Monday, January 25, 2016

Et tu, tennis! Gambling syndicates are invading the noble game. Is nothing sacred any more?

In sports, boxers earn the most. Floyd Mayweather's pickings last year was $ 300 million. To understand how big that is, we must look at footballers, the next biggest earners. Christiano Ronaldo made $ 80 million in 2015 and Lionel Messi $ 74 million, the two together accounting for just about half of Mayweather's harvest. By these standards, cricketers are paupers. M.S.Dhoni, the world's highest earner in that game, made a mere $ 23 million last year, a little over a quarter of Ronaldo's and less than what Mayweather gives away as tips.

What does this kind of money do to the stars? Does it make them wise or foolish? Mayweather wears a cap with three words prominently emblazoned on them -- Money. Power. Respect -- presumably his life's goals. He has a private jet for himself and another for his bodyguards. Is that power? He keeps a fleet of luxury limousines, all in white, at his Miami mansion and another fleet, in black, at his Las Vegas palace. Does that bring him respect? In fact significant segments of people ridicule him. The man knows what he wants, but not how to get it.

What does big money do to sports? Alas, it pushes them deeper and deeper into scandals. Boxing is known in America as the Red Light District of sports because of the involvement of mafia-backed syndicates. Organised football stinks to the high heavens. Last year seven officials of the governing body, FIFA, were arrested on charges of fraud, bribery and money laundering. FIFA President Sepp Blatter was banned from football for eight years.

Cricket management in India has been just as maleficent, but the big manipulators at the top escape without a scratch because they are ranking politicians or business tycoons; those who are punished are players, and that too, below the top level. The corruption and mismanagement during the Commonwealth Games shamed all of India, but the perpetrators remained shameless. After their jail terms, Suresh Kalmadi was named Life President of the Asian Athletics Association (though he lost the election to the President's post) while his fellow conspirator, Lalit Bhanot, was elected vice president.

Cricket went evil in India after it was reconfigured to become a money-spinning apparatus -- a television-based mass spectacle, aided and abetted by advertising and publicity brouhaha. Corruption seems directly linked to the mass appeal of a sport. The bigger the money, the bigger the scandals because the money attracts the syndicates. This seems to have caught up at last with tennis, the gentleman's game, played and nurtured as such till recently.

There is a dignity about tennis that is best exemplified by Wimbledon. Everything is so understated that the annual tournament does not even mention the word tennis; it's enough to say "The championships, Wimbledon". The organisation that runs it feels no need to mention "tennis" either; it's enough to say "The All England Club". For that matter, which other human activity avoids the term zero and says, instead, Love?

All that nobility and class have now been overtaken by allegations of match-fixing. Alerts about suspicious betting had been passed on to the authorities during the past decade, but to no effect. Among the suspects was a core group of 16 who reached the top 50 in these ten years. Many of them are said to be still playing in grand slam tournaments. What can be more damning to the reputation of a game? After every magnificent match, we will now wonder: Was there something behind it? Will the reigning champions, admired for their transparency as much as their skills, be affected by the polluted air?

Now that the scandal is out, we can see how easy it is to fix a tennis match: one solitary player is all that is needed. The motivation is also easy to provide. Tennis players' earnings are unbelievably uneven. The year Djokovic made $ 14 million, there was another player whose earnings were $ 36 (correct, no zeros following the 6). How many two- and three-digit earners can say no to a five-digit offer for losing a match?

With Russian and Italian gambling syndicates turning their attention to tennis, it may not be easy to keep the game clean. The top players play for rankings and for the glory of the game. They will not be stained -- hopefully. But what about others on the way to the top? It is becoming impossible to afford a conscience these days. Is nothing sacred any more? Et tu, Tennis!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Was it Indira Gandhi's insecurity complex that made her dictatorial and crippled India?

Was Indira Gandhi more despotic than the British? A Bihar Government website recently described her treatment of Jayaprakash Narayan as worse than colonial Britain's treatment of Mahatma Gandhi. The Congress Party made noises of righteous indignation, but what are the facts? There is enough on record to show that Indira took major decisions on the basis of what was good for her in the short term no matter what it meant for the country.

There is an issue-by-issue assessment of Indira's record by Ramakrishna Hegde. True, they were political opponents from the time of the famous Congress split in 1969 when Hegde took the side of his mentor S.Nijalingappa against the new Indira Congress. Later Hegde was one of the national leaders honoured with imprisonment during the Emergency. But Hegde was fundamentally an intellectual. That is why a speech he delivered before the Bangalore Social Science Forum in 1992 still remains a perceptive analysis of some major events of the Indira years. It makes frightening reading today.

Hegde's basic premise was that until the end of the Janata Government rule in 1979 and despite the Emergency, disruptive forces had not raised their heads in the country. Terrorism was unknown. Mass violence for political reasons had not happened. Regionalism and fundamentalism had not gained strength. By and large life was peaceful.

Then a series of catastrophic events occurred. As Hegde put it: "Suddenly Bhindranwale was discovered to create trouble for the Akali Dal Ministry in Punjab for the only reason that the Akali Dal was with the Janata Party. Bhindranwale having tasted blood became a Frankenstein monster. There were no disturbances in Kashmir until Farooq Abdullah's government was unconstitutionally dismissed through organised defection. The Bodo movement was created and nurtured in Assam as a counter force to the Assam Gana Parishad Government. Darjeeling was a tourist paradise. Subash Geising was discovered and encouraged to organise a violent movement against West Bengal's Left Front Government. LTTE had not infiltrated Tamil Nadu. These and many other problems that threaten the very survival of India as a united country started after Smt. Indira Gandhi came back to power".

It's when Hegde goes into the details of the cases that the diabolic nature of Indira's politics comes out. Just to get a few votes in Haryana and to punish Punjabi politicians who did not merge with the Congress, she kept Chandigarh the combined capital of two states, an artificiality that was a standing invitation to trouble. Things reached such a state that the Government in Delhi pitted one group of militants in Punjab against another group. Chandigarh remains the world's only capital that houses two competing governments.

In Jammu & Kashmir Indira and Rajiv played a more dangerous game. Although Farooq Abdullah initially tended to put J & K interests first, his love of power soon made him a willing camp-follower of Indira and the Congress. Sharing power with the Congress in 1986, he lost his credibility. The Congress, wanting the whole cake for itself, openly rigged the election in 1987. "Young supporters of the opposition Muslim United Front, became militants. Disillusioned with the ballot, they took to the bullet.... Pakistan could not have found a fertile ground for its operations if it were not for the policies of Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah."

Assam and much of the north-east turned into perennial war zones as a consequence of Indira-Rajiv moves to exploit the problems between locals and migrants. The All-Assam Students Union had gained wide popularity and the Congress's response was to polarise the population along irreconcilable linguistic-communal lines. Violence became endemic, some major tragedies like the Nellie massacre (3000 dead) attracting world attention. To gain electoral advantage for the Congress here and there, the highly sensitive north-east was turned upside down, endangering the national interest in multiple ways.

What made Indira so negative? It couldn't have been just love of family. Perhaps more serious attention needs to be paid to the insecurity complex she is believed to have suffered from. She was neglected by her father during her growing-up years, she resented her mother being humiliated for being a "country woman", and she was herself put down more than once by aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. All this might explain her turning to her sons and family retainers for protection and seeing political opposition as something to be destroyed. It might explain things, but never justify them. The selfishness of our leaders prevented India from achieving in six decades what China did in three.

Monday, January 11, 2016

We learned nothing from Mumbai's terror attack. Will we learn something from Pathankot?

At the political level New Delhi handled the Pathankot terrorist strike wisely. Instead of rushing into kneejerk reactions as before, the Prime Minister's chosen path of dialogue with Pakistan was reasserted. Pakistan was asked to take firm action against those linked to the attack. Nawaz Sharif's phone call to Narendra Modi promising investigation and action pointed to a cooperative mood at the political level in Pakistan. What that would mean in practice is far from clear, given the influence of terrorists groups in that country and the unpredictabilities of the hawk elements in their army.

What needs to be taken more seriously at this point is the weakness in our defensive armour that Pathankot has exposed yet again. Aspects of this weakness have been commented upon by security professionals and former military leaders. These and other views must be taken seriously by the decision-makers of the day so that next time terrorists strike -- as they certainly will -- the response can be decisive and quick.

It certainly was not quick this time. Apparently there was a tip-off by foreign intelligence agents of an impending attack. This did not seem to have been taken seriously enough. In the 26/11 attack on Mumbai also, foreign intelligence reports on suspicious boat movements on the Mumbai coast were not given sufficient importance. The shootout at the Taj Mahal Hotel brought out another flaw in the Indian character -- the impulse to claim credit in moments of crisis. There were commando leaders who spent more time appearing on TV and spreading the impression that they were the architects of victory. There were even local politicians who "inspected" the rubble in the Taj to show that they were in command.

Did similar oneupmanship cause delays in Pathankot? Military units present on the spot with specialised training in flushing out terrorists hiding in forests and fields were not called into action. Instead, NSG units were called in from Delhi although their expertise lay in close-up action and operations like hostage rescue. Among the military assets at Pathankot are para commandos of the army and rapid-action teams thoroughly familiar with the terrain. Yet they were not put in charge of the action. NSG commandos, unfamiliar with the territory and unequal to the action that was called for, ended up with high casualties. Why was the NSG given the upper hand and the more competent locally based army units kept on the sidelines?

Those looking for credit was quick to brief the Home Minister that terrorists had been eliminated in one day's swift action. The Home Minister went public with that claim -- only to cut a sorry figure as engagements with suddenly surfacing terrorists continued for four days. The Defence Minister admitted that there were lapses. The Home Secretary declared that there were no lapses.

This confusion of voices points to an alarming possibility: That we will learn nothing from Pathankot just as we learned nothing from Mumbai. There is no coordination at the top, let alone a system whereby one authorised official alone will brief the nation in crisis situations. There is also no attempt to put in place a unified operational command to tackle national emergencies. Political parties make it worse by jumping to partisan positions when the nation should stand as a united force. It is pathetic to watch television screens exploding with Congress spokesmen attacking the inept government and BJP spokesmen praising the brilliance of the government. These robotic party spokesmen are the curse of our country.

America needed only one terrorist attack to put in place, overnight as it were, an entirely new Home Security Department with sweeping powers. Its no-nonsense approach to security put restrictions on the civil liberties of citizens. But quickly its security and surveillance system became part of the American way of life. Something similar should have happened in India after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. But we are still talking and groping.

The time has come for the Prime Minister to take personal charge of domestic security issues even if its means a sidelining of overseas promotion of Indian goals. He has the power to break the tradition of bureaucratic inertia vis a vis terror threats. He has already shown imagination in calling retired foreign secretaries and security chiefs for what seems to be a running engagement. This initiative should be extended to include political parties. National security is a national responsibility, not a party matter. Those who stay in the middle of the road get run over.

Monday, January 4, 2016

MPs who have lost the nation's trust should not decide on their salaries or on a new building

They say the calendar has changed, that a new year has come into being. There is no sign of it in the way we live our lives. The same problems and vexations, the same cynicism and double standards from those who rule us, the same amoralities and selfishness continue to determine our lives. But also, thankfully, the same hope that tomorrow will somehow be better and that some day soon we shall overcome. Without that strand of optimism it would be impossible to live under a brand of politics that has gone unashamedly evil.

For now, we can still mark a mood shift by switching from intolerance debate to insensitivity debate. Our far-from-esteemed Parliament closed the year with one of its worst sessions in history. The cost of the washout was enormous. It takes Rs 2.6 crore to run the two houses for just one hour.

Just at this scandalous juncture, our far-from-esteemed MPs came up with two brainwaves: Double their salaries and allowances, and build a brand new Parliament House. This is what the poet meant when he said Good can imagine Evil, but Evil cannot imagine Good. The Indian politician, irrespective of the colour he flaunts, never wastes time thinking of what he can do for the country; he spends every waking moment figuring out what he can make the country do for him. The new proposals for MPs and for Parliament House underline the tyranny of the elected.

The AAP and the BJP, both elected, are today's most vicious enemies in the political arena. Yet they think and act alike when it comes to raiding the treasury. In early December the Delhi Assembly passed a bill raising MLAs' salaries 400 percent in one go. This, alongside generously increased allowances, would make Delhi MLAs the highest paid in the country. Within weeks, Parliament followed suit, a committee recommending 100 percent increase in MPs' salaries and a host of increased allowances and VIP privileges.

Ironically, the parliamentary committee was chaired by Yogi Adityanath, best known for patriotic thoughts such as "those who are against yoga must be drowned", and "Shahrukh Khan is no different from Pakistani terrorist Hafees Saeed". Apparently he is an expert on democracy's finances as well. Apart from doubling an MPs' salary, constituency allowance and secretarial allotment, he even recommended exemption for MPs from payment at toll-plazas. Strange are the ways in which an elected politician's mind works, whether he is sanyasi or freebooter, criminal or dynast.

Insensitivity is also behind the revival of the proposal that a new Parliament House be built. The Speaker used an interesting phrase to justify the proposal. The present building, she said, was showing "signs of distress". The whole country has been showing signs of distress at the way Parliament reduced itself to a shadow of what it was meant to be. Sanjay Gandhi began the process by bringing in street rowdies whose job was to shout down members he disliked. Thereafter blocking of complete sessions became an established practice, justified in the best constitutional and intellectual terms by Arun Jaitley when he was leading the blockade for the opposition. The idea was taken to farcical levels by the Congress in the last session. Are we to have a modern high-tech Parliament House so that it can be disrupted in greater comfort?

Our Parliament House is 85 years old. The British Parliament building is 145 years old, though it was repaired massively after bombings in the 1940s. Three years ago they started talking of "temporary relocation" to carry out large scale renovation that could take up to five years -- to fix leaking bathrooms and eliminate rats that have been found. But no one is talking of a new Parliament building. The magnificence of the Palace of Westminster on the banks of the Thames is not replicable. So is the sweeping grandeur of Delhi's circular masterpiece.

The attempt should be to preserve this architectural wonder and use it judiciously. We now have 790 MPs, a number that cannot be justified on any ground of democracy. A system that will keep MP strength at 500 will not only serve democracy better, but also reduce corruption and allied activities significantly. Similarly, giving power to MPs to decide their own emoluments is neither democratic nor moral. An independent body like a Pay Commission must deliberate this publicly before decisions are taken. The present generation of MPs and MLAs have forfeited their trust and become a burden. To pretend otherwise would be to deceive the country.