Saturday, August 28, 2010

Our petty little bureaucrats

It is strange that 5000 years of civilisation have left many of us uncivilised. Stranger still that most of the uncivilised end up as government bureaucrats. And because the bureaucrats – unseen, unobserved and always thinking small – manipulate most decisions on behalf of the country, the country is force-marched from one national shame to another.

Consider the wholly avoidable misadventure over Viswanathan Anand. It takes the crooked genius of a bureaucrat to think up ways of thwarting a doctorate being given to this wizard of chess. A man who brings glory to India many times over is insulted by a petty-minded file-pusher. The Minister apologises. Anand himself, with extraordinary grace, tells everyone to forget it and move on. That petty little bureaucrat must be enjoying the furore he has created and, lurking in his hole unseen and unobserved and always thinking small, figuring out how to shame the nation next to satisfy his petty little ego.

Do we as a race lack a sense of national pride? Look at the way we let foreigners escape after they have committed offences against our country: Ottavio Quattrochi of Bofors fame, Warren Anderson of Bhopal fame, even the British adventurers who dropped illegal arms in a Purulia forest many years ago and simply flew home. Contrast that with the US Immigration Office detaining an Indian simply because he was carrying suspicious religious literature in his baggage. Nothing has been found to nail him, but he remains nailed.

What happens at the sports level is even more humiliating to us as a nation. Will any Indian with a modicum of national pride make such a miserable mess of every detail of the Commonwealth Games? The stink rose so high that bossman Kalmadi was snubbed and disgraced with his powers taken off. But he clings to his chair becoming not just disgraced, but disgraceful too.

How different was China. That too is a country where gargantuan corruption prevails. But when the Olympics came around, every official and every citizen realised that this was something the world was watching. What followed was a national movement of a kind the world had seldom seen, from top officials to city gardeners doing their utmost to outperform themselves and achieve targets ahead of time. And what a show they mounted!

The most touching moment in the Beijing Olympics was when Liu Xiang, reigning champion of 110-metres hurdles, failed at take-off point because of leg injury. He was a superstar whose legs had been insured for $ 13 million. He was in such pain that he should not have shown up at all. But this was China and this was Liu, the hero all Chinese were looking forward to with pride. When the leg failed and Liu retired in excruciating pain, tens of thousands of Chinese left the stadium crying; they didn’t want to see the remaining events. At a press conference, Liu’s coach cried. Members of the Chinese media cried.

In India our officials, sports politicians and unseen bureaucrats take delight in putting players down. They don’t pay outstanding dues to tennis stars who win fame abroad. They send athletes from one state to another in unreserved compartments. Nutritious food is not served at training camps. Women from weightlifters to hockey stars have to face the tantrums of horny coaches.

Viswanathan Anand was checkmated by a civil servant who wanted proof of the master’s Indianness. Actually, is there any proof that that bureaucrat is an Indian? Minister Kapil Sibal did well to apologise. But why did he take refuge behind the excuse of “procedural delays”? Why did he not name the bureaucrat concerned and initiate action against him? How come even the vigilante media has not tried to find out which bureaucrat caused such a national disgrace? The failure to do this will mean that more disgraces will follow and more uncivilised civil servants will go scot free.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why greed is endless

There are no outstanding parliamentarians in India, but there is an Outstanding Parliamentarian Award, duly conferred by the President upon a handpicked MP. At last week’s award ceremony, Vice President Hamid Ansari spoke a few honest words. Lung power had replaced oratorical skills, he said, and discussions were drowned in noise and disruption. “It detracts from the dignity of Parliament and invites public scorn”.

This body of men and women whom the public of India scorns has now given unto themselves a three-fold increase in salary and allowances. They brayed for more: a five-fold increase. To describe them in English as a shameless lot will not bring out their despicableness in full. The Hindi term is slightly better: Besharam log.

It is so typical of the political class that Lalu Prasad Yadav should have been the most animated speaker demanding the pay hike. This is a man who not only got embroiled in serial misappropriation cases during his chief ministership in Bihar; he allowed kidnapping, especially of well-to-do doctors, to become the most paying industry in his state. He escaped from punishment only by bargaining with an amoral Congress. Last March, for example, he declared that he would not withdraw support from the Manmohan Singh Government over the Women’s Bill. As if on cue, the CBI took measures to neutralise a pending corruption case against him.

Whether the man is punished or allowed to escape, the people of this country have formed a clear opinion that he plundered everything he came across in his days of power. Why would such a man insist so loudly on a big pay increase? It must have something to do with the attitude of mind politicians develop after several years of looting and grabbing with immunity. When you can do such things and still get elected as a patriot, then you develop special complexes. You feel that you are elected because people admire even the way you plunder. Then plundering becomes an end in itself, a status symbol, a sign of your greatness. Once you are used to getting everything for nothing, there is no end to what you want. Greed feeds on itself.

More pathetic was the argument proferred by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, another vociferous supporter of the pay increase. He said a substantial hike would attract a better quality of persons to politics. So puerile was this argument that the usually genteel Manmohan Singh had to put him down by asking him to be brief.

No salary is going to attract a “better quality” of citizens if Parliament remains a mockery of the system where members take bribe for raising questions, and use diplomatic passports to smuggle a lady or two to Canada. As many as 120 MPs out of 543 in the 2004 Lok Sabha had criminal cases against them, according to the Association for Democratic Reform. Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda today goes to Parliament from his cell in Tihar Jail. That he will now get a triple salary increase is an insult to the people of India.

This kind of situation will not change as long as the politicians have the power to form their own rules. That is what Andre Marlaux called “politicians’ politics” as distinct from “people’s politics”. What we need is, first, outside mechanisms like an independent Pay Commission to take decisions on pay and allowances and, secondly, mandatory termination of membership when criminal misconduct is proved. The money-for-questions MPs were only admonished, so there are perhaps others who still do it.

What is required is not an increase in the emoluments of MPs, but something the other way round. When MPs cause disorder and force the House to be adjourned, let them refund their new daily allowance of Rs 2000. (Or is it 10,000? Perhaps 20,000 a day?). Hit them where it hurts, then even Lalu Prasad may behave like a good citizen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Disgrace in the name of sports

Miracles happen, so the Commonwealth Games may take place without some stadium roof collapsing. But that is not the issue. What we should really be worried about is: How do dunderheads, frauds and double-dealing fixers come to represent this great country? How do humbuggers, thimbleriggers and pettifogging pretenders get the power to humiliate us before the world?

It is possible to see thugs in leadership positions when the Government itself loses its legitimacy and is artificially propped up. This happened during the Emergency. Parliament saw an influx of ruffians and hooligans whose assignment was to shout down opponents. Cabinet positions went to odious men. When Jayaprakash Narayan was arrested in Chandigarh and district authorities there were worried about his deteriorating health, Defence Minister Bansi Lal’s response was: Let the swine die.

Emergency produced a culture favourable to swine. But what about today? India is breaking new ground on the business/industrial front, Britain is relaxing visa rules to attract high-spending Indian tourists, and our government is headed by an internationally respected economist. We build the most modern airports and ports for the countries of the world, take over an ailing icon like Jaguar automobiles in UK and make it profitable, and become a world leader in steel. Surely we should be able to handle a project like commonwealth games with a smartness and flair that is at our beck and call?

Instead, we have a mess on our hands. What we have put on display is not the smartness and flair we are capable of, but the ease with which slimy careerists can worm their way into positions of power in our country. And stay there. We wouldn’t have minded if they made a lot of money in the bargain; we are a traditionally generous people. But to bring such international shame to India is inexcusable. Suresh Kalmadi and company has been bad for India. Period.

Obviously the man is a consummate politician. The Indian politician’s penchant to head one sports organisation or another was taken to dizzy heights by Kalmadi. He became chairman of the Indian Olympic Association (fourth time now), Asian Athletic Association, Athletic Federation of India and a half dozen other organisations. Every move of his has been controversial, to put it mildly. Former Indian Hockey captain Pargat Singh is one man who did not care to put it mildly. He accused Kalmadi of being India’s “sports mafia”.

The dirt that has come out in the current games scandal does point to a great deal of inexplicable things. Congressmen and amateur ministers like M. S. Gill made it worse by trying to defend Kalmadi and failing to find one convincing argument to make the defence credible.

The big question persists: Was this the only man the establishment could find to hold the Indian flag in international sports bodies? With neither qualifications nor a decent track record, how did Kalmadi get the political backing he needed? Are there key politicians also having a stake from behind the scenes in making a sham of our sports organisation?

Kalmadi is also the chairman of the Olympics 2016 Bid Committee on behalf of India. We may think that after the present disaster, India would not dare make a bid for the 2016 Olympics. But nothing is beyond our political manipulators. Imagine what our schemers can do if they get the Olympics to play with.

But the world will save us. After having watched the horrors of the Commonwealth Games preparation, other countries will keep India firmly out. Already many athletes of distinction have announced their decision not to attend the Delhi Games. We are a butt of ridicule already. Kalmadi, his party and his backers will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have disgraced India in the eyes of the world. For someone’s private ego? For thirty pieces of silver?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The importance of being Mathew

Being famous is different from being important. The trimurtis of English journalism in India – Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes, M. Chalapathi Rao – are still unequalled in their star value and brilliance of writing. But historically they mattered little because they introduced no movement that transformed their profession.

Devdas Gandhi of Hindustan Times and Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu were not celebrities, but they were historically important personages because they helped convert pre-1947 missionary journalism into an organised industry, lending it strength and direction. Ramnath Goenka was both celebrated (for his king-maker role in politics and his daring in opposing the Emergency) and important (for launching the then-original concept of a newspaper chain covering the vastness of India).

C.P Adityanar of the Daily Thanthi and Ashok Sircar of Ananda Bazar Patrika are other print media leaders who carved a niche for themselves in the history books. Both encouraged innovations to turn newspaper language from scholarly “written” style to accessible “popular” style. This was a major step towards the era of mass readership in India.

When we look at the media scene in this wide perspective, we see one man standing out as historically more significant than most others. The importance of K.M.Mathew rests not so much on the growth rate and acceptance level he achieved for Malayala Manorama as on how he achieved them. First, he had a visionary outlook. Secondly, he had that rare ability to change with the times.

When he became chief of the family-owned newspaper in 1973, it was selling 30,000 copies. He told a circulation department functionary: “If we can somehow reach 50,000, we can have an all-India presence, right?” What was noteworthy was not the figure mentioned, but the vision of an all-India presence for a language paper from a small town in Kerala. A few days before Mathew’s death last week at age 93, his paper crossed a record print order of 18 lakhs.

He worked the magic by becoming an innovator. Eager to learn from others, he was instrumental in bringing the International Press Institute’s Tarzie Vittachi to India. Mathew helped Vittachi visit other newspaper establishments as well, often making the arrangements himself. Seminars and workshops followed. Several newspapers benefited, but none more than Mathew who built a team of young journalists and managers, giving them training in India and abroad and professionalising management practices as well as journalism.

Mathew’s innovations were effective because he was a modernist who changed as ideas around him changed. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the world changed in revolutionary ways, I T and mobile phone leading the way. Mathew was ready with new inroads into television, FM radio, on-line editions. He even devised ways to reorient print journalism so that it could rise above television’s 24-hour breaking-news advantage.

Only in political orientation, he remained old-fashioned. Anti-communism sat as heavily on his paper as the position that the Congress could do no wrong. But Mathew’s personal warmth towards ranking communist leaders helped keep bitterness away.

Besides, his paper’s social involvement was too deep for anyone, including political critics, in ignore. Special teams were commissioned to propagate one movement after another – water conservation, environment protection, garbage disposal. Large funds were spent to provide free heart surgery for children and housing for victims of earthquakes and tsunami. On development issues he spent company money to convene meetings of experts so that constructive ideas would emerge for the authorities to act upon. He never cheapened these projects by using them as publicity gimmicks. He was a corporate citizen in the truest sense.

The greatest lesson Mathew left behind was that a newspaper could achieve commercial success and simultaneously fulfil its social responsibilities in a big way. This is a timely lesson because some very successful papers today have adopted the philosophy that they have no social responsibility whatever. That is selfish, ignorant bunkum, and the proof is K. M. Mathew.