Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ears to the Ground over Eyes on the numbers

Vidya Subrahmanian whose reports in The Hindu accurately predicted a majority for the BSP in Uttar Pradesh ..(she called Mayawati the Next Queen of U.P in an article written over a year ago), writes about how Opinion Polls got the picture wrong in UP. ..

Monday, May 21, 2007

America's favorite pastime is now mine too..

Baseball is considered America's favorite pastime; a sport that represents American ethos. Anyone who has watched the movie, "A field of dreams" would definitely agree. The sport started off to be an exclusively American one, with its professional origins as a Major League seasonal sport going back to the late 1890s. The initial years were all about Cy Young, the metronomic pitcher and "small ball" stalwarts such as the abrasive batter Ty Cobb and the consistent Roger Hornsby. What changed the game was the arrival of the "Sultan of Swing", one of the most dominant sportsperson of the century, Babe Ruth. An excellent pitcher who later on turned out to be a master slugger of a batter, Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball and made it extremely popular. The game was indeed popular but the match fixing controversy of the late 1910s tainted it and it took the Bambino (Babe Ruth) to resurrect the image of the sport.

Baseball however didn't really truly American before the introduction of African American players into the sport, who were hitherto denied Major League entries, confining themselves therefore to the Negro Leagues. Jackie Robinson (whose number 42 was prominently worn recently in remembrance of the 60th anniversary of his first game in the Major League) was the first African American to play in the Major League, which became truly representative.

Today's Major League Baseball is a global sport played out in the USA. Large swathes of players are from Latin America (with Dominican Republic dominating the high quality representation) and from Japan (where the sport is followed with equal fervour as in the USA).

The current batch of players in the Major League include some who are among the all time best. If Barry Bonds is chasing the highest Home run total ever, there are pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson who are sureshot considerations in the All time best list. Then there are versatile players such as Alex Rodriguez who define power in batting and finesse in fielding to near perfection and rate among the best ever. Clearly Baseball in America is enjoying a golden era. Or so it seems, for despite the abundance of talent, there are questions being raised about malpractices, in the form of steroid usage and doping. Though there have been few "convictions" (Jose Canseco for e.g.), the swirl of rumours about doping has created a cloud of haze over America's national sport.

It is in this milieu that a cricket lover like me has started to get addicted with Major League Baseball. Apart from getting hooked to the qualitative aspects of the sport, I am also intrigued by the mystique of inter-league play rivalries, and the whole art of Baseball statistics which has contributed a unique term to English vocabulary, "Sabermatrics".

Statistics and statistical analysis is regarded favorably by many sport analysts in a whole array of sports. Statistics in Cricket, for e.g., plays a vital role in defining debates about performances, eat up a lot of space in delineating opinions among chatterati. However, the amount of statistics that is covered in Baseball is mind boggling. There are umpteen categories which are tracked, evaluated and discussed for players and teams in baseball. The art of "sabermetrics" is a science in itself. Some teams such as Oakland Athletics take up Sabermetrics so seriously that it governs their entire philosophy of selecting teams and preparing budgets! Billy Beane, the GM of Oakland Athletics, therefore swears by "Moneyball!", the entirely statistics based tome on baseball and the way its played.

The wide representation in race, ethnicity, nationality and language that characterizes baseball today is a positive indeed. Baseball, in contrast to cricket remains a professional sport that generates wide intra-country rivalry within the United States and is not an international concern as much as cricket is. However, with the addition of the World Baseball Classic to the international baseball calendar has added "international intrigue" to the sport today. The recently held Classic featured the victory of Japan over Cuba in the finals with the United States not even among the top 4 of the tournament.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The election of Mayawati and questions..

The results of the Uttar Pradesh elections came as "mindblowing" (as one of my friends mentioned) and "shocking" to political observers in the country. Mayawati, the autocratic leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party forged through Dalit leadership and support over the years, was able to win the elections with an absolute majority for the BSP. This event was seen as a tectonic achievement in a state that had seen coalition governments since 1991 and which has a fragmented polity like no other state in the country. The number of effective parties in Uttar Pradesh must surely be the highest in the country. Even in such a fragmented polity (with three major parties apart from the BSP: the Samajwadi Party, the Indian National Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party), the BSP was able to forge an alliance of the Dalits and other sections including the upper castes into a formidable vote coalition that ensured an absolute majority for the party.

Though, this victory came as a shocker, particularly pollsters across the board predicted an hung assembly (the CNN-IBN being the most generous to the BSP handing it a 152-168 seat victory in its "Post-Poll" calculations), it was not that much of a surprise to those readers who had read Vidya Subrahmaniam's articles in The Hindu which emphasized a positive wave for the BSP being created for quite some time (since 2005) in Uttar Pradesh. Subrahmaniam reported how the "Brahmin Jodo Abhiyans" and the multiple campaigns to reach out to other communities by the dedicated cadre of the BSP helped extend its reach to a large section of the voting public as well as its core votebanks among the Dalits which her party had built over the years. While the pollsters were sanguine about the increase in the vote share because of such projects by the BSP, they underestimated the reach of the cadre in building such a formidable unit of support which eventually won the elections with an absolute majority.

Political parties gave their own spin after the elections. For the BJP, it was a matter of anti-incumbency against the SP being reaped by the BSP much more effectively than themselves. This argument doesn't hold much water because the SP was able to hold on substantially to it's vote share despite a loss of number of seats and wasn't relegated below the second position with 97 seats. In contrast, the BJP was trounced and was held victorious in 50 seats alone, suggesting that the victory of the BSP was also a victory against the kind of communal mobilization that the BJP attempted to garner in order to come back to power.

The ruling party at the Centre, Indian National Congress' performance was as bad as the previous elections and it's seat share was reduced further by 3 to 22. This performance was despite a high voltage campaign given full publicity and launched by Rahul Gandhi, the son of party supremo Sonia Gandhi, across the length and breadth of Uttar Pradesh. Invariably the questions asked by the media were directed to the failure of Rahul Gandhi rather than throwing light upon the fact that the INC had lost its hold of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh primarily because of its inability to understand the ground reality that governed the UP society today long before the incumbent elections.

As for the Left, they were completely wiped out. Internally divided and also confused as to what the primary contradiction in UP society was, i.e. communalism or casteism and not organizationally in a position to take on either, the Left parties drew a blank and were left with wooden spoons. The classes that they primarily represent, through the width of their policies chose the BSP over them overwhelmingly. The Left was left in the end with the consolation that the politics of communalism had been soundly defeated in Uttar Pradesh, fearing as they had that the rise of BJP was being made possible through communal rhetoric and disenchantment with the UPA government in recently held State and Municipal elections across the country.

So, how could Mayawati succeed this tremendously? What were the basic calculations she made that worked in her favor and what does this result portend to the whole notion of "caste based politics"? These are the questions one needs to answer.

Mayawati runs a tightly knit ship where she holds the rudder, the wheels, the deck and even the anchor. She has complete control over her organization which is run more as a political movement rather than a party. The party doesn't even have a spokesperson who is accountable to the media nor does it have a voice other than Mayawati's. While this has helped the party concentrate on its primary duty of building its base silently rather than playing itself out in the public arena of the media, it's interesting to note how there exists such complete uniformity of action by its disciplined cadre despite total autocracy practised by its leader. Clearly a system of patronage has been worked out for sections who are the core unit of support for the BSP (i.e. the Dalits). The dominant Jatav community provides near unanimous support owing to the base built by Mayawati (who belongs to this community) and because of the measures enunciated during her previous short-term stints in power. Mayawati therefore could forge an umbrella coalition similar to the Congress system, with the master keys of patronage distribution however held by Dalits. That even the lower OBCs (who were distinct from the Yadavs, the core constituency of the SP) could bind themselves to this umbrella coalition suggests the strength of caste arithmetic that the BSP stitched for itself.

The standard reasons that affect incumbent governments across the country (with their non-involvement in forging genuine social growth projects through public investment and state action) worked in Uttar Pradesh too, but the important point was the channelizing of this anger against incumbency. The channelizing was done through the stitching of the caste arithmetic from the vantage point of the most oppressed. The Left articulates a similar concern with the policies of the incumbent but it failed to win, primarily because it couldnt' channelize the discontent toward building a "class alliance" as demanded by its theoretical praxis.

Will this coalition between the upper castes and the Dalits last? Signs of having to adjust to the pattern of coalition are already in place with Mayawati disbursing ministries to Brahmin candidates who were victorious in the elections. The system of patronage with its inclusivity sounds good on paper, but the primary contradiction lies in India's villages, where there still exist enough areas of antagonism between the dominant upper castes and the Dalits. How this bargepole could be broken by Mayawati remains to be seen. It's one thing stitching up an arithmetic, but it is difficult to maintain chemistry strictly through patronage. In the early 1990s, the SP and BSP were able to formulate a similar arithmetic of the OBCs and Dalits coming together but the primary contradictions between the OBCs and Dalits resulted in the eventual breakdown of the arithmetic arrangement.

A tenuous link between the upper castes and the Dalit is therefore both a blessing as well as a bane for Mayawati's BSP. Unless she articulates a radically different programme of redistribution rather than patronage, which addresses the primary contradictions of feudal Uttar Pradesh society, through fervent State action, it would be near impossible for her to sustain the tenuous short term patnership that she has built upon now. With the composition of the BSP's ministry being consisted of tainted ministers with egregious criminal records and the party's opportunist bases (the BSP's MPs were named in nearly all the scandals that rocked India's parliamentarians in the past few years), it sure looks that politics of pilf and pork remains to stay despite the identity based victory of the BSP.

Another larger question to be asked in the context of the UP Election victory is whether process of regionalization that heralded the previous decade in Indian Politics will continue to marginalize and fragment the National polity to such an extent that the National parties would have their significance reduced to nominal levels and would they be reduced to secondary partners all across the country? The answer to this question is much more clearer. From a centralized centripetal Centre-dominated nation, India has slowly emerged into a much more participatory, decentralized and fragmented polity. Local issues dominate the agenda of choosing representatives more than abstract Central notions. It is almost sure that the regionalization and fragmentation of the Indian polity is here to stay and unless the National Parties themselves adjust to this fragmentation by metamorphosing into decentralized units, it will be difficult for them to maintain their relevance in the respective states.

Will the BSP be able to replicate this form of success in other states too? This question is more difficult to answer. As such, the BSP was able to forge into a formidable unit in Uttar Pradesh because of the efforts it made in creating a well integrated cadre structure that translated political legitimacy into power and power into expanded bases. It currently lacks such a dedicated structure in any other state. A ripple effect of the Uttar Pradesh victory can translate into a few gains in nearby municipal and state elections, but an overwhelming victory can only be possible through the building of a solid organization. For this to happen, Mayawati would have to cede her unanimous control to people who have more grounding in their respective states and the invariable tensions of working across federal units would have their say in the organizational hold of the one-woman party that Mayawati so tightly runs.

Added to all this is the slow but pernicious effect of neoliberalism that has ravaged the project of equity in this country. As withdrawal of the state from its welfare roles deepens and correspondingly, the vagaries of livelihood is made anarchically related to the grossly unpredictable market, the spread of inequality, the increased distances between the haves and havenots and lopsided development across federal regions would have their effects on the polity bringing out new variables that could affect party formation, sustenance and fragmentation. Already the voting percentages in the elections (not going beyond 45-48%) suggest a growing discord against electoral democracy and a rising legitimacy accorded to asystemic forces such as the Naxalites. How these variables will pan out would require further brainstorming.