Monday, December 26, 2011

He Called Mother Teresa a Fanatic, a Fraud, and He Called Kissinger a War Criminal

Christopher Hitchens is not a household name in India. The limited familiarity with it is likely to be coloured by his intemperate condemnation of Mother Teresa as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud”. MT was a bit of a fanatic and a bit of a fundamentalist, but she was no fraud. And there can be no justification for Hitchens' statement that many people were poor and sick because of the life of MT.

But then, strong and confrontational opinions were the stuff that made Christopher Hitchens the great public intellectual that he became. He was at war with a series of enemies, ranging from George Bush to God. Actually, his views on religion were commonsensical. The real axis of evil, he said, was Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That did not mean that he approved of other faiths like Hinduism. He believed that organised religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”, a view that would be echoed by many who are dismayed by the violence that religion inspires.

The distinguishing feature of the Hitchens persona, next to his intellectual vigour, was his courage. He denounced the then all-powerful Ayatullah culture of Iran for the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. He condemned Zionism as “ an injustice against the Palestinians”. Naturally he made many enemies. But when he fell victim to cancer last week, even enemies rose to salute his wit, his punditic sensibilities and the integrity of his erudition.

His polemical prose was particularly devastating in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was less than 150 pages, but it marshalled facts, figures and arguments that lent powerful support to his theory that the international face of the criminally inclined Nixon Presidency was himself a war criminal.

Pointing out that Kissinger's overall record was “morally repulsive”, Hitchens confines his case to those offences that constitute a basis for legal prosecution for war crimes. These include “the deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina, deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh, the personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation – Chile – with which the US was not at war, and the personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus”. What a record!

Cambodia was bombed in secrecy. Kissinger lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he said that areas in Cambodia selected for bombing were “unpopulated”. Actually “350,000 civilians in Laos and 600,000 in Cambodia lost their lives. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis which persists to this day” with children still being born with disabilities.

In Bangladesh, 20 members of the US diplomatic team, joined later by nine senior officers of the South Asia division at the State Department in Washington, strongly protested in writing against American complicity in the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis. Kissinger's response was to transfer them to other posts, and to send a message to Yahya Khan thanking him for his “delicacy and tact”. Hitchens argues that Kissinger was gratifying Nixon's dislike of Indira Gandhi which originated with his loathing for Jawaharlal Nehru. He also describes how, within weeks of an eight-hour Kissinger visit to Bangladesh in 1974, “a faction at the US Embassy in Dacca began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers”. In a few months Mujibur Rahman and 40 members of his family were murdered.

The murder of Chile's democratically elected President Salvador Allende followed a similar trajectory. A famous Kissinger statement summed it all up. A country should not be allowed to go Marxist, he said, merely because “its people are irresponsible”. The Nixon-Kissinger syndication was the most lethal in contemporary power politics, its path strewn with massacres and assassinations. The ultimate injustice is that Kissinger, the Mephistopheles of his generation, is beyond the reach of a war crimes tribunal.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Across the Globe, Corruption is the Issue; Will It Defeat Us, or Will We Defeat It?

The rupee falls to a new low, industrial output drops by as much as 60 percent in some sectors, coal production nosedives for the third month in a row, fears of economic slowdown rattle corporate India – and how does the Government of India tackle the national crisis? It takes Ajit Singh into the cabinet. As if that isn't enough, it gives him civil aviation, a key sector already wrecked by a series of manipulative ministers.

Good for Ajit Singh. In a nation of rolling stones, he has been rolling with every party in the field – with various Janata formations, then with the Congress, then with the BJP, then Mayawati, then Mulayam Singh. Along the way he got Industry Ministership under V. P. Singh and Food Ministership under P . V. Narasimha Rao – and all attendant benefits thereof. But the most important point about Ajit Singh is that, after all these years of rolling, he is exactly where he started. He is not even a UP leader; he is only a Western-UP leader. Even within that restricted geography, his appeal is confined to Jats.

So what wonders is he going to perform for the Congress Party in the UP election? The decision to take him as a partner is supposed to be the brainwave of Rahul Gandhi, so no one within the party will dare raise the question. Only if the brainwave fails to produce results will the party find someone to pin the blame on.

What stands out here is not just the atrophy of a party, but also a bankruptcy of ideas. Everyone's horizon ends at the next election; the mind cannot see beyond. Attention is therefore focussed on deals and shortcuts that can gain a seat here and a seat there. A man with a half dozen members in Parliament becomes worthy of purchase even if he is a serial fence-jumper with a negative track record. In the process feelings of despair grow among the people.

Parties resort to gimmicks because they are unwilling to fight corruption, the biggest issue of our times. They actually give the impression that they have an interest in continuing corruption. Even the latest anti-corruption initiatives approved by the cabinet look more like diversionary manoeuvres than the real thing. The BJP is in the same boat with its record in Karnataka putting even Congress transgressions in the shade. The parties are merely shadow boxing to mislead the public.

They won't succeed because 2011 has become a historical turning point in terms of corruption worldwide. When we saw Greeks and Spaniards protesting against corruption, we thought it was just an offshort of the Euro crisis. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US finally proved that a global phenomenon had developed against the abuse of capitalism and the rich getting richer at the expense of “the 99 percent”.

This has now gripped even Russia. Vladimir Putin, now in the throes of returning to the President's post, has been publicly booed and the vote share of his party reduced. Don't forget, Putin is still the most popular leader in Russia. The Russian economy is doing well, too. Oil prices are high and foreign currency reserves flattering. There has been improvement in roads, schools and hospitals as well.

So why are the Russian people restive? Because they see the government set up as highly corrupt. People are much better informed today because of the internet and the general perception is that Putin's party is a “party of thieves and swindlers”. We are familiar with that kind of perception and can therefore understand why there is unrest in Russia.

The implications of the unrest in India are more serious because, failing to understand the public mood, the ruling class is trying to suppress criticism. That is the surest way to let corruption defeat us instead of the other way round. At Sonia Gandhi's and Manmohan Singh's level, there is stubborn silence. In a crisis, silence is not leadership. It's betrayal.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Choices for Linguistically Warring India; The Canadian Way or the Ottoman Way

It is becoming clearer by the day that the linguistic reorganisation of states has done more harm than good to our country. Instead of welding the nation into a functioning federalism like Canada or Switzerland, it is reminding us of the Austrian and Ottoman empires that came to grief because they could not turn their multicultural diversity into a viable unity.

Back in the days of innocence, the national movement for independence was structured along the lines of Pradesh Committees, each pradesh generally comprising one linguistic region. That seemed a natural counterpoint to the imperial scheme of presidencies and princely states. Potti Sriramulu's fast to death in 1952 was a coercive tactic, but the States Reorganisation Act four years later did not necessarily appear in a negative light. There was hope that regional languages would flourish and that the overall effect would be progressive.

Ambedkar was among those who warned of the dangers ahead. Nehru had his reservations too. Distinguished foreign pundits cautioned that linguistic division could encourage secessionist forces (See Selig Harrison, India, The Most Dangerous Decades, 1960). The chief argument was that India was different, from Canada and the Ottomans and every other case in history because in India “linguism was only another name for (caste) communalism,” as Ambedkar put it. Proving his point, new states became battlegrounds for Marathi Brahmins and Maratha peasant-proprietors, for Kammas and Reddis, for Lingayats and Vokkaligas. D.R. Mankekar, a prominent editor of the 1950s, said: “We find once again, on lifting the linguistic cloak, casteism and love of office grinning at us”.

Bal Thackeray turned the grin into a growl. His nephew Raj Thackeray went the whole hog to unleash campaigns of violence against non-Maharashtrians. By not checking that tendency, senior leaders like Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh encouraged chauvinistic extremism. Patriotism became indistinguishable from bigotry. Belgaum City Corporation recently passed a resolution not to honour Chandrasekhara Kambar, this year's Jnanapith winner. It did not matter that Kambar was a son of Belgaum and studied there. It did not matter that he was one of the finest poets and playwrights of modern India. All that mattered was that he was a Kannadiga while many corporators considered themselves Maharashtrians.

Sadder still is the Mullaperiyar dam dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Simple logic shows that no two neighbours are more dependent on each other than Tamil Nadu and Kerala. To understand the full scope of this interdependence, it is necessary first to understand the difference in character between Tamils and Malayalees. Tamils are hardworking. Malayalees are hardworking only outside Kerala; at home they are happy with their Gulf money and their nonstop politics.

One consequence of this character difference is that agriculture, which needs sustained hard work, has come to a standstill in Kerala. All necessities are imported. If vegetables and fruits and chicken do not arrive in truckloads from Tamil Nadu daily, the Malayalee will starve.

Firebrand politician Vaiko once tried to take advantage of this. He blocked all truck movement to Kerala so that the Malayalee would starve and learn a lesson. He quickly reversed gear because Tamil farmers, denied their assured market, began starving too. Even Vaiko had to concede that the Tamil farmer and the Malayalee consumer were made for each other. The survival of each depended on the other.

This is why the Mullaperiyar issue is actually a non-issue. Land on the Tamil side is arid, so water from Kerala is essential to the Tamil farmer. It is just as essential for Kerala that the Tamil farmer gets the water he wants for, otherwise, Kerala won't get its daily food supplies. Never was collaborative coexistence more elementary. And never was the failure of political leadership more evident. Kerala repeatedly assures full water supplies. With that the dispute should have ended – but linguistic egos keep it going. A Tamil employer in Doha, Qatar, sacked his Malayalee employee for supporting the idea of a new dam. Nothing more need be said.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sure, We are a Happening Country, but What Shouldn't Happen is Happening

“What is happening in this country”? asked Pranab Mukherjee in the aftermath of the Sharad Pawar slapping incident. Every tax-payer and voter in this country has been asking the same question, though not in the sense in which Mukherjee meant. What indeed is happening under the auspices of the eminent leaders of the Government and the opposition? What the citizen knows is:

□ That dumb things are happening in the country. Like introducing the FDI retail decision at the most inopportune moment. What was the urgency to present it as a cabinet decision when Parliament was in session and a critical election in UP was round the corner? The American Ambassador's very undiplomatic intervention? Is pleasing the Americans worth the price of alienating political allies as well as UP voters? Or was someone trying to divert attention from the 2G fire engulfing P. Chidambaram? It is not easy to imagine Pranab Mukherjee straining a nerve to save Chidambaram with whom he has been openly clashing. The pros and cons of the FDI policy apart, the manner and timing of the government move betrayed a sad lack of political sense. Congressmen themselves came out in open criticism. Did such a mess have to happen?

□ That anti-democratic trantrums are happening in the country. Only Indian genius could invent the idea of attending Parliament in order to block its proceedings. The present Parliament has wasted more working hours than any Parliament in the last 25 years. Leaders like Sushma Swaraj are proud to announce that Parliament won't be allowed to function. Any reason is good enough. In the current session, first it was boycott of Chidambaram. Then it was food inflation. Then FDI. One week of washed-out session cost the tax-payers Rs 24 crore. Parliament is a forum for debate and decisions, not a site for street demonstrations. Common people are unanimous in their call for no work, no pay. But MPs are so shameless that they are demanding red lights atop their cars. This is democracy going bizarre.

□ That intrigue and machinations are happening in the country. Either Sonia Gandhi's health condition, or her partisans' impatience, or the former aggravating the latter, has led to what looks like preparations for a post-Manmohan Singh regime – which need not wait till the end of the Prime Minister's term. This was clear when T.K.A. Nair was ousted from the position of the PM's Principal Secretary and Pulok Chatterji put in his place in July. Nair was Manmohan Singh's close and trusted aide even before he became Prime Minister and Chatterji is a known extension of the Sonia Gandhi parivar. The message was that the Prime Minister's Office was too important to be left to the Prime Minister. So when does Rahul Gandhi step in? And people like Digvijay Singh? The economy is in trouble, but all we have is politics by contrivance.

□ That meaningful efforts to end corruption are not happening in the country. Shaken by the public anger that swelled the Anna Hazare tide, the Government went through some motions of working on an honourable Lok Pal Bill. Now we know it was not all that honourable. A bill with sufficient holes through which bureaucrats and politicians can collect their mamools may well be what comes out of it all. How will public outrage express itself next time?

Look at the one state, Karnataka, where an effective Lok Ayukta had done wonders. The post has remained vacant since Justice Santhosh Hegde retired. They did appoint an exceptionally good successor, Justice Shivraj Patil, but a minor issue involving a cooperative society housing site, was raised to harass him and he resigned. Karnataka not only lost a worthy Lok Ayukta; it is unable to find a retired judge antisceptic enough for the post.

When Pranab Mukherjee raised his question, the answer was staring him in the face: What should be happening in the country is not happening, so what should not be happening is happening.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Travelling was at 3 Miles an Hour, but in that Era too, Mamool was a Habit

How times change! It is routine these days for a Chennai businessman to take a morning flight to Delhi, complete his work there, and return the same night to the bliss of his own bed. A briefcase is more than enough by way of baggage.

Things were somewhat different in the days of Enugula Veeraswamy, a Madras denizen of 1830s. He went on a pilgrimage to Banares which took him “one year, three months, five days and ten minutes” to complete. That was mainly because the mode of transport was the palanquin. Which meant a large retinue of palanquin bearers, attendants, cooks, porters, handymen for urgent repair works en route, tents and of course armed guards. Veeraswamy was travelling with his wife and children which meant that the retinue had to be that much larger.

One had to be rich to go on a journey of that kind. Veeraswamy obviously had no problem on that count. He was in the service of the East India Company and had risen to the then enviable position of Head Interpreter and Translator in the Supreme Court of Madras. That also gave him valuable contacts with company officials and regimental units along the way.

With all that, his average travelling speed was two to three miles per hour. According to one diary noting, he left a village at 2 in the morning and reached the next halting point at 9 that morning – seven hours for a distance of 16 miles. The progress would be slower when there were rivers to cross, or thick jungles infested with wild animals, or pathless rocky hills to negotiate. Or indeed wayside attackers; the menace of professional assassins called thugs had not yet been eliminated. Sometimes visas were required to cross from one kingdom to another.

Finding resting places was a problem too. Veeraswamy, an orthodox Brahmin, records his joy whenever he found the “convenience of a Brahmin habitation”. His status occasionally helped him enjoy the hospitality of company officials and army camps. For the most part, though, he had to pitch tents on his own. At one place he found that “ a spacious chavadi could be built at a cost of Rs 10” on a tank bund using forest wood. He built one and left the next morning.

At Srisailam, where the holy temple was not easy to reach, he had three dholies (mounted conveyances) built for two rupees each. “I fixed up eight palanquin bearers at four rupees each, eight uppada boyees to carry luggage, one other luggage carrier to carry the luggage and victuals of the luggage carriers. In addition I was accompanied by 15 Brahmins; food for them for five days was also carried in our entourage”.

Being a government servant, Veeraswamy took note of the administrative structure imposed by the East India Company. The areas in and around Srisailam were in the territory “granted” to the Nawab of Kandanur who paid a lakh of rupees to the Company as annual revenue. He in turn collected money from pilgrims. During Shivaratri, for example, the fees were “Rs 7 for a group of Sudras, Rs 5 for a horse, Rs 3 each” for various rituals. During Brahmotsavam, the receipts would amount to 400 varahas. “The Nawab appropriates all these fees and thereafter neglects the maintenance of the shrines”.

That tradition is still maintained by our state authorities and legislators who receive allocations for various schemes, and thereafter neglect the performance of their duties. Rather reassuringly, palm-greasing was also a hallowed tradition. Recalling his boat journey from Prayag to Kasi (pleasurable, though it took six days), Veeraswamy cautions: “Ordinary travellers by boat are troubled by customs peons called 'permit-men'. The poor have to pay a rupee for each person by way of bribe. The salary of a Ghat customs dheroga is only 15 rupees but they earn 200 to 300 rupees by way of these bribes.”

How times never change!


Enugula Veeraswamy's Journal (original in Telugu) was published in English translation in 2000 by the Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscript Library and Research Institute, Hyderabad.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mamata Banerjee: A Big Disappointment, and Pointer to a Dangerous Phenomenon

Mamata Banerjee is a street fighter. Which is fine; street fighters have a role to play in a stubborn democracy like ours. What is not fine, however, is that she does not see the difference between a street leader and a government leader. Six months into power, she has not done a thing to show that she knows what it is to be the chief minister of a state. Vision? Forget it. Dashing everyone's expectations, she has become India's biggest disappointment.

Consider the way she walked from her house to a police station, shouted at the senior officers there and got two hooligans released from the lockup. The youthful pair had been causing nuisance in the area with loudspeakers and blocking the busy road with a puja celebration. When they were told to clear the road, they stoned the police, damaged vehicles and ransacked the police station. What made them so haughty? They were members of a local club called Sevak Sangh which was run, among others, by Baban Banerjee, the chief minister's brother. Mamata won cheers from the mob by ordering an inquiry into “police highhandedness”.

The police is of course highhanded, all across the country. But when it is a confrontation between hooligans and the police, no chief minister in the country has taken a position against the police. This is the same Mamata Banerjee who said that she would turn Kolkata into India's London. She won't do that in her lifetime because she does not understand what makes London London. Prime Minister Tony Blair was once stopped by the traffic police on a motorway and fined for speeding. The Prime Minister did not walk up to the police station, shout at the officers and order an inquiry. He just paid the fine.

Mamata Banerjee does not have the mind to understand that kind of culture. She does not even understand the need for a head of government to show empathy when tragedy strikes citizens. When newborn babies died in disquieting numbers in Kolkata's government hospitals, unacceptable problems of neglect came to light – lack of doctors and medicines, pathetic facilities in the general hospital, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. And what did the Chief Minister do? She kept silent for an inordinate period, then made wishywashy statements that seemed to justify the hospitals.

London is a place where the red double-decker bus is maintained as a proud ikon. Models four or five years old are replaced with the latest ones, looking not only new but impeccably clean and gleaming. Kolkata is the only metro in India where the oldest buses still keep running, dilapidated, even scary. The ramshackle trams are no better. Nor the rickety Ambassador taxis of 1960s vintage, museum marvels of survival. All that the people's leader has achieved so far is to give a fillip to Rabindra Sangeet. A good deed, but no big deal.

We look for signs of change on the industrial front. There is none. Improvements in the living conditions of the poor in central Kolkata? There is none. Some badly needed cleaning up? None. Untreated water from the Hoogly passes for water supply in several parts of the city. And the all-important Maoist problem? In her race to power, she seemed to work with the Maoists. Now she has ordered a new campaign to destroy them.

She is not only doing nothing to take Bengal forward; she is still doing what she can to take India backward. Thanks to the “coalition dharma”, she controls the Indian Railways. Never has Indian Railways been so hidebound, so badly led.

Actually, the plight of the railways illustrates the central problem of the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon. She is, like Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, a one-person universe. Nothing moves without her say-so, and all those who are supposedly in her cabinet are no more than office furniture. Such phenomena are the sustaining force of dictatorships. When they enter the democratic space through legitimate means like elections, they become a dangerous half-breed: Legitimate dictatorship.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Even the Mahavishnu of Market Economy Cannot Equate Slumdogs with Tycoons

Trust deficit is an expressive phrase. But it is applied only to India-Pakistan relations. It is just as relevant in describing people-government relations in India. The trust deficit on this front was highlighted by two recent statements. The first was by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said in Cannes that food prices shot up in India because of prosperity.

Less than half the population of India is prosperous. The other half-and-more is at varying levels of misery. A few hundred millions live in abject filth. A few thousand farmers have been forced to kill themselves, a phenomenon that still continues. Do these people have to pay impossible prices for essentials because some Indians are prosperous?

India ranks 134 among 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index. The proportion of underweight (read, deprived of nourishment) children in India is the highest in the world, higher than even African countries notorious for poverty. Barring Bolivia, Cambodia and Haiti, India has the lowest level of access to sanitation (read, highest level of public defecation). This is the country where skyrocketing prices must be accepted as a sign of prosperity?

If the government had been paying less attention to scam-making and more to improving social indicators and basic hygiene, it could have claimed some justification in relating unbearable living costs to prosperity. In this case, it is doubtful whether the Prime Minister can be justified even as an academic theoretician because textbook economics, too, makes a distinction between development and economic growth.

At best, the Prime Minister's statement was a half-truth. The second statement, made by Pranab Mukherjee, was not even that. When petrol prices rose to the highest levels in the world, the Finance Minister seemed angry with the people who protested. The prices were raised, he said, by the oil companies, not by the Government.

That is a new one. It is like saying that taxation levels are raised by the Income Tax Department, not by the Government. Indian Oil and Hindustan and Bharat Petroleum replaced Burmah-Shell, Caltex and Standard Vacuum by courtesy of nationalisation. Like Indian Railways, they are children of the Government.

True, the oil companies incur heavy losses and government subsidies to them are hefty. They make out a case for higher prices that often seems strong. But that does not answer the lay man's questions: Why doesn't the excuse of international prices apply to oil prices in other countries including Pakistan and Bangladesh? Why does petrol cost Rs 230 per litre in Lakshadweep? Why was Murli Deora, a close family associate of oil tycoons, made petroleum minister?

No angry fulminations by Pranab Mukherjee and no academic highfalutin by the Prime Minister can hide the trust deficit caused by bad governance and by equating slumdogs with the Formula One elite. The economist that he is, Manmohan Singh will be the first to realise that there is something to worry about when the United States, the Mahavishnu of market economy, goes through a historic upheaval. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an explosion of public disenchantment with the way the principle of free enterprise has developed in the US. It amounted, in the last few years, to tycoons walking off with public money, with banks collapsing because of licentious mismanagement and the ordinary people being forced to pay for the luxury class's selfishness. People are losing faith in the way capitalism is being misused.

Or is it no misuse after all? Astonishingly Karl Marx had foreseen exactly what is happening today. In Das Kapital, he wrote: “Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and mechanical products, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the state will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism”.

Scary? Re-assuring? Re-read the slogans of the “We are the 99 percent” movement – and wonder.

Monday, November 7, 2011

When a Decision not to take a Decision is the Only Decision, Nemesis Awaits

Deepak Parekh said it on television. Fourteen industrialists said it in a group statement. The Reserve Bank said it. The Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council said it. On each of these occasions, the Government pretended that it heard nothing. Then Azim Premji said it. Suddenly the Government's apologists took note. Premji must be one business leader the Government is afraid of. Or especially fond of.

The irony is that what they all said was also what the people have been saying for about two years – that the Government is avoiding taking decisions on critical issues. “A complete absence of decision-making among the leaders of the Government”, is how Premji put it.

Deepak Parekh, a pioneer in the financial sector, had given us a rather graphic account of how the leaders avoided their responsibility. Whenever a serious issue came up, they would appoint a Group of Ministers to talk about it. If the issue was very serious, they would pass it on to an Empowered Group of Ministers. The bottom line was that no individual minister would be held accountable for a decision.

Why? What are they afraid of? The best guess would be that ministers are following the Prime Minister's penchant not to take decisions on his own. And the Prime Minister, we know, takes no decisions because the Remote Control is not with him. When a situation of conflict comes up, we see the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister and the Home Minister rushing to explain things to their party President who never lets the people know what her counsel is in such situations. Citizens are left with an impression of secretiveness in the affairs of the state.

Explanations, if any, come from inconsequential spokespersons. They do it with all the fatuousness and absurdity at their command. Premji's comment, Minister Ambika Soni said, did not reflect reality. But of course it did. Absence of decision-making was the main feature of not only the investment and reform sectors the business leaders were referring to, but also the scam sector the lay public was worried about.

Manageable problems turned by indecision into unmanageable ones are numerous – the Commonwealth Games muddle, the 2-G spectrum corruption, the Adarsh Housing scam, Telengana, a series of security-related issues, even urgent defence procurement schemes. Premji was stating the obvious when he said the country's economic growth would suffer if prompt corrective action was not taken.

Issues on which the Government does take a decision end up in disaster. The decision to set up a thugs' army called Salwa Judum to fight Maoists in Chattisgarh actually swelled the ranks of Maoists as government atrocities turned more villagers into rebels. The decision to arrest Anna Hazare boosted his profile and reinforced middle class resolve to fight corruption. The Supreme Court found the Salwa Judum illegal. People found the Hazare arrest stupid.

The Government still does not understand that the people are capable of seeing through pretensions. In a permanent state of denial, it goes on saying there is nothing wrong in what it does, or does not do. And because it does not see anything wrong, it will not set anything right. It has created a trap and fallen into it.

If there's anything worse than not taking decisions on time, it is taking decisions under pressure from public opinion and the courts. Money going illegally abroad is an old story. Published reports mentioned names like Hassan Ali. The Government took no action leading to the conclusion that VIP interests were involved. It is taking no action now about illegal account holders. France has furnished a long list of their names. America has demonstrated how banks can be forced to yield information. Yet, India does nothing and the names of black money hoarders remain secret.

Of course a decision not to take a decision is also a decision. But a Government that protects those it has a responsibility to punish will itself be punished. Sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Own Grand Prix: Rath versus Formula 1. Advani's Yatra Isn't About Corruption

Singlehandedly L. K Advani had turned the rath yatra into a cliché of Indian politics. A bankruptcy of ideas still pursues him and he is using a rath yet again to compete in what has become a Formula I Grand Prix. We could have enjoyed it as a comedy if it were not such a tragedy.

It is comic that the Congress scams are boosting the BJP while the BJP, with scams to match, is reviving the Congress. The various Dals and Samajs and Desams and Kazhagams add their own comic reliefs. But tragedy envelopes them all. On one side, the Digvijay Singhs and the Kapil Sibals think that denying sin is equal to eliminating sin. On the other side, Advani's yatra against corruption dramatises the corruption engulfing the BJP.

To a tiny extent at least, Advani could have avoided embarrassment by keeping clear of Karnataka. After all, last time the BJP organised an all-India campaign against corruption, it was wise enough to pretend that Karnataka was not part of all-India. But this time the Advani-blessed group in the faction-ridden Karnataka BJP persuaded him otherwise. Actually the public disgrace of the BJP in Karnataka has gone beyond factions. Advani's visit will only draw attention to the party's luminaries being in prison.

The chatter in Bangalore these days is that there is a regular bus service from the Vidhana Soudha to the Parappana Agrahara central prison. Despite occasional detours to a hospital or two, the bus maintains its schedule which must be reassuring to the nearly half dozen members of the cabinet who are currently embroiled in FIRs and things.

Unlike the Parappana bus, Advani's bus has been running into problems all along the way. Senior party colleagues fell ill because the airconditioning conked out. Moral: Other leaders are not up to it like the Big Leader. The roof of the bus got trapped while trying to clear a low bridge. Moral: Bend low if you want to proceed.

The messiest pickle the yatra got into was at Satna, Madhya Pradesh, a state under BJP rule. Since the whole purpose of a yatra is publicity, the main yatri holds a daily press conference. At Satna, attending journalists received envelopes containing currency notes. One journalist objected and went public. A humiliated Advani cancelled his press conference. But it showed how corruption, like God, was everywhere and in everything – in anti-corruption campaigns that bribe journalists and in journalists who take bribes to do their work.

Undeterred, a BJP spokesman announced that Advani's rath yatra was creating a hype against corruption. In the first place, it was Anna Hazare who created a hype against corruption while the BJP tried to hitch a piggyback ride. Secondly, if anyone from the BJP has created a hype against corruption, it is B. S. Yeddyurappa. Even trail-blazers of yester years like Sukh Ram and Buta Singh pale before Yeddyurappa's daring.

Corruption cannot be tackled with gimmicks and cliches. It is doubtful whether Advani's purpose is to tackle it at all. The yatra is more like an internal party manoeuvre. He started not from his constituency in Gujarat but from far away Bihar. The ruler of Gujarat is known to be eyeing the chair that is dearest to Advani's heart. The party's president has even gone through a stomach surgery in his bid to get close to that chair. Ambition is a noble thing, but the wise have told us that ambition also drives many men to become false, to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue.

The fact is that BJP has contributed as much to the culture of corruption as the Congress and variations on the theme like the NCP, the Bahujan Samaj and the Samajwadi. This lot of politicians will not destroy what sustains them. More jail and more rejection by the people may bring about a new lot of politicians. For now the judiciary is our hope. And eternal vigilance by the people.

Monday, October 24, 2011

It's Peak Time in Jails Again – For VIPs: People See it as Justice, and Rejoice.

Public anger against corrupt governance has never been as intense as it is today. However, there is also public jubilation as never before. Political VIPs going to jail is an unprecedented spectacle and it fills citizens with unprecedented joy. This is not sadism. This is recognising the sign that there is hope for our country after all.

When A. Raja went to jail, the general feeling was that the arrogance of his party had invited the punishment. From T. R. Baalu's days DMK ministers in Delhi had behaved as though they were viceroys of the Almighty. People have their own ways of reaching conclusions. The general feeling in this case was that, be it A. Raja or Dayanidhi Maran or Azhagiri, they were all using their power for their own and their group's interests.

That same feeling made the public rejoice when Suresh Kalmadi and some of his gang found themselves behind bars. Their misdeeds had brought international shame to our country with videos of filthy bathrooms in the Games Village going round the world and some athletes boycotting the Games. The costs to the country are still mounting, the Sports Ministry having discovered that some of the stadia have become dumping grounds and that several crores would be needed to make them useful in some way.

The jailing that got maximum applause from the public was undoubtedly that of Janardhana Reddy and B. S. Yeddyurappa himself in Karnataka. Reddy was literally above the law, both civil and criminal. No businessman, IAS officer, police chief, or ordinary farmer could survive in Bellary without his permission. His mansion was surrounded by three rings of security and CCTV cameras on approach roads. He had gold plates to eat from, gold water taps to wash his hands, a monogrammed gold throne to sit on and 1200 gold rings to wear. Now he eats kichdi from steel plates. What's it if not justice?

Yeddyurappa was second only to Narendra Modi in flaunting chief ministerial sovereignty, arms swinging like a pahelwan's. He even brought the BJP High Command under his control by using the stick of threats and the carrot of monetary contributions. Now he is “deeply pained” that the public thinks his hospital hopping was to avoid jail. It might be of some consolation to him that the public also was deeply pained by his generosity to sons, son-in-law and sundry relations and cronies. His cabinet has contributed more than any other cabinet in the country to jail population – five of them in one go, another distinction for the “BJP's first government in the South”.

For breaking the myth of ministerial invincibility and re-affirming the limits to power, the credit must go to the judiciary. The tendency of the political establishment was to protect the guilty; look at the way they put off action to curb people like Raja and Kalmadi. It was left to the judges, with some help from newly aroused public opinion, to re-establish the principle that transgressions must lead to punishment. May their tribe increase.

Jail-going was once a badge of patriotism in our country. A man with first-hand knowledge of that phase of history, P. V. Narasimha Rao, told us how that badge was misused. In his novel, The Insider, there is a father who recalls the imprisonment of the great nationalist leaders and says: “My business instinct tells me that some profit must come out of jail-going sometime, somehow. I see my son's jail-going as good business”. During the Emergency jail-going took on another character, best described by one of the victims, Maharani Gayatri Devi. “All the jails were full at the time”, she wrote, “like hotels in peak season”.

It is peak season of yet another kind now. There are ministerial-bureaucratic transgressions awaiting correction elsewhere – in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab. Rapes, kidnappings and disappearances have happened with politicians in power figuring in the suspect list. The call for justice is loud.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What's Going On? There's Need to End this Dangerous Drift to Governmentlessness

The irony is so stark that it exposes the sham of it all. The criminals who attacked a corruption-fighting lawyer in his chambers called themselves the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena. Those who gathered to see the attackers in a court were assaulted by thugs who called themselves the Sri Ram Sene. Bhagat Singh was a patriot whose writings showed great discretion and judgment and whose memory is honoured by all sections of people. Sri Ram is the most revered of all divinities in the Indian pantheon, a personification of all the virtues of man. That these hallowed names should be used by vile men of intolerance and violence is an affront. The heroes whose fame is falsely evoked will lose none of their glory. Those who perpetrate fraud in their names will go down as dregs of society.

The danger they pose has another, more disturbing, implication. Public life in India seems to have entered a new phase that must worry us all. Fringe groups and fanatics of all kind feel free to do what they like – beat up civil society campaigners today, kill whistleblowers tomorrow. The Government responds with such weak and routine measures that the crimes get bolder as time passes. This could well lead to the collapse of the very democratic system that sustains us.

A cursory look at what has been happening in recent years is sufficient to show how governmental inaction has fanned the flames of bigotry. When impermissible things happened in Mumbai, the so-called secular democrats of the Congress and the NCP were too scared – and too selfish – to take action. The conduct of leaders like Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sharad Pawar was shameless when taxi and autorickshaw drivers were dragged out and beaten up by Raj Thackeray's thugs.

Naturally thugs got bolder. The destruction of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune is one of the unforgivable crimes of our times. A precious storehouse of rare works and manuscripts, it was a jewel on Maharashtra's crown. Even that was not understood by the illiterate zealots who attacked it in the name of Shivaji.

Shivaji is another venerated name that is used as an excuse by criminally inclined people to assault their enemies. A proposal by the Maharashtra Government to build a big statue of the Maratha hero out in the Arabian sea off Mumbai was a legitimate topic for different people to express different opinions. But just because a critical opinion was published by Kumar Ketkar, one of the most distinguished journalists in Marathi and therefore a proud son of Maharashtra, his house and offices were attacked. Again, the authorities took virtually no action.

When a Rohinton Mistry novel was taken off Bombay University's syllabus, protest came from the principal of a college, but the Shiv Sena crown prince who forced the cowardly act by the University simply gloated. Now the Delhi University has censored out a scholarly work on the Ramayana by the internationally renowned scholar A.K. Ramanujan. The hundred Ramayanas he wrote about will continue to enlighten knowledge seekers; the closed minds of fanatics will remain closed in their ignorance.

Can the Manmohan Singh Government afford to quibble and dither in the face of such assaults on the values of democracy the vast majority of Indians cherish? This Government's refusal to take action when it is needed has riled the Supreme Court itself. It is also the prime factor behind the scams that have made even our economy suffer. Such is the warped thinking in government circles that even Salman Khurshid, usually a sensible man, made the dumb remark that putting businessmen in jail discourages investment in the country. No sir, it is gargantuan corruption by the politician-businessman nexus that discourages investors. The Government has become so dormant and non-functioning that the country is slipping into a state of governmentlessness. Now that this is leading to street violence and open bigotry, can government inaction continue? The time of reckoning is now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the End, It is Not Power that Matters, but What You Give to the World

The craze for power is so all-consuming in India that we tend to forget the other things that matter. Steve Jobs was an exemplar of those other things. He was only 56 when he died. But he will be remembered with the same feelings of gratitude and admiration with which people like Thomas Alva Edison are remembered.

Edison, not Einstein. It may well be that geniuses who worked out the laws of the universe such as the theory of relativity are the true mentors of modern life as we know it today. But they operated at levels that were unreachable by the lay public. The benefits of their work percolated down to us through intermediaries who were adept at turning theories into practicalities.

Edison must of course have been dealing with theories, suppositions and postulates too. But he was essentially everyman's scientist, providing everyman's necessities such as the light bulb. He was a direct descendent of whoever invented the wheel, and of the unknown Chinese inventors of paper and the abacus, mankind's first calculating machine. Steve Jobs belonged to this rare species of innovators whose work made life simpler, better, richer and ultimately more worthwhile for others.

Many inventions and discoveries that enrich our lives also have a negative side to them. Einstein's theories paved the way to the nuclear bomb. The gunpowder invented by the Chinese in the 14th century was put to diabolic uses. A 2004 BBC documentary argued that the computer posed threats more real than what was portrayed in the Terminator movies. It warned that the computer might change the world in ways we do not even know.

May be. But Steve Jobs used computer technology to change the world in ways we love. When he unveiled the personal computer in 1977, people thought he had made the impossible possible. When he introduced the mouse-driven Macintosh in the 1980s, people thought he was a miracle man. After that he became a real magician, with the iPod in 2000, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

The truly great advances in technology are those that come to be taken for granted very quickly. We take electricity for granted as though it had been there from the beginning of time. We see many of the things Steve Jobs did, such as the advances in mobile telephony, as though they have been there for ever. Wherever we are and whoever we are, the fact is that we cannot live without Jobs any more than we can live without Edison.

Admiration for the man must swell when we realise how much he gave the world and how little the world gave him. His early life was messy. Son of an Arab immigrant from Syria, he was “given away” at birth because his father and mother were not married at the time. During his brief stint at college, his only hot meals came from the free kitchen run by a nearby Hare Krishna centre.

Was that why he went to India in search of spiritual peace when he was only 19? He was clearly a restless man and he experimented with drugs as was expected of restless American youth in the 1970s. He would say later that his roots were in counterculture and that this was an essential part of his persona and belief systems. He went back from India a Buddhist and vegetarian.

Jobs was fundamentally a dreamer and marketing genius. Much of the brainwork behind his early products came from his partner, the engineering whizkid named Steve Wozniac. Together they did change the world, transforming the way computing is done, universalising access to music, simplifying and enlarging the uses of the mobile phone. Steve Jobs was a highly controversial and complicated man. But when he died enemies joined hands with friends to acknowledge his worth. Some compared him with Mozart and Picasso. Remember that next time your ring tone calls you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Forbidden Territory, where Life is Death, and Women Are Sold on Thursdays

Everyone has heard of the ruggedness of the “Northwest Frontier Province”, the “forbidden area” where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran meet, of the merciless codes of honour that govern the lives of the Pushtuns and the Baluchis, of the primitive pride of the tribes that must battle with nature – and with one another – merely to survive.

But exactly how rugged? How merciless? A new book, The Wandering Falcon, provides a rather frightening introduction to what constitutes everyday life in a part of the world that is virtually beyond the writ of governments. Everyday life here is also everyday death. Here the spirit of revenge is carried from generation to generation, tribal loyalties are unbending, and women pay heavily for any sign of self-assertion.

Human nature raises its head occasionally. A woman of the Siahpad tribe, married to an impotent man, runs away with a servant. The two are deeply in love and manage to hide in a military post. The woman's husband tracks her down after a five-year hunt. Knowing that they have no escape, the lover does what is expected of him: shoot his beloved dead. He then surrenders – to be stoned to death and the head crushed beyond recognition. That, it was proudly proclaimed, was how “the Siahpads avenge insults”.

A bunch of such stories strung loosely together make up this brief novel (180 pages). But they get under the reader's skin because of the stamp of authenticity they carry. Author Jamil Ahmad was born in Jalandhar but spent his life in the Civil Service of Pakistan, mostly in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan in senior positions. He knew the people and their passions at first hand.

There is a pervading air of menace when he describes the Wazirs and the Mahsuds, “the two predatory tribes of Waziristan”. Every few months, he says, “their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die...If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat and comfortable lives in the plains”.

That explains why the Wazirs and the Mahsuds look upon the jobs of hired assassin, thief, kidnapper and informer as honourable professions. We are given graphic accounts of how an informer does his job, how the deputy commissioner pays the informer, how the kidnappers take away their victims and how the authorities pay the ransom and settle the matter. It's all routine.

Our sense of unease grows when we realise that the men who live by their exalted honour code are illiterate and ignorant of the world and its ways. They do not comprehend things like national borders. They have to migrate from the hills to the plains in winter and back to the hills in spring. If someone now tells them that the hills are in Afghanistan and the plains in Pakistan and that you need permission to go from one place to the other, they just don't get it. The result is that migrating groups are sometimes butchered along with their animals.

Jamil Ahmad, a first-time author, narrates all these with detachment, which adds to the horror of the events he describes. There is no judgmental approach even when he tells us about the village of Mian Mandi, the market place where women are on sale on Thursdays.

A judgmental touch is allowed only when he relates the story of how a group of rebel Baluchis were executed. “There was complete and total silence”, says the author, “about the Baluchis, their cause, their lives and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought salve for their conscience by writing about the wrongs done to men in South Africa, in Indonesia, in Palestine and in the Philiphine – not to their own people”.

Very true. Of all journalists.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Look Beyond Chidambaram-Pranab Drama; The Real Drama is in Secrecy Games

There was panic in the Congress camp last week. Terror-stricken leaders were scampering about like chicken that had its feathers plucked. The apparent reason was that one of their central pillars, P. Chidambaram, was directly and officially named in the 2-G spectrum scandal that landed former minister A. Raja in jail.

Now Chidambaram is not exactly a popular mascot in Congress circles. An ambitious operator primarily concerned with his own power and prospects, he has more adversaries than admirers. So why did the party frantically rally around him when a Pranab Mukherjee note to the Prime Minister blamed him for inaction? The talk is that Congress leaders were scared that, if Chidambaram was caught, could Manmohan Singh be far behind.

Not that Manmohan Singh is all that beloved a leader either. It is known that he carries little weight in the Government. Coalition partners mock him. Congress ministers themselves often ignore him. So the likelihood of the Prime Minister getting tarred by the spectrum scam cannot be the real reason for the panic among Congress bigwigs.

Then what? Logically, and if we take Congress culture into account, the answer is embedded in another question: If Manmohan Singh is caught in an untenable situation, can Sonia Gandhi be far behind? Now there you have the stuff that shakes empires. The remotest likelihood of damage to the edifice of holiness built around Sonia Gandhi would make Congressmen scamper about like chicken with its head cut off.

Logic does put the Congress President in an uncomfortable position. Consider some recent developments. It now stands proved that three successive Sports Ministers had opposed the appointment of Suresh Kalmadi as the Commonwealth Games boss. The Prime Minister overruled all of them and personally cleared Kalmadi's appointment. Rather uncharacteristic of a play-safe Prime Minister. So what happened? It appears that Manmohan Singh overruled the entire governmental system in order to bow to a recommendation put up by a joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office named Pulok Chatterji. And who, pray, is Pulok Chatterji? The IAS officer most closely identified as Sonia Gandhi's facilitator. Which means that the Kalmadi buck actually stopped at Sonia Gandhi's desk.

Here's another conundrum of our times. Suresh Kalmadi is in jail for taking money. Amar Singh is in jail for giving money. The conundrum is why would Amar Singh who was never a member of the Congress give money to buy votes in Parliament so that the Congress government could survive? Was he a fool to spend his money to let someone else benefit? That lends weight to Ram Jethmalani's open statement in the Supreme Court that the money displayed in Parliament was paid not by Amar Singh but by Ahmad Patel. And who, pray, is Ahmed Patel? Sonia Gandhi's political secretary. Where does the buck stop this time?

Speculation and all kinds of gossip flourish around Sonia Gandhi thanks to her own addiction to secrecy. The contrived drama about her surgery in America could not have happened in any other democracy. She controls the destiny of every India but no Indian has the right to know whether she is in a condition to do so. Citizens are only entitled to dry titbits dished out by Congress spokesmen trained not to speak a word beyond what they are told.

They have not even told us what her ailment is. How then do we believe what they say? How do we know that she is really back in India? How do we know that she is cured when curing is rare in cancer cases? Photographs are strictly no-no, so how can we not believe that she has lost hair through chemotherapy? By hiding facts, they feed rumours. This is not privacy. This is secrecy. Evidently Congressmen think that there are things about their ruling dynasty that must remain shrouded in secrecy. That is why they panic at the merest sign of a crack in the wall of secrecy. Unfortunately history shows us that walls crumble some day, somehow.

Monday, September 19, 2011

We have Several Million 'Clean' Leaders; Our Unclean System Keeps Them Out

Here's a brand new idea aired by our brand new messiah. All clean and non-corrupt politicians must leave their political parties and come together to form a new independent party, says Anna Hazare. It sounds like an old idea. Actually the old idea is that there's need for a new political party. That the good guys in existing parties should quit and form this independent party is a new take.

This sounds more practical than the idea of a bunch of amateurs forming a party. That was tried several times in recent years. Mumbai's Professionals Party, formed in 2007, could not win a seat in 2009 although the public mood was against the political class following the terrorist attack a year earlier. Lok Paritran, floated by highly qualified Indian Institute of Technology luminaries fielded candidates from all 28 constituencies in urban Bangalore in 2006, on the assumption that the enlightened voters of India's premier IT city were ready to make a statement in favour of good governance. All 28 lost. Success went to those who had unaccounted money to spend and the backing of important segments of society such as the real estate mafia and the mining robber barons.

Clearly elections in our country cannot be won merely on the basis of qualifications. “Know-how” is the decisive factor. That is why those who have been at the game and know the ropes can, if only they come out of their existing parties, provide the infrastructural strength a new party needs to win elections.

But despite its apparent practicality, the Hazare idea is condemned to instant death. First, “clean and non-corrupt” politicians will not be privy to the “know-how” aforementioned and therefore will be as ineffective as the candidates of the Professionals Party and Lok Paritran. Secondly, existing parties have so few “clean and non-corrupt” leaders that even if all of them came out of their parent organisations, there won't be enough people to form a cabinet.

Take a quick look. Of the 78 members of the Manmohan Singh cabinet, how many would you readily include in a clean-and-non-corrupt list. Count on your finger tips – A.K. Antony, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid, Ajay Maken and may be a couple of youngsters like Sachin Pilot. That's it. From the old Vajpayee cabinet, the picking is even less. Perhaps, Yashwant Sinha, Suresh Prabhu, Arun Jaitley. That combined total is less than ten when you need 70 to 80 patriots to form a cabinet.
(Of course, we have to completely rule out the alphabet soup of our parties – the BSP, AGP, JTC, INLD, JKNPP, JD(U), JD(S), JMM, LJSP, MAJ, RJD and some 40 others).

It is wonderful to think of a cabinet of decent citizens – of whom we have many millions. Even Manmohan Singh would be a worthy member if he is de-linked from remote controls. Imagine him surrounded by Aruna Roy and Santosh Hegde, by Binayak Sen, Prashant Bhushan, Jean Dreze, Sunita Narain, by Narayan Murthy, H.D.Parekh, Chanda Kochhar, Justice J.N.Verma, Amartya Sen, even Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and Sam Pitroda.All of them will be willing to serve their country, but none of them will get elected. So, obviously, the problem is with the system of elections.

Siddaramaiah, Congress Legislative Party leader in Karnataka, has said that the next election will be his last because fighting an election has become too costly for him to afford. This is a leader who, if he is projected as the Congress's chief ministerial candidate and given a supporting cast of a dozen young leaders, can lead the Congress to victory in the next round because he commands credibility and public opinion is disgusted with the Yeddyurappa party. But the Congress will not do that because it is stuck in the old ways of manipulation and intrigue – a game at which the Karnataka BJP is far superior. So much for non-corrupt politicians and a new independent party. Dreaming is our only right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What about breaching people's privilege? Dirty tricks experts blunder again.

Can the Government of India's dirty tricks department never get it right? It had committed serial blunders while handling the Anna Hazare phenomenon. The Government had been embarrassed all along the way. Finally after Parliament accepted Hazare's main demands, there was a feeling that wisdom would prevail.

But the plotters are at it again. As crudely as ever, they have initiated proceedings against the leading members of the Hazare team on one charge or another. Bhushan, Kejriwal and Bedi have been slapped with breach of parliamentary privilege. Kejriwal, a former Income Tax official, has been served with a notice on disputed arrears as well.

Even if the charges were all proper and bonafide, commonsense should have told the Government's intriguers that targetting all three at once was a mug's game. In this case, the charges themselves are quite obviously trumped up and will strike citizens as such. Instead of discrediting the activists, the dumb move will further discredit the Government.

If Kejriwal broke his service rules, why is action taken only now? If he “amassed crores” through his non-government organisation, why is legal action not taken against him, instead of leaving it to Congress's official loose cannon Digvijay Singh to make yet another allegation out of it. (This is the man who said Suresh Kalmadi was innocent). Clearly the dirtytrickwallahs are engaged in a harassment campaign, an exercise in vindictiveness, at a time when the Government should be trying to create trust, not confrontation. Hazare is right when he says that sending “wrong signals” now can well lead to unrest in the country.

The breach of privilege charge in particular is preposterous and counter-productive. MPs are criticised as a class not just by social activists but by people at large. Politicians are also attacked as a class. It is no use saying that all MPs and all politicians are not bad. Of course they are not. But the fact remains that the collective reputation of politicians and MPs today is at its lowest point since independence. They are seen by the people as a class and detested as a class.

Parliament must earn fame before it can be defamed. The recent Murdoch case of illegal phone hacking gave us an opportunity to see how the British Parliament earns its stature and respect. Members could speak without fear of being stopped by their opponents. Respect to the Chair was paramount. When the Speaker stood up, it was a signal for all members to sit down. Order prevailed at all times.

In our Parliament order is the rarest of rare occurrence. We recently saw Sushma Swaraj, perceived to be a responsible leader, declaring that her party would decide each day whether Parliament should be allowed to function or not. The Speaker's pleas for order are uproariously ignored. The well of the House sees more action than the benches. All this on top of the scandals, be it cash for votes or cash for questions. What privilege are we talking about?

This notion of “elected representatives” is a bit exaggerated these days. We are a country where Manmohan Singh cannot get elected, but Pappu Yadav can – repeatedly. Besides, this is an inopportune time to talk about elected representatives when some prominent ones are in jail. Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda has been going from Tihar to Parliament House to serve the country. The ever-elected representative of Bellary's toiling masses, a man used to ignoring even court summonses, is suddenly behind bars.

Rather, this is an opportune time to talk about people's privileges. Every time MPs shout one another down, every time the House is adjourned because of unruly behaviour by members, Parliament is committing breach of privilege of citizens. Intolerance of citicism is itself a breach of democracy. What this misplaced brouhaha in the name of Parliament has proved is that the privilege issue is, as Aruna Roy put it, “fundamentally flawed”. Cleanse the system before talking about privilege.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are sports bodies also corrupt from head to toe? Who's afraid of RTI?

Ram Jethmalani was more astute than Lord Acton. He put things in current perspective when he said: “ Power corrupts, and the fear of losing power corrupts absolutely”. That explains many of the abnormalities of our seemingly normal politicians.

The presumed power of a mere party spokesman went to the head of that unfortunate Congress factotum called Manish Tiwari. In the Congress especially it is a survival necessity to be more loyal than the King. So, the robot in Tiwari went for Anna Hazare's jugular. The Gandhian was corrupt from head to toe, the robot said. The world laughed at him. Even the Congress frowned on him in due course. Whereupon the Robocop apologised to the Anna and later announced he was recusing himself from the Lok Pal Bill parliamentary committee. He then recused himself from the recusal. Unstable fellow. Actually he should recuse himself from public life. Which of course he won't do because the fear of losing power corrupts people from head to toe.

More puzzling is the fear among politicians of losing power in sports bodies. One can understand why Jagdish Tytler wants to cling on to the presidentship of the Judo Federation. The party has given him no post, not even an election ticket, so Judo is all that he can possibly cling on to.

But what about Vidya Stokes, head of the Hockey Federation? She is 84. And what about V.K.Malhotra, head of Archery Association, who is just one year short of 80? And what about V.K.Verma, who has been heading the Badminton Association for 13 years? He is known as an obstructionist to whom his own authority is what matters. Badminton champion Jwala Gutta has had the guts to speak out, so we have an idea of the harm this man does to badminton.

Cricket is the messiest of them all. Sure, it makes more money than any other game, so politicians are attracted to it like ants are to honey. But do the Pawars of politics still want money? More likely, they just want to have the power to command such a money-spinner. It certainly promotes exemplary unity among politicians of different colours. Look at the unamimity of views among Congressman Vilasrao Deshmukh, BJP man Arun Jaitley, NCP man Sharad Pawar and National Conference man Farook Abdullah. If only they were half as dedicated to the affairs of the country!

The National Sports Development Bill had sought to put some order into this topsy-turvey world of sports management. But self-seekers and manipulators closed ranks to keep it out of the Cabinet's approval. Sports Minister Ajay Maken had shown imagination and guts to draw up the bill. It is a pity that his progressive proposals did not get the attention they deserved.

Fortunately Maken is effective in articulating his case. He ridiculed the criticism that the Government was trying to control sports. Quite the contrary. The crux of the proposal is that 25 percent of the seats in the executive boards of sports organisations should go to sportspersons – elected by themselves, not nominated by the Government. This is an eminently sensible reform.

What has made sports politicians most angry is the proposal that organisations like the Board of Control for Cricket should be subject to the Right to Information Act. Most citizens perhaps did not know – until Maken mentioned it – that the BCCI had acquired stadium land in Delhi and Dharmasala on terms unknown to the public. Apparently, the world's richest cricket organisation also gets concessions from the Government on things like taxes.

Don't the people have a right to know about these? The Sports Ministry says that there must be transparency in these matters and sports organisations must be accountable in their functioning to the citizens of India. How can anyone object to this? Those sports bodies who object to RTI are obviously involved in activities they want to hide. They must be held to account like Suresh Kalmadi, belatedly, was.

Monday, August 29, 2011

In A Society That Bribes God Himself, Corruption Becomes Part of Life

The ultimate question remains: Can corruption be abolished by law? We are a society in which dowry and child marriage and untouchability and khap panchayat atrocities continue despite laws banning them. They continue because they are deeply ingrained in the national culture and the political will required to wipe them out is simply not there.

Ditto with corruption. Kautilya said: “It is impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a bit of the King's revenue”. He famously listed 40 ways in which revenue officers embezzled money, from pratibandha (creating obstacles) to apahara (stealing). He worked out impressively cruel ways to punish the corrupt. It helped. But that political will disappeared with him.

Baksheesh is a coinage of India (Mughal vintage). Its ubiquity turned it into an English word. The Mughals also witnessed the system of field commanders taking bribes to win or lose battles. Robert Clive used this to devastating effect.

British history books taught us that Clive's victory in the Battle of Plassey won India for the Empire. It was hardly a battle. The Nawab of Bengal's field commander Mir Jafar was generously bribed by Clive whereupon Jafar surrendered with his troops.

Clive and his successor Warren Hastings turned plunderers, encouraged by the climate and culture of India. Flabbergasted by the vast wealth with which Clive returned to Britain, the Parliament there held him to account. His response was that, considering the wealth available in India, “I stand astonished at my own moderation”.

Hastings, impeached for being obscenely rich, was acquitted after a seven-year trial. But look at some of the phrases prosecutor Edmund Burke used to describe Hastings: “Captain-general of iniquity”, a heart “gangrened to the core”, “ravenous vulture devouring the carcasses of the dead”.

What the British did the Maharajahs continued, revenously devouring the living carcasses of their subjects. Extortionate taxes of princely India were a scandal. They levied duties on trees, cattle, marriages. In Travancore, where the Sree Padmanabha Temple treasures have become a marvel, taxes were levied, based on size, on women's breasts. No doubt officials had plenty of scope for amicable negotiations. High taxes were always a sure way to promote corruption.

To all this must be added the hallowed Indian tradition of bribing God to grant us favours. Bhakti is a powerful force in our everyday life and we make it a point to propitiate our chosen God with hundies placed anonymously, jewelled crowns donated conspicuously and novenas offered arduously. It has gone deep into our mental makeup that God's blessings can be purchased. It follows that a minister's blessings can also be bought though ministers may charge higher rates.

History has stood still for us, but time has not. Kautilya whose count stopped at 40 will be shocked if he were to see how corruption has expanded in scope, range, size and potential in modern India. We pay 5 billion US $ annually as bribes (Transparency International figure for 2005. It must be double that now since mega scams like CWG and 2-G have raised the stakes sky-high).

Corruption is today accepted as part of life. To the Government it is not a problem; only when its hands are forced, it takes action – reluctant half measures. We have become immune even to the moral dimensions of corruption. Anna Hazare's big strength was the moral power of his persona. He jeopardised it by assuming rigid positions and setting an impossible deadline for passing his Jan Lok Pal Bill. When pressure tactics become inseparable from blackmail tactics, they lose their moral force and become another form of corruption.

We all think that corruption is something that other people practice. In fact it is systemic in our social structure and our public life; everyone, willingly or otherwise, consciously or otherwise, is a participant. The real issue is not this bill or that law. The real issue is: How do we change ourselves?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Congress has lost the next elections. So who's next? Brand Yeddyurappa?

Harakiri is the most painful ritual invented by man to kill himself. Literally it means belly-cutting. You plunge a short sword into the left side of your abdomen, then draw the blade across to the right, then twist it upward. That done, you withdraw the sword and plunge it into your chest, then draw it down to the abdomen across the first cut. Finally, you withdraw the sword and thrust it into your throat.

In the extraordinary week that has gone by, did you see Kapil Sibal plunging the sword into the left abdomen of the Congress party and drawing it to the right and then upping the blade? Did you watch P.Chidambaram sinking the sword just below the chest and then drawing it, across Sibal's cut, into the lower abdomen? In a final demonstration of superhuman resolve, Manmohan Singh withdrew the sword and in one fell swoop stabbed the throat of the party.

The end. Now bookies won't accept any bets, howsoever attractive the odds, on the Congress coming anywhere near power in the next elections.

What monumental lack of vision – or was it arrogance? – that they could not see what was happening right before their eyes. Just as masses of people came out in the 1942 movement demanding independence, people came out last week demanding an end to corruption. The extent of popular disgust with corruption was completely lost on the leaders of the Government.

They thought it was all about a feeble old man trying to usurp the powers of Parliament. They thought that they could win the day by discrediting the man and showing him as corrupt himself and, for good measure, as an agent of dark forces out to destabilise wonderful India with its wonderful economy. What monumental misreading of a situation.

Actually Anna Hazare is not an issue at all. The right to enact laws is not an issue. The only issue is corruption. This is the issue that brought masses of Indians out into the rain. To them Anna Hazare is just a straw of hope. They clutch it because they do not get even a straw from the Government's side. As the public perceives it, Anna is fighting corruption, the Government is fighting Anna, therefore the Government is supporting corruption. How foolish of the Government to spread such an impression.

It does not matter that the mass uprising finally forced the Government to accept defeat and allow Ramlila Maidan to turn into a symbol of People Power. For the Government had lost the trust of the people even before the Hazare wave rose. The worst corruption scandals came up during its watch, men like Suresh Kalmadi were protected for too long, the chase of illegal money in Switzerland was managed with obvious lack of interest leading to the suspicion that top people in the Congress had things to hide. Finally they tabled a Lok Pal Bill that could provide more protection than punishment to the corrupt. This is a Government whose intentions are perceived to be dishonest.

The big surprise is that it could not even device an intelligent strategy to meet the crisis. Imagine pretending that the decision to arrest Anna Hazare was taken unilaterally by the Delhi police with the political leadership having no say in the matter. Another dumb idea was to proclaim, “Take the media away and there would be no Hazare phenomenon”. We can also say: Take the media away and there would be no Manish Tiwari, or Abhishek Singhvi or even Kapil Sibal phenomenon. They took the media away during the Emergency, yet the phenomenon of Indira-Sanjay Gandhi's defeat in the elections happened. It's the people who matter and you can't take the people away.

Today's Congress leadership has proved that it has no capacity to govern this country. It must go and it will. The tragedy is that the people have nothing to fall back upon, except the party of Yeddyurappa.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why do citizens get angry in democracies? What the riots in Britain tell us

When something ominous happens somewhere, we ask ourselves: Can that happen to us? We felt that the blood-splattered Arab Spring would not happen in India because we had legislatures, courts and media through which the steam of public anger could be let off.

But Greece and Spain and England are citadels of democracy. Eruptions there should make us, especially our rulers, think. There was an astonishing similarity between Greek and Spanish protests. The main feature of the popular mood in both countries was anger. Protesting Greeks called themselves the Indignant Citizens Movement. In Spain they called themselves the indignados. People feeling angry about their elected governments. Sounds familiar?

It was for the same reasons, too, that the Greeks and the Spaniards were angry: governmental incompetence leading to economic mess. Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy and was forced to take extremely unpopular austerity measures. Spain had to do the same with corruption adding to the problems. When public spending was cut and taxes raised, life became unbearably hard for the ordinary people and the poor. Protestors cried for “true democracy” saying that “the political class no longer represented the people”. Sounds familiar?

In the continent protestors held up placards proclaiming “The Power of Non-Violence”. This is where England was different with wanton violence quickly deteriorating into looting. Usually in such situations the dispossessed ransack supermarkets for food items. This time thieves were on the march for luxury items – plasma TV, hi-fi sets, branded sports shoes, ladies' bags.

Obviously freelance thugs and organised gangs were taking advantage of a sudden outbreak of anarchy. But how did such an atmosphere develop? To know that, we need to look at the broader picture. Then we will also see some similarities between England and Greece-Spain.

Britain is the most socially unequal country in the developed world. The Tottenham area where it all began is part of a borough that has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London. Unemployment rate there is double the national average. Liberal immigration of East Europeans after the Berlin Wall collapse disrupted the labour market and added to tensions already existing.

And don't forget the Metropolitan Police's reputation for racial profiling. London is not as bad as Los Angeles in this respect, but it is bad enough when blacks and ethnic minorities are always the ones who are routinely stopped and searched on the streets. Immigrants from the Carribean are always on the black list.

The latest riots cannot be described as racial. Indeed no demands were raised, no cause espoused. It was just a case of excited youths taking possession of what they could not get otherwise. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the role played by social tensions and economic disparities – and these are always mixed up with race.

The breakdown of traditional values is a factor too. How big is the population of single mothers, to take just one example, and what kind of upbringing do their children get? There is a lost generation out there, easy prey to drug pushers and looter gangs. Some welfare programmes for marginal people like them were cut recently in the name of cost saving.

How disruptive is the gap between the very rich and the very poor? In egalitarian Norway the recent massacre was something that united Norwegians against a mad man and his mad ideas. It did not provide an excuse for gangs to take to the streets and plunder.

Such fundamental issues do not seem to be engaging the attention of the leadership in Britain. The Prime Minister is talking about banning the social media. Perhaps the basic problem in all societies is leadership. As in Greece, Spain and England, so in India: There is no leadership that can understand, let alone cope with, the tensions that beset the people. The political class has lost the way, and lost the people's trust. Warnings are blowing in the wind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Congress does a trick, BJP stages a farce – and corruption is assured a free run

It is now clear beyond all doubt: The Congress and the BJP are equally uninterested in fighting corruption. Actually both are interested in continuing it because both are beneficiaries of corruption. All talk about ending corruption and punishing the corrupt is just talk, meant to fool the public.

The Congress showed its anti-anti-corruption state of mind by subverting the public demand for an effective Lok Pal bill and presenting a draft that was only slightly different from previous drafts. Ten bills were introduced between 1969 and 2008. None of them was passed. No further proof is required to establish the malafides of successive governments in power.

There was some hope that the Lok Pal bill presented to Parliament this time would be different. For one thing, popular expectations were high because Justice Santosh Hegde had given to the institution of Lok Ayukta what T.N.Seshan had given to the Election Commission – credibility. For another, a historic groundswell of public opinion had rattled the Government which was forced to consult civil society leaders in drafting the bill. But the wily Government tricked the people and came up with a draft that was essentially old wine in old bottle.

A Lok Pal – or a Lok Ayukta – can be meaningful only if it has independent powers to investigate and prosecute. If it can only forward its recommendations to a “competent authority” for action, then it is a dead Lok Pal. The bill presented by the Government does not provide for a public grievance mechanism or penalties for corrupt employees. Only 'Group A' officers can be probed, which leaves out some of the biggest bribe collectors of the land such as police sub-inspectors, sub-registrars and checkposts clerks. The conduct of MPs inside Parliament is beyond the Lok Pal's jurisdiction. Which means honourable MPs can go on charging money for raising questions.

Politicians would not be resorting to such deviousness unless they have a vested interest in continuing corruption. Money is the most powerful vested interest. Money is prized by individual politicians who love the good life and by parties that cannot conduct even a byelection without spending several crores. Power secures this kind of money. Hence the readiness of parties to keep corruption going.

The show the BJP put on in Karnataka fits into the pattern. It asked Yeddyurappa to resign over corruption charges. Then it put him back in power with another man's face masking his. So what happens to corruption? Nothing. Just as the Congress did with the Lok Pal bill, the BJP made a monkey of the public with the Yeddyurappa removal farce.

By all account the new chief minister, Sadananda Gowda, is a decent sort. But isn't that immaterial when he is hoisted by the tainted previous chief as a mukhota and accepted as such by the High Command? Other tainted BJP brass may also be kept officially out of the cabinet because of the Lok Ayukta indictment. But they too will carry on wielding power as Yeddyurappa does. Karnataka will continue to be drained of its resources and the people will continue to be swindled.

Power blinds politicians. Otherwise the BJP bosses would have seen that Yeddyurappa's victory was in fact the BJP's defeat. Yeddyurappa threatens to get back to power in a few months. He may well do that. But that won't be because of the BJP's popularity or Yeddyurappa's intrigues. It will be because of the incompetence of the Congress. This party has a handful of credible leaders, but the old guard and the mafioso will not let them come up.

A Congress leadership with reasonable imagination could have scored high in the context of the discredit the BJP has brought upon itself. Instead, the Congress scores selfgoals. Hariprasad, a party flunkey from Delhi, recently berated Justice Santosh Hegde for not ending corruption in Karnataka. How depraved can a politician get. Congressmen like this are the real secret of Yeddyurappa's success.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A story of threats, tricks and family love: How a chief minister became a marvel

Do not underestimate B. S. Yeddyurappa. There is no match to him in Indian politics. He is amazing. He is unbelievable. He is a pulsating anthropomorphic mechatronic phenomenon of terminatorial indestructibility. An absolute marvel.

During his term as chief minister, there was not one day of governance in Karnataka. The days were filled instead with earthquakes of scandal followed by tsunamis of shame. But the man remained unshaken, convinced that he was the best leader Karnataka ever had, worthy, as he said himself, of a Nobel. He proclaimed his greatness in posters stuck on the back of every state transport corporation bus.

How then can we tar Yeddyurappa with the ordinary brush of corruption that we apply to others? Sure, he became rich like every Sukh Ram and Shibu Soren, Lalu Prasad and Mayawati. Getting rich is the badge of success in Indian politics. But he did more. He displayed attributes that put him in a class of his own.

He was the only chief minister in history who could command his party's high command. Driven to the wall, the high command might have turned against him this time, but don't forget how he had successfully blackmailed it in previous crises. The threat that he would split the party in the state used to send the Delhi bellies scampering for cover.

Being a master of the game, Yeddyurappa combined threats with bounteous generosity. Party President Gadkari became such a fan that he once ruled out any action against the chief minister who, as the President put it, had committed only immoralities, not illegalities.

Another attribute that made Yeddyurappa different was his ability to make illusion look like reality. He used to assert repeatedly that the people of Karnataka had elected his government. Actually this was a terminological inexactitude. The Yeddyurappa Government was never an elected government; it was a purchased government. Not that he was the first politician to purchase a majority. But never was it done more blatantly than in Operation Lotus in Karnataka.

The lotus was watered with illegal money to boot, the kind of muck-covered money you dig out of the red earth of Bellary. No other government in Karnataka or elsewhere had shown the same amoral abandon in turning known looters of the land into ministers. The BJP is beholden to these ministers and that is why a mere reshuffle in its governmental lineup will hardly make any difference to the culture of plunder that has overtaken the state.

The ultimate triumph of Yeddyurappa was that he tricked both his party and his community into accepting him as leader extraordinary. The BJP had always led us to believe that it was dead against the concept of hereditary power. Yet Yeddyurappa established India's first BJP dynasty. He loved his sons, his in-laws, his widowed relatives, his departed siblings.

To some of these relatives, this ideal family man allotted valuable urban sites. When a heartless public criticised him for bending the laws, he explained that he was acting out of compassion. But this concept of compassion was in violation of the concept propagated by the revered preceptor of Lingayata who said: “Compassion needs must be towards all living things”. ( Human Values in Vachana Literature, page -15).

A man who put his personal family interests above Basaveshwara's Vachana succeeded in equating his political status with that of the Lingayats. A further disservice was done to the community when he argued that no other Lingayat should succeed him as chief minister. The community has good and competent leaders with a clean image in contrast to Yeddyurappa's sullied reputation. It is a pity that such elements are unable – or unwilling? – to speak up for the community. With leaders like Nijalingappa and Veerendra Patil, Lingayats had become part of the glory of Karnataka. Resurrecting that glory is important not only to the community but also to Karnataka and India. The Nobel Prize can wait.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Media becomes a calamity when it's used as a means to achieve private ends

Rupert Murdoch is a terror before whom successive British prime ministers have bowed. Tony Blair flew all the way to Australia in 1997 to propitiate him. David Cameron's current prime ministership is under pressure because of his cosiness with him. That such an almighty Lord became a whimpering apologiser before British MPs, with his close associates in jail, would have been unbelievable if the world had not seen it with its own eyes.

This is not merely a matter of the world's most powerful media empire coming to grief. It is also a matter of the world's greatest force for good, the media, being turned into a force of evil – and the world's need to confront and overcome that calamity. This is where the Murdoch tragedy has a clear message to India.

Two factors stand out. First, it is dangerous to concentrate too much power in the hands of one person or one company. Such concentration would make the person or company think that they are above the law and above common morality. That was what made William Randolph Hearst decide that he must organise the Spanish-American war to boost the circulation of his paper. When his man in Cuba cabled that there was no war, Hearst is said to have cabled back: “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war”.

The second factor is that in the media business growth and competition do not lead to product improvement. If you want to make a mark in the washing powder business, you develop a better washing powder. If you want to win supremacy in the print/TV business, you develop gimmicks; start a war, or manipulate circulation/TRP figures, embrace Page 3 cheesecake sex, dethrone journalists and enthrone business managers.

Those issues hardly engaged the attention of India's instant pundits discussing Murdoch's downfall. They seemed content with the argument that criminalities like phone-tapping were not the Indian way.

So, is the Indian way better? Is publishing paid news without letting the reader know that it is paid for the better way? Is it better to enter into “private treaties” that make newspapers manage the news in favour of their corporate treaty partners – again keeping the reader in the dark? Is it preferable for a media baron to gain undue business advantages by misusing his minister brother's political power?

The Indian way may be different from the Murdoch way but it is just as despicable. Both break the fundamental tenets of journalism. Both use the media as a means to achieve private ends, Murdoch's end being influence and Indian Murdochs's end being money.

Journalism has a higher responsibility compared to other businesses. The reason is that journalism , for example, can incite violence in a way that washing powder makers cannot. The biggest scandal in Indian journalism is that we have owners who publicly proclaim that the only responsibility of a newspaper company is to make profit for its shareholders. Murdochism never went that low.

There is another area where the Indian reality is different. As soon as the scandal broke in Britain, the systems there went into action. Top people were arrested and top police officials resigned as they were implicated in corruption. Police investigations got under way. A judicial inquiry was ordered, the Prime Minister insisting that all aspects of politician-media-police links should be investigated.We can reasonably expect that meaningful regulatory systems will now be put in place along with tighter codes of conduct.

In our country, the worst of scandals produce action only when the judiciary or the channels force the Government to do so. Even then it's sluggish. Obviously we have people at the top who have much to hide. And we have desi Murdochs who have blithely eliminate the institution of editor and turns news into a profit-oriented product handled by marketing whizkids. If Rupert Murdoch wants to start life all over again, he should come to India.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Systems exist to detect terrorist plans; but we focus on cabinet shuffle tricks

The cabinet reshuffle – essentially a defeatist's exercise – had raised major issues concerning the morality of coalition politics and the Government's very approach to governance. The ensuing public discourse reflected serious worries across the political spectrum about the way the country was going. Presumably that debate could have at least led to a clearer understanding of how not to handle high responsibility.

But suddenly debate is disrupted, life itself is derailed and everybody's attention diverted by the most despairing reality of our times – terrorism. Whether the latest Mumbai strike is the handiwork of Indian Mujahideen or Lashkar-e-Taiba, whether it is provoked by the occasion of Ajmal Kasab's birthday or Hillary Clinton's imminent visit may all be issues of importance to investigating agencies. What towers above them all, however, is that terrorism persists despite the proven historical fact that it achieves nothing.

Nazi terrorism against Jews achieved nothing for Germany. Jewish terrorism against Palestinians achieved only the isolation of Israel. Velupillai Prabhakaran's terrorism decimated even Tamil leaders who did not join him. Rajapakse's terrorism against Tamils has made him a potential war criminal in the eyes of the world.

Pakistan's parallel government run by the army and the ISI made terrorism a state policy for many years. The result is that the country is stuck in history unable to move an inch forward. There are many educated, liberal groups in that country. But they are also stuck as any move in favour of tolerance and issues like women's rights invite summary punishment from hardliners.

If repeated failures by terrorists to achieve their goals have not blunted the edge of terrorism, the reason must be sought in the vicegrip religious fanaticism has on the human mind. Al Qaida and Taliban have exploited this factor diabolically, sending many young believers to their death in return for a “martyr's” place in paradise. Funding agencies in Saudi Arabia play a key role in popularising hardline religiosity in traditionally tolerant Islamic societies.

What do they hope to achieve? Will Taliban's pitiless system of beheadings, stoning and flogging targetted mostly against women ever become acceptable in, say, the Muslim societies of the Mediterranean? Does Saudi Arabia believe that it can win the allegiance of other countries like it has won Bahrain's? The fanatics are playing a game that can have only one result: Creating counter fanatics.

India is already witnessing this. Repeated terror strikes by Islamist forces have persuaded some radical Hindutva elements to reply in the same coin – a new departure for what has been a famously inclusive sanatana dharma. It may look like a human reaction, but it is in fact a setback for traditional values. Never have two wrongs made a right.

What we need is one right that will prevent more wrongs. We need an efficient intelligence gathering model that will detect terrorist plans in advance. That the US and the UK seem to have achieved this to a considerable extent suggests that the technologies, the gadgets and the systems exist. We need a network of dedicated professionals who will master counter-terrorism technologies and put them to effective use without political interference of any kind.

Which brings us back to the Government's approach to governance and the correlation between efficiency and make-believe cabinet shuffling. Mumbai has been attacked half a dozen times by now and we have a Crown Prince saying that it is impossible to stop all terrorist attacks. Our Home Minister says the terrorists “worked in a very clandestine manner”. How nasty of them. Couldn't they at least send an SMS to the Home Ministry detailing their plans?

Our security systems, like our investigating agencies, are politically controlled. The portfolios of our ministers are decided without taking performance or corruption levels into account. Naturally, we are left with a government that can only ask the people to remain calm after disaster strikes. Perhaps the people have remained calm for too long.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The world's richest gold-jewel collection? Our new pride – and responsibility

One thing is now clear: India is a very rich country, perhaps the richest in the world. Gold reserves play a decisive role in central banking around the globe which makes the yellow metal a currency rather than a commodity. India has more of this currency than any other country.

It's not in the hands of the central bank of course, but gold is gold. No other people have the fascination for gold that Indian people have. Many an economist has covetously said that if the gold held by Indian households were made available for public purpose, then things like balance of payments and foreign exchange reserves and national debt and credit ratings would swing spectacularly in favour of India.The swing would be no less spectacular if the Indian deposits in private Swiss accounts were made available for legitimate use.

On top of all this comes the mind-numbing news from Trivandrum. What has been discovered from the long-locked cellars of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple must be the single most precious collection of gold-and-jewel artefacts in the world. There is nothing like it anywhere from Istanbul's Top Kapi palace to Salar Jung museum, from the Vatican to the British Crown Jewels. It is several times bigger than Tirupathi Balaji Temple's fabled gold valued at Rs 52,000 crore. It reduces Sai Baba's Yajur Mandir hoard of 98 kg of gold to small change.

Two factors lend uniqueness to the Sree Padmanabha treasure. First, the way it was preserved with a sense of duty by the Maharajas of Travancore. This is one royal house that never built bejewelled palaces or led flamboyant lives. In fact the last Maharaja lived a frugal life, stoically watching the state taking away the properties he had in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. One temple vault was opened in 1931 and four coffers removed to the Palace Treasury for counting. But there was no evidence of any of the royals taking personal advantage of the inestimable wealth that lay in their absolute control. Gwalior and Patiala, Jaipur and Mysore enjoyed their wealth and even claimed a bit of the political pie after independence. Travancore stayed in the background, content being Sree Padmanabha's servants.

The other unique factor of the Kerala find is that it is not just gold and hundis. It comprises works of art. The valuation given to it in daily reports (one lakh crore rupees with a major cellar yet to be opened) no doubt gave it a feel of gigantism, but it was completely meaningless. You can value a bar of gold by its weight. How do you value an exquisite “broom” made of intricately woven gold wires, intended to dust offerings to the Lord? Or a delicately wrought, jewel-encrusted crown? Or ancient, rarest-of-rare gold coins?

You need internationally recognised specialists to estimate the meaning as well as the value of such matchless pieces of craftsmanship. You also need scientifically foolproof and technologically uptodate methods to ensure their safe keeping. Just because they stayed safe for 150-200 years in dark and airless chambers, it does not mean they can remain undamaged in those conditions for ever.

These challenges have prompted some rather extremist views already. That the central government should take charge of the treasure is one.(Which would be tantamount to writing off the priceless collection, given the nature of today's political class and bureaucracy). That communal control be ensured is another. (Which would go against the spirit of both Sree Padmanabha and his daasas who ruled all their subjects with equal vaatsalya).

The state government's decision appears to be the wisest for now – that the treasure is the property of the temple and must be protected as such without inconveniencing the devotees. Perhaps a scientifically secure structure can be erected within the temple complex and the treasure kept there appropriately curated and safeguarded. Let the world marvel at what a corner of India has made possible.