Friday, April 30, 2010

Rascal or rogue? The choice is yours

Jharkhand is a classic example of the damage the political class does to India. One of the richest parts of the country, it has been reduced to a cesspool of iniquity, graft, deception and crime. One statistic sums it up: in the nine years of its existence, there have been seven governments. Shibu Soren has been chief minister three times – the first time for ten days in 2005, the second time for five months in 2008; the third-time drama is unfolding right before our eyes.

Shibu Soren is a star of Jharkhand. He became people’s “Guruji” when he fought the moneylenders who were terrorizing the adivasis. But, with the first whiff of political power, he turned into one of the most cynical leaders of our time, accused in at least two murder cases and several graft cases including the notorious JMM bribery case for which he was jailed. He had to resign his union cabinet positions as well because of criminal cases. Our politics allow such a man to manoeuvre for his son to become chief minister while he himself moves on to a cabinet post in Delhi.

That is said to be one of the calculations behind the present farce. Look at the sequence. Soren is an ally of the BJP, but votes against the BJP’s instruction on the cut motion in Parliament. (This is the man’s style. When he was with the Congress, he voted against the Congress stand on the nuclear bill).

The BJP promptly decides to withdraw support to his government. Soren then says he voted by mistake. Simultaneously his son Hemant Soren makes noises supportive of the BJP. Father and son say “new arrangements” will be acceptable to them. That was supposed to man a new BJP-backed government where the younger Soren will be Deputy Chief Minister if not the CM. Thrilled at the prospect of installing a BJP chief minister, the party’s man in charge announces a revised decision to “withhold” the old decision to withdraw support. There was not even a trace of shame on the face of the man in charge when he announced this crude powerplay.

Other unseen manoeuvres make it cruder still. While the BJP was prompt in moving against Soren who was only an ally, not a party member, there was no action against a party MP who absented himself on the crucial cut-motion voting. This was Sanna Pakirappa, BJP’s own MP from Raichur. Was his disobedience condoned because he is the cousin of one of the Bellary Reddys whose money is keeping the BJP in power in Karnataka? Was it also linked in any way to the Soren camp saying that the BJP had been pressurizing the Soren Government to allow the Reddy Brothers to get into the mines of Jharkhand as well? Pakirappa’s intriguing absence on voting day also led to speculation that the Congress could be striking a deal with the Reddy Brothers to destabilise the BJP. Or could it be that the Reddys are striking a deal with the Congress to regain its mining plunder rights currently in dispute?

One reality rising from it all is that the politician’s appetite is limitless. If they were only reasonably greedy, Jharkhand would have been one of the country’s most prosperous states. It ranks first in India in its deposits of iron, copper, mica, kainite and uranium. Its industrial cities are also top rankers: Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Dhanbad, Bokaro (which has India’s largest steel plant, explosives factory and methane gas well). How bright life could have been for the people of the state.

The political class sabotaged everything in its pursuit of power and money. It does not matter how the latest crisis works out. The choice is between rogues and rascals. Victory will be meaningless because Jharkhand will lose. Which is more or less the same situation across our vast and fertile country, isn’t it?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Media is amoral, but it works

Applause greeted the Supreme Court’s ruling that Manu Sharma should spend the rest of his life in prison. The man was a cold-blooded killer. His victim’s only fault was that she declined to pour him a drink after the bar had closed. Annoyed, he shot Jessica Lal pointblank and swaggered out.

Arrogance of this kind has marked many high-society crimes in recent years. This murderer was arrogant because of his money and his pedigree as a former minister’s son. Spoiled rich kids ran their limousines over pavement sleepers in Delhi and Mumbai because of their social arrogance. Police officer Rathod in Haryana raped an under-age girl because of his power arrogance. Sons of politicians, police officers and IAS babus across the country have been caught indulging in activities civil society should be ashamed of. They also use their influence to make an ass of the law.

This is where the Supreme Court’s incidental observations in the Jessica Lal murder case call for close attention. It said, among other things, that “trial by media… had the effect of interfering with the administration of justice”. The remark was occasioned by Sharma’s lawyer Ram Jethmalani’s complaint that his client had faced trial by media. In his enthusiasm for his client, Jethmalani lost sight of the fact that, for once, “trial by media” achieved something good, beyond anything he could have achieved.

The Jessica Lal case is in fact a classic example of how forces in our country conspire to deliberately interfere with the administration of justice. The shooting had taken place in front of many people, so it should have been easy to bring the guilty to book. But the influential culprits managed to ensure that witnesses turned hostile in court. The machinery of the state itself played dirty; the police failed to recover the gun and the prosecution presented a case that was ridiculously weak. The killer and his associates were all set free. Justice was blatantly thwarted.

It was in this situation that the public, to its credit, came forward with protests and demonstrations and candle vigils. The media took up the cause and provided persistent campaign coverage. It may have been high-pitched and less than professional. But it was well-intentioned and the honesty of its purpose persuaded the Delhi High Court to re-open the case suo motu. Under public glare, the police and prosecutors did what they failed to do in the first round. The High Court found Sharma guilty. The Supreme Court ratified that decision because Jethmalani was unable to hide the truth with his misplaced protestations against the media.

The media in India today is not exactly a clean entity. It has become, generally speaking, dubious in its motivations, mischievous in its pretensions, and plainly guilty in many of its practices. Large sections of it are corrupt. Amoral ideas have been institutionalised by the biggest players with fancy labels like “private treaties” and “paid news”. The guilty in the media too should one day be brought to justice.

It is a bit of a miracle that a media that has abdicated its responsibility is still able to do some public good. It is the nature of its work that makes this possible. Malpractices, misdeeds and criminalities dot the activities of our governments, our politicians, our businessmen, our film stars and even our sports bodies. A great deal of this is brought to public attention only because the media, by default or otherwise, dare publish information the guilty try to suppress. We only have to recall the numerous scandals of recent times to appreciate the value of this service done by the media.

The Jessica Lal case shows how the media, warts and all, and public spirited citizens and alert judicial authorities can work in tandem to keep at least a few of our influential criminals out of harm’s way. Justice is higher than a lawyer’s interest in his client.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Batman faces Svengali in money game

We as a people have gifts no other people have. Italy and New York, for example, are celebrated for their great mafia leaders. But those leaders could only think of routine stuff, like kidnapping and smuggling and murder and protection money. Only an Indian could think up the nonviolent idea of making millions from the humble, rarely noticed stamp paper. Telgi never harmed a fly.

Indians have the rare genius to turn everything into an item of trade. Who else has turned God into such profitable commerce? We discovered early that this line of business required the least investment. And the returns are huge. All it takes is the right kind of uniform – saffron robes or bishop’s cassocks or a neutral white that looks now like a saree, now like a winter shawl – and some kind of marketing mantra. Then you get enough believers around the world to keep you in eternal wealth, not to mention attractive fringe benefits provided by young devotees.

The God industry will remain by far the most widespread and lucrative of all business ventures in India. But ours is a vast and fertile land. There’s plenty of scope for all kinds of growth industries. So we have been busy developing the commercial potential of various other previously innocent ideas. Like Ambedkar, Maoists, Cricket….

B.R.Ambedkar is one of the greatest, bravest men who shaped our country’s destiny. K.R.Narayanan becoming President and K.G.Balakrishnan becoming Chief Justice of India are 20th-21st century phenomena and therefore not altogether uncommon. Ambedkar was born in the last decade of the 19th century into a family that was not only Untouchable but described openly as such. For such a boy to get a scholarship to Columbia University and then to London was an almost unbelievable feat.

Instead of hailing him as an Indian of supreme vision and value, we have reduced him to a convenient bargaining chip of Dalitism. Mayawati today claims exclusive proprietorial rights over him. Rahul Gandhi, on a mission to out-Dalit Mayawati, is not allowed to garland Ambedkar’s statue in Ambedkar Nagar area. In this one-upmanship game, Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi may or may not score points. But Ambedkar will lose. Because Ambedkar is no more than an item of political trade in their hands.

The Maoists of Dandakaranya are not very different. Home Minister Chidambaram’s hawkish policy has run into opposition from his own party colleagues who see the futility of a militaristic approach to what is fundamentally a social-economic problem. Unfortunately for Chidambaram, his earlier association with Vedanta, one of the companies that will benefit hugely if the Maoists are suppressed, has brought his motivations into question. It won’t be easy for him to avoid the impression that the lives of tens of thousands of adivasis are being traded for the commercial advantage of mining companies.

Cricket, of course, beats all other trading programmes, almost challenging the God business in scope and turnover. So many lakhs of crores of rupees are involved in the cricket business that the IPL presents its numbers in dollars and millions. Confidentiality, another word for secrecy, has been its watchword. Could such vast sums be clean? Could they include black money, terrorist money, underworld money? It is amazing that such issues attracted the enforcement directorate’s attention only when Shashi Tharoor and the Kochi franchise got into the picture. Tharoor is a natural magnet for trouble, as a playboy who wants to be everywhere doing everything. But he is a bumbling Batman before Lalit Modi’s scheming Svengali. How many political VIPs are interlinked with Svengali? Will they ensure that any investigation is yet another eyewash? Tragically cricket is no longer a sport. It too has become an item of trade, flourishing in a fish-market culture. May all the moneymakers burn in hellfire in due course for destroying the decencies that made cricket cricket and the values that made India India.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Suppression won’t work. Caring may

Let us say P.Chidambaram has his way. Crack army battalions are ordered into the forests of the Naxal-tribal belt. A formidable arsenal of weapons short of the nuclear are pressed into service. The Air Force, despite its better judgment, is ordered to reduce suspected hideouts into ash heaps. In no time Chidambaram will be able to proclaim triumphantly that the Maoists have been wiped out.

But that’s what Chief Minister Sidharth Shankar Ray did in West Bengal in the 1970s. By then the Naxal movement had grown strong enough to launch a full-fledged guerilla war. A determined Ray unleashed a reign of counter-terror and eliminated the guerillas. Then what happened? A generation later the underground movement reappeared as “the biggest threat facing India” in the Prime Minister’s words. Which means that Chidambaram’s grandstanding can at best do another Sidharth Shankar Ray, nothing more. That is what has always happened in history when policies are shaped by one-dimensional thinkers.

Chidambaram’s analytical powers must be strong as he is both a lawyer and an economist. It is therefore surprising that he has learned no lessons from India’s experience in Kashmir and the Northeast. In both regions prolonged operations by “special powers” army have only heightened the local people’s sense of alienation. In these cases, however, we can say that the “foreign hand” complicates matters for India. In the so-called Maoist movement there is no real foreign involvement, despite occasional suggestions to the contrary. There is an ideological solidarity with Maoists in Nepal and the Philippines, but operational links are clearly out of the question. And in China, of course, there are no longer any “Maoists”.

India’s Maoist problem is rooted in the social and economic deprivation of the poor. Bad enough before independence, the plight of the tribals in particular became worse after it. The tribal areas attracted attention only for the bauxite and uranium and diamonds as well as the iron ore they held. These in turn brought big companies and big contractors into the forests with greedy government officers in their wake. The tribal people were a nuisance to them. Not a single government since independence, whether in the states or in the Centre, has wasted a minute worrying about the welfare of the tribals and the dirt-poor.

The Maoists may be exploiting these destitutes to achieve their own political ends. But how did the tribals become so easily exploitable in the first place? Elected governments, the “legitimate authorities” as Chidambaram likes to put it, are guilty of creating a situation that drove people into the arms of exploiters. Politicians also exploited them. True to character, they exploited the tribals and also used the Maoists to settle their petty local quarrels. The state itself stepped in with the Salwa Judum, a band of government-sponsored thugs with the licence to kill, rape and plunder. This helped swell the Maoist ranks, in yet another demonstration of typical government foolishness.

It does not require the analytical powers of a lawyer-cum-economist to realise that there is a lesson in a simple statistic. Maoists were a notable presence in 55 districts in 2003, in 155 districts in 2005 and in 170 districts in 2009. They have become so strong that Home Secretary G.K Pillai estimates that it will take ten years to contain them.

Contain them like Siddarth Shankar Ray contained the first wave? It will take shorter and the outcome will be surer if the Government acts on a few meaningful ideas: Launch a crash programme for tribal people’s economic and social welfare; take quick and effective action against forest contractors and government officials and landlords who make tribal life hell; make it obligatory for mining companies to conduct supervised welfare schemes like the Tatas used to do in Jamshedpur in the early days. In short, have a caring policy instead of just a suppression policy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Much ado about nothing

Shakespeare never knew that his 16th century title would apply to a 2010 drama. And in India at that. The sound and fury over Amitab Bachchan would suggest that his brand ambassador ventures were the most urgent issue for the nation to address and resolve. Minor matters like the nuclear liability bill can wait.

Look at the fuss. Spokesmen of this party pouring ridicule over spokesmen of that party, editorial writers competing with columnists, channel rajahs and ranis falling over one another, blogs, twitters, sms – what a show! In reality it is exactly how Shakespeare summed it up: It’s much ado, and it’s about nothing.

Even so, there are some useful lessons we lay citizens can learn from this episode. First, there is a mean streak in the Congress and perceived likes and dislikes of Sonia Gandhi send party leaders into a frenzy of support. Second, Mr B is the most alert businessman in Bollywood. And third, all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten Narendra Modi’s hairy hands even if he becomes Prime Minister of India or President of the United Nations.

Sonia Gandhi actually is more sophisticated and shrewder than any Indian politician. But she is not known to forgive easily, especially where personal feelings are a factor. It is no secret that Rajiv Gandhi and Amitab Bachchan, once buddies, fell out. We do not know the real reasons, but there were reports that the problems started with the wives. Congress’s official spokesmen must have got a signal, hence their high-pitched criticism of Bachchan.

The level of these televised recriminations is pretty low. A Congress spokesman said, with patriotic emotion, that Mr B must make his position clear about the Gujarat riots. A BJP spokesman, with louder patriotic emotion, asked who were “these guys” to talk like that after massacring Sikhs for several days. The logic is: You massacred Sikhs, so it’s okay for us to massacre Muslims. To which the people will say: A plague upon both your houses.

Such puerile debates divert attention from the business acumen of the main protagonist, Mr B. His early attempts were a disaster. Who can forget the A. B. Corporation holding a beauty pageant in Bangalore promising to donate the collection to charity and then defaulting on the promise? He later discovered that advertising was his field. He made a success of the Reid & Taylor suit material campaign.

Then he discovered that the brand ambassador business was even more attractive because your clients would be government entities and you can expect to gain an element of prestige besides the money. Gujarat was an easy catch with a beleaguered chief minister eager to seize any opportunity that would give him an ounce or two of acceptability. Then he tried Kerala, then Orissa. Perhaps more will follow.

Kerala made a fool of itself by officially writing to Bachchan approvingly and then reneging on it under political pressure. But Bachchan’s own initiative in angling for the jobs cannot be overlooked. He went to Kerala for a meeting and dropped hints at the appropriate places. He met Modi to ask for tax concession for his Paa (which was like Sachin Tendulkar asking for duty waiver to import his Ferrari) and dropped a hint or two. Okay, as a businessman, it is his right to look for opportunities and grab them. Only that he should spare us the trumpet of his own virtues; no lectures about serving the country and about tourism being different from Modi, etc. In today’s Gujarat no ambassador can sell the Gir Lion without also selling Narendra Modi.

Mr B closing his eyes will not alter history. Modi’s position in history is inextricably linked with the worst communal atrocities in India since partition. The good things he is doing in industrial development and infrastructural improvement are praiseworthy. But the blot is a blot and it won’t go.