The politics of disaster: Hurricane Sandy and the US elections

Ayushman Jamwal

Hurricane Sandy

As Hurricane Sandy pounded the eastern coast of the United States, the campaign dynamics of the presidential elections changed dramatically even though temporarily. During Sandy, Barack Obama was no longer the Democrat Party’s nominee, but the President of the United States. All eyes were on him for how he was going to deliver the nation from the crisis, while all eyes were on Romney whether he could successfully challenge the President’s leadership, this time in real time besides in retrospect. While the American political fraternity scorns ‘playing politics’ in times of crisis, both Romney and Obama campaigns went into stealth mode, employing subtle tactics for American hearts and minds. The past few days have shown that incumbency favoured Obama by the simple fact that he was doing a great job as President.

Obama handling Sandy

Obama cancelled his campaign events in the crucial swing state of Ohio this week as he continued to monitor the storm’s fallout with his advisors. Not surprisingly, the White House released four different photographs of the President in his situation room hard at work. On Tuesday, Obama’s heartfelt speech at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington was beamed across the nation as he made an appeal to American citizens for donations. He highlighted how his administration was working hard to cut through the red tape to make sure the relief and rescue operations took place swiftly and smoothly. As New Jersey faced the brunt of the storm, politics was off the table for Republican state governor and Romney loyalist Chris Christie who praised Obama for his leadership. Recently on CBS News he said, “He (Obama) accelerated the major disaster declaration for New Jersey without the usual red tape, I can’t thank the president enough for that. Cooperation from the president of the United States has been outstanding, he deserves great credit.” On Wednesday, Christie accompanied Obama on his tour of New Jersey to assess the damage caused by the storm. In a speech Obama reassured citizens, “We will follow up to make sure you get all the help you need until you rebuild. The federal government will be working as closely as possible with the state and local officials, and we will not quit until this is done.”

Bill Clinton at Minnesota University

Over on the east side of the country, Obama’s most eloquent supporter, former President Bill Clinton, continued the political slugfest ushering in the topic of global warming for the first time in the elections. At a speech at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, he criticised Romney for opposing Obama’s efforts to fight global warming through sustainable means. Mixing in the economy, Clinton attacked Romney for opposing tax credits for wind and solar energy emphasizing that 175,000 Americans were employed in ‘good, middle class jobs’ in those sectors.

Romney’s Ohio storm relief rally

Romney on the other hand had a limited hand of cards to play. While he may have refrained from political mudslinging, there was nothing significant he could attack Obama with while his own pals in the Republican Party were praising the President. Romney temporarily changed his campaign tact holding a storm relief rally in Ohio. He appealed to his supporters for supplies and posed for the camera ‘participating’ in the relief effort. His supporters on the other hand kept the campaign spirit alive at the rally, brandishing t-shirts saying, “Obama: You’re Fired” and “Don’t tread on me” amongst others. Yet, even a non-partisan approach couldn’t give Romney an edge as the media jogged its memory and put him on the spot with an inconvenient question. During a CNN primary debate last year, Romney said he was in favour of reducing the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, putting individual states in-charge of emergency response, and even supported introducing the private sector. Romney ignored the questions from reporters at the rally while his staff was quick to point out that he would not eliminate the Agency if elected.

Obama vs Romney

Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy may have been swift, but his performance may not deliver him any significant political advantage. The eastern coast where the storm hit is primarily Democrat territory and Obama’s dynamic leadership may only have re-enforced his party’s hold. His disaster management may get him some level of political traction in the central and swing states, but with them practically unaffected by the storm but most affected by the economic downturn, the economy has returned as the prime political issue. With Hurricane Sandy now dissipating and a Katrina style disaster averted, Obama and Romney have suspended their ceasefire. At a rally in Green Bay in Wisconsin on Friday, Obama emphasised the improving economic conditions under his leadership and criticised Romney for advocating ‘top-down’ economics which preceded the recession. Romney on the other hand attacked the President’s record at a rally in Virginia, throwing out large figures on unemployment and the budget deficit. As polling day approaches on the 6th of this month, he turned Obama’s slogan of ‘four more years’ to ‘five more days’ as the crowds cheered him on. With no major faux pas in the last few days, Romney may still keep the race neck to neck as both candidates are back to square one in the swing states in the final stretch of the elections. The next few days are going to be very interesting.

India Against Corruption: The Fourth Estate’s Alter Ego?

Ayushman Jamwal

India Against Corruption

Not too long ago, the media had quite a handicap in the pursuit of the truth. Privy to all information, the political class was unchallenged in setting the news agenda, yet lacked the tolerance for inquisitive questions. Channels across the nation would hesitate to ask the political biggies the tough questions. Some brave journalists would show the gumption to ask a few, but one googly and almost all politicians would just throw a tantrum, and abandon the discussion in a huff with no significant political or popularity fallout. Over the past year, however, India Against Corruption under Arvind Kejriwal seems to have changed that dynamic.

Arvind Kejriwal

Last year, the media and citizens across India gave centrestage to India Against Corruption when they campaigned under the ‘blessings’ of veteran activist Anna Hazare. Ever since he left the limelight paving the way for Arvind Kejriwal, the young activist has fearlessly taken on the political class, voicing allegations of corruption and digging for every piece of evidence to prove his case. The organisation has become a media darling, as every protest, every press conference and every speech is enthusiastically received and beamed across the nation. The media also seems to have attained a new found enthusiasm to pursue the truth, even if it means shooting from Kejriwal’s shoulder.

Robert Vadra

Channels that lack the courage or fear the risk of taking on the political class have virtually outsourced their journalistic will to India Against Corruption, taking the cue from it to kick start their own investigations. They have been on an investigation spree ever since Kejriwal alleged a quid pro quo arrangement between Robert Vadra and the DLF construction corporation. Channels and newspapers have given an important platform to IAS officer Ashok Khemka who blew the whistle on the duo, and have even raised doubts over how Vadra acquired large tracts of land in Rajasthan.

Salman Khurshid

This month Kejriwal alleged that former Union Law minister Salman Khurshid siphoned government funds for his disability charity. The media went on the offensive raising suspicions over the distribution of aid as alleged recipients and disability activists came out questioning the charity’s work. While the BJP relaxed watching the Congress party struggle under the glare of the IAC blitz, Kejriwal steered the media’s attention to party chief Nitin Gadkari.

Nitin Gadkari

He accused Gadkari of diverting government resources meant for farmers to his industries in Maharashtra. The subsequent media investigations have brought out startling revelations in the case, namely the many shell companies allegedly funding Gadkari’s multi-crore Purti Pvt Ltd; how his driver is registered as one of the directors of the corporate group; and how one of its offices turned out to be a store room in the slums of Mumbai. In such an environment, the political fraternity now seems compelled to seek out the media to provide answers and justifications, leading to the usual spin tactics at regular press conferences and the 9 pm television brawls.

With the judiciary clearly out of the picture, Kejriwal and the media have induced significant doubt and suspicion into the public sphere as both target the credibility of political heavyweights. Kejriwal has also drawn a clear line in the sand, making a move for the moral high ground by continuously challenging the UPA government to launch its own investigations into his organisation. In the battle for hearts and minds, IAC seems to clearly have the advantage

India Against Corruption rally

The Indian voter for a long time has been a silent majority whose problems and outrage have gone unnoticed, being victims of either their own apathy or fear. The Indian media from time to time has championed certain issues, yet all pursuits have a short shelf life as the news cycle constantly changes. For once there is a persistent group of vocal individuals who are committed to holding the powers that be accountable for the breakdown in administration, and raise questions regarding their alleged criminal and corrupt activities. Over the past year, the IAC has been able to garner significant public support to their cause, with people from all walks of life joining hands with Kejriwal on the streets, fearlessly facing the brutality of cops and returning again and again to demand answers.

Kejriwal and the Indian Media

I have heard more than one conspiracy theory of how Kejriwal is an RSS agent against the Congress or more recently and ironically, a government sponsored distraction from Coalgate. But I believe the IAC is naturally attracting people through the simplicity of its argument and resolve. It is championing the basic principle of democracy that politicians are not VIPs but public representatives who are accountable to the electorate. The ideology is noble, refreshing and has made the IAC an influential actor in the political playing field and to a great extent the media’s alter ego.

Even though the media points fingers at Kejriwal’s credibility and his intentions, they appreciate his presence in the political sphere. The IAC doesn’t just provide a mere spectacle of fearless civil activism, it has allowed the media to indirectly serve and fulfill its role as society’s fourth estate. Every protest beamed across the country is potent in delivering the strong public sentiment against political corruption. If Kejriwal’s IAC is at the frontlines of fighting it, the Indian media is standing right behind it, if not side by side.

Enter the Nerdosphere

Ayushman Jamwal

Star Trek’s Captain James Tiberius Kirk

Science fiction,¬†superheroes¬† voyages in space and encounters with intelligent life are concepts that have enthralled me from the time I began watching William Shatner as Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in the 1990’s Star Trek television show. He was the prime western sci-fi icon in India for a minority of sci fi fans of my generation. As I grew up, I became a fan of Richard Dean Anderson’s Stargate, Edward James Olmos’ enigmatic performance as Captain Will Adama in Battlestar Galactica, and relished movies from the Star Wars series and the characters of Batman, Green Lantern and Judge Dredd. My love for this genre, gave me the reputation of a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ amongst my friends primarily because of my lack of infatuation with ‘Friends’, ‘Scrubs’ and other ‘cool’ shows. I’ve always wondered why I was drawn to of sci-fi….what was so special and engaging about it. The answer dawned on me only as I became more aware of the world around me. I am not a fanatic who has Star Wars themed parties, or Star Trek night suits, I simply admire how the genre provides a spectacle of the future; how over time it has become a key medium in popular culture that vividly explores the empathetic and malevolent nature of man; and constantly questions the tenets of human society, religion and morality.

We fans may be ‘geeks’, but the genre offers us a lot that leaves us laughing, crying, enthralled, but most of all gives us a lot of food for thought. In my opinion, the greatest quality of this genre lies in how it’s a launch pad for parallels and counter-narratives for the philosophies and spiritual ideologies that have taken root in our society today.

Ramayana AD

Many including me believe that the Ramayana is a great and timeless story, full of lessons and morals that I have learned as a child. But, I also believe that the story of Star Wars is at par, even an apt heir to the story of the Ramayana. Even though science fiction, there is nothing scientific about the genre. It packs the same life lessons of love, honour, respect and duty as well as the emotional complexity and the moral dilemmas that make Ramayana so compelling. Going even beyond the epic, if Prince Ram vanquishing Ravana appealed to me as a child, Luke Skywalker’s selflessness not to fight Darth Vader, the main villain who happens to be his father, which eventually wins him over, appealed to me as an adult. That narrative screamed Gandhian philosophy to me, how the will to sacrifice was used not to destroy but to win over evil. Star Wars also talks of the concept of the ‘Force’. It essentially is a concept of a life force which permeates all and can be moulded into the ‘Light’ and the ‘Darkside’. It’s similar to the Rig Veda’s concept of ‘Brahm’, the life force and the pursuit of balance of good and evil, yin and yang, something all avatars of Lord Vishnu have pursued in mythology, a task carried out by the Order of the Jedi from the series.

Jedi Church in Britain

The concept of Jedi has in-fact become a full fledged and growing faith in the world, primarily in the United Kingdom where no major religion has any public hold. A 2001 UK census found that around 400,000 people claimed their belief system was Jedi, with churches dotted all over the country and many around the world. In fact, a British Member of Parliament for the constituency of Copeland Jamie Reed is a self proclaimed Jedi. Their Ying and Yang style philosophy of cosmic balance comes through in these simple verses,

Star Wars

Emotion, yet peace.

Ignorance, yet knowledge.

Passion, yet serenity.

Chaos, yet harmony.

Death, yet the Force.

Battlestar Galactica

Another enigmatic series is Battlestar Galactica, considered to be the one of the greatest television shows ever made. The entire series is George Orwell’s apocalyptic 1984 and story of the Jewish prophet Moses packed into one. It shows how mankind has moved away from earth and colonized more than one planet. Yet its pursuit for perfection and aspiration for God leads it to create a robotic race called Cylons which becomes self aware and launches a full scale attack. Only 40,000 survive the attack and drift through space being chased by the Cylons as the survivors find the original earth or ‘the promised land’. The show grapples with the question of what it is to be human, and shows civilization struggling to survive, to keep its rules intact in the face of extinction. It depicts the narrative with civilian-military clashes for power, the fight over resources, how the judiciary turns futile, how people delve deeper into religion for respite and sanity, and others condemn it.

Writer Isaac Asimov

The spiritual element in the show comes in where a cancer riddled teacher named Laura Roslin leads the survivors to earth guided by her faith, which is her source of hope as well as despair. The Cylon-Human conflict is far from the Terminator narrative to remove the human threat. The Cylons who are organically engineered robots, with the ability to procreate, see themselves as children of men, and a perfection of the race. They aren’t stoic machines, but super-humans with a fanatic belief. Yet, they are subject to same human condition. Within their ranks there are questions raised as some Cylons fall in love with the humans, bear children while others question their pursuit. The most iconic scene of that happens when a supernova explodes and a Cylon laments that in his pursuit to become human, he can no longer experience the power and glory of such an event due to the sensory shortcomings of being a human. The series is complex and beautifully written and presents a vivid reality with questions that have transcended the religious texts pushed the envelope of our understanding of ourselves. It constantly answers writer Isaac Asimov’s eternal questions for artificial intelligence – When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?

Judge Dredd

There are compelling character and ideological parallels and counters in the ‘Nerdosphere’ to those in renowned and hallowed texts around the world. For the Ramayana’s Raavan bent on enslaving the world, there are Raaz Al Gul and Christopher Nolan’s Joker bent on destroying it by consuming it with chaos, turning it against itself through fear, greed and suspicion. If Ram is the deliverer of freedom to the world from evil, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars delivers freedom to his galaxy by leading a rebellion to overthrow the Sith empire. If Buddhism advocates that enlightenment can truly be achieved by severing ties from desire, the Order of the Jedi advocates the source of

Green Lantern

illumination lies in “learning to let go of all that one fears of losing”. If Karan from the Mahabharata is iconic for forgoing morality for duty, Judge Dredd is iconic for living with that code when enforcing justice on the streets of Mega City. As Moses lead his people to freedom from Egypt, President Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica leads the human race to the promised land of Earth. If the power of will and hope can make anything come true, the Green Lantern sphere is a powerful representation of a universe protected and empowered by those virtues. If the story of Jesus teaches the value of selflessness, then every fictional hero in ‘Nerdosphere’ is a poignant parallel.

The genre nourishes the imagination exploring the human condition; its potential for greatness and evil; and its struggle with its values to achieve prosperity and survive. No other genre besides sci-fi/fantasy has comic books sales, global conventions and multiple spin-offs and movies. The proliferation of these franchises and the growth of some of its elements into a faith is testimony to its powerful narrative, potent ethos, grand spectacle. So next time your friend asks you if you’ve seen the latest sci-fi/fantasy flick, don’t write it off as something lame. Try it out, make that open your mind and you might find something intriguing, visionary, even inspiring.