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Showing posts with label Congress. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Congress. Show all posts

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.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

THE INDIA CONTEST

Bentley at the Red Light: Old Poverty, New Wealth

For the first time, the electorate faces a clear ideological choice. The Congress is the architect of liberalisation that unleashed the animal spirits of competition and innovation in the economy. The ensuing economic boom peaked in 2004; in the following decade, the economy grew at an average of 8% a year. This is evident as many sectors, including telecom, automobiles, pharmaceuticals and IT, became globally competitive.

Somewhere down the line, this growth story came up against some cruel facts: a large population afflicted by poverty and illiteracy, high malnutrition and abysmal public health. In stark contrast, world-class private schools, private hospitals, private estates, private planes, private roads and private banks blossomed.
There was always disparity, but never in your face. The pathetic picture of a car worth over a crore, waiting at a red light, besieged by begging children, is a new phenomenon. There have always been beggars, never Bentleys and Jaguars. Over the years, the rich became richer. This was not the outcome that Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, envisioned in 1991.

A year later, the BJP changed the debate with its sacking of the Babri Masjid. Suddenly, the debate was about Hindutva and the Ram temple. In the tumultuous decade that followed, the opened economy was hijacked by crony capitalists and middlemen. Mistaking this to be genuine reforms, the NDA government launched a highvoltage “India Shining” campaign. They even called an early election, hoping to cash in. In the event, a Congress-led coalition came to power in 2004 on an inclusive growth manifesto and was reelected in 2009.

Now, Narendra Modi, the new RSS mascot, has turned the BJP around to make it a US-style Republican party, stalling reforms in the legislature, promoting laissez faire and protectionist policies in the same breath, railing against government welfare spending, espousing a hardline but whimsical foreign policy. He speaks to an urban, upper-middle class audience and believes there are enough votes there to see him through.
Modi and his supporters believe he can form a government in 2014. It’s hard to believe, though, that his agenda of gated communities, luxury cars and conspicuous consumption will garner votes from the urban and rural poor, Dalits, tribals and Muslims who form the bulk of the young population. Meanwhile, the Congress has again arrayed itself in support of the excluded. More than his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who nudged the government into adopting a welfare-based legislative agenda, Rahul Gandhi is vocal about the skewed priorities.

The Indian business elite is up in arms against the Congress welfare agenda. They say India can’t afford it; they demand business-friendly policies that encourage growth, never mind the disparity. Senior ministers in the government are at pains to point out an inclusive agenda is not anti-growth and point to the national manufacturing policy that aims, in the next 10 years, to boost the share of manufacturing to 25% from 15% and, in the process, to create 100 million jobs.

In the face of heightened disparity, no political party can embrace trickledown economics and expect to form a government. Hence, the Congress lays emphasis on welfare along with its track record of growth. Modi’s noisy campaign, on the other hand, is based on disputable claims about growth and governance; the underlying message, however, is an unmistakable one of Hindu chauvinism.

Modi hopes to ascend on many contradictory platforms: authoritarian capitalism, muscular nationalism as a subliminal plank against minorities. In voting the Congress back in 2004 and again in 2009, the electorate turned its back on the BJP’s growth hype. The question now is whether voters will buy Modi’s high-voltage pitch. The idea behind the multilayered campaign is to fudge his track record that is sullied by allegations of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

These charges have proved difficult to shake. Modi’s controversial role in the riots also attracted global concern. Major western countries instituted a diplomatic boycott; the US revoked his travel visa and is yet to restore it. Will the US presidential-style campaign help overcome the stain of 2002?

This article appeared in The Economic Times, November 5, 2013.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A new age of unreason

On a television talk show recently in which I was a participant, the question posed was “Have opposition politicians misunderstood the nature of lobbying?” The moderator went straight for the jugular, asking the BJP spokesman to defend the assertion of a senior leader of his party, who had asserted in Parliament that lobbying is illegal in India.

The anchor said his due diligence had satisfied him that lobbying is not illegal. Somewhat disingenuously and with the brash confidence of a man who knows little, the BJP participant contradicted him, saying there is no law that makes lobbying legal. To which the anchor responded: laws make things illegal, not legal. The BJP man was having none of it. “Why are you standing up for a corrupt company like Walmart?” he asked the journalist. “How can the spokesman of a leading political party accuse an international firm of corruption on prime time national TV?” I interjected. The BJP stalwart was undeterred and continued his rant, insisting lobbying is illegal and no different from corruption. It was plain that he knew very little about business processes and public policy apart from a few stray facts he may have picked up from newspapers.

Later, Delhi’s middle classes led by Left-leaning student unions took to the streets to protest the rape of a woman on a bus in the capital. Their demand was for the police chief, the chief minister and the Union home minister to resign. Granted, the police in Delhi are not very high on anyone’s security assurance list, and that one may have reservations about the Congress governments in the state of Delhi and at the Centre. But, the heinous crime was committed by violent psychopaths, like the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t hear any calls for Obama’s head or of the state governor or police chief. Crimes are mostly dealt with in retrospect, except in the Tom Cruise sci-fi film, Minority Report, which is about seers gifted with the ability to look into the future and prevent crime.

Crimes are committed the world over and sometimes law enforcement agencies are able to anticipate and prevent them. Mostly, they simply happen and police hunt down the perpetrators and turn them over to the criminal justice system for prosecution and, if proved guilty, punishment.

Then there’s the massive media hype about Narendra Modi winning a third term in Gujarat. The truth is he won by a smaller margin than five years ago; even his vote share has declined. Yet the talking heads and anchors of cable television and newspaper reporters would have us believe he will be the next prime minister of India. This is an individual who refuses to apologise for the riots that killed thousands in Gujarat when he was chief minister as well as home minister. While he has never been able to shake off allegations that he connived with mass violence, there’s no doubt he should be held responsible because he was the man in charge.

Every time this issue is raised in public, his supporters who are few but loud, raise the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Both incidents, 18 years apart, involved a lapse of governance leading to wanton loss of life and are condemnable. Except in the Gujarat case, the riots were followed by the systematic boycott of victims which pushed them into ghettos, a situation that persists to this day. Modi’s triumphalism and communalism is shameless and unapologetic as evident by his reference to Congress member Ahmed Patel as Ahmed mian.

A common thread runs through these narratives: lack of reasoned discourse. Between the media, opposition politicians and sundry activists outraged by some atrocity or corruption, debate has transformed into noise in which prejudice is the norm. The talking heads of television, pundits of print and those who attend exclusive parties in the capital, talk at each other without the slightest deference to reality. Did Walmart bribe government officials? Was Sheila Dikshit asleep when the heinous rape took place? Will Modi be the next prime minister? These are the questions being debated in public. Walmart may well have indulged in corrupt practices; there is an internal inquiry and some executives of the company have been suspended. The Delhi chief minister reacted with powers under her control — and that excludes the Delhi police — by scrubbing the licence of the operator on whose bus the woman was raped. And Modi actually lost ground in Gujarat; he still has a brute majority but his national ambitions have dimmed.

The Age of Unreason is upon us. People who would normally know better, including businessmen, members of the academy, activists, journalists and other groups which influence public opinion, seem to have lost their bearings. Pursuing their own limited agendas, they have put a crimp on Indian modernisation. As a concerned Indian citizen, “J’Accuse”, in the words of French writer Emile Zola. But while Zola complained about anti-Semitism in France, my complaint is about anti-Congressism. It seems to me that the entire political debate in India is focused on this grand old party. Those who hate it have forums to express themselves; those who are voiceless seem to vote for it, even in Gujarat.

The Age of Unreason is what 21st century’s second decade will be called in India. Everyone shouts and postures. And judgment seems to have fled to brutish beasts.

This article appeared in Education world magazine in January 2013 issue.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest


High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Power, Not Principles

Anti-Congressism is the common plank of those motivated by short-term political gain.


Peeling the onion of political ideology in India is an assault on reason. You have Hindutva rabble-rousers who held sway from 1998 to 2004. Then there is the intellectually bankrupt Left that met its Waterloo on the India-US strategic partnership agreement. Sitting on opposition benches, their one-point agenda is to defeat – which is difficult – or cause problems – which is easy – for the Congress. It is a matter of wonder how closely these two so-called inimical forces, the BJP and the Left, have combined time and again to oppose the Congress for short term political gain. 

There are also 1960s-style anarchic groups that include the Anna Hazare autocratic clique and Mamata Banerjee’s socially and intellectually challenged Trinamool Congress. Plunk into the mix the personality cults of Mayawati; the dynastic set-up of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi and Naveen Patnaik; the slippery appeal of Jayalalithaa and the holier-than-thou stance of Nitish Kumar. These are mercenary formations that will sway whichever way the wind blows, depending on the political advantage they can derive. 

It is not clear what any of these groups stand for except opposition to the Congress. In 1974, the great anarch Jayaprakash Narayan talked of “total revolution” and called on the army to revolt against the Indira Gandhi government; today Anna has subverted his fight against corruption into an anti-Congress political movement. Talk about deja vu. 

The foolishness of the Anna band of civil society buccaneers was exposed when the moving spirit, Arvind Kejriwal, was forced to issue a statement that they are not anti-Congress. Earlier, when cornered by thinking people on a television show, he said that India’s muchadmired parliamentary democracy is a fraud. Such increasingly shrill utterances suggest he is completely out of depth on the national stage. 

Meanwhile, BJP leader L K Advani led a rath yatra against money in Swiss banks in a nonetoo-subtle bid to cash in on Anna’s storm in a teacup against corruption. Of classic RSS vintage, he believes no one remembers his other 1990 Ram temple effort which led to communal riots. So where is the “glorious” temple he promised? He served as home minister and deputy prime minister for the six years the BJP-led coalition was in power. Advani’s confusion was complete when he went to Karachi and lauded Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular leader. 

There are many ideological fig leafs that political formations wear in their relentless grasp for power: socialism, casteism, social justice, identity, chauvinism, Hinduism. Scratch the surface and it all turns out to be an anti-Congress position. As such, political analysis in India is best conducted on a dyadic presumption: there is the Congress and there is everyone else. 

So let’s look at the Congress record. It has been the default option for the electorate. In the past quarter century, it suffered seminal defeats in the elections of 1989 and 1996. In each case, it was voted out of power on allegations of corruption. Each time, a coalition of parties was hastily put together that stood for nothing except opposition to the Congress. In both those defeats, any objective analyst could conclude the Congress lost because its governments undertook significant reforms that hurt the status quo. 

In 1989, an agglomeration of forces came together to restore the status quo of inequity and discrimination that Rajiv Gandhi had challenged. The motley crew of political parties that formed the opposition put together a makeshift government that did not last the full term; nor did they pursue the charges of corruption that brought them to power. 

In the ensuing decade, the BJP’s unbridled appeal to communalism brought it to power: first, for 13 days in 1996; then in two desperate coalitions in 1998 and 1999. The saffron dispensation lasted until 2004 and was then showed the door because of its misplaced nationalism that saw India conduct nuclear tests that were replayed tit-for-tat by Pakistan and because of its insensitive “India Shining” hype. 

Since then, the Congress has held sway. The key difference is the Congress’s approach to social harmony and economic development: the phrase “inclusive development” was introduced to the political vocabulary. In the interim, India, warts and all, grew to be a big player in the global dialogue. Most important, economic growth was accompanied by the largest-ever reduction in poverty. Today, thanks largely to the growth of the middle class, the Indian voice is heard in world forums. 

Unmindful of these achievements, the anti-Congress brigade has spread several falsehoods: the prime minister is opposed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi; Manmohan Singh is weak; Sonia is the real power. 

The truth is different: both Singh and Sonia are on the same page as they have always been. There has been in the history of the Congress no better combination. The former pushes reform in foreign and economic policy; the latter is the conscience to ensure there is a local sensitivity to these reforms. That is the operational definition of “inclusive growth”. 

It’s ironic that the anti-Congress formations should denigrate both leaders. Singh is a highly respected economist who forsook academic achievement to serve the country first as a bureaucrat, then as finance minister and prime minister. Sonia, who adopted this country as her home, foreswore the office of prime minister in 2004 and became the conscience of the government. 

The writer is a public affairs commentator.













Left and Right against the Centre


This article appeared in The Times of India on January 10, 2012.



Link:
http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=TOINEW&BaseHref=CAP/2012/01/10&PageLabel=14&EntityId=Ar01400&ViewMode=HTML

Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking News: Drowning Out a Tragedy

Blasts Show Up Television News

What exactly were the television news crews after when they fanned out in the broken precincts of Bombay on the evening of the serial bomb blasts? They were intrusive, unmindful of the privacy of injured citizens and the grief of relatives of dead victims. Screaming and shouting, they collared eyewitnesses to ask them what they had seen. Worse, they tramped into hospital emergency rooms to focus on blood and gore. The result was a jumble of accounts. Piecing the fragments together, the picture that emerged was distorted, like looking at a high definition satellite television picture in a rainstorm.

As the news spread via television, the confusion seemed to grow. The jumbled pictures and stray, disjointed comments from shell-shocked citizens did little to reveal the dimensions of the tragedy. Amid the hysterics, rumors emerged to heighten public anxiety. Emergency services took time to get to the blast sites; police officers at the venues appeared clueless and the government response hesitant.

The next day, July 14, the focus changed completely. News channels seemed to have decided to go a step beyond reporting the news. Instead, they came up with an angle: enough of praising Bombay’s resilience; time to hit out at politicians, bureaucrats and policemen for failing to prevent the attacks. Their reporters waded into trains, scoured the city, looking for the “man in the street.” They ambushed hapless citizens and made them perform to a script.

There are two problems with this: one, can journalists in reporting an event come to it with a premeditated slant? Can editors accept their reporters passing off opinions as facts? Man-on-the-street interviews are useful as local color but they can’t be the story. Or chasing celebrities for their views on the tragedy? This latter approach can only be in pursuit of ratings.

Two, what does it mean when you say Bombay is resilient? A city can have a character and Bombay certainly does have a business-like approach to life. Residents of this city carry on efficiently despite crumbling infrastructure, slums, the underworld, housing shortages, milling crowds and a general sense of decay. That is resilience but it is on display everyday, not just at times of crisis.

It appears that the day after the blasts, the channels decided that “resilience” was an old bromide with no traction among viewers. You would have thought they would have upbraided their reporters for hyping the tragedy. Instead, they sent them, armed with a line, to barge into the tragedy once again: hectoring citizens to read from their script. The crews set out afresh to interview citizens in different parts of the city, asking leading questions. The story angle was clear: left to its own devices, resilient Bombay was angry.

“This city has been the victim of many terrorist blasts. Aren’t you angry and tense? Aren’t you tired of being called resilient and left to fend for yourself? Aren’t you tired of being taken for granted by the government?” The questions flew thick and fast as did the changing headlines on television screens. “Resilient, tired, angry,” they screamed. The television news channels seemed to have decided on the line; their field reporters goaded citizens into “confirming” the story in front of the cameras.

The journalistic practices of the television news media could be the subject of scholarly analysis some distance from “breaking news.” What is of immediate concern is that such ambulance-chasing tactics stoked public insecurities. Television reporters instigated citizens to berate the government in prime time.

This is not to suggest that criticism of the government is unacceptable. Indeed, authorities must be held answerable if they fail or are slow to respond. To do this, reporters need to ferret out hard facts. The analysis can only be effective at some distance from the events. Instant judgments spread fear and rumor at a time when public anxiety is running high.

Where they had a chance to calm things down, bring people together in the face of a major terrorist attack, the news channels took a lowly road. They hyped the events and indulged in the worst kind of speculation and rumor. Sensationalism reigned supreme.

In the face of shrill attempts by news channels to show up its inadequacies, the government response was restrained. The home minister and the prime minister winged their way to Bombay within 24 hours of the incidents. The prompt steps by the leadership blunted the edge of the media’s hysterical coverage.

Finally, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan made an appearance on all major channels and made some candid remarks about the strengths and limitations of government. His bravura performance took the wind out of media hysterics. His direct manner did much to defuse the media hype. His comments went much further than anyone in the Congress or the Opposition reckoned. Chavan was a refreshing voice on television. He spoke with a sincerity that has never been seen before. He appeared at once humble and fully in control, candid and unafraid to speak his mind.

Finally, it is a matter of some irony that the media hype may have actually denied the perpetrators of the Bombay blasts their day in the sun. Maybe India has found a way to deal with terrorism: bury it in hype, trample it in public debate. If only real people didn’t die or get injured!


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

American Life 8


Obama’s Problem…

Chicago: It’s cold here, bracingly so. The high was minus five Celsius; late at night as I sit jet lagged on the computer, the mercury has dipped to minus 12 Celsius. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 20 Celsius. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and the place looks as pretty as a picture postcard. Tonight it’s going to be “four below,” that’s roughly minus 22 without the wind chill factor. **ck it’s cold!

I love the winter in Chicago. It’s a breeze to drive because all the roads are cleared almost instantaneously. On the Eisenhower expressway, the lanes are clear; I tell my friend, who’s driving us to this wonderful French restaurant, Chez Joel on Taylor Street, in the vicinity of the University of Illinois campus, that I’m convinced the city has placed heaters under the carriageway.

The atmosphere is crystal clear. We saw the lights of the city’s fabled skyline with no fog, smog or smoke refraction. It struck me that despite corruption and patronage, a city could be run and be beautiful as few other cities in the world. It is truly a winter wonderland. And the words of the famous Louis Armstrong song buzzed in my head: “What a wonderful world!”

Earlier that morning, I drove to an appointment on Cumberland Avenue, a major drag that connects the near western suburbs to the airport. This was my everyday drive when we moved to Chicago in the 1970s. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve driven that route that leads from near west suburbs northwest to O’Hare.

When we moved to the city in the 1970s, we decided to stay in the near west suburban area that comprises Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. These were the first communities out of the reach of the Chicago City Council and as such were autonomous while retaining the character of the city. They were actually an extension of the city and had no cookie cutter developments or McMansions. River Forest was the wealthy one; Oak Park, affluent and aware; Forest Park, the poor cousin.

My office was about 10 miles northwest, near the fabled O’Hare airport, crossroads of the US, the busiest in the world and also, despite the traffic, the most laid back. To get to 7220 West Higgins, I had to drive up northwest on Cumberland Avenue. It was my drive everyday for two years until I got a job in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

At noon on January 7, I found myself heading northwest from River Forest, up Thatcher Avenue to Cumberland. I fell into a reverie; it was as if nothing had changed in 30 years. For the record, since I moved to a downtown job some 30 years ago, I just never took the route, using River Road to get to the airport instead. As I drove up Thatcher to the light and turned right on Cumberland, past the Elmwood Park cemetery, the sign was still there: “Drive Carefully, We Can Wait.”

Chicago is a city that changes, always for the better each year; but not Cumberland Avenue. As I drove up the street, I may as well have been driving in the 1970s. Part of the reason is that Cumberland cuts a straight path through protected woods. Just past Fullerton Avenue, you begin to find homes on the east side of the street. They were the same, except for the “For Sale” signs stuck on their postage stamp lawns.

“Foreclosures,” I thought to myself. The neighborhoods that line the northern portions of Cumberland are all blue-collar communities with families whose breadwinners worked in machine shops that dotted the northwest parts of Chicago. The people who live in River Grove, Elmwood Park and Norridge, largely blue-collar neighborhoods that straddle Cumberland Avenue are mostly Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants.

While almost everything about Chicago has changed including the city itself and its close suburbs, these Cumberland Avenue communities have remained stagnant and are now declining. It’s almost as though the 21st century has bypassed them. I can say this with some certainty because I drove through them nearly 30 years ago and now driving through them, I found nothing changed.

In the event, I was jolted back to the present as my host and I drove east on Eisenhower Expressway to the city to dine in this fabulous restaurant. As I tucked into the streak, I thought about the challenges facing America and how to redeploy the work force.

Then I thought to myself: that’s Obama’s problem. He’s from Chicago, albeit from Hyde Park on the south side. He has to fix it. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is running for mayor to replace Richard Daley, who has bowed out and whose family has run the Democratic Party in Chicago for nearly 50 years. The mayor’s younger brother William just got appointed White House chief of staff.

For the first time in half a century, there will be no Daley in Chicago’s Democratic Party dominated politics. It’s almost as though the Nehru-Gandhi family had given up control over the Congress Party in India. I contemplate, with some anxiety, the future of Chicago’s politics and its development in the second decade of the 21st century.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011