Monday, July 29, 2013

Law-breaking law-makers are becoming a serious threat to our democracy

The Allahabad High Court recently banned caste-based public rallies, a core political gimmick in Uttar Pradesh. Within days the UP Public Service Commission announced a new reservation policy with caste-based quotas from the preliminary examination stage itself. This violated the spirit of not only the High Court's order against caste rallies but also of the Supreme Court's order capping reservation at 50 percent.

There was public commotion, some students took recourse to law, the High Court issued a restraint order, some other students took to the street in support of reservations, charges of malpractices in the Public Service Commission filled the air, there were lathicharges and stone throwing. Indian democracy was once again at its riotous best.

The system is sick when politicians mock the law. Corruption, because it is rampant and involves the highest authorities in the country, is considered the biggest threat to our country. In fact the biggest threat is defiance of the law by those who are tasked to uphold it. Instances of undermining, discrediting, circumventing and simply ignoring politically inconvenient laws have been on the rise. How long can the ruling class do this without the common people losing respect for the law? Perhaps this has something to do with the increasing crimes against women and children across the country.

Look at the example set by elected MLAs in Maharashtra. A police official, Suryavanshi, had stopped and fined Kshitij Thakur for overspeeding on the Bandra-Worli sea link, a bridge on which anyone with commonsense will know that drivers must be cautious. But Thakur was an MLA and he did not hesitate to get Suryavanshi summoned to the Assembly premises. There the policeman who did his duty was thrashed by the shameless Thakur and four other shameless MLAs. Suryavanshi was not only hospitalised but also suspended by an equally shameless administration.

Public outrage caused the MLAs to be suspended. This was meant to be no more than an eye-wash. Last week the suspension of the MLAs was revoked. The explanation added insult to injury. A committee, said the Speaker, had looked into the matter and recommended that the suspension be withdrawn. Opposition leaders also had intervened on behalf of the offenders, we were told. How touching.

When it comes to sharing the spoils, opposition leaders embrace ruling leaders with warmth. They are now coming together again to amend the Right to Information Act so that political parties will be outside its purview. The RTI was perhaps the most enlightened enactment of recent times, making power-wielders accountable and giving citizens the right to know what was being done in their name. This triumph of democracy advanced by a notch recently when the Central Information Commission declared that political parties came within the ambit of RTI. It ordered six parties to appoint Public Information Officers.

The parties defied the constitutional order. All political parties are notorious for the things they want to hide. Naturally they resented the CIC's move to make them accountable. Let us not fail to notice that the parties did not seek legal redress. They did not approach the court for a stay on the CIC order although some party luminaries who are also legal luminaries said that the order was bad in law. Instead of proving that and winning their case, they decided to take the easy route of changing the law itself. They are culprits in cahoot, with the power to pass laws that will put their parties above the law.

Comparatively speaking, Congress factotums who say that you can have a meal in Mumbai for Rs 12 are simply mad and can be put right in a mental asylum. But MPs and MLAs who say that they will only obey laws that suit them are dangerous animals. The caste-manipulators of UP, the speed-breakers of Mumbai, the law-subverters of Delhi have together become a political class that oppresses democracy. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: "Citizen's rights are never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed". If the citizen remains unheard for too long, pressure could build up until it explodes.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The ideas man of Chennai who made a difference to his generation

Outside the rarefied world of books, K.S. Padmanabhan was in all likelihood an unknown quantity. He was never flamboyant, he never projected himself, he claimed nothing. He was, as the poet said, in his simplicity sublime. But his vision made him, unheralded, a part of contemporary India's cultural history. He belonged to the class of P. Lal of Writer's Workshop and Shanbaug of Strand Bookstall -- men of imagination who made a difference to their generation.

Publishing is a star-studded, glamorous enterprise in today's India. All the famous publishing houses of the West, facing problems in their home bases, have opened shop in India. Their author-lists jingle with the sound of million-rupee advances.

For those who see only this glittering face of publishing, it will be difficult to understand the dismal conditions that prevailed in the first half-century of independence. P. Lal was a one-man show struggling to bring out the manuscripts he accepted. He persisted and among the unknown writers he brought into print for the first time were Vikram Seth and A.K. Ramanujan and Kamala Das. Shanbaug could afford to rent only a wall in the foyer of Bombay's Strand cinema. But his knowledge of the books he put up there for sale attracted regulars like Mulk Raj Anand and editor Sham Lal.

Padmanabhan put his stamp on Chennai. There he flowered into an ideas man, publishing books, organising a distribution network and mobilising book lovers. A quiet passion drove him. It was passion that made him start the Indian Review of Books in 1991, with S. Muthiah as founding editor. The Padmanabhan-Muthiah partnership worked like a sunburst over the south. Muthiah's enviable reputation as an antiquarian and chronicler was built by the books Padmanabhan published. The Indian Review became a lively forum, featuring bylines that were to become famous in due course. It worked alongside another Padmanabhan-Muthiah initiative, The Madras Book Club.

Their ideological independence and scholarly approach sometimes produced unexpected results. A Muthiah study of the San Thome church, a Madras landmark, reflected the approach of a historian and archivist. This provoked an angry reaction from a writer in the Bombay-based Hindu Voice. Condemning the study for omitting the violent role of Portuguese missionaries, the writer described The Hindu newspaper in which the study had appeared as "an obloquial Communist rag" and Muthiah as a "notorious columnist" associated with "another Communist rag, the Indian Review of Books".

Despite such compliments, The Indian Review did not last. Like Biblio and Quest did not. For magazines, it's a harsh world out there. Readership is counted in quantity, not quality. That one reader of a weighty literary magazine is worth a hundred readers of a glossy, one-dimensional newspaper does not impress advertisers. And without advertising support, how long could a publishing house subsidise a magazine.

Padmanabhan's other dreams gathered strength until East-West Books, Westlands and the iconic Landmark bookstore chain with which he had a partnership, all became part of the Tata group in 2006. He continued as the new entity's mentor, but retired in 2011. He was only 75 then, too young for an ideas man to retire. Did retirement adversely affect his health? Exactly two years after he called it a day, he passed away.

Unpretentious, informal and genuine as he was, Padmanabhan would be happy to be quietly forgotten. But his associates have a duty, the kind of duty that J.R.D. Tata performed when Mulk Raj Anand returned home to Bombay after his prolonged stay in England. The novelist was fired by the ambition to start a magazine that would be a "loose encyclopaedia of the arts of India and related civilisations". It was an expensive concept, but it became a reality because J.R.D. gave him a start-up fund along with "seven advertisements [per issue] and two rooms" in the historic Army & Navy Building. Thus was born the quarterly Marg.

Tata's successors would honour the spirit of J.R.D if they were to help revive their business partner K.S.Padmanabhan's labour of love, the Indian Review of Books. Seven advertisements and two rooms can work magic even today.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Will the criminals and their patrons heed judicial ruling? It's a war

Only figuratively do legislatures represent the people; in real terms they represent the political class. When a legislature passes an irresponsible law, the political class as a whole stands condemned. This is patently so when laws are passed to protect criminals in the House. Such transgressions have been going on for a while, enabling murderers and rapists to function as law-makers and as cabinet ministers. Democracy was shamed in the process and India disgraced before the world.

Although in a different context, Nani Palkhivala had drawn a distinction between what a sane Parliament can possibly do and an insane Parliament may probably do. The insane Parliament he feared had been prominently at work in recent years, now giving immunity to criminals, now blocking Parliament's proceedings altogether. Worse, at no point did party leaders, including supposedly eminent ones, pause to think about the abuse of democracy that was happening under their nose. At no level was there any effort to stop the criminalisation of legislatures.

Can the judiciary do what politicians refuse to do? It is not surprising, but ironic nevertheless, that simple matters elected representatives of the people must do in their line of duty are left undone and that the judiciary has to step in to reassure the people. Acid attacks on women became frequent enough to demand remedial measures at government level. No action came, not even after nudging by the judiciary. The Supreme Court has now served an ultimatum that if the Centre does not come up with a plan to regulate the retail sale of acid, it will impose a ban on all sales.

Open solicitation of voters with virtually free rice, bicycles, computers, mangalsutras and the like was making a mockery of elections. Yet, all political parties jumped into the freebee racket with competitive fervour. The Supreme Court had to cry a halt to this evident malpractice. Freebees, the Court said, "shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree". Will the politicians listen when, further shaking the root of democracy, they are manoeuvring to put political parties outside the scope of the Right to Information Act?

In the circumstances, we cannot be sure if the Supreme Court will succeed in its latest move to cleanse the legislatures of criminal elements. Its pronouncements are unambiguous -- that MPs and MLAs will stand disqualified the moment they are convicted; the provision that allows them to retain their position by filing an appeal is invalid. The Court also ruled that a person who is in jail cannot stand for elections. These new norms are easy to misuse and therefore need finetuning, but they mark a welcome beginning.

The Election Commission had recommended many similar measures with a view to putting an end to legalised fraud. By adopting some of those recommendations, the Government could have helped keep criminal elements out. Instead it was party to outrageous malpractices -- jailed candidates holding dance-and-dinner parties inside high-security prisons, elected criminals going to Parliament under police escort to take oath and then returning to their cells. Such violations turned "the largest democracy in the world" into a farce.

The political class has of course welcomed the new judicial rulings. No doubt for public consumption. But the fact remains that every party without exception has goons and mafia dons in its "leadership" list. As many as 1406 MPs and MLAs in office today have criminal cases against them. Among them are big leaders who are already campaigning for prime ministership. They are not about to walk into the sunset just because the Supreme Court wants to keep criminals out of Parliament and Assemblies.

The strength of the criminal class is that it has become indistinguishable from the political class. The muscle power and the money the dons mobilise are obviously lifeblood for parties which, therefore, will look for ways to frustrate the law and cheat the voters yet again. The war is actually between politicians and the people, between evil and good, between those who exploit the country and those who love it.

Love must win.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Clean chits abound, Ministers crawl, and India falls.... O! what a fall!

In a surrealistic way, the rupee's fall to record lows reflects India's fall in prestige to record lows.... O! What a fall is there, my countrymen; then I, and you, and all of us fall down, whilst bloody shamelessness flourish over us.... At home unclean men get clean chits. Abroad America and Europe, China and even Pakistan slap us around, and we turn the other cheek. We have become a country that can be taken for granted. We just don't count.

In other countries prime ministers get jailed for offences ranging from bribery to rape. In our country it all depends on who you know and which party you belong to. The latest to get a clean chit is Pawan Bansal, former Railway Minister. Nephew Vijay Singla and eight others got a CBI chargesheet alleging they accepted bribes to fix a Railway Board appointment. No fool will bribe a nephew unless there is an obliging uncle behind. Therefore the clean chit to Bansal is a continuation of the clean chit the "private businessman" Robert Vadra got from the Haryana Government. And sports lover Suresh Kalmadi got before him. Our country is swarmed by certified clean people. We are blessed.

We are twice blessed, actually, because our Government in turn gets clean chits from its patrons in the West. Consider the latest scandal about America spying extensively on other countries. To some extent we can understand the US spying on Iran, a declared adversary. The National Security Agency's surveillance equipment collected 14 billion pieces of intelligence from Iran. But next in line were "partners" of the US. From Pakistan they collected 13.5 million pieces of intelligence, from Jordan 12.7 million, from Egypt 7.6 billion and from India 6.3 billion.

Friendly allies and military collaborators like France, Germany and Turkey were also spied upon. To their credit, they protested. Germany summoned the US Ambassador to ask for an explanation. What did the Indian Government do? In an incredible show of servility, the Foreign Minister justified the US. "It was not snooping", said Salman Khurshid. "It was only computer study of patterns of calls". This shaming of India was similar to Manmohan Singh telling the despised George Bush that "the people of India love you".

What is the need for such shows of slavishness? Even Pakistan had the courage to protest against US drone strikes and occasionally threaten retaliatory action such as blocking lorry convoys to Afghanistan. Pakistan has benefited from such firmness. India makes itself so weak that big powers feel they can have their way by bullying it more. The present Washington line, for example, is effusive about Pakistan and its "genuine shift in policy" which has "encouraged the Taliban" to attend peace talks on Afghanistan. US leadership also wants India to make concessions to Pakistan over Kashmir so that the problems in Afghanistan will be solved. With strategic partners like this, we don't need enemies.

It looks like India is yielding to bullying by the European Union as well. With 38 percent of its new 2014-2020 budget earmarked for agriculture, European Union farmers are the world's most subsidised. Now they are going to have the additional advantage of a Free Trade Agreement with India. If approved, this will open a virtual one-way street from Europe to India. India's pepper, Basmati, tea and even generic medicines and indigenous silk will be adversely affected. Amul which now has two cheese manufacturing units in Europe will have to close them down.

Yet Commerce Minister Anand Sharma described the FTA plan as "India's most ambitious trade and investment agreement". Our Agriculture Minister, who supports even Monsanto-Endosulfan lobbies, is happily silent. A good time to ask: What is the matter with us?

Perhaps the only way to comfort ourselves is by seeing all this as Indian aid to Europe which is currently in a bad way with unemployment at 50-60 percent in some countries. But neither their economic woes nor our enforced Free Trade aid to them softens the arrogance with which they humiliate us when we apply for a visa. Ungrateful lot!

Monday, July 1, 2013

UK's Visa-Bond idea can be countered if Delhi is not a boneless wonder

Margaret Thatcher was tougher and more imperialistic than Britain's present Prime Minister David Cameron can ever be. Back in the 1980s the Iron Lady tried to make some easy money by raising the tuition fees of foreign students in England. Most countries took it lying down. But Malaysia was not amused.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed was a medical doctor and a soft-spoken genteel personality to boot. But he had more iron in him than the reputed Lady of London. He was appalled by Thatcher's unilateral move to squeeze money out of foreign students. Thousands of young Malaysians were studying in England and most of them were on government scholarship. So Malaysia's stakes were high in the tuition fee fracas.

Mahathir hit back. And he hit where it hurt. The first move was to announce a "Buy British Last" policy. The ease with which British goods found their way to the former colony suddenly vanished. Twirling the knife inside the wound, Mahathir followed up with a "Look East" policy. Japan suddenly became the supplier and model of the rapidly growing Malaysian economy. A shaken Margaret Thatcher climbed down and flew all the way to Kuala Lumpur to make up with the Malaysian leader.

Mahathir played graceful host, but used every means to drive home the point that his country was not to be taken for granted. The same year Thatcher went to Kuala Lumpur, 1985, Mahathir went to London and addressed the Confederation of British Industry. With understatements and innuendos the British would have secretly admired, he told them:

"We regret very much that the advantageous position that you had when we gained independence was not exploited by you. But partly this was our fault. We Malaysians looked up to you so much that you must have felt taller than you really were. It took the shock of dealing with a reputedly abrasive personality to correct an outdated patron-client relations..... Malaysia is of course not in the same league as Britain, but young nations tend to take equality seriously".

India is a young nation, too. Unlike Malaysia, it is in the same league as Britain if Indian investments in that country is any indication. But India has a leadership that does not take equality seriously. It merely wanted clarifications from British authorities when they announced that visa applicants would have to pay a cash bond of Rs 2.75 lakhs (£ 3000). Clarifications came -- that it is a pilot programme, that it is only aimed at high-risk applicants, etc. The fact is that India is branded as a high-risk country to be watched and regulated by Britain.

In fact India is high-spending country. Bonafide Indian tourists spend £ 793 per person in England (when an American tourist spends £ 710). There has been a three-fold increase in the number of Indian visitors to Britain in the last decade. That translates to the kind of big money a nation of shopkeepers will appreciate. Add to it the millions Bollywood's film makers spend on location shooting. The reverse economics of the cash bond idea is going to bleed Britain.

But it is the insult implied in the policy that India should take note of. High-spending Indian middle-class, capital-investing Indian businessmen, and Indian actors and authors who help keep Britain still somewhat Great have been equated, clarifications notwithstanding, with infiltrators of the kind every country has. India as a whole has been equated with countries known for their malfunctioning systems and consequent eagerness among some of their citizens to abuse the systems of other countries.

The malfunctioning countries are helpless. India is not. Tourists and students will punish London by simply going elsewhere. Already Indian student flow to Britain is down by 25 percent. It is the Government that can deal the coup de grace. All it has to do is to impose an equivalent cash bond on Britons seeking Indian visas. Or simply announce a "Buy British Last" policy. To do that, however, we need a leadership with backbone. Maybe Britain knows that Delhi currently is a boneless wonder.