Monday, July 25, 2011

Media becomes a calamity when it's used as a means to achieve private ends

Rupert Murdoch is a terror before whom successive British prime ministers have bowed. Tony Blair flew all the way to Australia in 1997 to propitiate him. David Cameron's current prime ministership is under pressure because of his cosiness with him. That such an almighty Lord became a whimpering apologiser before British MPs, with his close associates in jail, would have been unbelievable if the world had not seen it with its own eyes.

This is not merely a matter of the world's most powerful media empire coming to grief. It is also a matter of the world's greatest force for good, the media, being turned into a force of evil – and the world's need to confront and overcome that calamity. This is where the Murdoch tragedy has a clear message to India.

Two factors stand out. First, it is dangerous to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person or one company. Such concentration would make the person or company think that they are above the law and above common morality. That was what made William Randolph Hearst decide that he must organise the Spanish-American war to boost the circulation of his paper. When his man in Cuba cabled that there was no war, Hearst is said to have cabled back: “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war”.

The second factor is that in the media business growth and competition do not lead to product improvement. If you want to make a mark in the washing powder business, you develop a better washing powder. If you want to win supremacy in the print/TV business, you develop gimmicks; start a war, or manipulate circulation/TRP figures, embrace Page 3 cheesecake sex, dethrone journalists and enthrone business managers.

Those issues hardly engaged the attention of India's instant pundits discussing Murdoch's downfall. They seemed content with the argument that criminalities like phone-tapping were not the Indian way.

So, is the Indian way better? Is publishing paid news without letting the reader know that it is paid for the better way? Is it better to enter into “private treaties” that make newspapers manage the news in favour of their corporate treaty partners – again keeping the reader in the dark? Is it preferable for a media baron to gain undue business advantages by misusing his minister brother's political power?

The Indian way may be different from the Murdoch way but it is just as despicable. Both break the fundamental tenets of journalism. Both use the media as a means to achieve private ends, Murdoch's end being influence and Indian Murdochs's end being money.

Journalism has a higher responsibility compared to other businesses. The reason is that journalism , for example, can incite violence in a way that washing powder makers cannot. The biggest scandal in Indian journalism is that we have owners who publicly proclaim that the only responsibility of a newspaper company is to make profit for its shareholders. Murdochism never went that low.

There is another area where the Indian reality is different. As soon as the scandal broke in Britain, the systems there went into action. Top people were arrested and top police officials resigned as they were implicated in corruption. Police investigations got under way. A judicial inquiry was ordered, the Prime Minister insisting that all aspects of politician-media-police links should be investigated.We can reasonably expect that meaningful regulatory systems will now be put in place along with tighter codes of conduct.

In our country, the worst of scandals produce action only when the judiciary or the channels force the Government to do so. Even then it's sluggish. Obviously we have people at the top who have much to hide. And we have desi Murdochs who have blithely eliminate the institution of editor and turns news into a profit-oriented product handled by marketing whizkids. If Rupert Murdoch wants to start life all over again, he should come to India.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Systems exist to detect terrorist plans; but we focus on cabinet shuffle tricks

The cabinet reshuffle – essentially a defeatist's exercise – had raised major issues concerning the morality of coalition politics and the Government's very approach to governance. The ensuing public discourse reflected serious worries across the political spectrum about the way the country was going. Presumably that debate could have at least led to a clearer understanding of how not to handle high responsibility.

But suddenly debate is disrupted, life itself is derailed and everybody's attention diverted by the most despairing reality of our times – terrorism. Whether the latest Mumbai strike is the handiwork of Indian Mujahideen or Lashkar-e-Taiba, whether it is provoked by the occasion of Ajmal Kasab's birthday or Hillary Clinton's imminent visit may all be issues of importance to investigating agencies. What towers above them all, however, is that terrorism persists despite the proven historical fact that it achieves nothing.

Nazi terrorism against Jews achieved nothing for Germany. Jewish terrorism against Palestinians achieved only the isolation of Israel. Velupillai Prabhakaran's terrorism decimated even Tamil leaders who did not join him. Rajapakse's terrorism against Tamils has made him a potential war criminal in the eyes of the world.

Pakistan's parallel government run by the army and the ISI made terrorism a state policy for many years. The result is that the country is stuck in history unable to move an inch forward. There are many educated, liberal groups in that country. But they are also stuck as any move in favour of tolerance and issues like women's rights invite summary punishment from hardliners.

If repeated failures by terrorists to achieve their goals have not blunted the edge of terrorism, the reason must be sought in the vicegrip religious fanaticism has on the human mind. Al Qaida and Taliban have exploited this factor diabolically, sending many young believers to their death in return for a “martyr's” place in paradise. Funding agencies in Saudi Arabia play a key role in popularising hardline religiosity in traditionally tolerant Islamic societies.

What do they hope to achieve? Will Taliban's pitiless system of beheadings, stoning and flogging targetted mostly against women ever become acceptable in, say, the Muslim societies of the Mediterranean? Does Saudi Arabia believe that it can win the allegiance of other countries like it has won Bahrain's? The fanatics are playing a game that can have only one result: Creating counter fanatics.

India is already witnessing this. Repeated terror strikes by Islamist forces have persuaded some radical Hindutva elements to reply in the same coin – a new departure for what has been a famously inclusive sanatana dharma. It may look like a human reaction, but it is in fact a setback for traditional values. Never have two wrongs made a right.

What we need is one right that will prevent more wrongs. We need an efficient intelligence gathering model that will detect terrorist plans in advance. That the US and the UK seem to have achieved this to a considerable extent suggests that the technologies, the gadgets and the systems exist. We need a network of dedicated professionals who will master counter-terrorism technologies and put them to effective use without political interference of any kind.

Which brings us back to the Government's approach to governance and the correlation between efficiency and make-believe cabinet shuffling. Mumbai has been attacked half a dozen times by now and we have a Crown Prince saying that it is impossible to stop all terrorist attacks. Our Home Minister says the terrorists “worked in a very clandestine manner”. How nasty of them. Couldn't they at least send an SMS to the Home Ministry detailing their plans?

Our security systems, like our investigating agencies, are politically controlled. The portfolios of our ministers are decided without taking performance or corruption levels into account. Naturally, we are left with a government that can only ask the people to remain calm after disaster strikes. Perhaps the people have remained calm for too long.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The world's richest gold-jewel collection? Our new pride – and responsibility

One thing is now clear: India is a very rich country, perhaps the richest in the world. Gold reserves play a decisive role in central banking around the globe which makes the yellow metal a currency rather than a commodity. India has more of this currency than any other country.

It's not in the hands of the central bank of course, but gold is gold. No other people have the fascination for gold that Indian people have. Many an economist has covetously said that if the gold held by Indian households were made available for public purpose, then things like balance of payments and foreign exchange reserves and national debt and credit ratings would swing spectacularly in favour of India.The swing would be no less spectacular if the Indian deposits in private Swiss accounts were made available for legitimate use.

On top of all this comes the mind-numbing news from Trivandrum. What has been discovered from the long-locked cellars of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple must be the single most precious collection of gold-and-jewel artefacts in the world. There is nothing like it anywhere from Istanbul's Top Kapi palace to Salar Jung museum, from the Vatican to the British Crown Jewels. It is several times bigger than Tirupathi Balaji Temple's fabled gold valued at Rs 52,000 crore. It reduces Sai Baba's Yajur Mandir hoard of 98 kg of gold to small change.

Two factors lend uniqueness to the Sree Padmanabha treasure. First, the way it was preserved with a sense of duty by the Maharajas of Travancore. This is one royal house that never built bejewelled palaces or led flamboyant lives. In fact the last Maharaja lived a frugal life, stoically watching the state taking away the properties he had in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. One temple vault was opened in 1931 and four coffers removed to the Palace Treasury for counting. But there was no evidence of any of the royals taking personal advantage of the inestimable wealth that lay in their absolute control. Gwalior and Patiala, Jaipur and Mysore enjoyed their wealth and even claimed a bit of the political pie after independence. Travancore stayed in the background, content being Sree Padmanabha's servants.

The other unique factor of the Kerala find is that it is not just gold and hundis. It comprises works of art. The valuation given to it in daily reports (one lakh crore rupees with a major cellar yet to be opened) no doubt gave it a feel of gigantism, but it was completely meaningless. You can value a bar of gold by its weight. How do you value an exquisite “broom” made of intricately woven gold wires, intended to dust offerings to the Lord? Or a delicately wrought, jewel-encrusted crown? Or ancient, rarest-of-rare gold coins?

You need internationally recognised specialists to estimate the meaning as well as the value of such matchless pieces of craftsmanship. You also need scientifically foolproof and technologically uptodate methods to ensure their safe keeping. Just because they stayed safe for 150-200 years in dark and airless chambers, it does not mean they can remain undamaged in those conditions for ever.

These challenges have prompted some rather extremist views already. That the central government should take charge of the treasure is one.(Which would be tantamount to writing off the priceless collection, given the nature of today's political class and bureaucracy). That communal control be ensured is another. (Which would go against the spirit of both Sree Padmanabha and his daasas who ruled all their subjects with equal vaatsalya).

The state government's decision appears to be the wisest for now – that the treasure is the property of the temple and must be protected as such without inconveniencing the devotees. Perhaps a scientifically secure structure can be erected within the temple complex and the treasure kept there appropriately curated and safeguarded. Let the world marvel at what a corner of India has made possible.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Here's a wiser policy option for a bold PM: Bring 'outsiders' in, keep usurpers out

There was wit and there was a tit for every tat, but Manmohan Singh still did not get it right on what has grown into the make-or-break issue of our times – how to curb corruption. He did not debunk the civil society movement like his cabinet colleagues are doing, but he said that the Lokpal Bill would be no magic wand to solve the problem.

Nobody said it would. The issue is that 64 years of democracy have not only failed to pass meaningful laws against corruption but, manipulated by self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats, made effective prosecution of the guilty virtually impossible. This has to change which is what today's public clamour is all about.

A well-meaning government would have drawn inspiration from this public mood and taken reformative action. Instead, what we see is a systematic campaign to discredit the people's movement, employing everything from high-decibel propaganda to clandestine investigations by intelligence agencies. This throws the very intentions of the Government into doubt.

Between the suave Kapil Sibal and the cynically suave P. Chidambaram, there is plenty that can be said against “outsiders” trespassing into the law-making prerogatives of an elected Parliament. But it is empty rhetoric. For one thing, people who elect the elected Parliament are not outsiders; they are the masters. For another, elections have become a black-money game that throws legislatures open to charlatans of all kinds. Please do not say that the bribe-takers, exchequer-raiders and mafia types are the exceptions. The good ones are the exceptions.

To the kind of democracy and Parliament that have taken shape under decades of officially condoned corruption, decent and law-abiding citizens of India will always remain “outsiders”. The task is to bring the outsiders in from the cold and turn the usurpers into outsiders. Manmohan Singh had a historic opportunity to achieve this. But he appears to have lost it under the compulsions of narrow party politics – or could it be due to “those who aspire to be Prime Minister” as Justice Santosh Hegde intriguingly put it?

It will be easy for suave articulators of the Government to demolish the likes of Anna Hazare. But it will be a historical blunder for them to imagine that getting the better of the Hazares of the moment is the same as getting the better of the public anger sizzling across the country. The anger was ignited by the sudden exposure of a rush of mega corruption scandals from the 2G spectrum to the Commonwealth Games. The nation was stunned by the realisation that strutting VIPs were in fact plunderers. And perhaps murderers were not far behind if the unfolding drama of the “suicide” of Bacha, A. Raja's aide, is any indication.

Let the articulate apologists of the Government also know that this is a time of heightened expectations among Indians. It is a fact of history that when governments fail to meet the expectations of the people, unrest follows. In dictatorships, this takes a longer time, but it eventually does happen, countries like Libya and Syria being the newest examples.

That type of insurrections may not happen in India. But Naxalism has happened despite every effort by Chidambaram to annihilate it. The Jantar Mantar revolution happened. People's disgust with corruption is now out in the open. Well-accented television appearances by government leaders will not be enough to circumvent it. A bull-headed Government may snub civil society out of the way, but a sharp-eyed BJP will be there to squeeze every drop of advantage from the resulting crisis. Yet another toothless law against corruption may change the game itself.

This is no longer Indira Gandhi's India. Nor P.V.Narasimha Rao's or A.B.Vajpayee's. In today's prosperous, middleclass dominant India, old-style political engineering cannot work. Even contrived transparency cannot work. Look out, Sri Kapil Sibal, Sri Chidambaram, Sri Manmohan Singh, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Sri Nitin Gadkari. Look out and see the new wind that is blowing.