Thursday, 18 May 2017

HORSES FOR COURSES .

  Horses and the IAS have never been on the same page or the same paddock, as it were. Their relationship is somewhat like that of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un: wary apprehension on the one side and undisguised contempt on the other. Until the 1980's horse riding was compulsory for all IAS probationers incarcerated in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, and if they failed in this activity they would remain Deputy Secretaries for life, with no parole. The " raison d'etre" for imposing such a vigorous activity on people whose greatest physical exertion in later years would comprise of nothing more than bending over backwards ( the                   "sir-namaskar aasan") or brushing files under the carpet, was aptly summed up by Mrs. Indira Gandhi when some stout probationers represented to her that the sport should be made optional. She is reported to have said: " An officer who cannot control a horse cannot control a crowd."
   And so, since no one, not even a pedigreed mule from Rohtak, argued with Mrs. Gandhi, uncounted generations of probationers were condemned to throbbing posteriors, cracked skulls and hyphenated legs which would have made any Shakespearean buff cry out in delight- " Yonder cometh a bloke in parenthesis !" We also acquired a healthy respect for these formidable quadrupeds, standing six feet at the fetters, loaned to the Academy by the Indian Military Academy or the Army Remount Corps and retaining all the contempt which the Army has for bureaucrats, even the budding ones. Riding became the biggest obsession in the Academy, second only to the urgent need to identify potential spouses from those states where one wanted an allotment but had not succeeded. In the process it threw up a whole collage of personalities, incidents and tales that we can now look back on with amusement, confident in the knowledge that our days of crowd and horse control are now well behind us.
  Take, for instance, Hazari Singh a retired Army Havildar, half dragon and half bear trap, our riding instructor. His avowed mission in life was to demonstrate that IAS probationers were the lowest form of invertebrates, and that it was a pure aberration in the Darwinian law of Natural Selection that such genetic mutants should be astride an animal as splendid as a horse. He lost no opportunity to constantly reaffirm this to us. If someone handled a horse roughly Hazari Singh would let out a roar in a voice that could be heard in Dehra Doon: " Aaram se, saar, that is an expensive animal, not some cheap trash selected by the UPSC!"
  For the smart alecks amongst us he had a trick up his sleeve: an eight year old, midnight black mare named Jaya whose memory, even today, induces incontinence among hard boiled Collectors and deep fried Secretaries. If Hazari Singh perceived any one of us to be a bigger streptococcus than normal, that lost soul was ordered to mount Jaya. Thereafter that poor sod was like clay, and Jaya the potter: she could ( with Hazari Singh's fond blessings, of course) do anything with him as she pleased, for she had a mind that was immutable, even by the standards of the female of the species. Madhavan mounted Jaya one day- and disappeared for two whole days! Even today, well into his dotage, he becomes incoherent when asked where Jaya had taken him.
  Varun Maira, who possessed a remarkable resemblance to a sack of potatoes, was once ordered to do a three feet jump on Jaya. The lady preferred carrots to potatoes, and at the last possible moment when Varun, like a lumbering 747 had committed himself to take-off, Jaya stopped! Varun continued over the jump in a perfect parabola, sans Jaya, and landed heavily on his head. Any apprehensions of a possible brain injury were dispelled by a smirking Hazari Singh: " No problem, saab, there is nothing inside that head that can be damaged!" He proved to be extremely prescient, I must admit, for Varun's subsequent career graph has been impressive- he retired as Chief Secretary, a post in which, as we all know, brains are considered to be a liability!
  About that time I had, with great difficulty, persuaded a comely female in Lucknow to agree to marry me. It was touch and go and therefore it was incumbent upon me to go to Lucknow every couple of months to ensure that she didn't change her mind. It was not easy to get leave unless one obtained a medical certificate from the Doc. On one such occasion I showed the Doc some bruises and cuts on my knee and asked for three days' leave over the weekend. " How did you get these ?" inquired the Doctor.
  I had acquired them while trying to scale the wall of the Ladies' Block the previous night but honesty was certainly not the best policy at the moment. " I fell off a horse, sir," I replied, in the tone of that stupid English King who lost his kingdom for doing something similar.
  " Ah !" said the medico with a glint in his eye, " the riding ground is swarming with germs ( I don't think he meant us probationers). You should immediately have three tetanus shots over the next three days. No leave, I'm afraid, can't take a chance." In those primeval days AT shots were given on the posterior, with a needle as thick as an RSS lathi, and so I spent the weekend lying on my stomach. Fortunately, my fiancee didn't change her mind, though now she wishes she had.
  And finally, there was George Mehra. He was straight out of a Zane Grey western, always with a cigar stuck in his mouth, and when he walked past you one could distinctly hear the testosterone sloshing around inside him. George was/is a satyr- half horse and half man- and loved riding: he was the only one among us who was on first name terms with Jaya. He spent eighteen hours a day in the saddle, even taking short naps there. Hazari Singh gave him the supreme compliment by announcing that he was a mis-fit in the IAS! For once, though, he was wrong. In later years George was to become famous when, as Collector of a notorious district, he personally beat up a politician on a main road for passing comments about his wife. Nobody tangled with him for the next thirty years after that . Maybe Mrs. Gandhi was right, after all ?

Friday, 12 May 2017

LESSONS FROM A JUDICIAL DEADLOCK

                                             

   The face-off between Justice Karnan and the Supreme Court has rapidly deteriorated from a Punch and Judy show to a Three Stooges burlesque with juridical invectives and challenges being hurled about with gay abandon by both sides. There has been very little public discussion of this, presumably because this needless drama is perhaps seen as an internal matter of the higher judiciary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The judiciary is the one remaining key-stone of our sorry democracy, when all the other three pillars have begun to crumble, and therefore the citizens have a right to involve themselves in this theatre of the absurd for two reasons. One, the likes of Justice Karnan hold, literally, the power of life and death over us and their behaviour, conduct and mental equilibrium concerns all of us. Second, in the absence of any other checks and balances on superior court judges, the Supreme Court’s ability or will to rein in a maverick judge has to become a subject of scrutiny by the nation. The question has to be asked: After all, how safe is the average citizen from a judge who has been defying the highest court of the land for months now, a judge who has ordered the registration of cases, seizure of passports and even imposed prison sentences on no less than seven Supreme Court justices ? The SC has now sentenced him to six months in jail for contempt but the unspoken question that haunts many of us- is Justice Karnan a one-of-a-kind aberration or are there more of his like embedded in the system?
   This unfolding drama, it has to be admitted, is partly the result of the judiciary’s own hubris and over-reach. The Constitution provides adequate safeguards to preserve the independence of the judiciary, but over time the Courts have added more layers of protection, to a point where the judges today have become almost divine entities. They are accountable to no one but themselves, they cannot be questioned, they appoint themselves, they are immune from any prosecution or investigation unless they themselves approve it, they are immutable and inviolate. The Contempt of Courts Act provides the final coating of teflon which the public or the media can penetrate only at their own peril. They have conferred on themselves almost a supernal status, and this has now boomeranged on them and come back to haunt them. It is precisely this celestial immunity which Justice Karnan has been using to cock a snook at the Supreme Court, trading arrest warrant for arrest warrant, medical examination for medical examination, passport for passport ! And, at least for now, the Supreme Court has been unable to find a way out of this “ chakravyuh”.
    This is not the first time that a superior court judge has gone wayward. In the past too there have been charges made and questions asked, the details of which it would be prudent not to elaborate here. But I do not recollect any tangible or substantive action being taken in any of those cases. There has recently been the case of retired Justice Katju, in which fortunately a way out was found by his tendering an apology. But these instances only  reinforce the feeling and aura of invulnerability among them, making them, literally, a law unto themselves. All the required ingredients were in place and Justice Karnan was simply waiting to happen, as inevitably as the being created by Dr. Frankenstein when the potion was just right.
   The dilemma the Supreme Court has found itself in is a constitutional one. A superior court judge can only be removed by impeachment by Parliament. This was tried once but was aborted: a fractured Parliament, riven by caste, regional and political rifts will always ensure that this clause can never be implemented.The Supreme Court 0stensibly has found a way out of this imbroglio by sentencing Justice Karnan to imprisonment for six months for contempt. But since he retires next month this amounts to his removal, and questions have already been raised by  many legal authorities whether this is unconstitutional. Knotty legal questions still remain: removal from service usually entails forfeiture of pension in government- will he be entitled to a pension now when he retires? Will he be disqualified in future from any service under the government ? Is the SC order in conflict with the constitutional provisions ? How robust and objective is the collegium system of appointment if it selects judges who show scant respect for even the Supreme Court? Will Justice Karnan now play the Dalit card and create further rifts within the judiciary itself? I have a feeling we have not heard the last on this matter.Justice Karnan has already moved a petition asking the SC to recall the order for his arrest, and the Court has agreed to hear it. In all probability a via media will be manufactured, the errant judge will be allowed to retire( perhaps prematurely to avoid more of his broadsides) and all will be well in Camelot again- till the next Justice Karnan surfaces somewhere else. It is time to address the real malaise and not just apply a band-aid.
  I am reminded of a mythological tale I heard in the remote Sainj valley of Kullu district in Himachal during one of my treks many years ago. Many centuries ago( so the local legend goes) the valley was ruled by a giant “ rakshas” known as Rakti Beej. He had been given a “ vardan” by the Gods that he could not be killed, for every time a drop of his blood fell on the ground a new Rakti Beej would sprout from it. Secure in his invulnerability, Rakti Beej set about killing all the Gods one by one! Finally, they appealed to MahaKali to save them. She grabbed Rakti Beej with two of her hands, cut his throat with the other, and collected the falling blood in a cup with the fourth, preventing it from falling on the ground. Thus was Rakti Beej finally defeated. Absolute power can be a double-edged sword, as even the Gods discovered !
    Unfortunate as this episode is, it presents us with an opportunity to devise a process by which judges who cross the line can be eased out of service without nuking the system. In most well administered countries moral pressure and the force of public opinion itself are enough to make a delinquent judge quit on his own. In recent times Lord Dennings, a British judge, stepped down after charges of racism were made against him. This, however, is unlikely to happen in India for two reasons: first, public criticism of a judge is stifled by the laws of contempt and hence the force of public opinion is missing, and secondly, we as a nation have no sense of moral responsibility. Therefore, we need to invent a  system to ensure that this type of situation never recurs, and that there must be a way to remove recalcitrant judges other than by way of impeachment alone. We need to revisit, for example, the Judges Inquiry Bill ( 2006) which proposed a committee of judges to enquire into cases of judicial misconduct. Parliament torpedoed this Bill on the ground that judges cannot be a judge in their own cause. So how about adding a couple of non-judge legal luminaries to this committee ? Surely this is not an unsurmountable impediment ? But for this to happen the judiciary must acknowledge that too much protectionism is not healthy for its own body fabric. It must accept that judges too are mortal and not infallible and that when they err gravely there must be a process to discipline them and remove them from service without having to invoke the brahmashastra of impeachment. The judiciary cannot evolve such an alternative system by itself- it must come down to ground and sit with the Executive to find the solution. And it must accept that too much power ultimately self- destructs, and takes all with it.






Friday, 5 May 2017

CLUELESS BBC LOCKS HORNS WITH RHINOS

        [This piece was published on the op-ed page of the New Indian Express on 3.5.2017]

   Britain exterminated all its wildlife a hundred years ago, it still slaughters six million pheasants every year for “Sport”, and its last remaining carnivore( if you can call it that), the fox, will be doing its own Brexit within a decade. So its a bit rich for the BBC to be advising us on how to conserve wild-life, which is what it has had the gall to do in a recent documentary, KILLING FOR CONSERVATION, a short film ostensibly about efforts to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga. Strangely, though, in this 20 minute misrepresentation the reporter ( Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s South Asia correspondent) completely upends the focus- from wildlife conservation to a flawed view of human rights! Short on facts and woefully lacking in perspective or understanding of what wildlife conservation entails, he is outraged by the killing of poachers ( he terms them “extra judicial executions!”), the eviction of illegal settlers from within the Kaziranga National Park( KNP) and alleged tortures for which he has no shred of evidence. To me he appears to be a bit schizophrenic, for while acknowledging that “ man is the most vicious predator” and that Kaziranga “ is an incredible story of conservation success”, he still goes on to find fault for just about everything the Park authorities do, and condemns them ( and the WWF, for good measure!) for their success.
   Lets just recapitulate the context here. Kaziranga National Park is vast, 900 sq. kms of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain, of which 228 sq. kms has been exclusively set aside for the protection of the Greater One Horned Rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros Unicornis), the horn of which fetches upto Rupees twenty million in China. Two thirds of the world’s population of these rhinos are in Kaziranga. The efforts of the KNP constitute one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world: the rhino population has doubled in the last 22 years- from an alarming 1164 in 1993 to 2401 in 2015. But the poaching has not stopped- 151 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years, 89 in just four years between 2013 and 2016, something which Mr. Rowlatt was not bothered to find out. In fact, there has been a sharp spike in poaching in these years, which cannot but be a cause for concern.
  The BBC, in the throes of liberal humanism, castigates the KNP management for arming its forest guards and for permitting them to shoot at poachers within the Park boundaries. The documentary makes no mention of the fact that poachers are armed with AK-47 rifles or that insurgents of outlawed factions have also taken to poaching the rhinos for the enormous sums that can accrue to them. ( Ironically, the BBC itself covered another story recently to show how money from drugs and wildlife poaching follow the same trail to fund terrorism !).
  Yes, 55 poachers have been killed inside the Park in the last four years- that is the price you pay for breaking the law, and that is the price the nation extracts for protecting one of our most valuable natural heritages. The documented study of major parks in Africa has established that poaching has considerably declined in areas where forest staff were armed and authorised to “ shoot to kill”. Any genuine lover of nature would be happy that the Assam govt. has had the decisiveness to so empower its forest staff. The BBC film stresses, again without any solid proof other than statements of a few relatives of those killed, that innocent local villagers often stray within the Park boundaries and are shot. This is dishonest reporting. In the first place, the Park’s boundaries are defined and well known to the locals- there is no question of their “ straying” into it. Secondly, why should an innocent person go into the park at night, which is when most of the encounters have taken place ? And finally, according to the Park’s Director, only 4 of the 55 poachers killed since 2013 were local villagers- all the others were outsiders, clinching proof that they were there for the money and had no business to be there.
  The same lack of diligence and journalistic ethics is on display when the BBC reporter highlights the eviction of families from within the Park boundaries by force. He does not mention that all due legal processes were followed and that a large number of these families were illegal squatters ( an endemic problem in Assam) with no rights to the land. The reporter is wrong when he portrays the evictions as illegal, but I agree that the displacement could have been handled differently, with better planning and vision. Experience has shown that Conservation/ Protected Areas succeed in their objective only if the local ( especially displaced) villagers are co-opted into the effort. There is an inevitable loss of livelihoods and usufruct rights when such Areas are notified and governments must have proper plans in place for their rehabilitation. A stellar example of this is the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014. The affected villagers here were given training and financial help in eco-tourism, handicrafts, vermi-composting, raising nurseries for medicinal plants, and provided sale outlets. They now derive gainful employment and incomes from the tourists/ trekkers that the GHNP attracts in ever-increasing numbers. They have now developed a vested interest in preserving the Park’s bio-diversity and natural uniqueness and have become stakeholders. This is the way for the Kaziranga authorities to go. Do not relinquish the gun, but don’t depend on it exclusively.
   The BBC documentary is irresponsible and misleading journalism, but so is the Govt’s reaction to it. It has blacklisted the reporter and barred him from entry to any of our Protected Areas. It has also sought to revoke his visa. This is not only overkill but also censorship. The battle of ideas should not be fought in passport offices or with bans but with facts, full disclosures and counter points. It does not behove the govt. to be churlish or bear a grudge- this puts it on the backfoot and makes it appear defensive. Kaziranga is doing a fine job of protecting one of our natural icons and one ill informed reporter with a bias should not detract it from its course.


Friday, 28 April 2017

A BRIEF GUIDE TO OFFICIAL DINNERS.


                      

The IAS, unlike its progenitor the ICS, will bequeath few memories other than those of Chief Secretaries getting raided for disproportionate assets or being voted the most corrupt by their own colleagues. But as the service now heads for an inevitable merger with either the Vivekananda Foundation or the Observer Research Group, it is heartening to note that it will leave behind at least one innovative institution—the Official Dinner ( or OD). There are two major practitioners of the OD: the Army and the IAS. The former has an advantage in the matter of finding funds ( and reasons) for justifying ODs, because it can debit all expenses to Raising Days, Regimental Days and Shobha Deys, but the IAS has to be more inventive because it is under the ever watchful gaze of some whistleblower or CAG just waiting to ambush them with a book titled THE ACCIDENTAL INVITEE or NOT JUST A DINER-THE DIARY OF  A NATION’S AUTONOMOUS GOURMET. It is for this reason that the IAS is given a higher payscale than the Armed Forces: explaining the loss of a dozen tandoori chickens from the pantry of Hotel Holiday Home requires far more management skills than accounting for a dozen missing jawans on the LOC.
Recruits to the IAS are initiated into the arcane ritual of the OD in the Academy at Mussoorie. Its presiding capo di tuti capi ( or Director) hosts mock ODs frequently where the basics are spliced into their DNA. I still remember two of them: one, “ never open your mouth till the food is near it”, which perhaps explains why the IAS is so reluctant to open its collective mouth and speak out. The second rule stipulated that one should never speak ACROSS the table, but only to the persons on either side, even if the guy on the left happened to be a carbuncle from the IFS or the bloke on the right a blister from the IPS, and one was desperate to chat up the lady across the table with a view to marrying her because she had been allotted one’s home state ( UP, in most cases) while said one was exiled for life to Nagaland. We were also taught the difference between a butter knife and a fish knife ( the former for marinating one’s political bosses and the latter for gutting colleagues), between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon ( the former for raking it in and the latter for being politically correct). The uses of the versatile “chamcha” is something we discovered for ourselves later, and adopted as the most valuable of all cutlery. The most draconian rule was that when the Director stopped eating and put down his knife and fork, everyone stopped eating too. Since the Director, as befitted a Godfather, was the first to be served and the 400th probationer served about 20 minutes later, by the time the former finished masticating about 200 of us had not even sniffed the soup. This accounts for the fact that the IAS is always first in line at the feeding trough: it’s a hard lesson learnt well.
   Since the IAS controls 600 districts, 100 Ministries and a few thousand programmes, finding a reason for throwing an OD is never a problem. There are a few, however, that deserve special mention:
THE PSU( PUBLIC SECTOR UNDERTAKING) DINNER: held after every Board meeting, it is meant to console the officers for the huge losses they have notched up. Intended to occupy the commanding heights of our economy, our PSUs were dislodged from there even quicker than the Pak soldiers from the heights of Kargil. Now in the valley of death their officers will not go, however, without a fight- sorry, bite- hence the dinners, slotted under “ Any other item” in the agenda.
THE EAP ( EXTERNALLY AIDED PROJECT) DINNER: EAPs are a kind of international CSR where other countries give us moneys as aid, and then take them back through consultancies, technology transfer and equipment. We are usually left with only enough money to host a dinner every quarter, on which we spend every remaining dime lest they take that back too.
THE CENTRAL TEAM DINNER: when Secretaries in Govt. of India can no longer stand their wives’ cooking they usually take off to a state to “ review progress” on various schemes. The review consists of visits to temples, golf resorts, shopping on the Mall and a seven course dinner at night. The strong batch- mate network and an innovative menu ensures glowing reports for the state govt.
THE FAREWELL DINNER: modelled on the Last Supper, it is given for senior officers who are about to kick the waste-bin- i.e., retire. It even has a Judas in attendance- the guy who is hoping to succeed the retiree. There is, however, a notable departure from the Biblical allusion: whereas Christ went on to a glorious crucifixion and rose again on the seventh day, the IAS worthy rises again the very next day, reemployed in some Commission or Tribunal. The farewell dinner is usually organised by Judas himself to ensure that the retiring potentate is artfully estopped from coming back into the service. It is not surprising, therefore, that on occasion officers have to be brought screaming and shouting to their farewell dinners. In my case the Chief Secretary had to send a bulldozer to ensure my presence ( actually, the roads were snowed in, but I have a sneaking suspicion the CS was covering all contingencies!).
THE RAJ BHAVAN DINNER: no IAS officer ever wants to attend one of these ghastly death-watches, but an invitation from the Governor is actually an order. We go to such dinners half choked by “ bandh galla” coats originally tailored in the Academy when we were chinless wonders, now wrapped around Adam’s apples of the extra large variety which would have shocked both Eve and the serpent. These dinners are solemn, if not funereal, affairs; the victuals are really quite good though the only spirit in attendance is one of nationalism. Ministers bump into senior bureaucrats, the Governor bumps into the furniture and everybody escapes as soon as he can after the national anthem has been played for the third time.
   All ODs share two traits. One, there has to be a Chief Guest, who is generally a senior Minister or the Chief Secretary: although having one dampens the evening, it is a tactical necessity to ensure that Finance doesn’t object to the bill when presented. The Chief Guest ( at least in Himachal, which I haunted like Banquo’s ghost for 35 years) just HAS to wear either a maroon ( BJP) or green ( Congress) Himachali cap, depending on which party is in power. The smarter ones have now started investing in Aam Aadmi caps, just in case.
   Second, and this is something Mr. Vinod Rai may like to look into when he has time from his six current assignments, is a peculiar feature in all OD bills: the number of chickens consumed ! The per capita average is two, which appears high even if we factor in the disappearance of all other shades of meats post Yogi Adityanath. Are IAS chaps such solid trenchermen, what with their selection grade ulcers and apex scale haemorrhoids ? Not really. The answer lies in the fact that since all liquor is impermissible at govt. dinners, and cannot be so billed, therefore this Hippocrene beverage is billed as chickens ! A peg of single malt is worth a whole chicken, a scotch two legs, a shot of rum is equivalent to a wing, a glass of wine equals a breast ( its for the ladies, see) and so on. Quite ingenious, and definitely deserving of the two additional increments the IAS gets over its peers. And this  also provides the answer to that much asked question: Why did the pair of chickens cross the road? Answer: they didn’t want to become a single malt !

   Now that I live on a pension and am unable to cross that road too often I generally make do with KFC chicken nuggets.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

RETURN OF THE " ANIMAL SPIRITS" .

  Most folks would recollect that a few years back Dr. Manmohan Singh, while addressing a gaggle of industrialists, had bemoaned the fact that India lacked entrepreneurship, and that what it needed was an infusion of the " animal spirit." Well, he must be a happy man now, because our polity is now flooded with animals- fish, fowl and mammals- like never before. Anyone scanning the morning paper could be excused for thinking that we are more a menagerie than a nation. Never have animals dominated the national discourse as they do today.
  It all started, you will remember, with the Supreme Court dubbing the CBI as a caged parrot. This did surprise some of us better travelled lot, because to us the CBI resembles more the trained falcon, cowper and all, on the wrist of its master rather than the parrot, which is known to have a mind ( and vocabulary) of its own. But the SC was proved right, perhaps in a manner not intended by it. The last two Directors of the CBI are now being investigated for wrong doings and may soon become " caged parrots" in Tihar. Maybe the Court knew a thing or two we didn't ?
  Barely had the parrots taken to the skies when the buffalo appeared. One fine morning the sturdy buffaloes of Mr. Azam Khan, one of the then 3.5 Chief Ministers of UP, decided to take a walk and disappeared. This resulted in the greatest mobilisation of the uniformed forces since Kargil and the national media was agog with theories: had they defected to the BSP ? Had they become Tundey Kabab in Lucknow? Was this a case of kidnapping or simple police napping ? Fortunately the bovines returned on their own ( this was before the hey days of " ghar wapasi" ) in a couple of days, Azam Khan took a deep puff of his chillum, and the UP police went back to their daily ritual of extorting money and locking up innocent folks.
  Soon after, a lady in Madya Pradesh complained to the police that a parrot in her neighbourhood had outraged her modesty by passing lewd remarks at her. Bound by an earlier Supreme Court order that the police just HAVE TO register an FIR if a complaint is made to them, the police ( who, as we all know, are scrupulously law abiding) immediately arrested the parrot and took it to the police station for interrogation. This particular avian, however, apparently was better versed in the laws than most lawyers in UP: it insisted on the right to be silent, and gave nothing away. No cuss words. No four letter words. It simply whistled- a gender neutral whistle. By the evening the police had to release the bird for want of evidence.
   Something similar happened with the black Labrador dog of Mr. Somnath Bharti, the AAP Minister in Delhi, a few months later. His wife ( Bharti's, not the dog's) alleged that the dog had bitten her on the former's explicit command. Attended by a thousand TV cameras, both the dog and Bharti were taken to the police station where he ( the dog, not Bharti) was repeatedly ordered to bite the junior most constable there. Now, as all of us who have had the privilege of consorting with Labradors know, this breed is incapable of biting; they just love everybody, even policemen, and so this particular specimen simply kept wagging its tail. The cops finally concluded that the dog was innocent and that it was more likely that the wife had been bitten by Bharti. But since the denture marks did not match, they also had to let the Minister go. The Lieutenant Governor was not happy at this instance of the tail wagging the dog, since his instructions were to put Bharti in the dog-house, but it all ended up with the dog in the Bharti-house !
  Next came the unfortunate episode about that poor police stallion, Shaktiman, in Dehra Doon. This noble beast was battered by a BJP troglodyte MLA and ultimately died. As expected, no action was taken against the real beast, the MLA, and the discourse shifted to the question: should horses be used by the police to control crowds in a democratic country ? Never mind that we routinely kill a few thousand every year in police actions. But the real answer to this question had been provided by Mrs. Gandhi many years ago,when a bunch of IAS probationers complained to her that horse riding should not be a compulsory activity in the Academy at Mussoorie. Mrs. Gandhi famously refused with the words: " If you can't control a horse, how will you control a crowd ?" Maybe the Lok Sabha Speaker should be imparted a few lessons in horse riding ?
   Enter the bull. Till a few years ago the perceived wisdom was that the good burghers of Tamil Nadu worshiped only three things in life: Jayalalitha, lotteries and film stars. Jallikattu proved us all wrong. The depth of passion displayed by the state for the Bull for more than a month had us all riveted to our idiot boxes and almost resulted in a constitutional crisis. This bull in the china(mma) shop has finally established itself as the Holy Cow in Tamil Nadu.
   The rhesus monkeys of Shimla then made a brief appearance in the headlines. They've been there since the times of Kipling but now out-number the tourists from Karol Bagh and Kotkapura. It is reported that they've even started attending Cabinet meetings!Though the state govt. has denied this canard, some recent decisions of the Cabinet ( like granting unemployment allowance when there is no money for salaries) do indicate a simian footprint. There was an outrage when the apes were declared vermin but I'm sure there's no real cause for concern: very soon, the Gau Rakshaks will float a subsidiary- perhaps the Vannar Sena- to protect them and thereafter the monkeys can continue to contribute to policy decisions in this idyllic state.
   The UP elections saw the humble, inoffensive donkey emerge on the national stage, being equated with Gujarat politicians by Akhilesh Yadav. Apart from the fact that the donkeys had every right to take umbrage at being compared to politicians, Mr. Yadav was zoologically incorrect too: what he called donkeys are actually wild asses of the Rann of Kutch- a distinct and endangered breed, which hopefully will continue to survive without the help of our politicians or Amitabh Bacchan. But the reference to them did elevate our political discourse to new levels. 
   There is one animal, however, which completely overshadows all others in this circus: the Cow. It has become the symbol of nationalism, Hinduism, Hindutva, patriotism, tradition and Indian-ness. Ironically, this docile, compassionate animal has somehow also become the cause of much violence in its name ! Parliament has spent more time debating the cow than the GST, the Budget or Kashmir. It has won BJP the UP elections, and we are all now waiting with bated breath to find out whether UP will now be cast in the image of Mr. Modi, Yogi Adityanath or the Cow.
   So, as you can see, animal spirits are in full flow in digital India. The only quadruped missing from this list so far is the pig, but perhaps that's because they are so much like us. Churchill was quick to figure this out when he said: " I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."
  Are we becoming an Animal Farm ? The Gaikwad episode would certainly indicate so, in more ways than one.  

Saturday, 8 April 2017

STOP LEGITIMIZING VIGILANTISM AND CULTURAL CLEANSING

   Dadri is back with us. Earlier this week a group of "gau rakshaks" stopped a truck carrying cows in Alwar ( Rajasthan), beat up the occupants and killed one of them. The police registered a case against the Muslims for cow smuggling and arrested all of them. Only a case of " man-handling" was lodged against the killers and none arrested. The Home Minister of Rajasthan defended the vigilantes and said they were needed to curb crimes against the cow! A Union Minister even denied the incident in Parliament ! It was only after a national outrage that the police registered a case of murder and. It now emerges in the media that the cows were not being smuggled at all- the truck had the necessary permit from the administration to transport the cows! Meanwhile, the count for people killed by gau rakshaks has gone up to ten. Gau raksha is big extortion business now, as a sting by Srinivas Jain of NDTV some time back showed. Cows are seized on roads and markets and released only on payment of ransom disguised as " service charges."
   This is not an isolated case, but one that keeps repeating itself in practically all ( mainly) BJP ruled states over the last couple of years. Nothing ever happens to these vigilante goons who are vociferously defended by Ministers and senior BJP functionaries. The police is thoroughly compromised if not complicit. The frenzy is maintained by deliberately provocative measures such as amending laws to provide for life sentences for cow slaughter, or by Chief Ministers publicly stating that those who kill cows will be " hung". The ban on illegal slaughter houses in UP has gone completely out of hand: hundreds of meat shops have been forcibly shut, not only by the administration but by " gau rakshaks", some have been burnt( Hathras), and thousands rendered unemployed. Restaurants and hotels serving legal meat have been intimidated into shutting shop, on the ostensible ground of Navratras. Over 500 of them were ordered to close in Gurgaon, right under the nose of the central govt. Shiv Sainiks openly boast on prime time TV how they shut down the shops, but no action is taken against them. The Haryana govt. has just announced that ALL meat ( including eggs) shops shall have to shut on 9th April ( Mahavir Jayanti). This sets the stage for more closures on other Hindu festival days and gives another handle to these bhakts. Cow slaughter has been legally outlawed since 1955, then why this frenzy now ?
   Nor is this distorted and venomous cultural nationalism limited to cows and beef. It is now being extended to the policing of young boys and girls, under the garb of " anti-Romeo squads". An intensification of the Valentine Day bashings by outfits like the Ram Sena, it is now being conferred legitimacy by being made state policy- first in UP ( post Adithyanath) and now being adopted by the police of other BJP states. Even Delhi has announced that it will set up such squads. The result is a repugnant invasion of privacy, police high handedness and corruption, and the emboldening of the same goons: visuals of innocent couples being mercilessly beaten up or dragged to police stations and released after paying bribes are a sickening constant on news shows. And generally it is the couples against whom action is taken, not the ones who harass them.
   The same goondaism, without any force of law, is being displayed on matters relating to singing of the national anthem, films that do not conform to a particular version of history or mythology, any questioning of the strait-jacketed " nationalism" invented by the ideologues of the ruling party, or any " offence", imagined or otherwise, to the Hindu religion. Those who do not toe the line are beaten up. film sets destroyed, police let loose. Most of our corporatised media have been effectively silenced and do not protest beyond depicting a stray incident or two.
  These vigilantes are beginning to resemble the Hitler Youth or Mussolini's Black Shirts, and it is time to worry where we are headed. Over the last two years an environment of intolerance, hatred and anger has been created and lumpen elements are being insidiously encouraged to take the law into their own hands. What cannot be done legally is sought to be implemented through fear and intimidation, with the state machinery generally standing by as silent or complicit spectators. There is no law which prohibits two members of opposite sexes from meeting in a public place, and there cannot be. But to do so today means risking life and limb. There is no law which says that legally acquired buffalo meat or mutton cannot be sold, but to do so in large swathes of the BJP controlled " Hindu heartland" means inviting trouble and worse. There is no law which permits self styled groups to enforce existing or imagined laws- but the police allow them a free run. A way has been found around the laws. The BJP has become adept at speaking in two voices: one in Parliament and one on the streets. There should be a third voice- that of the Prime Minister- but it is never heard except at election rallies.
   Vigilantism draws sustenance from two factors: one, the belief that its own value systems are superior to those of others, and two, the confidence that its practitioners will not be caught or punished. The BJP is providing justification for both, and for the moment it appears to be reaping the benefits. But this is a dangerous game and can quickly get out of hand. Hatred can develop a momentum of its own and, like a fire, feeds on itself. The increasing incidents of assaults on Africans or people from the north-east stem from the same vigilantism: it doesn't matter whether they are racist or not. The point is that they are hate crimes based on contempt for others' culture. When you constantly reiterate that your own culture is the only one that counts, when you show complete intolerance and contempt for what others eat, drink,wear,worship or who they consort with, when you believe that you have the right to use violence to force others to conform- that is cultural, or worse, ethnic vigilantism, whether you practice it against a foreign national or one of your own. The govt. must realise that when it allows an environment of lawlessness to exist to suit its own purpose, sooner or later it will spawn total criminality, and this is happening now on a daily basis. 
   The stand of the BJP was clearly demonstrated through a powerful symbolism last year: when one of the Dadri accused died in jail ( of natural causes) his body was draped in the national flag, he was declared a " martyr", and his funeral was attended by a Union Minster who even donated Rs. 10 lakhs to his family, Perhaps the time has come to remember the poignant words of the Urdu poet:

" Ab kahaan jaoge dhoondne mere katil ko,
  Mere katl ka ilzam mujh par hi daal do."

[ Where will you now go to find my killer,
  Put the blame for my murder on me." ]

Monday, 3 April 2017

DON'T WRITE OFF KEJRIWAL JUST YET.


   [ This piece was published in the New Indian Express on 3/4/2017 ]   

   The knives are out for Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP- if you follow the mainstream ( English), elite media you would believe that he has been wiped out as a political entity. This same media will politely ignore some telling figures released by ADR( Association of Democratic Rights), our own election watchdog: of the 403 newly elected MLAs in UP 322 are crorepatis( multi-millionaires) and 143 have serious criminal cases registered against them ( 107 relate to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women). In the five states that went to elections 75% of the seats were won by one of the top three wealthiest candidates ! These figures are the reason why Kejriwal and AAP will continue to be relevant with the people.
  Yes, he lost Punjab ( and Goa, where he shouldn’t have gone in the first place) but not without a fight: AAP and its ally won 22 seats out of 70 with a vote share of 23.7% . It also came second in 27 seats. It is the principal Opposition in the state. Not a bad showing for a three year old party confronting three mainline parties who between them have more funds than many states do ! The problem with the “ Breaking News” culture is that it expects instant successes , to match the instant solutions it offers every night on its panel discussions. It forgets, for example, that Kejriwal had won just 28 seats in Delhi on his first attempt too. Its ironic that TV channels first build up a hype, and then slaughter you for not living up to it!
   That being said, AAP could have done much better, given the Akali-BJP votes were up for grabs, just as the Congress vote was in Delhi earlier which it hoovered up so spectacularly. Since the Punjab Congress was hanging on to its vote share Kejriwal had to poach on the Akalis, which he failed to do. No judicial commission is needed to find out where he went wrong, the reasons are common knowledge in every “ Shere Punjab” dhaba: excessive back seat driving from Delhi, the expulsion of the man who built up the organisation in Punjab, cosying up with ex-Khalistanis, too many Duterte-like threats of locking up all and sundry, proximity to Panthic elements, the ego clash with the biggest ego east of the Indus, Navjot Singh Sidhu.
   Kejriwal should not now rush off to Bangalore for another bout of naturopathy but should sit in Delhi and accept with all humility that he made mistakes. He should accept that his style of agitational politics has lost its novelty and is becoming repetitive, that his opponents have learnt how to counter it, a strategy which Napoleon knew all about when he famously said: “ You should not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.” He should acknowledge that he needs to create genuinely vibrant state organisations and refrain from micro-managing them. He needs more Yogendra Yadavs and Prashant Bhushans around him, not just Sanjay Singhs and Aashish Khaitans, if he wants the educated middle classes and working youth to support him.
   He should stop attacking Mr. Modi personally: the Prime Minister has a Teflon coating which is impermeable for the moment. Perhaps most important, he should completely overhaul his style and substance of campaigning: he is no longer a revolutionary but a Chief Minister and should observe the responsibility that comes with the post. People tire of negativity very soon and the halo of victimisation fades quickly, What the AAP needs is a booster dose of positivity in its outreach, a vitamin supplement to balance the antibiotic, as it were. And the irony is that Kejriwal has plenty of this, if only he would prescribe it.
   AAP has done exceptional work in Delhi in the areas that matter: universal health care, education, slum improvement, water and power supply. Delhi is the only metro that has had the courage to successfully implement the odd-even car scheme. Its persistent demand for more autonomy to union territories finds resonance with the citizens. Its tenacious stand against corruption is its USP. These are the achievements that Kejriwal needs to take to the people, instead of the disruptionary politics he is being identified with. The strident opposition to demonetisation was a misreading of the people’s pulse; it is unfortunate that he is now following it up with another ridiculous claim that EVMs were tampered with in the recent elections. The misguided promise of waiving off residential property tax in Delhi is a mistake: the voters are wearying of the politics of sops and subsidies.
   With the Congress being rolled back everywhere The AAP has a golden opportunity to occupy the space being vacated by it, it has built up a constituency that cuts across caste and class barriers, its bona fides are not doubted. All that is needed is for it to change its style: of leadership, public engagement and governance. It must also curb its over vaulting ambition to become a national party overnight. It should eschew all state elections till 2019 and concentrate on Delhi and Punjab. In the former it finally has an enlightened and open-minded Lieutenant Governor and therefore the opportunity to deliver all round good governance. If it can win the Municipal elections next month its ability to do so shall be further enhanced. In Punjab it should function as a constructive, not disruptive, opposition. It should quietly go about building its organisational structures in the states where it plans to contest the Parliamentary elections in 2019. The country and its citizens need a party like the AAP, but one which dares to reinvent itself. In 2013 Kejriwal had the courage to make the change from activism to politics. Can he take this leap of faith again ?


Saturday, 1 April 2017

IN PURSUIT OF AN " UNNATURAL " HAPPINESS

   Having assiduously contrived a world of conflict, disease, crime and environmental apocalypse we are now just as assiduously chasing after that will o' the wisp- HAPPINESS. There is now even a World Happiness Report. The report for 2017 places India at no. 122 out of 155 countries ( though I'm sure this did not factor in the national delirium when Yogi Adityanath was appointed the Chief Minister of UP ). We have slipped 4 notches from the previous year, no doubt because of the machinations of foreign-funded NGOs. Interestingly, we are behind even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Iraq. There are no prizes for guessing which are the happiest countries: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland. The principal parameters considered were: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support systems, freedom to make life choices and a sense of how corrupt one's society is.
   Make no mistake- Happiness is now serious business ! There have always been innumerable God-men peddling their " Quality of Life" wares and raking in the moolah, but now even governments are jumping onto this bandwagon. The UAE ( United Arab Emirates) has a Ministry of Happiness. Our very own Madhya Pradesh recently created a Directorate of Happiness. Bhutan does not measure GDP, it measures GDH ( Gross Domesic Happiness) The private sector too is into it in a big way and this is the latest rage in consultancies. The central idea is that happy employees are more productive and make happy customers: a 2013 Gallup poll concluded that unhappy employees cost American companies US$ 500 million in lost productivity. This is even more true of the service sector where there is more interaction between employee and customer. Smart Phone Apps have appeared- Moodscope, Track Your Happiness- that let you ( and your boss!) gauge and monitor your current state of happiness. As the Economist put it in an article recently, " Happiness is becoming an instrument of corporate control." So naturally there are spoilsports emerging from the woodwork, privacy activists who advocate that such monitoring is an invasion of one's privacy. A pointer here for some members of our present ruling dispensation- you can tell us what to eat, speak,wear, think, but you certainly can't ask us what to FEEL !
   On a more serious note, however, why is it that Indians are such an unhappy lot ? I'm sure that there is no paucity of reasons, from livelihood issues to health problems to social tensions, from endemic corruption to rank bad governance.  But if we look at the top " happy" countries and the parameters considered for rankings, we can safely make some conclusions: citizens of a country are happy if they are well governed, looked after by either the family or the state, enjoy good health and live in a stable social order. Unfortunately, none ( or very little) of these conditions exist in India. But there is an even more important underlying, unstated precondition for happiness in today's world: we need to live in harmony with the natural world and environment, to preserve its beauty and uniqueness, for this is the only counter balance to an increasingly urbanised, crowded, stressful, dog-eat-dog world in which we find ourselves. It cannot be a coincidence that the top happy countries mentioned have all taken care to conserve their natural environment even as they have gone about their " development" activities.
   Our lives are dominated by- nay, controlled by- mindless materialism and consumerism which is literally destroying the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth we call home. Our manic obsession with GDP numbers may have cloned a large number of Ambanis and Advanis but it makes for a nation which is becoming less " happy" each year. We are destroying nature on a colossal scale and the depredation of natural assets/ features in the quest for " ease of business" has ensured that the waters in most of our rivers are unfit even for agriculture, let alone for drinking; 67% of urban waste flows directly into our rivers; 50% of the blocks are water stressed; 1.50 million Indians die prematurely of respiratory diseases every year ( including 48000 in Delhi alone, by some estimates);  in just two years, between 2010 and 2012 the list of endangered species in India has doubled: from 190 to 443; the country lost 10.60 million hectares of original forests in the last 14 years, and even as I write this it has been revealed that 5000 deodar trees ( more than two hundred years old) are being felled to widen the road from Uttarkashi to Gangotri ! This is right next to a glacier which has already receded more than a kilometre in the last few years, for God's sake! More than 60 million people ( mainly tribals and the poorest of the poor) have been displaced since Independence to facilitate projects and industry; our cities generate 60 million tonnes of garbage every year but only 30% of that is treated  It is no surprise then that our fall in the Happiness Index closely matches our position in the World Bank Survey of Environmental Quality: India is at no. 155 out of 178 countries.
   Whatever little debate we hear on the subject is about " lifestyle environmentalism" and not about the " livelihood environmentalism" which is what actually impacts on the lives of 80% of our population. The concept of " environmental equity " is yet to arrive in this country. It is the poor who bear the brunt of this devastation of nature in the form of pollution, hygiene, garbage dumping, ambient illnesses, lack of open spaces in urban areas ( in Delhi, the posh South and Central Delhi provide 35 sq. mtr. of open space per capita whereas in the poorer East Delhi it is only 2.73 sq. mtr.). It stands to reason that if the poor cannot be happy, the nation too cannot. And this not just about a vision- less government: it also about us and our insatiable gluttony for everything material.
  We really have no right to be happy. We are distancing ourselves from the healing powers of nature at an alarming rate. It is not just the physical attributes of the natural world which can add more happiness to our lives, but also the values it teaches us; of a simple life, of taking only what we need and not what we crave, of avoiding conflict unless it is a matter of life and death, of forsaking ego, of tailoring consumption to sustainability, of differentiating between pleasure and happiness. The Anthropocene Age is about to bury us in an avalanche of consumption, plastics and packaging. Interestingly, as I was writing this piece I was also reading John Steinbeck's classic travelogue TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE, a fascinating account of his journey through America, and I came across these prescient observations on the consumption mania that had already seized North America in the sixties:
  " American cities are like badger holes ringed with trash...surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.... Waste seems to be the index.....I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness-- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an ( American) Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move."

That was 55 years ago.  

Saturday, 25 March 2017

DELHI BELLY :PRESERVE THE BRIBE AS A HISTORICAL LEGACY !

   We appear to be going through an intense and populist phase of cultural revival these days and this is therefore as good a time as any to put on record my opposition to the efforts by Mr. Modi and his team to eradicate the system of bribes in our two thousand year old country. I see this as an assault on our glorious past and a move that seriously jeopardises our GDP growth rates.
   Bribes have been an integral sub-set of our hoary culture for hundreds of years, a practice which is respected and admired. It has been an indispensable part of  religion. Ours is a transactional religion where we give in order to receive. We regularly bribe our Gods to grant us things- a child, a house, a job,even a contract- which we usually don't deserve either on merit or on sperm count. Our temples are overflowing with gold and cash: Tirumala reportedly has an annual income that exceeds that of even the Vatican. During the recent demonetisation exercise even the government had to turn to these temples to tide them over the cash flow problem. The govt. wants their hoards of gold to buttress the country's bullion reserves.All this wealth is essentially a pay-off to the Gods. Indians are the least philanthrophic of races, but we will even borrow money to "donate" to our temples, for a consideration, of course.
   It would therefore be unrealistic to expect that this urge would be confined only to places of worship, and not be reflected in our daily lives. We accept corruption as a way of life and nothing proves this better than the fact that we keep on electing and re-electing corrupt politicians to office every five years. No stigma ever attaches to them, we treat them as- you guessed it- demi Gods who are entitled to all the lucre they can gather.
  The India of today is a historical consequence of bribes. It was not the Mughal armies that captured our fair country but the strategic distribution of bribes on a colossal scale. The Marathas and Rajputs were vanquished by paying off assorted generals and gate keepers, enabling the Mughal armies to easily capture the great forts of Golconda, Parli, Wardhangarh, Nandgir, Chandan, Allahabad, to name just a few. Dara Shikoh's son was betrayed ( and killed) for a bribe, thus ensuring that Aurangzeb could cement his rule. Even the British conquest of India was facilitated by Robert Clive's bribing Mir Jaffar at Plassey: it took just 3000 British troops and a lot of money to deliver India to the British crown.
   Our ancestors ( peace be upon them) had made bribery a fine art: they recognised that, like all fine art forms, it possessed subtle nuances and therefore categorised them into different types based on occasion and purpose: the nazrana, the shukrana, the mehentana and so on. Some were for specific favours, some for creating generic goodwill, others intended to simply establish the lofty status of the giver. But back then negotiations were conducted with savoir faire and refinement, over a game of chess, " banarsi paan" being served en passant, with even a gyrating tawaif being thrown in for good measure. None of today's vulgarity of Samsonite suitcases, dark  and smoke filled back rooms, or initials in a diary. This is what happens when an art is converted into a science. There is a legend in my family of an ancestor who was organising his daughter's wedding in his mansion when he received news that a gang of dacoits was planning to plunder his house at the same precise time as the wedding. This would have been an intolerable loss of face for the zamindar in front of all his guests. So said forefather summoned the gang leader and offered him a sum of money he could not refuse in return for not raiding his house. All amicably settled with a bribe, and this is the crux of our ancient tradition of bribery: it was not about the money alone, but about status and recognition of one's respective position in society. For them, bribery was like the quality of mercy described so well by Shakespeare: it is not strained, it is twice blessed for it blesses both the giver and the taker !
   Economists, those purveyors of the dismal science who can never agree on anything, typically disagree on this subject too. One group ( the Harvard lot) claim that bribes knock about 2% off our GDP. The others( the Hard Work lot) differ- they are of the view that bribes add to productivity and national wealth. I tend to agree with the latter.  Corruption makes bureaucracies more efficient. Given the lethargy of our govt. machinery and the thicket of laws and regulations that enmesh us, absolutely nothing would get done in this country without pay-offs: no roads or bridges, no passports or driving licences, no industry or trade, no public transport or bank loans, no export or import, no govt. jobs or old age pensions. If we are growing at 7.1% or 7.5% or whatever mythical figure the govt. would like us to believe, it is because of the bribes that grease the wheels of development. Just look at the latest empirical data-- the moment govt. clamped down on black money (the accumulated stock of bribes and wealth generated by bribes) by way of demonetisation our growth rate has fallen, the economy has slowed down and unemployment has shot up ! I believe things will improve by the second quarter of 2017, once the bribes start flowing again. Its not love which makes the world- or, to be more accurate, India- go around: its black money and bribes. This constitutes 15%-20% of our GDP but is the catalyst which generates the other 85%. Now that Mr. Jaitley has no doubt realised this by seeing that more money has been deposited in banks than what was demonetised by him, he will perhaps now abandon his attempts to demolish this central pillar of our history and culture. He should just consider it as another Service Tax , a more efficient one, for when we pay a bribe we get what we expect whereas when we shell out Mr. Jaitley's service tax we rarely do.
   So perhaps we need a mass movement to preserve this sapient part of our culture, to protect it from modern freakonomics, to save it from a Western paradigm whose biggest cultural achievement to date is the  MacNugget. After all, if we can fight to retain Jallikatu, Santhara, Dowry, Female foeticide  and Triple Talaq as  cultural legacies, why not the fine art of Bribery ? !
   

Friday, 17 March 2017

DELHI BELLY : HOW REPRESENTATIVE IS OUR DEMOCRACY ?

    Somebody on TV the other day termed Indian elections the largest organisational exercise in the world. Perhaps it is, but how accurately does it reflect our diverse 1250 million people ? How representative are our governments " manufactured" by these elections? Consider some figures. Women constitute almost 50% of the electorate but very few are given tickets ( even the fortunate few are usually wives, sisters or daughters of the even more fortunate ). The result ? There are only 7 women Ministers in the current Union Council of Ministers numbering almost 80 worthies. Only 64 of 542 MPs in the Lok Sabha come from the fairer sex; the figures for the Rajya Sabha are an even more dismal 27/245. Muslims constitute 18% of the population but number only 3 in the Union Cabinet. Even this is a huge improvement over the state of their representation in the states where the BJP has governments: in them there is only one Muslim among a total of 151 Ministers.
   India's per capita income is Rs. 93,231. But don't believe this for a minute; its a distorted figure, pushed up by the  incomes of the 14800 multi-millionaires( assets of Rs. 61 crores and above), the 1,37,100 ultra High Net Worth Individuals( assets of Rs. 25 crore and above), the 24.40,000 asessees who declared an income of more than Rs. 10 lakhs in 2014-15, the 750,000 who deposited more than Rs. 2.50 lakhs each in their bank accounts post demonetisation. If one factors in these super rich the average income of the average Indian would be closer to something like Rs. 10000 to Rs. 15000 per annum. And don't forget the 300 million below the poverty line. But is this reflected in the representatives we elect to our Parliament and legislatures ? The flavour of the answer lies in the figures just released by the ADR ( Association for Democratic Rights), the leading election watch dog, relating to the MLAs just elected to the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha. Of the 403 MLAs elected as many as 322 are crorepatis ( assets in excess of Rs. 100,00,000 !0 This may not be representative of the electorate but is certainly representative of all our legislatures, Parliament included. And here's the clincher- a full 75% of the total seats were won by one of the three richest candidates in each constituency, more than one third by THE RICHEST CANDIDATE.  The old adage- India is a rich country with poor people- has been upended: we are now, more accurately, a poor country with rich people!
   Sticking with UP, and if we deem our legislatures to fairly represent us, then every third person in UP  is an alleged criminal. The same set of ADR figures( based on filings by candidates with the Election Commission of India) reveal that 143 of the new UP MLAs have criminal cases registered against them- more than one third. Purely statistically, ours then is a country awash in riches and crime.
   Most important of all, however, is the fact that the governments formed as a result of elections are never representative of what the people want. They do not have the support of the majority of the population, not even the support of the majority of the people who voted! They are usually all minority governments. An analysis of the results of the elections just concluded in UP will make this point clearer.
   The overall voting percentage was 61%. Of this, the BJP ( which won with 312 seats) secured the highest-39.7% and formed the govt. Does it faithfully represent the wishes or preferences of the people of UP ? No. it does not. Because what these figures mean is that only 24 out of every 61 voters who cast their votes  voted for the BJP. If we factor in the persons who did not vote at all, then the figure becomes 24 out of 100. The same is true of Punjab where the overall voting percentage was higher at 65% and the Congress won with 38.5% of the votes cast. This means that only 26 people out of every 100 in Punjab voted for the Congress. The same peculiar circumstance applies to all elections in India including to Parliament. Governments formed as a result of such voting may claim to be the largest single parties, but they cannot claim to enjoy the confidence of the majority of the people by any means.
   This peculiar lacunae arises because of our " first past the post " system, in which whoever secures the highest number of votes in a constituency bags the seat, regardless of the actual number of votes he gets. So, though BJP secured only 39.7% of the votes cast in UP ( or only 24% of the total available votes)  it yet won 75% of the seats. Sometimes the working of this FPTP system can result in bigger distortions: in both Manipur and Goa the BJP got more votes than the Congress but ended up with fewer seats! Punjab is even more grotesque: the AAP got 7% lesser votes than the BJP+SAD combine, but ended up with 2 more seats.
   Some countries have found ways to correct this unsymmetric situation. Voting is held over several rounds till only two contestants are left in the field, of whom obviously one has to secure at least 51% of the votes cast in order to win. Others have a preferential vote system where both first and second preference votes are cast and tallied to determine the winner. As regards the representation of women and minorities, or the domination of money power, these are social issues which require an enlightened society and a progressive govt. to resolve. We, unfortunately, have never had one and are not likely to have one in the near future, either. We will continue inane debates about EVMs and Code of Conduct, wallow in our majoritarian and patriarchal mindsets rather than take any proactive action to ensure that both our elections and governments better reflect the wishes of the people. After all, any govt. which comes to power will not want to change the faulty system which brought it to power, will it ?    

Monday, 13 March 2017

WHAT WILL MODI DO AFTER MASSIVE WIN ?

[ This piece was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 13.3.2017 ]

   First, a note of sanity among all the celebratory pandemonium: the BJP has won two major states , lost in two and barely hung on to the fifth; the Congress has not been decimated: it has won in two states and is the largest single party in the third. But since Uttar Pradesh has more seats than all the other four states combined the stupendous performance of the BJP there cannot but overshadow the others, and its portent for future national politics has to be considered carefully.
   The number crunchers will be at it for weeks, analysing castes, communities, regions, ages, gender and what not. But what is already clear is the fact that Mr. Modi’s new syncretic formula of success- an amalgam of aggressive economics and social engineering- will be hard to beat in 2019. He has delivered little on the economic front so far except Demonetisation, but that one strike won him this election on the 8th of November itself because of its pure perception value. The brilliant reverse social engineering of Amit Shah, centered around the pan India Hindu identity of the BJP, has delivered the coup-de-grace to the narrower Hindu parties like the SP and BSP by subsuming all the sub identities like Dalits, Yadavs, Jatavs. Kurmis, OBCs. The BJP has now created its own social coalition., a more powerful one. Only this can explain the massive 325 seats it has won in UP- the religious polarisation ( which did happen) is only one part of the explanation. Mr. Modi has stormed these hitherto sacrosanct social ghettos and left them in ruins. This is something all Indians should welcome.
   There are other important takeaways. Modi is the Colossus in whose shadow the BJP exists. As long as his brand equity holds he does not need a CM face, it fact it may even become a liability. He does not need allies: in Punjab and Goa where the BJP fought in an alliance it lost. Thirdly, for the first time in decades a Prime Minister is conducting himself like a true leader of a nation- setting the agenda rather than following a populist clamour. He is not a careful builder of concensus but a risk-loving unilateralist. This election perhaps demonstrates that this is precisely what today’s India, sick of indecisive vacillation and appeasement, desperately wants. This fits in with global trends too; more and more countries are seeking out authoritarian leaders- Trump, Putin,Duterte, Erdogan- in these troubled and uncertain times.
   Where does Mr. Modi take the BJP and the nation from here ? The reaffirmed mandate comes with heightened expectations- of tangibles, not mere promises. Modi is riding a tiger and cannot now dismount, he has to deliver in the two years remaining for him and this is a gauntlet he will happily pick up. I visualise a renewed thrust and urgency being added to his Reforms initiatives. The biggest of them are already done things- GST and Demonetisation. There is no time left for initiating any new reform, and there are plenty already on the table which are languishing: expect the centre to get after them with a missionary, if not messianic, spirit here onwards.
   Some of them are already up and running ( and have paid the BJP rich dividends in these elections): Jan Dhan, Digital India, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Gas cylinders distribution, Udai ( for State Electricity Boards), Scholarships for minorities, Direct Benefits Transfers, Swacch Bharat, Kanya Smridhi Yojana and Ujjwal Yojana. But to seal up 2019 Mr. Modi will now concentrate on the big-ticket reforms already announced but hanging fire owing to bureaucratic lethargy, stake-holder resistance or non-cooperation by states. His biggest concern has to be the creation of new jobs-at least 20 million in the next two years- what with 18 million new voters being added every year.This involves tackling the following sectors/areas:
Banking: even though the Banks are now awash with deposits post demonetisation the lines of credit are choked and they are reluctant to lend. The reason is the NPAs which have continued to increase under the present govt. and now amount to more than Rs. 7 lakh crores. This logjam has to be broken if Make in India is to be a success .
Manufacturing: The key to the massive job creation Mr. Modi needs to win 2019. Currently stagnating at 16% of GDP, the target is to reach 25% by 2020; this by itself will create 100 million jobs. But the private investment necessary for this is just not happening due to issues related to credit, land, labour and infrastructural constraints. The govt. has to unravel this Gordian knot.
Defense Production : the most critical aspect of Make in India is the indigenisation of defense production. Our armed forces will need US$ 100 billion of equipment in the next decade, almost all of which is currently imported. The govt. wants to achieve 60% indigenisation by 2020 which will not only create millions of new jobs but will also conserve foreign exchange. But we are nowhere near this figure. To achieve it a new policy on strategic partnerships with the private sector is needed: the draft policy has been languishing since 2016. Expect Mr. Modi to now crack the whip on this.
Bureaucracy: this perennial stumbling block to any reform now will have to either change or perish. Modi cannot allow this rusted frame to stand between him and a place in history. They have got the gravy from the 7th Pay Commission and will now have to deliver on both policy and implementation. Mr. Modi’s changes so far have been cosmetic, tinkering with appointment procedures and ACRs. He will now wield the broadsword and hack away the deadwood and the undergrowth. This will, however, create a strong pushback.
The Judiciary: there has never been any love lost between Modi and the higher judiciary. This uneasy relationship will become more strained and become a battle between two tyrannies: those of the elected and the unelected. This is dangerous ground, however, a struggle between the twin values of accountability and independence. With his reaffirmed mandate Mr. Modi will now demand more of the former, and the people will support him given the dismal sate of our criminal justice system.
   I foresee some other, not so welcome, reaffirmations by the Prime Minister and his govt.- a harder line on Kashmir, a determined reiteration of the BJP’s unilateral concept of Nationalism, a renewed push for the Uniform Civil Code, more ABVP inspired unrest on university campuses, further encroachments on the federal structure, a further distancing from the minorities. One unfortunate consequence of the BJP victory will inevitably be that the BJP will feel vindicated for everything it has done in the past- good and bad- and pursue it with even greater vigour.
   The writing is on the wall for the Opposition. They will have to find new leadership, move beyond the jaded secular versus communal rhetoric, break out of caste and class silos, offer better options of development and economics, campaign on ideas rather than personalities, subsume their individual egos for constructive alliances. They can either hang together or they will hang separately.


Friday, 10 March 2017

WHY THE AAM AADMI IS WITH KEJRIWAL

   [ This article was published in the New Indian Express on 10th Feb. 2017.]         

   The Yamuna river in Delhi symbolises the city’s poverty line. To its east live Delhi’s “ have nots”: almost 30% of the population crammed into just 15% of the city’s area, comprising the lower- middle and  working classes, including lakhs of migrant labour and most of its 1600 odd slums. To its west reside the “ have lots”: the millionaires, politicians, bureaucrats, business magnates, media barons and their opinionated anchors, the upper crest as it were.
   The Delhi west of the Yamuna ( New Delhi) has a visceral hatred for Kejriwal and considers him a charlatan, anarchist, populist, bad-mouth. East Delhi’s marginalised millions love him, with the same vigour with which all previous govts. have ignored them. The Yamuna is not, therefore, just a 200 feet wide ribbon of sludge, it is the fault line which defines and explains the politics of Kejriwal.
   New Delhi has historically thrived by being status quoist, its hands firmly clasped on all the levers of power. It appropriates the major share of the budget to maintain its broad avenues and verdant parks, its per capita consumption of public resources is many times that of East Delhi. It has the best schools, hospitals,hotels, malls and clubs. The East, on the other hand, has the largest number of garbage dumps and the biggest sanitary landfills. New Delhi has profited handsomely from the status quo, at the cost of its poor easterly cousin, and both the Centre and the state have been comfortable with this arrangement. Kejriwal is not, and this is his calling card.
   Kejriwal is challenging this status quo. He rejects the centre’s version of the Queensbury rules which have made Chief Ministers of Union Territories helpless puppets, a judicial dispensation which is conservatively inclined to the status quo, a bureaucracy which welcomes this dichotomy of power because it renders it unaccountable. Kejriwal has started channelizing the state’s resources to the hitherto neglected millions symbolised by East Delhi. Deprived by the Centre and the Lieutenant Governor of a say in most areas of governance, he has concentrated on the three still with him, and this has not gone down too well with the pampered elite.
   In Education he has added 10000 class rooms, put a tight leash on private schools’ hunger for fee hikes, made admission to EWS seats on-line to remove discretion. In the Health sector he has allocated 16% of the budget ( Rs.5292 crore), the highest percentage for any state . His  initiatives in providing  Universal Health Care include opening of 100 Mohalla Clinics( 300 more have been sanctioned last week), free diagnostic tests at private labs, free operations at empanelled private hospitals if the waiting period in  govt. hospitals exceeds one month, have been applauded internationally by Kofi Annan and the WHO, and have been held up as a model even for developed countries .He has provided free power upto 400 units per month and free “ lifeline” water of 20000 litres per month: the former covers 86% of Delhi’s poorest residents, and the latter benefits 12.56 households. 8000 public toilets have been constructed in two years, whereas only 4875 had been built in the preceding 4 years.The slums( unauthorised colonies, JJ colonies) have been his main focus; Delhi has 309 of the first and 700 of the latter and they house 40% of the city’s population but no govt. had really thought of them earlier.
   New Delhi is not impressed, naturally: its residents don’t need public toilets, they have  private ones “ en suite”, lifeline water is irrelevant: they use more water to wash their cars; Mohalla Clinics and free diagnostics don’t matter because they go to 5-star private hospitals  or CGHS dispensaries; fee hikes don’t bother them either: their children go to air conditioned schools anyway. But they strongly resent the fact that Kejriwal dares to put the interests of the under-privileged before their own. They decry the fact that he spends 1200 crores on free power, forgetting that the 12000 members of the Gymkhana and Golf Clubs benefit from a subsidy of Rs. 50 lakhs, per member per year ( the annual interest on the value of the 200 acres of land they are sitting on, minus the pittance they pay as lease rent)!
   New/ South Delhi feel threatened by Kejriwal and his AAP because of his attempts to redraft the rules of governance and the definition of “ public interest.” So do all the mainstream political parties, because he is appealing across the traditional paradigms of caste, class and religion. His policy concerns are centered on the 50% of India which owns only 1% of its wealth, not on the 1% who have cornered 49% of it ( Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2014). If there is one thing they all agree on it is the imperative to stop him before he does any more damage to the self-serving edifice so assiduously built by them, before he upends the apple cart.
  But Kejriwal and AAP are not unique: they can be better understood if they are seen as part of the “ Populism” movement that has captured the USA and is sweeping across Europe. As John Judis explains so well in his new book THE POPULIST EXPLOSION, this is a trend/doctrine that is here to stay, drawing its sustenance from “ the deep well of discontent” with the status quo. “Populism”, as exemplified by the likes of Donald Trump, Italy’s Beppe Grillo, UK’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine La Pen is a push-back against the traditionally powerful elite: journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists. It rejects the existing systems which it sees as rigged against the poor and the lower middle class by a liberal elite.

   If the AAP does well in Punjab and Goa  it shall become only the seventh national party and can become a nucleus around which the regional parties can coalesce for 2019. The latter are powerful in their own states but lack a pan India appeal or agenda, which the AAP can provide. Kejriwal is perhaps proving that globalisation is not merely an economic phenomenon but also a political one. He is still the underdog but  he may yet prove Mark Twain was right when he said: “ Its not about the size of the dog in the fight, its about the size of the fight in the dog.”


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

DELHI BELLY : DYING DECLARATIONS and THE THOUGHT POLICE

    I have just finished reading the sixty page suicide note written by the ex Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh Shri Kaliko Phul on 8th August 2016, just before he killed himself. I feel drained and morally exhausted. The contents of the note are shocking to the point where every right thinking Indian should ponder over the fate of this sorry nation. Mr. Phul lays bare the naked truth about the sordid nature of politics and governments in his state and the country at large, the ugliness which prompted him to take his life. He recounts in some detail the endemic corruption in Arunachal Pradesh and names the leaders responsible, along with specifics of projects, dates and amounts stolen. But what takes one's breath away is the listing of prominent ( national level) politicians, officials, law officers, judges, even the current President of India, as having been recipients of bribes, and of how they sought huge sums of money to favour him in various matters. Once again, the unfortunate Phul has provided a wealth of details for each transaction, including the names of middle-men involved. His widow has moved a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a detailed investigation into these contents. Mainline media, usually so deafening in their accusations and opinions at primetime that one can't hear the planes landing at IGI airport, has maintained a sphinx-like silence on the matter.
    These charges are mere allegations and the unsupported word of a man who, by the definition of his circumstances, must have been mentally traumatised when he penned these words. But they must still be taken seriously by the gate-keepers of the nation for the following reasons: First, Kaliko Phul was no ordinary man- he was the Chief Minister of a state, with access to all govt. records, and Chief Ministers are not known to kill themselves without reason. Second, his suicide note can, perhaps, come within the definition of a dying declaration under the law, and such statements are generally attached a higher degree of authenticity than others. Our justice system regularly arrests and imprisons people on the basis of suicide notes; why then should it not at least inquire into the contents of this one? Third, the names mentioned in the note are of such eminent persons in our public and judicial life that the country's honour demands that, one way or the other, no doubt should attach to anyone of them. There is only one way of ensuring this- a full, independent enquiry, not by any judicial or police body, but by a panel of persons with unimpeachable integrity and record of public life. Because, and this is the fourth reason: not only must Caesar's wife be above suspicion, her character certificate must not be issued by Caesar himself.
  Corruption in hallowed portals is the elephant in our sitting rooms and in news rooms and TV studios. The elephant just got bigger. How long can we pretend that we just can't see it ?

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   One of the truths to be imbibed from George Orwell's books is that when any extreme ideology wants to take over a peoples it is not enough to just subjugate their bodies, you have to control their minds, for an idea is more powerful than any army. This is exactly what the BJP is attempting to do in this country, with some success so far. National level institutes are being left to the tender mercies of worthies with no qualifications for their jobs- witness the appointment of an unknown " historian" to head ICCHR, a cricketer for NIFT, a TV actor whose last role was some twenty years ago for the Film and Television Institute, an unsuccessful maker of C grade films for the Censor Board, to name just a few. Their only qualification is that they will cleave to the party line and impose it within their fiefdoms. Even more damaging, our Universities are being gradually  bludgeoned into submission, by a two pronged approach. At one level, Vice Chancellors and Directors of IITs and IIMs are being denied the autonomy and respect these institutions demand, with Shastri Bhavan interfering in every important matter. The UGC, an ostensibly autonomous body, has been practically taken over by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. At the second level, the ABVP has been turned loose on the campuses, supported publicly by Ministers of the govt. and assisted insidiously by the machinery of the state. Riding piggy back on the ruling party, its membership has expanded from 22.49 lakhs in 2013-14 to 32 lakhs in 2016-17. It is now present in 20000 of the 35000 colleges. This in itself is not a bad thing- after all the NSUI ( Congress), the AISF( Communist Party of India) and the SFI ( CPI Marxist) also have memberships of 40 lakhs, 35 lakhs and 15 lakhs, respectively. The damage- and the danger-lies in the fact that the ABVP behaves more like the Gestapo than like a students' union. It will tolerate no other ideology and will use threats, intimidation and violence to drown out contrary views. This it does under the banner of a " Nationalism" conceived, defined and articulated by them alone and blessed by their parent bodies, the BJP and RSS. Only their idea of nationalism will decide which subjects are taught, which debates are organised, which speakers are invited, and who is to be allowed on the campus.
  After Hyderabad, Jadhavpur, Chandigarh, JNU, Jodhpur, Jharkhand, it is now the turn of Delhi Univ. A seminar was not allowed to be held on the 22nd of last month on the specious ground that two of the speakers were from JNU- one of them charged with " sedition". ( Incidentally, even 12 months after the alleged seditious act the Delhi police has not been able to file the charge-sheet in court, presumably because they have no evidence !). The ABVP expressed its protest against the seminar in the only way it knows- by vandalism, violence ( even against girls and their own teachers) and goondaism. The Delhi police, by now well trained in the are of subverting justice after the JNU and Kanhaiya Kumar episodes, provided full protection to these violators of law, and, as is their wont, beat up journalists and girls instead.
   The BJP/ ABVP game plan appears to be working. A plucky young girl whose father is an Army martyr and who stood up against this pernicious conspiracy is being trolled on social media, the abuse being encouraged by Ministers and MPs of the union govt. who have been inciting the trolls with their own shameful tweets. An MP compares her to Dawood Ibrahim and a junior Home Minister advises her to "concentrate on her studies" ( perhaps he himself should concentrate on his job, considering he has made such a mess of it so far). There can be no greater irony than the fact that these lumpens are presuming to teach patriotism to a girl whose family has, for three generations, been serving in the armed forces of the nation ! The throttling of ideas and debate has begun:  Ambedkar University( in Delhi) has called off a seminar it was organising on Kashmir fearing similar threats. Other universities are no doubt watching and will take their cue from what happens in Delhi over the next few days.
   There is much more at stake here than just a seminar. Our students are waging a battle on our behalf. My generation has already let down the country repeatedly: the least we can do now is speak out and support these idealistic youngsters before we are condemned to an Orwellian future where, as he puts it so well, 
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
We are almost there.........