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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Setting the Record Straight

A mature response by the UPA government put an end to the disruption of Parliament led by the BJP. In a passionate statement, Pranab Mukherjee said, “I may be the most illiterate man in the House, but I fail to understand what purpose is served by dividing the House on a motion that seeks adjournment over black money in foreign banks. We have no conflict of interest on the issue.
We are with you on the need to curb the menace. So why have a division?” 

Involving as it does international tax treaties and laws of privacy; extracting information on Indian holdings in foreign banks is difficult, the finance minister said. The Mukherjee speech rates, in my mind, among the better interventions in the 60-year history of Parliament. 

Mr Mukherjee said there are enough laws on the books to deal with black money squirreled away in tax havens but they have not been effective. No banks will violate their secrecy code. Warming to his theme, he asserted that the BJP was in power for six years and had plenty of time to persuade foreign banks in tax havens to divulge their Indian secrets. 

In his forceful speech, Mr Mukherjee implied that the BJP is not a serious player and simply obstructs Parliament with a view to showing the government does not enjoy majority support. In the event, the adjournment motion was soundly defeated, leaving the BJP with egg on its face. 

The BJP’s assault on foreign holdings is meant to reinforce the canards they have spread for several decades that Congress leaders, especially the Gandhi family, have money stashed away abroad. It is of a piece with Anna Hazare not inviting the NCP’s Sharad Pawar to the muchhyped debate on the Lokpal Bill issue simply because they believe he is corrupt. Mr Pawar is the leader of a major political party that has a sizeable presence both in Parliament and in the Maharashtra state assembly. It has ministers in the Union Cabinet and in the state government. 

Two decades ago, V P Singh played the same game. He campaigned in 1989 with a piece of paper saying he had the Swiss bank account numbers of various Congress leaders and their friends. He promised he would reveal names once he was voted into power. It turned out that with the support of the BJP and the Left, he did become Prime Minister and all he did was to unleash the Mandal mayhem. If we must talk of public life and political leadership, you have only to look at Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, three tall leaders who were assassinated by fanatics. Then there is Sonia Gandhi, who suffered the slings and arrows of the BJP propaganda machine for being Italian by birth; she stepped back when she was entitled to become the Prime Minister in 2004. 

Since then, the BJP has pushed the line that Mrs Gandhi is the real power and Manmohan Singh is a mere puppet. The BJP leader, L K Advani, has been voluble in seeking to portray Dr Singh as a weak leader. I served on the Congress media committee for seven years and can say, having seen it at close hand, the relationship between Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh was one of immense mutual respect. 

The question needs to be asked: did Mr Advani, home minister in December 1999, display great strength and resolve when the government cravenly succumbed to the demands of the hijackers of Indian Airlines flight 814? Could the Congress have accused him of being weak? The answer is yes, but they did not. It was a matter of national security and the Congress lent its support. 

The hijackers sought the release of three militants including Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born terrorist with ties to al Qaeda, who was implicated in the murder of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. 

The BJP had its chance from 1998 to 2004. It started out with nuclear explosions in May 1998 that altered the balance of power in the subcontinent negating the conventional edge that India enjoyed till then after Pakistan responded by staging its own nuclear tests. The curtains came down on BJP’s rule in 2004 when, turned off by an insensitive India Shining poll campaign, voters turned away. 

Also, we must never forget the 13-day BJP government in 1996. That reckless act served to underline their lack of seriousness and their belief that being in government is about power and pelf, rather than service and sacrifice. 

Fifteen years later, its obstructionism in Parliament confirms that the BJP is confused and desperate. Now, can we please get back to the business of governance?

• The BJP’s actions are about self-interest, not seriousness on issues of national interest 

• In 1996, the party displayed it puts power and pelf above service and sacrifice 

• Now, its obstructionism in Parliament confirms the BJP is confused and desperate

This article appeared in The Economic Times on December 23, 2011.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Capital Letter

December 10, 2011

American Life: Washington Journal
A Saturday afternoon at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington DC: I am waiting for my bag. It shows up and so do my hosts Gautam and Rita and with them the promise of a fabulous weekend plus.
Gautam is the most insightful person I know. You really have to read his book, The Intolerant Indian, to know how perspicacious this man is. Yet, I have always thought of him a rock star, never mind he’s been the editor of The Times of India and founding editor of DNA. His book, however, leads me to believe there is so much more to Gautam than his editor persona or his Elvis singsong.
So there he was with his wife Rita, wheeling my bag to the parking lot. We drove to his house in Chevy Chase, savoring the prospect of the next few days. As soon as we got in his car, Gautam was all about business. And his business was about pleasure. “We’re going here, there and everywhere,” he says, in his Beatles-besotted way as he pulls his car out of the parking lot.
He makes me sit shotgun while Rita sits in the back; she is the “chopdi (book) aunty,” as a friend christened her once in Goa, for her encyclopedic knowledge about everything. That afternoon, she was leading the charge against “these reactionary Republicans.” In his wry way, Gautam reminds her that I am the only one in the car who had shaken hands and had a picture taken with George W Bush, the hate figure for American liberals.
We make our way through this gorgeous city and I can’t help but marvel at the stuff that flies by the car window; stuff we see all the time on television: this monument, that government building, whatever. It is truly a beautiful city and whether you like it or not, it is the capital of the world.
Driving through the city, we cross into Maryland’s Chevy Chase, where Gautam and Rita reside. The place has an air of understated class; which also describes my hosts.
Through the stay, I spent time with their friends and loved every minute of it. What was remarkable was these friends were as comfortable with me as I was with them; as though I’d known them forever. More likely, it was the old “any friend of Gautam and Rita’s” syndrome. Conversations were enlightened and at times, enlivened by my minor intrusions into their liberal groupthink.
They seemed to be all McGovern liberals. I gave up that ghost a long time ago when it became clear unadulterated American liberalism is about class and privilege, on the one hand; on the other hand, it has a streak of populism: a patrician dislike of business and commerce. Bill Clinton was not about that and W was a foaming-in-the-mouth response to classic American liberalism.
In the several salon-type interactions Gautam organized, it became clear the hatred for W and the Republicans among liberals is entrenched and ultimately as divisive as the agenda of their hate object, George W Bush. Equally puzzling is their lukewarm support for Obama, who has brought to the national scene the art of compromise and negotiation that is part and parcel of state and city politics in this admirable country.
The flight of liberals from Obama’s camp is, dare I say it, an expression of disappointment. They seem to be saying: we elected you, our first black president; you were proof of our liberal credentials and you compromise with all manner of people and policy positions that are anathema to us?
Much like in India, the ruling dispensation here seems to have lost its way between the assaults from the religious right and indignant liberals. The fate of Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh in India will determine the future of democracy and liberalism in the world. The EU crisis, as always with the Europeans, is about money.
On the way back to Delhi, at Dulles, I contemplated the stentorian arbitrariness of the Homeland Security system that stalks all American airports. Struggling through the gauntlet of not-so-bright people, who may have been recruited from the American jail regime or street gangs, I thought to myself: America national security state and India anti-corruption zeal are probably the two greatest threats to liberal democracy.
At American airports and in Indian media, it appears as though the regimentation and anarchy are on the rise. At Dulles, O’Hare, Kennedy and various points of entry, agents of the emergent national security regime evoke fear and awe, largely because they have the power to whisk you away and throw you in jail and keep you there for months without framing charges. In India, prodded by anarchists and their anti- corruption protests, the judicial system can do much the same.
This article appeared in The Times of India on December 17, 2011.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Do leaders need a better image?

Recently, Parliament has lost precious time, due to differences on various issues. NDTV's Pankaj Pachauri talks to experts including Mr Rajiv Desai (Chief Executive, Comma) on the issue of political reforms in India.

See Video: http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/money-mantra/do-leaders-need-a-better-image/217828 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

American Life: Chicago Journal

Chicago: This city has been my sustenance for nearly four decades. I have lived away from it for many years but come here several times a year. It is where I got my first job; bought my first house; both our daughters were born there. I started a community newspaper in the 1970s. It is a legacy and the paper, India Tribune, still exists. I wrote regularly for the city’s main paper, Chicago Tribune. It was my hometown and still remains that in my mind.
In Delhi, I still can get lost in its chaotic streets. Not in this city: I can drive you any place in the blink of an eye. In the midst of Delhi’s daily mayhem, I console myself: I will go back to Chicago soon and enjoy driving. Here, they don’t just follow the rules of the road; they extend it to road manners, showing courtesy and concern.
Driving in Chicago is fun and virtually stress free. As I tool around the city, I find wonderful new restaurants and bars with great music; I also do the rounds of the usual stores that I have shopped at for the past 30 years.
Many of my friends and acquaintances rib me about my Chicago fixation. For me, though, Chicago is about change. The city has evolved into one of the most livable cities in the world. Everything that happens here is about tomorrow. Every time I am here, something has changed for the better.
The swirling currents in this city assure you that tomorrow will be better than today. As such, it is the quintessential American city. It honors the past but embraces the future with zeal and innovation.
I am fortunate. My friends here are on the top of the world. My experience is the high end: the best restaurants, great parties, intellectual engagement; most of all, the freedom and enjoyment to drive all over the city or take the “El” or just walk everywhere..
I used to go back to Chicago several times a year; now it’s maybe twice a year. And I think to myself, how long will you keep on coming here? The answer, much as I dislike it, is less often. My adopted hometown is headed the way of Surat, the buzzing city in Gujarat, where I was born.
Surat was my first love and my grandfather’s improbably large house there was the port in my storm-tossed adolescence. When he died in 1966, I never went back until 2001. In a Times middle, after my visit there, I wrote:
“Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. Then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.”
It is the same with regard to Bombay, where I lived in Juhu in the Theosophical Colony; and later in Court Royal in Byculla Bridge. These houses were my anchors; I thought they’d go on forever.
When we bought our condo in a restored old apartment house in Oak Park, the first suburb west of Chicago, I thought we had struck roots. Here, our first daughter was born; then we bought a wonderful house in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park, where our second daughter was born.
We thought we had achieved permanence. Just five years later, we stood crying as the trucks rolled out to take our belongings to Delhi and bade farewell to our friends.
And I thought these were all permanent addresses…
…turns out, there are no permanent addresses.
My recent Chicago sojourn hammered in my head the need to deal with impermanence. Everything you got used to and thought would last forever changes and with it, your ability to adapt.
All that you build around you is to get a sense of security and predictability. You buy a house, spruce it up, eat good food, drink great wines, go on holidays and sup at the fount of plenty. You convince yourself that this will go on and on.
Things change. You may become wise and mature; but the clock of mortality keeps ticking.
On the other hand, all these years, my project has been to catch up and establish new relationships with old friends. In this, I have been spectacularly successful.
Old friends have become new; old relationships have been revived with a new idiom. It is a heady feeling to renew friendships that seemed permanent, got lost in the way of making a living and are now back in a last-ditch battle to give meaning to life beyond professional pursuits or financial achievement.
And it seems to stop this ticking clock and deters ominous feelings about the limitations of time.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 8, 2011.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Evergreen Optimism

As I stood there shaking hands with him when he came to receive the Dada Saheb Phalke award, the years seemed to melt away. It was as though I was in my pre-teens, having just watched Nau Do Gyarah , Munimji , Paying Guest or whichever film I first saw starring Dev Anand.

I can remember going straight into the bathroom, wetting my hair and trying to work up the stylish pompadour. Dev Anand was my absolute favourite screen personality and I religiously caught every single film he ever made.

My friends say I am an inveterate optimist, that's why I came back to India after nearly two decades in the US. The optimism has its roots in my early exposure to Dev Anand's films.

Since the late 1950s and through the early 1960s, he was my favourite hero, not necessarily because he was a good actor but because he stood for hope.

While Dilip Kumar represented the tragedy of the Indian condition, Raj Kapoor the misbegotten ideology that messed up India, Dev Anand stood for what India could be, smiling and stylish with a song on the lips.

Dev Anand represents the most modern of all creative idioms: Find talented people and let them grow. Through his organisation, Navketan, we were introduced to Guru Dutt, S D Burman and dozens of others, who entertained generations with movies and music that today are part of our memories.

About the time Dev Anand began to be recognised as an entertainer, the operative mood in Indian films was down-in-the-mouth, a victim of the colonial experience. The theme song was Duniya mein hum ayein hain to jeena hi padega, jeevan hai agar zahar to peena hi padega .

Along came Dev Anand with his worldview expressed best in the song from the film Hum Dono : Barbadiyon ka shok manana fuzul tha, har fikr ko dhuein mein udata chala gaya .

His films filled me with hope, the ultimate global value that was in short supply in India at that time.

Congratulations on the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and thank you Dev Saheb, you instilled me with optimism about India before I reached my teens.

In the words of your immortal song: Jeevan ke safar mein raahi... de jaate hain yaadein . Indeed, you have given me, a fellow traveller in the world, a rich lode of memories, never mind your lyricist's other lines, which I have left out in the ellipsis.

This article appeared in The Times of India on February 16, 2004.

I am posting it as a tribute to my personal hero, Dev Anand, who died on December 4, 2011.