Friday, January 29, 2010

New licence raj and Hindiwallas

Will Raj Thackeray now turn on Mukesh Ambani? The Reliance chief not only said that Mumbai belonged to all of India. He put a punning punch into his comment on taxi licences being given only to Marathi-speakers. He said: “India’s corporate world has moved away from licence raj, but Mumbai’s poor taxiwalla is still dealing with licence raj”.

Licence-Raj Thackeray distributed learn-Marathi booklets to taxidrivers and gave them 40 days to master the language. So he can hold Ambani, a certified Mumbai resident, to account. After all, when Sachin Tendulkar said he was an Indian first, Uncle Bal Thackeray had told him to shut up and stick to cricket. Uncle has rushed in again to tell Ambani that Mumbai belongs to Marathis, a bald statement that will further isolate the aged Uncle.

Infighting Thackerays are indulging in competitive chauvinism and there is no Maharashtrian leader willing to call their bluff. Linguistic chauvinism is of course a factor in most of our states. But in no other city has it been developed into a political constituency. Yet, what are the Chavans and the Deshmukhs and the Pawars doing? They have the stature and, as office holders, the responsibility to treat law-breakers as criminal offenders. Instead, they act in a cowardly manner. They are politically foolish too because they won’t get the parochial votes anyway.

Chief Minister Chavan showed how far this foolishness could go when he mooted the idea of linking taxi licences to Marathi fluency. He was forced to withdraw the move, making himself a butt of ridicule. Did he really think that his Congress party could outdo Raj T. and Bal T. in bigotry?

Eventually Raj T. may prove that his strategy is smarter. Bal T. had found that crusading against South Indians was a no-win game because, without Udupi restaurants and Kaka narialpaniwallahs on the beaches, Mumbai would grind to a halt. He was forced to embrace anti-Muslim Hindutva in order to sustain himself. That too was a non-winner because the space there was already occupied by geniuses of hate politics such as Pravin Togadia and Ashok Singhal.

Raj T. had a more saleable idea when he targeted Biharis and UPwallahs. The Hindi belt has a serious psychological problem. People there are convinced that they alone are Indians and all others must defer to them. For example, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati firmly believe that they are going to be prime ministers tomorrow. But have you ever heard them utter a single word in any language other than Hindi or reaching out to non-Hindi speakers?

This superiority complex can lead to dangerously bristling situations. Imagine a railway goods booking clerk posted in Thirunainarkurichi and interacting with the honourable citizens of Thirunainarkurichi exclusively in Bihari Hindi, the only language he knows. Lalu Prasad will gloat about the number of Yadavs he gave jobs to. But in the process he also unleashed a typhoon of anti-Hindi sentiments among rural as well as urban Indians.

When Raj T. takes it out on Hindiwallahs, we feel sorry because the victims are helpless, poor people. But we may secretly like the idea of someone telling the Mayawatis and Mulayams that arrogance will not take them too far. Not in this hugely complex India.

Ultimately that’s Raj T.’s problem as well – arrogance. But he or his Uncle cannot seriously take on Mukesh Ambani whatever they may say to impress their flocks. Gujaratis sustain Mumbai. Sena bigots may beat up an MLA inside the Assembly for taking his oath in Hindi. But they won’t dare raise a word against Gujarati in the Stock Exchange. The official language in the BSE is Gujarati, like it or not. Without Gujarati the markets will crash, and without markets Mumbai will crash. In the end the “baajaar” wins.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our leaders on the Marx scale

Karl Marx summed up a complete philosophy when he coined the principle: “From each according to his ability”. A person’s worth must be measured by what he gives, or achieves, in proportion to his ability. When we use this yardstick, the legacy of our tallest leaders will fall into perspective.

After Indian communism accepted the parliamentary system for better or worse, it produced two pre-eminent leaders, Jyoti Basu and E.M.S. Namputhiripad, men of exemplary qualities respected for their intellectual calibre as much as for their political sagacity. Their influence within the party was unrivalled too. This combination of brain power and intra party clout gave them an ability level that was unique.

Were their achievements in proportion to that level of ability? Led by the best instincts, both saw land reform as a priority. Interestingly, the implementation was strongly influenced by textbook ideology, not the practicalities of life. Thus land reforms in both Kerala and West Bengal aimed at ending feudal landlordism. This was achieved. But in the process, no attention was paid to the critical issue of agricultural production. In Bengal regional imbalances developed and grassroots poverty levels remained unacceptably high. In Kerala agriculture generally collapsed and the state today is dependent on imported foodgrains and vegetables.

EMS and Jyoti Basu had a kind of supremacy that made them capable of reforming their party for the changing times. Deng Hsiao-ping did this with exemplary efficacy in China. Two fundamentals were introduced by him: Promotion within the party on the basis of meritocracy and limiting of terms for top power-holders including the President and the Prime Minister. If EMS and Jyoti Basu had used their influence to introduce similar reforms within the party, the story of Communist Power and the history of India itself would have been different. But they chose to let the party run to the ground as long as they themselves were left unchallenged in their heights.

The story is no different in other parties. What fabulous popularity Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed, with a parliamentary majority to back it up. He did introduce attitude-changing policies that helped modernise the country. But he paid no attention to a badly needed reform only he could have pushed through. This was in respect of the basic colonial infrastructure inherited from the British. The civil service and the police force had been consciously developed by Imperial Britain to act as masters and oppressors of the people. They remain exactly that half a century after independence. Nehru had both the ability and the opportunity to easily transform civil servants and policemen into what they are in civilised societies – friends and facilitators at the service of the people. It will not be easy now.

Indira Gandhi’s power and popularity reached dizzy heights in 1971 following the Bangladesh war. Yet, within four short years she took the country to its lowest-ever ebb with the Emergency. Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary majority reached a record 404 out of 533 in 1984. And he did start off promisingly with unprecedented forward movement in key areas like telecommunication. But when the crunch came he proved too weak to stop family and allies from manipulating the system for their private ends. The system devoured him.

Even A.B. Vajpayee chose to miss the bus. Both his instincts and his intellectual thinking told him that there were serious limitations to the politics of hatred in a country of India’s diversity. He even dared to speak up when all boundaries of democratic decencies were broken by his party colleagues in Gujarat. But he buried his better instincts and let evil prevail. He had the stature to save his party just as Jyoti Basu and EMS, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv had. None of them rose to the level of their abilities. The loss was not Karl Marx’s. It was India’s.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Australian violence Jai Ho!

One reason for the continuing attacks by White Australians on Brown Indians is the Australian Government’s refusal to take them seriously, let alone see racism in them. They don’t take it seriously because they don’t take India seriously. And they don’t see any racism because Australian racism is part of a rising tide of racism across the world.

The ultra-right British National Party has been gaining ground in local and national elections. It is true that these gains have been mostly in the depressed areas of Britain, like Bradford and Essex, but gains are gains in an electoral system. After all, Britain was the home of the vicious Enoch Powell whose “rivers of blood” speech (1968) is a watershed in the history of racism. He had predicted race riots and demanded the repatriation of all immigrants.

After last year’s bailout-stimulus programmes by governments to save failing financial institutions, ultra-right opinion won popularity in many European countries from Austria and Italy to Denmark and Poland. Radical groups with hate ideologies are still considered fringe parties, but they manage to get 30-40 percent of the popular vote in several countries.

In the US the ruling Democratic Party’s town meetings to discuss Obama’s bold healthcare reform were disturbed by rightwing mobs. As one commentator put it, these mobs showed “many features of historic fascist developments on a scale as yet unseen in the US”. The fact is that Obama’s rise has brought out the ghost of America’s old white supremacists. A notorious TV personality said on Fox News that Obama was a racist “with a deepseated hatred for white people”. At a public rally organised by rightwing extremists, Obama was described as “a bloodsucking Muslim alien”.

In such a world, perhaps there is nothing surprising if the white supremacists in Australia are riding high. What is surprising is their Government’s barely concealed contempt for the Indian Government and Indian opinion. When S.M.Krishna made a typically low-key protest against the killing of an Indian student recently, an Australian minister quickly responded by saying that Indian leaders “should not fuel hysteria”. Earlier a police flunkey said haughtily that attacks of the kind that were happening in Melbourne were no big deal because such things were happening in Delhi and Mumbai as well.

It is this attitude of the Australian authorities that is really fuelling the racist hysteria in Australia. In effect, the establishment may be encouraging the White thugs as the escalation from beatings to murder seems to suggest. And there is nobody in India to tell the Australian ministers and police flunkeys that no Australian has been attacked in Delhi or Mumbai, let alone set on fire.

Worse, nothing has actually been done by India apart from voicing mild verbal protests. The Australian Prime Minister’s recent visit to India saw the ground being prepared for free tade agreement, banking and insurance investments and inroads into the mining sector. Did India make one move in any of these areas to show that it has cards to play tough if violence against its citizens continued in Australia? Australia showed it had cards and would play them; it said it wouldn’t budge on not supplying uranium to India, for example.

In this situation, it is a shame that A.R. Rahman not only agreed to perform in Sidney but spoke like an Australian when he said that the attacks on Indians were not racist and that Indian media should be “more responsible”. Did he have to bend that low to get his money?

Conscience has always been an elastic thing in India. It tends to do an Indian rope trick especially when profit beckons. In the final analysis, spineless India has to blame itself if the world tends to kick it around. It is symbolic of the small slavish minds amidst us that “Jai Ho” prevails over “Jai Hind”.

Friday, January 8, 2010

News: Every citizen is a stake-holder

Appointments inside a newspaper are usually of no concern to the general public. But what happened in Business Standard last week should interest every citizen. For it was a re-assertion of values we all hold dear and yet are vanishing almost unnoticed by us.

Outwardly it was a simple matter of re-styling. The editor of the paper was made chairman of the company and a new editor appointed in his place. But the significance of the move is wide-ranging for a variety of reasons – its rarity, the quality of the players involved, the importance of the values they represent, and the universality of stake-holders in this field.

Editor turning chairman is a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world. In India it has never happened before outside family-run newspapers. In Britain it happened when Denis Hamilton, editor-in-chief of The Times was made chairman as well. In the US, Peter Kann who was covering Asia for the Wall Street Journal from Hongkong was recalled and made Publisher in 1988 and, four years later, chairman of the Dow Jones Company.

What is noteworthy here is that only papers that had achieved high public confidence through their editorial excellence entrusted the company itself to the editors who had helped attain that excellence. In the news business there is no greater asset than credibility. In many other cases also credibility was gained when the owner/chairman allowed the editor to rule unfettered. The Washington Post and The Guardian are examples. In the latter case, owner John Taylor willed that the paper be sold to editor C.P.Scott.

That’s where the quality of players – both owner and editor – comes in. Hamilton, the most innovative editor in England at the time, became chairman when the owner was Roy Thomson, a man of inherent virtue who respected the high traditions of The Times. When the company was sold to Rupert Murdoch, a man of inherent faith in his own virtues, Hamilton left and became chairman of Reuters.

T.N. Ninan became editor of Economic Times (1988) when it was a staid, uninteresting paper. He completely re-invented it, gave it variety, liveliness and freshness. This approach of comprehensiveness was to become the template for other financial dailies. In that sense, Ninan can be called the Father of Business Journalism in India. He is effective because of his non-projection of himself, his habit of delegating powers and his knack of picking top-notch team mates. His choice for the chair he vacated at BS was Sanjaya Baru, perhaps the most accomplished scholar-academic-administrator-analyst in the newspaper business.

Unfortunately for Ninan, there was no Roy Thomson in Economic Times. Worse, the ghost of Rupert Murdoch lurked in every corridor. Ninan moved to Business Standard where owner Aveek Sarkar was conducting the Ananda Bazaar Group rather like the Sulzburger family was conducting the New York Times company. He revamped BS on Ninan’s advice, but eventually sold the title. Uday Kotak, the new majority shareholder, is said to have decided on investing only after getting an assurance from Ninan that he would mind the company as well. The chairmanship now conferred on Ninan is thus the culmination of a philosophy already in place.

It is important that this philosophy succeeds. Journalism has already sunk to unacceptable levels in our country. How unethical this socially responsible profession has become was demonstrated last year when the greatest newspaper scandal in the democratic world hit India. Several leading newspapers took money from politicians to publish reports praising them at election time. This was disguised as news -- a clear case of cheating readers.

Is that the journalism India wants? BS has progressed from 8000 copies to 185,000. But it is said to be facing problems typical of these uncertain times. In publications where values are upheld even when times are hard, every citizen is a stake-holder. If honourable publications suffer, we all suffer. If they succeed, we all succeed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year? For whom?

There’s a brand new addition to our National Register of Shame. The law has been amended to allow free air travel, business class, to “any number of companions and relatives” of ministers. MPs were already enjoying this obscene privilege, but not ministers. The latest amendment is “to remove this discrepancy”.

Of course there was a more decent way to end that discrepancy – by scrapping the undeserved charity given to MPs. But such thoughts do not occur to netas and babus who love living off others. Notice the important detail: The amending bill was passed in an instant. No debate, no dissent, not disruption from the well of the House. Jai Hind!

And just who are these people whose privileges We the People are forced to finance? Of the 545 MPs, perhaps 50 may be considered legitimate parliamentarians. As many as 153 are criminally tainted, 75 of them by “serious cases” involving murder and gang wars. Many who are not on the certified criminal list are routinely involved in lucrative contract/promotion/lobbying rackets.

Then there are the famously shameless. Remember the MP who was arrested in 2008 for using his official passport to smuggle people to Canada? Four other MPs were involved in that scurrilous abuse of privilege. And remember the eleven MPs who were caught on camera accepting bribes for raising questions in Parliament? Even if we set aside these headline-making criminalities, MPs as a collective still loom as a blot on democracy, blocking proceedings and shouting one another down as a matter of policy. In 2008 a frustrated Speaker Somnath Chatterji referred 32 MPs to the Privileges Committee for disorderly behaviour. He was persuaded to drop the matter, but he did make the point that Parliament had been reduced to a House of Disorder.

Are these the people who should get everything virtually free – free accommodation, free laundry, free phone calls, free electricity, free water, free travel and now free travel for any number of companions and relatives?

This parasitic culture, sanctified by successive governments and all political parties, is what has made the political class as a whole an object of loathing across the country. Official defenders of the system, especially righteous-looking spokesmen like Jayanti Natarajan and Manish Tiwari, blame critics for criticising the political class as a whole. But that is precisely what the public does. They do not accept the professional defenders’ argument that the few black sheep are exceptions. In fact, the few white ones are the exceptions; delinquents are the rule.

What is it if not the class character of our politicians that makes the indefensible defensible? What explains a popular hero whom adoring masses called “Guruji” turning into a personification of corruption the moment he gets power? The hero-turned-convicted-murderer has again become Jharkhand’s chief minister. What explains Madhu Koda, Karnataka’s Bellary Brothers, communist rulers with capitalist tastes? For that matter, what explains the sex maniac former police chief of Haryana and the rapist police chief of Rajasthan absconding for a decade? They all think that power gives them the right to plunder and rape and kill. What makes it a “class act” is their absolute conviction that they do nothing wrong. Koda said people were attacking him because they were jealous of his success. The Haryana police molester talked about constitutional rights.

Against the background of offenders posing as patriots with constitutional rights, perhaps free air travel for ministerial companions may look like a non-issue. But it is a pointer to the wide spectrum of iniquities we live with. (For every N.D.Tiwari who retires, there will be another requiring half an aircraft to take his companions along). We have developed a system where Good subsidises Evil. Unhappy thoughts for a New Year. But not unrealistic ones.