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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bombay Terror Attacks Media Coverage

Newswatch Survey Finds It "Theatrical"

Shortly after it dawned on all and sundry that what was initially thought of as only a gang war, was in fact a concerted attack by terrorists on the night of November 26, 2008, all eyes of the nation, and the world, were trained on Mumbai. The coverage of the attacks was to become a watershed in India's television history. But hardly had the first night wore on, signs of criticism of the coverage began surfacing. Over Facebook status messages, through SMSs, and subsequently through blogs and other outlets. Even as National Security Guard (NSG) commandos fought a pitched battle with the terrorists, and television cameras and journalists kept viewers updated all through, coverage itself became news. For all the wrong reasons, one might argue.

Going by the outrage expressed by critics through newspaper columns and blogs, among others, Newswatch decided to carry out a survey on what people thought of the reportage issue. The survey was conducted primarily over a web-based interface from December 3-6. The response was overwhelming. In all, 9,906 responses were selected for the analysis.

Some highlights of the survey results:

97 per cent said the high point was round-the-clock, extensive, coverage
74 per cent felt that the reportage-presentation was theatrical
73 per cent thought TV channels are goading the Indian government to go to war with Pakistan
Arup Ghosh and Shireen of NewsX were thought to be the most cool/best anchors/reporters
Barkha Dutt of NDTV was thought to be the most theatrical/worst anchors/reporters
More than half said Shobhaa Dé was one celebrity who did not deserve to be on TV
In most segments, DD News was seen to be the least sensational.

Extensive, theatrical: What people thought of the Mumbai terror attacks coverage on TV Edited and published by Subir Ghosh for Newswatch. © Newswatch 2008. Note: Even though efforts have been made to provide accurate information in this report, the publisher would appreciate if readers call his attention to errors by emailing newswatchindia@gmail.com. Suggestions for future study subjects can be sent to the same email address.

Pages: 16
Format: PDF
Color: All-color
Price: Free
Size: 449 KB
[For download link, please scroll down.]

There are, nevertheless, limitations with this survey. Firstly, there was no sample identification or selection (see page 3 for the methodology). Secondly, since this was an online survey the results would also mean the opinion gathered was that of India's Internet users only, and not that of the people as a whole. The survey results, unfortunately, leave out rural India from its ambit. In that sense, this survey is as elitist as the coverage of the attacks was made out to be by most detractors.

This survey is based on people's perception of the television coverage—it is not a content analysis project, technically.

In all, 16 questions dealt with perceived negative aspects of the coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks by news and business channels. In all, 21 English and Hindi channels were shortlisted for assessment. Non-English/Hindi channels had to be left out for logistical reasons. Respondents were asked to rate each of these 21 channels on a scale of 1 to 5, in an increasing order of perceived negativity. These ratings were subsequently used to arrive at a weighted mean on a scale of 100. No demographic details were collected from the respondents. In other words, it is not possible, for instance, to say if 57 per cent men in the age group of 22-29 in North India believed that Sahara Samay was theatrical in its reportage/presentation.

This survey is also not about ranking channels. For example, the Table 1 results on page 2 do not mean that all respondents thought that Zee News was the most speculative in its reportage. It means that of those who watched Zee News, 86 per cent thought that the channel's coverage was speculative.

This report also carries excerpts from relevant critical articles that appeared in newspapers, opinions of some of the survey respondents, and the response of Barkha Dutt (Group Editor- English News, NDTV) to the criticism of the coverage.

To download the report, copy and paste the following link on to your browser's address line:


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let's Take India Back

Enough of the Moffusil Madness

Sabina was a dear friend. She lived a large and full life until she died in the terrorist attack at the Taj in Bombay. She may have survived if the authorities had responded promptly. But Indian politicians and bureaucracy are a dysfunctional stew of mediocrity and incompetence. She never had a chance. It took the commandos of the elite National Security Group ten hours to get to Bombay and the state police forces that can’t even deal with the thugs of the various fascist senas were completely unequal to the task. The three top officials of the state’s anti terrorist squad were gunned down in a single attack. We were left with the sorry spectacle of pot-bellied cops armed with World War Two vintage 303 rifles trying to deal with terrorists equipped with modern weapons.

Then there’s my friend Lawrence Ferrao, a Jesuit priest, who heads the Xavier Institute of Communications, located on a campus that houses our alma mater, St Xavier’s High School and St Xavier’s College. He wrote an account, “An Eyewitness to Terror,” in which he described seeing two terrorists run past the campus to a nearby hospital and their killing spree. “Within our college stone walls, surrounded by hours of bloody violence, someone surely was watching over us. That same someone is now prodding us to work harder…to bring about change; to make a difference in our beloved India,” he wrote. For sure it wasn’t the Maharashtra govern-ment and its corrupt and inept police forces!

I also heard from Schubert Vaz, a pianist who played in the lobby of the Oberoi. He was saved and he believes it is a miracle. “Bombay suffers from two kinds of terrorists: the terrorists who come from outside the country and our political terrorists within the country. Our problems started with the Rath Yatra (conducted by Lal Krishna Advani) and the destruction of Babri Masjid. We are Indians; it does not matter whether we are Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs,” he wrote. He was cowering inside the hotel’s computer backup room while Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, was outside, swaggering in front of television cameras, trying to score cheap political point at a time of national distress.

Meanwhile the thugs of the various senas, who terrorize the city with sporadic violence, were nowhere to be seen. They are back now, intimidating lawyers who seek to represent the sole captured terrorist. As such, they are militating against the finest traditions of our constitutional de-democracy. They are a reminder of the soft state with its weak-kneed politicians and venal bureaucrats, who run our seriously flawed system of gov-governance.

Even after three weeks, the political class is still unmindful of the distress of citizens. The Congress Party dithered over the replacement of the ineffectual Vilas Deshmukh and is now tying itself up in knots on how to deal with the “senior” leader from Maharashtra, A R Antulay, who suggested that the state’s top anti-terror official may have been killed by Hindu nationalists. For its part, the BJP fumbled on support of the bill creating the National Intelligence Agency until the redoubtable Arun Jaitley got into the act. The incorrigible Left shot itself in the foot again when its suave ideologue Sitaram Yechury foolishly said the Bombay events were a re-sult of the Indo-US nuclear deal

Meanwhile, unfocused citizen anger can easily be diverted. Indeed this is beginning to happen as the media and the privilegentsia are now pushing for a military conflict with Pakistan. That way questions about governance and calls for reform of the system are averted. Indeed, public anger needs to have a focus. To start with, let us ask that our heritage be liberated from the moffusil clutches of government. Politicians, bureaucrats and the media buy into populism while ignoring substantive issues of pol-icy. They have been quick to propose and accept, for example, the change of place names. Starting with Bombay, they have changed other names including: Victoria Terminus, Flora Fountain, Crawford Market, Queen’s Road and a hundred others. This supposedly is their notion of national-ism: tilting at colonial windmills.

Bombay has a history that predates the Shiv Sena, the BJP and even the Congress. When they changed the name of the city, its main railway sta-tion, its airport, its major roads and its many public institutions: the roads still remain pathetic; the airport is still a mess and the railway stations still chaotic. It’s time to challenge the chauvinists, who have terrorized Bombay.

Bombay’s slide started with the rise of moffusil populists in the 1950s. The Samayukta Maharashtra Samiti, precursor of the Shiv Sena, forced the division of the erstwhile Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat. That‘s when the rule of thugs took over the city.

The terror attacks won’t change any political equations. No party cares about human lives. Don’t expect any serious efforts to reform governance. They would rather have a confrontation the failed state of Pakistan than change things internally. The only way to hit them, Congress, BJP, or Shiv Sena, is to strike at the roots of their populism. Let’s demand that the city be called Bombay again and the railway station and airports re-vert to their old, authentic names. It’s a seemingly small but symbolic first step that will upset their diversionary applecart that seems headed straight into a fourth war with Pakistan.

copyright rajiv desai december 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't Shoot the Pianist

Fifty-year old Schubert Vaz, pianist at the Oberoi-Trident, Bombay narrates his nightmarish night of November 26 when terrorists seized the hotel.

I was playing the piano as usual as I have for 27 years at the sea-facing lobby of the Oberoi, when I heard gun shots. As soon as I realized that gunmen had entered the lobby and shooting people, I ran into the Opium Den bar. They had already killed two bell boys. Other bodies were on the floor but the terrorists were going into restaurants and firing.

Along with some Oberoi staffers and guests, we next ran into the computer room. We felt that was also not safe. We next headed for the back-up systems room which had batteries and so on. I could continually hear gunshots. I called up my brother in law over the cell phone and spoke softly to tell him that terrorists had taken over the Oberoi, but not to tell my wife. If I was delayed, I asked him to tell her that a guest had invited me to play in his house after my duty hours at the Oberoi. If I did not come home by morning, it meant I was in serious trouble.

We were hiding in the back-up systems room when one of the terrorists entered. He started firing from his machine gun. He shot a 20-year old Oberoi management trainee Jasmine, She died. He killed some guests at point blank range. I thought my time had come to die. I could see the image of my family flash before my eyes. At that time I prayed, "Lord, save me."

The terrorist stopped firing. We were very lucky as for some reason he did not spray the room with bullets as he could have done with a machine gun. He just fired single shots. I could not see him, but could see the muzzle of the gun from where I was hiding.

If he had sprayed bullets all of us in the room would have died. The terrorist did not say a word while he was killing people. He was not angrily shouting, but appeared calm and methodical as he was shooting at us. That made him scarier.

The terrorist left the room. I asked others in the room, including some foreign guests, to put their mobile phones in silent mode. We waited, after about 30 minutes; we began to think of how to leave the hotel. We decided to leave for the Regal Room, and there we found our senior managers who were wonderfully helpful. They asked us to keep calm, and told us security forces will rescue us. We were then taken in groups out of Oberoi, to the nearby INOX theater where we waited until morning. At about 5.30 am, I took a local train to my home in the suburbs.

I have been through the Bombay bomb blasts also in 1993. Bombay suffers from two kind of terrorists: the terrorists who come from outside the country, and our political terrorists within the country who take advantage of our tragedies. Our politicians have destroyed the country with their divisive politics. Our divisive problems started with the Rath Yatra (conducted by Lal Krishna Advani) and destruction of Babri Masjid. We don't need any political yatras. We have the Jazz Yatra, and that is good enough!

We are Indians; it does not matter whether we are Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Sikhs. I know I am alive now only because the terrorist did not spray bullets as he could have done. Yesterday, I attended the funeral of an Oberoi colleague John even though I did not personally know him. I know it could have easily been my funeral. Bombay is not afraid. I am determined to get back to work at the Oberoi that is my second home for the past 27 years, to playing the piano that is my second wife.

The first song that I will play is Anne's Song by John Denver. It was the favorite of the 20-year old Oberoi management girl Jasmine, who died in front of my eyes. She was such a sweet, wonderful human being and killed for no reason by madmen

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can a Barack Obama rise in India?

Regrettably the answer is in the negative.

Indian politics is feudal, driven by divisive agendas of caste, ethnicity and religion. It is also nepotistic, fueled by ties of kinship. The political class has no ideology, except knee-jerk responses evoked by flawed and leftover notions of socialism, secularism and nonalignment. The system that has grown out of the cloud of an opaque democracy is chaotic and plutocratic. It exploits the twin sores of poverty and disparity. Politicians tend to be kleptomaniacs, who seek rent for providing governance by exception. Their supporters are primarily favour seekers; in this ethical morass, conformity and sycophancy are valued over innovation and competence.

The amorphous world of Indian politics is currently in focus because state elections are at hand. Driving around my assembly district, I see newly-established offices of the Congress, the BJP and the BSP. Just one look into them and it becomes evident that they serve as a hangout for unemployed, uneducated youth, who sit around hoping for a handout of few rupees to get them through the day. In sharp contrast, American campaign offices are a productive buzz of volunteers and party staffers, churning out voter lists, poll data and demographic profiles. Someone is in charge and the field office is responsible for getting the vote out in favor of the party candidate.

Thus, Barack Obama came out of nowhere, a young mixed-race person from a broken home, the son of an immigrant Kenyan father and a peripatetic white mother from Kansas. He has lived in Hawaii, Indonesia and Midwest USA; attended the finest universities on the East Coast and graduated with high honours in political science and law. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School and then spurned an academic career to become a community organiser in the city’s impoverished and mostly black South Side. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of city and state politics to be elected a US senator in 2004.

In 2007, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States and launched a superb campaign focused on the message of change. He used information technology to build a network of support groups all over the country and to raise funds, in small denominations; in the event, he accumulated the largest ever campaign treasury in the history of American presidential elections. He exudes coolness, compassion and an intellectual brilliance that won him not just votes but the deep admiration of youth, Latinos, women and blacks. Indeed Obama fired the imagination of the whole world. As such, when he is inaugurated in January 2009, he will be America’s first global president.

The stark difference between the grass-roots operations and the political aspirations of the world’s two largest democracies speaks of the difference in governance. In the US, governance tends to be positive and enlightened. Roads are well maintained; there is round-the-clock power and water (that you can drink straight from the tap). There are excellent government schools and well-stocked community libraries. Local governments operate and maintain parks and recreation services. They also provide a variety of social services for the aged and the handicapped as also efficient mass transport.

In India, there is little or no governance. Except for Lutyens Delhi, home of the power elite, most of India is rubble-strewn, unkempt and unfinished; pocked with inadequate roads, erratic power and water supply and virtually no law enforcement, let alone education or health care. The random manner in which civic authorities operate shows how kleptocracy works. Roads are patched rather than re-done; of a 10 km road approved for funding, just half gets built and the rest remains ragged and jagged. A multiplicity of bus stops is set up in some places and none at all in others. Central verges start to collapse immediately after they are finished.

Outsourced as it is to an increasingly rusty ‘steel frame’ bureaucracy, governance has very little to do with the delivery of public goods and services. Instead, it has become a muscular exercise to plunder money from the public treasury and to keep the citizenry at bay. Even a third-rate politician like Mayawati travels in an envelope of ‘Black Cat’ security cover, directed less at personal safety than at making a statement of power to her impoverished dalit supporters. In her warped understanding of politics, Mayawati seeks to impress her base with such over-the-top displays. “Look at me,” she seems to say, “I’m as powerful as upper-caste rulers, and I can do things for you.”

Meanwhile, swarms of corrupt and venal bureaucrats at all levels of government excavate age-old laws and regulations with a view to extorting money from citizens. Not too long ago, some of them visited my office and informed the manager that on the basis of something done by a long-dead former owner, the building was in violation some code and therefore illegal. We haven’t heard from them since but they may well have “opened a file,” giving them the option to harass us whenever they choose. Maybe they need to fund a wedding in the family; or send a son to an overseas university or whatever. Nobody in the political world can rein in democratic India’s marauding bureaucrats. That’s because no politician even thinks of governance. It’s all about power and pelf, unmindful of the citizenry.

No, a Barack Obama cannot rise in India. A Nero, a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao…maybe.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, december 2008

The Failure of the Political Class

The political class is like the public sector, which seeks to run a modern enterprise in a bureaucratic fashion that died abruptly with the Soviet Union. Likewise, politicians and bureaucrats and their cohorts in the academy try to operate a modern nation-state with command and control techniques more suited to the colonial era.

This contradiction was outlined in stark relief by the terrorist strikes in Bombay. Not even the most modern nation-state could have anticipated the strikes; however, the key is the response. Right or wrong, governments in the United States and Western Europe responded swiftly. Certainly in the US there has been not even a minor incident of terror since 9/11. Now compare that to the dithering, uncoordinated response of the Indian authorities. A cogent approach might, at the very least, have contained the number of casualties.

It took nearly ten hours for commandos to show up. Plus the police proved once again unable to do the simplest job of sanitizing the area. Instead, you had crowds of curious onlookers and the inevitable television crews and reporters. What’s more, television reporters, in their eagerness for “Breaking News,” were oblivious of the impact that their coverage could have, especially in keeping the terrorists informed about the commandos’ tactics.

Plus various spokesmen fed the media with information about police plans, government strategy and commando tactics in a random manner. It was clear that no one was in charge: not the union home minister, not the state chief minister, not the state home minister, not the NSG chief, not the police commissioner, not the state and central information ministries…it was a comprehensive failure of governance.

The question arises: could politicians and bureaucrats done any better? Of course, they could have. So why didn’t they? Why did it take the state chief minister so long to grasp the true nature of the attacks? Why did his deputy, who also serves as home minister, downplay the magnitude of the problem? Why did the center take so long to wake up: what was the national security adviser doing? What was the home minister doing? A National Disaster Management Authority office was established recently. Was this not a disaster included in its terms of reference?

Nevertheless, let’s not play the blame game; instead let us analyze why things went so terribly awry. My 27 years of intimate acquaintance with the political process leads to the following answers to questions raised above:

1. The position of a politician in any party is vicarious. Except for the supreme leader, no one is secure. This puts a premium on sycophancy that cascades through the ranks and explains why politicians wear rings, undergo elaborate religious rituals and are deeply superstitious. Their survival is not on the basis of performance or leadership; if he or she should in some way displease the leadership, it’s curtains. Neither chief minister Vilas Deshmukh nor any of the Patils (central and state home ministers) was capable of getting anything done except ceremonial posturing that in their minds would please their overlords. In such a culture, politics becomes process rather than goal oriented. Meaningless gestures and flatulent rhetoric are all you get. Hence Deshmukh’s “terror tourism” trip to the Taj with Bollywood celebrities or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s gift of money to the family of a slain security officer. Compare that to 9/11, when the New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge and directed the response.

2. National priorities are much lower in the politician’s hierarchy of values. Every situation he faces is judged on the basis of whether it strengthens or weakens his position. In addition to sycophancy, the political culture celebrates opportunism. This explains why the chief minister of a neighboring state rushed to Bombay and the Oberoi, where he swaggered before the assembled media, charging the government with failure and calling for new laws and what have you. If ever Modi was stripped of his recent image building sheen, this was it. He was shown up for what he is: a small-time opportunist with an agenda that is clearly too large for him. Meanwhile opposition leader L K Advani, with his refusal to support the government, wrote his obituary as a possible prime minister. Contrast that to solidarity shown by American and European politicians in the face of similar terror attacks.

3. Innovation and ideology are an intrinsic part of modern political cultures. Barack Obama steamrollered his way to the presidency of the United States with a high-tech campaign and a message of change. In India, Mayawati is feted for her ability to rabble rouse among the impoverished and oppressed Dalit castes, wearing diamond rings and disclosing mind-boggling assets. The BJP, with its pursuit of a communal ant-Muslim agenda, offers no real message other than hate and deceit. The failure of the party to emerge as a center right alternative is unforgivable and speaks to a lack of vision. On the other hand, the Congress is hopelessly paralyzed by various competing factions including a socialist left that seeks to return to the days of Indira Gandhi; feudal groups based on caste and religious affiliation; and a ruling progressive section that is held in the check by the various factions. The result is reform by stealth, a hesitant foreign policy and mindless populism.

Sapped by such a cancerous culture, the political class was simply incapable of responding to the terrorist assault on Bombay.

an edited version of this column appeared in the times of india, december 4, 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

Eyewitness to Terror

BATTLE GROUND : St Xavier’s College approx 9.40 p.m. onwards

"There's been some firing at V.T. station," he said. It didn’t sound too serious. But within minutes, the scenario changed - and how! TV channels blared the news of a possible gangland gun battle at Leopold's Cafe, in Colaba. By 10.15 pm, frenzied reporters on all channels screamed, "we have a terrorist attack…shooting at the CST station reported….and they have entered the Taj Hotel in Colaba."

Suddenly, unexpectedly, all hell broke loose around St. Xavier's College. Machine guns fired (sounds very different from the ' rat-a-tat ' that we hear in movies) and grenades blasted around us. We listened in hushed, frightened silence to the deadly news that the 'atankvadis’ – terrorists- were in the neighboring Cama Hospital premises. Some of us huddled in the recreation room before the TV; some, standing on the long third floor terrace, watched disbelievingly at rifle-toting commandos enacting battle-like scenes before our eyes; and, some slept!

Standing in the corridor facing the Azad Maidan, Paul Vaz was visibly shaken. He saw a man shot in cold blood, just in front of our college driveway on Mahapalika Marg. Proof, that the ‘terrorists’ had scrambled past our main gates!

Peering over the railing of the terrace facing St. Xavier's School, Joe Velinkar and Arun watched in disbelief. Just a few feet from the College side-gate (the one facing Rang Bhavan), two men were crouched behind a white car with a spinning red light atop it. Then, with guns firing in the air, they "coolly," according to Velinkar, walked past the Rang Bhavan, and entered the G.T.Hospital complex.

Sometime between these two happenings, in this same area, brave policemen met their deaths in front of the Corporation Bank, which is situated at the extreme end of the college building. Bullets whizzed - dented the door of the bank and the red, steel electric sub-station. This is the spot where ACP Ashok Kamte (an alumnus of St. Xavier's College), Hemant Karkare, the ATS Chief (his daughter had completed her studies last year at Xavier’s) and Vijay Salaskar met their end.

Presumably, the young terrorists escaped in these officers’ Qualis van - the same Qualis that fired indiscriminately, killing two youth living in houses behind our college. And then later, on bystanders at the Metro junction a few meters away. But, within our college stone walls, surrounded by hours of bloody violence, someone surely was watching over us and our hostelites. That same someone is now prodding us to work harder - in and through our Institutions - to bring about change; to make a difference - in our beloved India.

If you prayed for us…THANK you

Lawrence Ferrao SJ

Fr Lawrie, principal of Bombay's prestigious Xavier Institute of Communications, was the celebrant at our daughter Pia's wedding in Goa, November 24, 2008. He sent me this eyewitness account.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Opportunities in Meltdown Crisis

It is the yearning of most middle class Indians to send their sons and daughters to go to Harvard Business School. That’s not surprising, given the Indian obsession for job-oriented training rather than a liberal arts education. When your children get into elite business schools, you feel you’ve fulfilled your dharma. After that, they get lucrative jobs in Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and what have you. There they work with men and women from around the world whose Arjun-like focus is to make piles of money: an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a spectacular beach house in the Hamptons, a skiing holiday in the Alps, a summer place in the south of France, a villa in Tuscany, an apartment in Paris or a great hotel in London.

Well, just as American assumptions about finance have been upturned by the dismal reality of economics, your idea of dharma is about to take a beating. The chickens have come home to roost. Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unlamented demise of Soviet communism, we are witnessing a massive assault on the skewed capitalism unleashed by global finance. When a bunch of ambitious yuppies is given the run of the markets, you should expect immature behavior. A thousand points up, a few thousand points down: the masters of the universe thought they were invincible.

We’ve seen this in India in the first four decades of Independence. Young people with means and connections attended elite schools like Oxford and Cambridge and returned to high positions from where they pushed the intellectual ideas of the day. The result was Fabian socialism that created and favored the elite. The Leftish intellectuals who ran the country advanced distorted notions about egalitarian growth from positions of privilege. They pushed weird ideas: a ‘commanding heights’ public sector; restrictions on private enterprise; outright nationalization of ‘core’ sectors deemed vital to the country; ‘development’ banking, subsidy populism.

The entire edifice came crashing down in 1991 when the government went bankrupt. Slowly and painfully, a new structure arose in its place: a tentative reform regime frequently held hostage to mindless moffusil politics practiced by con men and goons, bigots and activists who fill party offices. One thing is obvious; the old elite have had to make way for ambitious interlopers, whether in politics or business. Their next generation largely opted out of public service and made their homes largely in the global financial community: in New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore.

This is where the story becomes intriguing: at the intersection of the next generations of the Indian elite and the world of global finance. Once a secure and lucrative place, it is now the center of the meltdown. If the recovery is long in coming, these young men and women will most likely head home. As they pour in looking for elite perches, they will encounter the crass interlopers who now occupy such positions. It could make for an interesting political turn. In alliance with modern-minded politicians found in the Congress and in some regional parties, they could power a new equation in the country’s politics.

The global financial bust could actually re-invigorate politics. The moffusil mafia that now holds the Indian state to ransom could face a challenge. Chances of overcoming the current anarchy could improve dramatically. As things stand today, civil society (not the jholewallahs but the real thing: a middle class with civic values) is under assault. All manner of low life, including criminals, assembles under a ‘leader’ and wreaks chaos and mayhem in cities, towns and villages, without let or hindrance. You have Hindu bigots killing tribal Christians in Orissa and Karnataka; street hoods enforcing a chauvinist agenda in Bombay; Mamata Banerjee forcing the Tata Nano venture from Bengal; a regional party playing to its ethnic base by seeking to influence Indian policy in Sri Lanka; the Left playing ideological games to strap a government they were in alliance with; a BJP that is desperate for power and will go to absurd lengths as it did with displaying wads of cash during the vote of confidence in Parliament; a Congress that cannot shake off its nostalgia for Indira Gandhi and therefore remains unconvinced about economic reforms.

These distressful events are taking place at a time when the economy is notching up record growth. The minuscule middle class has grown to a critical mass and can irreversibly transform the country into a stable, modern democracy. Sadly, no political party speaks for this emergent group. Virtually all political parties are preoccupied with caste, religion and populism. It is a measure of the narrow worldview of the political leadership that no one has been able to grasp the significance of this demographic event. The closest any leader came to recognizing the growing middle class is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This much was clear from his relentless advocacy of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. He fought the odds and emerged triumphant and the middle class applauded. Can he persuade his reluctant party to solicit the support of this vital new constituency?

Meanwhile, at ground zero in the global financial markets, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have demonstrated their leadership by pursuing an intelligent response to the crisis. The much maligned British premier, in particular, has won plaudits in his own country and around the world. In the US, a fading George W Bush failed to rally his own party around a flawed bailout package put forward by his lightweight Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson.

Interesting possibilities lie ahead. For instance, the crisis has steered the debate in the presidential campaign to focus on crisis management capabilities of the candidates. As such, this has favored the unflappable and analytical Barack Obama, with his cool temperament and level head, over the more mercurial John McCain. In the next few weeks, US voters will have the chance to send a powerful signal by selecting their President. A President Obama has a better chance of restoring sanity in fearful and avaricious global financial system.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, november 2008

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Goa Unplugged

After All, It IS India

So here we are in Ucassaim, Goa again. The monsoon is at an end and now there’s bright sunshine; warm humid days, cool starry nights. And I think to myself what a wonderful world. There are high-pitched songbirds in the morning; an irritating rooster with five-o’clock-alarm regularity; peacocks romantically a-braying at the prospect of snakes. The bread guy, the egg man and every other vendor has this little rooty-tooty horn that starts blowing from five in the morning to midday.

Our little village is, as such, a bucolic place. After three days of rain and a day of sunny blue skies, you can sit in the verandah and still hear the water dripping from the trees at night. You get up from your armchair and look up at the million trillion stars in the sky to see if it’s clouded over again and it’s raining. And you realize with some impeccable insight that dripping water is the main event in Goa during the monsoon. Even after two days of sunny skies, despite the star-filled, moonlit nights, the drip-drop of the water from the trees never ceases. It is soothing, almost mesmerizing.

The wonder of this place is that is a feast of vision and sound but also of heavenly aromas of food: the overwhelming smell of feni, the pungent odor of Goa vinegar and the lustful noseful of seafood. Apart from the hedonistic cornucopia that is the very essence of the place, there are other, more mundane aspects: good roads, polite drivers, great bars, good restaurants. It is fun to wander through the towns, villages and beaches during the day and eat a simple dinner at home or find a buzzing place to dine in.

This time, however, the pleasures of Goa were tinged with a black penumbra. It turns out our bucolic little village is full of greedy and envious neighbors. We’ve tried to reach out to them but their world is so different. The amount of money we spend going back and forth from Goa in a year surpasses their annual earnings. If we were white foreigners, nobody would hassle us; if we were rich, we would have people to contain them. Being neither, we face the hostility of neighbors, who are nice to talk to; it is clear they have a hidden agenda. And they operate stealthily through the Panchayat.

In our case, they cannot complain in terms of religion or caste: my wife is a Goan Catholic; I am a Hindu Brahmin. Between Pereira (my wife’s maiden name) and Desai (also a Goan name), we easily blend in, especially because we live the local life. The problems our neighbors are causing us are petty but stressful. One neighbor is a policeman; he had a wicket gate leading into our garden from his yard and enjoyed a free run of our property. We sealed off the gate. Now he is extracting revenge. He has filed a complaint in the panchayat against the boundary wall we are seeking to repair. He even brought in his loutish fellow cops to threaten us. Another neighbor started an ambitious project to build an additional floor but ran out of money; a third has cattle in his living quarters and the family is always at war, using loud voices and sometimes even physical combat.

All these years, we’ve ignored them, valuing the physical allure of the village. We’ve weaved that attraction into a pastoral experience. I was hoping to write poetry like William Blake,; instead I am constrained to write a Marxist tract. Now that we are sprucing up the property for our daughter’s wedding in the next few months, we’ve had people coming out of the woodwork, objecting to walls; this, that and the other. All complaints go to the Panchayat; there are inspections, without any reference to the alleged transgressor.

In the past few weeks, we’ve had all manner of harassment from neighbors. They are of a completely negative frame of mind. One neighbor complained that we had encroached into his property; another complained, and he lives across the street, that the wall would block the breeze in his house. A third simply said we could not do it unless we built ten feet into our property, giving him the land for free.

We come to Goa to get away from it all. We stay at out second home, mind our own business and reach out to the locals. There is, however, such a simmering pot of envy that you can neither touch nor swallow for fear of burns. We have decided to fight it. Never mind religion or caste, the hostility has to do with socioeconomic differences. Though nowhere rich by global or even the new Indian standards, we nevertheless pay our caretaker more than the per capita income of the village…we probably spend more than that on dinner, when we go out.

That is the truth. But I see no reason why they would gang up on us, except because they believe they can wring a few thousand rupees out of us. Apart from the fact that I would not even part with a penny, I am shocked that these people have such a skewed view of the world: the idea you can gang up to extract money from your better-off neighbor.

As my daughter says, “Man, Dad, they picked the wrong guy.” And indeed they did. My wife is from Goa and I am Goan by choice. We have the resources to tie the Panchayat up in litigation for the next 10 years. Our taxes are 122 rupees a year because that’s really what residents can afford. I have no qualms in using my financial clout to fight harassment. On the other hand, despite the pathetic real estate taxes, the village is clean; everyone manages to dispose off their garbage and there are no smelly bins of the type you find in Delhi’s villages. We know because even in the capital we live surrounded by a village that is immensely wealthier and depressingly dirtier.

So there we have it. We live in this bucolic village; we spend more money in a day than the local residents do in a month. But we could become victims of the egregious envy of our neighbors, who are simply hoping to make a buck by slowing our renovation. I told members of the Panchayat, who came to visit us, that we will support the local orphanage (imagine: in this little impoverished community, there is one). But we have no time for envious and greedy neighbors. And we will move heaven and earth to insulate ourselves from the petty machinations of the neighbors. It is class warfare, plain and simple.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Acrid Stench of Death

Grief Eases, the Smell Lingers

On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death and how it hits you in the face, even while you are busy making a life.

To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.

It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out; we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95 and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean as well the illegal immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.

Nobody told me that death is the only certainty in life for all the years I spent in respectable educational institutions. In school, there was an unstated belief in God that the Jesuits pushed; university life was girded by the Calvinist ethic of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, the job was the Holy Grail. You must find one, keep one and rise in the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, business class travel and various other diversions take your mind off from the inevitability of death.

So we build the tangled web of ambition and relationships. It diverts our minds, stuck as we are on this wonderful death row that we call life. I have a sunny disposition like Louis Armstrong, who in 1967 sang What a Wonderful World, a song that was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:

I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

We enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles number, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even more mundane experiences like a drink at the retro bar in the air force station in Ayanagar on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.

My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. There are trees of green and flowers too. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.

These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children, both us and ours, grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.

Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of death. My father, who shared his birthday with my mother, turned 89 on September 21. In his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From The Times of India, September 16, 2008

16 Sep 2008, 0000 hrs IST, RAJIV DESAI

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As Delhi recovers from the shock of the terrorist bombings, it is apparent that India is under sustained attack. Weak governance, an intelligence failure and police bungling are the reasons the chatterati ascribes to the incident. It is almost as though they are inured to the random loss of life on the capital's mean streets.

The real failure lies in the divisiveness of the political class. From Bangalore, where the BJP is holding a convention, saffron grandees have pitched in with vicious criticism of the government. Nobody has come to grips with the real issue: a political consensus is vital in a modern nation state.

Certain issues of national interest are beyond partisan politics. The civilian nuclear deal with the United States was one such issue. The political bickering over it showed very clearly the lack of maturity in the political class. On September 6, 2008, the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a "clean waiver" that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the US government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.

Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India's standing in the world.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signalling it had majority political support for the deal. It went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of the NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They could have acknowledged that government won both domestic and international political support and as opponents do in a democracy, lined up behind the government to present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the Indian economy. We will engage as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh's economic reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

Concomitant with the rise in India's global status, its political class needs to come together on key issues such as the NSG waiver and terrorism. The opposition parties could play a constructive role in achieving this. Clearly, nobody expects the Left to sign up. The formation is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset. As is now clear, it is China's cat's paw.

But the BJP could definitely play a bridging role. Its over-the-top response to the nuclear deal was based on the fear that the government has given up our right to test nuclear weapons. But the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about weapons testing. The waiver in Vienna is an overt acknowledgement by the world that India is a responsible nuclear power.

Remember, the NSG was formed in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear test in 1974 and was strengthened after the 1998 tests. Against this backdrop, the NSG waiver takes on historic and dramatic dimensions. It is a magnanimous gesture by the very countries that led the hostile reaction to India's tests.

It is sad that the BJP, whose support is crucial to achieve a national consensus on vital issues, continues to behave like a street-fighting unit. It must play the role of an opposition. But there is something called a loyal opposition, loyal to the Indian state. The BJP has every right to challenge the government. But it could temper the role it plays to be mindful of national interest.

The BJP's response to the nuclear deal and now to the terror attacks in Delhi underlines the inability of our political class to present a united national front on vital issues. In stark contrast stands the situation in the US in which presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain put aside their differences on September 11 to make a joint appearance at the World Trade Center in New York.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Rise of the Klepto State

Just Desserts for an Apathetic Citizenry

On Independence eve, as it is every day, Delhi was caught in massive traffic jams caused by incessant rain and weird security arrangements that may or may not catch terrorists but certainly hassle citizens. In most of the capital city, roads caved in, traffic signals failed and the police were nowhere to be seen because they were busy protecting VIPs.

Those who battled their way through the gridlock found the going smoother once they made it to Lutyens Delhi, the pleasant precinct of the Capital that the privilegentsia calls home. As you drive through, you can feast your eyes on blooming flowers in the traffic roundabouts and marvel at the smooth ride on perfectly surfaced roads.

This is a hallowed arrondisement meant for those whom we elect to govern us and the bureaucrats they appoint to hold us at bay. They have their own and India's only local municipal body that keeps the streets spic and span, grows flowers and organizes concerts and yoga workshops in the magnificent parks that dot the landscape.

Amazingly, though it is the most prized real estate in the country, most of the people who live there are tenants. Most homes there are two-and-half acre lots with retinues of government-employed serfs, who live on the property and serve whichever grandee occupies it. Cooks, bearers, gardeners, security staff are at the service of the occupant. They live on the estate in slum-like conditions and are attached to the property just like doors, windows, lawns and various mod cons, except in this case they are feudal rather than modern conveniences.

Denizens of Lutyens Delhi live in this sylvan world, claiming to represent the real India. Actually, they are completely out of touch. The story is told of a senior political leader who came to a meeting at an office near Connaught Place in the late 1990s. It was early evening and as he stood in the plaza of the office building, he said, “God, how this place has changed!” He was aghast at the traffic chaos and generally run-down appearance of the place and went on to volunteer that he last visited the area with Sanjay Gandhi, who died in June 1980. And his house was no more than a couple of miles from the place.

The Delhi problem, which is unique, has to do with the governance setup. Neither the municipal corporation (MCD) nor the police nor the land grant agency, the DDA, reports to the local government. As such, none of the agencies are accountable to anyone but bureaucrats. The only agency that is on its toes is the New Delhi Municipal Committee because it has to answer to the powerful residents of the Lutyens enclave.

It doesn’t matter if it is the Congress or the BJP or any one of the subaltern political formations that have sprung up in the past decade. They live in this favored enclave and are whisked here and there in cars with flashing lights and convoys to shoo other motorists off the road. For all the years I have been involved with the political process, I was always made to feel I was not in touch with the real India because I wore suits, spoke English and harbored subversive ideas about political accountability and performance. Quite contrarily, the Lutyens lot prefers ambition and sycophancy.

Strangely, the political leaders and their apparatchiks are there because they claim to represent the less fortunate people. In their scheme of things, they have the pulse of the people; those of us non Lutyens Delhi types, who pay exorbitant amounts on taxes and on rent or purchase of property, are dubbed “middle class” and shunned by the radical chic ideologues of the Lutyens quarter.

Meanwhile, outside the favored enclave in Delhi and in other lesser ones in the various state capitals, we fight to get ahead on the roads to get to schools, colleges, offices. We give way to netas and babus but will cussedly deny right of way to others like us, including ambulances.

Only recently, government grandees have grudgingly focused on improving infrastructure. These are half-hearted efforts upended by corruption. Just consider the shiny new expressway from the Delhi airport: it is poorly designed, confused and deadly. Two- and three-wheelers are forbidden but merrily cruise the highway, slowing down traffic. If you tell the policemen to control their access, they rudely ask you to mind your own business. All they want to ensure is VIPs have a smooth passage. Unpoliced, the expressway is a dangerous nightmare because of the unlettered habits of the capital's citizenry that cause backups, accidents and death.

As such, Delhi and the rest of India are flagrant scofflaws. Most do as they please in public: drive like lunatics, spit, urinate and even defecate in public spaces. The other half of India, they trade for dowry, burn, rape or at the very least molest them in public. Is this a mahaan or mayhem Bharat.

Twenty years ago, there was hope for a breakthrough when Rajiv Gandhi appeared on the scene. Some of us even chucked comfortable lives in the US to join the revolution. We were excited by the possibility of change we glimpsed in the young leader’s vision. Indeed, there were many changes made. He opened up the closed economy to foreign investment, liberated the moribund financial sector with credit cards, mortgages and consumer loans. The Doordarshan monopoly was destroyed; the civil aviation sector was set free; the old socialist rust bucket economy was replaced by a shiny and enticingly new consumer economy.

Even the current opening to the US had its roots in Rajiv’s vision of cultural and individual exchanges as the base for improving ties with the superpower. His believed in “letting our people earn a living;” he swore by the need for voluntary community action and for arousing civic consciousness; he saw through the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats; he played fair and square in the crooked public life of India.

All that’s happening today goes back to the Rajiv Gandhi era in the 1980s when orthodoxies were challenged and new perspectives came into play.

Seventeen years after his death, we are faced with his legacy: a growing economy that empowers people. On the other hand, we must contend with a political system that he condemned as one that seeks to plunder the wealth of the state. Our infrastructure is a mess; our education policy is criminal; our public health and welfare services are terrible and our politics divisive. The economy, which was the bright spot, is beginning to falter thanks to bureaucratic mismanagement and bleeding-heart, wasteful welfare politics.

Meanwhile the citizenry remains unconcerned and continues to divert itself with the consumerist joys of the new economy, buying baubles and trinkets. No wonder surveys show Indians are among the happiest people in the world.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lifetime's Experience

A Posh Flight to the USS Nimitz

Early one Tuesday morning, I found myself sitting in the naval terminal at INS Hansa in Dabholim, Goa. A young officer from the American navy strode to the front of the reception area and began to brief the assembly about the flight we were about to take to the USS Nimitz, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was sailing 300 miles west off the Goa coast. The officer, who was also the pilot on board the C2A Greyhound turboprop, said things about safety gear, water-landing and whatnot. He made it sound fairly normal. So we geared up with helmet, goggles and flotation device and walked out to the aircraft.

It was a posh aircraft. No, there were no nubile flight attendants, 18-channel entertainment system or anything of the sort that is generally associated with the word “posh.” It was a no-frills aircraft with not much beyond 14 regulation-issue seats facing backwards and two portholes for windows; no sound-proofing, no second skin, a couple of lights and that’s pretty much it. You had to wear your earphones else you risked deafness. But it was posh, in the sense that passengers faced away from the pilot. “Port Out, Starboard Home,” the British called it, referring to the cabins on the port side of the ship as it sailed to India and those on the starboard side as the ship sailed back to England. The idea was to catch the last and first glimpse of “my own, my native land.” In this instance, we faced the shoreline of India, a comforting factor for a white-knuckle passenger like me confronting what they call an “arrested landing” and saw the back of the Nimitz as we were catapulted into the sky in the take-off back to Goa.

As we took off from Dabholim airport towards the Nimitz, everything seemed normal just like the dozens of flights I have taken out of Goa. In flight, the plane settled into a vibration mode that lulled me to sleep until I heard the pilot through the headphones, saying, “We’re three-quarters of a mile away from the ship.” Awakened, I sluggishly tried to peer out the port-hole, hoping to see the ship. Suddenly, I saw two crew members, who were sitting directly in front, waving their arms frantically. Then there was a roar, the plane’s throttle opened up to full speed, a thud and a few seconds of eternity as the COD (carry onboard delivery) plane came to a screeching halt.

Later, standing on the flight deck, as I saw a series of F-18 fighter jets land, I saw a hook being lowered as the plane came in to land. The hook grabbed one of four cables stretched across the width of the four-and-a-half-acre deck and made what they call an “arrested landing.” I began to understand why I thought the few seconds to it took our plane to go from over 120 miles an hour to a full stop in just 30 yards seemed like an eternity. At that point, it’s between the skill of the pilot and the Maker: split-second timing rather than fancy high technology made the difference between an “arrested landing” that enabled me to have lunch with the commander of the ship and a “crash landing” that might have set me in front of the Maker, worrying about all the stuff I may or may not have done in my life that He might question.

The hours on the ship zipped by and its dimensions—18-storey height, 97000 tons, 1000 feet in length, 4.5 acres landing deck, 5000 sailors, 110 planes—are gargantuan. Pretty soon, I found myself in the posh plane as it taxied to line up on the steam-powered catapult that would launch the plane into the wild blue yonder at 120 miles per hour on a runway that was just 30 yards long. Despite the restraints, the top part of my body bent over involuntarily to where my head touched my knees and then snapped back as the catapult released the plane in a whoosh of nuclear-powered steam. By the time the plane straightened out and set course for shore, I experienced eternity again.

The entire trip to the Nimitz lasted close to six hours. It occurred to me that we had seen the full majesty of American power. What struck me the most about our landing and takeoff was that it is based less on high technology—think about the “arrested landing” and the “catapulted take-off”—than on relentless training and the bravery of the men and women, who do this as part of their daily routine. In the end, I concluded that these brave and well-trained twenty-somethings should try driving on the streets of any Indian city. We do it daily. It is far scarier.

from daily news and analysis october 10 2007

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Karmayogi Hall of Fame

An Obituary for My Mother

It is four months to the day my mother died. I miss her comforting presence. What strikes me is life goes on as if nothing happened. Hello World, I often say to myself, my Mom’s gone; show a little concern, some respect, and some grief. Relentlessly though, things grind on and she is consigned to be a fading memory in the minds of those who knew and loved her. How easily we are reconciled to the passing of a loved one!

My Mom was difficult to love; she had a way with guilt. Whenever she came with my Dad to visit us in Chicago or in Delhi, she always made me feel I did not spend enough time with her. In some way, her complaint was legitimate because we lead busy lives: long hours at work, many social engagements and many friends to visit and to entertain. I refused to take her guilt trip, which made her angry. Within days of landing in our house, she would start up about going back to her home in Ahmedabad. My Dad was always the fall guy, coming into my study with wads of banknotes, asking me to book their tickets back.

Four months ago, when she died holding hands with me, I felt bereft. I didn’t cry or anything but just felt a deep gash in my heart. For some reason, we believe mothers are immortal and they will always be there to remind you of your checkered youth and then, after they have layered you with guilt, to comfort you. When you come to think of it, they are immortal because everyday of your life something happens to remind you of your mother. In many ways, grief is important; it helps you come to terms with the loss.

My problem is my 88-year old Dad, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. A few days after my Mom’s death, he came to me, looking distraught. “You know, I feel helpless. My mother just died and I did not have enough money to give her the best medical care,” he said to me. It is true that his mother also died of cancer in 1966 and he may have felt as an upright government official that he could not provide the care she needed. I was devastated. I realized then that the major outlet of my grief, to share the loss with my father, was denied to me.

Sadly thus, my grief has remained bottled up in some obscure corner of my mind. I could become a psycho like Anthony Perkins in the Hitchcock movie of the same name and end up as a mass murderer or a suicide bomber. No, let me hasten to add, it’s not about to happen. The point is it’s important to express grief and while I have a hugely supportive family, I have no way to commiserate with my Dad. As such, we are the principals and yet we can’t share the emotions of the loss.

Apart from the dementia, my Dad is a fairly healthy fellow with no aches and pains and a zest for life. When he turned 75, he told my daughters he still had at least 25 years to go. Amazingly, he’s more than half the way there. He just needs 12 more for his century. Even today, in a state of dementia, he tells us he did well at school, was highly respected in his job and exercised relentlessly, so there’s no reason why he should not live to be a hundred.

Though it is difficult to get through to his Alzheimer’s blocked mind, I can say with pride and confidence that he is the progenitor of my sunny worldview. Many friends say that I am wildly optimistic in a righteous sort of way. I consider it a compliment and have only now learned to attribute it to my father. His memory is compromised but he has the heart and soul of a 40-year old; he frequently says that. And he will live to be a hundred or even more.

He now lives with us. He is doubly troubled: dementia as well as a the dysfunction of a displaced person. We brought him with my mother from their home in Ahmedabad in March this year. My mother died and he has no way to go back to his comfortable life in the house he's lived in since the 1960s. He is unsettled and still lives out of a suitcase. We just have to deal with it and can only hope he stays independently fit.

I’ve never been big on yoga and Hinduism. But if ever there was a Karmayogi contest, please welcome my Dad to the Hall of Fame.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

Magnificent Monsoon in Goa

High up on a cliff that overlooks the confluence of the Tiracol River with the Arabian Sea, five friends sat on a parapet of the Tiracol Fort, stupefied by the tableau on view from Goa’s northernmost outpost. The river defines the border with Maharashtra. As genius naval strategists, the Portuguese occupied this fort in 1746 to complete the battery of defenses they set up at the mouth of all of Goa’s major rivers, especially in the northern part.

They had the southern Malabar Coast covered and with the capture of Tiracol, they had an early-warning vantage point on the Konkan Coast. They need not have bothered because the Maratha and other kingdoms on the West Coast did not have much of a navy. As such they had clear sailing all the way up to Daman, just north of Bombay and Diu, much further north on the coastline of Saurashtra.

The five friends, Gautam and Rita, Yogi (of the Motwane family whose historic public address systems, Chicago Radio, broadcast the nationalist message of Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement), Estelle and your Goa-besotted correspondent, sat on the battlement sipping beer. We were not that concerned about Portuguese naval strategy. We just sat transfixed at the Monsoon magic on display. We watched the giant whitecaps of the choppy brown sea attack the shores of the Casuarina-lined Querim Beach across the river and gaped at the black buildup of storm clouds as they drifted threateningly ashore from the storm-tossed sea.

Then, as the rain came pelting down and clouds of mystery poured confusion on the ground, we watched the beach and the river disappear from sight; a curtain of water descended to obscure our vision.

It was like a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra raised exponentially to the nth degree. Our ears were filled with the wail of the whistling wind, the staccato rhythm of the falling rain, the crash of the waves and the tympani of raindrops falling on our heads; our eyes were blinded with sheets of monstrous rain and jags of lightning in the sky. Behold, I thought to myself, the menacing majesty of Nature!

Our experience at Tiracol was a stunning counterpoint to an afternoon we spent on the island of Divar, just a 15-minute drive and a five-minute ferry ride from Panjim, Goa’s capital. The island is a haven with less than 3000 inhabitants, within eyesight of the capital. For those who have been on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts in the US, it will appear familiar, if poorer.

It is a huge island with mangroves and swamps and lush paddy fields. The only link it has to the mainland and therefore to the world is a ferry that operates all day until midnight. With impressive villas and pretty cottages, the island is a dream. You can walk or bicycle around the place with no care for traffic.

The jewel in Divar’s crown is the hilltop church, which is being restored to its pristine grandeur and offers from its balconies and its foreground, sweeping views of the Mandovi River and the villages that line its banks and the hills in the distance.

The story goes that the church once had a bell donated by the master of a sinking ship that sailed up the Mandovi and made it to Divar. He survived and in thanksgiving presented his ship’s bell to the island's church. The bell sadly was too loud and shattered the windows of the church and nearby houses. So it was moved to the Se Cathedral in Old Goa, across from the famous Bom Jesus Church that houses the remains of St Francis Xavier.

As we wandered the island, we came upon the Devaaya Resort that occupies nearly five acres on its northeastern tip. We thought we might stop there to have a drink and refresh ourselves but were refused entry. When we asked why, no explanation was forthcoming. This led us to conclude it was a shady place built by outsiders in league with Goa’s famously corrupt politicians.

No wonder that Goans are up in arms against outsiders and their development projects in their haven. Clearly, the developers of this resort had the clout to override any objections the local people of Divar may have had. Its secretive exclusivity is a blot on the bucolic island. Many questions need to be asked about the place.

Aside of that glitch, our sojourn in Goa was hugely satisfying. At Cavala, a resort on Baga Beach, we rocked to music of the 1960s and 1970s. They serve superb food and the two nights we were there, it was standing room only. In the midst of a thunderous monsoon, Cavala had more people than most restaurants anywhere in India. And they were local as well as from Bombay, Delhi and foreign shores. The band played the Beatles, The Stones, Clapton, Jethro Tull, Chuck Berry and on and on. We thought we were in heaven.

Goa rocks in the Monsoon.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Existential Pleasure of 'Dal Dhokli'

A Monsoon Lunch in Benaulim

So I land in Goa on a wet Monday afternoon. The landscape is lush with the soothing green of paddy fields, the mysterious green of bushes and undergrowth and the dark, foreboding green canopies formed by trees. I make a beeline to the home of Aasif and Gita in Benaulim, a 30-minute drive south of Dabholim airport. Both have been our friends as far back as we can remember. The warmth is a given but Gita knows about my fondness for this Gujarati specialty called ‘dal dhokli.’ We eat Gujarati food every now and then in Delhi but never, for some reason, this wonderful concoction.

In Goa, as we wolf down fish and all manner of creepy crawlies, Gita’s house is like a port in a storm. She serves the tastiest meat and fish dishes including fresh Bombay Duck, flaky and hugely satisfying. Whenever I’m there though, she adds to her table the above-mentioned dish, much to my delight.

‘Dal dhokli’ is pasta served in a lentil sauce. You put a dollop of ghee on it and the world is at your feet. It is one of the few bland dishes in the repertoire of Gujarati cuisine. As a child, I can remember eating it in my grandmother’s house in a steel thali that was raised on one side by a burning coal. This was ostensibly to keep the contents hot. Some spice it up with ‘methi masala’ that is used to make the famous Gujarati ‘methia keri’ (spicy mango) pickle. I never find the need to do that because the bland dal and pasta are good enough for me.

When my friend Vir Sanghvi wrote about Gujarati food in his excellent “Rude Food” feature in Brunch, the Sunday magazine of The Hindustan Times, he either had never eaten ‘dal dhokli’ before (knowing Vir, I doubt that) or ignored it; most likely, he just forgot about this unique dish. It is unique because Gujarati cuisine makes a fetish about sugar and spice. To be sure, there is a sprinkle of sugar in the dal; never mind that, ‘dal dhokli’ does not even have the traditional garnish of cilantro, called ‘kothmir,’ a green sprig that is superior to parsley or mint. This dish is the closest Gujarati food comes to Western cuisine.

I can see eyes rolling at that sentence. “Aha! You poor sod with a colonized mind! You like everything Western, even their food,” a critic might say. Well, actually Western food is great. But I liked ‘dal dhokli’ even as a child, long before I ate my first morsel of Western food. Growing up in a Gujarati household, I drew sustenance from the legions of sweet and spicy dishes that are paraded on every menu. 'Dal dhokli' was the only bland legionnaire in the march past on my table every day. Like the pauses of silence in a great drum solo, the dish is a subtle counterpoint to the Gujarati taste for spicy food, with a little sugar or jaggery added for good measure. Aimed at your heart, kidney, stomach…we have all the shock and awe ingredients in our recipes to, well, shock and awe you. ‘Dal dhokli’ is the respite, a pause from the recurring assault of hot, sweet and sour.

Oh, so now people from the hinterland are shaking their heads. “Our menu too features spices and we reserve sugar for our desserts," a friend might say. Well, of course it does. But you poor dears, your use of spices is just too recent to compare with those of us who hail from coastal India. We facilitated the global trade in spices when you were still eating roots, berries and dairy products with a side order of grilled chicken and mutton. We were global spice traders and the foreigners we dealt with brought with them a cornucopia of foods from the New World such as potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers. The foreigners you dealt with came bearing swords of conquest and spears of subjugation.

What can I say? Your garam masala and your sauces are like McDonald’s fast food: just throw stuff together. It’s like a store-bought mango pickle compared to my grandmother’s offering: a labor of love and expertise undertaken annually in the summer, the making of ‘methia keri.’ The right amount of methi mixed with the powder of red chili peppers dried in the sun and ground, sometimes to accompaniment of tuneless singing; with intuitive amounts of haldi (turmeric) and hing (asafetida). The composite powder is stuffed into specially picked green mangoes, cut on the quarters and then steeped in oil. To eat the first flush of the pickle, when the mango is still a bit green is to taste nature after it has been to culinary finishing school.

Coming back to ‘dal dhokli,’ its very blandness adds variety to Gujarati cuisine. It is a distant relative of Rajasthani ‘dal baati’ except that ‘baati,’ the flour component, ain’t exactly ‘dhokli.’ It is a dumpling where ‘dhokli’ is pasta. They too add ghee, lots more of it. It is very tasty but the quality we seek is being ethereal. Forced to choose between the two, I would unhesitatingly plump for the Gujarati dish. And no, that’s not a provincial statement…it is an honest choice.

So here I am back in Goa, the land of spices and New World produce. Between the various curries and the chili fries, meat, fowl and fish, I get my fill. The crispy bite of batter fried calamari, the sensuous swallow of hot and sour shrimp curry mixed into coarse red rice and the sumptuous crunch of rava fried fish are enough to make humble table wines taste good. I am suffused with the exciting taste of Goan food and sated by excellent desserts that include jaggery and coconut stuffed pancakes, seductive coconut cakes and honest and upright custard. I can't get enough of the feast. Nevertheless, a couple of bowls of ‘dal dhokli’ in Benaulim add to the enjoyment of fish curry, chicken caffreal, beef chili fry, fried shrimp, calamari, mussels and teesriyos. To my mind, Gita's ‘dal dhokli’ is an added and growing attraction of this lush green enclave on the west coast that serves for us as an escape from the uncivil catastrophe that the rest of India has become.

copyright rajiv desai 2008


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scaling Heights, Plumbing Depths

A Disturbed Weekend in Kasauli

Our friends Yuri and Rupa have a place just outside Kasauli, a civilized mountain oasis on the way to Simla. I call their retreat “Misty Heights.” We got there late on Thursday evening with Gautam and Rita, our other friends with whom we share the experience of living in America. When we arrived late in the evening, I thought of the Eric Clapton song, and said to myself that the place, shrouded in mist, looked wonderful that night.

If ever there was generational bonding, this was it. Yuri, now a growing Bollywood star, is a former IAF fighter pilot, who was chosen to be a part of India’s space program. Rupa is a whiz kid; she is a partner in a global business that deals with American and European buyers of quality apparel.

Gautam is India’s senior-most editor, who is the genius behind the success of the Bombay-based DNA newspaper and who now serves as editorial adviser to The Times of India. He is the most sensible and erudite person in Indian journalism today. Rita is a teacher in Washington DC area; she is the fount of wisdom on education. What we discovered over the weekend is that she is also the greatest authority on films, Hollywood and Bollywood.

When you put this accomplished lot together in the hills, walking in the clouds and wearing sweaters and shawls in July, you have the makings of an enjoyable weekend, dripped in nostalgia. Especially because Gautam and Yuri are also rock stars, who, like the cult band of the 1960s, Traffic, can “sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy.” So we sat in the bar of “Misty Heights” and laughed away the hours, talking about the great things that we could do that weekend.

Even as we enjoyed conversations and music, we learned over the weekend about the bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Many of us had family and friends in the two cities. We tried to reach them but all phone lines were jammed. So we sat on edge, worrying about them, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. We did eventually reach them and were gratified to learn they were okay.

Nevertheless, it cast a pall over the gathering. We wondered what could possibly motivate people to rain death and mayhem on innocent people? I can understand driven psychos like Prabhakaran’s LTTE in Sri Lanka, who sent a suicide bomber to kill Rajiv Gandhi. Given the levels of corruption and police state governance in the island country, there is modicum of logic in the LTTE’s extremism.

What is clearly beyond reason is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in India. There are 150 million Moslems in India and they are within their rights to be concerned about the BJP and its Nazi views. On the other hand, they are a pampered lot, with every political party vying for their support. The classic example of this mollycoddling is that the avowedly secular government of India pays for Moslems to make their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Politics apart, these terrorist blasts have outlined in stark relief the sheer incompetence of the government. It is not about the BJP or the Congress; the central and state government agencies are simply inept and stupid, what a good banker friend of mine calls IAS. These agencies, whether RAW or IB or CBI, have been unable to bring anyone to book, starting with the bombings in Bombay in 1993.

“The world has decided we should be a global player,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once told me. But the world simply has no idea that the Indian government is in held in thrall by corrupt politicians and wily bureaucrats.

So we have the unseemly spectacle of L K Advani, in the midst of this terrorist mayhem, asking the Speaker of Parliament to release a clandestine video that ostensibly shows a cash for votes transaction. No one, including the Speaker, bought the BJP’s wild allegation. In fact, the Speaker is reported to have read Advani the riot act, expressing grave displeasure at the flagrant violation of parliamentary norms.

Advani was referring to an alleged monetary offer made by the government’s supporters to induce legislators to vote for the UPA in the confidence vote in Parliament. What’s even worse, despite enjoying the exalted status of opposition leader, Advani allowed, nay encouraged, these dubious players to enact the cash drama in Parliament.

My personal view is that Advani is the most corrosive politician in India today. He stands criminally accused for his role in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 and for his recklessly provocative rath yatra two years before. He is so blinded by his ambition to become prime minister that he has lost all sense of balance.

How can Advani focus on the so-called sting operation that members of his party conducted during the vote of confidence? More than 50 people have died in the terrorist attack in Gujarat (which Advani represents in the Lok Sabha) and Karnataka, both states run by the BJP. Shouldn’t he be asking questions of the BJP chief ministers there as to how this happened? He clearly has come unhinged by the government's convincing win on the floor of the house.

Where he should stand shoulder to shoulder with the central government, urging his party chief ministers to move quickly to arrest the perpetrators, Advani has shown he has the mentality of a municipal councilman. As such, he will continue in his cynically graceless manner to yell and scream from the margins to which he has relegated his party. Under the burden of his ambition, the BJP, which could be a useful right of center alternative in the political mainstream, has been reduced to a rump of naysayers and whiners.

Meanwhile back in Kasauli, we agreed that politicians like Advani would naturally draw an extreme response from Islamist formations like the “Indian Mujaheedin,” who have claimed responsibility for the blasts. Advani bashes on relentlessly: sponsoring foolish resolutions to oppose the government's plans to speed up reforms; egging on the egregious Sushma Swaraj in her wild allegations about the blasts; forgetting his own dismal record as home minister. It's time for him to adopt a vow of silence and maintain it for the remainder of this government's term.

copyright rajiv desai 2008