Saturday, January 29, 2011

Looking for moral freedom

Has the Indian state failed? That is sensational wording for a discussion topic. Yet that was precisely what was on offer at the Bangalore launch of the late L. C.Jain's autobiographical book “Civil Disobedience”. Considering Jain's lifelong crusades, it was an appropriate topic too. But either because of its provocative nature or because the evening was all too nice and friendly, no one touched the topic mentioned in the notice. Instead they dwelt exclusively on the magic of L. C. Jain.

Which was a pity because the panelists were eminently qualified, in their respective ways, to dissect the current state of the Indian State. Nandana Reddy had seen first hand the state's questionable sides, U.R.Ananthamurthy had exposed the state's underbelly in more than one memorable novel and Ramesh Ramanathan had shown the inner strength to give up corporate certainties and plunge into the uncertainties of activism. Even Nandan Nilekani, although part of the state now, had experienced enough of the travails of the entrepreneur to talk knowledgeably about the state's current direction.

With all of them deserting the featured topic of discussion, we were left with only one person to boldly address it: L.C. Jain himself. Fundamentally he was against the state as it developed after 1947, much like his hero Mahatma Gandhi was.

Gandhi consciously turned against the state as soon as independence was won the way it was won. Even as his comrades in arms were savouring the first inebriating taste of power, Gandhi said: “The Congress won political freedom, but it has yet to win economic, social and moral freedom”. Those words of 1948 have only grown grimmer over the decades. It would be correct to say today that social and moral freedom would never be won by the Congress or any other political party as they are presently constituted.

That is the failure of the Indian state. It had started in 1947 itself. One of the biggest issues of the day was the resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flowed in from Pakistan. Various schemes were worked out including the creation of new townships like Faridabad. But the bureaucracy's obstructionism at every turn would have been unbelievable but for the first-person account provided by L. C. Jain.

Nehru himself developed attitudes that spelt danger. There was an uprising against landlords in the Telangana region and the communists made the movement effective by killing landowners and redistributing the land among the poor. Jain writes:

“The news of the killings, of hanging dead bodies on trees, shook newly independent India. Nehru was deeply disturbed. But as Prime Minister he did not say, 'A major issue has arisen; how do we deal with it politically'? Instead, he sent in the army. The communists sought refuge in the jungle. To hunt them the army started setting fire to the forest, cutting down trees... The Congress became politically dead”.

India's saving grace was that the Nehru generation, including visionaries like Ambedkar who disagreed with Gandhi-Nehru, laid firm foundations for the democracy that India embraced. That democracy has in many ways been reduced to a farce, but the foundations are holding. That is why the Indian state has remained successful in comparison with Pakistan or Bangladesh.

But unlike in the time of the Nehru generation, the state has developed a tendency not to respond to the voice of citizens. The over-riding tendency is to brazen it out when irrefutable evidence of moral degeneration surfaces. The state does not even recognise the anger it has provoked among the people. We seem to have reached a stage where the state is not only not representative of the people but actually in opposition to the people. That is not the characteristic of a democratic state. India is by no means a failed state. But nor is it, despite the flattering growth rates, a successful state. The course is correctable and there is time enough to correct it. But what if we do not have a moral leadership interested in correction?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bribe money, crime money – safe money

India will not chase those illegal funds in foreign banks, that's for sure. The real reason is that virtually every VIP politician and bureaucrat is involved in it. It is mass guilt, not international treaties as the Prime Minister says, that makes India helpless.

The US has proved that a determined government can get things done. And let's not forget that America's stakes are much less than India's. A Swiss Banking Association report revealed in 2009 that Indians had $ 1456 billion stashed away in secret accounts, more than all the others in the top five put together. Russia, the second ranker, had $ 470 billion, UK $ 390 billion, Ukraine $ 100 billion and China $ 96 billion; USA was not even in the top five list.

Yet America was the one that decided to challenge the system, systematically, doggedly. Here is what it did. The Internal Revenue Service, America's tax collecting agency, launched an extensive investigation into tax evasion by its citizens. The evidence collected included dozens of memos and e-mails sent out on behalf of the prominent Swiss bank UBS suggesting that American millionaires could take advantage of, as the New York Times put it, “ a UBS plan to help rich customers evade taxes by hiding money in offshore havens like the Bahamas”.

The Justice Department then filed a case in the US seeking to compel UBS to divulge the identities of 52,000 Americans suspected of using secret accounts at the bank. A day earlier, realising the noose tightening around its neck, UBS had agreed to pay $ 780 million to settle claims that it defrauded America's Internal Revenue Service. The Justice Department case revealed damning details of UBS's secretive operations – from using code words to providing wealthy clients with special electronic devices to access their accounts in secrecy. It was the filing of a watertight case in US courts that compelled UBS to pay reparations to avoid criminial prosecution.

We do the exact opposite. Even when a watertight case exists, we dilute it and obfuscate it and mess it up until it becomes untenable in any court of law. This is what the best brains in our government did to let Ottavio Quattrochi go free when he has caught in Malaysia and then again in Argentina. We also use the sanctimoniously phrased “voluntary disclosure of income” concept to let the thieves legalise their stolen wealth. Those who stashed away billions were allowed to pay taxes at the ridiculous rate of 3-4 percent of their “declared” money and keep the billions with a clean conscience.

Take the case of Pune's Hassan Ali Khan, much in the news these days. Income tax raids in January 2007 had revealed that this gentleman had $ 8 billion (that's right Billion) deposited in UBS, Zurich and that he had not filed IT returns since 1999. A show-cause notice demanded from him Rs 40,000 crores on taxes alone.

In August 2009 the Government disclosed in the Rajya Sabha a list of tax defaulters. Hassan Ali topped the list with outstanding arrears of more than Rs 50,000 crore. Chennai-based chartered accountant M.R. Venkatesh calculated that if Khan's dues were taken along with his Kolkata associates, the “amount could be a staggering Rs 100,000 crore”. In an interview in The Week, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the Government seemed to have recovered the tax dues from Khan. “However”, said Venkatesh, “the revised estimates for 2009-10 do not reflect this. Rs 100,000 crore is too large a sum to be lost even in the Government of India's budget”. Besides, a budget proposal for 2010-11 sought to make Khan's case admissible by the Settlement Commission. Plugging the loopholes, so to speak.

Why this interest in the country's most sensational defaulter? As Venkatesh notes: “ A stud farm owner could not have been the originator of such a large income, indicating that it was not his money that was laundered”.

See why we will not go the American way? Our hoard comprises bribe money, crime money, mafia money – all sacrosanct, all safe.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rising anger, growing warnings

Manmohan Singh's popularity is marginally down and Sonia Gandhi's steeply down, according to a new opinion poll (India Today). Yet, the Congress is considered better than other parties in handling the country's problems. Generally optimism prevails, especially among the young. APJ Abdul Kalam is their role model and their faith in India's growing economic strength is abiding.

(Not that opinion polls are definitive. This one for example ranks Rahul Gandhi as best qualified to be Prime Minister. Best “qualified”? Even Kanimozhi does not believe that M.K. Stalin is best qualified to be the next Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. Nevertheless, two-thirds of Lok Sabha MPs below 40 are “qualified” by heredity. In politics these days DNA is the best qualification).

Of course a vibrant, young population is India's best guarantee for the future. In the short-term, however, they are at the mercy of the crooked old population of political manipulators. So the question is: How long will be the short term? Indications are not encouraging because none of the manipulators in power today show any sign of giving up their deceitful, foxy ways.

No One Killed Jessica is an apt message of our times. If anybody missed the message, there is a stronger one to wake them up: No One Killed Aarushi. An MLA in Uttar Pradesh raped a girl – and promptly the girl was put in jail. Public outrage finally forced the authorities to arrest the MLA. Perhaps he will now be put in the same cell as the girl. Eventually the police may prove that it was the girl who raped the MLA. And UP is ruled by a woman Chief Minister.

People are in no position to react immediately to such perversions by the ruling class. But people get angry. There is a great deal of public anger in India today. The Kalmadis, the Sharad Pawars, the Quattrochis, the Yeddyurappas, the A. Rajas are adding fuel to the fire of this anger. Someone should pause to think what would happen if the collective anger of a people is allowed to build up to bursting point.

In fact, many are already flashing warning signals. Ashok Mitra, West Bengal's veteran Marxist, recently wrote: “Discontent is going up as disparity between rich and poor gets pronounced. Sooner or later this will get mobilised... and we will have an incendiary situation”.

Even if we say that the Marxist in Ashok Mitra is exaggerating, what about Devadutt Pattanayak who is a vedic scholar and mythologist? As he sees it: “India's growth is dangerously unequal..... It is only a question of time before this leads to violent confrontations”.

Other voices, widely recognised as intellectual, competent and sober, tend to think along the same lines. Writing in Outlook recently, author Sunil Khilnani referred to “the ambiguities of coalition politics, a volatile Hindu nationalism and intense caste politics” to conclude that “there will be more crises and surprises ahead”. Editor R. Jagannathan cautioned that if politics are not made “consciously right,” then we will have to “face the consequences of social conflict”. Filmmaker Sudhir Misra warned: “The system will have to change its values or else the whole fabric will be rent”.

Foreign voices are strident. For all the admiration India has won from Western investors, the public criticism in Western media is unsparing. In a popular prime-time television discussion in Germany, a panelist quoted from a blog: “If all the scams of the last five years are added up, they are likely to exceed the British colonial loot of India of about a trillion dollars”.

A German business daily editorialised that “India is becoming a Banana Republic instead of an economic superpower”. A French newspaper article mentioned the name of Hassan Ali of Pune and his wife as operating a one-billion-dollar illegal Swiss account with “sanction of the Indian regime”.

How harmful can a country's reputation get. How dangerous can a country's internal contradictions get. Must India collapse in order to rise again?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Our lost moral universe

There is no sign that “our shrinking moral universe” will stop shrinking any time soon. Politicians and bureaucrats, even Nityanandas and Kalmadis, do not betray the slightest sense of shame although the earth is littered with the debris of their sins.

See what happened when the Bofors skeleton rattled again in the cupboard. Every Indian knows that it was the first big kickback case in India and who paid the moneys and who received them and who were the middlemen. The blatancy with which the CBI and the Congress establishment manipulated the handling of the case only confirmed what everyone knew – that the highest in the land were directly involved.

This time the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal reaffirmed the evidence and said that the privileged middlemen, including the most privileged Mr Q., owed taxes to the country for the bribes they took. And what did the CBI do? With awesome coldbloodedness it asked the court to close the case against Mr Q. The Congress establishment wept like angels over the persecution of the innocent.

Actually the Congress's only decent argument is that non-Congress governments were in power for long but did not pursue Mr Q. Which is true. And which only leads to the conclusion that there is honour among thieves. They help each other out, in times of need.

It is typical of the moral collapse of Indian politics that the BJP cried foul about Bofors corruption while paying no heed to its own. It out-Congressed the Congress when it brazened out the Yeddyurappa scandals. Its grand Brashtachar Virodhi Mahasangram, a “national campaign” against corruption, left Karnataka out of it – as if Karnataka did not belong to the nation.

Maybe it does not. Nowhere else in the nation do we see an open mandi for MLAs and panchayat members as there is in Karnataka. Within 24 hours of the zilla panchayat election results coming out last week, the BJP opened its bidding. The ignominious Bellary Brothers had suffered an important setback when they failed to capture the local panchayat. No problem. At a campfire celebration arranged by the mining lords, Congress winner Nagaratnamma announced that she was joining the BJP. Patriotism, of course, not money. With that Bellary panchayat was back in the capacious pockets of the Reddys.

So what are elections all about? Our lay belief is that people choose a person representing a party. If people's choices are subverted by subsequent buyers and sellers, why go through election processes in the first place? Why not let the candidates go to the mandi and sell themselves to the highest bidder? The BJP has turned that into its official policy line anyway.

The same amoral approach prevails in other fields as well. What a shame that a freshly retired Chief Justice of India should suddenly find himself in a sea of family scams? Credible evidence about his immediate family members amassing wealth is bad enough. Worse is Justice Balakrishnan clinging to his post-retirement post. Several of his brother judges have publicly appealed to him to help protect the dignity of the judiciary by stepping down until his name is cleared. But he takes no advice. What makes people like Balakrishnan and Vigilance Commissioner P. J. Thomas give up every modicum of self-respect and hang on to office? Human nature is truly mysterious.

One thing is sure. We can no longer claim 5000 years of civilisational heritage. Our post-Emergency heritage has wiped out all that was before it. In Kosala, as Kambar described it, “None were generous as none was needy; with no liars around Truth never needed to speak up; no learning stood out as all were learned”. In Brashtachar Virodhi Bharat today, all are needy yet none is generous; Truth speaks up but liars shout it down; no learning stands out as all are unlearned.

We are a blot on the fair name of Kosala, we have no right to talk about its capital Ayodhya, and we have badly let down its king Rama. We are not even ashamed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Nine dreams and one wish

Even from the depths of gloom, human nature longs for happiness. At the dawn of a new year the longing surfaces with vigorous anticipation. This time the anticipation has a desperate edge to it because, during the year that has just gone, our trust in many of our institutions and individuals was shattered. We badly need to restore that trust; without trust in the basic structure of society and the custodians of that structure, survival itself would be under threat.

So how do we get back our faith in the system? What the citizen can do by way of action is limited. But we can dream. Dreaming is a way to reshape reality closer to our heart's desire. A means to harmless pleasure. It's one freedom we enjoy unfettered, one human right no politician or policeman can take away from us. Let's dream:

1. That Manmohan Singh will abandon his silences and act and speak up like a Prime Minister. He has it in him as he showed while pushing the civil nuclear bill with an iron will. If we dream hard enough, maybe he will show more of that iron.

2. That India will stop kow-towing to America. The Reserve Bank's decision to stop a 35-year-old arrangement for the purchase of Iranian oil is not only a surrender to American pressure and therefore a disgrace; it is also potentially dangerous because the sudden stoppage of $11 billioin worth of oil imports can lead to catastrophic price spiralling across the board. And what do we get in return from America? Stupid body search of even our senior diplomats at US airports – which of course we take obediently lying down.

3. That Sonia Gandhi will give up being the deity of the Congress and its government. Such is her unstated mightiness that when the Congress takes a stubbon stand perceived as wrong, her hand is suspected. From Bofors to the present PAC stalemate, the stubbornness has been so hard-core, unbending, relentless that an explanation-seeking public could only suspect her hand. That kind of omnipotence does her no good. It does the country no good.

4. That the unseen coteries in Delhi enjoying power without responsibility will either stop wielding power or come out into the open and be accountable. The coteries comprise the likes of Ahmad Patel, T.K.A.Nair of the PMO, Christie Fernandes of Rashtrapathi Bhavan and Vincent George of 10 Janpath.

5. That India will start punishing the corrupt. Not necessarily like the Chinese who shoot top people like Mayors and CEOs found to be corrupt, but at least like the US where CEOs caught in fraud get quick trials followed by jail sentences.

6. That agencies like the CBI and police will get the autonomy without which they become a menace instead of the cleanser they are supposed to be. Political shackling of such institutions is at the core of India becoming a corrupt and corrupting democracy.

7. That the two remaining pillars of our democracy, the judiciary and the media, will realise that they will cease having any meaning if they cease having any credibility.

8. That all those in positions of influence, from ministers to journalists, will pay heed to a phrase Sonia Gandhi used: “Our shrinking moral universe”. It is their action/inaction that caused the shrinking. So – stop preaching, start doing something.

9. That our political parties will at least camouflage their hypocrisies instead of making them so blatant as to insult the intelligence of voters. BJP chief Gadkari proclaimed before camera that Yeddyurappa was okay because his actions were “only immoral, not illegal”. From a party that pretends to be moral to the core, what unashamed duplicity!

With all those dreams lighting up our horizons, let us also have one solitary wish as well --

That the Good Lord have mercy upon us for we are unlikely to get it from any other source.