Saturday, March 26, 2011

Memo to Buffet on the beauty of Daana

Warrent Buffet is a capitalist's dream. Sitting in his patch of the world, he watches stock markets and investment conditions, learns what moves to make at what time and turns himself into a billionaire many times over.

But Buffet is also a capitalist's nightmare. He has this strange belief that billionaires must give their wealth away for the benefit of others. So he formed an alliance with another equally crazy capitalist, Bill Gates, to form history's biggest give-away empire.

In America it makes sense to give your money away. If you don't, you'll have to give it to the Government anyway. For your image, goodwill and for your soul, charity is a better choice. It was a good socially responsible idea on the part of early law makers in America to create a tax structure that encouraged philanthropy.

Buffet and Gates are promoting the idea of giving for the sake of giving, not just to save tax. They went to China, and last week they came to India, to persuade other billionaires to join them in an initiative they have named “Giving Pledge”. It seeks the seriously rich to pledge half their wealth to philanthropy in their life time.

It is an initiative we should welcome. But let it also remind us that India had a tradition of philanthropy that was as lofty as the best. What Jamshedji Tata did had a farsightedness and a structural stability that benefit large numbers of citizens and institutions to this day. Birla charities have acquired a religion-oriented image which is not really fair because their donations to educational institutions are widespread and massive if less known.

Actually the concept of charity is part of the inner core of India's philosophical inheritance. But it appears in different nuances at different times. Karna offers a disturbing example here. The ultimate personification of charity, he would never ever say no to a request. Such a noble quality should have led to good results. Instead, it led to his destruction because he allowed Indra to trick him into giving away his protective armour. He listened to the call of charity above and beyond his personal safety.

If Karna demonstrated the perils of giving, Manu the law-giver reduced it to a quid pro quo business proposition. Manusmriti lists precisely what you will get for what you give. Give water and you will get contentment; give food and you will get happiness; give silver if you want to get physical beauty; give bulls for prosperity, gold for longevity, vehicle and bed for a virtuous wife.

This business code must be the one many of our public-spirited industrialists follow. Give donations to a chief minister's charitable trusts and get a few acres of land denotified; give loans to TV channels, scholarships to nephews, foreign jobs to nieces and boxes containing cash to MPs and in return receive whatever you desire.

Which is unfortunate because the same philosophical heritage that sustains Manusmriti also holds aloft the most ennobling concept of daana known to humankind. P. Lal once said that “the word Dharma has many nuances and cannot be exactly Englished”. The word Daana is like that; it cannot be translated in its full richness. All that we can say is that it is more than charity, more than giving.

Bhagavatam scholars explain that true Daana is accompanied by Maana, reverence for the recipient of a gift. Daana is an act of worship, the giver worshipping the receiver. What a magnificent thought! Giving can never be an act of condescension. You are not doing a favour; you are receiving a favour.

The beauty of this concept can never be equalled by modern-day givers. In so far as Warrent Buffet and Bill Gates – and Azim Premji and Nandan Nilekani – are giving without expecting anything in return, they honour the spirit of the ancient preceptors. That's enough for us to rejoice. Charity that is dispensed to achieve an end is not charity; it is bribery.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Leaders win always; India loses always

A difficulty with Indian elections is that they don't take the country forward. At the end of the Second World War, the hero who won it for England, Winston Churchill, was rejected by the voters so that Britain could keep pace with a changing post-war world. When Barack Obama appeared on the scene, Americans seized the opportunity to peel off one more layer of racial prejudice from their history.

We do take an occasional forward step – as we did when Indira Gandhi was trounced after the Emergency or when Nitish Kumar was chosen to wipe out the Lalu Prasad disgrace. For every forward step, however, we take several steps backward. Today cynicism and corruption dominate. As Hyderabad MP Assaduddin Owaisi put it (in his talk with an American official, now revealed through WikiLeaks), giving bribes to voters may be illegal “but that is the great thing about democracy”.

He meant of course Indian democracy which sends crooks, mafiosi, communalists and family retainers to Parliament. Fighting elections on the basis of issues has become a forgotten art. The state elections scheduled for next month are already showing signs of cynical manipulation aimed at personal profit.

Note that no party is bothered about political morality even in appearances. The BJP depicts Karunanidhi's DMK as an epitome of evil. Which is true. But next door in Karnataka is an epitome of evil that will make Karunanidhi envious. Yet, the BJP holds up the Yeddyurappa-Reddy axis as an epitome of virtue. It makes the party a laughing stock, but who cares.

Many years of unchallenged power by the DMK have not taken Tamil Nadu foward though it has taken the husband-wives-sons-stepsons-daughters-nephews-hangerson circus very far indeed. How long can this electoral farce go on? Jayalalitha, though her record is not enlightening, looks angelic by comparison; at least she has no extended family for the people to look after. For our collective dignity if not for Tamil Nadu's deliverance, we must hope that the Imperial Family will get a drubbing this time.

Did more than three decades of uninterrupted Left rule take West Bengal forward? That state has India's most moribund passenger buses still in service, and the trams look like ancient ruins. More damning is the abject level of poverty in the state. Tens of thousands of young Bengalis migrate to distant states like Kerala where they are forced to live in pitiable conditions but where there are jobs and better wages.

There is no certainty that an eccentric like Mamta Bannerji with weird notions of administration will bring about the economic salvation that Bengal deserves. Besides the CPM has adopted a policy of “renewal” allotting 149 of its 210 seats to youthful first-timers. Their rural strength may largely be intact, too. The best thing that can happen is for the Trinamool group to get just a bare working majority so that a strong Left opposition can keep the Government on its toes.

In Kerala the Left front had a historical opportunity to get re-elected again because of (a) the popular initiatives of Chief Minister Achuthanandan and (b) the dominance in the Congress-led front of men who are notorious for a variety of evils, from corruption to wanton womanising. But the opportunity was thrown away by a vengeful CPM party secretary and his syndicate who sabotaged the Chief Minister's moves at every turn. They tried to deny him a seat this time too, but public outrage forced them to retreat. Only the people's disgust with the looters and philanderers in the Congress-led camp will help the Left this time.

Small men dominate our politics, their smallness surfacing most dramatically at election time. Unpopular communists keep popular communists out, Congressmen secretly work for the defeat of Congressmen, the Muslim League disregards its moral postures and fields the immoral, BJP “sells” votes in constituencies where it cannot win. When bribery, deceipt and selfishness become “the great thing about democracy”, leaders enrich themselves, cadres suffer and India loses. A pity.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Democracy: Threat from unseen forces?

For the first time in our history the viability of India's democracy is being doubted. This should cause serious worry because the distinguishing feature of India has always been, undoubtedly, its democracy -- noisy and chaotic, but firmly rooted and strong.

Now Mark Tully tells the BBC's listeners that India's democracy is not delivering. Deepak Parekh, among the most respected voices of Indian business, says that investors are going away. The Supreme Court asks bluntly what the hell is going on.

Indeed, what the hell is going on? It is tempting to answer: Corruption. But corruption per se is not the reason democracy's foundations are shaking. The real reason is the establishment's reluctance to take actions that would check corruption. Because of the reluctance the sweep of corruption spreads in ways that no country can afford to tolerate. India at the official level appears to tolerate it. That's the rub.

The problem is further complicated by the BJP's campaign to hold the Prime Minister responsible for all the manifestations of corruption. Even as political tactics this is bad because charges of corruption cannot easily stick to Manmohan Singh, an odd man out in a den of thieves. The presence of Manmohan Singh at the helm is an incidental reality which the wily men in the Congress are taking advantage of; it makes it easier for them to pretend that the Congress Government cannot possibly be an abettor of corruption when such a sattvic person is heading it.

That is deception. Take the case of that miserable P.J.Thomas. The panel that approved his appointment as Central Vigilance Commissioner consisted of Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram besides Sushma Swaraj. All attacks by the BJP following the Supreme Court's summary rejection of Thomas's appointment have been directed at the Prime Minister. What about the Home Minister's role?

Actually, it was Chidambaram who pushed Thomas's appointment through. He dismissed Sushma Swaraj's objections as “thoughtless allegations”. The allegation she made – that Thomas was an accused in a corruption case – was far from thoughtless. But Chidambaram fobbed it off with the false assertion that Thomas had been acquitted in that case. Why is Manmohan Singh made the principal target when his failure, at worst, was that he allowed his Home Minister to mislead him?

That of course does not excuse the Prime Minister. He has allowed too many lapses under his watch. Perhaps he is helpless. Perhaps his real – and unsolvable – problem is that he has to function as Number Two in the power structure. Which raises another vital question: Why is it that no one ever asks whether Number One has any role in the cases that eat into the vitals of our democratic system?

We all know that nothing happens in the Congress party or the Government without Sonia Gandhi's tacit approval. She is recognised as bigger than the Prime Minister. She is also known to have an inner coterie that wields power without responsibility. The result is that whenever something happens without a rational political explanation, the popular belief is that the unseen force of 10 Janpath is at work.

This was the general impression throughout the astonishing Quattrochi saga right up to when the CBI succeeded in closing the case. This is the impression when Suresh Kalmadi is gently treated, when the Hassan Ali case is soft-pedalled forcing the courts to chastise the Enforcement Directorate. B. Raman, former head of the counter-terrorism division of RAW and one of the sharpest strategic analysts in India today, wrote quite pointedly: “[Sonia Gandhi] has been conducting herself as a neutral disinterested bystander... If one has to find out the real truth behind the recent controversies, it is important to go into her role as it is to go into the role of others. The assumption that Sonia Gandhi can do no wrong has to be challenged by the public”.

Amen. A thousand times Amen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Unbreaking news: Party channels coming

What does not happen in any other democracy in the world is about to happen in India: the Indian National Congress is ready to launch a national television channel in Hindi. Two regional channels in Maharashtra and Rajasthan are also in the works under the general umbrella of Jai Hind TV.

This is equivalent to the Labour Party or the Conservative Party in Britain starting a channel of its own. Or imagine the Republican Party of the US having a channel in feisty opposition to the Democratic Party channel. Brits will puke at the idea; Americans will revolt.

Italy is the only democracy in the world where the Prime Minister is also an active television owner. But Silvio Berlusconi was an owner of channels first and then political leader; it isn't that his or any other party in Italy has a news channel.

India will be unique. The Congress Party will own the channels and directly run them. They will of course be in addition to Doordarshan which is patriotically inclined to carry the messages of the ruling party to the masses. But a party channel can afford to be more strident than a government channel.

Stridency is going to be an important part of the Congress channel. Oscar Fernandes who is spearheading talks over the new channel said bluntly: “Party-owned channels will help to spread information in a proper manner”.

Not that party-owned channels are anything new in India. The southern states have been under their thumb for a long time. Channels owned by the Karunanidhi family and by Jayalalitha have a virtual monopoly in Tamil Nadu. Jagan Reddy's Sakshi came out of the blue and established itself with investments no one else could match. In Karnataka H. D. Kumaraswamy started his own channel. Very recently the widely disliked mining king, Janardhan Reddy, followed suit.

Perhaps the most successful party-owned channel is the CPM's Kairali. Actually Kerala is a case by itself with 20 channels already filling the air and 14 others about to enter the fray. Kairali, one of many entrepreneurial initiatives launched by the capitalist leaders of the communist party, is now a high-asset entity with its own very valuable real estate in the centre of the state capital.

No doubt to counter Kairali, the Congress leadership in Kerala started the Jai Hind channel in 2007. It has put Rs 60 crore into it already and has lined up another Rs 50 crore to add to it. Oscar Fernandes said “the Kerala experiment was a huge success”. By what yardstick, he didn't say. While Kairali disguises its partisanship with a touch of professionalism, Jai Hind lays it on thick. Probably it is a success because it gives an uninterrupted platform to Congress leaders to hold forth.

When Congress rushes in, will others fear to tread? The BJP may now launch three channels at once, to suit the three ideologies it is simultaneously pursuing – one for the country, another for Gujarat and the third for Karnataka. The Thackerays must follow. The channel worth waiting for will be Maya TV from Uttar Pradesh. And Mamta TV? What a free country is India!

But the ultimate question remains: What is the effectiveness – even relevance – of propaganda that looks like propaganda? Are voters swayed by what party mouthpieces dish out? Not all the propaganda of the emergency years could save Indira Gandhi in 1977. Not all the grand claims of the Janata Government could stop Indira Gandhi's return in 1980. And not all the propaganda of the Rajiv Gandhi years could prevent his rout in the post-Bofors election. Jai Hind TV will do no better.

The Indian voter has a surprisingly well-developed political instinct. Propagandists have failed to subvert this instinct. The voter will watch TV humbug, even collect his free TV set and 2-rupee rice – and vote as a responsible citizen should. Jai Hind!