Monday, June 29, 2015

MLAs pass laws to put themselves above the law. Our democracy is only for the Pappu Yadavs

We can sing hallelujahs for democracy all our lives, but democracy will remain a system where some people are more equal than others. We don't have to look at the magical life of Lalit Modi to see this reality. Look at Pappu Yadav. On a flight from Patna to Delhi, he refused to switch off his mobile phone, refused to put his seat upright for landing, threw food in the aisle and threatened the cabin crew with his chappal. Can any of us get away with such behaviour? Pappu Yadav did. The airline took no action other than issuing a guarded statement. The security force said nobody filed any complaint.

Forget Pappu Yadav's criminal background and jail terms. He is an MP which makes him more equal than mere taxpayers.

MPs cutting across party lines have passed laws giving themselves all kinds of special privileges. Now we learn that they get a masala dosa in Parliament canteen for six rupees when any self-respecting Udupi restaurant will charge at least 20. When we pay ten rupees for a bowl of curds, remember we are subsiding Pappu Yadav to get his curds for three rupees.

Law makers in our country are the ones who are more equal than all others -- even when they misuse laws for their own benefit. Karnataka recently passed bills to raise ministers' salaries from Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 and MLAs' from Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. Don't be misled by the modesty of the latter figure. MLAs had their constituency allowance raised from Rs 15,000 to Rs 40,000. There are also sumptuary allowance, travel reimbursement, per diem payment, hotel allowance (with no limit on the number of days allowed), transport allowance, house rent allowance, house maintenance allowance, conveyance allowance to cover petrol expenses and a jump in pension from Rs 15,000 to Rs 40,000 per month.

These increases were voted into law without debate, unanimously. This was at a time when garbage was piling up in many streets in Bangalore because the Government had no money to pay the cleaning staff, when teachers had not been appointed in government schools for lack of funds. The opposition parties attacked the Government for defaulting on these payments, but when the salaries and allowances bill came up, they joined happily with the ruling party members to enrich themselves. Those of us who pay taxes to make all this possible can never be their equals, democracy or no democracy.

The selfish and unprincipled action of Karnataka legislators pales before the selfish and unprincipled action of Maharashtra legislators. Remember, Maharashtra Assembly has a record that puts it on par with UP. Who can forget a police officer stopping an overspeeding MLA on the Bandra-Worli sealink and the MLA later getting the officer to the Assembly premises and thrashing him there? The diligent officer was found guilty, the guilty MLA pronounced innocent.

This time the initiative has come from the Maharashtra Government itself. It has amended the Criminal Procedure Code in such a way that the police can no longer take action against a legislator, or start an investigation, without the Assembly Speaker's consent. This is an open and unashamed declaration that legislators are above the law. It is like a law that says you cannot question Pappu Yadav's actions without Pappu Yadav's consent.

If this is the stage we have reached after 68 years of democracy under a constitution that gives power to the people, is it any wonder that a journalist was set on fire purportedly under ministerial auspices in Shahjanpur, UP, and the forensic report said that it was self-immolation? Don't be surprised if the police inquiry now reveals that the journalist had tried to set fire to the minister. Is it any wonder that a senior minister in Jammu & Kashmir encouraged his security guards to assault a journalist? The man had protested against the guards passing nasty comments about his wife. The police took the predictable position that "we are getting complaints from both sides" and the matter would be investigated.

Nothing will be investigated. Because the guilty are more equal than the victims. Whether it is CBI or Vigilance or the police, they catch only politicians like Aam Aadmi Party's Jitender Singh Tomar. It's not the offence -- flaunting a fake degree -- that matters, but who commits the offence. Swami Ranganathananda once said, "all normal evils proceed from the primary evil of lust". He could have added that all primary evils proceed from politicians' greed.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Hand politics over to our sports administrators -- And we'll cut Pakistan to Aam Aadmi level

Sports produces the best politicians. Look at Sepp Blatter who took football to great heights while taking himself to greater heights, the objective of all politicians. N. Srinivasan did the same thing with Indian cricket though there has been a problem or two lately; perhaps his political skill vis a vis Blatter's are like Rahul Gandhi's vis a vis Indira Gandhi's. On the other hand, Lalit Modi's skills surpass those of Indira. If these great talents were in charge of our politics instead of our sports, India would have by now overtaken China as a military power and brought Pakistan to the level of the Aam Aadmi Party's Government in Delhi.

The latest TV shoutings make one thing clear: Lalit Modi is the Sepp Blatter of India. Or should we put it the other way -- that Sepp Blatter is the Lalit Modi of international football? Either way it will be a compliment to Blatter for the Swiss is no match to the Indian when it comes to networking on the one hand and daring on the other. Compare the way they spoke when challenged. When top members of his team were arrested on charges brought by the US Government and Blatter won re-election in the heat of that crisis, he said: "I am being held accountable for the current storm. Ok, so be it". When Lalit Modi was caught in the storm of multiple controversies, he said: "This is war. So bring it on.... The games have just begun". That's the mark of a man who deserves to be at least shadow prime minister in England.

The Congress saw the Lalit affair as a golden opportunity to exploit. After all the case smelled of corruption, criminalities, black money. Besides, the way an Indian on the wanted list received extraordinary help from the country's Foreign Minister and a Chief Minister looked like a juicy scandal. For the Congress's misfortune, however, none of the other opposition groups joined it. People like Lalu Prasad even asked critics not to harass Sushma Swaraj. And Anand Sharma as knight-errant for the Congress made the Congress case weaker; his self-righteous style of delivery puts off people instead of winning them.

Nonetheless, the impact of the Lalit Modi case on public perceptions cannot be ignored. The stigma of cronyism and conflict of interest can be fought off in the daily duels of politics, but it will not be easily erased from the public mind. To that extent critics of the Government will be able to say that the gap between the ethics of the previous government and the ethics of the present government has narrowed if not disappeared altogether. The BJP's own L.K.Advani drove it home when he said that "forces that can crush democracy have become stronger... I don't have the confidence that [the Emergency] cannot happen again".

Power affects the functioning of the mind. Some in UP think that, once elected, they have the licence even to get opponents murdered. At more civilised levels power-wielders still tend to see themselves above the rules that apply to others. The BCCI, with leaders like Sharad Pawar at the helm, conducted itself as an entity that made its own rules; it decided, for example, that the Right to Information Act did not apply to it -- and that was that. The same way, FIFA ran the affairs of football as though it was answerable only to Blatter and his cronies. Smaller sports bodies in India also do the same thing. Ask Mahesh Bhupathi for little known details of how tennis is run. Ask Jwala Gutta about badminton.

Cricket and football stand out because the scale of corruption is so immense. American prosecutors charge that football is steeped in a culture of "rampant, systematic and deep-rooted" corruption. Bribes taken by FIFA officials were in excess of US $ 150 million over 24 years. The scandal led to Blatter resigning immediately after he was re-elected. But now there is talk of his withdrawing the resignation and carrying on. Even the very rich cannot easily shake off the lure of power and the easy money it brings.

The Blatters of the world never say die. Lalit Bhanot, the man who was jailed along with Suresh Kalmadi in the Commonwealth Games corruption case, has just been elected Asian Athletic Federation Vice President. At this rate Kalmadi may become sports minister in the next Congress Government. For Lalit Modi presidentship of the BCCI may now be too small a job. Rashtrapati Bhavan?

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Army's hit against rebels was masterly. But there are things a Govt. must keep to itself

The wise keep their own counsel, the foolish boast. Did we forget this timeless principle in our very moment of triumph? India's commando operation against insurgent groups in Myanmar was skilful in planning and brilliant in execution. It was also unambiguous in the messages it conveyed -- that attacks on our soldiers would not go unpunished, that insurgents who thought they were in safe havens because they were outside the border would have to think again. To the extent that decisions were taken at the Prime Minister's level, the operation also reflected a toughening of India's official position regarding enemies who harass our border forces.

All this is to the good. For the new toughness to be effective, however, circumspection is essential. Wise strategists have told us that intentions and tactics should never be made public. They have also explained why. "Don't let the enemy figure out how to prepare. The best of plans is the one that is unknown", said Sun Tzu in his The Art of War. If we do not want to listen to Chinese advice, let's turn to Chanakya. In simple Sanskrit, he told us: "Manassaa chintitam karyam, vachsaa na prakaashyet... Never leak out well thought-out intentions; the implementation of them should also be achieved without any fanfare".

But we have had only fanfare ever since the commandos returned to base. Ministers and spokesmen -- with channel masters in excited attendance -- beat their drums and flexed their muscles, gave details of what we did and how we did it, described how our troops and helicopters went inside Myanmar territory, "annihilating" two entire camps. If anybody missed the point, our chest-thumbing Tarzans said this was a message "to all countries".

This was an exhibition to all countries of our political naivette. By contrast, the Army's own official statement said, simply, that it had engaged two groups of insurgents "along the Indo-Mynamar border". The Army respected Myanmar's sovereignty while the politicians did not. We are lucky that we have a history of cooperation with Myanmar in tackling militant groups who roam the border regions. This time also, there is evidence to believe that Myanmar did what it could to help. But that does not mean that we should make it diplomatically difficult for Myanmar to hold its head high before the world. They protested (through diplomatic channels) and subsequently India has played down its "hot pursuit" claims. What message has this avoidable faux pas conveyed? We are going to need cooperation from Myanmar and from Nepal and Bangladesh and Bhutan and Sri Lanka and Mali to tackle crisis situations. They will all now be wary about India's tendency to blow its own trumpet.

When our spokesmen bragged about the message to "all countries", they meant of course Pakistan.Junior Minister in the Information Ministry, Rajyavardhan Rathore rammed it in by saying that "all countries" included "even groups within countries that harbour terrorist intentions". A textbook case of breaking Sun Tzu's precept and giving strategists in Pakistan plenty of time to figure out their preparations and action plans. Some days ago the Defence Minister himself leaked out what was our manassaa chintitam karyam when he said that India would use terrorist groups to strike at terrorist groups elsewhere who try to attack us. Let us do that by all means, but no mature country will say this sort of thing in public. Insurgency by armed rebels is not a problem that can be solved with one "surgical" strike. In fact it can be further complicated if that one strike is handled in ways that motivate the rebels more strongly and provoke their abettors into more bellicosity. In this case the Army's professionalism has been defeated by the politicians' amateurishness.

Somewhere along the current alignment of power, there is a fault line. In the past also Indian forces have carried out operations beyond the border with Myanmar and the Line of Control in Kashmir. These raids served their purpose and our adversaries took it in their stride quietly, for we made no public posturings to hurt their pride. This time even the scattered rebel groups in the Northeast have sworn vengeance. A great deal of damage has been done by the indiscreet strutting of some of our leaders. To trumpet India's power, for example, Rajyavardhan Rathore also used a twitter hashtag #56inRocks, an obvious reference to the Prime Minister's chest size. Petty praise does more harm than good to Narendra Modi. Big bombast does more harm than good to India.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Mangoes or masala -- we are forced to eat poisons; now noodles. Is there anyone we can trust?

Whoever thought that noodles -- our friendly neighbourhood noodles -- would suddenly turn threatening? These are dangerous times: Mangoes are ripened with ammonia; vegetables are treated with carcinogenic pesticides; chicken is injected with overdoses of antibiotics; fish is preserved with formaldehyde, the chemical they use to embalm corpses; masala powders are adulterated with dung, sand, saw dust and more. Is it necessary for commerce to be so diabolic? Where can we turn for the simple decencies that ensure the simple safeties of life? Whom can we trust?

The sense of helplessness is the greater because the letdown over Maggi noodles has come from Nestle. This is not just another corporation. The world's largest food company, Nestle has products that are household names -- Nescafe, Nespresso, KitKat. In New York-based Reputation Institute's 2013 list of "global companies with the best reputation", it became ninth. (Others from the top were BMW, Walt Disney, Rolex, Google, Daimler, Sony, Microsoft and Canon.)

But then, Nestle has also figured in the list of "the world's least responsible companies" and "the world's most boycotted companies". It was the fourth most boycotted after CocaCola, McDonald's and Nike. That was the aftermath of what many considered a cardinal sin on the part of Nestle. To promote its processed cow's milk, it launched an overtly aggressive publicity campaign, claiming that its product was equal in goodness if not better than mother's breast milk. That was the time when health experts and international agencies were promoting breastfeeding, especially in poor countries where infant death rates were high. These experts considered Nestle's campaign as unethical, especially since the company often had its sales representatives dressed up as nurses. A "Nestle Boycott" spread across many countries in 1977, three years after a book had come out under the title Baby Killer.

There were no adverse findings against Nestle's milk itself; it was the marketing people's claim that it can be given to babies instead of breast milk that turned the tables against the company. In the case of Maggi noodles, the product itself has been found faulty. Despite some typical to-ing and fro-ing (Kerala first said it was harmful, then said it was not; the unseasonal election heat in the state must have disrupted the lab technicians' mood), it seems rather clear that the noodles had problems. The Delhi Government was precise when it said it had "found upto 4.49 parts per million of lead" in the noodles against the permitted 2.5 ppm. The Central Government formally lodged a written complaint with the Disputes Redressal Commission. More than 1000 army and navy canteens took Maggi off the shelves until further orders.Denying all charges, Nestle said several samples found defective were past the expiry date. (So what were they doing in the stores?)

The prime suspect in Maggi as in all fast food items is monosodium glutamate, although Nestle says it does not directly use MSG. Even traces of MSG, direct or indirect, should be suspect because this is a "flavour enhancer", a magical effect achieved by stimulating the nervous system. Any chemical that can produce such an impact on the nervous system cannot be considered good. To say that no harmful effects have been scientifically established against MSG is like Sharad Pawar saying that endosulfan causing horrible deformities in humans is not proved. (MSG is continuously stimulating the nervous system of those who go in for "Indian Chinese" food in our so-called Chinese restaurants. Perhaps it is deserved punishment for patronising a travesty that is neither Indian nor Chinese, yet denigrates both cuisines).

Late last week a countrywide ban on Maggi coincided with the company's formal withdrawal of the product. Arguing that India followed testing systems different from the company's, Nestle chairman said, "We'll return". When they do Maggi will be a most diligently prepared noodle, ready to stand any test. Nestle will do its best to sustain Maggi which accounts for 30 percent of its sales in India, translating to Rs 1500 crore in revenue.

But the fight for food safety cannot end. Unhealthy practices are rampant. Out of 49,290 food products sampled by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in the first six months of 2014-15, 8469 were found adulterated. CocaCola was found to have pesticide residue in it leading to its ban even in Parliament premises. In Nestle's own baby milk powder a Coimbatore consumer alleges to have found worms. And there are our mango mafia and vegetables mafia. How do we live? Whom do we trust?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Our politicians shout, boast, do the rope trick. Luckily our anarchy is still functioning

Indian politics is becoming more and more like Indian news channels -- too loud, too self-obsessed and too deficient in substance. Channel culture is four people shouting at the same time and the anchor outshouting them all. Channels also claim "first on my channel" for items that are on half a dozen channels. Another claim is: "the most watched No. 1" and each channel quotes authoritative statistics to prove the claim. Only in India, the land of the rope trick, is it possible to have five channels each of which is No. 1.

Politicians flatter the channels by imitation -- outshouting one another, each claiming to be first with reform ideas, each quoting statistics and polls to prove that it is No. 1. Irrespective of party labels, those in power have a tendency to see that they, and they alone, are right. Hence the decision by Sonia Gandhi's Congress to turn P.V.Narasimha Rao into a non-person. Hence also the BJP line that Indians were ashamed of India for 60 years and became proud only a year ago. That is a rude summing up of Indians. The fact is that Indians were proud of their country always. Even politically, they were proud of India during the highlight years of Jawaharlal Nehru and after victory in the Bangladesh war. They were proud, too, when they defeated the Emergency. These cannot be erased by mere microphone oratory.

Indians were terribly ashamed of the mega scams that destroyed much of the country's soul during the Manmohan Singh - Sonia Gandhi years. They were not just ashamed, but angry. It was this anger that turned into votes against the Congress, a major factor behind the BJP's landslide victory last year. The moral is obvious: The people of India are fully aware of what is what and who is who. If politicians use them as an item to be toyed with in their propaganda campaigns, the people will take it out on them some day.

So politicians from all sides will do well to review their channel-like habit of exaggerated claims, constant shouting and holier-than-thou attitudes. Aam Aadmi's Arvind Kejriwal shouts that Narendra Modi is establishing a dictatorship in the country. Maybe, but Kejriwal was not exactly democratic when he booted out senior members of his party who asked for inner-party democracy. BJP's president declares that Rs 12 lakh crore worth of scams occurred during the UPA period. Maybe, but what was the combined figure of the scams under BJP's Yeddiyurappa in Karnataka and the ongoing Vyapam corruption scandal in Madhya Pradesh? What national purpose was served by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi saying that those who wanted to eat beef must go to Pakistan? It irritated even his own ministerial colleague, the Buddhist Kiren Rijiju. One of the coolest members of the Modi cabinet, Rijiju raised a question with an unstated parallel question that deserve attention: "Why", he asked, "do we need to say something against Hindus to become secular"? The parallel question is: "Why do we need to say something against non-Hindus to become Hindu"? If the commonsense behind these twin questions is absorbed by the politicians, our country will become mature enough to turn development from a slogan into an action programme.

But the chances are not very bright because the same people act as different animals in power and out of it. The BJP Government went into a wholesale ordinance regime, criticising the opposition for blocking the passage of bills. The party forgot that it had blocked entire sessions of Parliament when it was in the opposition. Even Arun Jaitley, one of the most brilliant minds in our country, does not, as a politician, want to see the iniquities of partisanship. Claiming that the Government had scored successes on all fronts, he asked the Congress to set aside political competition and back the Government. Just as the BJP, when in opposition, had set aside competition and backed the Congress Government? Do unto others as you want others do unto you.

Perhaps the problems lie with our kind of democracy. When a party is voted to power, it tends to believe that it has the right to do anything. They all ignore the spirit of the Constitution and the letter of the law to the extent they can. The judiciary itself is invaded, in crude powerplay as Indira Gandhi did, subtly as the present Government is doing. That we still have a functioning anarchy is a stroke of luck. Let's be grateful for small mercies.