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Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Christmas: The Mystery of Faith

Growing up as a child in Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, the beach was my front yard and I wandered on the sands, marveling at the mystery of the sea. My grandfather told me the sea is a connector and that on the other side was another country where some young guy like me was being told the same thing by his grandfather. I always wondered how the equivalent of me on the other side of the ocean lived. Did he eat the same food; did he speak English, Gujarati and a smattering of Hindi? Was there another Bombay on the other seashore?

Those days I was a student at the colony’s Besant Montessori, where I had many friends, also from the same exclusive (not about wealth) community. An older boy, Freddie, if I recall…it’s been too long and the memory may not be exact…used to take me for long walks on the beach to Versova with someone older. I cannot remember if the older person was his father or older brother or uncle. I do remember it was breathtakingly beautiful, like Goa’s Morjim beach today.

They used to catch crabs, bring them home, boil them in an aluminum container and that was dinner. I couldn't for the life of me understand how people could eat these horribly ugly creatures. But Versova was gorgeous. So when we said our morning prayer at the Besant Montessori: “Thank you God for the world so sweet…,” I always said “Thank you God for Versova.”

Freddie (and I’m not even sure if that was his name; it’s been so long) was a Roman Catholic from Goa, who used to go every Sunday with his family to Juhu Church for something called “Mass.” In Gujarati, the word refers to meat and having seen him eat the crabs, I figured that’s what it was all about. Later, when I was much older, when we went to live in Christ Church Lane in Byculla Bridge, most of my friends were Goan Catholic. I got to know the Catholic belief in Jesus, how he was born of a virgin and how he died for our sins. They too used to go Sunday to church to affirm the belief.

Much later, when I befriended a woman, a Goan Catholic, who became my wife, I went to Christmas Mass with her and have done so ever since. Knowing the Jesus story, I felt kind of cool with the whole ceremony. Each time, the priest said, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.””Faith?” Transcending reason? That was not in my vocabulary. Over the years, this “mystery of faith” concept lingered in my consciousness. I knew in the back of my mind that in the run-of-the-mill sense, faith has to do with superstition and human relationships.

What struck me at Christmas Mass today, where I held my granddaughter in the chapel at Delhi’s Vatican Embassy, the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, was that she was the “mystery of faith.” It was her first Christmas and she looked upward and saw my wife, who was in the balcony, singing with her choir. She waved, yelled “oy” loudly, much to the embarrassment of her parents and her aunt and cousin; but when she blew her a kiss, almost everyone melted. It was like “Joy to the World.”

So what is this mystery of faith? We had no time to ponder these philosophical issues when our daughters came along. We just soldiered on, bringing them up the best way we could. Decades later, I am beginning to understand. The faith thing is about the continuation of the species in general and the family in particular. We don’t know, other than in the biological sense, how children attain consciousness. There is some sort of an app in the human genetic code that when the biology is done, the child develops a personality and asserts her individuality. 

This is the mystery of faith.

True, Maria Montessori studied this early childhood development by observing children from birth. True, there are biological explanations of how children learn and all that. But holding my granddaughter in church today and have the Nuncio (Ambassador) proclaim the “mystery of faith” while the choir sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” I experienced an epiphany: faith is about unconditional love. My mind went back to my wedding day; the birth of my daughters. Yep: it is about love and it is boundless.

As the page of my life turns golden, I do think every now and then about mortality. When I held my granddaughter at the Mass tonight, I realized faith is also about eternity. It’s easy to love our own daughters and we did and do. Bringing them up was an existential challenge. To hold my post millennial granddaughter in my arms while listening to the proclamation of faith and its mystery was a spiritual experience

She just plain showed up in our life and gave me a glimpse of immortality.

Hallelujah!

PS: When the Mass was done, there was really no “Silent Night,” the granddaughter was all over the place, long past her bedtime, hanging with other kids like a party animal, using her limited vocabulary and her limitless cuteness to stir things up. Finally, when her mother picked her up to take her home, she protested. The cry of a future yet to unravel! A glimpse of immortality. The mystery of faith!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Last Word: Have Oppn MPs misunderstood the nature of lobbying?

Have Opposition MPs misunderstood the nature of lobbying as well as its legal status?


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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Debate: BJP's Walmart attack

The issue of Wal-Mart lobbying on Monday (December 10) led to a political storm with Opposition creating pandemonium in the Rajya Sabha and promising to create further trouble tomorrow by pressing its demand for a probe and a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a debate moderated by TIMES NOW's Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, panelists -- Renuka Chaudhary, Natl. Spokesperson & MP, Rajya Sabha Congress; Swaminathan Aiyar, Consulting Editor, Economic Times; Venkaiah Naidu, Senior leader & MP, Rajya Sabha, BJP; Derek O Brien, Chief Whip & MP, TMC; Rajiv Desai, Chairman & CEO, Comma Consulting debate the issue.


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Monday, December 17, 2012

Advocacy of interest or corporate bribery?

"...to secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on the power brokerages and influences peddlers in Delhi and other states."

Though the BJP's noisemakers may not appreciate it, through their hysterical outbursts against Wal-Mart, they may have unwittingly sponsored a major reform in pursuit of good governance. In its misbegotten campaign against the American firm, the BJP threatened to disrupt Parliament again, as it has done repeatedly for the past nine years. This prompted Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath to agree to a public inquiry into the company’s lobbying activities in India. Though a spectacularly ignorant BJP spokesman suggested that the minister’s assent to an inquiry proved their point, the truth is that the UPA’s quick response saved the day and it appears that much overdue legislation will now be enacted.

The BJP’s empty-vessel strategy to corner the government on lobbying by Wal-Mart boomeranged in Parliament because of Mr Nath’s finesse. Reports say the government will appoint a retired judge to conduct the inquiry. Most likely, the exercise will stretch out and will hold no more sensation value; the BJP will find some other dubious platform from which to rant against the UPA government. As such, the inquiry will join the long list of commissions that have provided not much more than sinecures for superannuated law officers.

On the other hand, the government could actually use the inquiry to clean up the murk that surrounds lobbying in India. To secure the public interest, it is vital that the government shine a light on power brokerages and influence peddlers in Delhi and in the various states.

A thoughtful judge at the helm of the inquiry might recommend the establishment of a Parliamentary registry that provides credentials to lobbyists, individual as well as firms. In accepting such credentials, lobbyists would be required to disclose their clients and fees received. The registry could go a step further and demand from various government ministries, departments and agencies periodic reports on any contacts they may have had with lobbyists.

Recommendations of this nature could bring much needed transparency to the conduct of public affairs; you won’t have a BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting bribes or a DMK minister A Raja playing fast and loose with the allocation of telecom spectrum. A whole horde of middlemen, the kind you see at power lunches in The Taj or cocktail parties at The Oberoi, will stand exposed. The business of lobbying could become professional and cleansed of the stain of corruption.

Lobbying is a time-honored practice that dates at least as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta in 13th-century England, from whence sprang the right of association and the right to petition authority, the cornerstones of the lobbying profession.

Closer to home and to the age, lobbying has had many beneficial outcomes. These include campaigns for universal primary education, against sex trafficking, to lower taxes on toiletries and cosmetics, to amend laws governing the business of financial services, courier firms and cable operators, among others. They have been successful and have benefited the public interest as much as the interests of those who sponsored them.

This article appeared in Hindustan Times on December 16, 2012.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Andy capped - How to outsmart the smartest of smartphones

Bunny recently outsmarted a smartphone. We’d heard of smartphones. Like we’d heard of flying saucers, and of the giant Hadron collider which scientists have been using to discover whether the Higgs-Boson god particle actually exists. But, as in the case of flying saucers and the giant Hadron collider, we’d never actually met a smartphone. Not until our friend Rajiv got himself one.

Rajiv – who runs a PR company and has been known to hob as well as nob with people like Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit (though the rumour that he calls her Auntiji is probably not based on fact) and the current tenant of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prez Pranabda – has always been a well-informed and generally clued-up guy. But ever since he got the smartphone he’s become like a brainiac with a genius-level IQ, a sort of Viswanathan Anand who’s been taking IIT-JEE coaching classes on the sly, or an Einstein who’s been given a prescription for Dabur Chyawanprash Golis for Gaining Gyan.



Something or the other, to which no one present seems to know the answer, crops up in conversation. Like who won the last but one assembly by-election in the Phalana-Dhimka district of Gujarat. Or whether it was Mukesh or Mohammed Rafi who did the voice-over for the hero in the Dilip Kumar-starrer Naya Daur. Or what the mean temperature in Vladivostok is during the winter solstice.

And before you know it, Rajiv has whipped out his smartphone, performed some tantric jantar-mantar with it, and come up with the answer to whatever the question was: the winner of the Phalana-Dhimka by-election, the playback singer for Naya Daur, the mean winter solstice Vladivostok temperature. In Celsius, as well as Fahrenheit. So there.

It’s spooky. It’s the electronic age equivalent of a magical brass lamp with an inbuilt know-it-all genie at your command. And Rajiv is not the only person we know who’s got his own rent-agenie in the form of a smartphone. A number of our other friends have got them as well.

The result is that what is called peer pressure – also known as keeping up with the Joneses, though of course in India it wouldn’t be the Joneses, but the Suris, or the Mathurs, or some such – began to build up on Bunny to join the smartphone set. Being so technologically challenged that for a long time i imagined the keyboard formulation called QWERTY to be an umbrella organisation for LGBT fraternities, i was automatically excluded from any such pressure. My getting a smartphone would be like Manmohan Singh being given a gift voucher for Elocution Lessons on Public Speaking. Gee, thanks. But what the heck am i supposed to do with the darn thing?

So Bunny dutifully began to bone up on smartphones. She found out that the name of the genie inside smartphones was Android, Andy to friends. And Andy had something called apps, which are to Andy what abs are to John Abraham, a sort of existential defining trait: i apps, therefore i am.

Thanks to its apps, your personalized Andy could play you music, show you a film, tell you what time it was on the planet Mars, and teach you Gangnam style horse dancing in Seven Easy Steps. All this for about 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change.

Then Bunny asked herself a question: did she really want – for 30,000 bucks, plus or minus change – something that would every day, in every way show her how much smarter it was than her? How smart – or how dumb – was that? That’s when Bunny outsmarted the smartest smartphone ever invented. By deciding not to buy a smartphone.

This article by Jug Suraiya appeared in Times of India on December 14, 2012.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nostalgia live

We should have been called the Magnificent Seven. I thought of this 40 years later. There were seven of us; one died; one didn’t come. So we were left with the Infamous Five last weekend. Not to bore you or anything but aside of me there were Harry, Brave, Chua and Mirchi, (forgive me guys for using the given names), who were inseparable at Baroda’s MS University’s Faculty of Technology.  Harry came from Perth in Western Australia, Chua came from Singapore and Brave and Mirchi came from Bombay for the reunion.
Before anything else, I can only say that it was an amazing feat for busy people in their sixties; not that anyone behaved that old. The guards were down and the conversation was not that different than the ones we had sitting together on the wall of the MSU hostels. Except there was a lot more depth, given the 40 years of experience since we last met together. We talked about our lives and our time together in Baroda. And the swear words!So Harry has a respected career in the oil business and is still the innocent; Mirchi runs a successful engineering business and still remains the best standup comic I have known; Brave actually runs the world with his phenomenal perspective on the human condition; Chua, the genius, virtually ran Citibank globally and now plays golf.
When we knew each other in Baroda, we were mostly broke and way behind the academic curriculum. We had dreams. And one way or the other, we may have realized them. Chua, aka Venky, put the whole thing in perspective: “We are normal people, married to the same woman for all these years, with wonderful children and now grandchildren.” And Venky, being Chua, asked: “Are we really boring people?”
This whole business of the reunion began when I sent my friends a reminder of the fabulous stuff we did in Baroda as mere kids. We were in the Shakespeare Society; we ran a newspaper called Implosion; we set up Beaux Esprit, an event management unit that held several rock concerts. Plus most of all, we went to almost every night show in the local theater, regardless of the movie. We even saw a South Indian move called “Danger Biscuit,” which Venky says he uses to screw everyone’s happiness in the charade game.
In the two days we spent together, we felt connected. Yes, the connection was engineering school and the hostels; but there seemed to be more: why would anyone come from all over the world to have dinner?  Clearly, we all liked each other, never mind that we may have had differences. What was obvious we enjoyed each other and admired what we had done in the 40 years that had passed. Actually, the relationship now was more civil and fond than we ever experienced in Baroda. Most of us had met individually over the years but never together. 
The reunion was unique: we all realized it was a special occasion. The chances of this ever happening again are remote. My view, echoed by Venky, is we should meet again; life has raced past and it is wonderful to put a brake on it and catch up with friends who influenced it in ways we just now begin to realize. We all got along in fabulous way. Plus we had better food and drinks since we last met together in some dhaba in Baroda.
Our reunion got me thinking. When we last met together, we had the world ahead of us in which to make a mark. Forty years later, we’ve done what we can in many different ways. The general take among us was we’ve all not done too badly. My take on this is we can do much more. Regardless of what I may or may not have achieved, my trip in life has been to reach out to friends who have influenced my life. Turns out they are all high achievers.It is more satisfying than any professional or financial achievement. 
The post Diwali weekend with old friends endorsed two things: one, all my friends have done well for themselves; two, all our wings have roots in our undergraduate days of a basic life that may be difficult for us to live today. All I can hope is this reunion will lead to new relationships and that we can meet again and explore beyond hellos the ties that bind us.
For me, Marcel Proust said it: Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
What a wonderful weekend after the triumph of good over evil!


This article appeared on Times of India website on November 21, 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An unforgiving spotlight


American media’s love affair with Obama has turned sour
In a more sophisticated way than their Indian counterparts, the US media are focusing more on form rather than substance while covering the 2012 presidential race. So we were told that US President Barack Obama ‘lost’ the first debate to challenger Mitt Romney. In the debate between the running mates, Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was deemed to have stood his ground against the more experienced Joe Biden, who’s been vice-president for four years. This was just because Ryan used some faraway place names in Iraq and Afghanistan and uttered some cue-card rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear programme.
Thanks to such superficial coverage, the opinion polls have sent out confusing signals and the media have reported its swings and roundabouts with alacrity, but has not paused to think that it might be the result of their racetrack coverage. Thus, the Obama-Biden ticket was winning, especially in the swing states; after the debates, however, the incumbents have lost ground among the undecided, independent voters. With the election just a few weeks away, the polls suggest a close race.
The only other time the signals were so muddled was during the Bush-Gore election 12 years ago. At that time too, the media spotlight on form obfuscated key issues about the candidates’ views on domestic and foreign policy.
In the current face-off, Obama, whose victory in 2008 was to have presaged a shift away from form to substance, is mired in the bogs of unfulfilled expectations. The hope of change stirred by his 2008 campaign has long withered. His 2012 campaign has been lacklustre and his supporters ravaged by the economic hard times and confused by his human rights ambivalence have lost enthusiasm for him.
The Republican campaign seeks to portray Obama as an incompetent leader who has fallen back on old Democratic tax-and-spend ways. Judging from what he said in the debate, a flummoxed Obama seems to have reverted to the saws of the Democratic Party: economic nationalism, rich versus poor — a divisive agenda. As for his healthcare and social prescriptions, the Republicans slyly suggest that four more years of Obama would turn the US into a European-style social democracy (just look where Europe is?).
In the Romney-Ryan narrative, under Obama, giant bureaucracies in the departments of commerce, labour and environment will hold sway over America’s economic future, which is a problem not just for Republican supporters but uncommitted voters who trend towards the Right. Also, Obama has said very little about the impact of the homeland security department that is seen to trample constitutional and human rights with intrusive policies. This is a problem for many Democratic voters and leftish independents.
No wonder Romney is catching up with the incumbent. The challenger was successful as governor of a liberal state, Massachusetts, from 2003 to 2007. He had a moderately good record in office and ran an enlightened, fiscally conservative administration that did pretty much what Obama is advocating on social issues. In the current campaign though, he has moved sharply to the right on social issues and disavowed his gubernatorial record on healthcare. He has chosen to mouth homilies about domestic (let’s put America back to work) and foreign (let’s take out Iran’s nukes) policy.
Romney’s campaign managers have sensed that Obama has been cut adrift by the media, after their 2008 love affair. As such, the media coverage focuses more on his negatives, shunning substantial analysis of what the Obama administration may or may not have accomplished. This is what happened to Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008: he was painted as a part of the establishment being Bill Clinton’s vice-president and so a magnet for the negatives that Clinton attracted in his second term. In the event, Bush won the controversial election. The rest, as they say, is history.
A version of this post appeared in the Hindustan Times, October 22, 2012 

Keywords: Obama, Romney, US presidential election, debates, campaign

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The splintered social contract

I wrote this piece in 2007. Thought I'd re-circulate it because to me it still seems relevant. I've edited it.

In September 1897, an eight-year-old girl in New York City, Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun. She wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus.
The letter drew a response from Francis Church, a lead editorial writer for the paper.
Church’s editorial, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, is widely regarded by students of journalism as perhaps the most famous edit ever written in America; it was the subject of a film starring Charles Bronson as Church.
Writing about the “skepticism of skeptical age”, Church reassured his interlocutor that Santa Claus did exist: “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy...”
As a graduate student specialising in editorial writing, I can remember virtually memorising Church’s words and hoping that some day mine would have such meaning. With Christmas upon us, the edit came to mind.
What happened to wide-eyed innocence? The question is relevant in India today, where cynicism and guile have hardened hearts all across the nation.
Humanism and compassion are stored on the highest, most inaccessible shelves of values.
Hard-bitten people have emerged as leaders in business, politics, education, entertainment and media. They hold sway over the national discourse.
Intent on getting ahead, they push and shove, scream and shout, lie and cheat. It’s about accumulation of power and wealth: the worst form of capitalism, without the moral anchor that the European Enlightenment provided in the West.
In 21st century India, while the economy booms, the social contract is splintered by divisive caste and communal agendas raised by power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing bureaucrats, not to mention hard-boiled industrialists.
Such Dickensian characters as the Artful Dodger, the scoundrel who dodges responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and Ebenezer Scrooge, the killjoy who has come to symbolise a lack of charity, are emulated; gentleness, guilelessness and similar values of what the editorial writer Church called “eternal light” are discounted, even scorned.
It is almost as if existence is a zero-sum game in which victory is never sweeter unless it’s at the cost of someone else.
This mindset has a deep and lasting influence on public affairs. The individual, corporate and political values that flow from such thinking eschew the larger cause, the public good, the common weal.
Conflict is the central theme and the media seem to wallow in it. Celebrities, bureaucrats, companies and political parties are featured like gladiators of ancient Rome, while bloodthirsty citizens watch from the coliseum stands.
In this sport, only these groups count: the players and the media..
Beyond that there is filth, disease, poverty and ignorance that provide compelling evidence of the failure of governance.
Given such lopsided public priorities, there are garish malls, office buildings and apartment houses rising from the middle of a rubble strewn landscape.
Everywhere there is confusion: badly designed roads, unmanageable traffic, overburdened public transport, ill-equipped public hospitals and stressed out citizens who contract the diseases of wealth such as coronary heart disease and diabetes without the requisite bank balances to pay for their treatment; never mind those poor people who die of easily treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.
As the twelwth year of the millennium recedes into history, it is clear that that a Las Vegas bonanza style seems to have overtaken the practice of public affairs.
Public policy must be rescued from the roulette tables and the slot machines of zero-sum thinking.
Winning and losing; all manner of one-upmanship and conflict, true, are  major drivers of history, to be sure.  Without a social contract, India is a victim of the Las Vegas approach that promotes short-term thinking when what is sorely needed is a long term vision to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; to give some hope to the mess of villages, towns and cities that are hellholes.
Let me hasten to add that I am not advocating a return to the days of central planning when deadly serious bureaucrats focused on the long term objective of peace on earth even as the neighbourhood fell apart.
This article appeared on DNA website on December 18, 2007

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The rise of righteous reaction

Mahatmas with a small m

Through my pre-teen and teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a medical doctor, a theosophist, a Congress party activist and a compassionate human being. He was my ideal.

One summer when my siblings and I were visiting his home in Surat, someone told him I had eaten meat. Grandfather wasn’t incensed or censorious; he simply said “We don’t eat meat.” I was in awe of this man who attracted eminences like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, George Arundale, among others to his home. When he said something, I listened, deferentially.

However on this occasion his comment rankled. Grandfather seemed to be suggesting that because of caste and religious strictures, our family was vegetarian. Having eaten a mutton samosa at a friend’s house, I thought to myself that his reaction was over the top. I knew he was tolerant and liberal; his extensive library included books by Bertrand Russell and other free thinkers.  Thanks to him, we were spared worst traditions of caste and religion.

This incident haunted me over the years. Since I admired him, I dismissed the episode as a one-off occurrence. Nevertheless, it came back to haunt me in the mid-1970s, when I was living in the US.  Our high-profile India Forum group in Chicago became a magnet for NGOs and activists of all types, looking at times for financial support but mostly to spread the gospel of the jholewala alternative.  I termed it “the rise of righteous reaction.”

The ascent of the righteous activist posing alternative, mostly woolly and impractical models, was like a riptide generated by the Navnirman wave.  Led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a Congress party dissenter, the movement was against the perceived corruption and, in a phrase cherished and propagated by the jholewala, ‘anti-people’ development policies of the Indira Gandhi government of the time.

Training his guns on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narayan called for “Total Revolution,” a Maoist-style leap backward into anarchy which prompted the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. Condemned worldwide as a dictatorial regression, the Emergency destroyed the government’s credibility. The Congress Party was defeated in the general election of 1977.

However, even before the first non-Congress government assumed office in Delhi, things had begun to go awry. During what he thought was a revolutionary war; Narayan had called on the armed forces to revolt against the government. That’s when the steady erosion of his vastly inflated stature began, helped in no small measure by the subsequent fumbling and ineptitude of the Janata government which came to power in 1977.

Narayan’s movement had its roots in the margins of the Gandhian movement. The Mahatma’s success with the independence struggle allowed him to exhume and propagate an anti-Western, anti-modernity ideology drawn from his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Mohandas Gandhi challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernization agenda, recommending simplistic notions like village republics, self-sufficiency, nature cure and vegetarianism as national alternatives.

Like many students who studied in the US after him, Narayan became a Karl Marx admirer. However, when he returned to India he found his position pre-empted by Nehruvian economic policies that emphasized central planning and nationalization of core industries. For him and his acolytes, it was a short step to the vituperative and impractical edicts of Hind Swaraj.

The Navnirman movement was confused at birth. It combined the anti-Western, anti-modern strains of Gandhian utopianism and the anti-market, anti-constitutional Marxist dogma. This weird and unsustainable campaign fell apart as casually as it was formed.

After the failure of Narayan’s movement, the role of righteous reaction became marginal. The protest against the Narmada Dam project led by a global coalition of NGOs gave it a second wind. Through the 1980s, the Indian jholewala brigade became involved with relatively benign campaigns against child labor, deforestation, and for employment generation, education, healthcare, among others.  

In 2004, the newly-elected UPA government, recognizing their contribution to social welfare and poverty alleviation, sought to co-opt the jholewala brigade into the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s deliberations focused on welfare and (Citizen’s) rights rather than the legitimacy of the government and the political system. But a more virulent strain of Jholewala activism surfaced with the appearance on the national stage of Anna Hazare and his disciples.

The Hazare protest went further than Narayan in challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution and the credibility of the political system. Sophisticated in the use of propaganda, the rural chieftain and his jholewala acolytes cleverly projected their protest as being against corruption when actually it is a political assault on the UPA government and its leading party, the Congress. Like Narayan, Hazare over-reached and today, his protest has degenerated into a media relations effort.

Is the tradition of smug righteousness so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it can only be contained, never eradicated? Who will be the next mahatma (with a small m)?

This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.

www.educationworldonline.net

Monday, July 30, 2012

Paid Media Lacks Credibility

In an exclusive interview with Image Management, Rajiv Desai, Chairman and Chief Executive of Comma Consulting, discusses how the PR industry can grow in India, and how it needs to change.

Q. Some industry experts suggest that over 80% of the PR business is split between Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. How can the industry fuel pan India growth?
To fuel the PR industry’s pan- India growth, we need more business. The next big markets are away from the metros. For example, with Bharti, we worked in teeny- tiny rural areas, because that was their rural push. The next big thrust has actually been in telecom; there are now telecom related businesses in hinterland area. When you have businesses, then you have jobs, and the growth of business fuels the need for PR.  I think that is what can really help – more expansive businesses as opposed to centralized ones. It s not that  India didn’t have a very enlightened policy  because even during the Nehruvian era we had these public sectors mines, steel plants and chemical plants  in remote areas like Chattisgarh. That was enlightenment, but also a sort of forced migration into the hinterland. And without the appropriate the connectivity’s, they became white elephants.
With these modern businesses like telecom, and to some extent insurance and banking, they first built the linkages and then they locate. Whereas, in the earlier one’s you were sort of pushed into it because of the policy decision. That’s the kind of thing that will help. If for example if they stop hindering retail FDI and actually let it happen – this will create a huge rural pan-India growth.
Q. What is the biggest challenge facing the Indian PR industry?
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Q. Do you see paid media as a tool or threat to the PR Industry?
If you think that the be-all –and-end- all of PR is to be in the media, then you might find this to be a factor. But it’s not for us. We are in the media because it serves a different purpose. Not just to have someone’s mug in there and make them feel great. So, if the be all and end of your PR campaign is media coverage, we get more coverage. We are a small company but no one generates the kind of coverage we do.
If it doesn’t serve the client’s purpose, then media coverage may not be the thing. If it doesn’t serve the media’s purpose, then you influence the media. Any paid media lacks creditability.
Q. How does Comma Consulting set themselves apart from the other PR agencies in India?
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This article appeared on Image Management India Website on July 24, 2012.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics


“For the last few weeks, the crowd puller on the streets of New Delhi’s official and diplomatic quarter has been Rajesh Khanna, a former film star in a country wild about movies and a Congress candidate for Parliament in nationwide elections that begin Monday,” Barbara Crossette wrote in The New York Times in May of 1991.


Mr. Khanna was pulled in to counter the star power of the “sobersided, meticulously articulate, scrupulously courtly” Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, she wrote, who was giving Rajiv Gandhi stiff competition.


“Mr. Khanna is equally renowned for once having been married to an Indian Marilyn Monroe called Dimple Kapadia. When she agreed to show up on the hustings for old times’ sake, the crowds were ecstatic,” she wrote.


Not all of them, though. 
Khushwant Singh, a columnist, author and former newspaper editor, says that the appearance on the Congress Party ticket of Mr. Khanna, whom he describes as “some kind of buffoon,” has made him decide to boycott the election, the first time he has done so since he began voting.
Rajiv Desai, who runs a public affairs consultancy in New Delhi and occasionally writes on politics and the evolution of political campaigning in India, thinks the celebrity candidate is a sign of political maturity.
In an interview, he said that the attraction to politics of public figures of any kind is a sign that the base of the candidate pool is widening and campaigns are becoming more sophisticated. In South Asia — certainly in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh — opposing parties have tended to regard each other as ideological if not mortal enemies, and have found it hard to work together after elections.
“These celebrity politicians don’t treat politics as deathly serious,” Mr. Desai said. “They can look at the other parties as rivals, not enemies.”
“In this election, although Congress is likely to get the largest number of seats, there is a chance that it may have to work in coalition with other parties. It will have to tread warily.
This article appeared on The New York Times on July 18, 2012.


When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Asleep at The Wheel?


He drank heavily in his prime and still enjoys a nightly whiskey or two at 74. India's leader takes painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis) and has trouble with his bladder, liver and his one remaining kidney. A taste for fried food and fatty sweets plays havoc with his cholesterol. He takes a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor's orders and is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, then, would be an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal. But for four years the Indian Prime Minister's grandfatherly hands have held the subcontinent back from tumbling into war. Despite the fact that he heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituency stuffed with extremists, Vajpayee has ambitiously pursued peace with neighbor and rival Pakistan, even traveling to the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore in 1999, vainly hoping to bury the bloody animus of the past and start an era of good feelings.

With 1 million soldiers facing each other at high alert on the India-Pakistan border, those days seem long ago. At the same dangerous time, Vajpayee's stewardship is looking less and less comforting. The frail bachelor seems shaky and lost, less an aging sage than an ordinary old man. He forgets names, even of longtime colleague and current Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, and during several recent meetings he appeared confused and inattentive. After a meeting with a Western Foreign Minister, his appearance was described by one attending diplomat as "half dead." At a rare press conference last month in Srinagar, the Prime Minister tottered to the podium. Indian TV crews are asked to film him from the waist up to avoid showing his shuffling gait to find he had trouble understanding questions, repeatedly relying on whispered prompts from Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. Even then Vajpayee stumbled over his replies. "He is very alert when he is functional," says one BJP worker. "But there are very few hours like that." Adds one Western diplomat: "We have a lot of conversations about his health. Some of his mannerisms come down to his personal style. But some of it is definitely spacey stuff."

While no one questions that key decisions on national security and foreign policy are still made by Vajpayee, the focus is now turning to the two men behind the throne: Vajpayee's low-key National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, and Vajpayee's hard-line BJP colleague of 50 years, 72-year-old Advani. The consensus among observers and diplomats is that the hawkish Advani is preparing to succeed Vajpayee at the next national elections due by late 2004. "There is no doubt he is the Prime Minister in waiting," remarks a diplomat.

In the meantime, Vajpayee has undergone a sudden conversion from peacemaker to warmonger primarily in response to political pressures. This year's standoff on the border shows the dovish Prime Minister has accepted the argument that war or the threat of it works. In comments that set off alarm bells around the world, Vajpayee last month spoke twice of an impending "decisive battle" against India's "enemy." Although he has repeatedly said that he does not want war, the Prime Minister has sound strategic reasons for ratcheting up the rhetoric. Since Sept. 11, he has found the international community more sympathetic to the idea of India waging its own war on terror against jihadis in the contended state of Jammu and Kashmir, where many of them have been inserted by Pakistan. And it plays well for India to keep the pot boiling: New Delhi can claim a victim's solidarity with the U.S., avoid addressing the awkward issue of its heavy-handed rule in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and just possibly get Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to actually shut down the jihadi industry on his territory, ending what India calls a "proxy war."

Last week, Musharraf told visiting U.S Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that he was going to put a permanent end to terrorist incursions into India. Vajpayee's government promised in turn some de-escalation measures, though a withdrawal of troops from the border has been ruled out. The big risk, however, is that no matter what Musharraf does, there are enough jihadis already in Kashmir to keep hammering India with suicide bombs and death squads. Four people were killed by terrorists Friday night in Kashmir, even as heavy shelling continued at the frontier and an unmanned Indian spy plane was shot down by the Pakistani air force. Any small spark can still push Vajpayee to deploy his soldiers in some punitive counterattack on Pakistan, which can lead to full-scale war.

Meanwhile, Vajpayee's colleagues carp that he's still not being hawkish enough. "Any Prime Minister that takes action against Pakistan will sweep the elections, but Vajpayee is reluctant and that will definitely damage the BJP," complains BJP hard-liner B.P. Singhal. "As the Prime Minister, for him, national interest is above party interest."

Tellingly, Vajpayee was forced to give up his moderate stance and attend to his party in response to a domestic disaster, not an international crisis. On Feb. 27, a group of Muslims firebombed a train in the western state of Gujarat murdering 58 Hindus. The reprisals against Muslims in Gujarat were fierce, unpoliced, and went on for weeks, killing some 2,000 according to human rights groups. (The official death toll, widely disbelieved, is half this.) On April 4, Vajpayee reacted with revulsion, urging Hindu rioters to rediscover "a sense of unity and brotherhood." Asked the published poet: "Burning alive men, women and children? Are we human or not? Or has a demon taken over us?" His office briefed newspapers on the likely candidates to replace Gujarat state leader Narendra Modi, a member of the BJP who was accused of complicity in the violence, or at least, ineptness in containing it. But scarcely a week later, on April 12, Vajpayee changed his tune. Nothing more was said about sacking Modi. And speaking to an audience in Goa, Vajpayee shocked the country by declaring: "These days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence ... they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats."

In the subcontinental context, that kind of statement is a license for the killings to continue. According to diplomatic sources, the burden of the crisis made Vajpayee unwell. Adds Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the Indian weekly Outlook magazine, Advani and his supporters used the illness to gather the party's hard-line core and read him the riot act. "The party basically gave him no room to maneuver," says Mehta. "He knew he could have lost his job and he had neither the spirit nor the physical strength to fight back. So he just gave up his moderate stance and fell in line. Now he's just a party mascot, a puppet of the hard-liners."

With an enfeebled Vajpayee at the helm, the prospect of war with Pakistan becomes more real. "Advani would really like to finish this proxy war, and perhaps do a bit more," says one diplomat. India has none of the checks and balances designed during the cold war to prevent a nuclear launch in anger. (Although India's military is comfortingly professional, nonpolitical and obedient to civilian control. The country's nukes are controlled by government scientists, and deployment orders come from the Prime Minister's office alone.) For his part, Advani denies any undue influence, or even the tag of "hawk" although, characteristically, he describes communal violence under the BJP as "minimal," even after the shame of Gujarat. But asked about the possibility of attacking across the Line of Control in Kashmir, Advani answers that in his view India is already facing an "undeclared war" from the militants. His list of conditions that Musharraf must meet before peace talks can begin is lengthy. "As long as this undeclared war, this training, arming, financing of jihadis, and this infiltration and terrorism and sabotage continues," he says, "then any dialogue will be meaningless." And he hints that the international community has given tacit approval for action. "One major change in the last 10 days has been that the U.S., Britain and other coalition members have said publicly and forcefully that Pakistan should stop cross-border terrorism," he says. "Our Prime Minister took really radical initiatives in the past. There's no question of that now" in other words, of actively looking for peace. An Indian army source adds that unless India detects that promised shift in militant activity and capability in the next five weeks, the military expects an order to attack.

The body on the other end of the seesaw is Mishra, a 70-year-old career civil servant and diplomat, who functions as the equivalent of a White House chief of staff. The fact that Mishra has survived countless calls for his removal he's accused of wielding influence beyond his position is testament to his pivotal role, diplomats say. Mishra is considered to be the brains behind the peace overtures of the past. His influence with Vajpayee these days waxes when the two men get away from the capital and the rest of the BJP. At a regional security conference in the Kazakh capital of Almaty last week, the Prime Minister made a rare and unexpected conciliatory gesture when he proposed joint Indian-Pakistani patrols along the Line of Control to ensure an end to infiltration. All week Mishra was briefing India's national newspapers that the government had decided to tone down the rhetoric. And significantly, when Vajpayee returned to Delhi on Wednesday night, Mishra stayed behind for further talks. But, warns Outlook editor Mehta, Mishra is just an appointed government servant, however close he is to the boss. "Mishra's influence is directly proportional to Vajpayee's position. He has no party base. When Vajpayee goes down, Mishra goes with him."

Observers say that the BJP is hoping to use Vajpayee through the next general elections, but no further. The party currently rules in a coalition, with Vajpayee as the glue that holds it together. If it manages to win an absolute majority, it won't need him any longer. The Prime Minister has largely accepted this gradual decline. His great ambition on gaining office was to do for India-Pakistan relations what Nixon did for China and the U.S.: only a right-winger, went the argument, could take the country into a peace deal with the archenemy. And this Vajpayee wanted to do, to secure a place in the history books. Friends say this ambition is now dead. Much of the Prime Minister's energy is now devoted to the business of weight rather than weighty affairs of state. His staff coaxes the reluctant old man onto a treadmill for 10 minutes every day and encourages him to take short walks. His "family" longtime companion Rajkumari Kaul, who suffered a heart attack in March, and her daughter Namita ensures he is served only boiled vegetables and rice. But Vajpayee still insists on an evening drink or two. In the family cottage in the Himalayan foothills, says an aide, nothing can keep him away from deep-fried trout. "He promises to stick to his diet with doubled rigidity once he leaves," says an aide, "but the trout he must have." On a long flight abroad, Vajpayee compared his menu with other members of the government party. "He was terribly upset when he discovered he had been singled out for special treatment," says the aide, "and tried to browbeat the in-flight staff into serving him the general meal, which was spicier." Meanwhile, tension seems set to continue between India and Pakistan. But as Vajpayee's ability to steer a moderate course diminishes, he's spending the twilight of his political life where he wants to be out to lunch.

This article appeared at Time.com on June 10, 2002.
Asleep at The Wheel?

Friday, July 6, 2012

‘I’ve maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct’

PM Manmohan Singh tells HT that never before have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency. Here’s the full text of his written replies to an HT questionnaire.

On economy: We will bring clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
On charges of corruption: ...Bills such as Whistleblowers Bill, Lokpal Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill etc, which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

On his legacy: I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live and work in ...We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.
Q1. How do you see the economic situation today and why have we come to this pass?

We are certainly passing through challenging times economically. This did not happen overnight. A lot of it was due to developments in the global economy. The developments in the Eurozone have been a major dampener of global economic sentiment, till the Eurozone leaders hammered out an agreement a few days ago. Europe is the most important destination for our exports and any turbulence there will certainly affect sentiment here. We then had the oil price rise. For a country which imports nearly 80% of its oil, this badly hurt our trade balance. In fact, a major portion of our trade deficit is accounted for by oil imports. There were domestic factors as well.


Q2. What are the top five challenges to the economy in the year ahead?


The India Growth Story is intact. We will continue to work, as we have been doing for 8 years, to keep the story going. Measures which I intend to focus on, in the short run, are:
  • Bring complete clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
  • Control the fiscal deficit through a series of measures which my officials are working on and on which we will build consensus in the government.
  • Revive the Mutual Fund and Insurance industries which have seen a downturn. Absence of investment avenues has pushed Indian savings into gold. We need to open new doors so that savings can be recycled into productive investments that create jobs and growth, not into gold.
  • Clear major investments in the pipeline awaiting FIPB approval. Investors should feel that we mean business. We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructous procedures and make India a more business friendly place.
  • Most importantly, we have given a major push to infrastructure, particularly through PPP. A lot of investment avenues are opening up in Railways, roads, ports and civil aviation. The doors are open for the world to strengthen our hands and contribute to these vital sectors which will give a further push to the economy.
Q3. How do you see coming elections in the states and the Centre affecting policies? How do you guard against populist measures, given the size of the deficit?


I am largely satisfied about the way we have progressed over the last 20 years. The fact that governments have changed many times in between but economic policies have continued means that the direction that has been set is seen to be the correct one by all parties. That is a source of satisfaction also.


However, there are a few issues that come quickly to mind when it comes to what else needs to happen. Firstly, we have yet to settle down to a stable institutional framework to manage an open economy. Our institutions are still evolving and it will take time till we see mature institutions in all sectors as we see them in advanced economies.


Secondly, the logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people.


Lastly, there is the issue of distribution. We have lifted millions out of poverty. But, I worry that the fruits of an open economy will be increasingly captured by fewer people. I worry that a large segment of our population will be left out of the benefits of economic growth. We need to correct that fast.


Q4. Foreign investors have been rattled by events such as the tax row with Vodafone. How do you intend to set their minds at rest?


The investor community had concerns on some tax matters. The finance ministry, over the last three months, has been issuing clarifications and working with the investor community to bring greater clarity on the matter. However, there has been a slowing down of capital flows which normally would have covered the current account deficit.


That does not mean things have turned very bad. Coca Cola has announced to invest $ 5 bn in India just a few days ago. IKEA plans to invest a billion dollars. The pessimism in the media and the markets is far more than reality. Consumer spend is holding up and this has not been affected by interest rates. The Chairman of GE captured the picture correctly when he said "the mood in the market is worse than the mood on the ground". I agree with that.


Q5. There is also a perception of drift, of policy paralysis. You have used the term “coalition compulsions” is this the main factor? How do you dispel the impression of drift? Do you intend to communicate more often with the nation?

I think it is a matter of perception. We worked under far greater constraints under UPA 1. However, there were a lot of things which had been done under the previous government which we had to undo. We had to bring a healing touch to the nation, make minorities feel secure and included, and give emphasis to the needs of the common man who had moved to the background in the Shining India of the NDA rule.


The biggest achievements of UPA 1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth. We did this with widespread support across the spectrum of parties supporting us.


But difficulties existed then as they do now. Parties are entitled to their differences then and now. There were differences on the US Nuclear deal and there are going to be some differences now also. I do not think that the political landscape is radically different now as compared to 3 years ago. What has changed is public expectation. Now that the immediate problems caused by the NDA government have receded into the background, other issues are coming to the fore. This is but natural. That is the way of democracy.


As for speed, look at the way we responded to the 2008 crisis. We rolled out a stimulus package which ensured that we came out of its effects rapidly. We are passing through a similarly challenging situation and I am confident, we will roll out measures to restore economic growth once again.


Q6. In your role as finance minister what do you see as the roadmap for key pending reforms such as pensions, insurance and banking reform, the goods and services tax and the direct taxes code?


Firstly, legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action.


More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that.


Q7. Can we expect some of the young ministers of state becoming cabinet ministers soon?


You have to wait for a while for that question to be answered.


Q8. When will you go to Pakistan? What are the ideal circumstances that would make such a visit possible?


I am looking forward to visiting Pakistan. No dates have been finalised for the visit. As you know there have to be suitable outcomes for such a visit.


Q9. How do you react to charges of corruption during your Prime Ministership?


Never before in the history of India have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency into the functioning government, make government accountable to the people for its actions and bring in measures to control corruption. The Right to Information is a landmark Act for which the Congress Party and its President will be remembered for generations. In fact, this single act has done far more to bring down corruption and bring in accountability than any other measure. It is the information flowing out as a result of this Act which is bringing a lot of corruption to light which would otherwise have been hidden.


We have introduced a Public Procurement Bill which brings in far greater transparency into government procurement and severe deterrents for wrongdoing. This would remove a major source of corruption.


A number of other bills are there such as the Whistleblowers Bill, the Lokpal Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, etc. which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.


Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party’s will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively.


My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.


Q10. What is that one thing that you would like to be remembered for?


I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live, work and lead a fulfiling life. In some ways, I contributed to this as a Finance Minister. As Prime Minister, I have had a larger remit. I have worked on the same lines but on a larger platform. We have tried to build a peaceful, harmonious, secure, friendly, prosperous India where every citizen can aspire for the best in life. We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.


This Interview appeared in Hindustan Times on July 08, 2012.
I've maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct'