Monday, September 24, 2012

We are back to the numbers game again: Sonia – Mamata + Mayawati = Democracy

We have had good governments and bad governments since independence. This is the first time we are having a government suspended in midair, unable to go up to heaven or come down to earth. In modernistic terms, it is comparable to the weightlessness astronauts experience inside space shuttles, a sort of floating, drifting existence.

 Is democracy punishing us for playing tricks with it? We pretend, and tell the world, that the Manmohan Singh Government is in power in our country. But it is the Sonia Gandhi Government that is really in power and – here comes another trick – Sonia Gandhi is neither accessible nor accountable. The result is confusion about where, what, which is the Government.

According to insiders, the Government is made up of advisers.  And they come in different shapes with different ideas. One version is that Sonia Gandhi heeded the advice of her trusted A.K.Antony and took a stand against reforms like FDI. So the Manmohan Singh Government took a stand against reforms. Then a new Minister took over the Finance portfolio. Now Sonia Gandhi heeded the advice of her trusted P. Chidambaram and took a stand in favour of reforms like FDI. So the Manmohan Singh Government took a stand in favour of reforms. Half of India cheered, the other half took to the streets.

Now one ally has left the Government  in a  huff. In normal circumstances, this should have been a relief to the Government because Mamata Banerji is not meant to be a democrat, let alone an ally. She is a banyan tree under which nothing else can grow. But these are not normal times, so politicians are out with their calculators to play addition and subtraction games.

This is the tragedy of our lives. After 65 years of adult franchise, politics has been reduced to a game of calculators, of pluses and minuses. Sonia minus Mamata plus Mulayam plus Mayawati minus Patnaik plus three gas cylinders minus Walmart equals democracy. The tragedy becomes farce when we realise that one set of permutations is as cynical as another set of combinations. Mayawati against whom charges are pending, becomes the saviour of the Union Government. What charges will matter in such a situation? What justice will prevail?

The BJP cries hoarse about the omissions and commissions of the UPA Government. Quite right. But what about its own omissions and commissions when it was in power? Today it calls for a nation-wide hartal against FDI in retail. What was its position on FDI when it was leading the NDA Government? Do the country's interests change depending on which party is in power? Democracy fails when there is no real choice before voters.
One advantage of the Government suddenly becoming reformist – FDI in retail is to be followed by FDI in pharmaceuticals, which is another can of  worms – is that headline writers have forgotten the so-called Coalgate. This  confirms ruling politicians' view that the fuss about corruption will go away if you ignore it long enough. The economy is slowing? The desperate are turning to crime on the one hand and communalism on the other? The borders are restless? Ignore them all, they’ll go away.

The attention of all the players is now elsewhere. The  BJP's focus is on whether a no-confidence motion would be more effective than a vote on the FDI bill in Parliament. Mamata Banerji's sole focus is how to keep the  Communists away in West Bengal whatever happens to the country. Mayawati's focus is on avoiding an election until the euphoria over Mulayam's victory in UP passes off. Mulayam Singh’s focus is on having a general election immediately.

In the midst of this merrygoround, prices of everyday necessities rise to record levels in direct response to petroleum price increases. Voters and taxpayers are caught in a pincer movement – between self-serving politicians and the unalterable laws of economics.  When privations mix with frustrations of this kind, explosive situations  develop in normal societies. Are we a normal society?

Monday, September 17, 2012

JRD is dead. So is Lalit Kala Akademi. Sinners win. We're like that only.

 Air-India is thinking of selling its art collection, one of the finest treasures in India. A rough estimate by officials  is that its monetary value may be around Rs 350 crore. This will be financially insignificant  to a company which has a debt of Rs 43,777 crore and accumulated losses (in the last five years) of Rs 27,700 crore. So why are they selling the family jewels?

It must be, primarily, the plebeianism of the  government mind. That was what reduced Air-India from the proud flag-bearer it was in J.R.D. Tata's days to the icon of incompetence it became in  the hands   of politicians and bureaucrats. That was also what took some of our universities  and institutions like Lalit Kala Akademi from glory to ignominy. It takes quality  to produce quality. For many years now the quality that made India bright and beautiful has been on the decline.

It was  quality  that helped Air-India rule the air waves in the early days. JRD's professionalism – after all, he was India's first licensed pilot – made the airline respected. Commercial Director Bobby Kooka's flair made it beloved. Kooka was one of the movers behind the art collection. The frontline collector was Jal Cowasji, Air-India's publicity chief. He was a recognised art connoisseur and was encouraged by the management to buy and commission works of art. Air-India's offices in the leading cities of the world became famous for their specially-commissioned murals by Indian artists.

Naturally Air-India became a patron of the soon-to-be-celebrated masters who constituted the Progressive Artists Group of the 1950s Bombay. People like M.F.Husain, K. H. Ara and B. Prabha would be given free tickets in lieu  of paintings.  Air-India also collected antiques, old clocks, jewellery and studio photography.

The general public  got a taste of the treasure  in 2008 when Air-India brought out a coffee-table book (Mapin Publishing) with 201 colour illustrations and analyses by four experts. It is a feast of a book. But it was also a sad reminder – that only a couple of generations  ago we had cultivated minds that could think of collecting and preserving such exquisite achievements of the human imagination, and that we have lost it.

What we have instead are destroyers. They flourish in a cynically corrupt political environment, as is evident from the continuing Lalit Kala Akademi  scandal. This 58-year old institution has held no exhibition since 2003, there is no inventory of works, many works have disappeared and diversion of funds is rampant. The main culprit is known and has been publicly named.  The Akademi's  last chairman, Ashok Vajpeyi, issued a long order in 2011 relieving the man, Secretary Sharma, of his post. The Legal Department of the Ministry of Culture cancelled the order and reinstated Sharma.

An acting chairman took over for a period of six months ending July this year. This was  Balan Nambiar who not only endorsed Vajpeyi's  assessment of the Secretary but went public about it. Saying that the Akademi's  main problems were “dishonesty, cheating, mismanagement and swindling of finances”, Nambiar described the Secretary as “the one individual who has systematically destroyed the Akademi over the past decade. His ten years as the Secretary is the worst  period of the Akademi”.
Ashok Vajpeyi is a distinguished poet and critic whose reputation as a culture administrator is enhanced by his experience as a civil servant. Balan Nambiar is an internationally  renowned multimedia  artist. How is it that such authorities are upstaged by  petty wirepullers  and their petty godfathers in the Ministry of Culture? How is it that the Minister of Culture  has no eyes to see what all others see? Why is it that the Vajpeyis  and the Nambiars of today, like the JRDs of yesterday, are cast aside for parasites to prosper?

To ask such questions is like asking why Suresh Kalmadi was kept at the helm of Commonwealth Games even after he had shamed the country before the eyes of the world. The answer to all  questions is the same: We are like that only.

Monday, September 10, 2012

With irresponsible MPs, arrogant MLAs, we stand as a disgraced nation

MPs deliberately wasting an entire session at a monetary  cost alone of Rs 170 crore. Dozens of MLAs  going on private pleasure trips abroad  at public expense.  Never has democracy  been so openly disgraced in our country. If there is  anything more offending than these acts,  it is parties putting the blame on one another. All of them are really the same. All of them are irresponsible and unethical when it comes to spending taxpayer's money on their private agendas.

Currently a 17-member team from Karnataka, many of them with families in attendance, is visiting South American countries with a thoughtful stopover in Dubai.  Eighty MLAs from Maharashtra are rearing to land in Europe in a month or so. If they went quietly  without too many pretensions, the public outrage would have been less. But they display arrogance in justifying their indulgence. One freebooter from Karnataka  even argued that their junket expenses were nothing compared to the expenses on  terrorist Ajmal Kasab. How obnoxious can politicians get in their insensitivity.

The disregard for public opinion must be due to elections being decided not by voters but by courtesy of party bosses, financiers and sundry fixers. The few leaders who show lip sympathy for public opinion make lame excuses. “I am helpless because the Speaker had cleared the trip”, said Karnataka's Chief Minister. But the Chief Minister is a member of the special board, along with the Speaker and some others, who approve proposals like  junkets. Besides, after the way  B.S. Yeddyurappa ran the Government, no one will say that the Chief Minister of Karnataka is helpless in any situation. It is the state that is helpless before a chief minister.

The Congress and JD (S) leaders blamed the Government for allowing the legislators to go. But what about their own party people? The Karnataka team already in South America includes six Congress MLAs and two from the JD (S). Why did not the two party  high commands   order  them to stay home?

MLAs forget party labels and act in unison when it comes to their own privileges and emoluments. They are law makers with constitutional  authority and if they make laws that suit only them, the rest of us have no way of stopping  them. The recent move – hopefully abandoned since – to make Air-India's pilots and station managers attend personally to the comforts of travelling MPs is still fresh in memory.

Karnataka MLAs forgot their party differences and  collaborated early on to pass a rule that an MLA was entitled to one foreign and two domestic trips during his term. This was bad enough since it had no purpose other than giving MLAs  a free jaunt at taxpayer's expense. Then they went and expanded the rule, making two foreign trips part of an MLA's “rights”. In their generosity  to themselves, they also ruled that  (a) they did not have to submit all the bills of expenditure and (b) they did not have to submit a report on their study.
That made “study tours” a great convenience. No report means more freedom to study shopping patterns in  Lima, Peru and attractions in the entertainment quarter of Rio de Janeiro. Not too many bills means yet more freedom to squander the Rs 20,000 allowance they get per day in foreign exchange. The allowance of course is from the public exchequer. In Moscow the study tour can become a teaching tour with our MLAs  instructing Vladimir Putin on how to end dissidence through the art of resort politics, an Indian speciality. There's no dissidence that cannot be erased with a few crores – even in rubles.

The Speaker and Chief Minister of Karnataka are said to have told MLAs to cancel forthcoming junkets. Don't be fooled. What they mean is postpone by a couple of months by which time they hope the people will have forgotten the current furore. These are types who believe that squeezing the country is their right. Who will save us from these turbulent priests of evil?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How about Abolishing the Parliament? Loss is nil. And look at the savings


It's not just Parliament that is paralysed. India is paralysed.  At one level, bills are stuck, files don't move. At another, eyes are shut, minds are closed. All that happens is: Politicians get their allowances and their perks without let or hindrance. Galbraith saw a  functioning anarchy in the 1960s. Today, even as an anarchy, we are unable to function.

The irony is that what party leaders say of their opponents is absolutely true. Except  that it applies as much to them as to their opponents. Consider Sonia Gandhi's charges. “Stalling Parliament is a matter of shame and regret”. True of the BJP today, true of the Congress yesterday. “Blackmailing has become the bread and butter of that party”. True of the BJP today, of the Congress yesterday.

Consider the BJP leaders' charges. “A staple diet of the Congress is kickbacks and commissions”. True of the Congress today, of the BJP yesterday, and of the BJP state governments today.  “Coal reserves distribution is nothing but chori”. True of the Congress today and true of the BJP yesterday and today if we replace “coal reserves” with iron ore and  denotified lands. It is true of the NCP, Samajwadi, JDU, DMK and the rest of them, too. Everywhere in everything, there is nothing but chori.

Let us not forget how the stalling of Parliament originated as a parliamentary practice. This “matter of shame and regret” was invented  by Sanjay Gandhi.  In the 1977 election following the Emergency, he and his mother were defeated. In the 1980 elections they won and Sanjay went all out to show his might. As a 1987 book put it: “Sanjay Gandhi inducted [into Parliament] young, ambitious, inexperienced rowdies whose contempt for procedure and penchant for violent means” destroyed the character  of Parliament. (In Pursuit of Lakshmi. By Lloyd and Rudolph).

Shouting down opposition MPs was the daily routine of the rowdy brigade.  That culture has continued.  Recall the famous TV footage that showed Sonia Gandhi exploding in anger when L.K. Advani described  UPA-2 as illegitimate. She asked her partymen to stand up and attack Advani.  Dozens of obedient Congressmen stood up and shouted and disrupted Advani. Sonia acted like Sanjay Gandhi.

Of all the disruption campaigns we have seen in the recent past, the BJP's current one is the most puerile.  Its stand is: “The Prime Minister must resign. We won't let Parliament function until he does”. What kind of parliamentary practice is this? Next time they might as well say: “Voters must give us a majority. Or we won't allow the legislature to meet”.

Yashwant Sinha is one of the few balanced men in the BJP's front benches. Even he was reduced to compiling a list of the occasions when the Congress prevented Parliament from functioning .  As if one wrong justifies another wrong.  In fact, the very transgressions of the Congress gave the BJP a golden opportunity  to show how it was different. If the BJP had steadfastly supported the idea of Parliament proceeding with dignified debates, it could have won a great moral victory. But to do that, a party has to have a certain level of civilisation and a willingness  to put the national interest above its partisan interests. The tragedy of India is that we do not have a single party today that  puts the national interest first. 

Which raises the question: Why do we need a non-functioning Parliament? There was a logically thought-out political philosophy in the 19th century that suffered from the name given to it  – Anarchism. But its premises were  sound. It argued, for example, that people were benign by nature but corrupted by government, that government was intrinsically  evil and it was preferable and possible to abolish it. We need not go that far, but it seems undoubtedly preferable to abolish a Parliament that spends national wealth at the rate of Rs 26,000 a minute and yet refuses to function. To what purpose is this waste?