Monday, October 23, 2017

Mass appeal is easy for filmstars, but respect is tough. Amitabh Bachchan earned it, after many setbacks


Filmstars seldom celebrate their birthdays. Perhaps they do not want to know that they are getting older by the year. Amitab Bachchan's birthday (11 October 1942) was an exception. Television interviews apart, a serious newspaper or two subjected his persona to intellectual analysis. This exceptionality was warranted because, at 75, Bachchan has remained relevant through significant activity.

There are greater artistes who have disappeared from public view because of age -- Dilip Kumar, 94 and Kamini Kaushal, 90. There are others like Lata Mangeshkar, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayantimala and Gulzar, all in their 80s, who are in reasonably good health but not active in any field. Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, both 82, Julie Andrews 81 and Dustin Hoffman, 80 are out of action and out of sight.

Bachchan's own contemporaries have withdrawn from the scene. Dharmendra, seven years older, was his co-star in a blockbuster of the time. Today he looks very much 'retired'. His wife Hema Malini, six years younger than Bachchan, keeps busy but her product endorsements are as unconvincing as her politics. Jeetendra is the same age as Bachchan but has disappeared into business. The only big name that remains meaningfully active is singer K.J.Yesudas, 77. His is a different league, though, devotion to famous Hindu temples being his signature appeal these days.

Clearly Bachchan is in a class by himself. What makes him different is that he attracts respect, not just fan following. The likes of Raj Kapur and Dev Anand attracted love, not respect. Even NTR and MGR and Jayalalitha attracted respect primarily on account of the political power they wielded. Rajanikant got it right when he said that filmic popularity was not enough to succeed in politics. MGR was in the centre of the Dravida movement when it had the power to move minds. Jayalalitha, though a Mysore Brahmin, identified herself with that movement and benefited from its pulling power. Today the movement itself has lost traction and people like Rajani and Kamal Hassan have not developed an alternative. That leaves them willing to wound, but unable to strike.

In Kerala, Mammooty and Mohanlal have remained "superstars" for long. Their films succeed and they do extracurricular activities aimed at winning a place for themselves beyond the filmic universe. But they appear too self-centred to earn respect.

There was only one actor in all of India who commanded respect going beyond even Bachchan's level. That was Raj Kumar of Karnataka. He didn't do anything special to achieve it. It was his humility, his simple way of life, his sense of values that made him admired, respected and almost worshipped across Karnataka. But he was confined to one language and one state, so his worth remained unknown to the rest of the world.

Bachchan had the universe at his feet with Hindi and English. It was the way he deported himself that earned him respect. Perhaps he was also a good learner. He must have learned valuable lessons when he started a corporation and it collapsed ignominiously. His attempt to get into politics not only failed; it cost him the family friendship he had with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. His son got nowhere in filmdom and had to find his fulfilment in kabaddi. From all this Bachchan emerged as a mature and rounded personality capable of that rare human quality, empathy.

Of course it's his movies that made Bachchan -- the early 'angry young man' films and the post-prime character roles such as in Piku. But it's his off-film work that brought him respect -- his Crorepati TV show and his advertising shorts. The quiz show brought out the best in him. The way he related to the participants and the way he made them relate to the world made that show a memorable one. When he endorsed products, he exuded confidence and made the viewers believe him. He had a way of identifying himself with the product, be it Gujarat tourism or Lux innerwear.

The fee for an endorsement was Rs 2 crore a day, and he had ten campaigns going at a time. The fee for Kaun Benega Crorepati was Rs 1.5 crore per day. Forget the films (7 to 10 crore per role), the money here is inconveniently big. So there's a problem. It's a pity that filmstars have not woken up to the beauty of giving. Our IT pioneers did that from the start. Warren Buffet uttered distilled wisdom when he said that if you die rich, you are a fool.

Think.

Monday, October 16, 2017

They want a new assassin identified in the Gandhi case; they want BJP painted as a peace dove in Kerala


These are unusual days no doubt. But how unusual can unusualness get? Can the murder of Mahatma Gandhi be enacted again to show that he was not killed by the man who killed him? Can a propaganda war, however elaborate, really convince anyone that mass killings of migrant workers are taking place in Kerala? Controversies of this kind are politically loaded. Hence the heat -- and the danger.

The Gandhi assassination twist is typical of the politics that motivate it all, one Hindutva wing at loggerheads with another Hindutva wing. Pankaj Phadnis, a self-confessed devotee of V.D.Savarkar, is exploring judicial routes to prove that Gandhi was killed not by the three bullets Godse had fired but by a fourth one that could only have come from a second assassin. Who? Force 136, a British subversive unit, says Phadnis. He seems keen to demolish the prevailing notion that RSS influence was at work in the Gandhi killing.

Ironically, he was challenged by the Hindu Mahasabha. Here are the astonishing words of the Sabha's national vice president Ashok Sharma: "Both BJP and RSS owe their existence to the ideology conceived by the Hindu Mahasabha and they know that it is only this outfit that can expose the mask these two organisations wear today". They are trying to deny Godse the credit for the assassination, he said, "because they know that the Mahasabha will be marginalised without Godse". Credit for assassination -- that is what ideological faithfulness is all about.

The propaganda war against Kerala is ideological faithfulness gone berserk. This flows from BJP chief Amit Shah getting angry with Kerala and seeing its annexation as a matter of personal prestige. He got angry for two reasons. First, the party's local leaders not only proved ineffective, but got involved in kick-back scandals. Secondly, the public in Kerala -- aided and abetted by the state's incorrigible media -- started making fun of him, something no one else has dared.

In his anger, Shahji ordered daily protests before the CPM office in Delhi, as though the CPM office in Delhi was Kerala. Worse, he brought in stars like Yogi Adityanath to campaign in Kerala. (That journey to Malabar must have been the Yogi's first trip abroad). Of all things, the Yogi picked on Kerala's hospitals and said they should learn from UP hospitals. Obviously the man has a sense of humour.

According to the Amit Shah propaganda machine, Kerala's Communists are killing innocent BJP peaceniks all the time. Again two mistakes here. One, he assumed that the aforesaid incorrigible media is a docile tail-wagger like Delhi's channel media whereas the fact is that the Communists cannot kill even a Communist without the Kerala media pouncing on them. Two, statistics show that 26 Sangh Parivar activists and 21 CPM activists were killed since 2005. But it's still a victory for the Sanghis because, earlier, it was Communists killing Communists in factional rivalries. The Sanghis fought their way into it and succeeded in proving that they were as good killers as the Communists.

Where the Shah machine went wrong was in overdoing the propaganda bit. The over-doing reached a climax last week when voice clips circulated among migrant workers saying that the state government had started killing Hindi-speakers in large numbers. Many migrants left the state in a hurry. This in a state where the Government had started literary and health programmes for migrant labour. Special textbooks such as Hamari Malayalam aimed at making them familiar with the local language. An insurance scheme was also launched for them. Locals who know all this saw the exaggerations of BJP propaganda as crude and as an affront to Kerala people as a whole. The party lost more than it gained.

As the BJP counts its losses, the Congress in Karnataka is giggling over a faux pas committed by B.S. Yeddyurappa and union minister Ananth Kumar; unaware that the recorder was on, they exchanged secrets about internal bribery in the BJP. The voices have been tested and certified as genuine and now the leaders are trying to figure out how to escape from the mess.

These are less than achche din for the BJP. No longer a spotless white dove, it is now seen as much prone to promoting family as the Congress was. Its tendency to be overly belligerant, antagonistic and quarrelsome is going against it. And the overall scene is grim with falling growth figures and rising joblessness. As the poet asked: Comforter, where, where is your comforting?




Monday, October 9, 2017

It's easy to condemn racist supremacists in America; but remember communal supremacists are no different


The mass murder of people at a music concert in Las Vegas last week and the racial savagery that rocked Charlottesville earlier must not be dismissed as far-away things that do not concern us. They are part of the ideological terrorism that has gripped large parts of the world, including India. The name of the game is hatred. Multicultural nations are the principal theatres of this war because that is where one group wants other groups reduced to nothingness. In America and Europe the war is ethnic. In India it is communal.

The Las Vegas killer was a well-to-do loner who had amassed a small mountain of firearms over an extended period-- typical of those in affluent societies who, in their loneliness, start hating things around them. He must have felt tremendous power as he collected those weapons and when he killed some 60 country music listeners.

Group hatred is more sinister. The rioting in Charlottesville a few weeks earlier was a mob affair, hundreds of white people ideologically fired up to put down non-white races in a bid "to take our country back". The names of the groups that unleashed the violence told their own tale: No to Marxism in America, Unite the Right, Patriot Prayer, Vanguard America. They all came together to hold a White Lives Matter rally in Charlottesville.

It was a throwback to the days of the American civil war, literally. That was a war about perpetuating slavery. Abraham Lincoln got elected in 1860 on a plank of stopping the expansion of slavery. Seeing that as an unacceptable agenda, seven slave-rich states in the south declared secession from the United States. Four more joined them later. They formed a Confederate Government. The United States declared it illegal. The two waged a war that lasted four years. It ended when Confederate General Robert Lee surrendered to the US forces.

With that everything seemed settled. But the subsequent assassination of Lincoln showed that the seeds of white-black hatred were embedded in people's minds. Southern states continued to make life hell for blacks. The civil rights movement gathered pace in the 20th century. Then Martin Luther King, its leading light, was also assassinated. But blacks won legal rights progressively across the United States.

Why has the Confederate philosophy come alive again? Two years ago a white supremacist opened fire in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine people. He wore a flag of the old Confederate Army. Which in turn made liberal whites start a campaign against old Confederate symbols. A grand statue of Gen. Robert Lee stood in the centre of a park in Charlottesville. Moves to demolish it brought enraged white supremacists to the streets, battle-ready. The city exploded with violence.

It is important to note that early moves against Confederate memorials had passed off unnoticed. Only after Donald Trump's rise as President did the supremacists take to the streets spitting venom. In his freewheeling comments, Trump made one point that sounded historically sensible. He said that the idea of removing Confederate symbols was foolish. He was right because the Confederate Army, the Civil War and slavery are all parts of the history of the United States. There is no use pretending that they did not happen. Trying to erase them is like saying that the Taj Mahal in Agra is not a tourist attraction because it is a Muslim musoleum and does not reflect Indian culture.

However, Trump did not stop with decrying the symbol removers. He made various comments that backed the ultra-right white supremacists prominent among whom was the Grand Wizard of the old Ku Klux Klam, the organisation that made the lynching of Negroes a part of contemporary history in the US.

There is no doubt that dark forces have come out into the open because they see Donald Trump's election to the presidency as a sign of approval for their viewpoint. They see him as a supporter in the cause of turning America into an "all-white ethnostate". Their programme includes what they call the "White Baby Challenge", a movement to increase Caucasian fertility as an antidote to the "ghetto culture" of the blacks.Sounds familiar?

Stop for a moment before dismissing these as contemptible concepts of a contemptible racist civilisation in America. The sentiments behind their actions are alive in our country as well. And they have come to the fore in aggressive self-assertion in the wake of an extremist ideology scoring an election victory. The bell tolls not just for America.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BJP's image dims with economic disruption; Rahul's image glows with US tour. This is Sonia's chance to score big


The Congress Party published full-page advertisements in New York to announce a Rahul Gandhi meeting there. It made history by including, alongside the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, those of Lal Bahadur Shastri and P.V.Narasimha Rao. Shastri was never recognised during the Sonia years while Narasimha Rao was actively ostracised. To give the non-person that was Rao all these years a place now in the galaxy suggests something of an internal revolution.

Is there one? Is the Congress finally acknowledging the need to re-invent itself if it is to have an address in Narendra Modi's India? Rahul Gandhi's American tour was itself a pointer to the party's willingness to do new things. It was essentially a tour of intellectual America by a man considered uniquely un-intellectual. Apparently he made efforts to catch up. Early photographs showed him in Silicon Valley flanked by IT wizard Sam Pitroda, author-diplomat Shashi Tharoor and savvy Mumbaikar Milind Deora, all practitioners of the Kalam art of igniting minds.

Whether it was their influence, or the bracing holiday weather of California, or the compulsions imposed by Modi's relentless march, Rahul Gandhi rose to unexpected heights, impressing university crowds that are usually hard to impress. The key tactic was to compliment the enemy where necessary and to acknowledge mistakes on his own side. He praised Modi's communication skills and also his Make In India programme. The focus of this policy, he said thoughtfully, should be on small and medium businesses which do not get access to finance and the legal system. If this was done, Make In India would be a powerful idea, said Rahul. Frank, balanced, informed.

He was just as frank when he said that the Congress Party had developed "a certain amount of arrogance" at one time, that some concepts of UPA-2 had use-by date ten years old. The only off-colour remark was that dynasty "is the way India runs". That's not the way India runs right now. And it's fatuous to compare private industrial dynasties with contrived political dynasties. That slip-up apart, Rahul's American tour was a success. This was proved when Smriti Irani was scared into calling him "a failed dynast".

However, Rahul's success in the US is unlikely to help him or the Congress. The big problem that makes rejuvenation hard for the Congress is the internal fight between the old generation and the young. This is a unique Indian problem. In civilised democracies presidents and prime ministers serve their term, then leave it to others. Obama is still young and active, but he is not manoeuvring to become President again.

In our country, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati still imagine that the nation needs them. Lalu Prasad, discredited and legally debarred from public office, is convinced that Bihar and India itself will be the poorer without his services. Oommen Chandy, caught in a maze of scandals that brought humiliation to his party, insists on serving the people. Political leaders never see what others see.

In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi brought in some new faces. Some of them were miserable failures, like Arun Yadav in Madhya Pradesh. But some did well, like K.C.Venugopal who replaced Digvijay Singh as the in-charge in Karnataka. (Digvijay Singh and before him Gulab Nabi Azad had contributed mightily to the devaluation of the Congress in Karnataka because they became patron saints of the state's corrupt Congressmen).

Rahul will be unable to move forward unless he takes a good chunk of the veterans with him. Veterans who still have clout must be in, like Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. Those with poor track record must be sidelined, like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. State-wise, personalised adjustments, patiently canvassed and carefully implemented, can give the Congress a new look, essential for a new future.

Rahul Gandhi cannot bring this about. Sonia Gandhi can because the old guard is beholden to her. She can make them accept a restructuring by telling them that without the infusion of some new blood and new thinking, the Congress will sink. This is perhaps the only chance she will get. The gap between words and deeds under the BJP Government's dispensation, the many policy breakdowns of recent years and the economic dislocation that has become too serious for the Government to hide have created a situation where the BJP is no longer the unstoppable force it seemed at first. By uniting the old guard and the younger leaders who have proved themselves, Sonia Gandhi can make history in 2019. This is her moment.



Monday, September 25, 2017

In a world of bullies, tiny Kim now equals mighty Trump; What if one makes a small miscalculation? It's scary


Kim Jong-un is said to be unpredictable and half mad. Donald Trump is known to be unpredictable and often acts like half mad. Both have nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. North Korea's latest muscle-flexing was so scary that Trump said he might be forced to destroy North Korea. The foreign minister of North Korea replied that he had heard "sounds of a dog barking". More hurting perhaps was German Chancellor Angela Markel's criticism of Trump's trumpeteering. "Any form of military solution", she said, "is totally inappropriate".

We now have a clear picture of the conundrum into which these unpredictable half-mad gentlemen have led the world. To put it another way, we can now see the cleverness with which Kim and his tiny country have cornered the world's mightiest military behemoth. May be the funny-looking dictator is not as mad as we are told. May be there is a method in his madness.

To see the nuclear annihilation threat in perspective, we should recognise the Kim family as contemporary history's most successful political dynasty, lasting 72 years as of now with the third generation in charge. Kim Il-sung, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese who was trained by Russians became the leader of the northern half of the country when Korea became free at the end of the war.

He invented a personality cult, projecting himself as equal to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. History books were re-written to give him a divine origin. If his pictures were printed on cheap paper, the printers were punished. Newspapers carrying pictures of him were not to be used as wrapping paper. He assumed the title of Great Leader and developed his own ideology called Juche (self-reliance).

Kim No. 1 died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over. His was a desultory reign with the economy going down and a famine hitting the people in 1998. But he oversaw the country's first nuclear step with a detonation in 2006. He died in 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took control. Not that the dynasty had no critics. All the three Kims were ruthless in eliminating potential rivals through execution, torture and banishment into labour camps. Some estimates say that there are about 120,000 political prisoners in the country today.

Kim No. 3, currently facing Trump, has an obesity problem that's uncontrolled (he weighs more than 200 pounds). He is said to have heart problems that felled his father and grandfather. But he is not just a playboy. Schooled in Switzerland, he is comfortable with French, German and English. He loves racing cars, football and pop music. Additionally, he is an ardent student of military history and strategy. Under him North Korea has seen modern consumer culture spreading. Agriculture has picked up, farmers are no longer slaves but share croppers. Special economic zones have been developed. Overall prosperity has increased.

And of course the nuclear capability of the country has grown by leaps. Obviously he is smart enough to know that if he drops a bomb in the wrong place, he and his country will be wiped out and the world will not moan for him. Like other nuclear powers, he must be seeing those lethal weapons as a protective shield rather than as a conquering device. But he wants his nuclear pile to be equal to that of the US. Clearly he has the contacts necessary to do so. In 2004, two years before the first detonation in the reign of Kim No. 2, Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q.Khan, had admitted to have transferred the technology to North Korea. There must have been other players, too. And why not? Unknown players helped Israel secretly to amass a still-secret nuclear stockpile. What's good for Tom must be good for Dick and Harry as well.

Israel went nuclear as insurance against its enemies. North Korea had the same motivation, the main enemy being the US which led the Korean war against the North. Enemies of the US who had no insurance met with horrible deaths. Saddam Hussein was trapped in an underground hole and eventually hanged before TV cameras. And all that on the basis of a lie -- that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Well, here's North Korea proudly displaying weapons of mass destruction. Even the bombasting Trump given to bombastic threats is unable to strike.So Kim No. 3 has won so far. Bullies produce bullies. But if one of them makes a miscalculation, all of us go up in smoke. Scary indeed.




Monday, September 18, 2017

How 'Scoundrel Christ' betrayed his twin brother Jesus; A laboured re-telling that fails to impress


You are sure to hit the best-seller list if you write a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. New versions of old religious legends are today an industry in itself. Some religions are too rigid to accept such liberties. But Christianity and Hinduism seem to be fertile ground for free-thinkers.

The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman was published in 2010. This is one instance where the familiar disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance... is coincidental" is indeed superfluous. But you will be disappointed if you expect juicy blasphemy by a non-believer. Pullman is a believer and the blasphemy is disguised as humour.

And there is only a small bit of it. Christians brought up on the idea of Immaculate Conception will be outraged by Pullman's rather entertaining version of the birth of Jesus. In this version, Mary, 16 years old, allowed into her room at night a young man who whispered through the window that he was an angel. He said, "you are going to conceive a child". And she said, "But my husband is away". And he said, "But the Lord wants it to happen at once". It did. When he came home and heard the news, Joseph, so old that he "had not touched her" during their marriage, cried bitterly. He was consoled by Mary who said: "I've done no wrong. I've never been touched by a man. It was an angel that came to me".

In the mood for a little more blasphemy? Well, author Pullman says that Mary had twins -- Jesus who was healthy and boisterous and Christ who was a weakling. As time passed, "there came more brothers and sisters". Pullman slips into what must be taken as straight humour (without blasphemy) when he starts dealing with the miracles attributed to Jesus. The well-loved story of water turning into wine is a case in point. In Pullman's re-telling, Jesus first feigned innocence when he was told, in the middle of a wedding reception, that they had run out of wine. Then "he took the chief steward aside and spoke to him, and soon the servants discovered more wine". The author's line: The steward had hidden the wine hoping to sell it and "Jesus had shamed him into honesty". So much for miracles.

The thesis of Pullman's narrative is that corporate interests had seen the promise of building a big institution, the church, on the foundations of Jesus's popularity. They recruited his twin brother Christ who betrayed Jesus and helped the corporate plotters. Rather far-fetched a stroy for believers to accept, and too outlandish for others to comprehend. This is one of those books where the author was fired up with a title but could not weave a story to match it.

The Indian tradition is too liberal to allow much scope for blasphemy. See how the Charvaka school of materialism finds acceptance despite its rejection of notions like karma, moksha, the vedas and the very idea of God. When Ramanand Sagar brought the Ramayana to television in 1987, he took liberties the camera allowed: Arrows would stop midair, Goddess Saraswathi could be seen inside Kumbhakarna's mouth making him say nidra instead of indra. All 78 parts of the serial were artificial and melodramatic. But people would have a bath, wear fresh clothes and sit reverentially before their TV sets to watch Hanuman leela and Sita swayamvara.

Greater sophistication arrived with the entry of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi. Inevitably different people have reacted differently to them. Some believe that Pattanaik trivialises Hindu philosophy, a reference perhaps to volumes like Fun in Devlok and The Sita Colouring Book. Tripathi began by re-imagining Shiva at trilology length, then started reconstructing Sita as a warrior princess. Nobody objects to the liberties he takes with the storyline and characterisation. That's because the underlying element of devotion is intact. An atheist, Tripathi turned religious as the books seized him.

It may be difficult for us to see Sita as Ravana's killer. But she was Ravana's daughter in another re-telling. A.K.Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas was enlightening in that sense though Hindutva zealots got it removed from the history syllabus in Delhi University. How can petty minds erase truths from history? With the likes of Tripathi at work, there will be 400 Ramayanas soon. Can zealots keep pace with the march of writerly imagination? And the unstoppable push of marketing? Sita and Rama will endure after Philip Pullman's Jesus and Christ are forgotten.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Assassins of old were honest, modern ones are cowardly. But the cowards are destroying the Indian dream


In the days of Nathuram Godse, things were straightforward and honest. When he shot Mahatma Gandhi there was no attempt to hide his identity. The courage of his conviction emboldened him to say bluntly, "I did fire the shots... I do not desire any mercy to be shown to me". His final statement before the court was an eloquent defence of the Hindutva view of history.

Courage of conviction similar to Godse's was seen again in 1984 when Beant Singh and Satwant Singh shot Indira Gandhi dead. They were her bodyguards, professionally committed to protect her. But their ideological commitment proved stronger. Again, there was no attempt to escape from responsibility. In fact, according to some reports, they shouted Sikh slogans as they fired their weapons. When Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a bomb in 1991, it was known that the LTTE was behind it; soon after the horror they informally admitted it, too.

Times have changed and ideologically motivated killings are done these days in cowardly fashion. Godse and others were proud of their ideologies and therefore had no problem coming clean on their killings. Today's ideologues are different. They are ready to use the violence demanded of them, but they lack the conviction to own it up. They kill in clandestine operations, then run away into the safety of darkness. In that darkness, obviously, hide protectors powerful enough to protect them. The protectors also are cowards who hide themselves.

Thus, the killers of Narendra Dabholkar in Pune have remained untraced since the murder in 2013. Three years after the event, CBI arrested ENT doctor Virendrasinh Tawade who is still in jail. But CBI suspects that the killers are Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar. There is no trial yet and no answer to the question: Who killed Dabholkar?

Govind Pansare was shot in 2015 in Kolhapur and died four days later. Sameer Gaikwad was arrested seven months later. In June this year he got bail. A Special Investigation Team took into custody Virendrasinh Tawade already in jail in the Dabholkar case. Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar are also wanted in the Pansare murder case. Nearly three years after the event the question remains: Who killed Pansare?

Six months after Pansare was silenced, ideology-driven murderers turned their attention to Karnataka. They killed M.M.Kalburgi in Dharwad. That was on August 30, 2015. To this day neither Karnataka police nor CBI have been able to make a single arrest. The state's authorities, evidently more incompetent than their counterparts in Maharashtra, cannot answer the question: Who killed Kalburgi?

Interestingly, though, there are some strange parallelisms among these unsolved murders. All three victims were free thinkers and rationalists, opposed to conventional beliefs including religious. Dabholkar campaigned against superstitions. Pansare, a communist, carried on a war against caste. Kalburgi fought idol worship. On the other side, Tawade and Sameer Gaekwad were members of the Hindu rightwing Sanathan Samstha. Vinay Pawar was a friend of Gaekwad. Add to these interconnections the fact that all three killings were carried out by motorcycle riders. Two cyclists shot Dabholkar on a public road, two cyclists shot Pansare and his wife in their house, two cyclists entered Kalburgi's house posing as students and shot him.

Two (or three) motorcyclists entered Gauri Lankesh's compound and shot her. She, too, was a rationalist. She, too, opposed superstitions and conventional religious beliefs. As a journalist, she also had clear political views; she fought the very concept of Hindutva. This and the similarities with the earlier killings of rationalists have spread the impression that Gauri too was felled by Hindutva forces. Trollers strengthened the impression by suggesting that she deserved death for her anti-Hindu views.

Partisans turned the whole thing into a vicious political war on social media, indicating the depths to which bigotry has dragged the country. What is certain as of now is that India has become a dangerous place for independent thinkers. Even the barbarous practice of lynchings is condoned. Gauri was not as powerful an opinion maker as Kalburgi or Dabholkar. Even then she would not be allowed to live. Intolerance has reached levels that threaten India's basic values. The outpouring of protests across the nation, sensational in itself, is reflective of a fear complex that has seized the people. Are we losing the dream? If Gauri's killers are not punished, there will be more Gauris because assassins will feel safe in our system. Gauri herself will remain an exemplar -- a journalist who was killed for her journalism.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Brave judges do us proud, carnal godmen bring us shame. Is the goodness of the few our only salvation?



What an amazing week it was. The judiciary made us feel proud, not once but three times back to back. At another level, though, the nation was shamed by a seducer whose frenzied followers killed and destroyed to support his freedom to rape. India remains an unending puzzle, inspirational one day, incorrigible the next. Just as a group of judges project the country as a model of democracy, a mob of idolaters turn it into the world's laughing stock. Can we ever win?

For a long time to come, we will proudly recall that historic week's triple bang: A No to the cruelty of triple talaq, a Yes to citizens' right to privacy, and a firm No to the right to rape in God's name. The talaq judgment, passed by a three-member majority in a five-member bench, was overshadowed by conventions of religion when in fact the emphasis should have been on constitutionality and the principles of equality. Nevertheless, the fact that the five judges came from five different faiths carried its own message at a time when majoritarianism is being asserted aggressively.

No shadows fell across a nine-member bench's unanimous verdict that privacy was a fundamental right protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty. Some sentences in the judgment read like aphorisms that should be put up in golden letters in offices and homes: Privacy constitutes the foundation of all liberty. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern. Criticism and critique lie at the core of democratic governance. Tolerance of dissent is equally a cherished value.

Against such proclamations, the Government's reactions looked childish. The Law Minister turned himself into a farcical figure by claiming that the Court had actually affirmed the Government's position that the right to privacy was a fundamental right subject to reasonable restrictions. The Government's stated position was not that at all. It was that privacy was a common law right that was a subspecies of many rights and hence incapable of being termed as a standalone homogenous fundamental right. Eminent lawyer K.K.Venugopal paid the price of accepting the position of Attorney General by putting up the contrived argument that the right to privacy was an elitist construct. The Court dismissed the submission as unsustainable. The message was clear: What is good for the politics of a ruling party is bad in law.

It becomes ugly when what is bad in law is tacitly approved by the establishment. Tens of thousands of men were pouring into Panchkula days before the verdict was to be pronounced in the Dera Sauda rape case. Weapons including AK 47s were also being stored. Yet, Haryana's Chief Minister Khattar did nothing, said nothing. Finally, when violence claimed 31 lives and left 250 injured, he said anti-social elements had created problems. The Punjab & Haryana High Court exposed him by calling the Government's inaction "a political surrender to allure vote bank".

That's exactly what the official position was. Khattar and many BJP luminaries had been publicly cultivating the Dera Sauda leader because the man, for all the criminalities he was involved in, had gathered a following that ran into crores. This is a peculiar Indian phenomenon. No other country offers frauds such a free run. Born-again Christian zealots of the West and their imitators in India have developed the God industry with modern corporate efficiency. But they command neither the mass following nor the vote potential of the godmen in India.

Criminally culpable godmen have been riding high under all religious labels because of conspiratorial support by those in power. The illegalities of the Dera cult had received support from Chautala's National Lok Dal and from Hooda's Congress before the BJP, all of them condoning criminal actions for perceived vote bank support. What is new is the level of Khattar's incompetence. If he had belonged to any other party, the BJP would have created a ruckus for his removal. In the event, the BJP extended unprecedented protection to him, proving to be as unprincipled as all other parties. All the more reason we should admire the courage of the High Court and the CBI court judges. In a dangerously charged atmosphere, the CBI judge had to be airlifted to the makeshift court. Unpurturbed by threats all around him, he pronounced that the Dera chief deserved no sympathy.The goodness of the few makes up for the wickedness of the many. To that heaven of upright minds, my father, let my country awake.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Thinking Congressmen fail to win tired old Congressmen. Rahul Gandhi remains Amit Shah's best asset

Three weeks have gone by since the Gujarat Rajya Sabha election saw Ahmed Patel scoring a sensational victory over the formidable forces of Amit Shah. More than a humbling of the BJP, it was a life-giving boost to the Congress. Everyone expected the Congress to regroup with newfound confidence and emerge a fighting force again. But there is no sign of it yet. The reason is clear: The dynastic leadership remains invincible, immovable. And the reason for that? Amit Shah's good fortune.

In the mundane world of elections, Rahul Gandhi is indeed Amit Shah's most important asset. Even those who dislike BJP often vote for it because they dislike Rahul Gandhi more. We can't really blame them because the young Gandhi scion has a style that is offputting. He seems impetuous by nature. Remember his walking into a press conference in Delhi and tearing up with contempt a copy of an ordinance issued by his own party's prime minister, the hapless Manmohan Singh? He is also politically insensitive; notice his frequent, unexplained absences from the country. There is something disconcerting even in his personal mannerisms -- rolling up his sleeves and striding around like a pahelwan. He just isn't the inspiring kind.

The defeat the Congress suffered in 2014 was so devastating that, for the first time, Congress leaders began talking in public about the party's problems. Satyavrat Chaturvedi, usually a vehement cheer leader of the dynasty, called for "an honest and ruthless introspection". Priya Dutt, daughter of Indira Gandhi worshippers Sunil and Nargis Dutt, spoke of a "disconnect" between the leaders and the people.

Perhaps the most important critical note was struck by Milind Deora, a respected new-gen leader and close friend of Rahul. He was smart enought not to blame Rahul directly. Instead, he said Rahul had advisers who had no electoral experience and were still calling the shots. He then explained: "My comments are out of emotions of deep loyalty to the party and a sincere desire to see us bounce back".

Three years after that baring of the heart, new -- and shall we say more senior -- voices are being heard about the now-or-never moment the Congress is facing. Jairam Ramesh is an unblemished Congress loyalist and an unflinching Indira loyalist, as his new book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature testifies. It must be heart-ache that made him say that the Congress was facing an existential crisis. Every point he made was timely and important: Modi and Shah think differently, act differently and if we are not flexible in our approach we will become irrelevant, frankly; we must recognise India has changed, the Congress has to change; a collective effort by party leaders to overcome the challenges is essential.

JR was not being negative. "On the contrary, I think there is a lot of goodwill for the Congress, but people want to see a new Congress", he said. There was no disenchantment with Rahul Gandhi; in fact he asked for an end to the uncertainty about Rahul becoming the President of the party. Manishankar Aiyar, the resident loyalist of Rajiv Gandhi and a man who brought some bold thinking into governance when he held office, joined JR in calling for a new Congress. As he put it: Congressmen should look at reality; we have only 44 members in the Lok Sabha. We need new ideas, new thoughts, new methods to be relevant.

Will such sober voices be heard? No chance. The Gandhis do not hear what they don't want to hear. And there are enough "veterans" to humour them in self-interest. When Jairam Ramesh said the sultanate was gone, "but we behave as if we are sultans still", tired old Sheila Dikshit asked whether he wasn't part of the sultanate? Tired old Veerappa Moily said the party should have zero tolerance for indiscipline. Tired old K.V.Thomas refereed to the grand sacrifices made by people like him and mocked the Congress leaders who came through the back door. These are the rusted minds that sustain the unsustainable dynasty raj and lead the Congress to destruction.

People applauded the unusual conclave of party leaders under the inspiration of Sharad Yadav in Delhi recently. The reason was that it gave a ray of hope that a united opposition might emerge. Undaunted, Amit Shah went beyond his earlier ambition of a Congress-mukt Bharat and proclaimed that the BJP rule will go on for 50 years. With the support he is getting from Rahul Gandhi, this should be easy.


Monday, August 21, 2017

August 15 was the wrong date, chosen for the wrong reason. Also, Iqbal's Hindustan Hamara deserves a fresh look


Has the time come for Independence Day to be shifted to a date other than August 15? The question is neither facetious nor irrelevant. The controversies that accompanied the celebrations this year are a reminder that August 15 was rejected by the astrologers of the time as an "unfortunate and unholy" date. But Viceroy Mountbatten insisted on it because, for him, it was a "very lucky" date; it was on an August 15 that the Japanese army surrendered before him, the Allied Commander in Southeast Asia at the time.

Before his obstinacy, the astrologers suggested a compromise -- August 14-15 midnight. That hour, as far as the astrologers were concerned, was August 14 because astrologically days began with sunrise. Mountbatten didn't care because, for him, days began at midnight. So the flag went up at the midnight hour. But it was a compromise, none the less, to get the better of a stubborn Englishman's ego. Now that a Bharatiya party is in power, the wisdom of astrology should be given its due place and an auspicious date found for Independence Day lest unfortunate and unholy vibrations occur.

This year, for example, official programmes went off well, with lavish splendour on show. But jarring notes came from Tripura, UP and Kerala. The Communist Chief Minister of Tripura had a prepared speech for the occasion. But he was asked to make some changes in the text. He declined whereupon Doordarshan refused to broadcast his speech. The Kerala Chief Minister (also a Communist) had a speech strongly critical of the developments that had taken root in the country under BJP rule. But he wasn't stopped. Smart cookie.

What Kerala witnessed was another kind of disequilibrium. The chief of the RSS, visiting the state, was listed to hoist the flag at a school in Palakkad. It was an aided school and the rules stipulated that flag hoisting should be done only by a teacher or an elected people's representative. The local collector served a notice on the school pointing this out. But the RSS chief chose to violate the rule, went and hoisted the flag, sang Vande Mataram and left the stage with his companions. A minute later, the whole troupe returned to the stage, assumed their previous positions and sang Jana Gana Mana; they had forgotten the national anthem in the first round.

The final act of the tamasha occurred several minutes after the RSS boss and his group had left the school. The authorities of the school, worried about the implications of the collector's notice, assembled in front of the school and went through a flag-hoisting ceremony anew, complete with the national anthem -- a demonstration of patriotism twice over. Last heard, the Chief Minister said a case would be filed against the rule violation, but he also transferred the collector. Smart cookie.

In UP it was quite unnecessary for Chief Minister Adityanath to prove his patriotism by asking Muslims to provide video proof of their patriotism. Government directives had gone out to all madrasas asking them to take video records of the national anthem and the national song being sung by the students and staff.

In the event, barring some Deoband institutions, no one sang the national anthem. Spokesmen for an Islamic seminary in Lucknow had a disarming explanation. Jana Gana Mana, they said had 'Sindh' in it. "Sindh is now in Pakistan and we cannot pray for Pakistan. Remove that word and we'll sing the anthem proudly". What can Yogiji say to that.

Most madrasas hoisted the national flag, and sang Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara. Actually, a moment's thought should be enough to convince perhaps even the UP Chief Minister that this is a song that should be encouraged.

Mohammed Iqbal was a 27-year-old college lecturer in Lahore when he wrote the classic song of patriotism. He was then a believer in pluralism and a composite Hindu-Muslim national culture. It was after he went to Europe that he became an Islamist. In a subsequent song he wrote, the earlier line Watan Hai Hindustan Hamara was re-born as Watan Hai Sara Jahan Hamara. The original song, as sung in those madrasas, is a paean to Hindustan's composite culture as opposed to Islam's concept of world hegemony. That they sing the first version and not the later Islamist version is something to be appreciated. Of course, if the vision is one of Hindutva hegemony, then nothing will do. Even videos may not be conclusive evidence of patriotism. Brain mapping next?



Monday, August 14, 2017

Time to ponder what happened to Independence. How the confidence of 1947 gave way to antagonisms


"August 15, 1947 will go down in history as one of the most memorable dates, not for India alone but for Asia and the world... For India it marks the beginning of a new age, a new outlook, a new future. For the world it gives a new idea and a new method..."

That was how the main editorial began in The Indian Express dated Madras, Friday, August 15, 1947. Seventy years and many ideological somersaults later, it is sobering to took at the sentiments that prevailed then and the reality today. As Freedom Day dawned there was great joy at all levels of opinion, and great excitement. The national mood was marked by confidence. And optimism. These were expressed in mature ways.

One reason was that there was no television in those innocent days. Which meant that news was purveyed with sobriety and a sense of balance. The shouting patriotism of modern-day anchors (the louder you shout, the greater is your nationalism) was alien to newspaper editors who covered news and commented on it with judicious moderation. This applied to what was then British mouthpieces such as The Times of India and to the nationalist press such as The Indian Express.

The Express, though a leading campaigner for independence, maintained editorial restraint on the day of its triumph. It did not go out of its way to make its independence day editorial a trumpeting piece; it was one of three editorials that day, the others being "Inter-American Conference" (on plans to set up a regional council independent of the UN) and "Cochin's Way" (on the Maharaja of Cochin's decision to give key portfolios like Finance to elected ministers). No self-applause, no bragging, no exaggerations in the name of nationalism. Only a sober assessment of today's achievements and tomorrow's challenges.

Seventy years later, where are we? History moved on of course. Regionalism in the Americas gained no traction and the UN is flourishing. Cochin has disappeared into Kerala where all ministers are elected. However, the confidence and optimism that lighted up the mood of the people at the time of independence has all but gone. The main reasons are (a) the hopes that the wounds of partition would heal in time proved wrong, and (b) the idealism of the Gandhi-Nehru era gave way to politics of opportunism.

Who today would believe that there were hopes in 1947 that partition would not last? There were serious people who seriously thought so and the sentiment found expression in the Express's own editorial. It said: "That this freedom is temporarily fissured and broken does not alter the fact that the heritage is common, that the future is yet to be made. Reconstruction and unity must be the aim... Just as the past belongs to India and Pakistan alike, the future too belongs to both". And today we have an officially designated global terrorist, Syed Salahuddin, flourishing under Pakistani protection and proclaiming that he can hit targets anywhere in India at any time.

On the domestic front, too, expectations turned into pipe dreams. The lofty spirit of the time was reflected in a sentence in the Express editorial: "While we should ensure good government for realisation of future destiny, we should also remember that self-government is not to be an instrument of power alone, but an opportunity for service".

Within a decade or so, democracy became an instrument of power and a means of self-aggrandisement. From panchayat members to prime ministers, everyone took to corruption as a routine right of public life. Criminals with jail records became MPs and MLAs, some even ministers.

Why did the early expectations dry up and unexpected forces take control? Perhaps the wholesale copying of Britain's parliamentary system was too much too soon. Perhaps our early leaders underestimated the influence of factors like caste and linguistic parochialism. Neither the generation of Indians who sacrificed everything for freedom nor the early leaders who did their best to strengthen the constitutional integrity of democracy's systems could have foreseen religious animosities overtaking civil life in the country. No one imagined that votes could be won by inciting communal hatreds among people. It is ironic that democracy and elections became instruments of generating intolerance and violence across the country.

The candle lit in 1947 burned out somewhere along the way. No one seems eager today to light a new one. Was V.S. Naipaul right when he wrote: "India's strength, her ability to endure, came from the negative principle, her unexamined sense of continuity"



Monday, August 7, 2017

A strong man gets his due, but BJP betrays a greed for one-party power. That's dangerous for India


D.K.Shivakumar is Karnataka's most formidable politician. He is also the most feared. There are many in Karnataka, including senior Congress leaders, who see him as a liability in public life. Currently the state's Energy Minister, he is recognised by all as a muscleman, fixer, campaign manager, crowd mobiliser, money bag and general go-getter who makes impossible things possible. He is actively into businesses unbecoming a political leader -- real estate, construction, jewellery, mining, malls, education, transport. It is said that Rahul Gandhi had named him as one of two Congress leaders who should be kept out of government. Indeed Chief Minister Siddaramaiah formed his cabinet without the two men. Within a few months, however, both men were handling key portfolios in the government. That was the power of internal manipulators in the Congress.

Shivakumar is so confident of his might that he flaunts his assets openly. His residence in Bangalore is made up of two outsized mansions, their pillars and parapets and windows and balconies glittering either in the sun or in the special decorative lights around. An ordinary citizen building such a residence would immediately attract Income Tax sleuths. In Shivakumar's case, there was also the tidbit that his declared income had gone up from Rs 75.5 crore in 2008 to Rs 251 crore in just five years. The BJP Government in Delhi had a good opportunity to net him in straightforward cases and thereby win the appreciation of citizens who were tired of a politician gone so wrong so openly for so long.

But they botched it. The timing made it clear that the raid on Shivakumar's premises was a case of the party in power using the agencies of the government to serve the party's political ends. By doing it so bluntly, the BJP helped Shivakumar achieve what would have been otherwise impossible -- an element of public sympathy.

The politics of it all is so clear. The Gujarat Rajya Sabha election on August 8 has become a prestige issue for the BJP. The Congress's sole candidate is Ahmad Patel, Sonia Gandhi's faithful follower and a Congress brand. In its all-out bid to get Patel defeated, the BJP already poached Congress MLAs in Gujarat. (The going rate is said to be Rs 15 crore per MLA). One of them was fielded in opposition to Patel. A worried Congress sent its remaining MLAs for safe keeping in Karnataka.


As it happened, D.K.Shivakumar was put in charge of taking care of the MLAs from Gujarat, presumably because a toughie strong man was needed to protect the MLAs from entrapment tactics by the BJP. The BJP, in its current mood of don't-care about the niceties of democracy, then went for the jugular.

There is no doubt that the raids -- five hours of questioning in the first round itself -- and the seizure of cash, gold and documents rattled Shivakumar who never experienced, and never expected, anything of the sort in his life. It must have rattled several other Congress leaders in the state also because their cupboards too are full of skeletons. There are skeletons in plenty in the cupboards of BJP leaders, too, but they will have nothing to worry. For this is a case where the ruling party is determined to do things its way. Conventions and legalities are for the birds.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's protestations of innocence sounded like jokes. The raid on Shivakumar had nothing to do with the Gujarat election, he said. The resort was raided only to check out Shivakumar, he said. Four of the Gujarat MLAs at the resort contradicted that claim and said they too were questioned. They sought the Supreme Court's intervention to ensure their safety now that CRPF men were at the resort.

Will the MLAs be intimidated and threatened into voting the BJP way in Gujarat? They are certainly scared. With the invincible D.K.Shivakumar threatened -- and feeling it -- will some Congressmen in Karnataka play safe by joining BJP as Karnataka goes to the polls in a few months? Winning Karnataka is a bigger prestige issue for the BJP than defeating Ahmad Patel -- and 15 crore for a head is chickenfeed. The BJP of course sticks to its line that its only aim is to end corruption. It does want to end corruption in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. Corruption in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh is of course not corruption, it is nation-building. Please note the new normal in India: BJP or nothing.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Narayanan's non-partisanship was classic. So was Kalam's. Mukherjee played safe. His successor will be safer


In his farewell speech President Pranab Mukherjee highlighted India's strong points and said they had become endangered. "Multiplicity of culture, faith and language is what makes India special", he said."The soul of India is in pluralism and tolerance", he said. Then he referred to increasing violence in the country and warned: "At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear and mistrust". All true, very true. But the question arises: What did President Mukherjee do to use the constitutional and moral power of his office to protect the soul of India against the forces of darkness?

The Bengali intellectual in Pranab Mukherjee paid laudable attention to the culture associated with the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. His focus during the period of his presidency was on bolstering the grandeur of the place -- converting the old stables into a museum, restoring the building housing the President's Body Guard and so on. Reports say that the complex now looks more magnificent than before. But the pluralism, the tolerance, the darkness, the mistrust? That story got lost in translation.

Not that the President has powers comparable to the Prime Minister's. But he has powers that can be used -- powers that come from perceived impartiality, from the exercise of checks and balances. Of the 12 presidents before Mukherjee, nine chose to remain safely inconsequential. (Zail Singh and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed went to the extent of declaring their servitude to the Prime Minister while V.V. Giri and Sanjiva Reddy sustained servitude without declaring it -- evidence of the overriding power Indira Gandhi ensured for herself).

Of the three presidents who dared to plough independent furrows, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic, was a loner. Firstly, he became President despite Prime Minister Nehru's opposition. Nehru was against him because he was Sardar Patel's choice and was religiously inclined (though not communally, in today's Hindutva sense). Secondly, he wanted powers the Constitution did not envisage. There was an exchange of letters between the President and the Prime Minister with Rajendra Prasad arguing that he must have the power, for example, to contact any government secretary directly for information and to function as a third arm of the legislature with discretion to sign bills passed by Parliament. He lost out in this argument because Nehru had the Constitution on his side.

It was K.R. Narayanan who brought out the full potential of the presidency. It was a turbulent period with Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral and A.B.Vajpayee successfully eroding Congress omnipotence. The hour found the man. Narayanan showed his individuality by becoming the first President to exercise his right to vote, and by using his Republic Day address to caution against growing discontent among the deprived sections of society.

Narayanan dissolved Lok Sabha twice. He was the first to establish that a person could be appointed prime minister only if he convinced the President, through letters of support, that he could secure the confidence of the House. Vajpayee was the beneficiary of this decision. The President underscored his non-partisan independence by declining the United Front Prime Minister's recommendation to dismiss the BJP Government of UP, and later by declining the BJP Prime Minister's recommendation to dismiss the Rabri Government of Bihar. An interesting conundrum rises. The nation's first Dalit President, an ardent Congressman, became so impartial as to help the nation's first BJP Government to power; will the nation's second Dalit President, an ardent BJP leader, become impartial enough to decline a BJP Government's recommendation? No prize for guessing the answer because there is no need to guess.

P.J.Abdul Kalam had fewer challenges compared to Narayanan, yet the "people's President" became admired for his independence. He demonstrated it when he declined to sign on the dotted line in the office-of-profit case. The Government wanted various VIPs to be exempted, but the President would not agree.

But there was a more dramatic demonstration of his independence. He was proposed for the presidency by the BJP. But within days of his assuming office, he made the BJP jittery by deciding to visit Narendra Modi's Gujarat, then reeling under the aftershocks of communal rioting. Prime Minister Vajpayee tried to dissuade him, but he said he had to go.

Pranab Mukherjee, the most political President in our history so far, steered clear of tricky situations in his own way. At least at the moment of saying goodbye, he addressed issues he could have addressed earlier. In the days ahead, even that is unlikely to happen. Where hearts unite, tongues are superfluous.




Monday, July 24, 2017

Lalu is natural target in the fight against corruption, but the problem is larger. All parties are guilty


Mention corruption, and the names of some politicians jump out like registered trademarks. Lalu Prasad Yadav is right when he says that the BJP Government is hunting him for political reasons. The Government has indeed been using the CBI to hunt its opponents on a selective basis. But it is able to play politics of revenge because facts are there to exploit. Lalu has been a synonym for corruption in unique ways -- the only leader who breaks laws with defiance and daring.

When his second daughter Rohini got married in 2002, arrangements had to be made on a grand scale which meant dozens of cars for guests, comfortable sofas and chairs for use in the pandal, dry fruits, provisions, garlands and so on. Organising them was no problem for Lalu. Musclemen walked into car showrooms in Patna and just took away all the models there. Others went to furniture storerooms, cake shops, grocery shops, fruit and dry-fruit stalls and flower shops and just took things away. What an original idea! The press published reports but didn't quote shop-owners who were so scared that they pleaded for anonymity. But Rohini got happily married. Those were also days when kidnapping for ransom flourished. Wellknown doctors were among those who lived in fear.

No Indian politician has so openly misused power. Nor has any other leader pushed the family into power with the same I-am-the-proprietor attitude. When the courts disqualified Lalu following the fodder scam (fraudulent payments for non-existent cattle feed), he unashamedly put his illiterate wife Rabri in the chief minister's chair. In the united front with Nitish Kumar, he got two of his sons into the cabinet, one as deputy chief minister. His daughter Misa, inheritor of many of her father's special talents, is in Parliament.

Left to himself, Lalu Prasad would think it perfectly natural for Rabri Devi to become President of the country, Misa to become Prime Minister, Tejaswi the Home Minister with additional charge of Industries, Finance and Information, Tej Pratap the Chief Minister of Bihar, and daughters Rohini, Ragini, Chanda, Hema, Rajalakshmi and Dhannu to be named ambassadors to the world's big powers. He would want nothing for himself except his formal portrait to hang in all government offices as the most loving husband and father in Indian history.

How nasty of CBI to get going suddenly and shatter all the dreams. It filed charges with unusual promptness, claiming that the family had acquired nearly a thousand crore rupees worth of benami properties in a decade. Contracts for the maintenance of railway hotels and licence for a liquor factory were the kind of favours given in return for prime properties. There was a "gift" of land even by Rabri Devi's cattle-shed owner. Some unkindly opponents referred to Lalu as "the Robert Vadra of Bihar".

Lalu's operations were wide and his attitude reckless. Therefore he made himself easy prey to his opponents. But deeper is the corruption that goes on at the grassroots. There has been a drop, since Narendra Modi's rise, in big-ticket scandals in Delhi like the Commonwealth Games or the Spectrum sale. But that does not lighten the burden of everyday corruption that continues as before. The last Transparency International report put the total bribe Indians paid to access routine government services at Rs 21,000 crore. (How? Go and register a trust or a will at any sub-registrar office and you will know).

All parties contribute to this shame despite the BJP's holier than thou posture.A former Gujarat chief minister's daughter faced charges of getting 422 acres of land from the state government at Rs 15 per square meter when the government's own prevailing rate was Rs 180 per square meter. The long-running Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh rocked Parliament again recently but is yet to be fully investigated. Lalit Modi, with friends in BJP, is not trawled the way Vijay Mallya is though both are absconders of the same kind. Most importantly, some BJP leaders in Kerala have been found to have taken money to help start new medical colleges in the state.

Prime Minister Modi made yet another call for a corruption-free India when he said, at the all-party meet on the eve of Parliament's current session, that it was the responsibility of all political parties to take action against corrupt leaders. All parties? That sounds like an instruction to the Karnataka BJP to find a clean chief minister candidate instead of one who was jailed for corruption the first time around.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Be it currency shift, Aadhaar, GST, there is a mad rush; People feel cornered, vexed. Why this mad rush?


Usually life gets simpler as nations progress. But not in India where a barrage of sudden changes, new rules and revised regulations are making life burdensome for ordinary people. First it was demonetisation. The dislocations that abrupt adventure triggered are still haunting people. As if that were not enough, a whole new mess has developed around Aadhaar. Then a bigger mess around GST. The wise men in Government tell us that it's all simple, that it's all good. What we know in everyday life is that it's all oppressive.

All tax paying in India is oppressive and vexatious. In a small outpost like Hongkong, to cite one example, there is a one-page form (that's right, one page) for the citizen to fill up and send to a named tax officer along with a cheque. If there is a doubt, the officer will phone you and settle the matter. That simple. In our country the system is designed to sustain the chartered accountants of the country. Not even an educated citizen can file his tax return on his own because of the technicalities involved. The ground rule is that the tax-paying citizen is guilty until proved innocent.

In this climate Aadhaar is turned into all kinds of things it was not meant to be. Way back in Nandan Nilekani's days, Aadhaar looked like a decent thing -- an ID card for Indians, the more sensible because it was voluntary. There was nothing intimidating about it; it merely confirmed your presence and identity in a yes-no format.

What we now have is mandatory Aadhaar. It has acquired a whole new existential importance because a citizen cannot get a passport, cannot open a bank account, cannot file tax returns, cannot buy a car, cannot even get a railway ticket unless he produces his Aadhaar. Tens of thousands of pensioners have not received their sustenance because their PF accounts are not linked to Aadhaar. Weak or infirm, they are now part of a huge rush to get the paper work done -- presenting Aadhaar card, pension passbook, bank passbook and biometric details to be qualified to get their own money.

Franz Kafka foresaw this kind of nightmarish situation where an omnipotent power floated just beyond the senses. "You go to the city to see the law. Upon arrival outside the building, there is a guard who says 'you may not pass without permission', you notice that the door is open, but it closed enough for you not to see anything (the law)".

Not just Kafka, George Orwell also saw what was coming. The expanded, post-Nilekani Aadhaar violates norms of privacy and individual freedom with joyful abandon, making surveillance of citizens as patriotic as in the days of Big Brother. Orwell was cited in the Supreme Court when a petition came up against Aadhaar. Countering it, the new Attorney General, K. K. Venugopal, argued that Aadhaar had helped more than 300 million poor. Why does Aadhaar attract such contrarian reactions, Kafkaesque, Orwellian and Venugopalish? And indeed Narendra Modi-like? One month before he became Prime Minister, Modi said that in Aadhaar, "there is no vision, only political gimmick".

Is there vision in GST? Minister Venkiah Naidu, who sees life in simple blacks and whites with no inconvenient greys in between, said last week that only those who avoid taxes would criticise GST. Is the Finance Minister of Telengana one who avoids taxes? For the state minister said that GST was "impractical" because of "irrational tax rates".

By Naidu's yardstick, textile businessmen, small traders, hotel keepers, farmers, fishermen, petrol bunk operators, chicken traders, and a whole lot of people who are on the margins are tax dodgers. For they are all at their wit's end over the GST complexities such as price variations and overcharging. Fishermen leading a harsh hand-to-mouth existence, are placed in the tax squeeze for the first time. How will they live during the off-season months when they cannot go out into the waters?

In principle, GST is a good concept. As is Aadhaar. As is demonetisation. The problem is that these are not introduced properly, gradually and after giving people time to understand and adjust to wholesale changes. The Government does not seem to have learned anything from the chaos -- and the deaths -- caused by demonetisation. It is still in a mad rush to change the country, change the way people live, change the way people think. The wise say: Make haste slowly. The otherwise show "no vision, only political gimmick".



Monday, July 10, 2017

Saudis want Qatar out; Turkey wants new dominant role; hostilities in Muslim lands pose problems for all


There is turmoil in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has made a hardline prince the effective ruler. Qatar, isolated by neighbouring Arab states, is defiant. Turkey has become a virtual dictatorship, changing the country's profile and claiming a larger regional role for itself. The war zone in Syria sees Russia and the US challenging each other. Jihadists lie in wait for every opportunity. These are not developments that concern only the Arabs and other Muslims. They make the world unsafe. India has reasons to worry.

The epicentre of the upheaval is Saudi Arabia, more specifically, its newly elevated crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, son of the 81-year old King. He was the power wielder even earlier as deputy crown prince, defense minister and economic decision-maker. It was he who started the war in Yemen in early 2015. Despite US-backed air assaults and continuous ground bombardments at a cost to the Saudis of an estimated $ 200 million a day, the Saudis have failed to suppress the largely Shiah Houthis of Yemen; the war that is into its third year has only shown Saudi Arabia's military incompetence. At one point, the Saudis used their wealth to put together what was called the Islamic Military Alliance with Pakistan's former army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander. It lead to Sunni embarrassment all over, Gen. Raheel himself quietly quitting the scene.

Undaunted, the aggressive prince launched other, bolder initiatives: Arm-twisting of Qatar, an economic overhaul to reduce Saudi's dependence on oil (taxes have been introduced in the country), and a hardening of policies against Iran. These caused concern across the world. A memo by Germany's foreign intelligence service said Saudi Arabia was destabilising the Middle East with "an impulsive policy of intervention".

The unprecedented move against an Arab alliance member was not only impulsive but also counterproductive. Qatar is the headquarters of America's military base in the Gulf -- a strategic reality that made the US, otherwise a spirited ally of Saudi Arabia, less than enthusiastic about "boycotting" Qatar. The reason for Saudi anger against Qatar is that the Qatar rulers do not consider Iran as an enemy. Qatar has tried to maintain, what is by Arab standards, a neutral position on many fronts. At one level, it runs Al Jazeera, the only Arab news service that has a degree of credibility. At another level, it keeps open its channels of communication with Iran, the Shiite power Sunni Saudis consider their rival and which, therefore, they want to destroy.

While other Sunni Arab states like UAE fell in line with Saudi Arabia, the non-Arab Muslim power, Turkey, maintained fairly close relations with Iran. It did not hesitate to help Qatar when the Saudi alliance excommunicated it. Turkey's elected dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is dismantling the secular republic created by the legendary Kemal Ataturk and building instead an Islamic State which he hopes will acquire the kind of influence the old Istanbul-based Ottoman Empire did. Turkey was waiting like a supplicant to be admitted as a member of the European Union. Not any longer. Now Erdogan has turned against Europe, especially Germany and Netherlands where Turkey's ministers were not allowed to address Turkish diaspora. Erdogan went so far as to call the Germans and the Dutch "Nazi gorillas". Turkey's foreign minister warned that Europe now faced the prospect of Holy War.

As far back as in 1996 Samuel Huntington had foreseen something like this happening. His Clash of Civilisations had said that at some point Turkey could resume its "historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor". This would happen, he prophesied, if Turkey rejected Ataturk's legacy "more thoroughly than Russia has rejected Lenin's". That is just what is happening.

Fear of the unexpected has changed the tenor of life. Security protocols control everything. Suddenly, it's an unsafe world. For India, too. The US and Saudi Arabia turning against Iran could tempt India to join them -- which would be a costly mistake given the benefits India can reap from economic collaboration with Iran. The Bangladesh Government told Delhi a few months ago that there was a three-fold increase in the number of jihadis infiltrating into India. The IS has made its presence felt in the country. It has even attracted young people from well-to-do Muslim families to join their ranks. The insecurity violent cow vigilantes have produced among Muslims in some parts of the country may be a factor in this. Everywhere there is uncertainty in the air. The world is tense. The darkness deepens.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Business leaders, SBI turn sceptical about our economy; farmers react with suicides -- which is a bad sign


Those of us who spend the midnight hour sleeping missed the celebratory introduction of GST. After all, it was not the same as the hour "when the world sleeps, India awakes to life and freedom... when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". Every soul, illiterate or educated, felt the thrill of that utterance 70 years ago. A big majority of those who are going to pay the "consolidated" tax called GST don't understand it at all. That's the way of the sarcar whichever party is in power. Try paying property tax in any city, try paying income tax without the help of at least one chartered accountant, and you'll know how the sarcar likes you to run in circles.

Such is the confusion that we can't even be sure if the economy is going forward or standing still. It is galloping forward if we listen to the Finance Minister and his government/party colleagues. But business leaders are giving warning signals while the Government's own State Bank of India has openly criticised demonetisation. And it is no longer secret that a cold war has developed between the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank.

Manmohan Singh -- now seen as a Congressman rather than an economist -- was ignored when he said that demonetisation triggered an economic slowdown. But no one can ignore A.M. Naik, executive chairman of L & T, when he says that there is hesitancy in private investment and if the Government does not spend, "there will be no growth in the economy".

What is becoming clear is that, now that people have had time to see the impact of notebandi, informed criticism of that trademark policy of the Government is turning strident. Experts grant that when the economy is operating normally and people are gradually made familiar with the concept of cashless transactions, discontinuation of high-value currency can have a favourable effect. But that was not what happened in our case. The suddenness of the drastic policy shift created chaos across the country. Cash became unavailable. Small traders stared at starvation. Agriculture mandis saw prices crumbling with disastrous consequences.

Last month the State Bank of India cautioned that demonetisation could continue to slow down the economy. It told institutional investors that the long-term impact of the note ban on India's economy and the banking sector would be "uncertain". So what was the currency coup all about? It certainly did not end black money. Within days of the new currency's entry, large sums of it went underground creating new black money. Headlines turned sensational when a BJP activist was caught recently with machinery that printed fake currency notes. SBI's words of caution strengthened the view that demonetisation was not an economic move, but a political one.

When demonetisation was announced, there were conflicting reports on whether the RBI Governor was in the loop or not. Raghuram Rajan's departure from Governorship was linked to his purported disagreement over the idea. Earlier this month present Governor Urjit Patel said that members of the Monetary Policy Committee had refused to meet finance ministry officials for a policy review meeting. Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramaniam presented the Government's view when he said that "the RBI's inflation forecast errors have been large and systematically one-sided".

The advantage of highfalutin cerebralism among economists is that black can be presented as white and vice versa. The World Bank's India Development Report released in May appeared under two opposing headlines in the print media. One said: "India to grow at 7.2 percent in FY 18", and "7.7 percent forecast for 2019-20 on the back of strong fundamentals". The other said: "World Bank cuts India's growth estimates". Both were correct of course. Only that the second one pointed out that the World Bank's original growth estimate was 7.6 percent, but the performance had fallen short. The first one mentioned nothing about the fall and added the rosy forecast for the next year.

Publicity tricks can go so far but no further. Farmers are in deep crisis and they are responding with suicides in the thousands and mass protests that alternate between the violent and the pathetic (near-naked protestors wearing the skulls of their departed friends). The way the farmers agitation has spread across the country points to a very serious crisis that cannot be met by financially dangerous shortcuts such as loan waiver. Arguments stop and propaganda fails when people, their livelihood lost, start killing themselves. That's how tempests gather.



Monday, June 26, 2017

BJP's coup may send a nice man to Rashtrapathi Bhavan; but questions remain about politics by caste


In political and strategic terms, the BJP leadership staged the equivalent of a coup d'etat when it nominated Ram Nath Kovind for President. The choice killed three birds with one stone. Bird No. 1: The opposition parties' unity against the ruling dispensation. Not only did Bihar's Nitish Kumar break rank to support the BJP; the usual dissonance between father Mulayam and son Akhilesh Yadav pushed the Samajwadis into yet another imbroglio. Bird No. 2: The opposition's chance to field independently a candidate of superior status. Meira Kumar has the right credentials, but her choice essentially means the opposition imitating the BJP's tactic of playing the Dalit card. Bird No. 3: Presumed Dalit antipathy to the Hindutva camp which is seen as a Pune-Nagpur savarna setup. The party in power is in a position to ensure that the election of the President next month will be a mere formality.

The strategists of the BJP scored grace marks as well by picking a man who seems to carry himself well. We need to remember that there were proposals to nominate the RSS chief himself for the highest constitutional position. That would have sent out the message that hardline Hindutva ideology was taking over the country in unabashed style. Avoiding such an unwise projection of the country's image, the decision-makers zeroed in on a man whose chief asset is his low profile. Kovind is a card-carrying BJP man. But as Governor of Bihar he attracted no adverse publicity as, for example, the BJP governors of UP and Karnataka did. Actually he remained unknown all these years. We now hear that he has been a lawyer of some quality and has a scholarly bend of mind, unusual by BJP-RSS standards. In a country where small-minded careerists like Zail Singh and inconsequential bystanders like Pratibha Patil brought disrepute to the presidency, Kovind has the potential to uphold its dignity.

The political calculations behind Kovind's nomination are a different matter, however. It is obvious that his scholarship and non-controversial profile were not the factors that led to his elevation. His caste was. Caste has been a decisive factor in the electoral strategising of all parties across the country. It was especially so in UP where Mayawati built an empire in the name of Dalits despite her service to the community being minimal and self-centred. Kovind, a Kanpur native, will be embraced by UP Dalits, BJP calculates. But Mayawati, significantly, has switched to Meira Kumar.

While the BJP has done a smart job for itself, the larger question remains: On account of electoral compulsions, is India condemned to be nothing more than a sum of its communal parts? Politics and even law and order in many parts of India in recent years have been dominated by caste-based campaigns, often violent, by Thakurs and Dalits, Jats and Gujjars, Patidars and Rajputs and Vanniyars. Is this how our political parties want India's future to be, or do they have a responsibility to lead the country away from narrow casteism?

This is the first time a presidential nominee has been picked on the basis of his caste identity. K. R. Narayanan was not fielded because he was a Dalit. It was his background as diplomat, administrator and minister and, above all, his stature as a public figure that made him a candidate for the highest post in the country. And he lived up to the trust the country placed in him.

P.J. Abdul Kalam was not nominated because he was a Muslim. Nor was Zakir Hussain long before him. In fact those gentlemen were outstanding examples of India's secular identity. Not once did they conduct themselves or take decisions as Muslims. They were Indian citizens and were recognised as such.

It is true that in those times, too, political parties made their electoral calculations on the basis of religion and caste. Even Marxist E.M.S. Namboothiripad went to the extent of creating a new Muslim-majority district in Kerala to please its constituents. But the emphasis on religious and caste is now at a higher pitch, the UP state election signalling a climax of that process. Since the BJP's current strategy is anchored on caste considerations, the role of communal elements in public life will increase.

That Ram Nath Kovind is a worthy candidate is unrelated to the cynical calculations behind his nomination. Principles matter. In the life of a nation, todays are the building blocks of tomorrows. Compromises adopted for momentary victories may well lead to defeats in the long term.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Congress planning to lose its hold on Karnataka, too? With boldness (not National Herald) it can win


Even in its glory days, the National Herald never had a South Indian presence. It was always a Delhi-Lucknow entity and knew it. It would have been another inconsequential provincial rag but for its ownership (Jawaharlal Nehru) and its editorship (Chalapathi Rau). Actually, the latter more than the former. While Nehru was an absentee overlord, it was Chalapathi's superior qualities as editor, writer and activist that made the paper a stand-out.

The Delhi-North Indian stamp of the Herald is an unalterable historical reality. Yet, when they decided to launch a commemorative edition of the paper, they chose Bangalore as the launching pad. Strange. Why didn't they pick Delhi where the multistorey Herald House rises proudly in the city's newspaper street, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg? Why not Lucknow, the paper's birthplace and headquarters? Why did they choose a location never associated with the Herald in any way?

The reason of course is that the Congress was playing practical politics. Today's Delhi is unfriendly territory for a Nehru-linked institution. Lucknow would be even more unfriendly with a saffron-clad yogi reigning as the monarch of all he surveys there. Karnataka is a major state where the Congress is unchallenged in power. To hold a launch function there would not only be safe; it would ensure the attendance of government leaders and thus the attention of the entire state administration. That was what happened. The National Herald and Rahul Gandhi were praised skyhigh with the entire state cabinet turning out and the police closing major highways to make it an easy ride for the Congress.

In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi, the star of the show, made a good impression with his speech. Someone had obviously provided timely input, for the Congress scion said that "the power of truth is being completely replaced by the truth of power". He even quoted Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the legendary Soviet era poet, to remind us that "when truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie". Very true. But when the British tried to replace truth with silence, another Gandhi responded with action that found a million tongues.

What does the present Gandhi do? He quoted Yevtushenko, then flew to Delhi and then went off to Italy to spend time, we were told, with his 93-year old grandmother. A sycophant added insult to injury by saying that "attending to aged grandparents is part of Indian culture". Rahul Gandhi is known for his regular disappearances from India. But this was a critical moment, with strategies being worked out for the presidential election, a gathering of opposition leaders taking place and the farmers' agitation in the Hindi heartland growing worse by the day. Rahul chose to ignore all that and become part of Indian culture instead.

That the Congress is in the hands of a part-time leader is the biggest asset of the BJP. Unable to come up with initiatives that enthuse the people, the Congress goes after ideas that confuse them -- like the National Herald commemoration in Bangalore. What was its purpose? Certainly not to revive the paper which is an impossibility. Was it then a move to give a boost to the Congress in Karnataka in preparation for the election next year?

That is going to be a life-and-death election for the Congress. But a gimmick built round a newspaper that is unknown in Karnataka is no way to prepare for so crucial an election. A bold Congress can still fight and win. The key word is bold. It must be bold enough to realise that the incumbency factor alone will lead to its collapse if the present leadership structure continues. A new face and a new promise, on the other hand, can certainly give it a fighting chance.

The Congress can electrify the scene in its favour if it projects Mallikarjun Kharge as its chief ministerial candidate in the next election. He is the only leader in Karnataka with a clean image and his administrative experience is unrivalled. He is also the only Congressman tall enough to keep in check the criminal elements that occupy important positions in the party leadership today. Indeed, Kharge appears to be the only option open to the Congress to keep at least one state under its flag in the South. The question is less whether Kharge can be persuaded to take up the task and more whether the Congress leadership has the ability to understand its plight. The alternative is to go the National Herald way.


Monday, June 12, 2017

With political help, lobbies put chemicals in our diet; BJP must honour its pledge to keep GM food out


Before the power of commercial lobbies, even the BJP government bows. The party's manifesto took a strong stand against GM foods; ignoring it, the Government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) greensignalled genetically engineered mustard in India. GM mustard is known to be more dangerous than GM cotton (which has caused havoc already) and GM brinjal (which was stopped in the nick of time).

Because mustard is used in every household every day in India, its health implications are of special importance to us. GM mustard is an HT (herbicide tolerant) crop. This euphemism means it uses a single herbicide, eventually becoming resistant and necessitating heavy use of chemical herbicide. Such excessive use has been linked to birth defects and childhood cancers. Almost all of Europe has discontinued the GM concept altogether because of health issues.

Why then does India welcome these traps? There are three reasons: The vested interests of politicians, over-enthusiasm of civil servants, and the apparent ease with which watchdogs like GEAC can be compromised. Much of this is facilitated by the world's most powerful lobbying groups which routinely influence US Government policies. (Barak Obama appointed several Monsanto executives in his Government's food and agriculture supervisory bodies).

These lobbies are no less powerful in India. Remember those horrid, heart-wrenching videos of endosulfan victims in Kasargod areas? They are still there -- pitiably malformed children and men with bloated body parts. Every time such pathetic pictures of human suffering appeared on television screens, people would ask: Why doesn't the Government ban endosulfan? And every time Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was confronted with the question, he would say: We need to do more tests to know if endosulfan is harmful. How thick can political skins get?

Insensitive politicians are aided and abetted by specialists in the Government's planning bodies. Niti Ayog has argued in favour of GM mustard on the ground that the GM technology will substantially increase yield. This is a myth as UN statistics prove. Non-GM users have the highest mustard yield -- Germany, France, UK, Poland, Czech Republic. Way down in the table are GM users -- USA, Canada, Australia. Why did Niti Ayog rely on other self-serving statistics? And why did it ignore social and health issues?

The bigger tragedy is that we cannot be sure of our watchdogs; under pressure, they become promoters rather than preventers of malpractices. India has for long been a victim of this malaise. In 2009 the Food & Safety Standards Authority of India, our only food regulatory body, saw Pepsi and Coca-Cola officials becoming members of panels to judge various technical matters such as sampling methods, additives and flavourings. With a board comprising representatives of the very companies it was supposed to regulate, what safety standards could FSSAI ensure?

Similar manipulations made the GEAC clear GM brinjal in 2009. Monsanto, described by The Guardian of UK as "the world's most hated company", infiltrated the GEAC and also gave various research assignments to field researchers and sundry agricultural scientists in the country. The result was that Monsanto-flavoured research reached the GEAC for Mansanto-flavoured decisions. Activist Kavita Kuruganti publicly charged that the chairman of the Expert Committee appointed to examine the matter was "pressurised by the Agriculture Minister, GEAC and the industry" to clear GM brinjal. We were saved from it only because an alert minister, Jairam Ramesh, put it safely in Trishanku Swarga.

The lobbyists turned smarter this time. They presented GM mustard as the product of a Delhi University team's research. This was followed by another report: The genes that went into the DU mustard was the property of Bayer, a merged part of Monsanto. Three giant corporations including Monsanto-Bayer control both the seeds market and the pesticide market globally. It's a win-win situation for them and Swadeshi scientists, too, necessarily work as their foot soldiers.

The only thing that can be done about technologies based on chemical pesticides is to eliminate them. Reckless use of pesticides in the cotton region of Punjab ruined a generation of farmers. Their tragedy was dramatised by the "cancer train" that took afflicted farmers daily from Bhatinda station to Bikaner (where the Acharya Tulsi cancer institute was more affordable). Biologist Pushpa Bhargava, appointed by the Supreme Court in 2008 to observe the GEAC's functioning, was outraged by the manipulations he saw. "Whatever Monsanto said was God's own word", he said and warned: "If bt. Brinjal is released, it will be the single largest disaster in the country".

Larger still will be the mustard disaster.

Monday, June 5, 2017

BJP approach to cattle trading will hurt the economy; but who cares since the idea is to create vote banks


It's clear: The cow dominates India. The world is changing in radical ways and life-and-death issues confront our country -- GST's impact on everyday life, the "dirty war" in Kashmir, rising attacks on women, crisis in the IT industry, tensions with China. But none of them gets the national attention the cow gets. It is as though the country is meant only for cow worshippers and cow eaters. Religion is the key here as it is in all policy matters nowadays.

(Before we go any further, it is important for this writer to make what is called a disclaimer. I do not eat meat. Of any kind. Can't even stand the sight of it dangling from hooks in wayside stalls. In school days I was in love with Lakshmi, one of three cows in the family shed. She was a real beauty, plump and wholesome and shining deep brown and aglow with a smile, I thought, when she saw me. No one worshipped her, except me, only that my worship was that of a lover).

The most important thing we should know about today's cow debate is that it is not rational. It is emotional and political. This is because the BJP in power believes that it can alter the country's DNA. Remember that legislation for cow protection need not be aggressive. The Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Act is dated 1964 when Congress stalwart Kengal Hanumanthaiah was the chief minister. Note that it specified cow, without hiding behind terms like cattle as now.

The BJP has given the issue a combative, party-oriented twist. This comes through disastrously in the violence unleashed by cow rowdies: Lynching a citizen on mere suspicion, flogging dalits who skinned dead cattle as per tradition, beating to death a dairy farmer taking his cows home, ABVP activists attacking a student in IIT-Madras for eating beef. That such crimes are committed before cameras and then publicised shows that the criminals are sure of support from law-enforcers. On the record so far, they are right.

No wonder that reason has no chance and partisan emotionalism wins the day. Historian D.N. Jha's 2001 book Holy Cow: Beef in India was a scholarly study. But even before it was out, Hindutva forces declared war. The Government banned the book and the author, facing death threats, was obliged to take police protection. Jha had merely quoted chapter and verse to show that Hindus ate beef in the past.

With the same belligerence with which they attack the facts of the past, communal partisans reject the realities of the present. The economics of cattle farming are of existential importance to India. Farmers who rear cattle must have the facility to sell them at will, hence the thousands of cattle markets in the country. A productive cow (useful in agriculture and dairy work) can get half a lakh of rupees in the market. Once productivity stops, the bovines have no value except in the meat market. To deny this is to hit farmers below the belt.

Farmers who cannot sell cattle profitably, will stop rearing cattle (providing 20 kg of fodder to an animal means Rs 150 a day to the farmer). At the same time the population of stray cattle will increase. This is already visible in Maharashtra and Haryana where the BJP has banned beef. There are no organisations with the ability and the willingness to run goshalas for the tens of thousands of cows that roam shelterless. And what of the industries dependent on various parts of cattle -- skin (India's leather exports earn $ 6 billion a year), bone, horns, tail hair, blood? And the employment given to traders, middlemen, transporters, tanners, cooks? From no angle relevant to the progress of a nation is a cattle trading ban justified. It is not justified even from the point of view of Hindus en masse; many non-Brahmin Hindus are meat eaters. Just as many non-Hindus are vegetarian.

Wouldn't a national programme to promote vegetarianism have been wiser than an arbitrary ban on traditional cattle business? Given the increasing popularity of vegetarian diets across the world, India could play a leadership role in such a programme as it did in the case of Yoga. That would have indirectly led to cow protection as well. Such constructive thinking can of course have no scope if the intention is to divide people and create vote banks. The cow has been reduced to a political tool -- an insult to its holiness.



Monday, May 29, 2017

When Trump calls for a war against Islamic terrorism and praises its historical promoter, it is hypocrisy


Abu Zubaydah, a "high-value" associate of fellow Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, was captured by America's CIA from a safe house in Pakistan in 2002. (Pakistan's ISI got $ 10 million for services rendered). Badly wounded, Zubaydah was put on painkillers. CIA strategists manipulated the medication until the man was hallucinated into believing that he was in Saudi Arabian custody. Feeling relieved, he gave the "doctors" a telephone number and asked them to call a member of the Saudi royal family to ask for further instructions. He also revealed that the royals had agreed in late 1990s to support bin Laden in return for assurances that the kingdom would be excluded from his jihad. The CIA got to work. Three Saudi leaders and a Pakistani army officer Zubaydah had named died one after another in accidents. All secrets were safe.

Details like these, described in the 2003 book Why America Slept: The failure to prevent 9/11 by Gerald Posner are alarming enough. They get scary when read alongside reports that, after President George Bush proclaimed a no-fly order covering America's entire airspace following the 9/11 attack, a solitary aircraft rose from the Washington area and flew out of American space, safely, unchallenged. It was a Saudi Arabian passenger plane. Few knowledgeable people today doubt that Saudi Arabia was behind the 9/11 terror strike that shook the world. Of the 19 terrorists in the four hijacked planes, 15 were Saudi citizens.

It was from this Saudi Arabia that the new President of the United States appealed to Muslim nations last week to ensure that "terrorists find no sanctuary in their soil". He told what was called the Arab Islamic American Summit (35 Sunni countries friendly with the Saudis) that it was necessary to "honestly confront the crisis of Islamist extremism".

As it happens, Islamist extremism is also a wholly Saudi Arabian contribution. Warring tribal chieftains who established the Saudi dynasty used Wahabism, a violently orthodox reconstruction of Islam, as a ruse to build up their hegemony in the Arabian peninsula. In recent years they have been using it to spread Saudi-Wahabi influence in countries with large Muslim populations. The flow of Saudi money and Saudi evangelists has been radicalising local Islamic communities in many countries including India.

An unplanned offshoot of Saudi Arabia's undeclared religious war is the rise of the IS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a caliphate that is out to capture the world by force). The ground was prepared for them, first, by the Bush profiteers who created a war to milk Iraq's oil resources and, then, by Saudi Arabia's putsch to establish Sunni dominance over Iraq's Shias and Syria's ruling Alawi sect. An entire generation in the region has been brutalised by Saudi machinations.

From Wahabism's rise in the 18th century and the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932 to the rise of IS in 1999, Saudi Arabia has been the principal incubator of the terrorism that gentlemen like Donald Trump now condemn. But they dare not point a finger at Saudi Arabia. For a moment Trump sounded like he was finally calling a spade a spade when he told the aforementioned Summit: "No discussion on stamping out terrorism would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three [essentials] -- safe harbour, financial backing, and social standing for recruitment". A perfect profile of Saudi Arabia, but Trump hastened to say: "I am speaking of course of Iran". What relief! Ironically, Trump and his Saudi hosts attacked Iran just when the only democratic election in the region saw the re-election in Iran of a modernist-moderate, Hassan Rouhani, over a hardline cleric.

But Trump's rhetoric is fully understandable. He is a deal-maker with his mind focussed on money. Saudi Arabia agreed to buy US weapons worth $ 100 billion. It agreed to invest $ 350 billion in America. It agreed also to give $ 100 million to a woman's business fund promoted by Lady Trump. That's real money. For Trump the embrace of Saudi Arabia is the embrace of money. America First as he proclaims.

What about us? Our joint projects with Iran -- the Chabahar port, gas pipelines -- are of great value not only economically but also strategically considering China's parallel activities with Pakistan. Smart nations find ways to pursue their bilateral interests without letting third parties come in the way. We let the America First approach come in the way of what should be an India First stance with Iran.