Monday, February 6, 2017
Thursday, August 9, 2012
This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Peeling the onion of political ideology in
This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
The campaign attracted members who work in the modern Indian economy and are among the most obvious beneficiaries of economic reform. Bright and educated, they nevertheless overlooked Hazare’s unconstitutional political demand to override Parliament’s law-making powers, preferring to focus on the larger, more romantic objective of fighting corruption. These are men and women, incensed by reports of corruption and hungry to hitch their wagon to a messiah; much like the programming code they write or use at work to provide quick and effective solutions to problems; never mind that they are complex such as rural poverty, urban squalor, entrenched corruption, inflation, economic growth and poor infrastructure. The messiah will deliver!
Now the drama has ended, the question we must put to Hazare and his supporters is this: isn’t the bribe giver as culpable as the taker? Shouldn’t bribe givers also be brought under the ombudsman? In that case, private sector business and individual citizens will need to be included. Thus the agency would be given powers to haul up citizens, executives, boards of directors, owners. Such a sweeping empowerment holds in its own constitution the possibility of abuse.
Creating a super agency that can be abused or run amok is hardly an effective way to investigate and penalize corruption. If you look at recent allegations of corruption in the allocation of mobile spectrum, in infrastructure development, in mining…you will find these are sectors which are still under government control. To deal with this, the government introduced several bills in Parliament. Of the ones that got passed into law, there is the hugely successful example of financial sector regulation. The rest have been stalled because of the paralysis caused by the Opposition’s questionable tactics of stalling proceedings in Parliament.
As the Prime Minister said, these “second stage” reforms need political consensus. These have to do with land acquisition, environmental protection, financial regulation, education, judicial changes and a series of other difficult tasks in sectors like mining where vested interests hold sway and power, where the entire state-run system is bankrupt.
Hazare's handlers demanded their version of the “Lokpal” bill be adopted by a certain date. This was clearly not in the government’s power to promise because the bill must go before a parliamentary committee. The demand militated against compromise, leave alone consensus. It was divisive and corrosive and seemed to target a duly- elected government. In doing that, the Hazare protest revealed its ultimate goal: to destabilize the UPA government. The agenda seemed to be: create an anarchic situation that the government is unable to control it without resort to force and is thus forced to agree to mid-term elections.
What started out as a political demand to carve for themselves a role in drafting an anti-corruption bill appeared to have grown in scope. Clearly buoyed by incessant and uncritical media coverage that attracted crowds, Hazare's supporters raised the ante: derail the government.
Meanwhile, after initial missteps, the government managed to put a strategy in place to deal with the protest. Aware there was a sizable, perhaps dominant, segment of the population that wanted nothing to do with the Hazare campaign, the government moved to rally support. More and more voices spoke out, on television, in print and online, against the strong-arm nature of the agitation and its “with us or against us” stance. Anyone who challenged, as a respected television anchor did, the demands raised by the agitators, was branded as “pro corruption.”
Faced with adulatory fans in designer T-shirts and Gandhi caps, Hazare’s rhetoric became more self-congratulatory, more truculent and even abusive. He has called the Prime Minister names; the people at his rally used foul language to abuse UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, fuelling renewed suspicion that the RSS may be behind the protest. The crowds also attracted gaggles of hoodlums and petty criminals, resulting in instances of sexual harassment and theft.
Also people started looking into the antecedents of this new messiah. On
Many were embarrassed by his low-level comments about the Prime Minister, whom he called a ‘liar.” It is this lack of restraint that he and his aides demonstrated that people began to find disturbing. Hitler and Mussolini used the same tactics to discredit the political process in
Hazare's managers became so besotted with media driven popularity that they could not see they were losing ground. The Parliament bailed them out by passing a resolution that allowed them to claim victory. In the end, India's constitutional democracy proved mature and resilient. Completely outmaneuvered, Hazare and his horde will return to the dark spaces from whence they emerged.
Not being much of a chip-on-the-shoulder patriot, on this occasion I want to shout from the rooftops: Jai Hind!
Friday, June 10, 2011
Let us not get carried away by the crusade of the self-appointed guardians of public interest
Never mind the Constitution; a pox on all politicians, Hazare says. The good people of India are on the move. By the sheer goodness of their lifestyles, by the shining nobility of their intent, they will cleanse the body politic. Girding his high-minded campaign is a bare-knuckle political demand swaddled in Gandhian homespun: give my chosen people a say in the framing of the Lokpal bill.
Who elected you? We nominated ourselves by virtue of Magsaysay awards and membership in "peoples' movements." What about the Constitution? Ours is a higher cause.
Ramdev's demands are too absurd to be given any sort of respectability. His potent mix of religiosity and postmodernism threatens, nevertheless, to overwhelm the Hazare protest. His followers are true believers, seeking to achieve perfect communion of the self with the universal truth.
In contrast, the cappuccino-swilling denizens of cyberspace, who form the bulk of Hazare's supporters, are causerati; tomorrow they will turn their attention to the dangers of cellphone use or the hazards of nuclear power. Small wonder then that Hazare, despite being "unwell", has said he will be present at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan in solidarity with the godman.
The question arises though: if civil society activists inspired by grandiosity and true believers mesmerised by a godman can demand a say in the way laws are made and the government is run, then why not business associations like the CII and Ficci? Or trade unions? Or for that matter, Rotary and Lions Clubs? What makes Hazare and Ramdev and their acolytes so special?
What is alarming about the hunger strikes is that the people who support them seem to have no time for political processes and constitutional restraint. Indian democracy has managed to negotiate the mind-numbing diversity that could have splintered the country; the Constitution is a charter that legitimises and separates the role of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Despite the obvious governance deficit, there prevails a modicum of the rule of law.
Changes are needed to usher in the idea of a government not as a master but in service of the people. A corollary to the notion of government as master is that of bureaucrats and politicians as a rentier class that extorts money from hapless citizens to provide services and permissions as favours rather than as due process. This is the source of corruption in all socialist systems where the dead hand of government smothers entrepreneurship and opportunities to make a dignified living.
India took a giant step two decades ago when it scrapped the licence-permit raj. Its emergence as a significant global player can be traced back to the reforms of 1991. Loosening controls is easier than the second stage of reform: to provide effective governance. Political stability is a key element in second-stage reforms.
In the UPA's first turn, we had the unseemly spectacle of an arrogant Left combining with a peeved BJP in an effort to oust the government over a foreign policy initiative: the strategic partnership with the US. The UPA survived and in the 2009 election went on to win bigger. The Left and the BJP saw their influence shrink dramatically.
But political uncertainty persisted as the UPA was confronted with accusations of corruption in telecom deals, the Commonwealth Games and various other projects. Today's challenges come not from opposition political parties but self-appointed guardians of the public interest: righteous activists and now, a slippery godman. Dealing with such groups is problematic because they don't abide by the Constitution but owe allegiance to a "higher cause".
TV news channels and to a lesser extent, the print media are obsessed by these protests. They convey the impression of a corruption-singed government at sea in the face of this 'uprising'. Overwhelmed by deafening din of TV reporters without the slightest sense of objectivity, I fled to the sanity of international journalism. There I found the following stories:
- The Indian government has drawn up ambitious plans to double exports to $500 billion in the next three years. The trade-to-GDP ratio has already increased from 15% in 1990 to 35% today.
- With supportive government policies, India's pharmaceutical sector has emerged as a global force, supplying low-cost, high-quality off-patent medicine to the developed as well as developing nations.
- India has become the world center for 'frugal engineering', manufacturing low-cost products that are resistant to tough environments while maintaining high quality standards.
This is not to suggest that the protests should not be covered; only that it should not lead to a situation in which the adversarial nature of the relationship between the media and the government is twisted so much that a duly-elected government is portrayed an enemy of the people.
It would be fair if Indian journalists could also track other stories as well: of an India that is rapidly finding its metier on the world stage; of the rising aspirations of young India confronting the victim mindsets that enervate the older generation.
This article appeared in The Economic Times, June 4, 2011.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Monday, April 11, 2011
Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” is a throwback to more innocent times when the oppressor was colonial, clearly identified and vilified. Today, it is infinitely more complex. Hazare on a protest fast may evoke a longing for the black and white simplicity of yesteryear. The nostalgic appeal has sparked a cyber rush among young chatterati who wander aimlessly through the hills and dales of social networks, seeking company, making connections, buying and selling ideas and products.
If you cut back to the 1080i high definition picture of modern life with its 5.1 surround sound track, you’ll find that Hazare and his handlers have cleverly manipulated an old symbol made famous by Mohandas Gandhi. Calling it a fast against corruption, Hazare has touched a chord among young cyber savvy Indians, who see in the old man’s protest a chance to fulfill their youthful aspirations to revolt against the system. Budapest in the 1950s; Paris and Chicago in the 1960s; Beijing in the 1980s; Prague in the 1990; Cairo and Tunis recently and now Delhi.
Clearly, the seemingly innocent khadi-clad activist and his wily handlers have managed to rally young netizens. By calling it a fight against corruption, they have cleverly deflected the glare from the hard political demand underlying the fast: give civil society activists a role in framing laws; a demand no government can concede without violating its oath to uphold the Constitution.
The notion that civil society activists must be given a say in the framing of the anti-corruption law is misbegotten. No matter how righteous the cause; no matter how pious the protest, activists have no locus standi as lawmakers. The Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers and reserves the law making function to elected representatives.
Stripped of its saintly posture, Hazare’s protest is a challenge to the Constitution. Dreamy and romantic netizens, who have been set all a-twitter by it, don’t seem to realize that Hazare and his handlers have been active since the 1970s. Styled as people’s movements, these groups have never embraced the Constitution as the final arbiter of political, social, economic and cultural diversity. Theirs was always a higher cause.
The Constitution has helped India negotiate diversity, poverty and various challenges to emerge as one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Its government now has a seat at the high table of international diplomacy; its economy has lifted millions from abysmal poverty; its political system consists of the exercise of the largest franchise in the world blessed with a “throw the rascals out” mindset of the electorate.
Hazare’s crusade draws ideological inspiration from Hind Swaraj, the Gandhian diatribe against modernity. Corruption seems to be merely a cause recruited in the long-term campaign against modernity. It’s a clever choice because indeed corruption is public affairs topic one.
Fed up with incessant reports about large-scale corruption, influenced by the Jasmine scents of Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of young people have rallied to the cause. In North Africa, the targets were clear cut: long ruling dictators. Here there is a democratically elected government. Even if the protest can draw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets; even if the most righteous, learned and saintly people turn out; they cannot challenge the legitimacy of an elected government.
What Hazare and his fellow travelers are saying is not new; they’re on a well-charted path laid out in Gandhi’s book. They damn the entire political process as corrupt and seek to replace it with high-minded vigilantism. Even if it is composed of angels and saints, a vigilante group has no place in a modern constitutional democracy.
This article appeared in The Economic Times, April 10, 2011.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011