Saturday, November 27, 2010

Glamour is not credibility

Journalism started going astray with the birth of financial dailies in the 1960s. With full-fledged newspapers devoted exclusively to business, corporate houses became hyperactive. The next thing we knew was press conferences ending with gifts of expensive sarees and suitlengths to reporters.

That was innocent child play compared to what has hit the headlines now – charges of celebrity journalists working hand in hand with a professional lobbyist to fix things like cabinet appointments and big-ticket business deals. Excerpts from taped conversations between the star journalists and corporate lobbyist Niira Radia have been published. Radia was promoting the prospects of some DMK personalities as well as the gas interests of one Ambani brother and the spectrum interests of the Tatas. The journalists became her tools.

Lobbying is a recognised activity in democracies. But it is a tricky line of work because sometimes unconventional methods might become necessary to secure the case of a client. Given Niira Radia’s experience and efficiency, acknowledged by companies like Tatas, we must assume that she took care not to cross the line. Anyway we can leave it to the Enforcement Directorate which is looking into the matter.

Journalism is as different from lobbying as nariel paani is from singlemalt. Any crossing of the line may be a tribute to the power of singlemalt, but never justifiable. Unfortunately the journalists show themselves as amenable to doing the unjustifiable. They agree to convey messages favouring A.Raja to the Congress bosses. They agree to take the side of the Ambani brother Radia was promoting as against the other brother.

The moment the tapes were published, the journalists mentioned in it rushed to rebut all insinuations. The arguments were that journalists had to talk to all sorts of people, that “stringing” along with a source was no crime, that promises had to be made sometimes to get information from a source. The employer of one journalist said that it was preposterous to “caricature the professional sourcing of information to ‘lobbying’”.

The question is whether the journalists carry credibility. Of course drunks and murderers have been among the valued contacts of journalists. And of course journalists have moved very closely with political leaders. Few people were closer to Jawaharlal Nehru than B. Shiva Rao of The Hindu. Prem Bhatia of the Statesman used to walk the corridors of Delhi as if he owned them. The hardest
nuts in the power circle cracked happily before Nikhil Chakravartty on his morning rounds. Not once did these men ask for a favour or recommend a businessman friend. They were not social celebrities, but they did their profession proud by keeping the highest possible credibility level.

Today’s celebrities assume they can win credibility by simply saying that they talked to Radia only as a source and that they never kept promises made to her anyway. Is a veteran networker like Radia so easily fooled? Obviously she is close to her journalist contacts and must have had promises from them before. She wouldn’t waste her time if she knew that they were promises not meant to be followed up. At one point she actually tells another contact that “I made [the journalist] call up Congress and get a statement”. This is Radia speaking, not a naïve greenhorn. To say that this kind of work on behalf of a lobbyist is legitimate journalism is like Yeddyurappa saying that all he has ever done is development work. To say that they promised to talk to the likes of Sonia and Rahul only to outsmart a war-horse is like the BJP high command saying it has outsmarted Yeddyurappa.

The glamour of celebrityhood has a way of going to one’s head. Delusions of grandeur are never a journalistic virtue. The real virtue is the mind’s ability to maintain a degree of detachment. When the game is played at the 5-star level, one can never be sure of who is fooling whom. It will be good for everyone to remember that there is one lot that can never be fooled: The people.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Salute to a Purushottama

These are days when the success of an author depends less on the worth of his writings and more on the vigour with which he promotes himself through book launches, television conversations and lectures organised by the marketing department of publishing companies. P.Lal did none of these. So his death (November 3) went almost unnoticed. A newspaper paragraph or two in his home town of Kolkata and that was that.

Yet P.Lal’s place in the literary history of India will be more exalted than that of many an author who basks in popular fame today. His contributions included poetry, essays, anthologies and translations. Above all, he was a pioneer in book publishing and in the propagation of English as an Indian language. Both were perilous pursuits when he embarked on them in the afterglow of independence. But he persisted in his quiet and unobtrusive ways until both his causes acquired value.

Two achievements will remain his lasting memorials – his translation of the Mahabharata and his nursing of the Writers Workshop. Numerous of course are the translations of the Mahabharata, but no one before Lal had dared to tackle the epic in its awesome fulness. He undertook what he declared as a 20-year project, transcreating (his preferred word) Vyasa in his entirety, all 100,000 slokas.

In quality, too, it was out of the ordinary. A poet himself, P.Lal was not afraid to have different renderings of the same passages, a result, he said, “of changes in my understanding and appreciation of Vyasa”. But his aim always was “to re-tell the story…in Vyasa’s own words, without simplifying, interpreting or elaborating”.

And how did he understand Vyasa? “The Ramayana rouses compassion, the Mahabharata an almost cosmic awe…Vyasa posits an intricate dharma, where right and wrong are bewilderingly mixed… No epic, no work of art, is sacred by itself; if it does not have meaning for me now, it is nothing, it is dead”.

Thanks to the poet in him, there was a pleasing emphasis on the oral/musical tradition of the epic. He took a characteristic step towards bringing this to public attention when he began spending one hour every Sunday morning at the Samskruti Sagar library hall in Kolkata reading aloud his transcreated slokas. He continued this practice until about a week before his death.

The Writers Workshop (WW) was a labour of love. Today publishing is a crowded, glittering, highprofile, million-dollar enterprise in India. It is important to remember that WW was started in 1958 when the Republic was less than ten years old. Half a dozen idealists were behind the venture which eventually became P.Lal’s one-man band. There never was any money in it. It actually ran on whatever “shekels” he earned from lecture tours and visiting professorships abroad. When travel stopped on health grounds, he devised the system of asking authors to buy 100 copies in advance. If an author was too impecunious to afford this, he went ahead anyway.

Each WW book was a curious little work of art. The types were handset, the titles and chapter headings handwritten by P.Lal himself, a distinguished calligraphist. The books were handstitched, the cover design executed in handloom silk. Editing, proof-reading, page layout and correspondence with authors were done by P.Lal who never had a secretary or an assistant or an office. That never prevented him from publishing the early efforts of a galaxy of stars-to-be, from A. K.Ramanujan and Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes to Kamala Das and Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.

Professor Lal taught at St.Xavier’s College for 40 years. Devoted friends called him Profsky, rather reminiscent of D.G.Tendulkar (biographer of the Mahatma) calling Dom Moraes Domsky. Was it some kind of a psychedelic association with radical thinkers like Trotsky and Laski? Lal did not look like a radical, but his achievements were reformist. Glamour-obsessed Indian media might have ignored him, but The Economist featured him in its famous page-length Obituary column. That must have surprised Purushottama Lal, whose first name now shines like a title the country has bestowed on him.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

India promotes what the world shuns

So everything went off well. Obamaji was nice, Michelleji was nicer, and the kababs at Rashtrapathi Bhavan were nicest. A good time was had by all. Now, what about the fine print?

We can ignore Obama’s pitch that India must stand up for democracy and human rights in Burma and Iran. We can do a pahle aap number here and wait for the US to first stand up for democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia. We can also more or less ignore the India-US strategic partnership for “East Asia” which is China. China is quite capable of looking after itself.

The fine print we should really worry about covers the pronouncements on agricultural cooperation. This is not a “sexy” subject like democracy and China, so it does not attract public attention. That means backroom operators can do their thing quietly. And the things they do are sinister and may now get more so.

For example, ten months before the Obama visit the Indian cabinet approved, without any announcement, a Memorandum of Understanding on agricultural cooperation and food security. It opened the doors to private investments in the farm sector, farm-market linkages (read retail trade), and agribusiness-to-business collaboration. It will clearly lead to India fitting into the US model of vertical integration of the food chain – a system that promotes the growth of monopolies.

The system works reasonably well in the US because checks and balances are strictly enforced by the Government. When a citizen complains that a supermarket chicken has been found contaminated, investigators can trace the route of the chicken, where it was processed and which farm it originally came from. Remedial action follows quickly. In India the authorities are not only lax in enforcing minimum safety rules, but actually promote deadly pesticides. This attitude of irresponsibility caused tragedies in Punjab and Kerala.

Pesticides, like electricity, are good only when they are used correctly. The Green Revolution in Punjab, which Obama mentioned repeatedly, was facilitated by the use of wrong pesticides in wrong ways. Farmers, low on literacy, would let their hair, eyes, clothes be covered with the deadly poison they were spraying. The inevitable followed. From Bhatinda, in the heart of Punjab’s cotton belt, some 60 cancer patients would travel every day to Bikaner where treatment was affordable. They called it the “Cancer Train”.

Learning nothing and caring less, India has become the world’s only country to oppose a global ban on the deadliest pesticide of them all, endosulfan. Sharad Pawar, who sees no difference between a farmer’s plough and a cricket bat, went on record saying that endosulfan was good for some crops. He has now appointed yet another committee to study endosulfan. The man he picked to head the committee was already in an earlier inquiry committee and had given his verdict in favour of that pesticide.

The irony is that all developed countries have banned this particular poison and America itself is about to join them. US policies had already made the main manufacturer of endosulfan, Bayer, to close shop. The sole remaining manufacturer, an Israeli company, has been told to plan its exit. The Environmental Protection Agency formally declared that endosulfan “is unsafe and poses unacceptable risks to farm workers and wild life”. A formal ban is expected soon.

Yet, Sharad Pawar wants a new inquiry. And he wants India to oppose the ban the rest of the civilised world is demanding. And, worst of all, he wants the government-run Hindustan Insecticides to go on manufacturing endosulfan even in its plant in Kerala where a High Court ban on the pesticide is in force.

The obduracy of leaders like Pawar and the general inefficiency of India’s supervisory systems are magnets for pesticide and genetic engineering companies that are thrown out of other countries. India is home to them all. That is why the Obama-induced agribusiness cooperation will lead to our food coming under the lobby-dominated American system without its saving clauses.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Swagatham, yes. Expectations, no

Our guest this week is not the shining Obama, but the dimming Obama. The way the world was thrilled by his march to the White House is now memory. Many of his promises remain unfulfilled, even the promise to close the horror prison in Guantanemo. His home policies have angered Americans who are vexed by rising costs of living, job losses and tax burdens. Midterm Congressional elections have made him virtually a lame-duck. The stirring slogan “Yes, we can” has given way to “No, he can’t”.

But Barack Obama is a nice guy and we must see him as such. Anyone who has written the kind of books he has can only be a civilised person. He is such a relief after that mixed-up evangelist George Bush. He has a trust-inspiring look which Bill Clinton could never manage. He even has the most popular presidential wife since Jackie Kennedy. He deserves a warm and sincere swagatham from us.

But not undue political/business hopes. American presidents are more severely enslaved by the system than Indian prime ministers are. And the American system is both selfish and assertive while the Indian system is prey to pressures. This contrast was visible in recent years in a series of India-US issues, from the civil nuclear treaty to opening Indian agriculture to US monopolies.

If America has been gaining the upper hand in many of its dealings with India, it is because America knows how best to use its bargaining power while India knows neither its strengths nor how to use them. On flimsy grounds, for example, America put the twin national symbols of Indian excellence, ISRO and DRDO, on their bad boys’ list. Simultaneously, America has mounted pressure on India to buy billions of dollars worth of American weaponry and civil nuclear equipment. Why doesn’t India link one with the other, not semantically but in ways that would hit America where it hurts?

Countries like France and Russia are willing to invest in Indian civil nuclear plants on India’s terms. They are also ready to share cutting-edge military technology along with the sales of their military hardware. Why then should India buy from America which always attaches conditions to its military sales and then bullies India with crucial spare parts politics?

Notice, too, that on Obama’s agenda in India is the demand that India buy US seed companies’ technology. One of his scheduled meetings in Mumbai is a “round-table” on agricultural cooperation. This shows the stranglehold business lobbies have on the American system. To India, however, what this means is a heavy push at the presidential level to put India in the pocket of Monsanto – a campaign that is already half won because of the buyability of crucial elements of Indian policy processors

India, especially under Manmohan Singh, has shown an inclination to please America at every turn. Even Pakistan does not do this; it gets every dollar it can squeeze from a scared America and then merrily goes on helping the Taliban. That scares America more, making it give more dollars and more fighter planes to Pakistan.

This is how games are played in today’s cynical world. But India tends to take things lying down, even when America does not part with critical David Headley information that could possibly – just possibly – have averted the Mumbai terror attack. America is protectionist in every field these days. India must learn to bargain and protect its own legitimate interests. America does not respect allies that do its bidding. It respects those who stand up to it. Today’s India has the strength to stand up and assert itself. All that is needed is the political will to do so.

Barack Obam will enjoy India, its colour, its vibrancy, its latent dynamism. We, too, will enjoy his visit if only to see the highfalutin fuss: One guest booking the whole of the Taj and Maurya hotels and having his own bombers and warships patrolling the scene. Enjoy by all means, but don’t be carried away.