Sunday, August 28, 2011

A cancer at the heart of democracy

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (August 28)

There is an eminently logical reason why the corruption debate reels like a drunk bounced out for being too disorderly even for a high-consumption bar. This is because everyone wants to end corruption but not end it completely. And so the BJP would like honesty everywhere, with a little margin for mine-diggers in Karnataka. The Congress wants a clean India down to every well in every village, but not so pure that it cannot feed the venal thirst of ministers or its holy cows — and these days the herd includes a holy bull. No political party is really free from this trap. A regional leader who postures as the epitome of simple, rumpled honesty sends a businessman whose blubber is not limited to his bank account to the Rajya Sabha.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Alpha Male To Omega Limp

From Byword- India Today (August 26)

Mistakes are not the exclusive preserve of government. It is only fair that opposition contributes its share, even if it is only a trickle versus a flood. Enthusiasm clearly got the better of common sense in the eminently sensible Kiran Bedi, a ranking confidante of Anna Hazare, when she called Anna India, which is preposterous, and India Anna, which is pretentious. I could almost visualise the simple, but not naive, Anna Hazare cringe at the echo, for Indira Gandhi's sycophants equated her with the nation in order to justify the imposition of dictatorship in 1975. Power is a beguiling intoxicant; when a peg hits the head, it tends to encourage notions of divinity. The management of power, whether through the sinews of office or the roar of a crowd, is a test of balance on a tightrope across a fall.
An opposition's mistakes, however, are never as expensive as a government's. Kiran Bedi's blip is already forgotten. The mistakes of Congress are embedded in public memory. There they will lurk, awaiting an election. Kiran Bedi lives among the people. The ministers of Manmohan Singh's government, prime downwards, are imprisoned in high-security bungalows and cars, their sanitised routes cleared of popular presence. Even if our rulers noticed them, they would barely recognise the emotions of young men careering through Delhi's streets on motorcycles, wearing the Gandhi cap as a martyr's band, a tricolor flying overhead. The young are claiming back their country from the political class- from the whole of it, not just a part of it. Even those political parties who will benefit from this spreading anger would do well to factor in caution into their plans.

The young have mobilised to question the obduracy of a government that proclaimed victory when, with a sneer and a giggle, it threw a frail Anna Hazare into Tihar jail. When reports last came in, the same government was genuflecting with an agility which belied the average age of the Cabinet. Manmohan Singh's government descended, within 10 days, from Alpha Male to Omega Limp. It doesn't take all that long for Delhi's high and mighty to get neutered.
Anna Hazare came to Delhi to change the law, not change the government. His second fast for a Lokpal Bill was an option of last resort, not first choice. Shorn of bells and whistles, what he wanted on day one was what the government offered on day 9 before it changed its mind once again on day 10. The Prime Minister's critical mistake was to channel the government's response through the belligerent partnership of P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal. Power does different things to different people: in the case of Chidambaram and Sibal it brought out the teenager in them. They thought they could bully Hazare. Instead, in a dramatic counteroffensive, Anna has left this government writhing on the mat. Anna merely looks fragile; his strength is in his will, not muscle. It is a dangerous to dance around a yogi sleeping on a bed of nails.

A popular insurgency is always hard to read, even more so when the lava has been long lost in the heart of an invisible volcano. Whoever thought comparisons were odious never knew the half of modern journalism. Comparison is the stock in trade of journalists in a hurry, particularly those trying to make sense of a strange land in which activists wear pointy caps and popular discourse is controlled by a man who refuses to eat rather than one who presides over dollar-plate dinners overloaded with rubbery chicken. If apples and oranges are sold from the same fruit stall, who can resist comparing them? If there was an Arab spring in January can an Indian summer be far behind?

Anna Hazare and his youth are not demanding the fall of a Pharaoh; or an abolition of parliamentary democracy. They insist on a cure for a cancer eating at the body politic. Parliament is in question only because it has not been able to pass a Lokpal bill in 43 years, or indeed been able to debar criminals from contesting elections for ever. When a quarter of MPs have a criminal record, indifference is the preferred strategy of the establishment. The streets are screaming against this indifference.

I don't know how long this confrontation will take. But the toll of this conflict is already significant. Quite coincidentally, while writing this column, Begum Akhtar's voice came wafting over FM radio. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows Urdu, and is familiar with its poetry. If he wants to find out what the Indian middle class now thinks about a prime minister it once admired, he might find a minute to absorb the meaning of this couplet: Hum to samjhe thay kay barsaat mein barsegi sharab Aayee barsaat to barsaat ne dil tod diya.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When power outstrips ability

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (August 21)

The eloquence of Jawaharlal Nehru at the approach of the midnight hour of 15 August 1947 was so magnificent that it has overwhelmed the contributions of other great Indians to that memorable evening, a landmark in the history of democracy and its institutions. Sixty-four years later, let us also hear the member from United Provinces, the philosopher-academician and later President, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. He rejoiced in this wondrous achievement but cautioned about dangers ahead.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Goodbye, Sir!

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (August 19)

Every childhood hero takes away a little bit of one's life along with him when he dies. Shammi Kapoor filled those wondrously difficult years when laughter and optimism were the only pathfinders from an unknown jute mill settlement in Bengal to an unwelcome Calcutta teeming with every variety of revolution. Even hope seems too ambitious in the second half of your teens. Shammi Kapoor was our torch, for he combined three essentials of teenage: he was mad; he got his girl on his own terms; and there was always a happy ending. He joined the dots between changing the world and dreaming of love.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Now, freedom from some Indians please

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (August 14)

We lost the central hinge of the plot on 15 August 1947. We thought that raising the tricolour over Edwina and Lord Louis Mountbatten's palace marked the end of the freedom project launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1919. It was only the beginning of a second and equally difficult freedom struggle. The first had been against the British. The second Indian freedom struggle would be against fellow Indians.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Anything but London, Didi

From Byword- India Today (August 12)

Colour in Tuesday the 9th of August as a green-letter day in the history of Bengal (red-letter might be too provocative a suggestion). The first SMS joke about Mamata Banerjee was fired into cyberspace circulation that day. It is always reassuring to witness a return of laughter after some unremitting awe.

Perhaps laughter is too strong a word; the sms was more of a feather tickle along the ribs. It said: 'Mamata wants Kolkata to become like London. It seems her wish is coming true-London is becoming the Kolkata of old'. The wit was careful. Note the 'Kolkata of old'.

Hyperbole comes easily to politicians, even to the sincere, particularly at the start of their terms, when their world is young and every horizon is just a wish away. Dr Manmohan Singh promised to turn Mumbai into Shanghai, and Mamata Banerjee assured the descendants of the true capital of the British Raj that London was within their reach without the trouble of buying an airline ticket. Mumbai is still Mumbai, and a bit worse for the rancid wear and tear of seven Manmohan years. Every city is SUI generis, fruit and flower of its own socio-economic realities.

The Bengal CM's fantasy may have been doubly misplaced, however, for London, the great model of civic virtue and capitalist triumph, is straining at the seams across the BBC screen. The news has moved. Calm is news. The BBC headline, as I write, is that the capital is quiet after four nights of violence, which at best is pyrrhic relief since it is morning in London and the bonfires are lit in the evening. The Birmingham Test that began last Wednesday was sold out, but the stands had pockmarks of vacant space, which became larger after tea, for the centre of Birmingham had been alight for two nights.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's response was unadulterated muscle. He mobilised police, ordered water cannons to stand by and summoned his top security committee, called cobra. The acronym is conscious. cobra strikes fear; reality is less lethal: England does not have enough policemen to control an insurrection of the underprivileged. This was evident in the tv coverage of young people walking down besieged streets with cool confidence, as watching policemen wondered what to do. The most interesting image I saw was of a policeman hitting a black youth hard with his baton, and then retreating when the boy's girlfriend protested. The couple resumed their walk. They did not cower, or run. Voices from the establishment cried out for the Army: what next?

Britain's violence will not cease because of Cameron's bluster about "sickening scene" of "looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing" or promise to send these "criminal" to jail, as if British jails had the space. It will end when the poor have delivered their volatile message.

Law and order is a self-functioning mechanism. When people respect the law there is order. Mass upsurge can be dangerously destructive, or even life-threatening for a nation, but it is not crime in the conventional sense. Those children stealing trainers in Liverpool are the eye of a larger storm. They have a different definition of loot. They have watched bankers waste the nation's wealth, get bail with people's money and then re-reward themselves with egregious bonuses. If the rich can get away with loot, why not an extra pair of shoes or television set? The welfare of the stock exchange has primacy over the welfare of the people; profit is the one commandment left in the code. Cameron cuts social services with a hatchet while luxury goods are the only goods that fly off London shelves. Wealth has become dysfunctional. Loot and chaos is not the cure, but it is a symptom.

Dear Bengal Didi: May every dream of yours come true. But please don't make Calcutta into another London. Here's a thought. Why not make Calcutta tomorrow just what it was yesterday: with arms of steel and a heart of gold?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Note to Caesar: Mark this Antony

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (August 7)

Unqualified, unmitigated congratulations to All India Radio. The government's official broadcaster was not fooled by a mere communiqué from the All India Congress Committee, even when it was personally read out by the prevailing all-purpose party official, Janardan Dwivedi. Dwivedi put A.K. Antony at the top of the pecking order in the Group of Four authorised to oversee Congress affairs in the unfortunate absence of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, with Rahul Gandhi trailing at either number two or three, depending on whose version you consulted. [It is in tune with his character that the man at the bottom of the list, Ahmad Patel, is going to do most of the heavy lifting in this quartet.] AIR would have none of this nonsense. It insisted in all its bulletins on giving Rahul Gandhi top billing. AIR is right.


Friday, August 05, 2011

It's all in the economy

From Byword- India Today (August 5)

The French politician who formally congratulated the mayor of Paris for losing the 2012 Olympics bid to London made perfect sense. The straitjacket of security, he explained, would drive summer tourists away from London towards grateful France. Paris would get the holiday business while London paid the 9 billion-pound bill for the effete glory of a forgettable media event. Win-win for the Eiffel Tower.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, who has delivered all Olympics facilities within budget and a year ahead without being accused of anything more corrupt than an occasional ogle, must have sneered and chortled in response. But there is a major philosophical lesson to be learnt about fate. The lucky, win. The truly lucky know when to lose.

A very powerful Congress leader, his demeanour touched by a faraway wistful look, whispered a fantasy to me the other day: that the Congress had chosen to sit in Opposition after winning 206 seats in the summer of 2009. Some crumbly structure would perforce have made a grab for power, doubtless with former Congress allies like DMK queuing up for the telecom ministry as their price for support to a BJP prime minister. Within weeks the whole lot would have been compromised at bargain rates, since they would be trading in used goods. Suresh Kalmadi would have welcomed the return of this version of NDA, since he could have bought out their bigwigs with nothing more expensive than the occasional first class ticket to a sports jamboree. This government would have either sought to sabotage investigations into both the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum, or defended them on some silly technical ground, leaving the quiet but well-fed Congress on a high moral plateau. The rackety NDA government would have collapsed in derisive confusion; Congress would win a clear majority in the winter 2011 general elections and Rahul Gandhi would be sworn in as the undisputed prime minister.

The BJP should be feeling extraordinarily pleased that it lost the last general elections.

In 2004 the BJP was unprepared for defeat; but then no ruling party is ever ready for bad news. In 2009 the BJP was unprepared for victory, which is less forgivable. The fault lay not in any individual, but in a more basic flaw: it had not still fully absorbed the extent to which the Indian voter had shifted from an emotional agenda to an economic ambition. In 2009 some of the more media-magnetic BJP campaigners were still behaving as if they were on the sets of a 1950s Bollywood historical melodrama. That age had, paradoxically, exhausted itself with the culmination of the Ram temple movement; once the mosque at Ayodhya was destroyed, it took its emotions along with it. The BJP lost the Assembly elections of 1993 in the very heartland that had sustained its most powerful emotional appeal; Digvijaya Singh became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh that year.

Two general election defeats have created a double benefit for the BJP. The voter is ready to empathise again, feeling that enough punishment has been meted out. And the party understands that serious correctives are essential if the show is to go on. The first is happening. There is a visible rise in the BJP vote across the north. The party could shock its enemies and surprise its friends in the next Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. It has stemmed the bleed in Madhya Pradesh and returned to form in Rajasthan, while remaining steadily ahead in Gujarat. The correctives are still a work in progress. Nitin Gadkari's principal task over the next year will be to put together a viable economic policy for the party which the voter can assess, measure and then identify with.

Why has the Congress slipped? Corruption is the easy answer, but not a complete one. The voter is angry about the theft of public money, of course. But he is truly livid at the fact that corruption has derailed economic growth. The first is sufficient cause for the visible and escalating concern that we see around us; the second can lay the seeds for insurrection. The Indian industrialist is talking through his bank account, investing abroad rather than at home. The worker is seeing the gains for which he abandoned the culture of strikes, being frittered away. There is confusion in villages as the landowner demands a share in that fixed lottery called land prices.

Protest is a legitimate part of any Opposition's duty, but that alone cannot convert the BJP into a ruling party. It has to rise above protest and become an alternative; from a trade union into the management structure that the shareholders of democracy can hire when the present management is voted out.

It tells us something when the language of business becomes perfectly applicable to the business of contemporary politics.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Old Man And The Sleaze

From Byword – India Today (August 1)

Although they have been, historically, loath to admit it, journalists are human. They err. But if error was their only offence, there would be no story. The true crimes of yellow journalism are bias, gossip and bribes. There is a class difference between bias, the privilege of owners and editors, and gossip, the diet of downmarket news rooms. But cash is classless.

Gossip is more honest than bias; there may be more chicanery but there is less deceit. Gossip rarely pretends to be what it is not; it has a breathless, giveaway style, heavily dependent on suggestion and suspicion. Gutter press lords float bias on wafts of pseudo-ideology. Bias is a culture, a genetic strain that runs through the DNA of a publication. Gossip is an industry, with reporters as its working class. Every level of the factory knows the algebra: gossip equals sensation, sensation equals sales, sales equal advertising, advertising equals pay-cheques. This is the confident mathematics of sensationalism. Sex, the most familiar ingredient of sensation, is a comparatively innocent indulgence: the merely salacious can never compete in impact and intensity with a high-ticket mobilisation of reader sentiment like fear, and its induced consequence, revulsion or hatred.

An authentic predator-genius of the media business like Rupert Murdoch derives his power from three generators. First is the vaulting ambition of a ruthless conqueror. This requires genius, of course; you cannot be Chengiz Khan or Taimur without extraordinary resources of will, ability and the unstoppable trajectory of a gambler whose adrenalin rises in proportion to the stake. You cannot run out of kingdoms to subjugate. Success is the only law. The only moral is in the marketplace: what sells must be good, because there is a buyer. Failure is evil. Readers get what they deserve, and deserve what they get. There is nothing sentimental about content: Those who want High Church get the Wall Street Journal; voyeurs are offered News of the World.

The voyeur is obviously complicit: sleaze is a shared pleasure. There is no Murdoch without the reader, and indeed there is no reader without a Murdoch. They are partners who need each other. The journalist, whether an editor like Andy Coulson who dines with Prime Ministers, or the celeb-hunter running with the pack, is a necessary hyphen, driven by the high cash rewards for prurience. The photographer who snaps topless models for a living is actually quite jaded. It is the reader who ogles.

Stories are cooked up by cynics who have lost any early appetite for good taste. The front page is driven by hysteria, fed by ravenous competition. Since money is the only value in this world, no one even wonders if there is anything wrong with hacking into the mobile phone of a murdered child, Milly Dowler, just 13 when she was killed in 2002.

The third side of a Murdoch power triangle is, well, power. Murdoch's tabloids have many times more readers than a political party has members. Voila: who sets the agenda for elections? Murdoch traded his readership for personal power. Politicians obeyed, or else. British politicians used to understand the dangers of pen-pushers without accountability. In the early days of print media, the press was barred from the British Parliament. Publishing reports of a debate was considered "high indignity" and "notorious breach of privilege".

Modern politicians find it easier to sup with Murdoch. The relationship is cultivated with great sophistication, of course, as behoves a ruling class with generations of pedigree. British Prime Minister David Cameron's personal circle of close friends, now dubbed the North Oxford Set, included Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of a Murdoch company before she was arrested; her husband Charlie Brooks; Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert's daughter, and her husband Matthew Freud, a PR smoothie; and James Murdoch, Rupert's son. His close adviser was Andy Coulson, who led the team as editor when Milly Dowler's phone was 'pinged' [the technical term used by the police for monitoring a mobile phone]. The Set sipped fine wine from cut glass in the shires, and elegant conversation doubtless improved the taste of dinner cooked in Cameron's million-pound kitchen. How could we ever have guessed that at the heart of this bonhomie was the multi-dimensional fiscal political profit from sleaze?

Paradise is lost when your moral compass disappears. Murdoch knew he was never in any danger from prime ministers or their police, who gratuitously looked away from the evidence for nearly a decade. But he made the fatal mistake of believing that his readers were as amoral as he was. Readers went along with titillation; but they drew the line at mercenary exploitation of a child's corpse. The algebra had a backlash: a Murdoch without readers is a useless Murdoch. Politicians have no use for the useless. There is no one more lonely than a prostrate god with feet of clay.