Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Religious Hypocrisy and Political expression Part - II

Home Truths

In the land I come from, in Kerala, half-informed debates on public policies, regulations and laws were common place across any congregation above 2 people. During my younger days, matters of faith used to be a private matter. Personally too, I have always felt uncomfortable discussing attributes of one religion versus the other.  I have also been led to believe that religious tolerance and acceptance in the state of Kerala was much higher than the national average.

As much as I can remember, the fiercest rioting and arson in Kerala have happened on political agendas rather than anything overtly religious. Here again, it was the Communist parties with their militant trade union ideologies that always used to find itself at either ends in these clashes. However, unlike in many other parts of India it used to be the youth cadres of the Communist parties and RSS (and not BJP) which used to engage in these political battles especially in the northern belt of Kerala. (there are various theories linking the origin of the Communist movement to protect the trade interests of the Muslim merchants, but that is not my subject here)

Another aspect worth mentioning is that while all minority communities had their political representations either explicitly like in the form of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) or tacitly like the Kerala Congress for Christians, I cannot remember any mainstream political party enjoying special patronage from the majority Hindus. (Though BJP used to contest elections, it never really received the political mandate from the Hindu community)
However, I see this trend changing and the lines blurring between political and religious ideologies. The impact of religious orientation influencing political expressions have entered these half-informed public debates like an uninvited participant. I see a worrisome trend of non-Hindus mostly occupying the anti BJP quadrant and Hindus moving closer to the BJP narrative, though by-and-large they are spread across all sides of the allegiance spectrum.

Why is this surprising (for me)?
In my narrow idealistic borough, I dreamt that every time we participate in a democratic process, we were getting closer to building a nation for 'Indians' and the aspirations that collectively define us. And in this quest for one-ness, all other considerations of religion, caste, colour and creed will be deprioritised.
Instead, we have fallen prey to a narrow political narrative that have taken us further away from a collective purpose and are hurtling us down a hellhole defined by our choice of region, religion and faith. Even after 69 years of formation of the Indian republic, we are far from forming an uniformly acceptable national identity. 
While religion has been the most destructive man-made force that has altered the course of world history, I have been too naive to ignore the oft repeated aphorism, "Those who believe that politics and religion do not mix, understand neither."(a bastardised quote that is  attributed to many, including Mahatma Gandhi)

There are passionate arguments trading accusations of one political party defining their political agendas by fostering issues based on caste, language, community, geographical and many such niches. But in the end I see all political parties equally culpable. By feeding on the insecurities of every section, faction and faith, the political establishment has defined a perpetual, vicious cycle of power broking hinged to each other.

Earlier there used to be a certain anathema for falling prey to this divisive agenda. No more!
Instead, in our unfathomable urgency to get noticed, loved and liked, we have become active participants in this socio-religious-political circus through Social Media platforms that provided us with a convenient gateway to exercise this political brinkmanship.
With data analytics and advanced psychographic profiling we got segmented into fickle, unknowing ambassadors of some political belief where we readily took positions in the political discourse, finally emptying us into a na├»ve "Us" v/s "Them" debate.

It is death knell now. With fringe elements and arm chair enthusiasts continuing to get manipulated by the narrative on faith and religion, it is fairly predictable how the end game will play out. By continuing our allegiances, we are only taking the extremes further away from any common ideal or purpose.

While the blame game continues, I still feel there is hope,

  • If we stop being hypocritical and accept what is right and call out what is wrong without being biased along stated positions and religious grounds

  • If we stop heckling for our part of the benefits and subsidies-pie defined by our ethnicities, religious or caste based identity

  • If we question our religious moorings and political beliefs knowing very well that they don’t have the answers

All these questions abound as I look forward to the UP poll results which are just a few days away.

Will the electorate vote for the politics of convenience/alliances, of religious appeasement or of short term benefits? Or will a new hero emerge who will lead our hope towards a collective consciousness?

Irrespective of the outcome, will you stop to introspect where your choices will lead us to.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Religious hypocricy and political expression - Part 1

Tales of late self realisation to a naive political observer
Not sure what's running though the minds of people who have been following the Maharashtra Civic Polls 2017. I was quaintly surprised at the emergence of BJP as a front runner in this.
What have people voted for? - The candidates, their ideology, their past performance, or the expectations of a better future? Or is there something more latent - like hope, ambition, aspirations, or negative emotions like discontent, feeling of oppression, dejection etc.?
To unravel this, I do not have access to the statistics that the  psepologists refer to, nor have I been a keen observer of past trends.
But I've been able to put together some basic data and understand BJP's performance in various elections since they won legislative elections in 2014.

In more or less every election involving a civil body or a legislative bye-election, held in India since 2014, BJP has improved its vote share if not emerging with a majority. I'm avoiding Delhi and certain states that have bucked the trend since the overwhelming data seems to suggest a BJP wave. (Civic polls in Odisha, Rajasthan, bypolls in Assam, MP; political game of thrones in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim and so on...leading up to the Maharashtra local body elections)

So why am I surprised at this wave? I'm averse to blaming it on a fickle electorate as this will only make the democratic upheavals in the last 70 years untenable.
  1. In many of the elections, BJP was the incumbent and in many they are the newly elected party. So, any broad generalizations of a political trend of anti-incumbency doesn't hold water.
  2. After close to 70 years of democracy,  it should be common knowledge that the extent of malice in  various political parties are mostly the same. Yet, how is it that the voters are expecting a major overhaul in governance with BJP?
  3. The gains of BJP needs to been seen in context of the continuous decimation of the Indian National Congress. If I assume the scandals of the past and the absence of a strong central leadership as possible factors for the decapitation of Congress, how is it that regional parties are performing much better than the INC in these elections?
  4.  The other parties who are giving BJP a fight are mostly regional or semi regional political outfits. Is it the beginning of a trend where there will only be one dominant national party at a given point of time and the second best alternative is a coalition? I've seen some opinions available in the net which point to this cycle.
To me, it occurs that more than an agenda at the level of a Zilla Parishad or municipality, there are some aspects of the over arching BJP narrative or leadership that is striking a chord with the people.
Calling (or 'trolling' as it is more fashionable) the supporters of this movement as "Bhakths" will only lead to more entertaining vocabulary entering public discourse from the other side.

The debate or the argument on public policies have also started splitting mid-way into binaries of whether you are with or against them (or 'him') and if it extends beyond this, it ends in caste or religious equations. Even more frustrating is when the public discourse seems to credit or discredit only the Prime Minister for all that's happening to the Executive, Judiciary, Legislative bodies including your own constipation. (even it states not ruled by BJP)
With the debilitating standards of media reportage and biased opinions on social media, both coming with its tail of 'whataboutery' and trolls, it indeed gets cloudy when one starts looking for possible answers.

My inquisition will continue.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Brand Worship

As a Marketing Communications professional, I have found 'religion' to be a well oiled marketing machinery that has built some of the most powerful brands in the history of mankind. It involves all elements of Marketing communications; for example: very strong brands with clear brand messages, icons (or idols), rituals, brand ambassadors, activation programs, ambient advertising, merchandising et al. With changing times, they have also embraced online and digital communications.
Binding faith or brand loyalty is the hallmark of the brands that are active in this industry - with the 'marketers' and brands literally taking to fight wars for market dominance.

However I have not been a great endorser of the expositions conducted by many these brands. Over time, most of these 'marketers' have moved  beyond their raison-d'etre and as a Hindu loyalist, I could not help but cast my critical eye on some of the activties by my own faith. While most of the religions have their own brand book or code of ethics, over time, the loyalists and practioners have given their own interpretations to these philosophies thereby stretching the liturgies far from the realms of reality.
A case in point is the Ganesha Festival. It is a yearly activation program of brand 'Ganesha', held for around 10 days and usually falls between August and September. One of the largest of the Hindu festivals, it makes it to the Top 3 in terms of inconveniencing vast swathes of people.
Gaining popularity as a community program during India's freedom struggle, the festival has continued, more as a symbol of entrapment of India's middle class and milked by political affiliates.

One of the highlights of this program are Ganesha 'Pandals' - temporary structures that are erected right in the middle of the road. While they tend to cover the potholes that exist as a portraiture of the exchequer's apathy, the festival widens its canvas as well as the coffers of civil contractors- thereby living up to its reputation of ushering prosperity to its believers.  In front of these pandals, many of the brand loyalists, known as 'bhakths', bow their heads in shame for mouthing expletives when the Sewage Dept. bariccaded the same spot for an emergency work a few months back.

The processions for ushering the Ganasha idol to its temporary abode and its farewell on the day of immersion are a sight to behold. This sight is captured best in the expressions of passengers stuck in road for hours, most of them caught unawares in the unfortunate coincidence. If calculated, the combined cost of the fuel burnt in these jaunts can easily make it to the 'Ripleys - Believe it or not' series.

Another spectacle seen during the festival is when a few chosen ones especially from the community of the elderly & the sick get a chance to go to hell (and sometimes back) as there is no way to reach a hospital even to get emergency first aid. The festival makes special provisions to make even the dumb and deaf  citizens jump to popular Bollywood Chart busters which are played right next to their ear drums.

Owing to the vast popularity and following of this festival, other religions have also adopted certain best practices. Brand loyalists point this out as an example of "universal appeal" at the "All Religion Nuisance sweep-stakes" and is lauded at various award shows.

A popular dish that is enjoyed after the festivities is called "PoP flavoured Ganesha Dumplings". The preparation of this delicacy starts with immersing 1/3/5/7 or 11 day Ganesha Idols in the sea along with other offerings. Once the sea is polluted and the marine ecology asphyxiated after ingesting the poisonous mix of Gypsum or Plaster of Paris (PoP), many of the fishes die. The surviving ones can be bought off fish markets along the Mumbai coast. These fishes are then cooked and served according to ones preferences. Many term this experience as a very fulfilling one.

Despite many citizens warning against the abuse of the delicate marine life, loyalists continue to uphold this ritual of idol immersion in the sea as a mark of their brand loyalty. Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians join in this ecological pogrom, thereby building a sense of unity in practicing this ritual.

With revenues in excess of 20,000 crs,  the campaign is highly effective with a YoY increase of 30%. That is approximately 4 times the budgetary allocation for poverty eradication in just 10 days!

But if the poor gets eradicated and their basic needs gets fulfilled, who's left to beg for prosperity?
Looking forward to another 10 days of chaos.

Disclaimer: The autor is a practicing Hindu and celebrates religious festivals as an occassion to rekindle bonds with divinity. He abhors all public expositions that pauperise this belief.

Some references: