Fall of the old guard?

Segolene Royal’s election as presidential candidate for the presendentials to be held in April next year certainly seems a step in the right direction. She is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise insipid French domestic politics. Whether she will actually bring in the change she promised remains to be seen. An unwed mother of four children winning such widespread acceptance in a catholic rather traditional country is the indication of a change that is sweeping all of Western Europe. It is a signal that it is Royal’s work and politics that matter to the French public, not the details of her private life. Will she actually do what she has promised to do? Only time will tell…

Ségolène Royal…a new beginning?

Royal wins race to fight for presidency

The prospect of France’s first female president took a leap forward last night after the Socialist party declared Ségolène Royal the winner of its candidate race. As Miss Royal dined last night in her family home in Melle, western France, with close supporters and top staff, the first local results showed an unexpectedly handsome win.

Her own département of Deux Sevres gave her 84 per cent of the vote, while neighbouring départements of Charentes and Dienne gave her 72 per cent and 68 per cent respectively.

By 11.30pm local time, less than two hours after voting had ended, Miss Royal went to her local village hall to declare victory, to shouts of “President Ségolène” from supporters.

“I am weighing the scale of the honour that has been bestowed upon me by all the party members”, she said, and promised the French people that “we are going to build something extraordinary together. The people have mobilised. I will not let them down”.

She declared “a moment of happiness” but “now we have six months of work ahead of us” as she battled to unite the Socialist party.

Partial results showed support for Miss Royal stood at 64 per cent, with her two rivals, the former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the former prime minister Laurent Fabius, tied on around 18 per cent.

Stephane Le Foll, a party spokesman, said Miss Royal had secured an absolute majority.
“The results show rather clearly that there will only be one round of voting and that we can say that Ségolène Royal will be the Socialist party candidate,” he said.

Miss Royal will challenge for the presidency in April.

Earlier, stylishly dressed in a cream silk suit, she called the vote “the first round, at last, of the presidential elections”, and insisted she would await the results “with serenity”.

The stakes could not have been higher for Miss Royal, whose good looks and broad smile belie her reputation as an ambitious high-achiever, raised in the French colonies in an army family.
Miss Royal’s supporters had made no secret of their longing for a quick end to the primary, fearing that her front-runner status was being eroded by criticism from her opponents, and the strain of six separate candidates’ debates, in which she was accused of proffering fine-sounding slogans instead of detailed policy positions.

Opinion polls throughout the seven-week primary campaign gave Miss Royal, a former aide to President Francois Mitterrand and a junior minister in two Socialist governments, a healthy, though declining, lead over her two rivals.

Miss Royal, who has four children by her partner, the Socialist party’s leader, Francois Hollande, has been the MP for the area around Melle since 1988, winning the affection of local farmers and factory workers as she used her powerful connections in Paris to channel public funds to the region.

Melle, a town of just 4,500 people, is so loyal it has been dubbed “Segoland” by the French press. It is picture-book France. The local estate agent’s window is filled with English-language advertisements for restored barns and stone farmhouses. Miss Royal’s constituency office is a handsome house off the market square.

The town and surrounding regions bear the marks of 18 years of state-funded interventions by Miss Royal.

Locals talked of her work to alter the route of a motorway which threatened wetlands and of her efforts to secure protected origin status for a prized variety of goats cheese, the chabichou.
Yves Dedien, a deputy mayor, expressed pride at her record. “There is a political tradition in France that allows an MP with a national profile to obtain certain funds for their constituency,” she said.

“But Ségolène did not stop there. Her work to get protected status for the chabichou was a question of hard work, not funding.”

Since winning office two years ago as the head of the regional government of Poitou-Charentes, Miss Royal has maintained an intensely local focus, spending yesterday on such events as laying the foundation stone of a new high school, named the “Lycée Kyoto” after the treaty on carbon emissions.

Critics of Miss Royal have asked whether such works, in a tranquil if impoverished corner of rural France, can fit her for the task of running a nation whose grimmest urban housing estates are near no-go zones for the police, where cars are set on fire every night, and youth unemployment can reach 50 per cent.

Pierre Redien, a party activist, warned her critics not to underestimate her. “Those people in Paris don’t know her well,” he said.

“She’s a fighter, she’s got courage, and she can be very tough when needed. She knows what she wants and she gets it.”

Ségolène Royal’s most dangerous rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an ex-finance minister ran as a moderate “Social Democrat”. DSK, as he is known, has a tepid following among die-hard activists but saw his poll ratings steadily climb among the general public after each of the campaign’s three televised debates, as viewers warmed to his authoritative, somewhat professorial, manner.

The same polls were brutal to Laurent Fabius, once one of France’s youngest ever prime ministers. Mr Fabius ran as a hard-Left candidate, vowing to re-nationalise French energy companies and to impose fines on firms which send jobs overseas.


Man on the moon? for what good?

Recent news reports (Vote for Manned Space Mission) have suggested that he ISRO may be seriously considering sending a manned mission to space. My question is, why exactly? What is the mission going to accomplish? If there is any concrete and useful outcome, it makes sense. Otherwise, not really. Should the government and the ISRO not refrain from such unnecessary expenditure when all the information that is needed from the moon is already available at the NASA? What is India trying to do? Declare itself as part of the developed world by launching a mission which was the exclusive domain of the Cold War powers. I do not think so.

The keyword today is collaboration. If India can think seriously of collaborating with the US on areas of nuclear technology, what stops the ISRO from signing a similar accord with the NASA? I fail to understand the rationale behind the decision. If you understand it, do let me know.

Beyond the veil….

So, here it is….a short comment on Barkha Dutt’s column on the veil. While I agree with her that modernity is confusing business, I really think we must stop debating on women’s clothes. Does anyone debate on men’s clothes? Does anyone really care? Then, why the hell are we wasting time and energy commenting on the veil, or the absence of it? If a woman feels comfortable with the veil, so be it. Leave her in peace. What is the big deal?

A question to ponder

Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7Saturday, October 28, 2006:

It’s the classic cliché: meek eyes staring out from behind miles of cloth; the grim black color making the perfect style statement for suppression.
But is it really that simple?
Is the veil a symbol of equality or entrapment? Does it stand for religious freedom or retrograde ritualism? At a time when the globalisation bulldozer is swiftly flattening out individuality and turning us all into assembly line productions, is the veil a healthy assertion of multiculturalism? Or is it simply sexist in the extreme?
Jack Straw, England’s former foreign secretary, kick-started the row when he declared that he would prefer Muslim women in Britain to completely discard the full veil. Salman Rushdie was even more blunt: the veil, he said, “sucks” and was just another way of taking “power away from women”.
And Tony Blair joined the chorus: the time had come, he said, to step outside the boundaries of political correctness and debate the place of the veil in a modern, secular society.
So which side of the debate are you on?
I have to confess that despite being an unabashed liberal feminist, I’m pretty confused.
Sure, I’m instinctively revolted by religious dogma and sickened by the subtext: stifle female sexuality in swathes of impenetrable dark cloth. I have always argued that certain principles of equality must override and supersede religion. So while Jack Straw’s comments were restricted to the niqab that cloaks women from head to toe, personally I find even the hijab or the headscarf scarily suggestive of subservience.
But it disturbs me only as much as the ghungat in Hindu homes of rural India or the feudal chic of urban socialites who dress up in fancy chiffons and pearls and then demurely drape their heads and reach for their husband’s feet if required. The veil offends my notion of equality just as much as temples that deny entry to women or churches that believe priesthood to be the preserve of men.
The fact is that gender is always on the wrong side of faith. And so by definition, the classic feminist position is always at loggerheads with tradition.
The problem as many feminists (including myself) have discovered is this: our ideology often doesn’t have the width for the world’s complexities. It ignores socio-economic realities and how inextricably culture and identity are linked.
In real life, context is everything: and the truth alters as the context shifts.
I remember being in Kashmir in 2001. A shadowy militant group was trying to push women behind a blanket of black: the veil was being enforced in a valley where many women traditionally never wore it. Outspoken young girls went on record to protest the infringement of their freedom and the distortion of their culture. As we aired these reports on television, a fatwa was slapped on my head warning me against traveling to the state.
A few months later, 9/11 shook the world, and I was in New York. This time, there were threats too, but of an entirely different kind. Muslim women were being compelled to discard the safety and comfort of the hijab.
At the city’s community center for Arab-Americans, social workers were advising women to dress in a way that would blend them into the mainstream: no headscarves, skirts and dresses, if possible. At a peace vigil, I met a Bangladeshi woman who suddenly broke down and wept; it was the first time she had stepped out her house without wearing the customary salwar-kameez.
Freedom had really become another word for nothing left to lose. And suddenly what could have been a symbol of oppression in another place, at another time, had transformed into an emblem of religious pride.
So when Jack Straw says that the full veil is a “mark of separation” and a custom that segregates the community, it raises all sorts of other questions. The assimilation debate is always a dangerous one; must Muslims conform to an anglicised notion of dress to be considered regular people?
London-based journalist Zaiba Malik was one such “integrated” Muslim who had never worn a veil before, but decided to conduct a little experiment. She shrouded herself in black and walked across the city. Among the slew of comments heaped upon her: “You Paki terrorist, go back home”.
Reading about her experience, I thought that one remark would have enraged me enough to want to wear the veil forever.
On the other hand, there is also no doubt that across the world, there is a crisis of modernity and leadership in Muslim communities. As terrorism plunges the world into a Samuel Huntington styled clash of civilizations, Mr Straw is right in saying that cities must not be split into self-contained ghettoes. The question is this: did his controversial remarks actually end up achieving exactly that?
There are no simple answers. Modern politics has got caught in the polarisations of the West vs Islam battle, and the modern gender debate is tragically trapped in extremes as well.
Read the furious bloggers on Jack Straw’s comments. One of them, a young Muslim, demands to know: “What are Straw’s views on teenage pregnancy, on young girls going out dressed in next to nothing?”
Beyond the obvious cultural clash, the comment got me thinking. Would there ever have been a public debate over whether women dressed in handkerchief skirts and bikini blouses were appropriate role models?
Of course not.
Today we believe women have traveled a long way because we are able to flaunt our sexuality and strut our stuff. To question to that is to be labelled prudish and backward. And yet, I often wonder, is this progress or merely the circle completing itself?
The debate reminds me of one of my favourite stories, one, some readers of this column would have heard before. I first met “item girl” Momed Khan during the recording of a television show on censorship. The sultry, long-haired, short-skirted Momed, best-known for her seductive serenade in the hit song Dekh Le, sprang to her feet, and pointed aggressively at the skirt riding up her leg.
This is what women wanted to be, she said, almost yelling. The age of the salwar-kameez was over. As the audience applauded, I thought: here’s a 19-year old Muslim woman from conservative Lucknow, in Thackeray’s Mumbai, defying convention and norm. That seemed pretty radical by any standard.
Yet I kept thinking: What did she really stand for? The manufactured sexuality, the crafted coquettishness — it seemed to me that we had just gone and replaced an old stereotype with a new one. Had she turned up draped in a full veil instead, would she have been a different woman beneath the black?
Somehow I’m not so sure.
Modernity is a confusing business, and sometimes moving forward is the same as going back.


some random thoughts…

This post is mainly meant to address two questions that Nita has asked. One is as comment to my previous post. The other is on her blog anygiventuesday.blogspot.com. It deals with Indians working and living abroad.

First, to kill this debate on domestic violence and women’s rights. I am slightly tired of all the feminist nonsense I have been reading and hearing over the last week. While I agree that western women have a lot less tolerance for incompatibility than their subcontinental counterparts, I do not wish that attitude to spread in India. The west is far from being a role model for India. We can envy Japanese technology or American business but I really do not think we must look to the west in issues concerning home and family.

This is not to say that Indian women must tolerate any nonsense from the in-laws or to say that she must endure any amount of hurt. But, a little bit patience and forgiveness wouldn’t hurt either. I would not have appreciated my mother’s actions had she walked out on my dad a year after her wedding citing incompatibility. It is easy to say that two people are incompatible. but the question I would like to ask is, “Why do they decide to get married in the first place?” No-one forces them unlike in the Indian context. They fall in “love” and decide to get married. That too, after years or possibly decades of living together. Where does incompatibility suddenly occur?

To some, I may appear to be overly critical of the western attitude to life and marriage but this is what I believe in. Some amount of adjustment and tolerance is essential to make any relationship work. It may be friendship, business, relationship between siblings or marriage. Too much individualism is the bane of western society. My experiences with family life in the west have been, by and large, negative. I will not use it as a benchmark that determines my own behaviour towards my family.

That said, I come to my second series of thoughts. This is on why people go abraod and work. As Nita puts it, they take a calculated risk. Some succeed and some do not. Rashmi Bansal’s opinions are definitely biased. I have no objections to that bit of Nita’s letter. Where I beg to differ is her assertion that Australia has given her things that India could ever have. Australia may have give her all the material comforts in life, money, a car, a house and a dog. And whatever else people living there possess. But having lived abroad for a year, I still feel that there is no place like home. I can do what I want to, live the way I want to live, and have loads of money to blow….but for me….France is still not home. And it will never be. It lacks the warmth and care that MY home back in good old Chennai can give. Yes, Chennai is dirty, polluted, has roads that are actually potholes masquerading as roads. But still…it is home. I would not ever agree that Australia, the US or any other country can be as good as India is.

Professionally, India may be far behind the west today, but I, being the eternal optimist, firmly believe that the day India will be comparable to the west and to Oceania is not so far away. It will happen. With or without the help of Indians who toil away in foreign lands but content themselves with criticising India for its ills. But, I will be happy the day my home proves Nita wrong. The day will come.