Monday, May 30, 2011

Mother of democracies is changing; we should look at serious reform

Indian democracy is a photocopy of British democracy. Is it reasonable to hope, therefore, that basic changes in the structure of British democracy will inspire some desperately needed reforms in Indian democracy as well? Probably not because we no longer have influence wielders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the “last Englishman” in India.

But at the least we might take note of the winds of change slowly wafting across the British isles. The newfound anger against corruption in India is also a wind of change. Corruption will finally be tamed only if electoral reforms are also put in place. Sooner or later we will have to pay attention to what they are doing in England and California, in Switzerland and Australia.

In early May Britain went through a rare referendum. It ended up in a massive defeat for those who wanted to change the existing first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP, the same as in India) to the complicated alternative vote (AV) system. But the general impression remained that the FPTP needed reform because it enabled parties without majority support to form governments. (Think of Narasimha Rao. Think of Yeddyurappa).

The British seem to be in a mood for change, anyway. There has been talk of reducing the size of the House of Commons (current strength 650) and abolishing the House of Lords (current strength 792). Even if they do not go that revolutionary, the idea of hereditary Lords and Anglican bishops getting seats in the House automatically may be abandoned. Ditto with royalty. The unpopularity of Prince Charles which was in direct proportion to the popularity of Princess Diana might have prepared the ground. See what a columnist said in The Economist at the height of the William-Kate wedding brouhaha: “For the sake of the country, but also as an act of kindness, pension the royals off. Time for compassionate republicanism”. Britain without a king or queen is no longer unimaginable.

California is desperately seeking political reform because excessive democracy (yes, there is such a thing!) has rendered it bankrupt and ungovernable. Alone among American states, it has a constitution that allows “direct democracy”. Citizens can hold a referendum and reject laws passed by the legislature. They can also present what are called “initiatives”. If a majority of citizens vote in favour of an initiative, that becomes the law of the land, the elected legislature having no say in the matter.

Initiatives and referendums are the nuts and bolts of Switzerland's democracy. Swiss citizens may vote more than 30 times a year on various local or national issues. But the Swiss have used this system within sensible limits and thus gained from it. Californians overused it until it hurt.

Perhaps there is scope for a modified system of proportional representation (PR) used successfully in countries like Australia. Basically this system ensures that a party gets seats only in proportion to the votes it wins, not more as often happens in India. The point to note is that several different voting systems exist. We need not be stuck with the FPTP system just because Nehru and Patel, Ambedkar and Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar chose it in an age of innocence.

Fortunately we have reached a stage where corruption is the biggest political issue in India. Public outrage over corruption has contributed to what would have been unthinkable a few years ago – ministers, corporate chiefs, senior bureaucrats and even sports officials landing in jail. More will be joining them.

This is a healthy sign. The worst thing that can happen in a democracy is the feeling among citizens that their votes do not make a difference. That feeling will slowly evaporate if the Lokpal Bill emerges with clout and then an electoral reform bill eliminates one-man parties and family parties free of accountability. The healthy signs that have surfaced of late must lead up to healthy results. If the political class is allowed to subvert them, the resulting explosion of public anger may surprise even the subverters.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Assembly-line manufacture of books, the surest way to lose readers

Like all the superluxury cars in the world opening showrooms in India, all the great book publishers of the world are opening branches in India. The pull of the Indian middle class is as compelling as the pull of the Indian millionaire class.

But the super cars ensure that they remain super; even if they sell only a dozen cars a year, the price tags will justify their overheads. Book publishers have to have large volumes to sustain the overheads. So the diligence that goes into the manufacture of cars cannot go into the manufacture of books.

There are publishers who decide, inside the majesty of their board rooms, that they shall publish 300 or 400 titles per year. Car makers can put in more shifts, add more assembly lines and turn out more units. How do book publishers manage to get 300 or 400 titles to publish each year?

Well, many of our publishers simply put in more shifts and add more assembly lines. So books come out like cars come out of a factory. The assumption is: Car buyers, an unreasonable lot, will complain even if there is a stain in the upholstery. Book buyers, the world's most reasonable lot, will not complain even if there are a dozen spelling stains on every page.

The net result is that books get published in India that should not have reached a paginator's screen. Many of them are about cinema and cinema people reflecting the quick-fix publisher's hurry to get out easy books to hit an easy target. There is no other explanation for the recently published K.L.Saigal: The Definitive Biography.

Bad title to begin with. Because there is nothing definitive about this biography. There is not even a shred of new information. In the West, biographies are still coming out on people like Lawrence of Arabia and Princess Diana and they are lapped up because they present new research, new material, new insights. Saigal was great enough to deserve half a dozen books. But it cannot be done by shortcut artistes.

A. R. Rahman is nowhere near Saigal since he is more a synthesiser of music than an inventor. But he is a big success story and therefore deserves the attention of a serious archivist/curator like Nasreen Munni Kabir. Even so her A.R.Rahman: The Spirit of Music is not the study it could have been. How can you study a subject by merely recording conversations with him?

R.D.Burman: The Man, The Music is at least based on old-fashioned research, due perhaps to the two authors' background; Anirudh Bhattacharjee is an IIT graduate and Balaji Vittal a bank employee. But music is unlike most other subjects. It has soul – an active, living force within. One needs empathy with that soul to bring a musician and his music to life. Admiration is not empathy. I want to live: The life of Madhubala also fails to connect with the soul of the tragic heroin.

Actually cinema is a vast and rich world that waits to be tapped by authors with the patience and the training to slog on, and by publishers with the patience and perseverance to keep the authors going. The instant success of Ambani and Sons should have inspired someone to plan a tome called Prithviraj and Sons on the unrivalled Kapur clan. The fabled careers of Mehboob, A.R.Kardar and K. Asif invite a study called The Movie Mughals. Johny Walker deserves a full-fledged biography.

But quickies won't do. Perhaps the unhurried, purpose-driven “independent publishers” may yield more results than the brand-burdened big-timers with assembly-line production programmes. P. Lal's Writers' Workshop made history in its time. So did Katha and Seagull. The more recent Navayana, Queer Ink and Women Unlimited have been attracting attention in their own quiet way.

The reading public in India has become a magnet to publishers who are losing their fan clubs in internet-obsessed West. But if the reading public is taken for a ride, that last magnet will be lost too.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The big winner? Not Mamata or Jaya. The losers? Not Buddha or Karuna

Election Commissions and voting machines can only tell us a superficial kind of truth. The substantive, eternal truth is that those who win are not always the winners and those who lose are not necessarily the real losers. Never was this eternal truth more dramatically brought out than in the latest 5-state elections. Look behind the headlines to know who are the real winners and losers.

The biggest winners are not Mamata Banerji and Jayalalitha. The size of their victory margins is as sensational as the comprehensiveness of their adversaries' defeat. This does give their triumph a historic dimension. But take another look and we can see that they won primarily because their opponents had to be defeated.

Bengalis had been longing for a change, considering the cell rule enforced by communist rulers in the countryside, the steady increase in poverty levels and the misery of everyday existence. But they did not know where to turn. The Congress had committed harakiri in Bengal as in several other states and the BJP was always an alien idea. Mamata's steps were tentative in the early phases, but after she joined forces with popular emotions in the Nandigram movement, people found their saviour. Every other vote she won was a vote cast against the ruling government.

Very similar was the case in Tamil Nadu too. When the Karunanidhi Government turned into a dynastic ogre, utterly self-centred and utterly arrogant and utterly corrupt, the voters looked for an escape route. The only available route was Jayalalitha. They had tried her out in the past and found her wanting. But they turned to her anyway because it was the only way to get the DMK gang out of the way. Jayalalitha won because Karunanidhi lost.

Seen in that light, the biggest winner in this round of elections is V.S.Achuthanandan. By every known precedent of Kerala politics, he should have lost ignominiously because he was not only the incumbent, but his own party was against him. Instead, his personal popularity pulled the party through to an unprecedented performance. Technically the Congress-led coalition will form the government and Achuthanandan's Communist-led party will be in the opposition. But the difference between the tow groups is so minimal that victory is as bad as defeat and defeat as good as victory.

Who are the biggest losers? No, not Buddhadev Bhattacharji and not M. Karunanidhi though their defeat has a humiliating ring about it. The really big losers in this election are two men who did not even contest – Prakash Karat and Rahul Gandhi. Their action was as disastrous as their inaction.

Prakash Karat knew at first hand what was going wrong in Bengal and Kerala. Yet he did not lift a finger to correct the course in Bengal or to rein in the party's capitalist-minded syndicate in Kerala. In fact, he sided with the syndicate. If he had advised the party to stand united under the mascot of Achuthanandan, his party would have returned to power comfortably in this election and probably the next one as well. Karat simply does not have the leadership quality his position requires.

In Rahul Gandhi's case, what is in his favour is that no one expects anything constructive from him. But that did not mean that people expected destructive moves from him – like his making fun of Achuthanandan's age, for which he received the most memorable verbal lashing of recent political memory, the “Amul Baby” tag. That one faux pas by Rahul must have got a chunk of votes for Achuthanandan. The Congress princeling made a couple of visits to Tamil Nadu, taking care not to meet his ally Karunanidhi. Nor did he do anything to put life into the dead horse that is the Congress party in Tamil Nadu.

The big political story from this election is that the Congress is losing ground across India. But don't expect it to learn any lessons from the decline. That is the beauty of democracy, you don't have to learn anything.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Is immature TV rivalry a threat to India's national interests ?

The time has come to ask whether the passionate patriotism of our television channels is harming our national interests. Competitive shrillness is the trademark of most of our news anchors. When this shrillness is extended to Pakistan, the provocative, often insulting, language used is enough to make even liberal groups in that country angry and hurt; the jihadi groups will be energised to plot new terror strikes. On this side, the TV posturings make India's position with a difficult neighbour more difficult. Thus the needling ends up in a double disservice to India.

As soon as the American commandos sortied to Abbottabad and took out their enemy in a sovereignty-defying feat, our TV anchors worked themselves into a patriotic frenzy. The little screen screamed with headlines: 'Pakistan exposed completely'. 'Pakistan shamed before the world'. 'Pakistan's double game'. 'Pak lies uncovered'.

No sign anywhere of a measure of subtlety, some restraint, some maturity even, let alone journalistic professionalism. The attempt instead is to incite. Confronted before camera, India's army chief said Indian forces had the capability for any operation, a natural statement for an army chief to make. The Pakistani army chief responded the only way he could – that any misadventure by India would lead to serious consequences.

Our passionate patriots jumped in with the proclamation that what India said was right, but Pakistan took it out of context and over-reacted. More screaming headlines followed: 'Pakistan threatens India'. 'Kayani dares India'. 'Pak bluster or direct threat?' 'Pakistan's ridiculous reaction'.

From ridiculous headlines to incitement to direct action, it was a small step for passionate patriots. Why can't Indian commandos go into Pakistan and take out Dawood Ibrahim as Americans took out Osama? Instant panels were assembled to debate the issue. Eveready experts held forth on India's capabilities. A few sombre voices advised caution, but many egged Indian Government to do what America did. Among them was a former Intelligence Bureau chief.

How easily bravado can carry us away? We are a country where the Intelligence community could not even follow up explicit information on the 26/11 terrorists. Western agencies had given India the coordinates of suspicious boats moving towards Bombay. Even the mobile phone numbers of some terrorists were provided. Internal bickerings and/or plain inefficiency prevented our intelligence agencies from taking any action. But they can sit in a TV studio and talk big.

Besides, India is not America. Pakistan is in no position to take on America at any level. America publicly stated that more raids inside Pakistan territory would be carried out if necessary, and all that Pakistan could do was to swallow it.

India is utterly different. The American operation only embarrassed Pakistan. Any Indian operation of the kind will be taken by Pakistan as a declaration of war. Unable to take so deep a wound to their psyche, the Pakistani military may indeed over-react even if it means a suicidal operation for them.

The real irony is that the remotest possibility of any military strike by India is now ruled out because TV channels have discussed the action plans in the open. One channel even gave out details of India's special action units and their different capabilities. Imagine a panel discussion on CNN on the US Navy Seals' equipment, capabilities and plans ahead of the Abbottabad operation.

Pakistan is a lost state. It does not even know the reason for its existence, the violent separation of “East Pakistan” having wiped out what was supposed to have been the reason. It is ruled by the military half the time and by homegrown terror groups the other half. It does not even have an economy of its own. All it has is a notion of military pride. By lacerating that pride with a childish display of triumphalism, we only incite irrational behaviour. Above all, when TV channels imagine that they are duty-bound to lay down the foreign policy of a country, that country is in trouble. We need our country. We don't need immature news channels.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Others take care of their people, India takes care of lobbies

The endosulfan controversy is typical of India, of Indian politics, of Indian corruption, of Indian morality. There were 173 countries in the Stockholm Convention that debated whether or not there should be a global ban on this notorious pesticide. Of these 125 had banned it outright. All 47 of the remaining 48 sat on the fence and generally kept quiet. Only one argued vehemently on behalf of endosulfan. That one-in-the-world nation was India.

India was further isolated by the silliness of its arguments. It said, for example, that America's Federal Drug Administration ruled in 1998 that endosulfan posed no health hazard. The US has the most stringent and independent regulatory agencies in food and environmental matters and therefore American rulings are taken as a benchmark in the rest of the world.

But India cited American authority only to mislead. In 1989, a decade before the purported FDA ruling, the US Fish & Wild Life Service had said that endosulfan was fatal to endangered fish species. In 2007 the US Environment Protection Agency began a review of pesticide policies and decided, in 2010, to phase out endosulfan. The industry lobby said this was not a ban,but only a deregistration. The fact was that Bayer, the first and principal manufacturer of the pesticide, closed down its American factory. The only remaining factory, an Israeli company, started winding down as per the phase-out period allowed by the Government. The pesticide, it was declared, “poses unacceptable risks to farm workers and wild life”.

In America and Europe, in China and Japan, scientific studies lead to fairly quick policy decisions. In India about 80 expert study teams have reported on the Kasargod victims of endosulfan, examining everything from breast milk to male reproductive systems. Yet the Government kept saying that expert studies were needed before a ban could be considered. Sharad Pawar was the sole fighter for endosulfan initially. Later the Prime Minister and the green warrior Jairam Ramesh joined him. What was going on?

It is true that excessive and careless use of pesticides led to the tragedies in Kasargod (where children are born with horrible defects) and in Punjab's Bhatinda area (where cancer is endemic). Civilised societies impose responsibilities on the industry as well as on government agencies to ensure proper and controlled use of poisonous chemicals. In Bhatinda what steps did the industry and the Government take to guide farmers many of whom could not even read the instructions on the packets?

The Kerala Government's lapse was even more reprehensible. Irresponsible aerial spraying of the lethal chemical was carried out by a government undertaking, the Plantation Corporation. Was any official of the Corporation booked for the offence and punished? The state's case against the Central Government would have been stronger if it had held its own offenders accountable.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at Delhi's defence of the indefensible and its indifference to India's isolation in the world. India already has a shameful record of bowing before multinational lobbies. Drugs that are banned in Western countries become easily available in our country. Field trials disallowed in America are carried out on unsuspecting Indian patients. Genetically engineered products must be so labelled in other countries. In India there is no such rule because the GM lobby has “persuaded” the authorities against it.

Many things happen in India that cannot happen in countries concerned about public welfare. The needle of suspicion must naturally point to the possibility of corruption. We hear pesticide lobby's arguments from the mouths of government leaders. We hear arguments in favour of chemically engineered brinjal from agricultural experts who have received lucrative research grants from GM companies. World opinion has now forced India to agree to a phase out of endosulfan over the next 11 years. Given the hold the lobbies have on India's power structure, there is no guarantee that the phase-out will work as transparently in India as it did in the US. Scepticism is in order when decisions about poisons in our water bodies and soil and food chains are in the hands of people like Sharad Pawar.