Monday, March 28, 2016

Development won't happen if the nation's energy is wasted on vyarth vivads. Jai Hind to that!

The Prime Minister's speeches at the world Sufi conference and later at the BJP workers' forum brimmed with distilled wisdom. The first, asserting that terrorism was anti-religion, was a call for tolerance. The second was a reminder that development was the singleminded objective of the government. Both speeches fell on deaf ears as far as his own party followers were concerned. For them the singleminded objective was nationalism.

The problem with nationalism is that it means many things to many people. Everybody is of course a nationalist. But Jawaharlal Nehru's nationalism was different from Indira Gandhi's. Atal Behari Vajpayee's nationalism is different from Sakshi Maharaj's nationalism while Sitaram Yachury's nationalism is different from B.T. Ranadive's. Nationalism in North Korea means the supreme leader's right to shoot the army chief to death. The nationalism of Donald Trump, racing to the US presidency, is to keep every Muslim and Mexican out of America. To the Chinese nationalism means every nation in the world accepting their preeminence.

Conflicting notions of nationalism can also mark the political positions of leaders who otherwise share the same ideology and the same dreams. When the time for independence came, leaders like Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru compromised on partition as it looked like the only way to hasten freedom. But Mahatma Gandhi did not. On August 15, 1947, he avoided the celebrations in Delhi, observed fasting and spent time with riot-affected citizens in Calcutta.

Gandhi's disapproval of truncated independence made no one call him anti-national. This showed that nationalism provided legitimate ground for differences and disagreements, protests and criticisms. When nationalism is used to deny this right to differ, it ceases to be nationalism and becomes a contrarian force called hyper-nationalism. Nationalism allows democracy. Hyper-nationalism does not. Nationalism makes Tagore sing about the heaven of freedom where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Hyper-nationalism makes Sadhvi Niranjan Joshi see Indians as either Ram's children or unmentionables. (She used uncivilised language, but remained an unchastised and honourable member of the Cabinet).

The immediate consequence of hyper-nationalism is that it takes attention away from the Prime Minister's priorities and focuses it instead on daily realities of life and death. Fanatic groups feel free to strike at citizens and no recourse seems available to citizens. The lawyers who behaved like street gangsters on the premises of the Patiala House courts still strut around as patriots because they think the system backs them. Two men taking their buffaloes to the market are lynched and their bodies hung from a tree. The culprits are arrested and let off on bail, making them feel that the system backs them.

It is this twisted atmosphere that has turned Bharat Mata Ki Jai into a topic of acrimonious debate. This beloved signature tune of all India was proudly chanted by multitudes of patriots as they were led away to prison or to torture chambers during the freedom movement. The timeless slogan inspired the new generation as well, as could be seen during Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption. Problems began with the Hindutva groups appropriating the slogan as a brand of their identity. If they had left it at that, things would still have been all right. But they insisted that those who did not share their view of the slogan were anti-national. This was odd from ideologues who, as a matter of policy, refused to sing the national anthem at their functions and recited Vande Mataram instead. Liberal India did not call them anti-national. Illiberal India should at least have accepted that what was good for Subhas Chandra Bose, the paragon of patriotism, was good for all and said Jai Hind to that.

Ironically, it was left to L.K.Advani, a Hindutva hawk during A.B.Vajpayee's days, to put things in perspective. Asked about the Bharat Mata Ki Jai debate, he said he did not want to comment because it was a vyarth vivad, a meaningless controversy.

If we ignore such voices of experience and keep going the way we are going, we may unknowingly be imitating Pakistan. Their cricket captain acknowledged the love he received from Indian fans and at once the patriots back home came down upon him like tons of bricks. For them the captain had gone anti-national. The Urdu poet Fahmida Riaz anticipated the parallelism when she wrote: So it turned out you were just like us / That stupidity, that ignorance / We wallowed in for a century - / Look, it arrived at your doorstep, too.

Monday, March 21, 2016

All parties help privileged cheats to get away. Thus Indians become India's worst enemies

To what heights of glamour he soared in a short span of time; to what depths of disgrace he plunged in an instant. The Vijay Mallya story holds two lessons for all -- for both the movers and shakers who regulate the course of the country and for us citizens who pay dearly for all the shenanigans that go on. The first lesson is that character is the ultimate determinant. Where the basic qualities of character are askew, some price will have to be paid sooner or later, one way or another. The second is that our politicians shamelessly hold with the hare and run with the hound, owning up things when the going is good and pretending innocence when things go wrong. Mallyas and citizens may come and go but vile politicians go on for ever.

What looked like Vijay Mallya's advantage was in fact his problem. He inherited his father's empire when he was 28. Azim Premji took over his inheritance at 21. The way the two business houses moved forward provided an object lesson in the role that character plays. Premji built his business without show or fanfare, remaining a private person all the time. So indeed did Vittal Mallya, Vijay's father. But the 28-year-old owner of the flourishing cash cow, United Breweries, responded in his own way when the vastness of his suddenly gained power dawned on him. He set a style that celebrated extravagance which he explained as necessary brand building but which struck others as exercises in self-gratification and assertion of authority.

Pride prevented him from listening to anyone including the top financial and corporate officers in his group. He would spend millions on fancy fads, often just to prove that he had the power to do so. He launched Kingfisher Airlines -- his eventual nemesis -- against the advice of his closest associates. It was a great airline to begin with, offering services no other carrier did. But it lived beyond its means and the intricacies of the aviation business were beyond the grasp of its owner whose experience was confined to the rather different liquor industry.

The fault lines in Vijay Mallya's character came to the fore when he escaped from his country to avoid the responsibility of repaying loans and clearing unpaid staff salaries. He risked criminal charges when he failed to respond to court orders. He said, "I hope that I return one day" to India. The grand showman of Asia, the flamboyant jetsetter, party giver and yacht owner with anchorages in havens like Monaco, had become a fugitive from law.

But this was a privileged fugitive. That is where politicians come in with their deceipts. People like Mallya and Lalit Modi are above the laws that apply to ordinary citizens. (When an Interpol notice against Lalit Modi was in force, Modi mocked his critics by posting an instagram picture of himself with retired Interpol chief Ronald Noble watching a match in Barcelona). Mallya quite obviously escaped in time -- and subsequently defied court warrants -- because he is politically protected. Like Modi is. Like Octavio Quattrochi was. Like dozens of criminal politicians are in UP and Bihar. Like corrupt ministers are in every state in India, from Kerala to Haryana.

The political clout that Lalit Modi fielded in Rajasthan is a legend known to all. Vijay Mallya's clout enabled him to toy with the Presidentship of the Janata Party until he got tired of it. He then used his winning ways to get into the Rajya Sabha where he became a member of the Consultative Committee on Civil Aviation, a classic case of clash of interests. Banks indulged him. So did government agencies. It should surprise no one if Mallya joins Modi in the exclusive category of new NRIs -- Non Returning Indians.

The worst of it all is the cynical way our political parties handle such issues. Because Mallya escaped during the watch of the present Government, people attacked the BJP. The BJP's response was to attack the Congress for letting Quattrochi escape. As if one shame justified another. In this game both parties avoid addressing the issue on hand -- how big shots cheat the country and get away with it. It shows yet again the irrelevance of which party is in power. Whoever it is, the country is abused for the benefit of the few. This must be what Nani Palkhivala meant when he said: "India's greatest enemy is not Pakistan or China, but Indians themselves".

Monday, March 14, 2016

Saving 'lost' movies was a service to the nation; how about saving rare heritage collections?

P.K.Nair's death last week was yet another reminder of a national weakness of India: Lack of institutional interest in protecting the country's artistic richness. Consider cinema. In volume, India produces more movies than any other country. In quality, some world classics are Indian. Yet in safeguarding this heritage our governments have been always indifferent. Morarji Desai, finance minister, imposed punishment taxes on the film industry as a moral duty. C.Rajagopalachari, when he was briefly "Prime Minister" of Madras, actually lobbied for closing down the industry on ethical grounds.

The industry itself has been negligent about the preservation of its products. Hugely successful banners -- Mehboob Studios, Wadia Movietone, R.K.Studios, Prabhat in Poona, Gemini in Madras -- were all owner-centred. When the owner passed on, so did the studios and all that was achieved on their creative floors. Bombay Talkies was no better although it was "professionally" organised by the Germany-returned Himansu Rai with the Germany-trained Devika Rani as partner. After Rai's early death, Devika Rani found it difficult to manage the company. When she too moved away, the enterprise crumbled. Film reels were left to rot with abandoned studio sets.

This is why P.K.Nair's arrival was fortuitous. When he joined the Film & Television Institute in Poona in 1961 as research assistant, the Hindi film industry was in its post-independence Golden Age. As he was a movie fanatic from his school days, his research meant collecting old films and related material. In just three years he was instrumental in setting up the National Film Archives of India.

The importance of what he achieved was enormous. He traced and restored India's first movie, Dadasaheb Phalke's silent Raja Harischandra and Uday Shankar's one-of-a-kind Kalpana. Gemini, like Bombay Talkies, was relatively better organised, but even the big- thinking S.S.Vasan had failed to preserve his masterpieces. It was Nair who salvaged Gemini's Chandralekha as well as Bombay Talkies' Kismat, Achyut Kanya and Bandhan. NFAI's vaults bulged with 12,000 movies when Nair retired in 1991.

When such feats come out of one man's obsession, the question arises: What happens after him? In NFAI's case, the spectre of bureaucracy loomed. When, a decade after Nair's retirement, fire destroyed more than a thousand films in the archive's vaults, including Harischandra, a bureaucrat said the loss was not serious because copies were available. Does the future belong philistines who cannot differentiate between an original and a copy of a copy?

What, for example, is the future of the incomparable collections put together by two human wonders of Chennai, Film News Anandan and V.A.K. Ranga Rao? For 64 years now, Anandan has been collecting everything about films, from song books to posters to stills to star profiles to an astonishing set of 100-photograph albums of the mid-1900s superstars. At 88 he is now enfeebled, walking and talking with considerable difficulty, his eyesight gone bad. But the man is still collecting things with the help of his family. In 2003 Chief Minister Jayalalitha saw the value of his work and helped him by funding a filmography he was compiling and later by acquiring his collection for the Government. Film News Anandan still dreams of seeing his life's work put on display in a permanent gallery. That's the least so unique a collection deserves. Will that happen when he is still around?

Ranga Rao is perhaps the finest living scholar on film history, film dance and film music. His knowledge is so extensive that authors are scared of him; at one glance he can see their mistakes in dates, spellings and factual details. In the process, he has also assembled India's largest collection of 78 rpm gramophone records, about 42,000 of them in 40 languages. Beyond music, his recordings include recitations by Tagore, speeches by Gandhi and even advertising nostalgia like commercials of Sait beedi. What an extraordinary storehouse of knowledge for researchers and rasikas alike. He has apparently made plans for a trust made up of relatives to manage this rare collection after his time. What other option is available in our country?

Centres of higher education in the West go to great length to acquire such collections and put them to wider use. Even little known universities in America have funds to buy, for example, manuscripts by authors. The collections of people like Film News Anandan and V.A.K. Ranga Rao are invaluable assets a university can make available to researchers. But our universities are otherwise busy. Maybe they should ask themselves: Isn't ignoring the treasures of the nation anti-national?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Why do budgets always squeeze the middle class? Why should secrecy cover budget proposals?

Indian budgets are presented on the last day of February so that Parliament and Government will have all of March to discuss and finetune it before a new financial year begins on April 1. (Another British era tradition stipulated that budgets be presented in the evening so that stock markets would be closed and adventurous traders could do no mischief. Yashwant Sinha changed that practice by presenting his budgets at noon. The skies didn't fall).

There are three features that make an Indian budget Indian. The first is that reactions to it run along pre-determined political lines. When a Congress government presents a budget, the BJP dismisses it as unworthy. When a BJP government is the presenter, the Congress condemns it as meaningless. That tradition was scrupulously maintained this time, too. The Congress said the budget had "no vision" and "no big ideas", BJP leaders hailed it as "historic" and as "a budget that touched the lives of 1.25 billion Indians". Were they talking about the same budget?

The second speciality of Indian budgets is that all of them are essentially the same, no matter which party is in power. The Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh budget of 1991 was the only one that was substantively different because it changed the country's orientation from socialist controls to capitalist liberalism. For the rest, all finance ministers play with the same fundamental ideas, like Arun Jaitley has done this time with the rural employment idea.

The idea of the state providing direct employment to the poorer sections of the population is as old as the Republic itself. Some states had already pioneered it before the Centre took it up. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act enacted in 2005, provided at least 100 days of wage employment a year to unskilled poor families in the villages. Corruption marred its handling, but it was a bold scheme, the World Bank describing it as a "stellar example of rural development". Nevertheless, the Indian tradition of the opposition opposing for the sake of opposing held firm. The BJP described it as "a living monument to poverty". But the Jaitley budget gave a fresh coat of paint to the same monument, allocating Rs 34,699 crores to it. Well done, too. The realities of India are the same but their visibility depends on the angle of vision.

Ditto with the third feature of Indian budgets -- the eagerness with which whoever is in power zeroes in on the middle class for fleecing. The business class has their organisations and lobbies. The working class has their unions and strikes. Caught in between, the middle class is leaderless and unorganised, making them an easy target for squeezing. With their fixed salaries, their visible savings and their transparent transactions, they are the easiest group in the country to milk.

Look at the way petrol prices were kept high even when world prices hit record lows. The middle class cried foul, but no one heard it. This budget confidently increased excise duty on aviation fuel, knowing that every self-respecting airline will pass the buck to passengers which means the middle class. (The business class travels on company account, the ministerial class just had their travel budget more than doubled, and the MP-MLA class has free travel among numerous other free things). This when aviation turbine fuel costs 60-70 percent more in India than global prices. The middle class already facing rising cost of living, now has to face a situation where there are no tax-saving devices and no increase in income tax exemption limits; the increase is in service tax.

Considering the furore over the provident fund tax (a cruel idea), it is time to ponder why tax proposals cannot be published in advance so that they can be debated before the budget is presented. In other words, why not end the present policy of secrecy over tax proposals? (With electronic sweeping devices and Intelligence Bureau sleuths watching the movements of officials, the present secrecy blanket can be scary). A serious school of thought in Canada favours openness. In the US, the President's budget presentation is only a signal to start public discussions leading to final decisions. The Indian style of secrecy has encouraged lobbying and selective leaks favouring cronies. Openness on the other hand will give the public also a chance to play a part before the budget is finalised. All we need is a forward-looking finance minister to start a new chapter. Like Yashwant Sinha did with timing.

The skies won't fall.