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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dark Clouds on Goa's Silver Lining

Quiet Nights and Starry Skies

What can you say about the brutal rape and murder of a 15-year old girl? That she was a British tourist from a white trash family? That her mother, unforgivably, left her alone in Goa amid the raves and the drugs? That the authorities in Goa, cowed down by mule-headed NGOs, who oppose high-end tourism, have willy-nilly encouraged the backpack and drug culture? You can say all that and more. The Scarlett Keeling murder is a case that exposed the sleazy underbelly of a grimy local subculture that has grown like mushrooms around cheap tourism.

I first noticed it nearly 15 years ago. We were at a restaurant on Baga beach. My younger daughter wasn't feeling well so we decided to head back home. Seeing a cab outside the restaurant, we signaled the driver, who said it would cost 800 rupees; what's more, he actually had passengers, who were at dinner and thought he could make a quick buck while waiting for them to finish. I was struck by his greed and told him so whereupon he advanced menacingly towards me. Luckily, members of the staff of a well-known beach shack stepped up to prevent an ugly incident.

Today the situation is infinitely worse. Local service providers like cabbies, waiters and shopkeepers in the tourist spots are forever looking to fleece unsuspecting tourists; others do much worse: they morph into gigolos and drug pushers. At the extreme, like those accused in the Scarlett case, they turn really ugly: into rapists and murderers. One stream of this subculture finds it way into the real estate business and from there into politics. With notable exceptions, politicians in this sylvan haven look and behave like mafiosi; they switch parties, bring down governments and generally plunder and pillage the state.

Just consider this: between 1963 and 1990, there were three chief ministers. However, between March 1990 and the present, there have been fourteen; of them, only Manohar Parrikar has lasted a full term. Party affiliations don't seem to mean much with the new floater breed of politicians; they go where they can enjoy the perks of power. They are complicit in the prostitution of Goa, whether in real estate or crime. As they used to say many years ago in America about the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team: if they weren't professional hockey players, they would have been in jail. Many of Goa's odious politicians have evaded jail and continued in their corrupt ways.

The Scarlett rape and murder had its genesis in Goa's corrupt public life. Indeed, while some psychopathic thug took advantage of the 15-year-old girl from Britain, the crime took place because of the lackadaisical approach to law and order and because the Goan underworld thrives on the patronage of politicians. It's very simple: the beaches are dotted with ugly makeshift shacks manned by "owners," who could not possibly raise the 70,000 rupees or more it takes to get a license. It's all very sleazy and it has made the beach experience into a nightmare. For the 10 weeks in a year we spend at our house in Goa, we go to the beach maybe 10 times.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful restaurants and beach cafes, smack dab in the middle of the sin strip from Sinquerim in Bardez to Querim in Pernem. We try to avoid places like Anjuna, Vagator, Morjim and especially Arambhol as we might garbage dumps. Full of the detritus of the Western world and the Goan plankton that feeds off of it, these venues are where the sleaze is.

There is another subculture in Goa that is personified by Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Villa. This is the high-flying set of Page Three People. Dark rumors have it that there are far more expensive designer drugs as well as loose behavior that stops short of rape and murder. In my book, this is no different than the lowlife exposed by the Scarlett murder. It has nothing to do with Goa; yesterday they came from Pattaya, the sleazy Thai resort that was all they could afford; tomorrow they will be somewhere else. Like Scarlett, they are carpetbaggers, looking for good times.

Meanwhile, there is Goa for the rest of us. For me, it is my sasural, a bond of love because my wife's family is from there. I have been enamored of the place for the past four decades. Ten years ago, we bought an old Portuguese villa and restored it so it became our home that we call Imagine. We now live, off and on, in our little village of Uccasaim, right by the gorgeous St Elizabeth Church. We spend as much time there as we possibly can.

Our little village has no police force and some miraculous municipal services that keep it clean and green. The church bell rings at eventide and from the nearby temple we hear strains of devotional music in the classical idiom. At night, we sit on the patio enjoying quiet nights and starry skies, listening to the rain-like rustle of swaying palm fronds and the music of silence; in the morning, we wake up to the concert of the birds.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Rahul Gandhi Icon

Wearing Garlands of Wilted Flowers

Rahul Gandhi has burst upon the Indian political scene with his well-publicized “Discovery of India” campaign. The name he has chosen is evocative of his great grandfather’s eponymous 1946 book; in it, Nehru introduced to the political lexicon three charged concepts: of nationalism amid cultural diversity, of indigenization to combat colonialism and of “unity in diversity,” a phrase to challenge the demand for Pakistan.

Trouble is the once-resurgent BJP exploited the divide between diversity and nationalism to advocate the chauvinistic concept of “cultural nationalism;” the Left expropriated indigenization to support and promote the corrupt and inept horror of license-permit raj and “unity in diversity” became a banal political slogan that provided air cover for cults and mafia formations based on caste politics.

This is the well-worn path of the Congress Party’s moribund ideology. There is no doubt that these ideas are well past the “sell by” date. And yet the Congress insists on garlanding Rahul with these tired old bromides. His two major forays into public policy have the makeshift look of photographs taken by a pinhole camera. To begin with, he led a delegation to the Prime Minister, asking for an expansion of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; his latest was to seek a similar broadening of the government’s recently announced loan-waiver scheme for distressed farmers.

Noble in their intent, these initiatives nevertheless have a hare-brained aspect to them. They seem to be ill-conceived with hardly any thought given to the identification of beneficiaries and how to prevent leakages; their implementation plan has the nature of what enthusiasts of American football call a “Hail Mary” pass, in which a player throws the ball in desperation hoping someone will catch it and run it into the end zone to score a touchdown. Rahul’s push seems to be based on the Congress assessment that with populist schemes and a please-all budget, they have seized the political high ground.

As political strategy, the government’s latest moves may pay handsome dividends; in a few swift gambits, the opposition has been pushed against the ropes. Given the competitive populism that passes for politics, the government can rightly feel it has emerged triumphant.

However, the schemes will do with little for their intended beneficiary: the aam aadmi. The Congress line is that given the high growth rate, the government can afford to be generous with the “weaker sections.” Meanwhile, the government’s financial managers have, because their fear of inflation, succeeded in the reversing the growth story. The latest indices of production show a steep decline in manufacturing and a virtual collapse of the capital markets.

Analysts say the overall growth rate could come down to six percent over the year. That will reduce the amount available for populist handouts. Clearly, the schemes are unsustainable, especially if the economy tanks. I wonder if the mandarins of North Block have thought this through. Otherwise, the government’s shrewd populist move will devolve into just another time-worn ploy to buy votes with money.

Unless Rahul can shake off these wilted-flower garlands, he could find it difficult to accomplish what he let slip recently: to revive the Congress by ushering in inner-party democracy The party has not changed much; it is teeming with sycophants and fixers, and ambitious but clueless politicians, seeking to climb a rung higher. When Sonia Gandhi came upon the scene 10 years ago, the party was tottering, rent asunder by the wiles of petty men like the late Sitaram Kesri and Arjun Singh. She stabilized it, kept the flock together and went on to victory in the 2004 election.

Things have changed now and Sonia’s cautious, “don’t rock the boat” approach has passed the point of diminishing returns. The party rank and file stir themselves only to protect their turf and privileges. As things stand, it appears that for the Congress Party, we are still in the 1960s and 1970s when only state-approved voices were heard; the rest was ambient noise to be shut out by the sound-canceling earphones of ideology. From “garibi hatao” to “inclusive growth,” poverty still remains the dark side of what Nehru called the Indian adventure.

copyright: rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal

Juvenile Delinquency as Ideology

Someone needs to explain to the dour and dyspeptic leaders of the Left that governance is a serious business, worlds apart from a JNU power play in student and teacher union politics. Many people in the government look upon them as recalcitrant juveniles, who must be mollycoddled and yet told firmly where to get off.

Take the most recent standoff on the civilian nuclear deal that the US is facilitating to enable India to end its isolation in the global community. Not being a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and having conducted several nuclear tests, India has been denied access to all manner of advanced technology, not just in the nuclear field but in every other sphere.At the turn of the millennium, egged on by its business community and the increasingly powerful lobby of Indian Americans, US policymakers decided it was important to engage with India. The Americans say they admire India’s democracy that has survived the pushes and pulls of its mind-boggling cultural diversity and has put its economy on a fast track that will benefit the whole world.

The Left’s commissars believe that the Americans have a devious intent, mostly to challenge China, their lord and God. Never mind that they don’t accept America’s stated intent at face value; they seem to have no faith in the Indian government, especially Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who they demonize as an agent of US imperialism. In May 2004, after Sonia Gandhi spurned the highest office in the land that was constitutionally hers, several left supporters were disappointed. “We admire her but her decision to make Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister is a betrayal,” a CPM activist told me.

Congress politicians have historically devised electoral strategies based on caste and religion; the so-called progressives, proudly wearing their Nehru and Indira loyalties on their sleeve have focused on Left ideology and turned to the Left for ideas and tactics. This is the main reason why the Congress has become a moribund formation: unable to fight the aggressive caste-based parties like the DMK and the BSP. The progressives within it have proved unequal to the task of formulating a new ideological charter, preferring instead to walk the primrose path to the socialist hell of corrupt governance and inept politics.

So now we have this conundrum: the progressives are with the Left in opposing the civilian nuclear deal; the traditional caste and religion based factions couldn’t care less, Meanwhile, the newly emergent force of young politicians have no say in what happens because both progressives and traditionalists in the party still value “seniority.” The Prime Minister’s Office is today the only truly pragmatic and visionary influence on policy; as such, it is, along with most informed and influential opinion in the country, the major supporter of the civilian nuclear agreement.

When family members fight among themselves, children have a field day; they play one off against the other and manage to scream and shout to be heard, hoping one or the other of the elders will support them. This is exactly what Prakash Karat and his band of juveniles are doing. When the Prime Minister recently spoke out in favor of the deal and the Delhi Chief Minister accused them of being agents of Beijing, they screamed and caterwauled, prompting the foreign minister to say what amounted to “there, there, children, we won’t do anything to hurt you.”

copyright: rajiv desai 2008

Res Gestae

Res Gestae is based on the belief that because certain statements are made naturally, spontaneously and without deliberation during the course of an event, they leave little room for misunderstanding/misinterpretation upon hearing by someone else.

Rajiv N Desai

Chairman & CEO
Comma Consulting
New Delhi and Bombay, India

Rajiv Desai is the founder of India’s newest and most experienced public relations consulting firm. A pioneer in the profession, Mr Desai established India’s first PR consulting firm, IPAN, in December 1987 when he relocated to Delhi after having spent the best part of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States.

In the 17 years that he steered IPAN to the top slot in the PR consulting profession, Mr Desai played a key role in the entry into India of Pepsi in 1988; in the launch of Citibank’s global consumer bank in 1989; in the rapid popularization of Golf, a 1990 campaign on behalf of ITC (Wills Circuit Golf); in the entry and launch of STAR TV in 1991; in the incipient technology boom for companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Intel in the mid 1990s; as also in the opening up of the telecom sector for companies such Nokia, Hughes, Alcatel, BT and BPL Mobile (the first cellular service).

Over the years, Mr Desai also established a parallel career in journalism as a columnist on public affairs. His commentaries have featured in publications all around the world including The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times (Syndicate), The Times of India, Hindustan Times and various magazines. He is a frequent commentator on television news shows and has appeared on NDTV, CNBC, BBC and other channels. In 1999, Mr Desai authored a book, Indian Business Culture, published by Butterworth-Heinemann (Oxford) that one reviewer called “a very high level discussion of economic policy.” He wrote a weekly column for the Bombay-based Daily News and Analysis newspaper and is a member of the advisory board and contributor to Education World, a Bangalore-based magazine. He is the founding editor of India Tribune, a 30-year old community newspaper in Chicago.

Active in public affairs, Mr Desai served as media adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 and 1991 parliamentary election campaigns. In 1993 and 1994, he was an adviser to the UNICEF representative in India and was active in the advocacy campaign to further the cause of compulsory primary education in India. In 1997, he was appointed by Sonia Gandhi, President of India’s oldest and largest political party, the Indian National Congress, to its serve as counselor in the Media Department. In 1998, he was involved in the development of the Delhi’s government’s community initiative called “Bhagidari” (partnership). An active member of the Delhi’s government’s “sister cities” project with the city of Chicago, he was the moving spirit behind the first in a series of blues and jazz concert performances by Chicago bands in Delhi.

Educated in the United States, Mr Desai’s academic credentials cover mechanical engineering at the undergraduate level plus master’s degrees in journalism and in political science. He recently completed a course titled “Intellectual Property Rights and Information Technology in the Internet Age” from the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi.