Monday, April 25, 2011

Corrupt politicians on a sabotage mission

Svengali was a fictional character and Rasputin a real-life one. One used hypnotism and the other psychic faith-healing to gain enormous power over others. The two words are today part of the English vocabulary. They mean a person of evil intent who manipulates others to achieve what he wants.

Suddenly dozens of Svengalis and Rasputins and Mantharas and Sakunis are on the march in India. The air is choking with conspiracy and intrigue, plotting and scheming and arrant manipulation. What is behind this bizarre frenzy is obvious. The political class is scared that the ongoing anti-corruption campaign may succeed. At any price they want public opinion to be defeated so that the cosy system that allows politicians to plunder the country can continue.

And see what they have achieved. A determined, cleverly executed campaign to discredit the committee has succeeded to a large extent. A petition has challenged the committee's constitutionality. In Maharashtra Assembly, Sharad Pawar's NCP and the Congress together have demanded an inquiry into charges of corruption against Anna Hazare and his trusts.

Most importantly, the toughest members of the committee, the Bhushans, have been morally damaged. The Sakunis and Rasputins must have calculated that if somehow these men could be compromised and ejected, it would be a powerful message to the other members of the committee and to civil-societywallahs in general.

It is surprising that the Bhushans, men of great legal acumen, did not foresee this turn of events. In the first place, there was no imperative need to include both father and son in the committee. It is true that they were best equipped to push civil society's positions through in the discussions of the committee. But they should have known that demolition squads were lurking in the shadows and diplomatically withdrawn one Bhushan from official limelight. Certainly, they should have shown more caution in handling their property matters. Lack of attention to details merely supplied sticks to their enemies to beat them with.

But these indiscretions were no reason to subvert the basic issue of drafting a meaningful anti-corruption bill. By using the Bhushan issue in conspiratorial ways, the political manipulators not only diminished important members of the committee; they distracted attention from the committee's task itself and cast shadows on its future working. If this is the intensity with which they assault members involved in drafting the bill, what diabolic plots will they hatch when the bill comes up for discussion in Parliament?

And just who are these self-appointed devas fighting to save the country from presumed asuras?. Sharad Pawar, Amar Singh and Digvijay Singh are men who had always promoted narrow group interests at the cost of the country. Reckless abuse of power marked their years in office. Pawar, true to form, stayed behind the scenes. But only he would have dared to conjure up the idea of slinging mud at Hazare himself. Amar Singh was intensely aggressive in his TV performances this time. Not only was he acting out his declamations with unusual gesticulations; he exploded into sudden bursts of shouting, as though loudness of voice was an argument. Digvijay Singh, also animated and extraordinarily partisan, tore into Baba Ramdev asking about his wealth and whether he was paying taxes. He was bigotted enough -- and ignorant enough -- to cast aspersions even on Santosh Hegde, the most honourable of them all. The relentlessness of this senior Congress general secretary’s attack on the committee also raises doubts about Sonia Gandhi’s honesty in telling Hazare that she supports the campaign against corruption. Does she really?

In any case, what right do rejected politicians have to pose as moral interrogators calling others to order? What is their own record? They could not have made more obvious their eagerness to safeguard the prevailing culture of corruption. If the current bill-drafting exercise is discredited and derailed, this generation's last hope of controlling corruption will have been lost. It is a loss even the Amar Digvijays of our country will regret some day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Beyond Amul Baby, there is a war coming

Having to wait for a whole month to know who will rule key states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is not just unfair; it is cruel too. Prolonged anxiety will cause severe stress syndromes. It is true that a couple of truly delectable items were provided by the campaigners for us to chew upon as we wait. Mamata Banerji employing beauticians to do pedicure-manicure-facials is, in historical terms, a revolution. It's her way to out-revolutionise the professional revolutionaries of the Left Front. Let's hope that a presentable Mamata will win Bengali hearts so that the Railway Ministry can at last be rescued from her.

The real campaign gems of this election came from Kerala, though. Rahul Gandhi tied himself up in knots by ridiculing Achuthanandan for his age, 88, while swallowing the age of Karunanidhi, 87, because Karuna is a Congress ally. Achuta hit back in a manner that Rahul Gandhi will not forget for the rest of his life. He raised his voice to a sarcastic pitch and described the Congress princeling as an “Amul Baby”. That tag at once went into the political lexicon of the country even as it reverberated across the land.

All that is fun, but what about the serious business? For the first time in recent years, political parties in Tamil Nadu employed bribery openly and in defiance of election rules to buy votes. The Election Commission's own officials seized Rs 50 crore in currency notes as they were about to be distributed to voters. Five or six times that much money must have actually gone into voters' hands.

This is a throwback to the primitive practices of Bihar-UP in the early elections when booth capturing was a fashion. The disturbing element this time is that the Election Commission saw what was happening but was unable to prevent a great deal of illegalities. The Chief Election Commissioner openly admitted that money-flaunting had become a major problem in Tamil Nadu and that the party in power was the principal culprit.

The electoral fight vitiated by such blatant malpractices is not going to help the state, whoever wins. The silver lining is that it will add more voices to the cry for electoral reform. This is already part of the agenda set by the Anna Hazare movement. Anti-corruption legislation will have little meaning without a parallel arrangement to ensure crook-proof elections.

Getting that arrangement in place is going to take a major war. The Government agreeing to give independent civilians a role in drafting the Lok Pal Bill was a minor victory for public opinion. Perhaps the Government calculated that, once the emotionalism of a fast unto death was dissipated, things would be easy to manipulate. Reports of divisions in the Hazare camp seem to justify this reading.

Hazare is no magician and his ideas are not the final solution to all our problems. But it would be a mistake on the part of the Government and of politicians in general to underestimate the public anger over corruption. The string of scandals in recent times culminating in the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum and Hasan Ali cases have created a national mood the politicians can ignore only at their peril.

Decent Indians are trying to cleanse the country of the malignant politics that has attacked it in recent years. They are doing this through peaceful, constitutional means. With remarkable faith in the constitution, for example, Binayak Sen's case was pursued until the Supreme Court largely undid the injustice that was meted out to the doctor in the name of justice. This case underlines yet again that what we need are institutions we can rely upon rather than institutions vested interests can manipulate. The incredible spontaneity with which public opinion roused itself when Anna Hazare provided an opportunity should convince the politicians that they cannot be “people's representatives” and continue to ignore people's sentiments. The corrupt must go not to assemblies and Parliament, but to jail. There can be no more fooling of the people.

Monday, April 11, 2011

People's notice to crooks: Change or Go

Television has spawned many evils. One of them is the animal called 'party spokesperson', a species that is found only in India. By occupational necessity, they are motor-mouths; just turn the battery on and they go blabbering nonstop. They are also robotic; they see and hear and speak nothing except what their creators have programmed them to see and hear and speak.

Spokespersons come in different shapes, colours and sizes. The only feature that is common to all is pompousness – the air that they know all that is there to know and those who disagree with them are blockheads. Look at the staring eyes of Abhishek Singhvi, the self-assured expression, the tilt of the head, and look at the laboured seriousness of Manish Tiwari, his tone, his style and you'll know at one that if Ravi Varma were to do a portrait of “Arrogance”, these would be his models. They never ever seem to understand the mood of the people before whom they pontificate every day. The most glaring example of this disconnect is the insensitive, overbearing and insolent manner in which Singhvi and company reacted to the Anna Hazare phenomenon.

It's a conspiracy, they said. The Government is being black-mailed, they said. “This is a free country, anyone is free to go on fast”, said the pompous Tiwari in his pompous accent. This poor Gandhian “has been instigated” to go on fast, said the haughty Singhvi. They are misguiding Hazare as they misguided Jayaprakash Narayan... And so on and on.

It was the Government that misguided the nation. JP's movement in the 1970s electrified the people because they were feeling suffocated by the Indira-Sanjay Gandhi autocracy. Hazare's initiative electrified the people because it offered a faint hope of fighting corruption which had broken all conceivable boundaries. Both became spontaneous people's movements because both held out the promise of desperately needed change.

The fact is that people are angry. Not only because gargantuan corruption has devoured the country; they are angry because the corrupt seem to flourish and the Government shows no sign of sincerity in combating the evil. A few officials of the Commonwealth Games have been arrested, but someone is protecting Suresh Kalmadi. Some officials who helped pilots get fake fitness certificates have been arrested, but who is protecting the top guns? Who is keeping former Chief Justice Balakrishnan in the Human Rights Commission? Who forced the CBI to mess up Quattrochi's court cases and to release his London funds?

Above all, why is Sharad Pawar still strutting about like Mephistopheles buying up other people's souls? Despite those land scams in Maharashtra, the duplicate World Cup, the rotting foodgrains and the endosulfan victims, he was one of the ministers handpicked to oversee the anti-corruption bill. No greater proof is needed to establish the Government's dishonourable intentions – and the validity of Anna Hazare's demand that the anti-corruption bill be drawn up by a joint committee that will also include people of integrity from outside the government.

The Government has had the good sense to accept that demand, however belatedly. To that extent, what we have witnessed is a historical triumph of democracy. But this is just a beginning. The Lok Pal Bill may now be expected to get enacted with sufficient teeth in it. The real challenge will come when it begins to get implemented.

Will the evil forces that compromised other instrumentalities like CBI and CVC subvert the new act as well? Will the Lok Pal be able to smoke out every Mephistopheles in the system and hold him to account? A few kings of corruption must go to jail, only then will the world know that we have a system that does not condone the plundering of public money. There is reason to be hopeful because what we have just experienced is an unprecedented awakening of public opinion, especially of youth power which distinguished itself by remaining peaceful throughout. This is a new India, a maturing India.

The message cannot be clearer: Change must come to India, and a political class that cannot handle change wisely must go.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

No need to bribe a British journalist

When Neville Maxwell is on the move, can misfortune be far behind? This former British journalist recently published an article on “the pre-history of the Sino-Indian border dispute”. The gist is that India has no business being in Arunachal Pradesh.

Maxwell's thesis is that Henry McMahon who drew the present border “engaged in cartographic trickery” to produce a “deceitful map”. As for Olaf Caroe who succeeded McMahon, he “began to falsify evidence so that the aggressive annexation [ of Chinese territory] could be disguised as belated administrative correction”. China, Maxwell informs us, has been protesting all the time, only to be ignored by British India and then by Indian India.

Read this alongside China's recent moves to push Arunachal to the forefront – strident protests against Manmohan Singh's visit to the state, stapled visas for two Arunachal sportsmen, public statements by China's ambassador about his country's claims, preventing Asian Development Bank's loan to Arunachal-specific projects and, above all, developing superfast air and rail links to border posts for quick transportation of heavy military equipment and troops. Is Maxwell privy to something we are not?

For those not blessed with a long memory, Neville Maxwell is the famous author of the famous book India's China War. The book argued that India was poking China for a long time until China decided that if India was edging towards war, “then the Chinese were not going to wait to be attacked”. Thus it became India's China war and not China's India war.

Few informed Indians believe today that it was all a case of one-sided Chinese aggression. In many ways Nehru's India was foolish in its handling of China. Nehru's chaperoning of Chinese premier Chou Enlai at the Bandung conference of Afro-Asian nations was seen by the Chinese as patronising. When Chou visited India, our self-righteous Morarji Desai put him down quite unnecessarily.

This was on top of border needling by N. B. Mullick, the lionised founder of India's intelligence services whose influence on Nehru was too profound to be good. For Nehru Mullick could do no wrong. Yet Mullick did much that was wrong as he used the Border Security Force to establish armed outposts in remote areas that were vulnerable. All internal criticism of Mullick's “forward policy” ended when Gen. B. M Kaul, another Nehru favourite, became operational military boss of the border area. The rest is history.

India is mature enough to take these mistakes in its stride. Where Maxwell went wrong was not in exposing Indian blunders, but in doing so in a patently hostile mode. He wrote not like the London Times correspondent that he was or like the university scholar that he became, but like an apologist for China who had a deep dislike of India for some reason.

That dislike led him to make a prediction from which neither he nor the London Times ever recovered. On the eve of the 1967 elections, he reported that Indian democracy was disintegrating and that the world was witnessing “ the fourth – and surely last – general election”. He predicted the army taking control under a presidential system.

Clearly he lacked the basic attributes of a reporter or political analyst. It is reasonable to assume that an important book like India's China War would have been beyond him if he had not got to see the Henderson-Brooks Report on the Indian Army's debacle – a report that is still held top secret by India. That could also explain why he has never written a second book of any significance despite a lifetime of professorship and journalism.

But we should never make the mistake of assuming that Maxwell wrote the damn-India book at the behest of China. For one thing, China is too smart to make use of hacks with questionable powers of prediction. For another, as Humbert Wolfe reminded humanity: It is impossible to bribe or twist / Thank God, the British journalist; / But seeing what the man will do / Without a bribe, there's no occasion to.