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Showing posts with label gujarat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gujarat. Show all posts

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Narendra Modi: One-term PM?

Gujarat is a small, relatively homogeneous state. Its people are entrepreneurial, focused on business and count their success in accumulated assets; not for them the glamour of a corporate career or the power of a government position. To them, government is somewhat ceremonial in the state and a complexity best avoided at the center. They want to just get on with it, providing for their families and future generations, with travel thrown in as a major diversion.
The Gujarati believes that governance with a light touch is best. For the first decade of its existence, the state government coasted along building assets: roads, power stations, factories, pleasant cities and not getting in the way of a thriving mercantile culture.
Things began to change with the decline of the textile industry, the backbone of Gujarat’s thriving economy. Politics began to dictate outcomes. The state was overwhelmed by civil disturbances including large-scale religious and caste riots. This set the stage for the populist Navnirman movement that gave way to the rabid bigotry of the BJP.
There are interesting coincidences surrounding the rise of the BJP in Gujarat and emigration from the state to the US. With the amendment of the US Immigration and Nationality Act in 1968 to allow relative petitions leading to permanent residence (green card) and citizenship, a veritable flood of middle-class people from Gujarat immigrated to the US through the 1970s. By the 1980s, they had established small businesses and begun to prosper.
Like most Gujaratis, the US cohort retained its insularity: not engaging with the host culture, refusing to blend in but especially remitting savings to families back home. Most of the money was transferred through informal channels. I can remember some people wanting to advertise in my India Tribune newspaper offering more rupees to the dollar and cash delivery to specified persons and addresses in Gujarat.
As the quantum of remittances in unreported cash grew, investible surpluses held by recipients also grew and were ploughed into real estate projects. An array of brokers and fixers emerged to facilitate such investments, usually by bending bylaws and circumventing other legal inconveniences. They became the forerunners of the BJP that came to dominate Gujarat politics, banishing the genteel idealists who served Gujarat since its formation.  In their place arose a horde of scofflaws and bigots to grasp at political power.
From these murky swamps emerged a man of overwhelmingly modest intelligence but with remarkable amounts of cunning, Narendra Modi. Starting out with the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, he successfully undermined the incumbent BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Modi used the earthquake to promote himself as a development icon. In reality, he merely coasted on a global disaster relief effort that was mounted in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Right at the outset though, his claims to have created an industrial and infrastructural miracle in Kutch were challenged by Edward Simpson, a highly-regarded anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In his book, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India, Simpson argued that not all the changes in Kutch following the earthquake were for the better, and that in the years following the quake, divisions between Hindus and Muslims in Kutch widened.
But with his headline management skills, Modi successfully staved off questions about his role in Kutch by focusing on the development story while stoking the communal fires. As he vaulted to the chief minister’s position after Patel’s ouster, Modi appeared to have crafted a winning election strategy in which the rhetoric was development but the actual organizational play was to polarize the electorate on an anti-Muslim platform.
The following year, 2002, he put it in play following the burning of the train in Godhra and asserted his dominance on Gujarat politics and on the BJP for the next 12 years without ever being challenged about outcomes and intent. Finally, it enabled him to vault to the Prime Minister’s office.
There was one crucial difference, however. As Gujarat chief minister Modi delivered both seats in the assembly and a large vote share. As Prime Minister, he chalked up the first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades but with just about 31 percent of votes. And that’s where the rub lies. Nearly 70 percent of the electorate did not vote for him. Consequently, the questions began to fly thick and fast from virtually the moment he became Prime Minister.
To avoid these questions, Modi took to what Ravish Kumar, the highly regarded anchor of NDTV India, called “eventocracy” facilitated by a “comedia.” Essentially, this meant remaining silent until the questions became persistent and shrill and then with the active collaboration of mainstream media, changing the subject to emotive issues like nationalism, patriotism, terrorism and Pakistan. Or else staging events like the BRICS summit, Madison Square Garden, Wembley or campaign rallies in which the melodrama quotient is insufferably high with quivering voice and tears in his eyes: “beat me first, I have taken on vested interests that will not rest until they have killed me, give me 50 days.” Also high in these rallies is abusive content and whataboutery in which he mocks, derides and rails at opponents.
Easily, the mother of all diversionary tactics was demonetization, his draconian assault on the monetary system. Everyone but the mainstream TV news channels could see the widespread pain it inflicted on the average person but especially the poor and rural populations. But Modi and his cohorts refused to acknowledge just how vindictive and arbitrary it was. They laughed at first, saying the people lined up in banks and at ATMs were black money hoarders. Then they changed the subject to digital payments, cashless economy, and surgical strikes on terror funding and counterfeit banknotes.
But the questions still persist. No amount of headline management and propaganda including suspect opinion polls and feel good stories in the media can change the facts about demonetization: it was a disastrous ploy that hurt virtually the entire population of India; it was an ill-conceived attempt to divert attentions from legitimate questions about the palpable lack of governance; it was a body blow to the economy that could take years to nurse back to health.
Clearly Modi has no answers about the black money cornered by his November 8 announcement; he has no idea of when a semblance of monetary stability will be restored. But he is campaigning for the upcoming state elections as though his life depends on it, cleverly bending the narrative to suggest he is leading a fight against black money, never mind that he has been accused of taking payoffs from a dubious business enterprise and is engaged in a Watergate-style cover up, using government agencies and arbitrary transfers of inconvenient officials.
By staging event after event, finessing the narrative propagated by the pliant and unquestioning media, he hopes to dodge accountability. Many believe though this time, the impact of his idiosyncratic manoeuvre is just too overwhelming. In Gujarat 2002, where his victims were, by and large, a minority; demonetization pits the wishes and hopes of more than a billion citizens against him. That’s why Modi is going to such lengths to convince selected audiences he has the support of the vast silent majority that has suffered because of the black economy.
Back in the real world, many economists are predicting a massive deflation led by huge drops in employment, in investment, in trade. The GDP is expected to plummet to the original Hindu rate of growth.
The countdown begins now; at stake is whether people will be swayed by his fantasies or hold him responsible for the massive damage demonetization has perpetrated on the nation. The way things are going, he could be a one-term prime minister. But there’s no telling what other knee-jerk options he could pull out of his bag of amoral cunning.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://timesofindia.com, January 14, 2017.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Friend, Prakash Desai

Too Precious to Die

Prakash Desai basically knew everything and everyone accepted this…until I came along one cold February evening in 1977. He was  a distant cousin, who staked a claim on me as an annoying older brother; a Nehruvian socialist, who believed in the commanding heights because he hated private enterprise; a member of Baroda’s famed Renaissance Club that had little do with the arts and culture but more inclined to the worldview of Lenin and Stalin. He was as amazing a mass of contradictions as his beloved higher Hinduism he wrote copiously about.

I challenged him on all counts and he patiently heard me out, only to yell at me about my capitalist mindset and, he probably died on January 6, 2015, believing I hated the poor. “Not the poor, Prakash,” I would say to him of an evening in his study or in my garden in Chicago, “but against poverty that your stupid statist system created and thrives on.” He would fly into a rage, “Mr Rajiv Desai, you are in the presence of an advocate of compassion and equity; take your goddamn capitalism and shove it.”

“OK, Prakash,” I would say, “Lighten up. Let’s just have another drink.”

For all of that, he was a bon vivant. In his bar, there were the finest wines, the choicest whiskeys and he mixed a phenomenal vodka martini. Always well dressed, perfectly trimmed beard and thinning hair ever since I knew him, he was charisma personified. He was always Olivier while I was looking at Sean Connery. He was not always but sometimes infuriated when I teased him about taking the boy out of Baroda but never the Baroda out of the boy.

Baroda was where we both went to school ten years apart; he embraced it while I was much more about Bombay, where I grew up and Surat, where I was born. It also happened he was related to me through my father’s family of traditional middle-class Gujarati Nagar Brahmins from Baroda; my Surat connections were wealthy influentials that participated in the freedom movement and had national and international connections. Plus, as I told him, our (Surat) food was French to my paternal family’s (Baroda) food that was Slavic by comparison. “And in any case, Prakash, I’m from Bombay where we were urban sophisticates.”

For 38 years Prakash and I jousted on ideology and lifestyle. He had friends who would create and spread stories about me. He even co-opted not just my wife but also my mother and her sister. “Prakash is right,” my immediate family members would say, “Rajiv is very ‘aristocratic’ in his demeanor.” He also said I was more a Christian than a Hindu. In that sense, he was a Gandhian satyagrahi because he knew how to provoke.

It took me a few years to realize that he was a keen psychiatrist because he analyzed my every response to conclude that I was alienated from my father’s family, from my Nagar Brahmin origin and from the larger Hinduism into which I was born. He also said I embraced Western thinking at a very tender age because of the Theosophists on my mother's side of the family, Surat and Bombay. And therefore married a Goan Christian woman from Ahmedabad. Gujarat.

In my view, he was a phenomenal psychiatrist with an amazing understanding both of the body and the mind. When we were not fighting ideological battles late into the evening, he laid out in crystal-clear terms the sources of my health and conduct on any given issue, personal or professional. He always had not just time but insight…he almost always hit the nail on the head.

I still remember vividly one evening four years ago when my mobile phone rang in the pub at the Delhi Golf Club. I was with friends and excused myself to walk out to the deck. It was Prakash. He told me he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. I was benumbed. As I went back to our table, my friends saw there was something wrong. I told them.

Fast forward to January 6 this year: my mobile phone rang; it was my friend Satu, who the world knows as Sam Pitroda. I was at a friend’s place to dinner. I walked out of the room. Satu said two words: “Prakash died.” I said I’d call him back and collapsed into a paroxysm of grief and tears. It was not unexpected, of course but nevertheless it shattered my consciousness. Just as I did four years ago, I walked back in a zombie state.

How can a friendship disappear…just two phone calls?

Prakash, as I began, knew everything…the mind, the body, the spirit. Now he’s gone and all I have from him is a millionth of his knowledge, a micron of his wisdom. What I do have is some understanding of his compassion and his mighty humanity. Everyone should be so lucky…to know Prakash was to get to know yourself and the world.


Farewell, my philosopher king!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Looking Back in Anger


Bigots and busybodies looking back in anger


Candidates for the Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT) conducted by the Union Public Service Commission rocked the national capital with vociferous protests for two weeks in July-August demanding changes in the test format. They said CSAT was biased in favor of students from English-medium schools and those who came from ‘technical’ streams of learning such as engineering.

In 2011, the commission introduced CSAT to test the analytical and comprehension capabilities of aspirant civil servants rather than mere ability to memorize. The test determines whether a candidate is qualified to write the main examination. Billed as the toughest in the world, the UPSC’s civil service entrance exam attracts more than 500,000 aspirants each year of whom a mere 0.01-0.03 percent make the grade and go on to join the premier civil services such as the IAS, IFS and IPS. There is no more elite corps in the world than of the Indian civil services.

The agitators’ demands were based on a simple fact: analysis and comprehension are far removed from rote learning encouraged by the school education system. As such, CSAT became a formidable obstacle for them. The ability to define, categorize and organize requires considerably greater learning than to regurgitate memorized material. In the traditional education system where the image of a Brahmin mugging slokas exerts powerful influence, cognitive testing based on reason and comprehension is a great disrupter.

Fastening on the emotive language divide in the country, the agitators cleverly argued that CSAT is loaded against Hindi-belt candidates. For decades, Hindi heartland political leaders have not pushed just Hindi as the medium of instruction and government transactions, but also the end of English usage. Some states like Gujarat and West Bengal went to ridiculous lengths to make regional medium education mandatory. Millions of young Gujaratis and Bengalis suffered over the decades. Any wonder then that these two states became harbingers of the most regressive ideologies and chauvinist worldviews?

Advocates of Hindi and regional languages harbor a misbegotten sense of victimhood, spilled over from the colonial experience. For them the language and culture of the minority of English-speaking people is alien to the values and practices of “the real India'” i.e Bharat. Simultaneously, this ‘alien’ culture still enjoys a colonial-style advantage six decades after the end of British rule. What’s left unsaid is that English language learning has not only remained alive but has morphed into an aspiration for India’s growing middle class, chasing jobs and career opportunities around the world. This established trend can only grow as India begins to engage more actively with the global economy.

Modern history is littered with victims of the India-Bharat divide promoted by language chauvinists, bigots and busybodies. After India won independence in 1947, these elements made a virtue of denying the nation’s British heritage and looking back in anger to a pre-colonial golden age. Of late, mindsets have turned atavistic and are beginning to hallucinate about a mythical Hindu age that Muslim invaders had allegedly obliterated and subverted.

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a path-breaking English stage and screen production of the 1950s. It dealt with the longing in a once-mighty Britain for its glorious past. In the newly emergent post-World War II era and the loss of its colonies, some British people experienced remorse because “everything’s changed” while others rued that “everything’s remained the same.” 

This syndrome is now sweeping india as various crackpots and extremists keep popping up with increasing frequency making absurd claims and bigoted statements about the glory of a mythical past on the one hand, and victimhood on the other. The inter-play between these emotions defines the current political agenda. Meanwhile important issues — education, healthcare, roads, water, transport, law and order — suffer neglect.

By pandering to such agitators, governments and political parties are mindlessly promoting a culture of entitlement in which no judgments can be made about individual capability and proficiency. Like its evil twin, reservation, entitlement weakens an already frayed social fabric. Governance is too much to expect in these circumstances, and policy making is held captive in the dungeons of do-nothing.

People start to believe that any achievements will result only from agitation and group solidarity, influence-peddling and corruption. What the CSAT candidates protested, political parties supported, and the government accepted the strange proposition that the entrance into the civil services is less about merit than ‘fairness’ to those who see themselves as disadvantaged.

It seems self-defeating to strike at the heart of government, its civil services, with a contradictory demand to change everything and to change nothing. As such, the future looks bleak for the ‘steel frame’ services which are already at sixes and sevens, measuring up to the demands of a modernizing state and the aspirations of an increasingly assertive citizenry.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of  Education World.

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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Namo hype tour

Roll up, roll up…for the Namo Hype Tour that is dying to take you away…from reality, from conciliation, from tolerance, from grace, from the Constitution. Roll up, the Namo Hype Tour will provide strong leadership, bring in investment, chant Hindu mantras, and oppress poor and middle class Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Never mind that, he will give you, if you are rich and powerful, preferably Hindu, electric power, water, roads and tax breaks.
Er…he has little support outside of Gujarat. Never mind, his global public relations agency has subdued even the television reporters who exposed his complicity in the post-Godhra riots in 2002; that was when he leashed his police as Hindu mobs fell upon Muslims and slaughtered thousands of men, women and children.
I have this on good faith from a friend in Ahmedabad, who is neutral about Modi. He affirmed a story I heard while in Gujarat about a bunch of Hindutva thugs, who chased a car because they had determined it was carrying beef. They seemed to have had intelligence…no, information, because intelligence is not part of the Hindutva worldview, only bigotry.  They chased this butcher but he managed to escape into Sarkhej, a Muslim neighborhood, where they dare not venture.
Policing in Gujarat is outsourced to Hindu and Muslim thugs.
To herd Muslims into ghettos is very much part of Modi’s agenda. I heard it time and  again from many people in Gujarat, all of them Hindus. Some lament it; others think it’s good. “We know where they are should any trouble arise,” a Modi supporter told me disingenuously.
That’s the Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts) part of Modi’s platform. That’s not gone very far because his share of seats in the assembly has declined steadily since 2002: from 126 seats then, to 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012.
Modi is now projected as the governance icon with a “Gujarat model.” His ideal is not that different from a raft of Latin American, Caribbean and African dictators, who sold their countries to local and international business interests. His PR people have sought to create an image for Gujarat that is truly fantastic…a veritable haven of governance and development.
And so it was I arrived at Ahmedabad airport recently, fully expecting a Singapore-style experience. Aside of the jetways, a modern and much-needed convenience that beats taking a bus from the ATF-choked tarmac, the Ahmedabad airport has an air of moffusil desolation…at least for ordinary citizens.
Upon landing, the non-VIP must walk through a garbage-strewn pathway to the parking lot to get to the car and then drive on a standard Indian road that is nowhere near the Singapore experience. Or even Dubai or Abu Dhabi. But we must not talk about these UAE airports and roads because they are Muslim; else you risk being attacked by Hindu fundamentalist goons, who are Narendra Modi cultists.
So what is the ground reality in Gujarat? The simple answer is: unsustainable development. A drive from Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar and back tells the story. There are scores of real estate developments, residential and commercial. It looks impressive, especially if you are a xenophobic NRI or a member of the World Economic Forum.
A closer look reveals most completed projects are empty and many others unfinished.  Dig as you may, statistics are hard to come by from the Modi government.
The word is the celebrated automobile venture that shot Modi into prominence, the Tata Nano project in Sanand, just outside Ahmedabad, is floundering because of poor sales and a misbegotten marketing strategy.
Propaganda plays a big role in the Modi campaign, initially for chief minister, now for the prime minister. His PR handlers specialize in hype as a strategy and often fudge issues with smoke-and-mirror tactics.
The manner in which his machine hyped the recent visit of a few fringe Republican members of the US Congress seemed to suggest Washington has absolved him of the charge of “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” that in 2005 led to a denial of a diplomatic visa and revocation of the B category visa he held.
Sources in the US State Department say the US government will follow the judgments of Indian courts. Despite the pressure of the Hindu lobby, the US administration stands firm in its assessment that there is enough evidence to show Modi was complicit in the 2002 riots. Many Western diplomats point to the life sentence handed out to one of Modi’s ministers, Maya Kodnani, as a damning indictment.
Modi propagandists proclaim the European Union reached out to him after a decade-long boycott. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sources in the EU say the boycott continues and its diplomats are under instructions to have no official contact with him.
In the end, my sojourn in Gujarat convinced me Modi’s “Gujarat model” is a mutant that is alien to the inherent decency, fairness and above all moderation of the people in the state.

This article appeared on Times of India website on April 16, 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.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ahmedabad Journal

The Butterfly City

Late on a moonlit night, Ashish and his wife Nicole, my niece, drove me along the newly-built embankment on Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River. Flowing north to south, the river roughly divides the old city with its rich tradition and heritage architecture and the modern suburban development on its west side. As we drove along the river’s edge, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the waterway in full flow. I lived in the city for three years in the 1960s and my parents made their home there. So I have a proprietary hometown interest.

When I lived in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati held no water. Its banks were slum-ridden. In the middle, you had these wonderful sights of people drying their colorful clothes and donkeys laden with sand to fuel the furious building activity on the west side of the river. Every now and then, the river would become flooded as the barrages upstream released water in the monsoon. By and large though, the river ran dry and the many bridges across it seemed pointless.

All that changed in May 1997. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation was set up under the stewardship of then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela to develop a plan for the riverfront. Twelve years later, Vaghela’s dream is taking shape. The river is full now, fed by the water of the Narmada Dam. When the project is completed, Ahmedabad will join Goa’s capital city Panjim as the only other riverside city in India to develop its waterfront.

The riverfront development in Ahmedabad is a huge and sophisticated urban renewal project. When it is complete, it will transform this city that is already fond of the good life. Traditionally known for its parsimonious ways, Ahmedabad has changed over the years to become possibly the most global city in India; not because of multinational firms as in Gurgaon but mostly because it has a huge connection to the US, where many of its denizens reside. This least Western city in India is curiously its most American city.

As such, Ahmedabad is truly egalitarian. On a recent flight from Bombay, I bumped into my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, scion of the city’s illustrious Lalbhai family and the head of Arvind Mills, traveling with me on an all-cattle-class Jet Konnect flight. His family is, among other things, a benefactor of the city’s famed Indian Institute of Management and the renowned CEPT University.

In an India of new and in-your-face wealth, Sanjay remains an icon of understated old wealth: unassuming and courteous, wedded to larger development causes such as higher education. He does this not as part of some PR-driven corporate social responsibility program; he is convinced, like his forebears, that a publicly-traded corporation has a duty to the community.

People like Sanjay and a relatively enlightened bureaucracy have transformed Ahmedabad from a moffusil place into India’s most dynamic city: its new Bus Rapid Transit System makes its Delhi counterpart look like a third-world system; the city’s airport, roads and its smooth power supply make it closer to global standards than any other city in India.

Historically, the laughing stock of India’s western provinces, Ahmedabad today is the face of new India. Never mind Bombay, people commended even Surat, Baroda and Poona over Ahmedabad. But the city will have the last laugh. It is set to emerge, with its mixture of schlock and exquisite architecture, superb infrastructure and thriving consumerism, as India’s premier city in the 21st century.

This does not mean that Ahmedabad is suddenly a pretty city; far from it. Flat, featureless and dusty, it grew privately. Builders from the north transformed this once genteel city into a treeless monstrosity of ugly multistory buildings. Over the years, conscientious civic authorities decided to take the city back. So you have this unusual combination of ugly private buildings, superb public architecture and now, sophisticated public spaces with a well-designed bus rapid transit corridor and a cleverly designed ring road with flyovers that work.

The expressway that links Ahmedabad to Baroda is a marvelous piece of road engineering that makes the Delhi-Gurgaon highway look like a country road in Burkina Faso. It runs about 100 kilometers, a distance that can be traversed in 55 minutes. The city’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport makes the new terminal in Delhi look like a provincial airport in some remote African country. The city is abuzz with new and lasting solutions to urban problems. They have no power cuts, a brand new water supply and sewerage system and piped cooking gas.

On the other hand, Ahmedabad remains among the most polluted cities in India. There is no getting away from the ugly commercial and private buildings. Its climate has to rank among the worst in India, thanks largely to the absence of trees and greenery.

Already, though, with water in the river, you can feel the climate is changing for the better. The vastly improved and well thought out infrastructure is bringing pride back to the city. As such, this maggot of a city is about to be transformed into a butterfly, albeit with ugly wings.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Corporate Social Responsibility?

The Nano Goes to Modi’s Gujarat

The decision by the Tata group to re-locate the Nano plant in Sanand is of concern to liberal Gujaratis. The logic of business is to be competitive and profitable; as such, Tata’s move makes sense. The company was right to choose the business-friendly state and get down to the task of making the revolutionary Nano car, which promises to put India on the global map of the auto industry.

Nevertheless, it just does not sit comfortably with liberal sensibilities in the communally-polarized state. What’s more, the triumphal note that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi sounded at the media event to announce the pact appeared to be a new form of propaganda. He followed it up with a series of television interviews, resplendent in new sartorial style. In these interviews, Modi positioned himself as a spokesman for the new India.

Modi is a politician and, some might even argue, a cynical one. It doesn’t take rocket science to see through his new effort to buy respectability. Like Lady Macbeth, he is seeking desperately to wash the communal bloodstains off hands in order win national acceptability. He is positioning himself to emerge as a national leader in the BJP once L K Advani is gone.

We can explain away Modi’s posturing as the way of an ambitious and ruthless politician. What is more difficult to accept is Tata’s decision-making process. The Nano is Tata’s prestige project. It is plausible that the decision was made on the rebound after the embarrassment and the financial costs of the shenanigans at Singur in Bengal. Given the formidable reputation of Tata, did no one consider the possibility that the decision could sully that standing?

Tata has sizable commitments to corporate responsibility programs. They stem from the conviction of senior management that their methods of conducting business should be ethical; as such, they must take into account the interests of society. These laudable programs have won prestigious awards and wide recognition. The Nano project is also driven by the same larger vision: to provide affordable personal transport to the emergent middle class.

While some companies like The Body Shop and others are recognized for their socially conscious practices, others are disparaged and their efforts often dismissed as hollow public relations ploys to whitewash the ethical questions raised by their operations. For example, the tobacco and oil industries simply have been unable to deal with the core ethical questions.

For all the years that such companies have fretted about corporate social responsibility, their notion is largely a putative expense to divert attention from real and serious ethical issues surrounding their business. Milton Friedman made sense when he famously argued in an article written 38 years ago that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Friedman’s piece stirred a major controversy at the time. Not just his idea of corporate responsibility but all his work on monetary theory was dismissed as a handmaiden of powerful multinationals. It was the time of Woodstock and Viet Nam; big business in the West was viewed with glaring hostility in the media, in the academy and in the liberal mainstream. In India, given the socialist mindsets in politics and the bureaucracy of the time, business was seen a milk cow: favors and cash in exchange for licenses and permits.

With the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher era, governments ceded space to the private sector. That was when views about corporate social responsibility began to change. If the private sector has unfettered access to markets, land, labor and capital, many scholars and analysts argued, companies must consider the larger social entity in their decision making.

In a recent example, a major infrastructure firm with far-flung projects served by casual labor included AIDS awareness and disaster management as part of its social responsibility initiative. It serves both the larger community and the company interests. Companies need to seek out areas where their operations intersect with the larger good.

Seen in that light, the Tata decision to re-locate the Nano plant in Gujarat raises many questions. Modi is like a chameleon in his relentless pursuit of power. Starting out as a fiery Muslim basher, he went on to pose as the champion of Gujarati pride; now he pushes himself as a business friendly leader. How does Tata reconcile its pact with Modi whose seven years as chief minister have been marked by overt targeting of minority groups? How can a company that has been honored by the US India Business Council sign on with a controversial politician who has been and continues to be denied a visa to the United States.

Modi’s culpability in the communal mayhem that followed the Godhra incident was clearly established; his effort to gain absolution by setting up the kangaroo Nanavati commission was clumsy. It’s in the past; he has turned a new leaf: the cheerleaders say. But who can forget that Modi built his political career by fanning the flames of religious bigotry with references to the conquest of India by the Mughals in medieval times and more recently, the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan

In the end, there is a growing belief that Tata’s move, though legitimate, helped Modi in his whitewash campaign to emerge as a national leader. As a result, this highly respected company’s commitment to social responsibility appears somewhat weaker.

an edited version of this piece appeared in the times of india, october 21, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Going Home

Thirty-five years and two months is a long time to stay away from a place that you hated to leave at all. The thought crossed my mind as I wandered the streets of the old city of Surat, looking for familiar landmarks and for my family home.

Is that my cousin's house opposite the temple? I can remember playing cards there on a sweltering afternoon in May 1964 when news came that Jawaharlal Nehru had died and admonishing my cousin for her less-than-respectful demeanor. My outburst surprised her for she did not expect a teenager with an Elvis-style pompadour to be politically sensitive.

A few steps down and there's the building that housed the all-girls school that my great-grandmother founded. As we stood and looked, an official came up and greeted us. When I told him of my interest in the school, he became nostalgic and reminisced about my family. However, he got confused between my grandfather, the doctor, and his brother, the lawyer, both of whom were active in public affairs.

Just down the street is Gandiva Sahitya Mandir, the publishing house famed for its Bakor Patel books that brought Disney-like anthropomorphic characters into the homes of the Gujarati middle class. It was into this family that my younger aunt was married. Sadly the `press', as it was called locally, was torn down some years ago.

Across the street from the press is the house where my grandfather's brother lived. He was the lawyer, whose prominence in the city was the stuff of history. However, I remember him for his great collection of mystery books: Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Ellery Queen and for his ability to produce a coin from behind the ear of any person less than 10 years old. His house was part of the old family home that was really two grand old buildings connected by a bridge. On the ground floor was my grandfather's dispensary, where a quaint old compounder mixed all the good doctor's prescriptions. My interest in his rudimentary pharmacology led some to insist that I would follow in my grandfather's footsteps to major in medicine. As it turned out, I did follow the old man's trail, not in medicine but in public affairs.

Between the two houses is the narrow lane that led to my grandfather's house, where I was born and raised and visited regularly till April 1966 when he died. My eyes brim over as I walk through the alley into the house that was a home and is now a rich trove of treasured memories: of those who have passed like my grandfather, with his inspiring vision and my grandmother, who gets my vote as the sweetest person of the 20th century...and of those who remain, inheritors of strong family ties that have weathered the passage of time and the alienation of distance.

Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.

from the times of india august 20 2001