Sunday, 30 March 2014


    An odd question, I admit, but it must be asked in the light of all that is happening nowadays. The Indian voter stands proudly at the heart of the biggest democratic exercise the world has seen but all the other major agents involved- the political parties, the government, the Election Commission, the media and even the courts- behave as if he is either a mentally challenged halfwit who can  be manipulated or a helpless pawn who needs to be protected and molly coddled. As an average voter I resent this attitude because it reeks of contempt and seeks to patronise me.
    Most, if not all, political parties and politicians don't really give a damn about the voter or about what principles and values he seeks in his MP or MLA, or what aspirations he himself has. Confident in their calculations of caste, religion and community backed by muscle power and black money, they have traditionally treated him as bonded labour who can do nothing else but their bidding when it comes to pressing that button. Nothing else can explain their unprincipled and degenerate actions leading up to the current elections: giving tickets to people charged with or suspected of serious crimes, crossing over from one party to another shamelessly like a dung beetle moving from one odorous pile to another, foisting pimply faced sons and daughters on the public in a caricature of a rudrabhishek ceremony, expertly avoiding any specific commitment on the daily problems of their constituents. There is not even an attempt to explain how practically all of them become multi-millionaires in just one term and thereafter multiply their mysterious wealth by a factor of five or ten every succeeding term. What hurts and angers me the most is the assumption, behind these actions, that the voter can be taken for granted, that he is a simpleton who can be herded in any direction they wish, that he completely lacks the capacity to critically analyse their performance in the last five years or their unholy antics leading up to these elections, and that he will be eternally grateful for the privilege of being allowed to vote for them.
    The media also shows little respect for the average voter, a trend which has become more pronounced since the proliferation of the electronic media. It does dis-service to itself and the voter by seeking to influence news instead of honestly reporting or analysing it. The practice of planting " paid news" has been confirmed and documented in a report submitted to the Press Council of India by its own committee headed by Pranjoy Guha Thakurta( though the Council has discredited itself by not making the report public), the manner in which opinion polls are sold to the highest bidder( read political party) has been exposed by a media channel itself in a sting operation, the conduct of some channels in circulating doctored video footage to discredit inconvenient personalities has been amply exhibited in the incident concerning Shazia Ilmi just before the Delhi elections, and the attempt to blatantly shove a preconceived view down the voter's throat is amply demonstrated by the biased and  slanted panel "discussions" ( sometimes also termed " debates" to give them more respectability) of the Arnab Goswami variety. The ownership of media channels and publications is something which is not openly discussed, though it deserves to be, for it shall expose the industry-media-politician connection, the tainted tip of which has already been revealed by the Radia tapes.  And when someone raises the issue( read Kejriwal) the Editors' Guild and the News Broadcasters' Association come down on him like a ton of bricks. The voter certainly has the right to the truth but large sections of the media conspire with the politicians to deny him this fundamental right. What makes the media act in this manner is nothing but the same sentiment that drives the politician-viz. that the voter is a gullible idiot who can be eye-balled into a voting position.
   The government too uses every opportunity to try to con the voter, from trying to ban opinion polls( instead of regulating them) to postponing elections( in Delhi) to a more favourable time, to offering sops to targetted sections in a desperate race to beat the Code of Conduct( declaring Jats as OBCs, raising the LPG cylinder cap to twelve, seeking to withdraw cases against potential allies like Lalu and Mayawati). All this is based on the presumption that the voter cannot see beyond his nose( or through these obvious strategems). Occasionally a well intentioned judiciary, seeking its own share of fashionable activism, also falls into the same trap of under-rating the voter and issues orders that defy logic. The 2013 order of the Allahabad High Court that prohibited caste or community based rallies falls in this category. The ( wholly erroneous) presumption behind this judgement was that such rallies would inflame caste/communal passions and that the average citizen could not be trusted to behave in a rational and law-abiding manner. But it ignored the constitutional right of any section of society to come together for any legal purpose, including the voicing of grievances and demands. Fortunately this order was set aside in appeal but it scares me that a High Court can even have a thought process that results in such orders.
    The organisation that has the poorest opinion of the voter, strangely enough, is the Election Commission of India! Now, I do not wish to be misunderstood-I sincerely believe that over the last twenty years or so the ECI has done a fantastic job of conducting elections, minimising electoral malpractices, increasing voter participation and giving the most deprived sections of our society access to the ballot. It has demonstrably strengthened the election process and mechanism. Where it has erred, in my view, is in going overboard in trying to needlessly insulate the voter from any corrupting " influence" of the government of the day or any other political party ( based on the same faulty premise that the others are guilty of-viz. that the voter cannot be trusted to think for himself and needs Big Brother to decide what is good for him.) In the process it has taken on far too much, has become what Jairam Ramesh rightly calls a " parallel government", and has actually ended up harming the very citizen and system it has sought to serve.
   At the heart of the Commission's overreach is its belief that the government must be brought to a standstill
to ensure a " level playing field" and prevent any " influencing" of the voter. I shall discuss these terms later, but in simple terms what it means is that the government( state or central) cannot take any policy decision, award any contract, make any appointment or promotion or transfer of a govt. employee, sanction any funds etc. once elections are notified. Simply in order to understand how damaging for the country this dictum is, consider only some of the decisions which the government has been prevented from taking over the last one month. The Indian Navy is in a mess which compelled the Navy chief to resign three weeks back, but the government cannot appoint his successor. Forty percent of India's villages have no banking penetration, we desperately need new Banks, the govt. has finalised the selection of new licencees but it is prohibited from issuing the licences. The Delhi Metro is ready to roll out its next phase in the NCR areas but it cannot begin work till elections are over: it cannot even award work contracts( and when it hopefully does so after May 16 the bidders would in all probability have revised their prices, causing a cascading delay and price escalation to the project). Air Asia will have to wait another few months before it can obtain approvals to begin operations. KG Basin gas prices had been notified to go up from 1st April but the Commission has stayed this. ( I am no supporter of this increase but what I am concerned with here is the principle- how can an executive decision of an elected govt., taken BEFORE notification of elections, not found to be illegal by a court, be stayed by the Commission?). In all probability the Commission shall also stay the notification of the RBI's Monetary Policy Statement due on 1st April 2014 because it may( in fact, is bound to) have an effect on interest rates and CRR and money supply.
    These are only some instances that come to mind. A govt. which was already in a state of stasis has now been completely paralysed. The economy has been effectively shut down for four months. What kind of signals are we sending to the international investors? How can the growth rate for the next fiscal improve if all major economic decisions are put in limbo for the first quarter? Will all this not eventually impact on the common citizen in terms of national security, employment, access to financial services, more competitive airline fares, urban connectivity? How does the voter gain by this draconian overreach of the Election Commission? 
    This completely misplaced " Big Brother knows best" mindset keeps the Commission busy with trivial non-issues: covering all elephant statues lest it give an undue advantage to the BSP, determining that there should not be more than four vehicles in a candidate's cavalcade, attempting to ban opinion polls, monitoring of social media, ordering that poll manifestos should not contain " unrealistic" promises, acting as a moral referee when candidates abuse each other, asking a Chief Minister( Akhilesh Yadav) not to resort to tele-conferencing with his district officers, disallowing bar girls from performing at a candidate's rallies, and so on. Does the Commission really believe that in this day and age these actions influence a voter in casting his vote? It appears to me that these exertions by the Commission are a complete waste of time and money and indicative of the low esteem in which it holds the voter.
    Instead of tilting at these windmills the Commission would do better to focus on, and take bold initiatives towards eradicating, the real issues that vitiate elections. I shall mention just two. First, the Model Code of Conduct. It is a comprehensive code to ensure fair campaigning; it is also a lot of thunder and lightning signifying nothing: its violation attracts headlines and nothing else. Ex Chief Election Commissioner Quereshi admitted on a TV programme today that a large number of FIRs had been filed over the last few elections regarding its violation but not a single case had resulted in conviction! Some state governments had even withdrawn the cases after the elections! The Commission should take steps to rectify this rather than register another FIR because Hema Malini had eight cars in her cavalcade instead of four. It should press the government to set up special courts for these cases and make their trials time bound.
    The second, and perhaps the critical, issue is the criminalisation of Parliament and state Assemblies. According to the Association of Democratic Rights there are 162 MPs with criminal cases against them, of which 76 are accused of heinous offences such as murder, rape,kidnapping and dacoity. In the state Assemblies, out of about 4600 MLAs more than 1250 are similarly accused. What is the Commission doing about this? It claims to have written to the govt. many times to disqualify candidates against whom charges have been framed, but with no response. This is simply going through the motions. The Election Commission is a constitutional and totally autonomous body. What prevents it from filing a writ in the Supreme Court to force the central govt to carry out the required amendments to the Representation of People Act? Does it expect the Court to take up all such matters suo-moto or on references by civil society groups only while it itself goes about counting how many plates were served at a candidate's dinner?
    No one takes the voter seriously but perhaps that will change soon. With more than 120 million internet users and about 40 million Face-bookers, with 270 million voters under the age of 25, with the traditional urban-rural divide disappearing rapidly, the voter will soon be ready to take matters in his own hands. I have a feeling that the current Parliamentary election will give us the first preview of the better polity that lies just over the horizon. The voter is not as stupid as he looks. 

Friday, 21 March 2014


                                ELECTIONS AND BLACK MONEY-GOOD ECONOMICS?

     Sometime back it was reported by an NGO tracking election expenditures that roughly Rs. 50000 crores of black money was spent on one round of Parliament/ State Assembly elections. To put the amount in perspective, this is equivalent to the combined annual expenditure of the two flagship schemes of the govt.-viz. MNREGA and Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan; to put it another way, it is almost twice the total annual budget of the Delhi govt., or twenty times the Plan budget of  Himachal. Its a fair estimate what with more than two thousand five hundred seats being contested, a minimum of five candidates per seat, and each candidate spending between five to ten crores. This reinforces the conventional wisdom that this scourge must be wiped out, that this is bad for the integrity of the democratic process and disastrous for the economy, that state funding of elections should be introduced to displace the black money currently utilised for the purpose. Now, the question as to why you and I should subsidise a bunch of crooks to grab power and make even more black money is a separate one, to which I hope to revert in the future. Right now, however, I propose to challenge the conventional wisdom and argue that black money in elections IS GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY AND THE ECONOMY and that we should stop beating our breasts and wailing about it.
    We must begin with the premise that Black Money, like Digvijay Singh or Mani Shankar Aiyar, exists-whether we like it( or them) or not, and will continue to exist even if it is eradicated from elections. Where does this money currently go? It is invested in real estate( where it drives up prices to unaffordable levels and has led to a housing shortage of more than 20 million units, most of it in the EWS category); in gold( leading to increased smuggling or/and imbalance in the Current Account Deficit) ; in money laundering ponzi type schemes like the staggering SAHARA ones ( where even the Supreme Court and SEBI have been unable to make them cough up the moneys); in Hawala operations or in Swiss bank accounts; or simply dumped in a locker or under a mattress where, I am told ( by erstwhile colleagues), it also induces a kind of Viagra-like effect. In other words black money either distorts the economy or simply lies around as an " unproductive asset", neither of which benefits anyone.
   Come the elections, however, and this same black money( or at least 50000 crores of it) is unlocked and productively injected into the economy. It use in elections is as diverse and ingenious as only an election in India can be. It is spent to employ " party workers" and hire crowds for rallies, to hire all manner of vehicles ranging from bullock carts to helicopters, to acquire publicity materials-banners, stickers, posters, caps, T-shirts, to fund arrangements for public meetings, to distribute liquor, to hand out cash as bribes to voters. True, some of these uses are illegal but that is not the point of my discussion. True, some of this expenditure is in white money and reported to the Election Commission, but every Indian knows that not even 10% of the expenditure is reported or accounted for. A recent report in the Hindustan Times stated that candidates generally reported such low expenditures that one CEC( now retired) had even proposed reducing the permissible expenditure cap! No sir, the life-blood of elections is black money and its not a bad thing at all.
    Here is just a short list of its undeniable benefits. It creates ( albeit for just a few months) millions of jobs. If even half of this Rs. 50000 crores is used for hiring people then ( assuming a daily wage of Rs.300/) the elections lead to creation of 833 MILLION man-days! The demand for various products and services would lead to the indirect creation of even more jobs and other downstream benefits for artisans, factory workers, drivers, caterers and so on. To cite just two examples: thanks to the trend set by the Aam Aadmi topi( cap) every major political party has now come out with its own version( and shade) of the Gandhi cap and a whole new industry has sprung up in the bylanes of Delhi, Kanpur and Bhopal churning out millions of these caps. The demand for( and prices of) brooms has gone up since Kejriwal took them to his bosom benefiting ultimately the poor village women who collect the material for them. Even the thousand rupee note given to the slum family in exchange for its votes is a productive use of black money.
   Elections, through the instrument of black money, achieve what most govt. policies have failed to do for the last fifty years- the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the not so well off. As long as the lucre was kept locked up it belonged to a fat cat, untaxed and unutilised. Its use in an election immediately transfers it to the working classes, without any protests from any one, or litigation: its a win-win situation because it is also the Holy Grail of all economic planning. Forget the legality of the matter, forget the Code of Conduct which is our own version of the Ten Commandments( and just as effective), and look at just the economics and you might just begin to agree with me. As Amar Singh said to Jayaprada: " If you can't beat 'em- join 'em!"
  PS--- Is it time to request the Election Commission to ban the use of White Money in elections?

Saturday, 15 March 2014


     Just about every medium of communication these days- television, print, hoardings, social media, even the " chai pe charcha"- is dominated by politics, to the point where even our dreams now are of Kejriwal on a dharna or Modi on a white horse. Now, politics is important but I draw an Obama type red line when it excites my wife more than my ardent come-hithers, when she would rather watch Arnab Goswami"s Prime Time than ladle out the soup, when even the aging mastiff shows his preference for the Aam Aadmi party by barking fondly every time Kejriwal and his muffler appear on TV. Surely( the Bard would have no doubt shrewdly observed) there are more things in heaven and earth than are thought of by Rajnath Singh and Sitaram Yechury? So I've decided to make a weekly foray into other, unrelated issues that should concern us just as much and which should also be discussed. You may not be any wiser after reading this but you will be well on your way to developing the rounded personality that took us into the IAS once upon a time but will now get you arrested at India Gate.
                                 THE  DOWNSIDE  OF  POLITICAL  CORRECTNESS.
    The SMS went something like this:
Question: Why do women find Jewish men irresistible?
Answer:  Because they can't resist anything with 20% off!
Its a joke, right? Wrong. In today's India this attempt at humour is sexist, racist, communal and a public obscenity. Reciting it can get you dismissed from your job, mauled by Arnab Goswami and his panelists, condemned by Kavitha Krishnamurthi and HER panelists, sent to jail for a few years, disqualified from contesting elections: it may even cause a diplomatic uproar. In this tower of Babel that is India today there exist a myriad lunatic fringe groups that claim to represent some community or the other: desperate for their five minutes of glory on TV they latch on to any statement, dissect it under the microscope and hey presto! discover the gene that denigrates a community, a sex( there are more than two, you know, though the Supreme Court has yet to realise this). a religion, an occupation. The script thereafter is predictable: street agitations, panel discussions on TV, NGO spokespersons frothing at the mouth, intimidated governments passing legislations more appropriate to the Dark Ages. Whatever happened to our sense of humour? Our appreciation for beauty? Our longing for romance? ( There are in fact many more dimensions to political correctness but I shall concentrate on just two- humour and romance).
   The greatest truths are the most simple ones. Someone once said that the secret of happiness lies in having a sense of humour and a dirty mind. Both are forbidden by law today. The essence of humour lies in laughing at, or with, someone including oneself, without giving offence. Most of the civilised world does this-on Prime Time! In the USA their Presidents are the biggest butts of jokes, as are British Prime Ministers. Remember that gag about Margaret Thatcher when she was at the height of her power- that if she did to her husband what she was doing to the country then at least there would be one happy man in the UK!?( In this country the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, no less, warns the media to show more respect for the Prime Minister). Certain communities have had their legs pulled for centuries- the Irish, the Cockney, the Hillbilly in America, even the Sikhs in India personified by Santa and Banta. ( It is no coincidence that all the three communities referred to are among the most resilient and loveable in the world- after all, singling someone out for mention is also a sign of respect. Genuine humour does not defile the person or object of the joke, it brings that person closer to you). Today in India it requires genuine courage to publish a joke about Santa and Banta. Chances are that if the SGPC doesn't get you the DSGMC will, or the Akal Takht or the Akali Dal- all with the sanction of law. A degree of sexual nuancing is very much integral to humour, too, for after all sex is the primordial force that drives all living beings and is in fact responsible for all great literature- how then can it escape the gaze of the comic? Genuine humour is completely eclectic, secular and egalitarian-it holds nothing sacred, not even religion. ( I recently viewed a Jay Leno show where he rummages around in his desk to see what's been lying there for years. One of the objects he finds is a ladies' thong with a picture of Christ in front with the words: " What would Christ do?"! The audience( all Christians, presumably) had a good laugh. Can you imagine what would have happened if it had been a Hindu or Muslim god on that thong? Yes, we would have had a good riot or two followed by some stupid legislation.                                         What has happened to the sense of humour in this country? When will we realise that humour has no agenda except to tell its audience or reader not to take life too seriously ? Humour  assumes a maturity on the latter's part to get its true message across. And that precisely is the problem in this country: we take ourselves too seriously and are therefore quick to take offence. When Sashi Tharoor refers to travel by " cattle class" we demand his resignation. When Kumar Vishwas refers to the colour of Kerala nurses we demand a public apology. When Mandira Bedi wears a saree with the tricolour on it we want her to be jailed. When Farooq Abdullah jokes that men are now afraid of having women secretaries we denounce him as being sexist.
    The entire cosmos of love and romance is equally threatened by this tsunami of righteous political correctness. Love is not merely consensual sex behind closed doors- in fact, that is rarely love. Love embraces a whole spectrum of nuanced actions and cues- the covert look, the hesitant speech, the tremulous epistle, the trembling touch, the hopeful pursuit. Women's organisations and a hysterical press have ensured that all these beautiful components of love-glorified and immortalised over the ages-are now illegal: each and every one of these can now send you to jail for they have all become variations of Rape! A Romeo serenading Juliet below her balcony would now be charged with sexual harassment, Rhett Butler would be guilty of rape because he had sex with Scarlett o"Hara by holding out false promises, Helen( of Troy, not Bollywood, fame) would no doubt be entitled to register an FIR against the poet who praised her beauty as " the face that launched a thousand ships" since the remarks are personal in nature and violate her sense of privacy. How will future generations of amorous youngsters woo girls, how will the passions of romance play out, what will happen to that oldest of literary legacies-the love letter and the love song? The expression of love today has been criminalised because of some cruelly distorted idea of what is politically correct; the finer senses have been taken over by the coarse instincts of the fringe groups-including women's groups and social activists- who are becoming more Orwellian every day and dictating to society at large what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Granted that the original intention-of preventing assaults on women- was bona fide. But it hasn't worked: the number of such assaults has not gone down, the time it takes to punish offenders is just as long drawn out, the rate of convictions is just as abysmal. Shouldn't we then roll back these misplaced nostrums and follow the real trail of police and judicial reforms? For what we have done so far is to not only throw the baby out with the bathwater- we've thrown out the ruddy tub itself!
    No humour, no love, no romance-what are we reducing our society to? It would do well to remember- man does not live by law alone.