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Showing posts with label corruption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label corruption. Show all posts

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.

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, 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'

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Politics of Destabilization

Failed Protests Targeted Reformist Government

The “India against Corruption” campaign focused somewhat obsessively on corruption in high places. Accordingly, politicians and bureaucrats were labelled corrupt. As such, they have to be brought under the purview of an ombudsman; a body whose powers have to be decided by civil society activists, justices of the various high courts, eminent citizens and whoever else Hazare and his cohorts feel should be included.

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 Facebook, a post quoted from an article on Hazare that appeared in a Reader’s Digest 1986 edition. Among a host of petty dictatorial pronouncements, he banned the sale and use of tobacco and liquor. Those brewers and sellers who did not voluntarily accept the ban found their places of business ransacked. When some three people were caught drinking, Hazare lashed them to pillars in the local temple and flogged them personally with his army belt.

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 Germany and Italy. His methods came to be seen as Goebbelsian: pitch it as a fight against corruption when it really is an assault on the Constitution; pitch it as apolitical when it is truly a campaign to dislodge the government.

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!


Monday, April 11, 2011

Fast Times in Modern Democracy?

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

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

India: Hostage to a Demented Culture

My father, who is in his 90s, suffers from dementia. As such, he has no memory of the past and no idea of the future. He lives in the here and now.

Just the other day, he fell and hurt his head. We took him to the emergency room at a local hospital, where the doctor examined him and declared him fit.

The nurses cleaned the superficial cut on his head and released him. In the interim, I was heart broken to hear him utter the words, “internal sorrow,” not once but twice.

As I got to thinking about his condition, I couldn’t help marvel how closely it parallels the state in which India finds itself: without any wisdom from the past, without any vision of the future; just the here and now.

The words “internal sorrow” are often expressed and lived out in the myriads of petty conflicts and self-centered postures.

India is in a state of dementia, largely because of the here-and-now culture that has taken hold since the turn of the millennium. It is hard to discern if there is anything learned from the past or if there are any plans for the future. And let’s not blame just the government or politicians; the citizenry has a lot to answer for.

At a recent lunch in the Delhi Golf Club, I saw the unseemly spectacle of a child fooling around with the lawn umbrella, changing its incline in dangerous ways while his mother shoveled food into his mouth; or on a Spicejet flight a few weeks ago, where a mother, diverted her bawling son’s attention by allowing him to play with the call button that summons a stewardess.

Both taught their sons to be oblivious of other people who might be disturbed and diverted their attention rather than discipline them.

Such children grow up to be inconsiderate adults, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, who have no restraints on public behavior and the need to be alive to the privacy and wellbeing of others. Thus, on an automated walkway at Delhi’s dysfunctional Terminal 3, a couple, obviously well educated and affluent, walked abreast, not giving way, unmindful of me right behind them, in a hurry to get to the gate where my flight had been called.

These child rearing practices have bred a uni-dimensional culture. Such cultures are demented in the sense that only a self-serving present matters; there is no learning from the past, no dimension of a better future other than instant gratification. Barbaric rituals and hypoglycemic hypocrisy are the hallmarks of such a culture.

In the grip of this demented culture, India is increasingly rich but less modern; increasingly powerful but less civilized. And government and politics and corruption and inequity have little to do with it.

Some years ago, I complained to a senior police official about the inability of his force to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I could have five million traffic cops on the streets but still you will not have order; the culture seems to breed chaos.”

More recent: another senior policeman told me last week the problem is that despite clear-eyed laws, “we are told to encourage consensus even in the face of flagrant violations.” In other words, “adjust!”

Yet, civil society groups, the media, the business elite and the intellectual set would have us believe that the system works but is subverted by corrupt businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. The arguments are essentially messianic based on a belief that ascetic figures like Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare; brand ambassadors like Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan or soothsayers like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Satya Sai Baba could restore values and bring order into public life

Messianic zeal in Indian public affairs is the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, who acquiesced in his lifetime to the title, “Mahatma.” He was indeed a great soul who challenged and ultimately defeated the British Raj.

Trouble is Gandhi had a lifelong problem with modernity. His book, Hind Swaraj, was a diatribe against modern culture, which he equated with Westernization. His retort on Western civilization, (“I think it would be a good idea”) remains in my mind the tipping point in his conversion from political strategist to the Mahatma.

In that flippant remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that brought modernity and economic prosperity to the West. Gandhi’s view of the West still has acolytes in 21st century India.

That is one reason why economic prosperity is there for all to see in India today; but modernity, defined as civil values stemming from a concern for others, is a long way away.

The key to India’s modernization is education. Today, parents demand a “good education” so their children can find steady, well-paid jobs in India and around the world. The system is geared to vocational, technical and management training; it does not provide a liberal arts perspective in which civility and socialization are inculcated in students.

What’s more, parents fail to understand that “success” does not come just being “well educated.” The most important thing is for their children to be “well bred.” This means that their children should not just be knowledgeable and bright but aware of their civic responsibilities: don’t drive like lunatics, don’t litter, don’t pee in public, give a thought for others and be courteous.

Above all, parents need to inculcate in their children pride in the neighborhood, the city, the country (not the stunted nationalism that the Hindutva hordes propagate). Children can be well-educated through schools but well-bred only through parents. They hold the key to India’s modernity.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, February 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bureaucratic Subversion

The Bane of New India

When the government steered the Right to Education bill through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it through two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the act would be notified. The language of the bill leaves a lot of gray areas. And well it might because bureaucrats wrote it and they will fully exploit the obfuscation. For example, they will come down heavily on private schools that cater to the poor in urban slums and rural areas and impose impossible conditions that such enterprises simply cannot fulfill.

There are too many vested interests: the government school system; the high-end private schools that have bribed their way into existence and above all, the alternative NGO schools that survive on government subsidies. With such firepower arraigned against it, the RTE bill will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such the NREGA or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero. And so everything will come to naught.

If this sounds cynical, then you should listen to my story about a small community on the outskirts of Delhi. This is an upscale community of successful professionals that includes about 30 houses. It is an oasis in the chaos of Delhi, with trees and birdsong. It’s a wonderful community where neighbors meet frequently to have a drink or dinner and to discuss issues of India’s development. The people who live there are respected professionals whose interests span public health, wildlife conservation, media, law and what have you.

The community came into being in the early 1990s. Because it was part of rural Delhi, it was offered no municipal services like water, sanitation or roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: people built septic tanks, drilled bore wells and got their own garbage collection. Power was an issue until distribution was privatized, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realizing these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimized.

On the roads issue, the resident association petitioned the Delhi government arguing from a taxpayer viewpoint; so the road was built: badly but still motorable. It took several years including the fact that the first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces water a problem because the bore wells have dried up. This is precious real estate but more important it represents the single major investment for most of the residents. Without water, their homes are worth nothing.

The association applied to the Delhi government for permission to drill a community bore well. It seemed a logical and eco-friendly thing to do. But between the local water authority, the local police and several residents who had bribed their way into deepening their bore wells, the application has been kicked around from pillar to post.

So here you have this huge Indian-style standoff: members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells. As a result, other residents found their bore wells running dry. When the association sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of their bribes in the water authority and the local police struck a dissonant note.

Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a cleft. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government: the municipality and the police, are locked in various corrupt projects. Residents of the community are not without influence but stand divided because several members, who own houses there, are compromised because the deals they did to buy their houses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

This is a small localized community problem, to be sure. But its implications have a larger footprint. Even though the union government has introduced various enlightened policies, local governance is caught in a medieval time warp. In the matter of schools as well: a sweeping and enlightened law stands to be subverted on the rocks of bad governance. In notifying the RTE act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will not let private schools for the poor flourish.

Then there is the issue of the RTE-mandated 25 percent quota for poor children in private schools. The vast majority of private schools, however, cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the bill were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.

Whether it is the private schools for the poor or the community bore well for the upscale Delhi community, governance is still held hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (not rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be held hostage to the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce; likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because the bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from the government.

In the end, the admirable RTE bill stands to be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Residents of the affluent community will have to fight for their water against the very forces in charge of governance.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, June 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

We Are Also Part of India’s Democracy

Keynote Speech at the Exchange4Media PR Summit
The Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi
May 21, 2010

Good morning,

Thank you, Anurag and your team, for organizing this PR Summit. I hope that over the years it grows and becomes a major platform for dialog within our profession.

I have titled my remarks: “We Are Also Part of India’s Democracy.”

I have stated my SOCO up front. As PR professionals, we are as much a part of India’s democracy as we are of its economy.

But PR is also about telling stories. So I’m going to tell you a story that I hope will give you a perspective on how our business has grown and developed and the challenges it faces.

Many years ago, when I came to India to set up IPAN, I used to tell the story of how PR became the world’s second oldest profession. We all know what the oldest profession is.

It has to do with Moses, who led the chosen people out of Egypt with the Pharaoh hot in pursuit. They found themselves stranded on the banks of the Red Sea. This was a huge problem. So Moses got his core strategy team together to look at the options.

There seemed to be none. His defense guy said they should stand and fight. His finance guy, who understood the salubrious impact of money, suggested the possibility of buying them out. But in their heart of hearts, his key advisers knew only a miracle could save them.

“Don’t worry,” said Moses, “I will part the sea and we will walk across to liberty. At that point, his PR guy spoke up, “Sir, if you can do that that I will get you ten pages in the Old Testament.”

So Moses performed the miracle and got his ten pages in the Old Testament.

I told this story 20 years ago, when PR consulting was a little known business. Times were simpler but mindsets were rigid. The press (and it was just the print media those days) did not entertain any releases or information from the corporate sector. For its part, the corporate sector saw PR as a free advertising.

Meanwhile clever operators like the public sector and some private sector firms managed to play the press like a fine-tuned fiddle. Just think, the public sector delivered very little but no questions were asked. It was the holy cow. I can remember the PR strategy of a Calcutta-based public sector firm: “Kill the story and I’ll get you two tickets on the Rajdhani.”

Some private entrepreneurs also cultivated friends in the press to oppose liberalization and reform. The notorious Bombay Club fought tooth and nail against foreign investment and against any changes in the license-permit raj.

Fast forward two decades and we find that the media are friendlier; our profession is recognized in its own right and is a significant player in the fast growing economy.

Recent developments have however cast a shadow that could affect our standing. I am referring to the current media attention on the role of PR firms in influencing choices in public policy. It is not at all surprising that the telecom sector is the source of stories about corporate sleaze and government corruption.

Why do I say it is not surprising? Let me digress a little: to the early 1980s, when I lived in the US. We had formed a group called India Forum that met weekly to consider developments in India. All of us were struck by the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi. In the event, many of us including my good friend Sam Pitroda took our first tentative steps to engage with India.

Our focus was on telecom because that was Sam’s field. At the time, the sector was in a primitive state. There were not enough phones and existent phones rarely worked. It was a project to make long distance calls, impossible to get connections. In fact, it was said that the entire telecom bureaucracy made money from providing out-of-turn connections.

We took the matter up with Rajiv Gandhi. The task was to convince him that the sector was vital to economic growth and to change political mindsets that held telephones to be a luxury. As such, Rajiv put his heft behind our recommendation that India should go in for digital rather than analog technology.

The rest is history. But the baggage is still there. The telecom sector seems to be a magnet for sleaze and murkiness as the recent controversy shows. And our profession risks being stigmatized unless we make some forceful interventions.

In a recent email interview to a leading financial paper, I was asked about lobbying and what the reporter saw as concomitant sleaze. She did highlight my responses in her front-page story and I believe I may have even helped her re-look at the lobbying controversy in which it was alleged that a PR firm tried to influence the choice of telecom minister and subsequently telecom policy.

There is nothing wrong in trying to influence public policy. Indeed, in a democracy, everyone has the right, nay the duty, to challenge wrong-headed legislation or to advocate for new policies to deal with changing situations. Over the years, I have chalked up many, many case studies in which we actively influenced government decisions in areas as diverse as consumer products; financial services; cable and satellite television; power generation; water management; public health and primary education.

Our strategy was to win media support, raise the debate in various public forums and to seek out articulate spokesmen and credible third-party endorsements.

To ensure that our profession does not get besmirched by the dirt and corruption of illegal methods, we need to make the following assertions:

1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity. It does not mean the exchange of money and favors to achieve a desired outcome. Bribery and corruption are illegal.

2. Lobbying is not relevant in India because of the sheer lack of transparency in government and politics. Legislators do not have backup policy staff; bureaucrats are too control-minded to be open to legitimate suggestions.

3. An advocacy strategy may be the most effective way to influence public policy. This involves working with the media and other influentials to advocate our views to policymakers.

4. The claims in the media are wildly exaggerated. I find it difficult to believe that a PR executive can influence the selection of cabinet ministers.

5. The gratuitous remarks by civil society activists about the pernicious impact of lobbying should be dismissed out of hand. They are themselves power brokers and fixers. Their prescriptions have crippled the economy, especially in the areas of infrastructure and agriculture.

On the other hand, the media also have much to answer for. You would think triviality is the first as in the sad spectacle of Sania Mirza; Shashi Tharoor; Lalit Modi; the IPL. Obsessed with trivialities, the media and their concomitant sources, the pr guys, tend to hijack the public debate.

There are other issues such as the nexus between the marketing people of corporations and the “brand managers” in the media. Just recently, The New York Times ran a story about how the major media are selling editorial space and time.

What’s happening is a travesty. If you undermine Indian democracy, you take away a major advantage we enjoy in the world.

On the economy, while I lament the Leftist thinking that still dominates intellectual life in India; I have to say that rampant commercialism is a bad thing. If we acquiesce in “treaties” and “packages,” we are selling our profession short, making it the equivalent of advertising.

It’s not just these subversive agreements, we are all called upon to measure our contribution in terms of advertising spends.

Our profession has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi. He used an advocacy strategy in which he staged events to influence the press and the government and petitioned the courts to in order to assert his rights under the law. That defeated first, the racist government in South Africa and then the colonial British government in India.

His SOCO: it is possible to change things.

I know there is a deep-rooted cynicism in the public debate that the only way to get things done in India is to bend rules, pay bribes or resort to blackmail.

Of course, these things happen. But if we are ever going build our profession as a legitimate part, not just of the economy but of India’s loud and raucous democracy, we have to stand for skepticism not cynicism; debate and negotiation, not surrender and compromise. Above all, we must stand for transparency.

This may sound impractical given the fact that media are willing to sell editorial space for a consideration. But then, I for one did not come to India to spark the PR consulting business only to see it flounder in murk and opacity.

I repeat: our business is squarely rooted in the Gandhian tradition. This sounds so idealistic that many of you would be blameless if you think I am naïve. Thank whatever Gods there be, our founding fathers who wrote our Constitution were not cynical. Else, we would have been like Pakistan, or Iran or any of the multifarious countries who are called the developing nations.

Remember the SOCO; our profession is as much a part of our democracy as it is of the economy.

And by the way, the term SOCO was invented by my team at Hill & Knowlton in Chicago in the early 1980s.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010