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Friday, March 17, 2017

Goa Journal: A sense of liberation

Tainted Congress is Turfed Out.

Driving in from the airport on the day of the election results, we passed caravans of pick-up trucks, cars, scooters and motorcycles. Draped in BJP colors, the caravans were celebrating the clear victory of the BJP in the recently-concluded Assembly elections. As they whizzed past towns and villages, people gathered on the edges of the highway, cheering them on. Like Woodstock, it appeared to me “everywhere there was song and celebration.”

I was struck by the sense of liberation that was palpable on the streets and squares. It was as if a dictator had been felled. “Sir, we are free from the corrupt Congress raj,” the owner of a shack on Morjim Beach told me as we walked in the next morning to laze a few hours away, swimming in the blue-green Arabian Sea and savoring the shack’s basic wares: shrimp curry and rice with fried fish and chips, washed down with fresh pineapple juice and Goa’s own King’s beer.

To get to this picturesque beach, you have to drive east from our house into Mapusa and then head north through Siolim across the bridge on the spectacular Chapora River. The drive from Mapusa, an ugly, Indian-style market town, to Siolim is over a forested hill with gorgeous valley views. The road is superb like most of Goan roads, except that over the years it has become a garbage dump. Mounds of garbage line either side of the road, detracting from the sheer natural beauty.

Even along National Highway 17, the major artery that crosses Goa north to south en route to Kerala, you see similar sights: piles of garbage on both sides. This odious development has come about in the past five years. The years from 2007 have seen Goa assaulted by real estate developers; exploited by illegal mining and stalled by crumbling infrastructure: no waste management, acute power and water shortages, traffic jams, eroding beaches and the growth of Bombay-style slums. Then there are drugs, the Russian mafia and vastly increased crime.

This has happened on the Congress watch. Clearly, these problems were building up over the years but neglected because of political instability. Between 1963 and 1990, there were just four chief ministers; since then, there have been 15. In 2007, the Congress formed the government and lasted the full term until March 3, 2012. It appeared as though a stable government might address the mounting problems. Well, it didn’t; what’s more, it was seen as a beneficiary of these ills. On March 3, Goans voted with a vengeance and turfed the Congress out.

One of the major causes of the Congress defeat is the defection of the Christian vote. Though they form just a little more than two percent of the Indian population; strikingly, Christians in Goa number nearly 30 percent of the state’s inhabitants. They have traditionally shunned the BJP because of its insular Hindutva agenda; this time they overcame their distaste for the saffron party and voted against the Congress.

There is euphoria in this bucolic little corner of India. The BJP has won handily so there should be no trouble for the next five years. Manohar Parrikar, the likable former chief minister, is set to run Goa again. Peoples’ expectations are high; but clearly it more an anti-Congress than a pro-BJP mandate.

Parrikar is a soft-spoken man, educated at the exclusive Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. I happen to know him because he asked me to help publicize the first International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa in 2004. In the course of the project, I met him several times and found him to be focused on outcomes. In the event, we worked together to make the festival a success and to make Goa a permanent home for it.

At the time, I was a member of the Congress Media Advisory Board but that didn’t make a difference to Parrikar. He wanted professional public relations support and so was happy to work with me and my firm. The brief was to make it into a South Asian Cannes.  The IFFI public relations project went south after he was ousted. Subsequent Congress governments had an opportunity to build on the national and international notice the festival attracted. Instead, as a former senior official of the Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG), the unit that ran the festival, told me: “It has become a den of corruption.”

I learned it the hard way when my firm responded to a tender for public relations support for IFFI 2011 put out by the ESG. We made our submission and I undertook a trip to Goa for the opening of the bids. The entire procedure was opaque. Three bids were opened: two firms including mine, made similar financial proposals. Within minutes, the bureaucrat, who read out the numbers (and he looked every bit vile and corrupt), dismissed us and awarded the project to a firm that bid one-fourteenth of the amount that we proposed.

This is the way Goa functioned under the Congress. Even though I am a supporter of the GOP, I found the party’s Goa dispensation less than transparent. I am not surprised they were booted out.


This article appeared in The Times of India on March 14, 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Mindless activism is the root of Goa’s political stasis

Contemplating the election just completed in Goa, my mind wandered to a Sunday afternoon a few years ago. At lunch in a friend’s place near Panjim, I found myself under assault by an “activist”. He challenged my assessment that the “India against Corruption” protest, then in full flower, was just another anti-Congress formation. My interlocutor was the well-spoken scion of an influential Goan family and he took umbrage at my assertion that Anna Hazare, the figure head of the protest, was a congenital publicity hound.

Sadly, the conversation degenerated into a diatribe with the activist scolding me for my views on politics, economics and society. There was not much subtlety in his charge that people such as I must be held responsible for the state of affairs in India, tainted as it is with political corruption, skewed economic priorities and consumerist societal norms.

Fast forward to 2014, post the Hazare protest: A group of “activists” led by Arvind Kejriwal emerged to form the Aam Aadmi Party. Kejriwal’s group did surprisingly well in the ensuing elections to the assembly and was able to form a government with support from the Congress. The rest is history.

Last year, when AAP announced it would contest elections in Goa, which is a particularly fecund political environment for activism, I was not surprised. All these years of living in the haven, I was witness to the mindless activism that challenged the long-reigning Congress on any and every development scheme or project. Bringing to bear their networking skills and media clout, activists went hammer and tongs after the Congress on often unsubstantiated charges of corruption. In the event, they did not change the fluid and corrupt politics in the state or root out corruption; they ensured the rise of the BJP.

The entry of AAP to Goa politics has been made possible by the cosy fit with local activists. Coasting on word-of-mouth publicity, AAP brought to bear its propaganda skills to project a victory in the just-completed election to the assembly. Many people, with a foot in both places, Delhi and Goa, are understandably appalled. In their view, Goans have regarded them with hostility as outsiders spoiling the Goan environment with their South Delhi ways. But Goans see no contradiction in embracing a Delhi-centric political party with roots in the rough-and-ready exurban areas of the National Capital Region.

This election was held against a national backdrop in which there is a massive pushback against the BJP and a growing disenchantment with the politics of AAP. Sensing this, the Congress put in place ambitious revival plans. It opted for a seat-sharing arrangement with: Two seats for Goa Forward, a year-old party pledged to defeat the BJP; one for Atanasio Monserrate’s United Goan, a party sworn to keep the secular vote from splitting; and it has decided to support an independent candidate.

Aside of the seat sharing arrangement, the Congress is likely to benefit from a split in the BJP vote. This is because of an alliance between Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Shiv Sena and Goa Suraksha Manch, a new party floated by a rebel RSS member, Subhash Velingkar, head of the influential Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch. This Right-wing alliance, which had been instrumental in the BJP victory in 2012, threatens to jerk the rug from under the BJP.

The Congress sources in Goa and Delhi say they have long believed Kejriwal’s AAP was a front floated by the saffronistas to divide the Congress vote, especially in two-way contests as in Punjab and Goa. Their response to the split in the BJP vote in Goa is a nudge and a wink to suggest the Congress stands to make a huge gain because this split will take more votes from the BJP than AAP will from the Congress.

Though polls predict a hung assembly, the mood in the Congress camp is upbeat.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://hindustantimes.com, February 6, 2017.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Narendra Modi: One-term PM?

Gujarat is a small, relatively homogeneous state. Its people are entrepreneurial, focused on business and count their success in accumulated assets; not for them the glamour of a corporate career or the power of a government position. To them, government is somewhat ceremonial in the state and a complexity best avoided at the center. They want to just get on with it, providing for their families and future generations, with travel thrown in as a major diversion.
The Gujarati believes that governance with a light touch is best. For the first decade of its existence, the state government coasted along building assets: roads, power stations, factories, pleasant cities and not getting in the way of a thriving mercantile culture.
Things began to change with the decline of the textile industry, the backbone of Gujarat’s thriving economy. Politics began to dictate outcomes. The state was overwhelmed by civil disturbances including large-scale religious and caste riots. This set the stage for the populist Navnirman movement that gave way to the rabid bigotry of the BJP.
There are interesting coincidences surrounding the rise of the BJP in Gujarat and emigration from the state to the US. With the amendment of the US Immigration and Nationality Act in 1968 to allow relative petitions leading to permanent residence (green card) and citizenship, a veritable flood of middle-class people from Gujarat immigrated to the US through the 1970s. By the 1980s, they had established small businesses and begun to prosper.
Like most Gujaratis, the US cohort retained its insularity: not engaging with the host culture, refusing to blend in but especially remitting savings to families back home. Most of the money was transferred through informal channels. I can remember some people wanting to advertise in my India Tribune newspaper offering more rupees to the dollar and cash delivery to specified persons and addresses in Gujarat.
As the quantum of remittances in unreported cash grew, investible surpluses held by recipients also grew and were ploughed into real estate projects. An array of brokers and fixers emerged to facilitate such investments, usually by bending bylaws and circumventing other legal inconveniences. They became the forerunners of the BJP that came to dominate Gujarat politics, banishing the genteel idealists who served Gujarat since its formation.  In their place arose a horde of scofflaws and bigots to grasp at political power.
From these murky swamps emerged a man of overwhelmingly modest intelligence but with remarkable amounts of cunning, Narendra Modi. Starting out with the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, he successfully undermined the incumbent BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Modi used the earthquake to promote himself as a development icon. In reality, he merely coasted on a global disaster relief effort that was mounted in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Right at the outset though, his claims to have created an industrial and infrastructural miracle in Kutch were challenged by Edward Simpson, a highly-regarded anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In his book, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India, Simpson argued that not all the changes in Kutch following the earthquake were for the better, and that in the years following the quake, divisions between Hindus and Muslims in Kutch widened.
But with his headline management skills, Modi successfully staved off questions about his role in Kutch by focusing on the development story while stoking the communal fires. As he vaulted to the chief minister’s position after Patel’s ouster, Modi appeared to have crafted a winning election strategy in which the rhetoric was development but the actual organizational play was to polarize the electorate on an anti-Muslim platform.
The following year, 2002, he put it in play following the burning of the train in Godhra and asserted his dominance on Gujarat politics and on the BJP for the next 12 years without ever being challenged about outcomes and intent. Finally, it enabled him to vault to the Prime Minister’s office.
There was one crucial difference, however. As Gujarat chief minister Modi delivered both seats in the assembly and a large vote share. As Prime Minister, he chalked up the first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades but with just about 31 percent of votes. And that’s where the rub lies. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate did not vote for him. Consequently, the questions began to fly thick and fast from virtually the moment he became Prime Minister.
To avoid these questions, Modi took to what Ravish Kumar, the highly regarded anchor of NDTV India, called “eventocracy” facilitated by a “comedia.” Essentially, this meant remaining silent until the questions became persistent and shrill and then with the active collaboration of mainstream media, changing the subject to emotive issues like nationalism, patriotism, terrorism and Pakistan. Or else staging events like the BRICS summit, Madison Square Garden, Wembley or campaign rallies in which the melodrama quotient is insufferably high with quivering voice and tears in his eyes: “beat me first, I have taken on vested interests that will not rest until they have killed me, give me 50 days.” Also high in these rallies is abusive content and whataboutery in which he mocks, derides and rails at opponents.
Easily, the mother of all diversionary tactics was demonetization, his draconian assault on the monetary system. Everyone but the mainstream TV news channels could see the widespread pain it inflicted on the average person but especially the poor and rural populations. But Modi and his cohorts refused to acknowledge just how vindictive and arbitrary it was. They laughed at first, saying the people lined up in banks and at ATMs were black money hoarders. Then they changed the subject to digital payments, cashless economy, and surgical strikes on terror funding and counterfeit banknotes.
But the questions still persist. No amount of headline management and propaganda including suspect opinion polls and feel good stories in the media can change the facts about demonetization: it was a disastrous ploy that hurt virtually the entire population of India; it was an ill-conceived attempt to divert attentions from legitimate questions about the palpable lack of governance; it was a body blow to the economy that could take years to nurse back to health.
Clearly Modi has no answers about the black money cornered by his November 8 announcement; he has no idea of when a semblance of monetary stability will be restored. But he is campaigning for the upcoming state elections as though his life depends on it, cleverly bending the narrative to suggest he is leading a fight against black money, never mind that he has been accused of taking payoffs from a dubious business enterprise and is engaged in a Watergate-style cover up, using government agencies and arbitrary transfers of inconvenient officials.
By staging event after event, finessing the narrative propagated by the pliant and unquestioning media, he hopes to dodge accountability. Many believe though this time, the impact of his idiosyncratic manoeuvre is just too overwhelming. In Gujarat 2002, where his victims were, by and large, a minority; demonetization pits the wishes and hopes of more than a billion citizens against him. That’s why Modi is going to such lengths to convince selected audiences he has the support of the vast silent majority that has suffered because of the black economy.
Back in the real world, many economists are predicting a massive deflation led by huge drops in employment, in investment, in trade. The GDP is expected to plummet to the original Hindu rate of growth.
The countdown begins now; at stake is whether people will be swayed by his fantasies or hold him responsible for the massive damage demonetization has perpetrated on the nation. The way things are going, he could be a one-term prime minister. But there’s no telling what other knee-jerk options he could pull out of his bag of amoral cunning.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://timesofindia.com, January 14, 2017.)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Misinterpreting the mandate

Narendra Modi ran the 2014 election campaign, asking for a mandate in his name; the party was secondary. In the event, he helped the BJP secure 282 seats in Parliament, an absolute majority. The last time any party singly won so many seats was in 1984 when the Congress won 404. Modi seems to have interpreted the mandate as an irreversible affirmation of his popularity as a leader, right up there with the luminaries who won India its independence, then nurtured its democracy and diversity and finally transformed it into a dynamic new player on the world stage.
There are two ways to understand Modi’s unrealistic assessment of his own popularity. One, he single-handedly took the BJP’s tally of 18 percent in the 2009 election to 31 percent from 18 percent, its traditional share of the vote. Two, Modi may have been right in interpreting that he broke through beyond the Hindutva vote to new constituencies with his message of development and governance. Clearly, though, that is a temporary surge that can disappear very quickly as Rajiv Gandhi found in 1989.
A mature leader with greater experience in national politics would have looked beyond the absolute majority. In 2004, when the Congress-led the UPA coalition to an unexpected win, Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues took the sober view that it was a rejection of the BJP’s “India Shining” narrative tacked on to the party’s baseline Hindutva agenda. Accordingly, the Congress view was the party’s communal core remained intact but new adherents, who had, by and large, voted the BJP for change, pulled out, disappointed in the lackluster performance of the Vajpayee government.
Likewise, had Modi been a more contemplative leader, he would have recognized that 69 percent of the electorate spurned both his Hindutva appeal and his promise of development and governance. Looking at a glass that is one-third full as a huge improvement over less than the traditional fifth, Modi thought he could do just about anything and get away with it. He was used to that in Gujarat, where his writ ran because the number of seats in the assembly matched the vote on the ground.
For a while it appeared as though the absolute majority in Parliament was a Teflon coating: Lalitgate, Vyapam, FTII, a series of faux pas in India and overseas, the loss in Bihar, the botched-up attempts to dislodge Congress governments in Arunachal and Uttarakhand, rank communalism and beef politics, JNU, Hyderabad, Pathankot, Kashmir, Uri…nothing seemed to stick. This emboldened him to swear and sneer at opponents, favour cronies and generally stride about the landscape like some colossus batting off scam and scandal, fraud and failure.
Until the demonetization, that is. On November 8, Modi’s megalomania finally went haywire. In one fell swoop, he knocked the bottom out of the nation’s money supply; with a dramatic announcement, he invalidated all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, a full 87 percent of the currency in circulation, valued at over 200 billion USD. The speech, as always cunning, contained a cadence of dog whistles that seemed to suggest that in his 30 months as prime minister, the Indian economy has become one of the bright spots in the world and in single-handedly achieving this, he had the support of 125 crore Indians.
His televised address will go down as the biggest display of chutzpah since George W Bush’s announcement of the “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq in 2003. Unlike Bush, who seemed to have become a neocons mascot and pretty much went along with the program, Modi conveyed the decision was his and his alone.
As the magnitude of the disruption became clear, Modi backtracked. A narrativewas issued suggesting the following: demonetization was devised by “concerned officials who wished to shield those in high positions in banks across the country from the consequences of the crony-oriented lending that they had been doing especially since 2006, the year when Narasimha Rao’s liberalization policy was fully substituted by the UPA into a faux Nehruvian economic policy that combined Fabian socialism with Wall Street ways.”
In other words, holdovers from the corrupt UPA are responsible. “Prime Minister Modi was presented with the issue in such a way that turning down the scheme was out of the question,” the narrative quoted “senior officials” as saying. It goes on to add that Modi “raised several queries, especially on the impact on the common man and only when it was conveyed to him that steps were being taken to minimize hardship did he agree to the measure.”
So there you have it. It’s all the doing of the corrupt UPA that still has its talons hooked into the bureaucracy. It’s not clear from this story if the Modi government plans to prosecute former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi for promulgating this draconian edict.
As the shock and awe receded to reveal huge lines at banks and ATMs, millions of harassed citizens and dozens of deaths, it became apparent the demonetization was flawed. Certainly, the implementation was disastrous; increasingly, however, the intent has come into question. Modi needs to answer for this cynical, ill-conceived and mean-minded “masterstroke.” What are the reasons for it: to end the black money menace? To deal with counterfeit currency? To spike terrorist funding? To speed transition to a cashless economy?
If we accept Modi’s assertion that the demonetization was aimed at bringing black money into the system, there are questions of his government’s track record. With his photo writ large over advertisements, Modi has claimed that in two-and-a-half years, his government has brought black money worth 1.25 lakh crore rupees “out in the open.” This is braggadocio considering that in its last two years, the UPA government netted 1.31 lakh crore. This is just the kind of statistical fact checkthat people have started to make. It’s clear that other than his core supporters, no one is taking Modi’s assertions at face value anymore.
He may have the support of 282 MPs but has just 31 percent of the vote. Shouldn’t he have had wide consultation? Shouldn’t he have taken the opposition into confidence? After all, everyone is on the same side as Indians first and the Opposition would have supported any move that is in the larger national interest. The reason he didn’t, leads to questions about intent. Such a massive disruption should have been planned better. That it wasn’t, leads to questions about competence.
Just 31 percent vote share, dubious intent and evident ineptness are reasons for the nationwide protest that was reported all over the world as a massive uprising against demonetization. Most credible analysts believe that such a huge blow to the economy, to citizens will cripple India for years.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 3, 2016.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The old priviligentsia and the new vulgarians

At a boarding gate in Delhi’s chaotic Terminal 1, an Armani-clad young man bristling with the accoutrements of wealth: flashy phone, big watch, designer sunglasses, tried to push past me. “Excuse me, we’re all going to board the same aircraft; it will not leave without you,” I admonished him. He stared back uncomprehendingly, insolently. It was not language that was his problem; what he didn’t understand was why I was not letting him through. The civility of queuing up seemed to be completely beyond his experience.
This young man is a representative of the newly emergent middle class that the early decades of 21st-century India have thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. This new middle class is the polar opposite of the privileged class that presided over socialist India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the vulgarians.
The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: the right connections, the right schools and Oxbridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. Similarly, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The new vulgarians make no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.
During privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites who drained state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided almost no public goods or services in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, water, public transport, or roads, no airports, telephones, jobs, no primary education, housing, public healthcare and sanitation.
The minuscule unprivileged middle class was targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate witnessed rapidly declining conditions: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation of 1975 and finally total national bankruptcy, which forced the government to fly out the country’s gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.
Forced to free the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and numerous other controls. In the process, it unleashed the long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit of the people which has transformed the economy. From being pitied as a ‘basket case’, India quickly gained admiration as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With the annual GDP growth rate doubling to 7-9 percent, millions were lifted out of poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and global business rushed in to cater to it while local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive service.
Sadly, post-independence India’s long neglected education system inhibited the transformation; it has achieved less than what it should have. Under privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them”. Thus, the ordained ones went on to Ivy leagues and Oxbridge to return to exalted positions within the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or struggled through an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble-rousers for political parties.
On the other hand, the IITs and IIMs produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift Ambassador car economy. Consequently, these heavily subsidised elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.
In sum, free India offered three types of ‘education’. The first was the classic Oxbridge type whose quality didn’t matter because you came back to an exalted place in the elite establishment. The other was technical training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations, universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs. Undergirding this is a vast pool of illiterates, the cannon fodder of India’s increasingly confrontational politics.
This unfortunate outcome is the result of continuing neglect of primary education, politicisation of secondary education, and usurpation of higher education by a technical and managerial aspirational class. At a time of an existential challenge to the very idea of India, the need is for a growing mass of the population to be schooled in the liberal arts. Illiterates, semi-literates and technocrats are simply not up to the challenge of nation-building.

(This article appeared in Education World, November 8, 2016)