Batala’s cast iron and foundry production units have shut down in recent years.

“BJP’s nationalism won’t give us jobs, but new factories will,” says Jugraj Singh, a 25-year-old voter who lost his job in a sugar mill in 2017.

But Deol has his supporters, thousands of whom wait to catch a glimpse of him at rallies. His campaign trail, mostly road shows, carries on for 12 hours every day. Men want to shake hands with him and kids run alongside his white Land Rover on the highway. “When I meet people, I see the love and affection they have (for me),” he stresses.

Since the actor and now would-be politician came late into the fray — he joined the BJP last month — he has had very little time to cover his constituency’s nine assembly segments before the May 19 poll. He looks fatigued but despite his hectic schedule, takes out 40 minutes for a workout every morning.

“People become health conscious when they look at me. They want to be family-oriented and obedient the way I am. They are taking the right path of life,” he says. He also believes that his films have influenced the young to join the Army: “I have been unknowingly influencing people.”

Dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Deol stresses that his focus is on education, jobs, health and farmers.

The actor knows that Gurdaspur, once a Congress bastion, was won four times by Khanna largely on the plank of development. Khanna was known as “pulon ka badshah” (the king of bridges) among the locals for having built a bridge over the Beas, connecting the neighbouring Mukerian with Gurdaspur. After Khanna’s death, the BJP, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded a security guard company boss, Swaran Salaria, in the 2017 bypoll. Salaria lost to the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar — son of former speaker Balram Jakhar — by 1,90,000 votes.

“A combination of factors may work for Deol — his patriotism in movies, his Jat identity as Jats are in large numbers here, and the legacy of Vinod Khanna, the man from Deol’s fraternity,” says Kumar. And it helps that Deol’s father, actor and former BJP Bikaner MP Dharmendra, belongs to Ludhiana.

What may also help him is that Jakhar has not kept his poll promises of providing the youth with smartphones or creating jobs. There are also whispers linking him with illegal mining. But Jakhar’s answer to Deol is that once he returns to Mumbai, the actor will do nothing for the people.

Deol is fighting not just Jakhar but the rumours that he will not be seen after the poll. “They say: He is an actor. He won’t come here, he won’t stay here, he won’t do this, he won’t do that,” Deol complains. “I want to make people believe, I will be here, for them.”

I fear that as a line, it is not quite as effective as some of his fiery dialogues.

This story appeared in Hindu Business Line’s BLink on May 17, 2019

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