Monday, August 29, 2016

Is India rising? What are the new hopes, new fears? A reporter's account makes for a readable story

There is no end to books coming out on India. On Narendra Modi alone there are already more than a dozen. Expect more. Obviously the market is good even if some books say nothing a la P.V.Narasimha Rao's two "autobiographies". Journalists, fabled as composers of "the first draft of history", often tend to take sides. When they don't, some worthwhile books come out such as Inder Malhotra's biography of Indira Gandhi. Into this category falls India Rising: Fresh Hopes, New Fears by Ravi Velloor, a Delhi journalist who went to Singapore and turned himself into an institution there.

What makes this book eminently readable is its story-telling style. Velloor's account of the 2004 tsunami is a powerful chapter. But there is no hint of the disaster in the opening paragraph which is all about his spending the morning after Christmas Day 2004 on a golf course in central New Delhi with three officers of India's admiralty. His telling of Bangalore's IT revolution starts, not with Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji, but with Arjun Kalyanpur, a radiologist who sits in his villa in Whitefield and reads scan results of a patient being examined in a Chicago hospital. Even the terrorist attack in Mumbai comes alive with the Velloor touch. "Jai Arya, executive vice president of the Bank of New York's Singapore operations and his wife Rohini were dining [at the Oberoi Trident] with Ashok Kapur and his wife Madhu. Ashok, who was my wife's cousin, was chairman of Yes Bank and had earlier led the Rabobank's Singapore operations and we were frequent visitors at his bungalow". Three paragraphs later, Ashok is dead on the hotel's stairs.

Velloor now holds an exalted position in Singapore's Straits Times, but his real strength remains the reporter's blood coursing through his veins. Operating out of Delhi in the 1980's, he was amazingly networked, his quiet and subdued nature earning the trust of his contacts. The reporter's approach helps Velloor come out with unexpected details. Dawood Gilani alias David Coleman Headley is introduced as a "6-foot-2 figure with a gigolo-like frame" who is "half Gilani, half Armani. Indeed, one of his eyes was blue, the other brown".

For those who thought that Velloor was a practitioner of soft journalism, the chapter on Shashi Tharoor would be revealing. No, there is no frontal attack, except perhaps in the grammar-defying chapter title, "Style and Scandal: Diplomatic Blunder Tharoor". It's about how Tharoor's bid for UN Secretary General's post was doomed even before it started, how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi made a blunder by sponsoring him, and how, after he lost out, Tharoor still planned to hold on to his UN bureaucratic job. The newly elected Ban Ki Moon had to convey to him: "I'm surprised you want to stay on, Shashi". To be sure, Tharoor is one contact that will no longer be available to Velloor.

On the other hand, Velloor is overly well-disposed towards the former intelligence boss and National Security Advisor (NSA) M.K.Narayanan whose bizarre joke, "I have a dossier on you", was unsettling to a generation of Indians. He makes only a parenthetical reference to the Mumbai terror attack blemishing the intelligence chief's reputation. Actually, that attack and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination were India's biggest intelligence failures of all time -- and both happened on Narayanan's watch. Velloor's account confirms that Narayanan considered himself as the best NSA, when in fact the superior professionalism of J.N.Dixit put him in the shade. Narayanan would get into quarrels with Dixit, as he would with Home Minister Chidambaram and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Eventually his influence in the Gandhi household also dwindled and Manmohan banished him from Delhi by making him Governor of West Bengal. Velloor's portrait of "the confident, articulate M.K.Narayanan" looks tilted.

There is neither tilt nor ambiguity when he endorses the opinion about A.KAntony as India's "worst defence minister ever". Nor does the Singaporean in him hesitate to say that some of the strategic rivalry between India and China "perhaps lives more in Delhi's mind than in America-focussed Beijing's". As for Narendra Modi, Velloor chronicles the insecurity that has spread among many Indians and also differentiates Hindutva from Indutva (Indianness), but gives the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt with the chapter heading, "Right Man, Wrong Party?"

Velloor does well by making the best use of his reportorial gifts; he steers clear of deep analyses, socio-economic interpretations or historical decipherments. India Rising is not a Picasso; it's a Ravi Varma, realistic, colourful, thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who said India cut a sorry figure at the Olympics? No other country had VIPs winning medals

It is true that India did better in the last Olympics than in this one; just 83 athletes won six medals in London while 117 won two in Rio. But that does not mean that our great country cut a sorry figure before the world. On the contrary. No other country sent its reigning national sports minister to Rio to liven up things. The Honourable Vijay Goel and his "aggressive and rude" staff did it so well that the organisers had to warn them of possible expulsion from the arena. None of the other 206 participating countries won this distinction.

Olympics may come and Olympics may go, but Indians will remain Indians. Whether it is Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, or Olympics, the Indian tradition is to give pride of place, not to athletes, but to politicians, sports officials and sundry hangers-on, parasites, pretenders and the sons and nephews and girlfriends of VIPs. National Rifle Association President Ravinder Singh, son of Punjab's former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, was the star figure in Rio's parties. Abhay Singh Chautala, son of former Haryana Chief Minister, was also in Rio, overlooking the small detail that he was out of jail on bail. Chaperoning him was Olympics President N.Ramachandran who, as shooter Abhinav Bindra revealed, never met any Indian athlete in Rio. Haryana's own sports minister, Anil Vij, went to Rio to "cheer the athletes", but correspondents on the scene said he spent his time on the beaches cheering the locals.

This negative culture is reinforced by the polices and attitudes of government and various sports organisations. Arun Jaitley, a sports enthusiast (if cricket can be considered a sport and not a commercial activity), allotted Rs 1552 crore to sports in his last budget. This was Rs 50 crore more than his previous budget's allocation. The small island nation of Jamaica allotted to sports the equivalent of Rs 3075 crore in 2012 (by the exchange rate of that time). Jamaica is the land of Usain Bolt, India is the land of Shobha De.

It is an all-time shame of India that the various associations that control sports are hellholes of intrigue and infighting. Politicians are known to head them for decades at a stretch. Take boxing. The Indian Boxing Federation was banned by the International Boxing Federation in 2013 for manipulating elections. A new organisation took over, named Boxing India. This was suspended by the international body following an internal war that led to even impeachment.

In a country like India, where government intervention is needed even to construct toilets, sports cannot perhaps progress without governmental assistance. But it has to be assistance provided by sports people for sports people. We need not go to the extent China does -- take away little boys and girls from their families and develop them rigorously, even cruelly, as winning machines. But there is something to learn from other countries. Britain, through government and the National Lottery, provides about £ 700 million for programmes that help Olympic athletes. The Canadian Government earmarks about $ 150 million a year for Olympics. Senior athletes get monthly stipends. In West Australia, the Government runs an Athlete Travel Subsidy Scheme to help young athletes with travel and accommodation at sports training centres. In the US there is no direct government involvement, but there are organisations that provide various types of assistance to athletes ranging from training and healthcare costs to air fare and lodging during the games.

Our government has a poor record in these matters. What is allotted seldom reaches the athletes. Sprinter Dutee Chand endured a 36-hour flight to Rio in economy class while officials lounged in business class. Deepa Karmakar's physiotherapist was not allowed to travel with her; the Sports Authority of India said that would be "wasteful". When she qualified for finals, the therapist was rushed to Rio.

The one hopeful sign in India is that private companies have started playing a role. Steeplechase runner Lalita Babar's is a typical case. Special steeplechase spikes costs Rs 10,000, lasts only one month, and has to be imported. Government agencies did not help. Anglian Medal Hunt, a Delhi-based private company, came to her aid. JSW Sports helped O.P.Jaisha among others.

Rio has proved that India has athletes talented and gritty enough to win Olympic golds. If only the sporting climate in the country were a little more helpful, the picture could change overnight. In the prevailing climate, Sakshi Malik and P.V.Sindhu are miracles, pure gold. May their tribe increase.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

World War 3 over India's most polarising animal? The Prime Minister can win it. And he must

Late, but when it finally came, the Prime Minister's denunciation of violence and hatemongering in the name of the cow was unambiguous. In normal circumstances, that should have put an end to the atrocities being committed by self-styled gau rakshaks. But we do not live in circumstances that can be called normal. Ideologues in the Prime Minister's own camp have challenged him while the fanatic fringe has turned defiant. This has not happened before, and it bodes ill for the country.

What a pity that the gentle cow is at the centre of this confrontation. The cow deserves a supra-religious, non-controversial position because it plays a critical role in human well-being. The genius of India's ancient rishis led to the concept of giving religious sanctity to animals and plants that were indispensable to the progress of mankind. Many of them became objects of "worship" -- the banyan, the peepul, the tulsi, the asoka, the coconut, the jasmine and of course the cow. By teaching us to revere these, our forefathers ensured our health and happiness. In other words, they used religion in the most constructive way possible. This also reinforces the theory that Hinduism was not a religion initially, but a way of principled life, sanatana dharma.

Take a casual look at some of the plants and animals we are encouraged to worship. The banyan's leaves give relief to joint pains, the latex helps cure gum infection and conjunctivitis, the roots fight diarrhoea and pimples, the bark is used to cure skin diseases and mouth ulcers. The peepul emits oxygen. The asoka tree's leaves, stems and roots are helpful in treating menstrual and related problems of women. The tulsi is a great cleansing agent and helps fight sore throat, respiratory ailments and indigestion. The coconut is a tree every part of which is useful to mankind.

If people were simply told of such medicinal benefits, the response would have been half-hearted at best; such is human psychology. But the same psychology takes a somersault when the exhortation is tied to religion. So the banyan and the peepul found positions of eminence in the epics and the puranas. The auspiciousness of an occasion is not complete without breaking a coconut, the tulsi leaf is mandatory in the worship of Vishnu. And Sita sat under the asoka tree in Lanka.

The cow has a stand-out position in this narrative, with Sri Krishna himself becoming Gopala. Like the banyan and the coconut tree, everything associated with the cow is essential to human beings. Not just milk and ghee and paneer; cowdung is valuable as fuel and as fertiliser; walls plastered with mud-cowdung mix provide natural insulation; cow products are part of the science of ayurveda. The popularisation through religion of the essentials of healthy living must have been a factor in Indian civilisation outlasting most other civilisations such as the Mayan, the Babylonian and the Greek.

Today, however, the wisdom of the sages has given way to the brashness of the dogmatists. Cow protection has come to mean lynchings and ceremonial thrashing of minorities. The televised brutalisation of dalits in Gujarat went viral at the cost of the ruling dispensation. The cow has emerged as India's "most polarising animal," as the BBC once put it.

The atrocities are said to be motivated by votebank politics. In fact they may hurt the BJP's electoral prospects. Undaunted, the extremists have turned against Narendra Modi. Some right-wing groups even warned of "World War 3" if Modi's promise of strict action was implemented. The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha said it would hold "a buddhi shuddhi yagya across the country to give better sense to the Prime Minister". Where were these crusaders until two years ago? It was Modi's victory that gave the zealots the courage to beat and kill people they disapproved.

Modi can ignore their open challenge only at the risk of diminishing himself. It is true that law and order is a state subject. But Modi has a voice, and an impact, that no state government can ignore. He can set an example by making his handpicked new Chief Minister of Gujarat punish the men who thrashed dalits before cameras. Modi was correct in saying that frauds were posing as cow lovers. There are protection rackets and business intrigues behind the cow these days. They need to be crushed. Popular opinion will be with the Prime Minister if he uses his influence to implement the principles he outlined. He can make World War 3 glorious.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A new kind of lawyers want a new kind of rights: The right to abuse judges, beat up reporters

Imagine a robed lawyer barging into an open court room, exhorting his colleagues to support an ongoing boycott campaign against judges, then telling the bench: "If you have guts, take action against me". Well, you don't have to imagine. It actually happened in the Madurai branch of the Madras High Court not long ago.

In Delhi's Patiala court compound, the world watched in amazement as lawyers attacked student leaders, policemen and journalists. Senior lawyers appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the matter were also attacked. The violent lawyers were later seen boasting about their violence.

Bangalore still shudders with the memory of lawyers fighting pitched battles against policemen, press reporters and sundry onlookers. A judge was among some 90 people who were injured when the lawyers hurled chairs, smashed vehicles, set a police post on fire, threw water-bottles and bricks and helmets at whoever came within throwing range.

Across Kerala last month lawyers have been gunning for journalists. There were fisticuffs and shouting of unprintable slogans. Police kept a safe distance. Judges made little effort to assert their overriding powers in court premises, even when the Media Room in the High Court building was locked up under lawyer pressure.

These are unparalleled happenings in the history of India, of any democracy for that matter. Some of the world's most learned and respected lawyers are Indian. Think of Palkhiwala, think of Parasaran. This tradition of eminence, scholarship and integrity is being eroded -- erased? -- by a callous bunch of lawyers who resort to rowdyism to push private agendas. In Delhi, the agenda was cheap politics. In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, it is cheap ego.

The prolonged war of attrition between the Bench and the Bar in the Madras High Court forced a judge to warn that dispensation of justice would be difficult if "shouting slogans against judges and making abusive comments in open court" continued. In May this year the state amended the Advocates Act to debar lawyers found guilty of offences such as "browbeating and/or abusing" a judge. The lawyers saw this as another provocation and intensified their fight saying "we cannot practise without fear". At one stage judges asked for special CISF protection for courts.

Curiously, lawyer violence in Karnataka and Kerala was sparked by anger against the police, then turned against reporters. A lawyer in Bangalore was stopped by the police for riding pillion with three others on a bike. The association of lawyers took up cudgels against the police over this action, called for a strike which created traffic chaos in some parts of the city. The media reported this. Whereupon the lawyers turned against the media.

Kerala events unfolded in copycat style. A government lawyer took liberties with a young woman on a public road and, following the woman's complaint, the police arrested him. The lawyers objected. The media reported this, including some details of the woman's complaint. Whereupon the irate lawyers turned against the media with a fury that took everyone in the state by surprise.

In Kerala of course everything is mixed up with politics. A big lawyer, associated with the ruling CPM leaders, was appointed advisor to the Chief Minister. That did not prevent him from appearing in a case against the Government to defend a notorious lottery operator. Public criticism forced the big lawyer to decline the advisor post. The media reported all this, making the big lawyer turn hostile to the media. The general feeling that the big lawyer's influence was a factor in the attacks against journalists was reinforced by comments made by his friend the Chief Minister at a press meet. Asked about the beating up of reporters, he said: "Don't go there to beat up or be beaten up". He then laughed at his own joke.

That being the standard of jokes and ethics in our country, the only way to ensure smooth functioning of courts, newspapers and police stations is to recognise the new fundamental rights of lawyers: The right to abuse judges in open court; the right to attack accused being produced in court; the right to beat up opponents of the political party the lawyers support; the right to ride illegally, and dangerously, overloaded bikes; the right to grab any woman walking along the road; to sum up a whole new philosophy of civilisation -- the right of lawyers to break the law.

Honest lawyers, proud of their profession, must be crying in silence. The rest of India cries with them.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Inspiring the young to learn, to dream, to achieve; why Kalam is still a driving force in India

The way the anniversary of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's death was observed in the country was revealing. It was naam-ke-wastay at establishmentarian levels. Media coverage was mostly of the beaten-path style; no editorials. No public meetings either. The Government satisfied itself with tokenisms -- a formal statement by the Prime Minister that Kalam was irreplaceable, and the unveiling of a long-delayed statue at Rameswaram where the burial ground had remained neglected to the chagrin of the family and the locals. A big government advertisement announcing the foundation-laying ceremony of the Kalam National Memorial had the Prime Minister's picture towering above all else.

The lukewarm attitude at official levels was in sharp contrast to the spontaneous enthusiasm at the level of ordinary people. It was a touching reiteration of Kalam's title as the People's President. That students were in the forefront of these expressions of love and admiration would have pleased the eternal teacher in Kalam. In a Chennai school, children created a large floral picture of their hero, then stood around his head forming a halo of tribute. In a school in Malabar children spent time reading Kalam's words, then went out to tend plants and trees which, he had told them, were precious. Students in Coimbatore planted a lakh of saplings. Another group announced a competition for school students to display their inventions. A sand artist livened up a beach in Puri with spectacular portraits of the Bharat Ratna. At the Indian Institute of Technology in Shillong, where Kalam died in the middle of a speech, students planted trees in his memory and announced a series of lectures on how to make the world a better place.

Kalam inspired the youth of India in ways no other leader did. He never had the glamour of a Jawaharlal Nehru or the oratorical gifts of a Vajpayee. His English was heavily accented. But those very weaknesses turned out to be his strengths. His genuineness shone through every word and gesture of his. His faith in young people energised the young and the old alike. The directness of his simple words hit home. Who would not be stirred to high endeavour when Kalam, his eyes sparking, tells his listeners: You have to dream before your dreams come true. A 2011 movie about a poor Rajasthani boy who struggled to study was titled, I am Kalam.

With one or two exceptions, the Presidents of India were great souls who brought honour to the country. Some like S.Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain, were internationally respected scholars. Two were remarkable for their ordinariness, yet they were the ones who conquered the hearts of the people -- K.R.Narayanan and Abdul Kalam. Interestingly, those were also the Presidents the political system got rid of as fast as it could.

Narayanan was so punctilious that he said and did things that went against the positions held by the Government in power. This and his view that there was government-level conspiracy behind the Gujarat riots of 2002 turned the BJP-led NDA Government against him. Narayanan retired after his first term. Kalam's adherence to the rule book made the Sonia Gandhi establishment turn against him. So he, too, became a one-term President. But both men carved for themselves positions in public imagination and in the history books that others have not matched. Narayanan, for example, was the first President who insisted on exercising his vote as a citizen. Kalam wrote more than a dozen inspirational books, 22 poems and four songs. In his 70s, he was nominated twice for the MTV youth icon.

In the Indian context, perhaps Kalam's most significant achievement was that he exposed the meaninglessness of religious identifications. He bore a 24-carat Muslim name and did his namaz. But he was also a vegetarian, read the Bhagvad Gita, played the rudra veena and listened to Carnatic devotional songs every day. He was an Indian in the true sense of that term. And, with all his traditionalism, a very modernistic rock star Indian; how else could we explain that lovingly tended pop-culture hairstyle?

It was no less an achievement that in the political jungle of Delhi, sitting in the citadel of Rashtrapathi Bhavan, he remained defiantly a-political. In fact, he was dreaded by the politicians for they could not contain him within their political lines. He lived true to the message he conveyed to his young listeners: "Look at the sky. We are not alone. The whole universe is friendly to us".

This was a man who belonged to the stars.