Saturday, December 25, 2010

Does Pawar know his onions?

Of what use is Sharad Pawar to India? There are many reasons to believe that the country would be better off if he were nowhere near power. The latest onion crisis is just one of them.

Like all crises that have occurred during Pawar's watch in the Food Ministry, the current onion crunch could also be seen coming well before it actually hit. The rains misbehaved and onion traders quickly noticed another opportunity shaping up to exploit the people. A watchful Food Ministry could also have seen what the traders saw, but it chose to be otherwise busy.

Even when the crisis exploded threatening grave political fallout, Pawar was typically indifferent. The rains caused it, he said – as if we didn't know. The high prices would last a fortnight or so, he said – as if that was all there was to be said.

It was left to the Prime Minister, already harassed by other crises and conscious of the political potential of onions, to take some corrective action. The PMO and the Cabinet Secretary moved quickly, ordering among other things raids on the godowns of hoarders. It helped to some extent. A concerted action plan by an alert Food Ministry would have made all the difference, anticipating that tomato and garlic traders would also try to take advantage of the situation.

Pawar's erratic handling of his ministry is nothing new. When foodgrains rotted in government godowns, he merely explained it away – blaming state governments, for example – without taking any meaningful action. When the horrible effects of endosulfan were demonstrably proved by the pitiable plight of sufferers in Karasgod, Pawar dismissed it and appointed yet another inquiry committee headed by a man who had already headed a previous committee which had ruled in favour of the pesticide lobby. How irresponsible can a minister get.

A cursory look at Pawar's career will show that using governmental power for the country's good was nowhere in his agenda. His high-profile party colleague in the Union Cabinet, Praful Patel, has grievously harmed Air-India; its assets have been reduced and its schedules have been changed to give advantage to Jet Airways and Kingfisher.

Pawar's NCP has ministers in the Goa Government also. The current status there is weird. An NCP Minister, Mickky Pacheco, had to resign when he became the main accused in the death of his lady friend Nadia. The poor lady drank rat poison, said some people. But the post mortem showed several wounds on her body, some inflicted by a heavy object. While people wondered how rat poison could cause wounds on the body, the American Government said that Pacheco was involved in a “massive immigration and money laundering racket” and soon CBI and Income Tax sleuths raided the man's premises with charges of forgery and cheating. Pacheco, denied bail by Goa High Court and by the Supreme Court, was later given bail by the Margao district and sessions court. That's when Sharad Pawar asked the Goa Chief Minister to make him minister again. That's how much he cares for public opinion or the proprieties of democracy.

Pawar was publicly annoyed with Delhi for putting the brakes on the Lavasa real estate project. The project got going when the Krishna Valley Development Corporation gave what eventually amounted to 141 acres of land to Lavasa promoters at a ridiculously cheap rate. The Chairman of the KVDC then was Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew. Among the shareholders of the Lavasa project (until they withdrew in 2006, or was it 2004?) were his daughter Supriya Sule and her husband. How nice and cosy.

In fact land has always been Sharad Pawar's object of fascination. Long before Yeddyurappa knew about the possibilities of denotification, Sharad Pawar, as Maharashtra Chief Minister, denotified 285 plots in Bombay to be sold to industrial houses. Political insiders consider Pawar as the richest politician in India.

India has been of invaluable use to Sharad Pawar. Of what use is Sharad Pawar to India?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who's protecting the guilty?

In both number and scope, the latest CBI raids on Raja-Radia targets are dramatic. If they mean a newfound determination on the part of decision-makers, it is even more dramatic. Not only were some three dozen raids simultaneously launched; the exercise went sensationally close to touching DMK boss Karunanidhi in person.

Raids on the premises of A. Raja and Niira Radia were daring enough, given their political and corporate connections. Raja was cornered from all sides. Not only his friends and business associates but even the university quarters of his brother were searched by CBI investigators. Among other surprises was the raid on the residence of Pradip Baijal. This is no ordinary IAS celebrity. He was Secretary, Disinvestment when the Disinvestment Ministry sold off government hotels in Mumbai in highly controversial circumstances. He was later chairman of the telecom regulatory authority playing a role in the 2G spectrum pricing mess. On retiring from that post, the gentleman straightaway joined Niira Radia as a paid staff member. Inconvenient coincidences on which the CBI will now have some useful information.

Significant as these raids are, they are dwarfed by others that can only be described as politically defiant. For the first time, Karunanidhi's most prominent wife, Rajathi Ammal, and their favoured daughter, Kanimozhi, came within the CBI's orbit. The two ladies had already figured in the published Radia conversations – and not in a flattering light. Now Rajathi Ammal's auditor had his premises raided. Also raided was a priest, Gaspar Raj, who ran Kanimozhi's favourite NGO, Tamil Maiyam.

Auditors are usually raided when there are dubious financial transactions. Rajathi Ammal's name was also dragged into a major land deal in central Chennai acquired by people close to her. As for NGOs, when the Reverend Gaspar Raj is also associated with activities related to the LTTE, a banned organisation, the altruistic aura of an NGO dims somewhat. That Kanimozhi was a strong supporter of Raja doesn't help either, now that Raja is seen as a bad egg even by important sections of the DMK leadership. She is isolated in the family and is seen as a political novice.

With the CBI looking into the account books and diaries of VIPs hitherto considered beyond its reach, corrective action can at last follow to stop India's drift into corruption-triggered decay. Ay, there's the rub. With politicians we can never be sure of their true intentions. All too often a show of determination on their part is no more than diversionary tactic, leaving the guilty ultimately unpunished.

Two factors make us wonder if the present investigations will be carried to their logical conclusion swiftly and decisively. First, why did the authorities wait so long to take action? For a year or perhaps two, the information brought out by the Radia tapes must have been available to government agencies. But nothing happened. Only when media exposure and public anger mounted, was the CBI told to get into hyperaction. Something suggests that there is someone somewhere who wants to avoid action and let things drift. That someone has to be at the very top.

Secondly, a lack of will has been a distinguishing feature of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi dispensation every time corruption cases came into the open. That lack of will is still dominant as the top leadership's shillyshallying over Suresh Kalmadi shows. It has reached a stage where the CBI has complained to the Government that Kalmadi and Commonwealth Games secretary Bhanot are obstructing investigations and must therefore be removed from their posts. Why on earth are these hated men still in their posts? Who is their protector? Why? Again the protector has to be at the very top. Is there someone at that height who is desperate to hide something? Silence and the tactic of brazening it out brought the Prime Minister under the critical scrutiny of the Supreme Court. Sonia Gandhi and her unseen advisors will also be under public suspicion if this brazening-out continues.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaks: It's people vs. governments

If the arrest of WikiLeak's Julian Assange highlights the essential wickedness of governments, two related developments reassure us about the essential goodness of human beings. First, WikiLeaks will continue regardless. Secondly, there is a groundswell of public opinion in support of Assange. Never was the adversarial relationship between people and governments more sharply exposed.

Let us not forget that WikiLeaks did not reveal any classified information about national security like, say, America's strategic nuclear secrets. What it disclosed was the hypocrisy behind America's operations in Iraq/Afghanistan and the double-speak character of its diplomatic posturings. These embarrassed government leaders – mostly at a personal level. The enraged egoists of the US establishment turned vengeful against the messenger.

The establishment betrayed its own value system in the process. Official documents were leaked not by foreign spies or saboteurs or thieves, but by Americans brought up on the tradition of freedom, equality and human virtues. Some of them were outraged by the cruelties of American policies and the sadism of field troops. The man arrested for some critical leaks, Bradley Manning, said his motivation was the conviction that information must be free and available to the public.

Manning had hit the headlines even earlier. A soldier assigned to Iraq, he had come across US soldiers on a helicopter in Baghdad shooting a bunch of civilians dead. They did it for fun. The video of this savagery became public because a shocked Manning got it released. In jail since May, Manning, who is only 23, is a folk hero. There is a Bradley Manning Support Network (with the motto, “Exposing war crimes is not a crime”), a Bradley Manning Defence Fund, a vigorous internet campaign and public rallies demanding his release.

Another conscience-stricken whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, had leaked the Pentagon papers in the 1970s, official documents that revealed how the White House was lying about the Vietnam war. He had worked with the Government in Washington and in Vietnam and was privy to the goings-on. He too was arrested and tried but he was let off when illegal activities by the Government to trap him came to light.

Julian Assange will meet the same tribulations the earlier crusaders for truth faced. But he too has strong public support. Britain's most celebrated human rights lawyer cut short his holiday in Australia and rushed home to voluntarily assist Assange in his fight against extradition to Sweden. Wellknown public figures have grouped together to stand guarantee for him in his bail pleas. Credit card companies that barred donations to WikiLeaks were hacked by angry donors. Clearly WikiLeak's disclosures were appreciated by people in many countries as earnestly as governments disliked them.

It is a pity that democratic leaders who fight for human rights go into revenge mode when citizens ask them to correct their own record. There is in fact a streak of viciousness in the way the US authorities pursue its whistleblowers. The infamous break-in mafia in Richard Nixon's White House hatched an “Ellsberg neutralisation plan” meant to lace his food so that he would appear like a hopeless drug addict. Bradley Manning is projected as a homosexual with serious psychological problems. Julian Assange is arrested on charges of sexual misconduct. Ironically, the charges are filed by Sweden, a no-holds-barred culture where there is no such thing as misconduct in the area of sex. Call a man a dog before you hang him.

In this case, even when you hang them, they don't die. An Ellsberg may escape jail, a Manning may languish there. But the bid by sinners to hide their sins will never succeed. Even if Assange is taken away by a vindictive America, new forces will come up daring to reveal the secrets of those who should not have secrets. That reality applies to America, to Spectrum Raja, to the Tatas and to celebrity journalists. That's why we will have more WikiLeaks and more Niira Radia tapes. And so be it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Is Congress courting disaster?

It looks like the planetary position is not favourable to the Congress these days. Its decision-makers are getting bad advice and their moves are alienating public opinion. At this rate disaster may befall the party and catch its eyeless leaders by surprise.

Two decisions in particular are astonishingly dumb: the ones regarding the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Commonwealth Games fuhrer. As a man against whom a case was pending, P.J. Thomas should never have been appointed CVC in the first place. That’s commonsense because a Vigilance Commissioner should be not only impeccably clean but seen to be so. So why was he appointed? Was he deliberately planted there to serve some secret purpose?

That suspicion was strengthened when the Government took the decision to brazen out a Supreme Court snub Actually, the Court merely asked what every citizen was asking: How could a CVC under a CBI inquiry oversea spectrum corruption inquiries? A self-respecting CVC would have stepped down immediately. A Government leadership that respects public opinion would have encouraged him to go.

Instead, the Government saw to it that the CVC merely “recused” himself from supervising the 2G spectrum inquiry while he retained his post and stayed in his chair. What was the need to perform this circus act? There could only be two reasons. One, the Government was unable to find a single unblemished citizen in our country to fill the CVC post. Two, the Government had something to hide by retaining a tainted man distrusted by the public. By this act the Government itself lost the last shreds of people’s trust in its bonafides.

The Government’s loss of credibility was greater in the Kalmadi case. As the Commonwealth Games concluded, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi realised that Kalmadi was a widely hated figure: they ignored him at public functions and kept him out as they mixed with the medal winners. Why was this realisation not reflected in governmental action? Why was he removed only from a meaningless party post when, in fact, his position in sports organisations was what brought disgrace to the country and therefore those were the posts from which he should have been removed?

Indians squirmed as they watched this detested Indian gallivanting in Guangchow and Monaco and then walking into Parliament House as if he was the darling of the people. His aides were raided and arrested, all of them squealed on him, yet all that we had for too long a time was that the CBI was tightening its noose on him and that he would be nabbed soon. Maybe, but the rope he was given was so long that suspicions spread among the people. Was Kalmadi, like A. Raja, sharing his pickings with people high above?

Similar questions rise in older cases too. Why was Vilasrao Deshmukh, removed from chief ministership because of his insensitive handling of the Mumbai terror attack, accommodated straightaway in the Union Cabinet? Why is Ashok Chavan, in whose watch deplorable acts of omission and commission rocked Mumbai, still a visible presence in Congress leadership circles? For that matter, why was Buta Singh, forced to leave Bihar Governorship in ignominy, made Chairman of the Scheduled Castes/Tribes Commission where too he got involved in disgraceful corruption cases? Why is the other inexcusable gubernatorial offender, Syed Sibley Razi, still in office? He was at the centre of land scams in Jharkhand and his handpicked special-duty staff were raided and arrested, but he himself was only transferred to Assam where he could plunder pastures new.

The Congress leadership desists from punishing the crooks in its ranks. From Bofors days, it has shown a tendency to defend the indefensible. It should not forget what happened when it ignored public opinion, ignored even commonsense, and went on justifying Bofors. That one case of corruption was the reason why Congress was defeated in the 1989 election. There are many cases of corruption round its neck today. And the next election is not too far away.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Glamour is not credibility

Journalism started going astray with the birth of financial dailies in the 1960s. With full-fledged newspapers devoted exclusively to business, corporate houses became hyperactive. The next thing we knew was press conferences ending with gifts of expensive sarees and suitlengths to reporters.

That was innocent child play compared to what has hit the headlines now – charges of celebrity journalists working hand in hand with a professional lobbyist to fix things like cabinet appointments and big-ticket business deals. Excerpts from taped conversations between the star journalists and corporate lobbyist Niira Radia have been published. Radia was promoting the prospects of some DMK personalities as well as the gas interests of one Ambani brother and the spectrum interests of the Tatas. The journalists became her tools.

Lobbying is a recognised activity in democracies. But it is a tricky line of work because sometimes unconventional methods might become necessary to secure the case of a client. Given Niira Radia’s experience and efficiency, acknowledged by companies like Tatas, we must assume that she took care not to cross the line. Anyway we can leave it to the Enforcement Directorate which is looking into the matter.

Journalism is as different from lobbying as nariel paani is from singlemalt. Any crossing of the line may be a tribute to the power of singlemalt, but never justifiable. Unfortunately the journalists show themselves as amenable to doing the unjustifiable. They agree to convey messages favouring A.Raja to the Congress bosses. They agree to take the side of the Ambani brother Radia was promoting as against the other brother.

The moment the tapes were published, the journalists mentioned in it rushed to rebut all insinuations. The arguments were that journalists had to talk to all sorts of people, that “stringing” along with a source was no crime, that promises had to be made sometimes to get information from a source. The employer of one journalist said that it was preposterous to “caricature the professional sourcing of information to ‘lobbying’”.

The question is whether the journalists carry credibility. Of course drunks and murderers have been among the valued contacts of journalists. And of course journalists have moved very closely with political leaders. Few people were closer to Jawaharlal Nehru than B. Shiva Rao of The Hindu. Prem Bhatia of the Statesman used to walk the corridors of Delhi as if he owned them. The hardest
nuts in the power circle cracked happily before Nikhil Chakravartty on his morning rounds. Not once did these men ask for a favour or recommend a businessman friend. They were not social celebrities, but they did their profession proud by keeping the highest possible credibility level.

Today’s celebrities assume they can win credibility by simply saying that they talked to Radia only as a source and that they never kept promises made to her anyway. Is a veteran networker like Radia so easily fooled? Obviously she is close to her journalist contacts and must have had promises from them before. She wouldn’t waste her time if she knew that they were promises not meant to be followed up. At one point she actually tells another contact that “I made [the journalist] call up Congress and get a statement”. This is Radia speaking, not a naïve greenhorn. To say that this kind of work on behalf of a lobbyist is legitimate journalism is like Yeddyurappa saying that all he has ever done is development work. To say that they promised to talk to the likes of Sonia and Rahul only to outsmart a war-horse is like the BJP high command saying it has outsmarted Yeddyurappa.

The glamour of celebrityhood has a way of going to one’s head. Delusions of grandeur are never a journalistic virtue. The real virtue is the mind’s ability to maintain a degree of detachment. When the game is played at the 5-star level, one can never be sure of who is fooling whom. It will be good for everyone to remember that there is one lot that can never be fooled: The people.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Salute to a Purushottama

These are days when the success of an author depends less on the worth of his writings and more on the vigour with which he promotes himself through book launches, television conversations and lectures organised by the marketing department of publishing companies. P.Lal did none of these. So his death (November 3) went almost unnoticed. A newspaper paragraph or two in his home town of Kolkata and that was that.

Yet P.Lal’s place in the literary history of India will be more exalted than that of many an author who basks in popular fame today. His contributions included poetry, essays, anthologies and translations. Above all, he was a pioneer in book publishing and in the propagation of English as an Indian language. Both were perilous pursuits when he embarked on them in the afterglow of independence. But he persisted in his quiet and unobtrusive ways until both his causes acquired value.

Two achievements will remain his lasting memorials – his translation of the Mahabharata and his nursing of the Writers Workshop. Numerous of course are the translations of the Mahabharata, but no one before Lal had dared to tackle the epic in its awesome fulness. He undertook what he declared as a 20-year project, transcreating (his preferred word) Vyasa in his entirety, all 100,000 slokas.

In quality, too, it was out of the ordinary. A poet himself, P.Lal was not afraid to have different renderings of the same passages, a result, he said, “of changes in my understanding and appreciation of Vyasa”. But his aim always was “to re-tell the story…in Vyasa’s own words, without simplifying, interpreting or elaborating”.

And how did he understand Vyasa? “The Ramayana rouses compassion, the Mahabharata an almost cosmic awe…Vyasa posits an intricate dharma, where right and wrong are bewilderingly mixed… No epic, no work of art, is sacred by itself; if it does not have meaning for me now, it is nothing, it is dead”.

Thanks to the poet in him, there was a pleasing emphasis on the oral/musical tradition of the epic. He took a characteristic step towards bringing this to public attention when he began spending one hour every Sunday morning at the Samskruti Sagar library hall in Kolkata reading aloud his transcreated slokas. He continued this practice until about a week before his death.

The Writers Workshop (WW) was a labour of love. Today publishing is a crowded, glittering, highprofile, million-dollar enterprise in India. It is important to remember that WW was started in 1958 when the Republic was less than ten years old. Half a dozen idealists were behind the venture which eventually became P.Lal’s one-man band. There never was any money in it. It actually ran on whatever “shekels” he earned from lecture tours and visiting professorships abroad. When travel stopped on health grounds, he devised the system of asking authors to buy 100 copies in advance. If an author was too impecunious to afford this, he went ahead anyway.

Each WW book was a curious little work of art. The types were handset, the titles and chapter headings handwritten by P.Lal himself, a distinguished calligraphist. The books were handstitched, the cover design executed in handloom silk. Editing, proof-reading, page layout and correspondence with authors were done by P.Lal who never had a secretary or an assistant or an office. That never prevented him from publishing the early efforts of a galaxy of stars-to-be, from A. K.Ramanujan and Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes to Kamala Das and Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.

Professor Lal taught at St.Xavier’s College for 40 years. Devoted friends called him Profsky, rather reminiscent of D.G.Tendulkar (biographer of the Mahatma) calling Dom Moraes Domsky. Was it some kind of a psychedelic association with radical thinkers like Trotsky and Laski? Lal did not look like a radical, but his achievements were reformist. Glamour-obsessed Indian media might have ignored him, but The Economist featured him in its famous page-length Obituary column. That must have surprised Purushottama Lal, whose first name now shines like a title the country has bestowed on him.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

India promotes what the world shuns

So everything went off well. Obamaji was nice, Michelleji was nicer, and the kababs at Rashtrapathi Bhavan were nicest. A good time was had by all. Now, what about the fine print?

We can ignore Obama’s pitch that India must stand up for democracy and human rights in Burma and Iran. We can do a pahle aap number here and wait for the US to first stand up for democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia. We can also more or less ignore the India-US strategic partnership for “East Asia” which is China. China is quite capable of looking after itself.

The fine print we should really worry about covers the pronouncements on agricultural cooperation. This is not a “sexy” subject like democracy and China, so it does not attract public attention. That means backroom operators can do their thing quietly. And the things they do are sinister and may now get more so.

For example, ten months before the Obama visit the Indian cabinet approved, without any announcement, a Memorandum of Understanding on agricultural cooperation and food security. It opened the doors to private investments in the farm sector, farm-market linkages (read retail trade), and agribusiness-to-business collaboration. It will clearly lead to India fitting into the US model of vertical integration of the food chain – a system that promotes the growth of monopolies.

The system works reasonably well in the US because checks and balances are strictly enforced by the Government. When a citizen complains that a supermarket chicken has been found contaminated, investigators can trace the route of the chicken, where it was processed and which farm it originally came from. Remedial action follows quickly. In India the authorities are not only lax in enforcing minimum safety rules, but actually promote deadly pesticides. This attitude of irresponsibility caused tragedies in Punjab and Kerala.

Pesticides, like electricity, are good only when they are used correctly. The Green Revolution in Punjab, which Obama mentioned repeatedly, was facilitated by the use of wrong pesticides in wrong ways. Farmers, low on literacy, would let their hair, eyes, clothes be covered with the deadly poison they were spraying. The inevitable followed. From Bhatinda, in the heart of Punjab’s cotton belt, some 60 cancer patients would travel every day to Bikaner where treatment was affordable. They called it the “Cancer Train”.

Learning nothing and caring less, India has become the world’s only country to oppose a global ban on the deadliest pesticide of them all, endosulfan. Sharad Pawar, who sees no difference between a farmer’s plough and a cricket bat, went on record saying that endosulfan was good for some crops. He has now appointed yet another committee to study endosulfan. The man he picked to head the committee was already in an earlier inquiry committee and had given his verdict in favour of that pesticide.

The irony is that all developed countries have banned this particular poison and America itself is about to join them. US policies had already made the main manufacturer of endosulfan, Bayer, to close shop. The sole remaining manufacturer, an Israeli company, has been told to plan its exit. The Environmental Protection Agency formally declared that endosulfan “is unsafe and poses unacceptable risks to farm workers and wild life”. A formal ban is expected soon.

Yet, Sharad Pawar wants a new inquiry. And he wants India to oppose the ban the rest of the civilised world is demanding. And, worst of all, he wants the government-run Hindustan Insecticides to go on manufacturing endosulfan even in its plant in Kerala where a High Court ban on the pesticide is in force.

The obduracy of leaders like Pawar and the general inefficiency of India’s supervisory systems are magnets for pesticide and genetic engineering companies that are thrown out of other countries. India is home to them all. That is why the Obama-induced agribusiness cooperation will lead to our food coming under the lobby-dominated American system without its saving clauses.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Swagatham, yes. Expectations, no

Our guest this week is not the shining Obama, but the dimming Obama. The way the world was thrilled by his march to the White House is now memory. Many of his promises remain unfulfilled, even the promise to close the horror prison in Guantanemo. His home policies have angered Americans who are vexed by rising costs of living, job losses and tax burdens. Midterm Congressional elections have made him virtually a lame-duck. The stirring slogan “Yes, we can” has given way to “No, he can’t”.

But Barack Obama is a nice guy and we must see him as such. Anyone who has written the kind of books he has can only be a civilised person. He is such a relief after that mixed-up evangelist George Bush. He has a trust-inspiring look which Bill Clinton could never manage. He even has the most popular presidential wife since Jackie Kennedy. He deserves a warm and sincere swagatham from us.

But not undue political/business hopes. American presidents are more severely enslaved by the system than Indian prime ministers are. And the American system is both selfish and assertive while the Indian system is prey to pressures. This contrast was visible in recent years in a series of India-US issues, from the civil nuclear treaty to opening Indian agriculture to US monopolies.

If America has been gaining the upper hand in many of its dealings with India, it is because America knows how best to use its bargaining power while India knows neither its strengths nor how to use them. On flimsy grounds, for example, America put the twin national symbols of Indian excellence, ISRO and DRDO, on their bad boys’ list. Simultaneously, America has mounted pressure on India to buy billions of dollars worth of American weaponry and civil nuclear equipment. Why doesn’t India link one with the other, not semantically but in ways that would hit America where it hurts?

Countries like France and Russia are willing to invest in Indian civil nuclear plants on India’s terms. They are also ready to share cutting-edge military technology along with the sales of their military hardware. Why then should India buy from America which always attaches conditions to its military sales and then bullies India with crucial spare parts politics?

Notice, too, that on Obama’s agenda in India is the demand that India buy US seed companies’ technology. One of his scheduled meetings in Mumbai is a “round-table” on agricultural cooperation. This shows the stranglehold business lobbies have on the American system. To India, however, what this means is a heavy push at the presidential level to put India in the pocket of Monsanto – a campaign that is already half won because of the buyability of crucial elements of Indian policy processors

India, especially under Manmohan Singh, has shown an inclination to please America at every turn. Even Pakistan does not do this; it gets every dollar it can squeeze from a scared America and then merrily goes on helping the Taliban. That scares America more, making it give more dollars and more fighter planes to Pakistan.

This is how games are played in today’s cynical world. But India tends to take things lying down, even when America does not part with critical David Headley information that could possibly – just possibly – have averted the Mumbai terror attack. America is protectionist in every field these days. India must learn to bargain and protect its own legitimate interests. America does not respect allies that do its bidding. It respects those who stand up to it. Today’s India has the strength to stand up and assert itself. All that is needed is the political will to do so.

Barack Obam will enjoy India, its colour, its vibrancy, its latent dynamism. We, too, will enjoy his visit if only to see the highfalutin fuss: One guest booking the whole of the Taj and Maurya hotels and having his own bombers and warships patrolling the scene. Enjoy by all means, but don’t be carried away.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The world’s favourite dumping ground

The worst offenders have the best lobbies to protect them. Perhaps it is a law of nature. The more one has to hide, the greater the paraphernalia one needs to hide them. Laws of this kind work extremely well in India because our bribability quotient is pretty high.

How else can we explain the recent spectacle of a shipload of New York City municipal waste being dumped in Kochi port? Or a condemned ship with most of its parts deadly with radioactive material coming to our west coast for scrapping? It is well known that medicines banned in the West are freely sold in India and that poor Indians are used for field testing that are not allowed on American citizens. Such things happen because same Indians like to get rich at the expense of their fellow citizens and their country. And because the state shirks its responsibility.

The same principle has made India the favourite hunting ground for promoters of Bt. brinjal and endosulfan. Both are long-running scandals, but Monsanto has added a new, revealing twist to the genetic engineering mess: they don’t want labelling of GM products made mandatory in India. Companies voluntarily labelling products as not containing genetically modified organisms is all right, but no legal requirement should be there, they say. In other words, an internationally suspect corporation like Monsanto (and its Indian avatars) must have the right to hide what it wants to hide; people do not have any right to know what they are eating.

Even if we leave out the European Union (Monsanto was banished from Europe), countries like China, Japan and Australia have enforced mandatory labelling rules. India has done nothing of the kind, showing the power of the lobby on the one side and the “influenceability” – to put it mildly – of the Indian establishment on the other.

These factors are even more dramatically evident on the endosulfan front. Actually India should have been in the forefront of the global campaign to get this poisonous pesticide banned. It was only in India that endosulfan was sprayed from the air across acres of cashew plantations for as long as 20 years. This callous operation by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala ruined the soil and water of the area. Pitiable deformities and horror diseases spread among the people living in the area.

But the pesticide lobby rejected pictorial evidence provided by TV channels and on-the-spot surveys done by researchers. Instead, it spread the story that there was no proof to show that endosulfan was the cause of the tragedy. Ministers in the Centre and the state mouthed this argument; Union Minister of State for Agriculture repeated it last week though he should have known better since he comes from Kerala.

Two factors expose this irresponsible ministerial posture. First, if endosulfan is not the cause of the neurological disorders and hormonal imbalances, then what is? Mosquitoes? No minister has bothered to look into this. Scientific panels have indeed linked the pesticide with genetic disorders, but these were brushed aside in favour of “official” panels who echoed the lobby line.

Secondly, India is the world’s largest remaining producer of endosulfan. In addition to several private companies, the Government of India’s Hindustan Insecticides runs three manufacturing units. With this vested interest, when India becomes the lead country opposing the ban much of the world is demanding (sixty countries have already banned it), we present a reactionary, retrograde profile to the world. The pesticide lobby doesn’t care, but India should.

The first thing the Government should do is to privatise Hindustan Insecticides and cut endosulfan out of its products line. Then it must ensure that the poisonous pesticide is not manufactured or used in India at all; Kerala banned it but the stuff still finds its way into the state in various disguises. Obviously the lobby is powerful enough to defy the laws it finds inconvenient. Even over the twisted, tangled bodies of helpless victims, the worst offenders have the last laughs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thrishna and Gill; Thrishna and MLAs

Thrishna encapsulates a concept the philosophical sweep of which cannot be captured in the English equivalent, desire. It is like the term agni which is larger, deeper, more multi-layered in its meanings than fire. The English words are essentially literal whereas the Sanskrit terms are civilisational.

Thrishna in its fullest, widest sense is on display in contemporary India. The Bhagvat Gita had seen with astonishing clarity what was going to happen in the 21st century in Bharat that is India. Identifying thrishna as a rajas guna, it tells us that all actions born out of rajas are directed towards securing sensual enjoyment and therefore cause bondage resulting in several lives.

That friendly warning never curbed the thrishna of the Commonwealth Games organisers. All their actions were directed towards self-aggrandisement. Even after the Games, they persist in activities that will lead to bondage. Sports Minister M. S. Gill wanted to go and spend a week in Glasgow to study how Scotland was preparing for the next Games four years away. Why on earth would he want to study that after contributing his share to the mess in Delhi? Fortunately for the tax payer, the Prime Minister shot down Gill’s self-serving desire.

The tragedy of self-seekers is that they can never stop. Nothing is enough. They are never at peace because, as Panchatantra teaches us, only he finds peace who is no tormented by greed. In his thrishna for more and then more, Gill was ready even to compromise his constitutional position. As Chief Election Commissioner, he was obliged to be strictly apolitical and non-partisan. But after he laid down the job, he accepted a political appointment under the Congress party. How are we to know that his decisions as CEC were not influenced by his desire to win that party’s backing in due course?

The last CEC, Navin Chawla, accepted a Governor’s posting as soon as he retired. At least he had no reputation to lose because he was known all along as a star of the Emergency and an unquestioning camp follower of the Congress dynasty. Judges, Speakers and Comptrollers & Auditors General are all supposed to be never beholden to parties. That worthy democratic convention has been roundly violated in our system because of the debilitating power of thrishna.

Sri Krisha was specific when he said that the thirst for pleasure, power and wealth propels people into activities meant to satisfy the desires, then into further activity to acquire more. Krishna equated thrishna with kama and said it was a fire which only burned more when it was fed.

That was a remarkably apt description of what Karnataka’s MLAs were going to do some yugas later. Ironically the aptness has been brought out by the BJP which of course claims copyright on the wisdom of the Gita. When the electorate gave the BJP a minority status in the Assembly in 2008, the party proceeded to acquire a majority status through the simple activity of buying MLAs in the marketplace. That activity has now led to further activity to acquire more MLAs from the open market. The more their kama is fed, the more the fire burns.

Evidently political parties have discovered that buying and selling can effectively defeat both the democratic and judicial systems, especially if you have a colluding Speaker on your side. In the ongoing second round of trading in Karnataka, the going rate is said to be in the range of Rs 50 crore per MLA. That’s more money than the equivalent weight of steel or cement fetches. Electoral reform can end these collective insults to voters. A rule, for example, that an MLA who resigns is disqualified from re-election for the next five years. But to ask legislators to pass rules that curb them is like asking a thief to call the police.

The much-touted “first BJP Government in the South” has certainly created history. The innocent had thought that the culture of the South would change the BJP for the better. In truth, the thrishna of the BJP has changed the South for the worse.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Evil as spectator sport

One chief minister, four days, two confidence votes. That certainly puts Karnataka in the history books. But the twin victories are more Pyrrhic than the one Pyrrhus won against the Romans at unsustainably high cost. They have merely proved John Kennerth Galbraith’s theory that television has turned politics into a spectator sport. Honourable members assaulting security marshals and one honourable member doing an honourable striptease standing on an honourable desk must have fetched record TRP ratings.

One set of politicians called the vote the triumph of democracy. Another set, the murder of democracy. In the process they proved yet again that all parties follow the same code: “When I do wrong, it is right. When you do wrong, it is very wrong”.

With great self-righteousness BJP president Gadkari said there was horse-trading by the opposition parties. The current season of horse-trading was in fact started by the BJP when MLAs were openly purchased to turn Yeddyurappa’s minority government into a majority one in 2008. The rates were high because money mined in Bellary was in plentiful supply. The other parties found matching money this time, hence the vulgar scenes last week. Therefore, what Gadkari meant was: When I do it, it’s democracy; when you do it, it’s horse-trading.

Again with great self-righteousness Arun Jaitley accused Governor Bharadwaj of using the Raj Bhavan for political purposes. True, but who is he to complain? In 2001 it was the BJP Government, with Jaitley as Law Minister, that decided to sack Tamil Nadu Governor Fateema Beevi. Her offence? When Karunanidhi was arrested, the Governor did not send the critical report that Delhi wanted. In 2003 UP Governor Vishnukant Shastri, an RSS leader and a BJP favourite, did not invite Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the Government although his party had won the largest number of seats in the Assembly.That was because the BJP was in cahoots with Mayawati then. Jaitley, too, meant: My wrong is right. It’s your wrong that’s wrong.

It is a pity that Governor Bharadwaj played into the BJP’s hands by talking too much and doing what governors should not do – hold press conferences, partake in channel chats and talk politics like “I am fed up of this kind of corruption”. His indiscretions diverted attention from the BJP’s iniquities.

Those iniquities are unprecedented as well as numerous. It was bad enough that the Yeddyurappa Government was born in the immorality of MLA-buying. It then turned politics into an openly unprincipled, power-at-any-cost exercise in greed. Greed was a feature of most governments in the state in the last decade or two. But not on the scale, and not with the brashness, of the Yeddyurappa-Reddy dispensation. The ground for the latest implosion was prepared by the Bellary Reddys who “rebelled” when their abuse of power came under attack. The final spark was provided by charges of land deregulation by the Chief Minister to financially benefit his sons and other land-grab charges involving Katta Subramanya Naidu, Minister holding several lucrative portfolios, his wife and son; this son was even put in jail by the Lok Ayukta police. Between unscrupulous mining barons and unscrupulous land sharks, Karnataka has become a lost paradise – and the BJP will go into the history books for that too.

Unfortunately for the people, the opposition consists of the JD(S) which will never command popular support because of the negative credibility of party patriarch Deve Gowda, and the Congress which has never been as bereft of credible leaders as it is today. In other words, the voter has no one to vote for.

That situation is unlikely to change. The relatively popular elements in the JD(S), including former chief minister Kumaraswamy, will not have the courage to keep Deve Gowda out of the picture. The Congress has lost its will to power and therefore will not put its untainted leaders, including the younger ones, at the helm. This is the era of the unworthy who win by default. Taxpayers in Karnataka are forced to sustain a circus that’s felonious and venal. At least Gadkari and Jaitley must recall Tilak’s words: “Defending an evil does not make it good”.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Good Indians vs Evil Indians

The Devas finally came to the rescue of India. The Rakshasas have not yet been destroyed, but they have been exposed sufficiently enough to save India’s honour before a watchful world. We can now walk with our heads held high as befitting citizens of a great country.

Such was the hold of the demons that the Devas had to appear in multiple avatars – as Bharat Bala, as Shyam Benegal, as Prasoon Joshi, as the all-conquering Keshav and as hundreds of nameless but astonishingly coordinated school children. Together they made the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games a moment of pride for us, effacing if only for a while the shame of greed and incompetence that preceded it.

All of us had always known that India had the abilities and the skills to organise the most challenging of events. But our political sphere allows the scum of society to occupy commanding heights of organising committees. In the case of the Commonwealth Games, it was clear that a Disorganising Committee was making a hash of it. But that Committee reckoned without the assurance of our protectors that “for the destruction of evil-doers, for firmly establishing righteousness, Sambhavaami yuge yuge”.

So the avatars came. And how magnificent India looked before the world. The seven years and seven-thousand crores spent by the Disorganising Committee brought us disgrace. The ten months and one hundred fifty crores spent by the creative cultural team for the opening ceremony brought us glory.

That difference came about because of the difference in attitude. The primary interest of the Rakshasas was to feather their nests. Pride in their country was a sentiment totally alien to them. The Devas, by contrast, were motivated by nothing but pride in their country and culture. Some of them who led the team did not even take a rupee as fees. This is India at its finest. The pity is that all too often the vilest outgun the finest.

More worryingly, there seems to be no stopping the Chief of the Rakshasa Brigade. People like Jaipal Reddy and M.S.Gill, having discovered that they were outstanding non-performers, kept away from the limelight at the opening ceremony. But not the unashamed Kalmadi. That he was allowed to speak at the august function was an affront to the country. He made it worse by acknowledging the presence of Abul Kalam Azad ( May his soul rest in peace!) and later by thanking Prince Diana (will her soul now rest in peace?). This man is a serial blunderer too.

But even he, given to selective deafness and selective blindness, must know that he is hated by the people of this country. The crowd at the opening jeered him. Some days earlier, when he was dining at an upmarket Delhi restaurant, upmarket people from nearby tables went up to him and abused him. The internet is full of scorn and derision.

Nothing seems to penetrate his skin, though. He is said to be busy with p.r.campaigns designed to convince the world that the opening ceremony was a smashing success because of his untiring efforts behind the scenes. Claiming credit for other people’s work is an integral part of the fixer’s techniques. He will claim credit for everything that goes well with the Games, putting the blame for things that go wrong on Mani Shankar Iyer’s and other available shoulders. That’s the style of this kind of operators.

But the machinations of the guilty men should in no way lead to their exoneration. They need to be held accountable and punished, not acquitted. If their political godfathers, who let them run wild in the first place, continue their misplaced sponsorship even after the Games are over, then the godfathers’ role in the shenanigans will also have to be tracked and exposed. We are a land blessed by the Devas. Rakshasas belong to the nether regions where they can organise a Paataala Olympics.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A witness who walked tall

Out of the blue, as it were, a new and wholly unexpected voice broke above the newspaper din in India in 1959. In a politics-obsessed world, this voice began talking about development projects – Bhakra Nangal, Damodar Valley, Hirakund, Nagarjunsagar – and then about “brand names of distinction” like HAL, HMT, BHEL, ONGC etc. These were all new terms at that time and the overall picture that came through was that of a massive change under way in the thinking as well as structural composition of India. It was as good as a scoop.

That was B. G. Verghese’s entry into public attention. He had entered journalism ten years earlier, unplanned and unprepared, and spent time writing editorial notes until he got himself transferred to reporting. His ground-breaking reportage on “the temples of Modern India” was a departure for journalism itself. Verghese’s editors in the Times of India recognised this and published his series on the front page. (Those were days when the TOI was a NEWSpaper led by some of the finest journalists India has known).

The freshness of his “Bharat Darshan” tours and the importance of the message his reports conveyed remained the trademarks of Verghese’s journalism ever since. It made him a unique institution not comparable to anybody else in the vast galaxy of Indian journalism. It gave his career a historical edge. Hence the relevance of his just-published autobiography, a big-ticket 573-page tome called First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Tranquebar).

Frank Moraes, once Verghese’s editor, titled his political autobiography Witness to an Era. Both men were witnesses to great events and both were professionals to the core. But there the comparison ends. Moraes was ideologically partisan: Pro-American, pro-big business, anti-communist. Verghese has strong views, but no ideological hangups.

Verghese crammed several lives into one. He was a reporter, an editor, a traveller, a bureaucrat as information adviser to the Prime Minister, visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, Fellow of the Administrative Staff College of India, Chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission and of course author.

The journalist prevails over all others in the writing of this autobiography. So his account of events, his references to the dramatis personae and his summing-up observations have the appeal of honesty, not the evasiveness of diplomacy.

His stint as adviser to Indira Gandhi allows him to speak frankly about the reality of high-level activities – how drafts for after-dinner speeches are finalised only after the dinner has started, how the Government does not work out a world view and relies instead on tired slogans, “the haphazard manner in which government functioned and the Prime Minister’s inexperience in so many matters”.

Verghese’ assessment of Indira Gandhi is a highlight of the book. He pays tribute to her qualities of leadership, the dignity of her deportment, her pride in India. But he is unsparing in his condemnation of the Emergency, the “savage and thoroughly illegal demolition orgy” of Sanjay Gandhi and of Indira’s own “split personality”.

B.G.Verghese is a serious person, concerned with serious, “un-sexy” topics like water resources. That makes his humour more appealing. The quality of his mind is reflected in the lightness with which he describes his introduction to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

“There was no airconditioner in the room as the previous incumbent was a mere deputy secretary who ‘as per rules’ was not entitled to feel overly hot. The official theory was that the blood grew thinner with ascending seniority, entitling the officer to one, two or more airconditioners. The same theory worked for arm rests, back rests and foot rests….. Nor did I allow my chaprassi to hover around the car park in the morning to relieve me of my briefcase the moment I arrived. Official research had established that senior officers carry so much responsibility that the weight of a briefcase could do incalculable damage to their spine”.

His briefcase tightly held in his own hand, Verghese kept his spine straight and walked tall.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A failure of leadership

Is there a curse upon India? Why do monstrous problems attack us all at once, and why does each one of them get more petrifying by the day instead of getting resolved as in most other countries?

The Commonwealth Corruption Games, the explosion of popular anger in Kashmir, the unrelenting terror spectre, the Maoist campaign, China’s unfriendly posturings and, in a bizarre instance of timing, a court verdict on a sensitive religious issue that has been hanging fire for half a century – proof yet again that when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.

The one problem that was within our reach to avoid/contain/solve was the Commonwealth Games messup. When evidence of massive corruption was revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor-General and by other independent investigators, the Organising Committee should have been disbanded and responsibilities given to a group of proven management executives. Instead, our political leadership defended the corrupt and allowed them to carry on. It’s almost like we wanted bridges to collapse and ceilings to fall.

Above all others, therefore, it is the political leadership that must be held accountable for the disgrace the Games have brought upon India. Loathsome creatures like Kalmadi would not dare pay four-thousand rupees for a roll of toilet paper if their political godfathers were not encouraging the kickback culture. The loot brigade is known for its system of sharing.. When the whole world is flabbergasted by the scale of sleeze, incompetence and irresponsibility, our politicians still refuse to take it seriously. For Sheila Dikshit and Jaiplal Reddy and M S. Gill, the disasters that shocked the world are “minor hiccups”. No wonder the guilty do not feel guilty and corrective measures receive no attention.

And where has been our Prime Minister? A few “PM steps in” headlines appeared in the eleventh hour when several star athletes had already pulled out, BBC was showing humiliating pictures of filthy beds and bathrooms and government leaders of Australia and New Zealand had publicly expressed concerns. All that “steps in” meant was that the PM called another meeting of ministers and officials – behind closed doors.

What stopped him from making a public statement, acknowledging the lapses and promising remedial measures? If this were followed up by the removal of Kalmadi, the symbol of all that went wrong, it would have helped restore confidence. Were there – are there – forces that prevent the Prime Minister from taking meaningful action? Why is Kalmadi still strutting about when his mere appearance has started offending the public? The inaction with which P.V.Narasimha Rao damned himself over Babri Masjid is being replayed by Manmohan Singh over the Commonwealth Games. A pity.

India has the resources, the talent and the organisational infrastructure to stage the Commonwealth Games and shows bigger than that. What it does not have is the political will and the political leadership. Nor the political imagination. The Prime Minister, allegedly sidelining Kalmadi (which is not true; the man is still too visible), gave all powers to the two most uninspiring ministers in his Cabinet – Jaipal Reddy who has shown no initiative whatever in his portfolio and M. S Gill, a sports minister who combines ineptitude with uncommon arrogance. Imagine that he had, instead, given the reins to an army general and/or a company or two like L & T. Alas, we can only dream of such decisive leadership.

Indeed, the political high command may be quite happy about the Games fiasco. The scandals have so completely grabbed public attention that the vexatious issue of Kashmir is forgotten. Given the short-sightedness of our leadership, they will see this “forgetting” by the public as an achievement, not realising that the kind of anger sweeping across Kashmir won’t just blow away. Nor will the respite provided by the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya case eliminate the inflammable communal divisiveness promoted by our politicians. Seldom in history has so capable a people been led by so maladroit and self-serving a political class.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Starve. This is !ncredible !ndia

What’s it with these economist wizards – that they can see figures and percentages so clearly and yet are blind to human beings. Food rotting in godowns when people go hungry attracts little or no attention. But the slightest suggestion that foodgrains likely to rot are better given away to the poor makes them throw textbooks at you.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia was the very picture of wizardry when he said that free distribution of grains would not be good for food security. The implication is that letting them rot in godowns would ensure food security. We the people cannot comprehend such obfuscating profoundness. That’s why we are not wizards and they are.

But who is talking about “free distribution of grains” anyway? The proposition is that free distribution is better than free rotting. To ignore the rotting situation and dwell on the economic philosophy of free distribution as such is not exactly wizardry. It is dodging. It is insensitivity which appears to have become an essential ingredient of governance Indian style.

The reality is worse than what we might innocently presume. The rotting, most of us thought, took place because of inefficiency leading to lack of storage space and lack of transportation. But in fact the unseen operators of the government machinery are very efficient. They allow the rotting because it is beneficial to them. To put it simply, this is another story of corruption.

It turns out that babus can make money from decaying wheat which is an ingredient liquor companies need. So a quiet little tie-up with breweries is a nice little way to get rich. You can also have quiet little tie-ups with big-time grain merchants because thousands of tons of grain going bad means higher prices in the market.

Sharad Joshi, the maverick farm crusader of Maharashtra, threw light on another aspect of the corrupt system. According to him large-scale rotting of foodgrains and periodic fires that gut the government’s cotton godowns fit into the same pattern. In both the Food Corporation of India and the Cotton Corporation of India, procurement is often less than recorded figures thanks to (a) profitable pilferage at source, (b) profitable generosity to vendors, and (c) profitable diversion of stocks. (Profitable, that is, to the crooks).

“The accounts of Maharashtra’s Cotton Procurement scheme”, says Joshi, “can never be tallied unless there are half a dozen fires in the cotton stocks at different places in the state. Wheat is not as combustible as cotton, but it is susceptible to spoilage”.

The likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia may not even be aware of these grassroots realities. They are ivory tower wizards. The real wizards are the faceless, nameless denizens of babudom and clerkdom who device loopholes in every foolproof system, every economics theory.

This must have been known to our Union Minister for Cricket, Sharad Pawar, since he is a politician and not a PhD. That perhaps explains why he said that free distribution of grains to the poor was not an implementable idea. When the Supreme Court said it was an order and not just an idea, the Minister promptly said he would try to implement it. Of course he won’t because, among other things, he can’t.

The “other things” include the sinister influence of foreign consultants. It transpires that substantial storage space the government had rented earlier was returned to the property owners five-six years ago. This was on the advice of an MNC consultant. Now there is a proposal to rent space again. Naturally the rents will be double or triple what they were six years ago. Large property owners across the country will benefit and perhaps another well-connected foreign consultant.

The problem is beyond Ahluwalia’s wizardry to solve. The culture of middlemen and politician-bureaucrat nexus will triumph because the wizards make no attempt to counter it. Therefore wheat will rot, cotton will go up in flames – and the starving will continue to starve. We are !ncredible !ndia !ndeed!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The politics of kidnapping

Our world shuddered with horror when one of the four Bihar policemen kidnapped by Maoists was murdered in cold blood. Three were released unharmed – and we rejoiced. But is this the end of this cruelest of political games?

Of course not. Within days of the Bihar release, three insurance agents were kidnapped somewhere near Kolkata by suspected Maoists. Why insurance agents? The question is really irrelevant because any human beings will do for militants around the world. They may be policemen, civil servants, children, women, journalists or air/train passengers. Human lives are the best bargaining chips.

Bihar had seen, according to police records, 32,085 kidnappings between 1992 and 2004. As much as 20 percent of these were for ransom. Politicians were widely believed to be partners of the kidnap gangs. Lalu Prasad’s regime was branded by the scandal. Bihar-UP even developed the “ Pakatuah Shadi” system in which families with marriage-age girls would kidnap eligible bachelors, preferably IAS candidates, and get them forcibly married. There were cases where the bridegrooms were beaten up to make them amenable.

Lalu’s Bihar might have taken kidnapping to the level of an everyday business. But whether it is a doctor kidnapped for ransom, or a busload of passengers hijacked by an aggrieved policeman as in Manila, there is a unique fear factor in this business. When Mumbai-based American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by terrorists in Pakistan, video footage released by the captors, masked men holding guns to the kneeling victim’s head, terrorised the whole world. Then that innocent young man was beheaded. The extraordinary cruelty involved in many kidnappings makes this perhaps the most vexatious problem of our times.

That could also explain why most politically motivated kidnappings are successful. The Iran hostage crisis lasted 444 days in 1979-81 following the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran by militants. It lasted that long because neither side wanted a bloodbath. The Americans staged a military rescue operation, but it failed. Eventually diplomatic negotiations by third parties led to the release of all 66 American hostages.

The Tupamaros guerilla movement in Latin America succeeded in ending the myth of American invincibility. Their most dramatic operation was the kidnapping of the US ambassador near his home in Rio de Janeiro in 1969. In two weeks the Brazilian Government capitulated and agreed to release 15 Leftist prisoners. In 1970 the German Ambassador in Guatemala was kidnapped. But the Government refused to free prisoners in exchange and the hapless ambassador was killed.

The Indian Airlines hijack saw the most abject of surrenders. One passenger was killed and many wounded. Even then Delhi not only released the prisoners named by the terrorists, but Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh personally accompanied them to Kandahar. The need for that special tribute to terrorism still remains unexplained.

By contrast, Veerappan was rather decent the way he treated the captured Rajkumar in 2000. The Kannada hero was held captive for 108 days. The desperate Karnataka Government was willing to release the prisoners Veerappan mentioned, but the courts barred any release. In the end money changed hands, though nobody admitted it. But the point was that Rajkumar was safe and sound – and rather more philosophical about life, as was evident from the grace and dignity with which he met the press upon release.

Kidnapping ordinary people is an easy crime to commit. Hence its appeal to those who operate beyond the lines of legitimacy. Religious terrorists do it for a doomed cause. Political terrorists may cite a more plausible cause such as fighting for the rights of the poor and exploited. But all are terrorists and all are taking advantage of the helplessness of the unprotected.

We don’t know what bargains were struck to save at least three lives in Bihar. But we know that more kidnappings, more cowardly acts like train derailment, will take place as long as the problem of basic deprivations of people is not addressed. The more is the pity.