Monday, July 30, 2012

As our nation faces grave challenges, leaders only think of themselves

From economic slowdown and failed monsoon to the spread of violence and unabated communal passions (see Assam), the challenges facing India have assumed critical proportions. But all we get from the leaders of our country are personal manoeuvres for power and position. Two examples of this surfaced last week. Repeated appeals by Congress careerists finally elicited a gracious nod from Rahul Gandhi for “assuming bigger responsibilities”. Sharad Pawar threw tantrums as part of a game to stop corruption investigations against his partymen in Maharashtra. Is this what democracy is all about?

It could well be that in the entire Congress universe, Rahul Gandhi is the only one who recognises his limitations. His refusal to take up any position of power has been interpreted by admiring Congressmen as a sign of his humility. May be. But it could also be because Rahul Gandhi knows within himself that he is not cut out for the role his admirers – and his doting family – want him to play. He seems happier partying than politicking.

His intentions no doubt have been honourable as can be seen from the few cases for which he bestirred himself. But the fact remains that, eight years after he found himself in the limelight with the power to do whatever he wished, there is nothing much to show by way of targets reached. His party won no significant victories in the election campaigns he led. His laudable attempt to bring up a generation of younger leaders in the party floundered on the rocks of older foggies. Inner party democracy was another dream that evaporated under the heat of the entrenched group-politics veterans. Even Kalawati, whose misery moved him, never benefited from the outpouring of sympathy that followed. She saw more privation and more suicides in the family, while her region, Vidarbha, remained “the graveyard of farmers”.

Yet, establishmentarian crusaders like Digvijay Singh proclaim that Rahul will be an effective Prime Minister. Law Minister Salman Khurshid pleads with Rahul to end his cameo role and give an ideology to the Congress. Khurshid is an honourable man and it could not have been inadvertence on his part to acknowledge that the Congress had no ideology. But to expect Rahul Gandhi to be a Karl Marx or even a Keshav Baliram Hedgewar is a bit much. There is, however, a clearing of the ground that Rahul can do, and that is to tell his followers that dynasty is not an ideology.

Rahul Gandhi can speak to Congressmen like God spoke to Moses. And that is also how Sharad Pawar can speak to his pocket party, the NCP. (A cognitive psychology professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem once suggested that Moses was under the influence of hallucinogenic substance when he heard God. That will not apply to the Congress or NCP whose faithful need no substance to hear their Gods clearly).

The NCP's contribution to the mess that is India today is substantial. No one has been as systematic as Praful Patel in devastating Air-India. Sharad Pawar has used every bit of his prodigious experience to bend the powers of the Agriculture Ministry to the convenience of lobbies. Nothing proves this more convincingly than his identification with the pesticide lobby. Even last week the Government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in support of endosulfan, a killer compound America has stopped after several scientific studies.

What Pawar wants is untrammelled power over the sugar and other lobbies in Maharashtra and of course its priceless real estate which had always been an area of special interest for him from his days of chief ministership. The havoc this has done to the good earth of Mumbai and Pune is worthy of a play by Vijay Tendulkar.

What's going on ? It is all very well to say that karma determines the nature of human existence and that actions of lives past are visited upon the present. What sins have we as a people committed in the past to deserve this generation of politicians?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Obama Did a smart job for his country. Why is there none to do India's job?

Can the President of the United States be faulted for pushing the interests of the United States? Barack Obama was doing his duty when he asked Manmohan Singh to speed up economic reforms and let American investment into areas like retail. India can respond any which way. But Congressmen rushing to the “defence” of Manmohan Singh is not a response. It is yet another demonstration of the culture of crawling when asked to bend.

The record shows that India has often promoted America's interests rather than India's. This is because, unlike in China or even Pakistan, politicians and bureaucrats in India can be easily hooked with the bait of a free trip to America. A job in the World Bank is irresistible. There are also leaders, like Manmohan Singh, who genuinely believe that it is in India's interest to be in the good books of America. Remember the only issue he pushed with determination in all his years as Prime Minister was the nuclear cooperation bill which was more to America's advantage than to India's.

Sure, India and the US are active democracies and therefore natural allies. Healthy cooperation will be beneficial to both. But this needs to be built on a basis of equality and mutual respect. If America frisks India's ambassador to the country at an airport, if it repeatedly treats A.P.J.Abdul Kalam as though he were a terrorist in disguise, if it turns hostile to Indian IT companies with discriminatory visa and tax regimes, and if India takes it all lying down, then it is not a healthy relationship. It is a relationship that will fill ordinary Indians with hostility towards America.

American corporations are not among the world's most ethical. One factor behind the Occupy Wall Street movement is the “looting” of shareholders' money by corporate tycoons. But can they be faulted if Indians accept favours from them and do their bidding at India's cost? A mountain of literature is available on the activities of America's seed companies in India. In the most controversial issue of them all, the genetically engineered brinjal, Monsanto managed to get the necessary approvals from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee in Delhi. The story behind the story was that the GEAC as well as field research teams were infiltrated by Monsanto so that “the data placed before the GEAC was provided by the applicant company”. Greedy Indians are to be blamed if even our brinjal goes into the hands of “the world's most hated company” as The Guardian described Monsanto.

The American establishment had always placed emphasis on taking over India's agri business, no doubt inspired by the sheer size of a billion-people market. This was in fact the topic most ardently pushed by President Obama when he visited India in 2010. Some 200 American business leaders accompanied their President. They promoted a series of initiatives such as the India-US Agriculture Dialogue and revived the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture Research, a project formalised by George Bush in 2006 but went dormant after unwanted American farm techniques proved counterproductive.

In all these initiatives, the emphasis is on America increasing its exports to India and enlarging its trade surplus. What are India's needs and how are they served? Indian officialdom, from Sharad Pawar to agricultural university researchers, often give the impression that they are on America's side. Thus drugs banned in America can be sold over the counter in India. Clinical trials prohibited in America can be conducted on the poor in India. Pesticides like endosulfan, the production of which is stopped in America, still have supporters among India's power-wielders.

With Manmohan Singh in charge of the Finance Ministry, US corporate sector found a golden opportunity to pressure India into toeing the American line. Obama seized the opportunity and picked PTI for his interview – clearly a focussed message to India directly. A smart move by an alert leader in the interests of his country.

Where are the alert leaders who will make smart moves in the interests of India?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Netaji died in India, not in aircrash; he, not Gandhi, made Britain leave

A return to the theme of Subhas Chandra Bose is necessitated by the “discovery” of two books. Both are by Lt. Manwati Arya who was born in Burma and joined the INA's women's wing, the Rani Jhanis Regiment, in her early 20s. Patriot (2007) is a “personalised biography” of Netaji. It is flowery and exaggerated: Bose's marriage to Emilie Schenkl is called “the divine wedlock”.

Judgment: No Aircrash, No Death (2010) is a compendium of records and stories about Netaji's widely reported death in Formosa in an aircrash. The burden of the book is that both the aircrash and the death were figments of Japan's – and Netaji's – imagination and that in fact Bose escaped to Russia, then made his way to India. (With Japan collapsing in the war, the British were planning to arrest Bose. Which would explain his eagerness to avoid landing in Japan).

These are not books* in the modern idiom, with style and polish making for pleasurable reading. But they contain historically important material. Judgment, in particular, marshalls evidence to show that Bose lived as “Pardewala Baba” in Naimisharanya in UP and as Gumnami Baba in Faizabad and Ayodhya until he died in September 16, 1985.

Many of the details have appeared in newspapers and books. There have been several commissions of inquiry as well although it was known that Jawaharlal Nehru was ambivalent about Bose (some say hostile) and wanted the aircrash story to stick. According to the just-published India's Biggest Cover-up by Anuj Dhar, British intelligence did not believe reports of Bose's death, but Indian officials suppressed that part of Britain's input.

Judgment says papers received by Nehru indicated that Netaji flew from Saigon to Diren in Manchuria in August 1945 in a Japanese bomber, then drove in a waiting jeep towards Russian territory. There is also a letter purportedly written by Nehru to British Prime Minister Attlee saying that “Subhas Chandra Bose, your war criminal, has been allowed to enter Russian territory by Stalin.... a clear treachery by the Russians”.

According to this book, Gumnami Baba would talk at length to visitors from behind a curtain. He would refer to little known roads and localities in Berlin, Tokyo, Kabul, Singapore. He would mention details about world leaders such as “Churchill could not pronounce the sound S”. Among papers catalogued after his death were photocopies of letters written and received by Netaji. Photographs of Netaji's parents were said to have been in the Baba's rooms. It was said that Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi knew all about him and the District Administration in Faizabad took care to ensure the Baba's privacy.

The book reminds us that it was Hitler who suggested that Netaji travel from Germany to Asia in a submarine to avoid the risk of air travel. The Japanese naval command objected, saying civilians could not travel in a warship in wartime. The Germans said that Bose was “by no means a private person, but Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Liberation Army”. In a risky rendezvous off Madagaskar, Bose was transferred to a Japanese sub.
A passage quoted from Justice P. B. Chakraborty shows that in Attlee's assessment, Mahatma Gandhi had “minimal” impact on British policies. The final decision to “leave India in a hurry” was due to the “activities of Subhas Bose which weakened the very foundations of the attachment of the Indian land and naval forces to the British Government” (Attlee, a guest at the Calcutta Raj Bhavan in 1956, mentioned this directly to Justice Chakraborty who was then the Acting Governor).

The historical value of information pertaining to the life and death of Subhas Bose cannot be denied. Yet there is no definitive book on the subject. One reason is the Government's insistence that the papers in its possession are “top secret”. Civilised countries declassify the topmost secrets after a certain period of time. India's policy of secrecy only leads to twisted histories. Even on the India-China war, we only have a biased Englishman's version.

  • Published by Lotus Press, New Delhi. The books were made available to this column by reader Channamallappa Patil Rotnadgi.

Monday, July 9, 2012

BJP can either show guts in Karnataka, or be seen as promoting corruption

Crippled by corruption, Karnataka is now brutalised by blackmail. Corruption was the collective contribution of all parties. What the Congress carried on quietly, the JD (S) took up with gusto and BJP turned into a celebration. Blackmail is the exclusive contribution of the BJP. Congressmen can't think of it because they shudder before their High Command. In the BJP, the High Command shudders before Yeddyurappa. Yeddyurappa's victory is BJP's tragedy – and Karnataka's misfortune.

Look at the misfortune first. Historically one of India's best-governed states, Karnataka witnessed audacious misuse of power from the day BJP's first Chief Minister took office. He and some of his colleagues focussed on illegal land transactions as a major activity of government. The principal financiers of the party, the Bellary lobby, took to plain plundering of the state's good earth in violation of many laws. Wounded by its keepers, Karnataka bled.

When half a dozen ministers including the Chief Minister were jailed, prudence demanded a moment's pause. The BJP as a party and the state government as a constitutional entity should have re-looked at where they were going. They didn't. Instead, they mounted a show of defiance, politicians looking for loopholes in the law and the Bellary Brotherhood making a suspected bid to bribe a judge. The judge landed in jail in a demonstration of the ugliness of today's politics.

The neglect of governance could not have happened at a more inopportune moment. The state was in the grip of a serious drought, but Water Resources Minister Bommai had no time to bother about it. Farmers were facing starvation, but Agriculture Minister Katti was busy with resignation games. A grand show was held a couple of months ago to attract big-ticket investments to the state. Industrialists were upset that not a file moved since the show because Industries Minister Nirani was in the plot to topple the Chief Minister.

All this to satisfy one man's ambition. So all-consuming was Yeddyurappa's passion for power that even after coming out of jail, he acted as though nothing untoward had happened. He spent his not negligible resources to keep a few dozen MLAs on his side. This support base was a weapon with which he threatened the party bosses in Delhi, knowing well that the bosses would go to any length to see that the BJP did not lose Karnataka. Although his threats were effective, Yeddyurappa knew that he was too tainted to become Chief Minister in one go. He had a solution to that problem too. He found in foe-turned-friend Jagadish Shettar the fittest person to become the Manmohan Singh of Karnataka, and let him, Yeddyurappa, be the Sonia Gandhi of Karnataka.

The puzzle is that the BJP's leaders in Delhi do not see that approving Yeddyurappa's scheme is equal to approving corruption. They are said to condone Yeddyurappa's record including the jailing so as to ensure the allegiance of the Lingayat community. First of all, will the BJP really gain by doing what no party has openly done before, namely, split Karnataka into Lingayats (17 percent), Vokkaligas (15 percent) and others (68 percent)? Secondly, how do they know that the silent majority of Lingayats will accept the position that they have no leader other than the second most tainted politician in Karnataka's history (after Janardhana Reddy)? This is a community that gave India one of its noblest philosophical creeds. It has a proud public record and several eminent leaders.

On the other hand, a principled stand against the threat politics of Yeddyurappa could give the BJP a swing in its favour. Yeddyurappa's flaunted support base is sustained by the feeling among BJP legislators that his bullying will put him back in power. Call that bluff and the support will melt away. The Congress and the JD (S) are in a mess, which gives the BJP a reasonable chance to beat them at the next election. But the rivals have a propaganda plank that is powerful: that the BJP promotes corruption officially. The BJP can demolish that plank. All it needs is some guts.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Finally, tennis too falls from grace, but Sania takes a civilised stand

Cricket was a gentlemen's game. We turned it into a game of fixers and philanderers. Tennis was a game of excellence where individuals displayed the strength of their character and the charm of their civilisation. We are turning it into an ego theatre, incompetent officials providing the props. We seem to have a special talent to turn anything we touch into dirt.

Cricket may have gone beyond redemption. The money has become so big that the politicians will never let go of it. Which means the game can never rise above the sordid coalition dharma of Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley and Rajiv Shukla, the brooding spirit of Lalit Modi looming behind them. Badminton is in the clutches of administrative pharisees who threw out the likes of Prakash Padukone; it is saved from ruin only by the gutsiness of a Jwala Gutta and the innocence of a Saina Nehwal. Athletics is in the doldrums, officials often outnumbering athletes on tours and cornering all the goodies. In all sports arenas, politicians prosper, players don't.

Tennis has a noble pedigree which makes its fall from grace particularly sad. Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, Jaideep Mukherjee and Vijay Amritraj were gentlemen's gentlemen – on court and off it. Amritraj, a master of public relations, was known as “Mr Nice Guy”. In fact every one of them was Mr Nice Guy, never succumbing to John McEnroe kind of tantrums or Serena Williams type dramatics. They did not win the grandslams, but they won admiration for their sportsmanship.

Leander Paes won many crowns, but hardly the respect of his team mates. In 2008 four Davis Cup players refused to carry on if Paes remained the captain. Their main complaint was that he played to get all the credit for himself and did not show the team spirit expected of a captain. Rohan Bopanna was one of the four. Another, Prakash Amritraj, said of Paes: “This man has taken the joy away from playing the Davis Cup”. Has he also taken the joy out of playing in the Olympics? Following Mahesh Bhupathi's refusal to partner Paes in London, the Tennis Association tried to move Vishnu Vardhan as Paes' partner. Paes was initially contemptuous of the idea because Vardhan was ranked 206. When Paes was a low-ranked junior, the reigning Ramesh Krishnan had welcomed him as a partner and encouraged him. The culture has changed.

Not that Mahesh Bhupathi is a saint in saint's robes. He and Leander Paes made the best doubles team in the history of Indian tennis, but never were two sportsmen more unsportsmanlike in their attitude to each other – not even Harbhajan Singh and Sreeshanth. And never did any other sportsmen have such dominating fathers controlling things. Harbhajan's father didn't appear on television to explain why his son slapped Sreeshanth. Nor did Sreeshanth's father issue a statement explaining why his son cried.

But we have Paes senior demanding that Sania Mirza give a written undertaking to partner Leander in mixed doubles at the Olympics if Leander is to partner the lower-ranked Vishnu Vardhan in the men's doubles. In this low-ranked display of oneupmanship, the most graceful performance was Sania Mirza's. She had the dignity to say that, although she preferred Mahesh Bhupathi, she was ready to partner Leander Paes in the larger interests of the country.

She said more. She said it all in a wisely worded and beautifully crafted statement. She recalled her winning a silver for India in the 2010 Asian Games in partnership with Vishnu Vardhan. She told Leander that Vishnu would go one better if he were teamed up with someone as good as Leander. And she said: “What I find disillusioning is the humiliating manner in which I was put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis … This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country”.

Bravo, Sania.