Saturday, 16 June 2018

DHAN KI BAAT.


I should have listened to Mintu, ten years my senior, way back in 1973. If I had, I wouldn't be living in a village near Mashobra, waiting with bated breath for my pension every month, hoping the Treasury Officer doesn't question my Life Certificate which states: " Brain dead but still breathing and smoking Wills Flakes." I'd be rubbing shoulders in Kensington Gardens or a Bangkok penthouse with the Modis and the Mallyas of the world, handing out lavish tips to ravaging beauties, all debited to the Bank of Punjab or Baroda, as the (suit)case may be. I'd better explain.
In the Delhi university of 1973 you couldn't take a girl for a "band omlette" to Khyber Pass unless you had a Jawa mobike between your knees, its exhaust sawed off in some reverse phallic ritual. Lumbering through my final year MA ( no, Mr. Narendra Modi was not my batch mate) I therefore petitioned my nearest living ancestor for a loan for a bike. Now, my Dad sold oil ( Burmah Shell) for a living and was harder to pin down than an oil slick. Like Nitish Kumar I kept hoping for the funds but they never came. Fed up of waiting and seeing a life of enforced celibacy awaiting me, I decided to take matters into my own hands and sat for the SBI Probationary Officers' Exam. To everyone's great surprise I made it, but then developed second thoughts: I'd always wanted to sit for the IAS. Enter Mintu, to whom I went for advice. Now, Mintu was the hot shot in the extended Shukla tribe, a go-getter in a multinational company. " Take it!" he ordained. " Why ?" I sought to know.
" A bank job," said he of the unlimited expense account, " is worth dying for. The fortunate guys can play around with their own money, but only the blessed play with other people's money. That's what you'll be doing for the next 35 years, you know( give or take a few years of suspension). You can borrow as much money as you want. Remember, a borrower never dies- he just loses interest."
I didn't heed Mintu's Delphic advice and now have the next 15 years in village Puranikoti to regret it. I have an aversion to taking loans, believing implicitly in the old adage: Neither a loaner nor a loanee be. A mistake which I ascribe to a double promotion between Nursery and KG II, which made me miss the other adage which Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi, et al. learned by heart in KG I: " A buck in the hand is worth two in the Bank."                                                                                                                                             I have had this great suspicion of loans ever since my Dad visited me when I was posted as SDM Chamba in 1976. Now, my Dad used to make a smooth transition from oil to alcohol every evening, scotch on the rocks. I had no rocks since , with a salary of seven hundred rupees a month, I could barely afford to keep my wife in clothes ( not a bad thing when you're just married, but you get the drift), and therefore had no fridge. My Dad immediately directed me to buy one, saying he would put up the money for it. It was an (All)wyn-win situation. He went back to Kanpur, had some second thoughts of his own, and informed me that the Rs. 4000 he had advanced to me was not a grant, but a loan. It was my Chandrababu Naidu moment. I borrowed money from the District Nazir to repay my Dad and decided never to take a loan again.
But life has a way to make you eat your words. Suddenly, retirement loomed over the horizon and I realised that soon I would no longer have a leaking "sarkari" roof over my head. At about the same time my younger son Saurabh discovered Madhusudan Das ( " Indian universities are the slaughter houses of intelligence") and decided to study in London. So I polished up my begging bowl and went with it to my bank manager for two loans: house and education. I got the loans but not before the bank had squeezed out every drop of information about me: a data extortion even Facebook would be envious of- salary slip, GPF statement, land revenue papers,default guarantee from employer, architect's plan. If I recollect it also took from me my horoscope ( to ascertain that I would live long enough to repay the loans), blood reports( to check whether I had AIDS), my ACR dossier ( could I be trusted ?), an IQ test report for Saurabh to satisfy itself that he was intelligent enough for further studies ( that was a close one), and perhaps even a report on my sperm count ( to be sure that the bank would get a bang out of its buck- it didn't, nothing lowers the testesterone more effectively than two EMIs a month ). After that experience I have never applied for a loan, not even a credit card or a post-paid mobile account, because I can't bear the thought of OWING money to anyone. A big mistake, because the only way you can get uber rich in India is by borrowing big time, and not returning the moolah. In this blessed country if you owe a bank ten thousand rupees it's your problem, but if you owe it ten thousand crores then it's the bank's problem! Just look at the couple of dozen bankruptcy cases before the NCLTA: while all the banks and depositors are taking what is called "haircuts" ( but are more like fiduciary castrations) in the thousands of crores of rupees, the defaulters continue to live the life of the Sultan of Brunei. So, if you want to live the big life, go and borrow money- in crores. As the Duchess advised the ageing Duke: " If you can't raise it, you ain't getting no piece !" Which, by the way, appears to be a slight adaptation of that Confucious gem: Man who quarrel with wife get no piece at night.  Which is also why I live in a village, doing Yoga when the sun rises and meditating when it sets. In between I think of Nirav Modi standing on tip toe peering down designer cleavages, of Vijay Mallya and his life membership of the Mile-High Club, of Lalit Modi who still appears to have the government by the  (cricket) balls, of the captains of Indian industry at Davos in their  bespoke suits which have no pockets- they don't  need pockets, because their hands are always in someone else's pockets, you see. Maybe I should have listened to Mintu. 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

THE PRESIDENTIAL SUCKER PUNCH.


   All hail to the little big man from South Block! What Mr. Pranab Mukherjee delivered on the evening of the 7th. of June at Nagpur was nothing less than a haymaker that floored not only the pugilists in the ring but also the experts sitting ring side. For the last fortnight we had been given an overdose of puerile thinking by the Congress, BJP, RSS, eminent "analysts" and, of course, the  scavengers of the savannas- the electronic media- on his acceptance of an invitation by the RSS to be the chief guest at their annual function. While the former President himself maintained a dignified silence in the face of extreme provocation, the others regurgitated all their foul vapours every day: it was a betrayal of the party that gave him everything ( except the Prime Ministership, of course), it was back stabbing the ideology of Nehru and the Mahatma, it was a conspiracy by a bitter politician, it was an endorsement of the RSS ideology, it proved that the Hindutva route was the only acceptable path for the nation, it was an attempt to embarrass the Congress, it was a ploy to become the Prime Minister in 2019. Every time I feel our politics and our journalism cannot sink any lower I end up being surprised.
   Only a true patriot, a sincere Constitutionalist and an unbiased scholar of the country's history could have done what Mr. Mukherjee did. That he is also a politician makes it even more unusual, given the depths to which our polity has sunk. Anyone can sermonise from a pulpit to the faithful. It takes extraordinary courage, however, to quote scripture to the devil in his own kingdom, to beard the lion in his own den. This is what Pranabda did at the "passing out" function of the RSS cadets in the RSS headquarters, politely but firmly demolishing the very " raison-d-etre" for its existence.  His insistence on secularism, the " composite culture" of the nation and the values of the Constitution as the only framework on which India could be built, was nothing but a slap on the face of his surprised hosts. His definition of patriotism and nationalism was the very antithesis of the unitarian concept of the RSS. He preceded this with an erudite exposition of India's history and reminded the RSS of the obvious: that the country was an assimilation of all who came and stayed here- Caucasians, Dravidians, Muslims and even Mongoloids- and the country belonged to all of them. He reiterated a point made also by Ramchandra Guha in his book " India after Gandhi"- that India's nationhood is unique in the world. Whereas all other nations are built on a common language, religion or ethnicity India is the only nation built on the fusion of hundreds of languages, six major religions and multiple ethnic groups. Any attempt to reduce this glorious diversity to a mono- culture based on one religion or language would destroy the nation. His message could not have been louder. It does not matter whether the RSS or BJP or their splinter groups would heed it, the important thing is that the nation has heard it.
  If the RSS was calculating that the invitation to the former President was a marketing coup that would legitimise their ideology, they must now be very embarrassed at all the egg on their face. It was their own publicity over-drive( and the Congress reaction) that riveted the country's attention to the address of Mr. Mukherjee and has given it so much penetration. No other platform- not a dysfunctional Parliament, or a University convocation, or a vulgar political rally, or an interview on one of our untrustworthy TV channels- could have garnered the kind of attention that the address did. Now the whole country knows what a former President, highly respected and with 50 years' worth of political experience, thinks of the ideology that has taken the nation in its writhing coils. The RSS has outsmarted itself. 
  But the Congress too has no reason to be pleased at the discomfiture of the RSS, for it too has behaved abominably. Its pettiness, lack of respect for an elder statesman ( and an ex-President, to boot!), it s paranoic distrust of anyone who is not an ordained Gandhi, and total bankruptcy of any higher values was on full display in the manner it attributed motives to Mr. Mukherjee, practically dubbed him a Judas, and questioned his ideological integrity. It is so blinded by its antipathy to the BJP-RSS combine that it has forgotten the first rule of a democracy- engage with all shades of opinion. It is now praising the ex-President for " holding up a mirror" to the RSS in a blatantly hypocritical volte-face. It should instead be eating humble pie and some of its senior members like Anand Sharma and Manish Tewari should lose no time in apologising to Pranabda.
  What can one say about our electronic media which plumbs new depths of predatory avarice and discourteous arrogance every day ? Their speculative conspiracy theories- that Mr. Mukherjee was positioning himself as a compromise/ consensus candidate for Prime Ministership in 2019, that he was taking revenge on the Gandhis for depriving him of the post in 1984 and again in 2004- without a shred of evidence, can only make one agree wholeheartedly with Oscar Wilde: " By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."
  And finally, there is a message in Mr. Mukherjee's address for all the politicians in this country: engage with each other, improve the level of public discourse, stop spreading hatred and intolerance, be civilised even in your disagreements. For a man who is practically walking into the sunset, the former President has done his duty by speaking out and reminding the nation of the founding values and principles that once made this country great. We need look for no other motive. Instead we should listen to what he said, for, as T.S.Eliot said: " Last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice." We have heard the next year's voice. Is anyone listening? 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

BJP'S FINAL PINCER STRATEGY.

" Pincer movement": a movement by two wings of an army converging on the enemy. ( Concise Oxford Dictionary)
[In the India of 2018 The " army" is the BJP-RSS combine and the " enemy" is the country's own citizens.]

So you thought it's all about Aadhaar? That if we stop Mr. Modi's UIDAI led incursion into our private lives all will be well? Well, think again. Aadhaar isn't going away- the manner in which the Chief Justice of India has conducted himself so far indicates that the expected Supreme Court judgement will be in the government's favour. Oh, there will be a few caveats, crumbs for the civil libertarians, but rest assured: by this time next year they'll have you by the short and curly.
But there's a greater danger emerging, which makes Aadhaar just a side show, like the clown in the circus. The govt. appears to have planned a much bigger surgical strike  on its own citizens in order to ensure its return in 2019 and a lifetime lease of the nation thereafter. It has set in motion a pincer movement, the two claws being Disinformation and Surveillance.  If the govt. has its way on this one, then the whole country will be on an Irom Sharmila kind of drip, being force fed on disinformation designed, manufactured and shaped by the govt. itself. There will be no other information available .Over the last couple of years the more discerning among us had been suspecting that all was not well with the news business, that mainstream media ( including television channels) were doctoring news in favour of the govt., that prime time was being dominated by fake and paid news,that a lot of unfavourable news was being blanked out, that it was only the opposition parties who were generally the object of sting operations, that opinion polls ( especially election related ones) were slanted : in short, that the media had become the govt's and the BJP's megaphone. We were right. General V.K. Singh has certainly had the last laugh on this one. Remember how we all bristled when he called journalists " presstitutes"? Turns out he was dead right, as the latest multiple stings by Cobrapost reveals. Actually, they are a couple of notches below even prostitutes: the latter only sell their bodies, the media has sold its soul too. This is not a pact with the devil, it's an unholy miscegenation.
The investigative portal Cobrapost has just released a series of sting videos in which just about every major print and electronic news group has agreed to prostitute itself for fat payments from a purported Hindu organisation to promote the BJP/ Hindutva cause. The list includes the TIMES group, Hindustan Times, TV18, India Today group, Zee group, Jagran Star India, ABP, Sun group, Jupiter, Big FM, Open magazine, The New Indian Express, Lokmat, TV5, Bharat Samachar, ABM, Dinemani. Out of 27 news organisations approached, 25 agreed to be part of this illegal deal; only two flatly refused, both from Bengal: Dainik Sambad and Bartaman Patrika. The contract was in three stages: first promote soft Hindutva by showing/ featuring programmes on Krishna and Bhagvadgita, then malign opposition leaders through lampooning, character assassination, satire, and finally play the minority card and create polarisation by inserting fake news. The idea, clearly stated in the videos, is to give political benefit to the BJP ahead of the 2019 elections. The TIMES group even reportedly offered to develop a full campaign for Rs. 500 crores. Most of them even agreed to accept part payment in cash ( without any documentation) and even suggested how this money could be laundered to make it legit! Not even one organisation has denied that these conversations took place, and have only offered feeble alibis that test one's credulity. So much for our " free" media, that fourth pillar of democracy that has turned out be the fifth column.
The second pincer is a vast improvement on Aadhaar, and perhaps even on China- 24x7 surveillance on every tweet, post or e-mail that you send. This will not be done surreptitiously, as in Russia or China, but openly, as part of declared state policy! Believe it. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has just floated a tender inviting offers from IT companies to trawl social media, catalogue what people are saying, identify patterns and develop ideas to motivate more "nationalistic" feelings among the public. We know full well which party claims a monopoly on nationalism, and what this word connotes. With this Big Data the govt. can now target anyone who is critical of it or the BJP-RSS combine, using the coercive good offices of its various agencies. Not only does this move by the I+B Ministry violate the recent Supreme Court judgement on right to privacy and Sec. 165 of the IT Act, it comes at a time when the whole world is tightening up privacy laws after the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook revelations. Quite clearly, however, Mr. Modi and his cohorts cannot be bothered by such niceties on their march to a police state. In fact, in another sting released by Cobrapost on 18th May, a Sr. Vice President of PayTm has revealed that he was approached by the PMO recently to give them all the data on Kashmiri users of their app. so that possible and potential stone pelters could be identified! This was a blatant breach of privacy agreements between PayTm and its 200 million users, since the former is legally bound not to share its customer data with any third party. This one example ( I'm sure there would be many more we are not aware of) only underlines the complete amorality and ruthlessness of the central govt.. its contempt for the courts and international opinion, and exposes the lengths it will go to to retain power. It also demonstrates how all our institutions have caved in, one by one.The chaotic and vibrant social media is the one universe the govt. is mortally scared of but could not control. It has now found a way.
 Mainstream media has, as expected, completely blanked out these stories. But one is entitled to ask: what are our vasectomised Regulators doing- the Press Council of India, TRAI, RBI ( about PayTm), the Enforcement Directorate, the Editors' Guild ? No one's talking about this latest strategy, and even social media is muted. Have we just given up? Is Leonard Cohen's counsel of despair right after all?-

" Everybody knows 
  That the dice are loaded
  Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed...
  That's how it goes....
  Everybody knows
  That the boat is leaking
  Everybody knows that the captain lied...
  Everybody knows."

Everybody knows, but no one cares.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

IT'S TIME FOR GOVERNORS TO FADE INTO HISTORY.

   After the disgraceful conduct of the Karnataka Governor in the recent elections in that state one is forced to ask the question: do we need Governors at all ? Do they in fact promote the culture of democracy or act as an impediment to it, corrupting its very essence by their pliant behaviour? Between 1951 and 2016 these Governors, acting as agents of the central governments, have dismissed 115 state govts. and installed perhaps an equally large number by dubious means. In just the last year or so their partisan actions in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have been overturned by the Supreme Court, but that has not deterred them from doing the same in Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya and now in Karnataka. Of late it has become the norm for their decisions on government formation to be invariably challenged in the courts, usually successfully. Why then do we need them at all?
  This question was debated in the Constituent Assembly between 1946 and 1949, and not all its members were in favour of this colonial era institution. But Nehru and Patel strongly argued for having this post on the grounds that it would promote federalism by providing a link between the union and state governments, and would also ensure stability. Their arguments perhaps made sense at that time when the country was going through the tumult of partition, the de-facto division of Kashmir and the competing clamour for states on linguistic lines. There was, in addition, the problem of the 522 independent principalities/ kingdoms all of whom wanted autonomy if not outright independence, of Goa and of Nagaland. Without a strong center the new India would have disintegrated in no time at all. The guiding hand of the Union was needed by the new, nascent states which were just emerging from the stew of caste, language, class and religion that was Indian society and polity at the time. The Union govt. needed its representative and emissary in the states at that point in our history. The Constituent Assembly even debated whether Governors should be directly elected, but finally opted for nominating men of stature and learning, intellectuals and scholars, persons with proven administrative credentials, not politicians. Unfortunately, however, these  dseired credentials were not reduced in writing ( and we are paying the price for that today).
  But that was 70 years ago and conditions have now changed. Democracy is no longer just the "top soil", as Ambedkar had said, but is now firmly embedded into our landscape. The political geography of the country has taken a final shape, more or less, and the institutions of democracy well established ( though their performance certainly leaves much to be desired). The states are settled and strong in their own right and federalism is well entrenched. In fact, there is now a backlash developing, thanks to the muscular policies of the BJP govt. at the center, against the unitary tendencies of the Union govt. and the conduct of the Governors is regarded with suspicion by the states. As regards the merit and standing of those nominated for these posts, the less said the better- Raj Bhavans have now become the exclusive preserve of retired and inconvenient politicians, sycophants, and pliant bureaucrats. In these changed, and changing, circumstances, therefore, the question must be asked: do the Governors serve any worthwhile purpose any longer?
  What exactly are their substantive functions, other than presiding over government formation after an election, swearing in Ministers and giving assent to legislation after they have been passed by the state Assemblies? Nothing. On the downside they are unnecessary irritants to the Chief Ministers, quite often parallel power centers especially if the CM belongs to a party opposed to the party at the Center. Their very existence is a blot on the democratic fabric of a nation which has been an independent democracy for seventy years. I cannot think of any developed country which has institutionalised a nominated, unelected authority over the elected head of government, and even has the powers to dismiss him! And all this at great cost to the public exchequer. The Raj Bhavans, or Governors' Secretariats, are virtual palaces and are run with all the pomp and opulence earlier associated with the Viceroys. A small state like Himachal Pradesh spent Rs. 8,40,53,000.00 on the Governor's Secretariat in 2017-18 ( Revised Estimates), an amount it can ill afford given that its debt stands at almost Rs.50,000 crore. The corresponding figures for bigger states like UP and Maharashtra would be mind boggling.
  The Governor's primary function- of govt. formation- can just as easily, and with greater probity , be performed by the Chief Justice of the state High Court ( in any case all such matters invariably end up for adjudication in the courts nowadays!), with required assistance by the Election Commission of India. The CJ would do a much better and fairer job than most Governors today. As far as approving legislation is concerned, why should an unelected person sit in judgement over the wisdom, or otherwise, of an elected legislature? If a legislation is unconstitutional it can always be challenged in court, which is the proper forum for determining its legality. A Raj Bhavan is certainly not.
  The institution of Governor is a vestigial and colonial legacy which has no place in a genuine democracy. It negates the concept of real federalism. It is occupied, not by the intellectual giants which the Constituent Assembly envisaged, but by men of straw. In practice, it has belied and betrayed its original objective and purpose: far from ensuring stability it has engendered more political instability, confusion and even corruption over the years. It is an anachronism which is incompatible with the political ideals of a developing world order. It is like our coccyx, that vestigial last bone in our spine that once enabled us to swing from branch to branch but has now become a pain in the traditional place. If homo sapiens can do without the coccyx India can certainly do without its Raj Bhavans.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

SHAIL BALA'S MURDER- THE WAGES OF POPULISM


            [ This piece was published in the SUNDAY TRIBUNE Supplement on 19.5.2018 ]




   It’s not likely that most of Himachal’s political leaders would be acquainted with the writings of Thomas Carlyle , but they would do well to reflect on his sane warning: “ Popular public opinion is the biggest lie.” I say this with a heavy heart in the context of the cold blooded, daylight murder of the Assistant Town Planner Shailbala Sharma and Gulab Singh, a PWD labourer ( he died in hospital on the 13th of May) in Kasauli recently, in the presence of at least fourteen policemen who were there precisely to protect her and her team from any such violence ( and who are being inexplicably shielded by the state govt. in the Supreme Court). For the smoking gun here is not just the .32 calibre revolver in the hotelier’s hands but the populism of successive governments in Shimla over the last twenty years. It is that which killed Shailbala, as surely as the bullet which lodged in her chest.
   Mr. Shanta Kumar, the sidelined , octogenarian BJP ex- Chief Minister of Himachal is bang on target when he went on record to state recently that the tragic incident is the result of appeasement policies of governments in the  past. Mr. Kumar’s words carry weight because he is the last Chief Minister Himachal had who governed on the basis of principles, moral values and the public good. I still recollect the shock waves among govt. employees throughout India when he countered the unjustified strike of employees of the HP Govt. Secretariat by announcing the “ no work, no pay” policy in the 1990’s. He even called in the army to ensure law and order in the Secretariat. A long suffering public welcomed his tough stand, but it’s a sign of the deteriorating times that Mr. Shanta Kumar never became Chief Minister again. He was at odds with the  changing zeitgeist.
   The two primary areas where the govts. have faltered are town planning and the environment. I am not talking here of just bad planning but complete lack of enforcement of whatever plans exist. Enforcement has been replaced with large scale appeasement: Shimla alone has more than 20000 irregular buildings which violate planning rules and pose a danger to everyone; other major cities such as Dharamsala, Manali, Palampur, Solan have tens of thousands more. Instead of coming down on them with a heavy hand, successive govts. have tried every trick in the rule book to legitimise them. There have been six “ retention policies” so far ( double-speak for regularisation of illegal structures), and each has only encouraged more violations. No area has escaped the attentions of avaricious builders and ordinary, normally law abiding citizens wishing to exploit the pusillanimity of the political class- Manikaran, Kasol, Mashobra, Kasauli- for commercial gains. To cite just one example: the entire stretch in Mcleodganj ( Dharamsala) between the main crossing and the Dalai Lama’s residence is a declared heritage zone where all existing buildings are to be preserved. But it has now been reported that after the last  “regularisation” scheme announced by the Congress govt. about four years back 98% of the heritage structures have been demolished and replaced with multi-storey buildings, mainly hotels and shops. This internationally famous zone has been destroyed and desecrated for ever. Just last week it was reported in the TRIBUNE that more than 3000 illegal buildings have come up within the 30 meter prohibited, no-construction zone of the Kalka-Shimla railway track, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, putting its heritage status in jeopardy. How were they allowed to come up all these years?
   The same disgusting, vote pandering, spineless and short-sighted policies have been the bane of Himachal’s forests which have been encroached upon on a massive scale. The first, relative authentic figures of encroachment emerged in 2001, when the then government floated a scheme for regularisation of encroachments on forest land, just ahead of elections. Those wishing to avail of the benefit of the scheme were asked to submit affidavits detailing the extent of the encroachment. These affidavits revealed that there were a mind boggling 1,67,223 violators and the total forest area encroached upon was 24, 980 hectares, or 249 sq. kms- three times the size of the Shimla Planning Area! It is no coincidence that almost 70% of these encroachments is accounted for by just three districts: Shimla, Kullu and Mandi- all prime apple growing areas. It is common knowledge that vast swathes of forests have been chopped down by the politically influential over the last four decades to plant apple orchards. The primary historical culprits for encouraging this has been the Congress, but in the rat race that our political system has now become, even the BJP ( post Shanta Kumar) has not lagged behind. When the 2001-02 regularisation policy of the Congress ran into the obstacle of the Forest Conservation Act, Mr. Dhumal’s BJP came out with a modified policy in 2008. That, fortunately, was stymied by the High Court.
   The same story is repeating itself in the Manali area where the NGT has been endeavouring to do what the state govt. itself should be doing- protect the Rohtang pass from the ravages of unplanned tourism and unsustainable vehicular traffic pollution. It has been passing orders to prohibit some types of environmentally damaging activities, restrict the number and types of vehicles going up to the Pass, remove the encroachments at Marhi and the Pass itself, collect and dispose of the garbage, etc. But at every stage the court has been opposed by the govt. itself, either by delaying tactics, or lack of cooperation or outright defiance. The Palchan- Rohtang ropeway ( which would obviate the need for any tourist vehicle to go to the Pass) has made little progress in the last nine years. The green electric buses bought to replace the highly polluting diesel/ CNG buses have just been ordered off the roads by the new Transport Minister and told not to ply! All this is being done under the pressure of a few dozen taxi operators, who fear loss of business. In actual fact, their business is extorting money from tourists, charging four to five times the rates fixed by the govt. They are perhaps the most pampered lot in Manali: as far back as in the late 1980s , when complaints of overcharging air passengers for the journey from Bhuntar airport to Manali became endemic, the HRTC introduced its own deluxe bus service on this route. On the very first day itself the bus was vandalised by the taxi union and was not allowed to run. No action was taken by the administration, and this service has never been reintroduced. The govt. always chooses the easier, electorally beneficial appeasement route. It should realise that by capitulating to such elements it only engenders contempt for the law and for itself, encouraging a criminalised mindset that does not hesitate to take the law into one’s hands, as Vijay Singh did in Kasauli the other day.
    This needs to be stated clearly: by its myopic appeasement policies the govt. has been complicit in illegal urban constructions, environmental destruction and forest encroachments. By legitimising the violations it has only emboldened the violators to aggressively resist any attempt to undo their illegalities. It is only the courts- the High Court and the National Green Tribunal- which have been proactive in trying to preserve the rule of law and in trying to save Himachal’s towns and its forest areas. But successive governments have consistently tried to undermine the orders of the courts, instead of deriving strength from them to do the right thing: filing appeals and review petitions, bringing in new legislation, going slow in implementing the judicial verdicts. Civil society, regrettably has been a mute and silent spectator to this govt. sponsored vandalism and defiance. Finally, however, the courts appear to have realised that the political executive or the administration cannot be trusted with either framing rational policies or with implementing the laws of the land. Increasingly, therefore, they have taken matters into their own hands, passed orders to demolish irregular buildings and vacate forest encroachments, constituted SITs and Committees to implement and monitor execution of these orders. The government of the day has been completely side-lined in the matter, and this should be welcomed by all right minded citizens. Perhaps the concerned officers of these departments will now be able to carry out their duties without fear of political intervention or influence.
   It remains to be seen whether the courts can deliver where the govts. have failed. But the real damage to the body fabric of the state has already been done: the state administration has been fenestrated and rendered impotent, as the criminal negligence and inaction of the police force accompanying Shail Bala demonstrates. Even more worrying, the shameful opportunism of the various political parties over the years has embedded a certain contempt for the law among the citizens of this once law abiding state. It has bred a feeling of entitlement among them- that they are entitled to break the law in certain matters, that they are entitled to occupy public lands and forests, and that anyone who tries to stop them from doing so is acting against the public interest and can be lawfully resisted. The whole concept of public interest has been turned on its head. It is this warped feeling and mentality, actively encouraged for years by all political parties in the state, that killed Shail Bala and Gulab Singh. The bullets were only the medium.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

SHIMLA-- FADING BEAUTY, ABIDING CHARMS.


   As a long time resident of Shimla I tend to regard her as an aristocratic primadonna whose beauty is now of the past, but some of the charms remain, still attracting the old faithfuls who once haunted her fashionable boudoir. These have not lapsed with the passage of time and still have the power to take us back to an age when life moved at the pace of the hand rickshaw, and the quality of life was measured in simple pleasures, not the mixed blessings of the Internet Of Things. I'd like to share a few of these with you, dear reader.
  For me the main attraction on Mall road is still TRISHOOL, that cute little bakery next to the Gaiety theatre. In the metros the stand-alone bakery is now a thing of the past; what you have are chains and their stuff tastes the same whether you buy it in Connought Place, Khan Market or Greater Kailash. You can no longer easily get an honest, simple pastry, you'll instead be hawked a meringue, or a gateau, or a truffle at five times the price. The cream roll is passe and extinct except in the slums. The simple, delicious patty is unrecognizable, stuffed with every kind of strange meats and paneer ( in deference, I suppose, to those Punjabis who came in after the Partition). The bun has now metamorphosed into the croissant and tastes like a dog's breakfast. And for all of this you pay humongous amounts through your e-nose. And that's precisely why I keep going back to Trishool: the same chocolate pastries, fruit buns, cream rolls and patties that eased the white man of his burden on a cool Shimla evening a hundred years ago. Their taste has not changed a whit in the forty years that I have been having them, and I can have the whole lot for the price of one meringue in Khan Market.
  And then there's Dewan Chand Atma Ram ( DCAR, to the cognoscenti)  just across the road. It has clothed me, my two sons, one wife, and many generations of Cottonians- even the then Headmaster, Mr. Kabir Mustafi, could be seen there of an evening, trying to get inside a waistcoat and never making it. I'm told the shop designs its own range of apparel ( at least the pullovers and shawls): you may spend your life ordering from Flipkart, Amazon and Walmart, but you'll never find anything to match the styles in DC. And the prices are so reasonable you wonder why either Deepak or Dinesh ( the burghers who preside over the garments) bother asking you for the moneys at all!
   Moving from the man-made to the natural charms of this fading beauty, there's Forest Hill Road, a two kilometer stretch of sylvania which has somehow escaped the degradation and traffic chaos which have befallen all of the town's roads. Its all mostly forest( the famous green belt) and has very few buildings on it. A walk along it of an evening can almost make you want to get married again- well, okay, that may be pushing it a bit- but you get the drift. Since nobody walks in Shimla these days, the road is quiet and contemplative. If you're lucky you might meet Ms. Harinder Hira at the St. Bede's end, if you're unlucky you will probably bump into Yogesh Khanna, yelling blue murder because his partner messed up that Grand Slam at the club ( incidentally, it's always the partner, never Yogesh himself). Yogesh once recounted to me an interesting incident he was witness to on this same road. One bitter evening he was walking down the road in the middle of a tempestuous storm, the rain coming down in buckets and the wind fit to blow all the deodars to their knees. It was dark as night and completely deserted. Suddenly he saw a procession of nuns coming towards him, brightly lit candles in their hands, chanting hymns, looking straight ahead and quite oblivious of the raging storm. Yogesh stood aside, let the procession pass and continued on his way, wondering why the nuns were out on this candle-lit march in this awful weather. Suddenly ( he told me later), he froze as a thought came to him: how on earth were all the candles burning bright and steadily in the middle of this storm, the howling wind and torrential rain? He looked back- the road was empty for as far as he could see! The nuns had disappeared. Yogesh hurried home, not looking back even once, like the Ancient Mariner who " turns no more his head, for he doth know that close behind a fearful fiend doth tread..."
   And then there's Annadale, that divinely picturesque glen cradled in the lap of majestic deodars. It is here that the Indian army trains day and night to clobber the Chinese- at golf. This golf course is one of the army's treasured possessions and they would sooner vacate Siachen than Annadale. I've palyed golf here for a few years, though "played" is an euphemism: I spent most of my time looking for the ball in the forests, because, for some strange reason all my drives invariably went in the direction of Kasauli. I took to wearing a compass instead of a watch but even that didn't help. After seven years on the course I've never hit an eagle or birdie, though I have hit a cow( twice, may the BJP forgive me) and Yatish Sud ( once). Annadale is a wonderful place, worlds away from the mess that is Shimla, and I hope the army never hands it over to the civilian administration, for then it will become another Sanjauli.
   One wouldn't normally add the HP govt. secretariat to Shimla's list of charming memories, not even if Sunny Leone became Chief Secretary and gyrated her sinuous way up that historic staircase every day, with the entire Cabinet standing below shouting "Jai ( Be)Hind !" But I do retain fond memories of one small corner of the Secretariat, the broken down, dingy, refrigerated building behind Armsdale. We christened it Guru Nanak Niwas, because it was a kind of refuge-cum-exile for those not in favour with the rulers of the day. At one point in time in the mid-eighties both Ashok Thakur ( he retired last year as Secretary to the Union Govt.) and I were sentenced to serve time in GNN, he as JS ( Forests) and I as JS ( Animal Husbandry). I do not recollect what Ashok's transgression was, but I was exiled because of a rumour that I had named my dog after the then Chief Secretary, ostensibly so that I could kick him around vicariously! The rumour was, of course, a canard: my dog was named Brutus, but I was banished to GNN nonetheless.
  Quite unknown to the mandarins of the Secretariat Administration Deptt. who thought that that the place was a gulag for the heretics like Ashok and me, it was actually a jolly fine place. No Minister or senior officer ever visited GNN so we could do just about what we wished to. We usually strolled in at about 11.00 AM, to find loud singing emanating from the bathrooms where all the Section officers were having a bath in order to save water at their residences. We worked from 11.00 to 12.00 noon and then made our way up the hill behind the building to Raj Bhavan where my late batch mate J.P.Negi was the Secretary to Governor. The afternoons were spent in playing billiards and partaking of the fine food churned out by the Raj Bhavan kitchen. At 5.00 PM we would return to our offices, sign the couple of files that had mistakenly found their way to our tables, pick up our squash kits and repair to the Raj Bhavan squash court. It was like we were almost on an unofficial deputation to the Raj Bhavan. It was a wonderful time but, like all good things in life, didn't last very long. Ashok finally managed to locate a tribal leader to bail him out. In my case, someone conveyed to the Chief Secretary that my dog was named after a Roman statesman and not a Kinnaura worthy, and so I was shifted to Finance and back to the main mausoleum of Ellerslie. There I learned, among other things, the similarity between a bikini and a budget viz. that what they conceal is much more interesting than what they reveal. Or that a deficit is better than a surplus- ask any ' O ' size maiden, if you don't believe me.
   What I'm trying to say in my own convoluted way is this: don't grieve over the beauty that once was Shimla, but use your memories to bring back those charms. It doesn't matter that Mary's lamb has now become a mutton burger, remembering her other charms can still bring back the good times. As exemplified in this little, Kipling-esque ditty reproduced from my good friend Raaja Bhasin's wonderful book on Shimla:

" Mary had a little skirt
  And it was slit in half,
  Who gives a damn about Mary's lamb
  When you can see her calf ?"

Who indeed?

Saturday, 12 May 2018

PARDON ME, SIR, BUT YOUR HALO IS SLIPPING.


   Halos are tricky little buggers, especially if they are self acquired and not ordained by a higher force. For one, they don't go well with 56 inch chests; two, they are like Chinese diwali lights and don't last very long; third, if not assiduously cared for they are likely to slip down that stiff neck and become a dog collar. Mr. Modi had assumed his high office sporting a number of halos- nationalism, decisiveness, strong leadership, incorruptibility, messiah of development. All of them have blacked out now, like the tens of millions of households his Power Minister claims to have provided electricity to. But one particular halo promises to turn into a crown of thorns in the days leading upto to the 2019 elections- the one which also has an audio sound track saying: " Na khaoonga, na khane doonga".
   It was always going to be difficult for someone who has traditionally been buddies with big capital, right since his Chief Minister days. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with wooing the money bags, provided it is done to better the lot of the less fortunate. This proviso was not, however, visible in Gujarat where the human development indices certainly did not justify Mr. Modi's crony capitalism. His stint in Delhi has been more of the same. But the halo of incorruptibility, as assiduously crafted as the hubris inspired suit with his biodata on it, has been totally shattered over these last few months like the mirror of the Lady of Shallot. And without its benign glare he now stands exposed. It's no longer about brushing under the carpet Mrs. Swaraj's recommendation about travel documents for Lalit Modi, or Mrs. Vasundra Raje's indiscretions, or going slow on the Panama papers, or clamming up on the Rafael deal. The raven is now perched on his own window sill.
   The dimming of the halo began with the Jay Shah case, a howdunnit mystery Agatha Christie would no doubt have titled: And then there were crores! In the coming years the world may have to cast its net wide to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, but we need look no further for the reincarnation of King Midas- he's right there in Mr. Amit Shah's happy household! Defended in court by none other than the Attorney General, blurring the lines between government, party and the ( second) family. Should there have been an inquiry at least ? We will never know-for the PM is an honourable man.
  The second reported case involves- who else?- Mr. Adani. It was reported by the WIRE that three of his firms which had a contract for supplying equipments for the Maharashtra Eastern Grid Power Corporation imported machinery costing Rs.3580 crores but over invoiced it for Rs. 9048 crores. The difference of Rs. 5468 crores was allegedly siphoned off to a UAE firm. The DRI ( Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) issued notice of penalty to the companies and also lodged a case with CBI. The CBI has refused to register a PE because they say the matter pertains to a state govt. contract and it has no jurisdiction! It conveniently ignores the fact that the Adani firms obtained the money from 6 nationalised banks, which are all PSUs. How then is this a state matter? There has been no reaction from the central govt. or the PM- for he is, after all, an honourable man.
   Enter Mr. Piush Goel, an otherwise pleasant enough Union Minister, from the extreme right of the stage, in the company of another Prime Ministerial favourite- Mr. Piramal. It turns out that in 2014 when he was the Union Power Minister, Mr. Piush Goel sold his firm, Flashnet Info Solutions India Pvt. Ltd. to Mr. Piramal @ Rs. 9586 per share. The face value of each share, as reported in the press, was Rs. 10. The astute Mr. Piramal thus bought the shares at almost 1000 times their face value. You would obviously conclude from this that Mr. Goel's firm must have been doing phenomenally well, perhaps in the same league as Apple or Amazon. Well..... not quite, because in March next the valuation of the firm was declared to be just one fourth of this valuation ! Mr. Piramal has not responded to any query by the WIRE, which broke this story, but has predictably threatened to sue the news portal- more work for the Attorney General? You would think such an alleged windfall profit by a Union Minister should warrant an inquiry at least? You would be right, but the PM does not think so- he is, after all, an honourable man.
   And here's the latest smudge on the halo- Mr. Janardhan Reddy of Bellary, a mining-cum-robber baron who was indicted by the Lokayukta of Karnataka, Justice Santosh Hegde, for illegal export of iron ore worth Rs. 32000 crore. The case was handed over to the CBI which now says it does not have enough evidence against him to prosecute him- even though Justice Hegde has already done all the hard work and compiled massive documentary evidence on the case! Was it a coincidence that the CBI gave him the green chit just before the Karnataka elections? In which Mr. Reddy's family has been given 8 tickets by the BJP, which has completely out-sourced these constituencies to Mr. Reddy? The BJP's CM designate has openly declared that the Reddys have been chosen on their "winnability" quotient. Mr. Modi of course has maintained a stony, iron ore like silence- for is he not an honourable man ?
  The complete hypocrisy of the gentleman is self-evident, as are his double standards and the yawning gulf between his words and his deeds. Cronyism is alive and kicking; it didn't disappear with the Congress but has just become more selective, its beneficiaries limited to an elite circle of the faithful, protected by a wall of silence. The cases mentioned above may well be the tip of the iceberg, for it takes time for the skeletons to come clattering out of the cupboard. But Mr. Modi's halos are short circuiting one by one and he must soon decide whether he wants to wear a crown or a halo- he cannot don both at the same time.