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My Trump Moment

Donald Trump seems to be trumping all and sundry rivals on his drunken sailor’s merry dance to the prize at the end of the rainbow.  He has triumphed handsomely over the past six months, ever since the Republican Party launched its campaign to identify its presidential nominee.  His demise was predicted at every turn of the primary fight by his own party leaders but he emerged stronger every time.

Many party stalwarts now find themselves in a major dilemma: how can they deny Trump his opportunity, his day in the sun?

The party elites don’t want Trump to be around, but the voting base obviously loves him regardless of his teeny bopper’s angst towards the world he wants to lead.  Such rupture and factionalism is almost unique in political history with one notable exception; I can never forget the 1968 Democratic convention which was a pure shambles.  I never realized until then that responsible people could act so irresponsibly.  This year it is the Republican’s turn.

The question that remains in the realm of guess work by the political talking heads and pundits is how and why such an abyss opened between the two defining wings of the party – its base and its elite leadership.  Can the rift be healed and spanned in time for the 2016 elections?  If not, will it damn the Republican Party to a historic disaster, never before seen nor understood very well?  

This is a political reality TV show, but digging further into it is not my goal today.  Remember that Donald Trump rues a changing world and what he sees as a loss of prestige and the muscular power of this nation compared to the rest of world. And many ordinary Americans feel this loss of American privilege at a gut level. 

I want to mine this situation for some lessons for our gurduaras.

What I am going to describe is not unusual and is not so dissimilar from the Republican Party’s mess today.  A friend of mine is involved in a Midwestern gurduara that is going through the usual yearly conniptions on managerial structure.

A quick summary: The community at and around this gurduara is quite expectedly bifurcated.  There are those who came around a generation ago; they are reasonably integrated in the larger (non-Sikh) population around them, and are financially comfortable.  This generation founded the gurduara years ago and has managed it ever since. But now there are oodles of new immigrants, usually from rural India villages, still fighting for a place in this society.  There is an expectedly wide gulf between the world views of these two components of our community.  They do not trust each other at all. The question is, how do we close that distance?

In my view there are two intimately connected, intertwined themes working together that define the problem but also provide us with a possible path to its resolution.  Keep in mind that I am only outlining the two models here.  The devil is in the details but can be tamed:

1. Given that the community is polarized, isn’t it obvious that a successful administration would not need the ouster of a minority, so as to render it voiceless, but instead a collaborative structure of management.  Look at the world around us.  There are many successful examples in history of unity or coalition governments that were stitched together from many minorities.  The programs and policies then reflect the common ground that exists in the community, not the triumph of one side over the other.  Obviously both sides will be somewhat disappointed because, to hardheads, a negotiated compromise reflects weakness and failure, simply because it shows accommodation to each other. The alternative would be perpetual civil war, suppression of a minority, or partition of a country.

In coalition or unity management no party to the dispute gets its way completely,  yet the process promises another day when change will be possible.  As an example, I submit that in many gurduaras a silent minority shows little interest in managing a gurduara but consistently serves by preparing and serving the weekly meal (langar.) I would urge that they not be ignored nor their contribution diminished.  They may not be seeking headlines, but without their weekly service the gurduara would likely be quickly abandoned by the sangat.

Running to the judicial system means a horrendous expense without the guarantee of peace and reconciliation.  To me such a step indicates that we lack the sense, or even a system for reconciling our differences and so need a “monkey in the middle.“

2. In the past, yearly elections produced the management team.  But as you know gurduara elections all over the world are not noted for their transparency but, in fact, for their opacity. Electoral rolls of voters are famous for their incomplete data.  Trust becomes the casualty. Procedural shenanigans guarantee that the same small slate triumphs and reappears every year. Leaders have to be cajoled, begged and flattered to enter the management but, once in, they are so reluctant to walk away that they have to be kicked out. It is the rare management committee that practices transparency or participatory self-governance.

Nothing new so far!  It is obvious that in an election, good people have to create opposition parties and programs.  One has to diminish the competitor (opponent) with promises that we can do better.  Voting gets determined by social connections, class, caste and/or profession, etc. — minor or irrelevant criteria.  Bitterness results; the community gets divided and such fissures rarely heal.  The blame rests partially with the electoral model and dysfunctional system of India that immigrants are ingrained to practice and then have imported here.  And partially it is hubris of the financially comfortable vis-a-vis the less established, lesser educated, new arrivals. It reminds me a bit of the maelstrom surrounding the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls and their take on immigration reform. 

Some of our leaders who claim perpetual, if not divine, Guru-mandated authority to manage gurduaras, falsely liken their behavior to faithful dogs that guard the sanctity of gurduaras and of Sikhi. I wonder what kind of dogs they are: lap dogs watch dogs or attack dogs? Keep in mind that a dog is unfailingly loyal to its master but not to its own species. I hope to further pick up this tempting theme another day.

I would submit that members of a gurduara are like citizens of a country.  At least in this country, the law requires that citizens serve on Jury duty as and when called to do so.  Everyone must serve when picked by random selection.  To be excused from Jury Duty there has to be a compelling cause.  Given a reasonable pool of available citizens, one may need to serve only once every several years.

I believe this is a very sane model.

But such a model would rob our management class (oligarchs) of their unique glory and pretense as Guru-anointed leaders.  So they cavil — but imaginatively.  What if some incompetent people or crooks get selected, they ask.  My response is blunt: Look at gurduara management across the world.  Surely we have had both incompetents and scoundrels in the past and yet we have survived. If we limit, as we do now, management to few hand-chosen oligarchs, the results are horrendous.  We hardly come across a gurduara where peace and progress reign and who have not been dragged to courts at tremendous cost with little or no benefit to the community.

Earlier I wrote at length about such a jury model where every citizen owes some time and energy to the system that nurtures him or her.  It also becomes a teaching moment for those who serve, even though briefly. Those who participate, develop a sense of intimacy, humility and ownership in the institution that they serve. That’s been my personal experience of the legal jury system in this country. But I confess that it has not yet caught on with the gurduara crowd.

For too many of us who came from elsewhere, the past beckons more intensely as we grow older and the longer we stay away from our (Indian?) roots.

Unless and until we bring a radical change to our thinking, our gurduaras will continue to increase exponentially by fission, not by fusion; they will not create a community but splinter it.  Such growth is not a matter of joy; it is toxic.

All I can say is that once these leaders sneak in, they no longer let any grass grow under their feet.  Their roots are quickly replaced by the Astroturf of pomp and arbitrary power.

 I guess power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, no matter how small the arena and how low the stakes. 

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April 4, 2016


IJ Singh

IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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