Monday, May 28, 2012

Black money, cocaine, and 'walking porn': The corrupting culture of cricket

It is now irrefutable: No game is more corrupt than cricket. Or more corrupting, or more amoral, or more afoul of the law. Or course no game throws more cash around. Which proves yet again that money is the root of all evil.

We may have individual preferences as to the degree of sleaze and vulgarity attached to the scandals of recent days. Who was the nastier spoilt brat, Shahrukh Khan who berated hapless security personnel or Siddharth Mallya, whose normal language seems to be of the filthy kind? Were the Income Tax searches on some IPL owners' premises more belittling than the match-fixing deals in which some players were caught? Was the rave party with cocaine and other drugs in Mumbai a bigger breach of the law than the five-star punching of a fiance-boyfriend in Delhi? Was Subramaniam Swamy's allegation that IPL promoted black money and prostitution more shameful than BCCI buying the silence of former players with bonus cheques while pointedly leaving out players turned critics?

Make your pick. But no one can deny that cricket as it is managed and played today brings disgrace to India, turns players into pawns in the hands of swindlers, helps politicians to make politics out of sports and allows millionaires to flout more rules, and make more money by hook and by crook. Cricket has become anything but cricket.

The sting operation that showed young players agreeing to fix the game in return for money revealed the depths to which the culture of cricket had sunk. And yet that was not the most frightening part of the sting. Two other findings were. The first was that team owners paid players more than the publicly stated price. What were these under-the-counter payments except black money operations with all their implications?

The BCCI promptly suspended five players named in the sting operation. Big deal. What about the black money operations which, given the size of the auction figures and the large number of players, must run into millions? And what about the second of the two frightening findings – that women played an important role in match fixing negotiations?

If the BCCI has initiated action over these findings, it is keeping it a secret. Actually, the role of women should have been investigated as soon as Lalit Modi started importing white-skinned “cheer leaders” for IPL matches. Whose cheer were they leading? The question hit the roof last year when Gabriella, a South African cheer leader, said in her blog that a cheer leader was a “walking porn” and cricketeers were full of “flirtateous, inappropriate” behaviour. Instead of an inquiry and remedial action, Gabriella was sent home forthwith.

And this year we have a whole new drama starring Zohal Hameed, Zahil Peerzada, Luke the Unpronounceable and sundry extras. Zohal said Zahil was her fiance, Zahil said Zohal was his girl friend, Sidhharth said Zohal was all over him, Luke said he never did anything wrong, the next day he said he accidentally touched Zohal. Everyone sufficiently confused, everyone was happy.

Again, nobody looked into issues beyond whether Luke assaulted Zahil who was hospitalised. Who really were these Zohal and Zahil? We know Zohal was a New York girl with an Afghan father and an Iranian mother. But we also know – because she said so – that she did not know what was cricket and IPL and never watched a match and was not really interested.

So what was she doing in Delhi amid cricketing VIPs? Is it true that a team owner had brought her to India for the current season? What was her role? Is she rich enough on her own to live in a suite in one of Delhi's most expensive hotels and go around the city in a white Mercedes? How could she be “all over” a tycoon who is unapproachable by ordinary folk? We will never know the answers because cricket is manipulated by India's wiliest politicians and wealthiest barons. They are above even the laws of decency.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Parliament: First years were glorious, then the warnings came true

Parliament's shastipoorti passed with no more than token celebrations – daylong sessions, a commemorative stamp and coin, some classical music, and that was it. It is no small achievement that democracy has survived in reasonable strength in our feudal and fractured society. But the threats we face are not small either which perhaps made muted celebrations more appropriate. After all, how exuberant can we get when honourable members of Parliament have to compete with dishonourable ones in both houses.

In their ceremonial speeches, MPs expressed pride in the legacy of 60 years. This was of course fully justified. But that pride was earned almost exclusively during the first quarter century of independence. That was when great parliamentarians like H. V. Kamath and Nath Pai, Inderjit Gupta and A. K. Gopalan graced the benches, not to mention senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, G. B. Pant and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The standards of debate and dignity they maintained made India something of a marvel. Wit, too, reigned supreme. Piloo Modi would send a note across to “I.G.” and Indira Gandhi would send her reply addressed to “P.M.”.

Ironically, it was during the Indira years that pride began giving way to shame. Sanjay Gandhi, pampered as a son and feared as a politician, changed the goal posts with immunity. For the first time, India saw a public figure doing what he jolly well pleased in public life, with neither the Constitution, nor Parliament, nor the courts able to check him. He brought street culture into Parliament by introducing the tactic of shouting down opponents. That set a trend which continues to this day.

Perhaps our early mentors saw the possibility of rowdy elements capturing the system. Ambedkar had warned: However good a constitution, it was sure to turn out to be bad if those who were called to work it happened to be a bad lot. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was sharper when he said: Our opportunities are great, but let me warn you that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days.

What actually happened was worse. Not only did power outstrip ability; money outstripped power, and criminality outstripped money. The catastrophic impact of this fall in standards was there for the whole world to see. In 2005 eleven MPs were caught accepting cash for raising questions in Parliament. In 2008 three MPs displayed bundles of currency notes in the Lok Sabha claiming an attempt to bribe them.

A Parliament that has been reduced to this amoral level can have no claim on the legacy of the 1950s and 1960s. All that today's Parliament can claim is credit for forefeiting its heritage. Criticism of Parliament has become loud and widespread in recent years. MPs repeatedly proclaim that they are elected representatives of the people, but as a class they hardly command the respect of the people. This is because the “elected representatives” are less concerned with issues affecting the people and more with their own salary and allowances, their vast local area development funds, their travel privileges, red beacons on their cars and other ways of squeezing and browbeating the people.

And there is a serious issue of conflict of interests, too. The real work of Parliament is done at committee level. Parliamentary committees are powerful entities because their decisions often translate into policies. So what happens when Vijay Kingfisher Mallya is on the Parliamentary Committee on Civil Aviation? Will such committees protect citizens' interests as they are supposed to do, or end up protecting vested interests?

Some 128 members of the Lok Sabha are from the business class. Several high-end business leaders get into the Rajya Sabha. The problem inherent in this reality has been highlighted in a private member's bill seeking to stop the conflict of interests in the work of MPs. The bill “looks at the very root of corruption”, but will it have half a chance of getting passed? That question raises another, more vexing one: How do we get out of the evil days that Dr Radhakrishnan warned us about?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Counter-terrorism: Politicians play games instead of calling in professionals

Barack Obama faces bigger terrorist threats to his life than Manmohan Singh. But we don't see security guards standing behind Obama when he delivers a public speech. When Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi speaks, ear-phoned and presumably armed guards stand right behind them. Narendra Modi or Mayawati (as CM) would not move about without those menacing, finger-on-the trigger machinegun soldiers encircling them – a spectacle unseen in any other democracy in the world.

It is true that no Asian country is in greater need of anti-terrorist mechanisms than India. But our political class seems to prefer demonstrative rather than scientific mechanisms. It is as though Z category announces your arrival at the top while Y category puts you in the pits. Notice the zeal with which MPs are agitating for the right to carry a red light on top of their cars. It's all a status game for our VIPs.

Superimposed on that is a political game. The Centre and the state governments have made a mess of our police and intelligence agencies by converting them into political tools to serve the interests of the party in power. All political parties want this misuse to continue. In such a vitiated atmosphere, there was no chance for the chief ministers' conference on counter-terrorism to succeed. The proposed National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) remains a non-starter.

An integrated national policy to fight terrorism is badly needed in India. Individual states cannot tackle the problem effectively for reasons like India's long shoreline and common borders with seven countries, not to mention problems posed by cyberspace. Besides, several insurgents groups inside the country are receiving weaponry and strategic support from powerful neighbours. It is an ugly situation that calls for a no-nonsense professional set-up to tackle it, like the Department of Homeland Security in the US.

Yet, an initiative like NCTC does not take off because as many as eleven chief ministers stand resolutely against it. Their objections are based mainly on three factors – mistrust of central agencies like CBI and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), mistrust of P. Chidambaram and the chief ministers' own interest in using agencies like the police for pursuing their partisan objectives. All three factors are steeped in politics and therefore inimical to the wider interests of the country.

That the CBI and IB are not seen as independent agencies is a fact. Too often they have acted on behalf of the party in power and too often ministers have used them to suppress their own misdeeds or to oppress enemies. Too many IB chiefs have accepted post-retirement sinecures like governorships. The lack of credibility of these agencies makes people suspect that a new anti-terrorism agency will also be misused by the Centre as it misused the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) which had to be repealed in 2004.

The suspicions about NCTC are aggravated by the suspicions about P. Chidambaram. Perhaps the most unpopular Home Minister in recent history, Chidambaram enjoys the trust of no political grouping. His mishandling of the Anna Hazare and Telangana agitations on the one side and the Maoist movement on the other has raised doubts even about his capabilities. The Chief Minister of his home state heartily dislikes him. In the circumstances, his piloting of the NCTC doomed it even before the chief ministers assembled in Delhi.

Ultimately, the chief ministers too are political animals with ulterior motives. They want to abuse their police powers as comprehensively as the Central government has been abusing its CBI-IB powers. That police officers openly form associations on the basis of party loyalties may be a speciality of Kerala. But in other states too they are ready to please their political masters for return benefits. In the process, counter-terrorism becomes – like education, road development, agriculture, spectrum auction and everything else in our country – an extension of politics, instead of the professional task it ought to be, conceived and administered by professionals. It's a win-win situation for politicians, but it's lose-lose for the country.

Monday, May 7, 2012

There is an untold crisis story in China, and it concerns other countries too

Something is happening in China that could have an impact on its future course and on neighbours like India. Internal unrest in the large and diverse country is nothing new, but things hit what looked like a climax of sorts a month ago, in the midst of preparations for the scheduled leadership change later this year.

The problems began on the economic front. The pace of growth following Deng Hsiaoping's reforms was literally world-shaking, but it also led to rural poverty, urban over-development, land disputes and environmental destruction causing dislocation of populations. India is familiar with these very problems, but Indian people have outlets for venting their anger and even scoring a victory or two, like they did in Nandigram.

No such safeguards existed for the Chinese. In 2006 villagers protested in Dongshan, southern China, against seizure of their land for a power plant project. Police firing killed at least 20 villagers and the power plant was duly built. Urbanisation eliminated some 135 million rural jobs in the first two decades of reform. Massive exodus from village to city created not only ghettos in cities, but also social tensions. Rural folks were no more welcome in the cities than Biharis were in Raj Thackeray's Mumbai.

Liaoning in the industrial north-east saw large-scale privatisation of state-owned companies. In almost every deal government officials took bribes and passed on functioning factories for a pittance. Locals turned against the Government, their resentment fuelled by tens of thousands of people becoming unemployed. Liaoning continues to be a centre of popular protests against the authorities.

Ethnic disturbances added to the agonies of growth. Xinjiang, China's largest province, is as good as a Central Asian territory with Muslim Uighurs making up 45 percent of the population. (Han component has risen to 40 percent thanks to the official policy of population transfer). Tibet, the second largest province, has also been taking in large numbers of new Han settlers. But both provinces are standing up to ruthless suppression, putting Beijing in a dilemma.

In the end, it was a political problem – not economic or ethnic – that plunged China into its most serious, if also secretive, crisis since Mao. The centrepiece of the puzzle is Bo Xilai, who was China's most powerful provincial leader, a member of the Politburo, and poised to join the 9-man committee that rules China. In March he was dismissed.

A month earlier, Bo's police chief in his province of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, went to the US embassy with documents to say that Bo's wife was involved in the murder of a British businessman with whom she had illegal financial transactions. There has been no word about Bo nor Wang since then; both are presumably under some kind of arrest.

The important point of this drama is that Bo Xilai had dared to float a political philosophy of his own based on “core socialist values” and a “red culture movement”. That was threatening enough for Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to warn against a new Cultural Revolution. Coup rumours spread across China and internet sites and blogs were restricted or banned. Tension prevails.

Does the removal of Bo Xilai mean also the removal of the policy threat he posed? Deng Hsiaoping himself was turned into a non-person by Mao. But there were enough leaders who secretly agreed with him that Mao's excesses were alienating the people. They were right and Deng rose again.

The pendulum has swung to the other side now. Instead of socialist excesses, China today reels under the excesses of crony capitalism. China's new leadership will have to admit that these are times when even America and Europe are witnessing popular uprisings against the greed and exploitation that capitalism breeds. There should be vast sections of people in China who would welcome some kind of “core socialist values” checkmating the freebooters and fatcats. In China, US or India, the ultimate question about growth is: Do the people feel fairly treated or do they feel cheated?