Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Clear now what would have happened if 2G spectrum had been auctioned

Today’s ET carries the story that telcos are planning to raise talk tariff soon. The hike is expected to be around 20%. This follows a similar sized hike taken a few months back. Why is this not surprising at all? For the many who believed that 2G spectrum should have been auctioned the way 3G was, this is proof of why their belief was wrong.

Most people in the country misunderstood the entire 2G “scam” (I prefer to suffix 2G with “revolution”, not “scam”). There were a few issues all tangled up and hence it was confusing to start with. Then the CAG decided to put its hands into what is clearly not its  domain – policy making. It sensationalized the entire matter. And then the media – without as usual understanding the matter in its totality – decided to toss the CAG figure up in the sky and watch the fun. So what were the issues that were tangled together? The first was the policy issue – whether 2G spectrum should have been given free as it was or auctioned, like 3G spectrum was. Second was whether the entry fee (some Rs 1600 crores) – the sum that was determined many years ago and which was paid by new telcos and which came with some 4.2 Mhz spectrum bundled – should have been increased and if so by how much. The Government chose to retain the same number set many years back. The third issue was the way in which new telcos were chosen in 2008 by Raja.

I have no problem in admitting that there may have been corruption in the 3rd issue – the way Raja went about favoring a few telcos to the detriment of the others. Raja is under investigation and while no one knows what the courts will conclude, it can be reasonably assumed that all is not hunky dory here. With respect to the 2nd issue also, I have no problem in admitting that the entry fee should have been increased. It could have been adjusted for inflation – which would have been reasonable given the way the government usually handles such issues. It’s the first issue – the auction of 2G spectrum and the sensational Rs 1.76 lac crore “scam” that arose from it – that gets my goat.

I have always maintained that had 2G spectrum been auctioned – for an expectedly high fee – it would have left out a huge portion of the population from the revolution called mobile telephony. Phone rates would have soared and the poorest of the poor would have been unable to partake of the benefits of mobile telephony. We forget that in 2008, there were just 275 million mobile subscribers in India. Today, there are some 900 million. This jump would never have happened if the auctions had taken place. Telcos would have been forced to increase per-minute rates and that would have increased monthly ARPUs. When I first wrote about this, I got many comments suggesting that this was just my imagination. Some argued that license fees are a small part of operating costs and an increase would not have made much impact on pricing. Some others were taken in by the constant drop in pricing and simply could not understand what I was saying. Many others said that I was trying to defend the Government!

Today, the ET story proves what I was saying. Because of high auction pricing in 3G, telcos have had to take on huge amounts of debt. And since 3G’s uptake hasn’t been as good as expected, telcos are under pressure. Also, there are penalties being levied on telcos for “violations”. And then also, there are charges that DoT is planning to levy on telcos for excess 2G spectrum used over 6.2 Mhz. Under severe financial burden, telcos have no option but to pass on the costs. And who do they pass on the costs to? The poor 2G subscribers who had nothing to do with 3G at all.

But just imagine if the basic 2G spectrum also had been allocated through auctions (in addition to 3G). The cost of the auctions would have been so high in 2008 itself, that the tariffs would have climbed through the roof. Thankfully, the Government decided against auctions and gave the spectrum free. Many people felt that the telcos had benefitted tremendously from this free spectrum. They were wrong. They forgot that the rampant competition in the telecom industry forced telcos to pass on the cost benefits of free spectrum to the public. That’s why tariffs fell. That’s why except for the biggest telco (Airtel), all other telcos posted losses or very small profits. In fact, Vodafone declared its first profit only in 2010 or so. Reliance has been in losses for some time now. And Idea’s EBITDA margin is so small it would be difficult to justify all the capital investments it made.

With tariffs going up now, we can expect the number of mobile subscribers to fall. It may take time. Users get addicted to mobile phones and find it difficult to give them up. But if the prices rise too much – as they could – then the numbers could start to plummet. The mobile revolution has brought all Indians into one common marketplace. Today, it’s possible for us to reach almost all people using the phone. It’s improved our ability to reach out to our people. Today, we’re talking of m-banking – taking banking services to those who cannot even prove their identity otherwise. The benefits of the mobile phone are enormous for the poor. I am worried we could lose all the gains we’ve made if mobile prices rise too much.

To summarize, not auctioning 2G spectrum was the right thing. The Rs 1.76 lac crores was just a “presumptive” loss. Presumptive loss is just another term for describing subsidy. We have lacs of crores of presumptive losses on fuels (subsidized diesel, kerosene and LPG), fertilizers (subsidized), and electricity (subsidized rates). Such presumptive losses are good since the benefits are going to the poorest sections. They’re the ones who must be blessing the government, while the urban middle classes (those who suffer from subsidies) are the ones who’re complaining.

The real truth is that the 2G “scam” was totally misunderstood. The non-auction of 2G spectrum was the right policy decision. If something thinks it was the wrong decision, then surely that person also believes all subsidies are wrong. That’s why it’s in the domain of policy. And it’s rightfully a political decision. The Congress (and the BJP before it) thought that the free spectrum was correct. Another political party (though I still can’t figure out which one) may think otherwise. Take this issue out, and the 2G scam becomes a non-scam. That’s the real truth…..

Monday, January 30, 2012

77% polling is proof democracy is deep rooted in India….

The naysayers will always complain that democracy in India is flawed. That the vote does not really represent the people’s views. That enough number of people don’t participate in the election process. That the real issues never surface. That all of Anna’s movement has been just clean forgotten and hence that must show how miserable democracy is in India. The high polling percentages and the hard-fought battles should put all such naysayers to rest. Indian democracy is perhaps the most vibrant of all democracies anywhere in the world.

If democracy is defined by the level of competition, then there is no match for India. There are almost 10 competitors (on average) for every available seat (1078 candidates for 117 seats in Punjab; 866 candidates for 70 seats in Uttarakhand). Rampant competition ensures that everyone goes for each other’s jugular. Decency is given the go-by and every savory and unsavory fact of every candidate is put out before the public. If politicians are expected to be public figures, the process ensures that they surely are!

If democracy is defined by the power that the people directly have in choosing their rulers (or in throwing them out), then India is far more democratic than the US. In the US, voters vote for their local candidates who are called electors – and they in turn vote for the Prez and the Vice Prez of the country. In India, the people directly vote for their MPs and MLAs. The largest political party thus represents the popular will. Who the CM or PM will be is of course left to these elected representatives. I personally feel the common people in our democratic system have a more direct and vocal say in the choice of the CM and PM than people in the US have in the choice of their President (there have been cases where the President has not represented the popular sentiment).

If democracy is defined by extensive discussions of issues (mostly local), there can be no complaints at all. A comparison of issues discussed in one state with issues in another state will reveal how local the issues really are. While the UP elections are largely on caste and religion based matters, the elections in Punjab and Uttarakhand are on other issues like development, anti-incumbancy, corruption etc. Even within Uttarakhand, the issues are different between the hills and the plains. And since most issues are local, it sometimes creates peculiar situations. Like the Congress is accused of being the most corrupt nationally (though I wouldn’t necessarily agree), but in Punjab and Uttarakhand, it is the BJP and its allies which are considered most corrupt. And in UP, it is Mayawati’s BSP that is considered most corrupt. Corruption is truly a relative concept!

The fanfare associated with elections is something that is truly unique of Indian elections. If it weren’t for the strict control that the EC is now keeping on poll expenses (and some blame the EC for having taken the color out of elections!), then the elections would be rated as one massive jamboree with thousands of crores of rupees being splurged on a single, short (month long) event. It’s a different matter that the rest of the five years are spent re-collecting the monies spent (invested?) with a surplus being built up to account for the inflation (and how high it has been of late!).

One other point. The numbers alone will show how representative our democracy really is. 77% of 1.7 crore voters means that 1.3 crore voters voted in Punjab alone. Do these numbers represent the popular mood or do the media-driven and arbitrarily-counted numbers that sat in support of Anna represent the popular mood? Even if a smaller polling % were taken for the national average, the numbers are staggering – upwards of 40 crores voting people. The message to Anna is clear – the elected reps do carry the support of the masses; they truly represent the people. On the contrary, his movement represents just a small miniscule fraction of that large population out there. Anna has no right to challenge the elected government. If ever there was proof required that activists must remember their real stature, these elections show that amply. If Anna wants to change the system, he must do it from the inside. A person cynical of the democratic system that we have has no role in changing society.

Every state election in India has an impact on national governance. I was surprised but most corporate head honchos I speak with are eagerly awaiting the results of these polls. On everyone’s lips is the hope that the elections will result in a stable government at the center. A government that feels empowered to take decisions. And launch new reforms. Currently, most corporates are hoping that the Congress can find an ally (a well-balanced one so that it wields only a limited influence!) in the SP – thus ensuring that the Congress is rid of the menacing Left-like influence of Mamata. The SP is no supporter of FDI in retail, but it is likely to vote in favor of FDI at the national level, while putting restriction on entry within UP itself. Likewise, the SP being a largely state-level party, and the Congress a national one, the two are likely to tango rather well.

One last point. The pace of activity in the country is frenetic to say the least. I am reminded of the movie “Chicago” – a musical set in the busy city of the same name. This busy city can spare only that much time to any one event – even the murders committed by the lead actors of the film – the celebs of the city – are quickly forgotten as the attention of the city (and the media) goes to the next event. When one looks at these elections being fought now, one wonders how quickly the Anna movement has faded. I am told that some Team Anna members are campaigning in UP, but they don’t even get covered on the inside pages of the newspapers. The Anna factor is not factor at all in these elections. And this is just one month after Anna’s disastrous fast in Mumbai. This is the new, fast paced, rapidly moving India – no one can hog the limelight for too long!

The real truth is that Indian democracy is a matter of pride for the country. It may have many flaws but it surely represents the mood of the people. And it’s the real protection we have against tyranny of any type. With 60 years of regular “practice”, we have now become an expert at this game….. voting out non-performing governments with great disdain every now and then!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sorry state of Indian judiciary – Bombay HC settles oldest 1986 criminal case

A 28 year old case – the oldest criminal case pending in the Bombay High Court – was finally settled by a division bench of the court a few days back. It’s a shocking story of how justice is routinely delayed and hence denied in our country – and yet it hardly arouses any major angst any longer. On this 63rd Republic day, it would be appropriate if the powers that be resolved to set at least this problem right….

In this regard, the report of the 230th Law Commission of India on the subject of judicial reforms makes for interesting reading. The report was submitted to the Union Minister of Law and Justice in August 2009. Some of the facts that the report reveals are truly shocking:

  • There are some 3 million cases pending in just the 21 High Courts of the country. There are a further 26 million cases pending in the lower courts.
  • One Delhi HC judge has calculated that it would take 464 years with the present strength of judges in that court to settle off all arrears.
  • The Supreme Court has said that we need 5 times more number of judges in the apex court than we have at present. We also need many more benches.

In spite of the large number of cases pending in the lower cases, that’s not where most of the delay happens. Even in this 28-year old specific case, the actual incident (the murder) happened in February1984 and the sessions court pronounced the verdict in December 1985 acquitting all the accused for lack of evidence. Thereafter, the state decided to challenge the verdict in the High Court in 1986. It’s taken the HC so much time to basically reiterate what the sessions court had said back then. That the guilt could not be proven and the accused were free to go. Even if the acquitted suspects were not in fact innocent, how possibly could the High Court take a call on this subject after so many years? It’s quite obvious that cases delayed so much would lead to a benefit of doubt being given to the accused.

Not being able to provide speedy justice leads to other compromises as well. For example, one of the biggest needs of the country is to have electoral reforms. One of the reforms needed the most is to disallow politicians with pending criminal cases from standing for elections. But for this to happen, it is necessary that cases are disposed off quickly. If they aren’t, then bogus cases could get filed against candidates knowing that the judgment would take years to come. In fact, it could become part of a political strategy – neutralizing strong candidates by lodging frivolous charges against good candidates.

Delayed justice also creates another shameful situation we see in our country – millions of undertrials languishing in the jails waiting for justice to be delivered. In many cases, when the judgment is finally delivered, it is found that the accused are not guilty. Yet the accused have wasted many many years of their life in jail. We saw this happen recently in Gujarat when nearly 90 Muslims rounded up after the Godhra riots were acquitted after having stayed 9 years in jail. Who will return these years of their life back to them?. Clearly, a speedy trial is not only required to give quick justice, it is also an integral part of the fundamental right of life and personal liberty as envisaged in article 21 of the Constitution (here, I am quoting from the Law Commission’s report).

The Law Commission’s report makes some interesting suggestions 1) There must be full utilization of the working hours of the court. Judges must be punctual; lawyers must not seek adjudication unless absolutely necessary 2) Similar cases should be clubbed together using technology and a common judgment should help close all of them. Such cases should be prioritized 3) Judges must pronounce judgments within a reasonable period of time 4) Vacation of judges in the higher courts must be curtailed by 10-15 days 5) Max time for arguments given to a lawyer should be less than one hour and thirty minutes 6) Judgments should be clear and decisive and free from ambiguity 7) Lawyers must not resort to strikes. 8) Retirement age of High Court judges should be increased from 62 years to 65 years and for Supreme Court judges from 65 to 68 years 9) We need many more Fast Track courts, Special courts, Lok Adalats and Gram Nyayalayas to reduce the inflow of cases into the main judicial system. Many of these suggestions are common sensical – and yet they have not be implemented – embroiled as they are in political and bureaucratic wranglings.

For speedy justice, we also need police reforms. We need the police work faster; we also need them to work with far higher savvy. Judges complain that the quality of police work is so shoddy that valuable pieces of evidence are lost in the process of investigation. The time taken is also so long that investigation quality suffers. In many cases, witnesses turn hostile as the accused get time to use their muscle and money power on the witnesses. Poor quality of investigation also leads to more appeals, as judgments fails to satisfy the two parties. All this needs to change for justice to be delivered quickly. But again, police reforms have been gathering dust for long.

The real truth is that on this 63rd Republic day, we have a lot to be ashamed of. Just as we have a lot to be proud of. One of the things that we must work on quickly is judicial reforms. Currently, judicial reforms are being discussed in the context of judicial corruption. I am not even talking about that. I think it’s equally important for judicial decision making to be speeded up. There is an urgent need for all people concerned with the judicial system – the Government, the lawyers and the Judiciary itself – to figure out a way to speed up justice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Aussies can give sledging; but can’t take it

OK Aussies, so we’re hurting. You’ve humiliated us royally in this test series. And we accept – we’ve looked like rookies in front of your vastly superior team. And the fact that we’re still the number 2 ranked team in the world makes it hurt even more. So let’s not discuss the cricket today. Can we please discuss why you sledge so much and why you can’t take sledging from others?! Because you look like really poor losers on this field at least!

Sledging is one of the contributions that the Aussies have made to the world of cricket. Wikipedia describes sledging as “the practice whereby some players seek to gain an advantage by insulting or verbally intimidating the opposing player. The purpose is to weaken the opponent’s concentration, thereby causing him to make mistakes and underperform. The insults may be direct or feature in conversations among fielders designed to be overheard.” Steve Waugh justified sledging as “mental disintegration”. Great! This is what we would expect to get as a contribution from ex-convicts of England who were “penally transported” off to the other end of the world by the English to save their own world. Ouch, that hurt did it?! Enjoy it then!

The Aussies are very poor losers. When Harbhajan sledged against Andrew Symonds, it was branded as a racial slur. Why? Harbhajan must have called him “Maa ki”. Let’s be clear about that. Because Bhajji is hardly the kind of guy who would use the English word Monkey rather than the Hindi Bandar! But assume for a moment that Bhajji had infact called Symonds Monkey, why couldn’t he handle this slight provocation? What’s so racial about this verbal attack? Or is Symonds particularly sensitive about this word since in his own mind, he does find some sort of a resemblance?! Or the only explanation could be that some others have also accused him of a similar appearance and behavior; so he’s become sensitive to it?! Take that Aussies!

Sledging does often cross the line and gets into a personal abuse space. When that happens, then a strong opponent gives it back really bad. The most common reverse abuses relate to the physical peculiarities of the sledger or about his wife! The net lists some great cases of sledging. Here’s one: Aussie paceman Glenn McGrath was bowling to Zimbabwe number 11 Eddo Brandes – who was just missing each ball. McGrath, frustrated, went to him and inquired: “Why are you so fat?”Quick as a flash, Brandes replied, “Because every time I make love to your wife, she gives me a biscuit.” And one more: Mark Waugh standing at second slip, Adam Parore played & missed the first ball. Mark – “Ohh, I remember you from a couple years ago in Australia. You were shit then, you’re ••••••• useless now”. Parore- (Turning around) “Yeah, that’s me & when I was there you were going out with that old, ugly slut & now I hear you’ve married her. You dumb ••••”. And one more: Rodney Marsh to Ian Botham in an Ashes match: “So how’s your wife and my kids?” Ian Botham’s reply – “The wife’s fine. The kids are retarded!” In all cases, the Aussies have got it back and bad!

But what happens when the opponent doesn’t speak English very well. That’s when the Bhajji Maa ki happens! And when that happens, the Aussies show exactly how poorly they can handle abuse themselves. Aussies rely on their physical superiority as well to intimidate the opponents, one earning them the sobriquet “ugly Australians” in the seventies.

The British don’t usually sledge at all, but if they do, then they don’t do it the way the Australians do. But they do have innocuous (and damned funny) banter on the field. Wikipedia lists the particularly funny WG Grace, who apparently never liked to leave the field when he was out. On one occasion, having been clearly bowled, he replaced the bail and stated “The wind’s strong today umpire”. The umpire responded “Yes, mind your hat on the way to the pavilion”! Or when he was out but refused to leave “They came to watch me bat, not you bowl!”. But then one day, he got it right back from Charles Kortright in a county game. Kortright was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to get Grace dismissed by an umpire who refused to give him out. Kortright finally knocked off two of his stumps. As Grace reluctantly began to return to the pavilion, Kortright farewelled him with “Surely you’re not going doctor? There’s still one stump standing”!

So we’ve lost badly. Like I wrote earlier, it’s not the batsmen’s fault. They simply cannot play short pitched bouncers. And the intimidation they face from the Aussie bowlers on friendly home conditions makes them nervous. Not surprising then that the wall Dravid has been bowled out 9 out of the last 11 times. It’s nervousness that comes from poor preparation. The other reason for India’s poor performance clearly has to be the sledging the Aussies indulge in. They’ve always done it and they’ve done it in this tour as well.

It’s one thing to tolerate the sledging. It’s entirely another thing to talk about it in half-appreciative tones. That’s what the commentators were doing on Star Cricket. Ravi Shastri is one of those blessed with good English. Sledging was OK for Shastri because he was able to give it back. Sample this one: Shastri hits the ball towards Mike Whitney (the 12th man in the game) and looked for a single. Whitney said, “If you leave the crease i’ll break your f***ing head”. Without battling an eyelid, Shastri retorted, “If you could bat as well as you can talk you wouldn’t be the f***ing 12th man”! But honestly, Shastri shouldn’t be appearing like one who believes this is just a “way of playing cricket” in Australia. It’s a despicable habit and it musts be condemned.

The Aussies deserve this win. But let them be gracious in it. And most importantly, let them be gracious when they lose. That’s a lesson they didn’t learn before their ancestors were forced out of England! (Ouch again!)

The real truth is that sledging is totally unacceptable and it’s completely unsportsmanlike to indulge in it. They used to call cricket a “gentleman’s game” and that’s the way to play it. There is fierce competition, but at the end of the day, it’s a game. Aggression on the field is great; aggression in the form of sledging is not…..

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rushdie affair shames India….but who’s really responsible?

I wrote a few days back that the Congress was responsible for the Rushdie fiasco. There is a difference between being secular and appeasing the retrograde elements of a community. I called it cowardice. Yesterday, when Rushdie was not even allowed to appear on a video link, it brought out the collective anger of a whole bunch of liberal Indians – those who carry a different vision for the country; those who despise bigotry of all types – whether it has a Hindu or a Muslim color.

While the Congress must take the most flak for being so weak in its response to the threats from a small number of extreme Muslims, the unfortunate affair also brings out another fact. That most of us Indians are extremely orthodox – steeped in centuries old tradition – and worse, we are very comfortable with it. Our sense of nationalism and identity stems from our parochial and outdated views of our religion. We see ourselves as Hindus and Muslims first; rather than as Indians. We forget that faith is something that should be practiced in the private confines of our homes, preferring instead to build our identities around it. Our orthodox views prevent us from bridging the divisions in our society. They ensure – in fact compel us – that we continue to remain in the grip of stone-age beliefs. Those who want to rise about such petty thinking are pulled back into the cesspool of traditionalism by others who pretend to be protectors of faith.

Politicians only reflect the realities of society. The Congress took this stand on Rushdie because of the UP elections. For the party, the Muslims represent a core vote bank and getting the hackles of the community up just before an election is not something that is politically wise. Much as we may despise such political strategy, isn’t this a bitter reality of politics? Haven’t Muslims in fact presented a nearly unanimous disapproval of Rushdie? I haven’t heard too many liberal Muslims come out in support of Rushdie or of Freedom of Speech for that matter. Save and except for one voice on TV last night (from the organization called Muslims for Secular Democracy) and of course the irrepressible and indefatigable Javed Akhtar, I haven’t heard too many other Muslims rise in support of Rushdie. So the Congress is not wrong in pandering to the mood of the community. Does it have the guts to go against its own vote base….no way.

The BJP is no different. Replace Rushdie with Hussain and the underbelly of the BJP gets exposed. The BJP and all its sister and brother organizations created enough ruckus around Hussain for him to leave the country for good. The BJP was appeasing its Hindu vote bank. In the Hussain case, one did hear several liberal Hindu voices complaining – but in the end, did it matter? Not one bit. Hussain opted to take citizenship of Qatar.

Just look at the other emerging story of the day. Jay Leno – the US stand-up comedian and TV host – apparently took a dig at Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, joking that the Golden Temple was like a summer home for him. Jay Leno was talking about Romney’s wealth in these trying times – hence the reference in particular to the “Golden” temple. There was no offence intended. I actually felt good that an extremely beautiful and hugely pious place like the Golden Temple was being discussed in the US. But the Sikhs have reacted angrily. And the Government of India – obviously to please the Sikhs before the elections in Punjab – has apparently thought of complaining to the US. How ridiculous is that? But equally, how unwarranted is the reaction of some Sikhs?

Even amongst the illiberals, some of the Muslims stand out as being the most illiberal of them all. The most common imagery of Muslims is one of orthodoxy. The religious leaders of the Muslims dominate the landscape, not the intellectuals. The schools are not normal schools, but madrasas. The teachings inside the madrasas are not modern subjects like mathematics and science, but religion and religious philosophy. The Muslims are objecting to the Right to Education Act as it would impose certain requirements on the madrasas. Why? The clothing of women of the country has changed hugely since independence – with the jeans and t-shirt ensemble replacing the salwar kameez almost completely amongst the younger generation. But amongst most Muslims, it’s still the same conservative dressing of the past. The Muslims are themselves responsible for this. Islam is a powerful religion – and Muslims need to do everything to keep it contemporary. They should look up to Turkey to see what modern Islam means.

But honestly the Hindus can be equally orthodox. Look at the caste system that’s so intrinsic to our identity – we’ve made almost no dent on it in the last 60 years. I doubt if we will ever be able to even just scratch its surface in the next 100. The caste system is extremely unfair – dividing society up into meaningless and unfair parts. Those who are privileged obviously are happy with status quo – but those who suffer at the lower levels are forever considered unequal. For no fault of theirs. No matter how well educated; how successful a lower caste person becomes, he/she will permanently remain a lower caste person. It’s because of this that we have so much of caste-based politics in the country.

In large measure the reason for this orthodoxy is in the pathetic state of education in the country. When I was growing up, for a very long time, I studied a subject called “moral science”. It may have looked a little preachy then, but the fact is that it did instill in me a certain degree of progressive thinking; it made me think of others before thinking of myself; taught me a little about sacrifice; about being nice and polite to others; about allowing others to have their own views; about not being a bully. Today, in most schools of India, there is no such subject. Forget moral science…..there is nothing else that teaches children to be modern and civil.

The Rushdie affair is not the last one we will see. Everytime the Indian state is challenged by such identity led issues, it will succumb. It will succumb because the people of this country want it to succumb. No government will ever be able to stand up to such challenges. We all know how pusillaminous the UP governemnt’s response was to the Babri Masjid demolition. Kalyan Singh was happy to give his word to the Supreme Court that he would protect the shrine – and yet when it came to it, he conveniently allowed the devastation. So convenient for him to later say that the crowds took over and the government couldn’t do much.

Unless we recognize the dangers that such divisions in society pose to the unity of the country, and unless we work towards eliminating those divisions, we run the risk of breaking up. Just look at Europe. It stands divided into ever smaller countries – mostly on irrelevant ethnic grounds. The US in contrast has stood as one massive country. No wonder then that not a single European country can challenge the might of the US by itself; even though collectively they are as strong. The leaders of Europe realized this – hence the formation of the European Union and the Eurozone and all the other European institutions. While they work together now, it’s not the same as being one united country. Once the country is divided, it is impossible to put it back together.

The real truth is that the Rushdie affair is a wake up call to us. It’s a reminder to us all – Hindus and Muslims alike – to rise above petty orthodoxy. We must do that in our own interest. The world won’t mind if India gets divided into smaller parts. Only we will suffer if that happens…..

Sunday, January 22, 2012

General on slippery slope….

New facts have emerged which are challenging the claims made by General VK Singh regarding his age. His contention till now was that the date entered in the UPSC form for admission to the NDA in 1965 was a typo error – since the form had been filled up by a clerk. But now there are more facts emerging that show that the General may have made many more typo errors….

The first piece of new information is that it was not only in 1965 that the General mentioned 1950 as his date of birth (when the clerk filled up the entrance form for NDA). Four years later, he repeated that date of birth in the IMA confidential dossier before being commissioned into the Indian Army (this time in his own handwriting since the dossier is a confidential one).The General now claims that he repeated the error for the sake of having consistency with the previous NDA entrance form. This would mean that the General became aware of the mistake made in the previous NDA entrance form during these four years. How did that happen? If it was a clerical error, he would have no reason to suspect that the date was wrong in the NDA entrance form right? Nothing had happened in those four years that had brought up the error to his notice.

The second piece of new information is that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by the PM had sought a “second confirmation” from the General in January 2008 before General Singh was made one of the eight commanders of the Army. The ACC had returned the file back to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) even though the MoD had in fact taken that clarification from the General. The MoD then took a second clarification from the Army HQs that the date of birth was indeed 1950. The General now claims that he was pressurized by the then General Deepak Kapoor in accepting this date – and that as a soldier he could not disregard the then General’s orders. That’s a strange interpretration of discipline!

The third piece of information is that as recently as in November 2009, the General had again reassured General Deepak Kapoor that he would stick to the 1950 commitment he had made in 2008. This was four months before he was appointed Army Chief.

Unfortunately for General Singh, these emerging facts paint a rather poor picture of his claims. It gives the impressions that there is more to it than the General is claiming – that maybe, the General has been “opportunistic” – agreeing to 1950 when it suited the need and challenging it when that became more suitable.

Unfortunately also, it appears that the General is blaming others for all his problems. First, it was the clerk who filled up the date wrong in the NDA entrance form. Then it was his boss, the General of the Army in 2008, who ordered him to continue with 1950. Then again in 2009, it was his boss who ordered him to nod his head in servile obedience. This is not the image we have of armymen. We expect many things from them – but most certainly we expect them to stand for honesty even at the cost of personal sacrifice. Here we have a situation where it appears that the General went along with all the confusion because it served his purpose then. And now he wants the date changed since it serves his purpose best now. This is hardly the kind of sacrifice and honesty we expect from our military leadership.

I had argued in my previous post on this subject a few days back that had 1951 been the date since the very beginning, the General would probably not even have become General. In a highly bureaucratic system of working – where “batch of commissioning” is the most important factor in deciding promotions – there is a world of a difference between 1950 and 1951 when the opportunity for a promotion opened up. There is many an officer of higher capability and better performance that has missed the opportunity to become General simply because another officer with a batch advantage was present at that time. Here it appears that the General preferred 1950 when being considered for the top job – thus edging past others from his peer group – but when he had achieved that goal, he’s now demanding that 1951 be considered the age.

There is no shame in the Government of India battling it out with the General in the Supreme Court. While it should ideally have been avoided, I don’t see anything wrong that the Government has done in its homework. The Government did do a second check before appointing him as the Chief. What more could it have done? It could have taken a safe approach and avoided promoting him given the controversy around his age. It chose not to do that – going by the word the army senior had given. Did it make a mistake in doing that? I don’t think so. It also tried to find an amicable settlement to the row over the last few days – but the General seemed bent on pursuing his battle.

It’s a personal battle that the General has taken to the Supreme Court and the apex court will no doubt settle the matter. By rejecting a PIL in this regard, the SC has stated clearly that this is a personal suit and there is no way a PIL can be admitted. Equally, by rejecting the views of former CJIs, the SC has sent a strong message – stob lobbying. That’s another thing we do not expect from armymen. Armymen do not go around canvassing their case.

If there is anything that is harming the morale of the troops, it is the stand being taken their biggest boss – supposedly for personal gain. The next time a soldier is laying down his life on the borders, he will think if it is all worth it at all. If his top boss can put his personal gain ahead of the country’s, why should he not do the same? If the army is about discipline, the General’s conduct certainly hasn’t set a great benchmark.

In the past, we’ve seen sections of the army having got corroded by the cancer of corruption. Now we’re seeing the spread of personal ambitions – rather than the country’s needs – taking roots. This is the time for quick and decisive action. This is the time for the SC to send an appropriate message.

The real truth is that the General has a lot of thinking and explaining to do. He has a lot of typo errors to correct, without making any more. He may well be right about his date of birth being 1951, but he will never be able to explain why he took so long to bring the matter up like this. He will never be able to explain why even four months before he was appointed General, he didn’t correct the perception. And he will never be able to explain, why four months before retirement, he has now brought this issue up. The General is on a slippery slope….

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Secularism or Cowardice? Congress must answer for Rushdie’s absence….

So Salman Rushdie is not coming to Jaipur. Everyone knows the Congress didn’t want him to come, but the way it has been dressed up, it appears like he has decided himself to give the event a skip. The Congress claims to be a secular party but now it has a lot to answer. Does secularism mean agreeing with the retrograde views of one community? Why did the Booker prize winning author not have the confidence in the Indian government to come to India if the government was willing to have him here (as they claim)?

The fact is that the Congress decided to pander to the fringe elements in the Muslim community – given its need for its support in UP in the forthcoming elections. I am consciously calling it “fringe” elements because I don’t believe the larger Muslim fraternity is as orthodox and illiberal as it is made out to be. Is this the level to which politics has to drop in election times? Is this the meaning of being a secular country – that it also has to become illiberal? Wasn’t it the Congress that added the word “secular” in the preamble to the Constitution in 1976? Then why has it developed such a weak spine over the years?

In 1988, when the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress banned The Satanic Verses, that was bad enough. Just look at the list of countries where the book is banned: Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand. Is this the kind of company that India wants to keep (except Singapore)? Banning books is a particularly illiberal form of behavior – attacking the basic freedom of speech and expression as it does. The courts have often ruled against such bans. For example, the Gujarat government had banned Jaswant Singh’s book: Jinnah – India, Pakistan, Independence in August 2009, but the Gujarat HC lifted the ban in December of the same year. The liberal west hardly ever bans books these days. Shouldn’t we try and adopt some of their good practices? Besides, is it now the Congress’s stand that not just the book but the author himself has been banned from India? If not, then why not allow him to come? Rushdie has written many other books – at least nine other novels, a couple of children’s books and many other articles. Surely his presence at the literature festival would have added value?

What is the Congress afraid of? Is it the SIMI threat that scared off the Congress? Are we saying that a relatively minor terror outfit – one that has been outlawed by the government of India – has the guts to pressurize it in this way? If that is the case, then what moral authority does the government of India have to take on the various threats that face the country? Rushdie himself appeared to be willing to take the risk of coming – but rather than giving him the confidence to do so, the government appears to have pushed him into changing his mind. This is really a shameful thing for India.

In the past as well, the Congress has been weak in handling such pressure tactics. When the Shiv Sena and the BJP threatened MF Hussain’s exhibitions in Mumbai and elsewhere, the Congress sat still – again unwilling to grant protection to the world renowned artist. When Hussain wanted to come back to India from his self-imposed exile, the Congress went weak kneed again – speaking in double voices about whether it wanted him to come back or not. The master artist eventually chose to immigrate to Qatar – a country with which he had no links at all. What a shame that was for secular India – that an artist thought Qatar could be more liberal than India. Is India even less liberal than such middle-eastern states?

But it’s not just the Congress’s that’s spineless. The Left parties are the same. Take the case of Taslima Nasrin, the celebrated ex-Bangladeshi author who angered the Muslims by writing the story of a Hindu girl raped by a Muslim man in Lajja. And asked for a revision of the Sharia – the Islamic religious law. That was enough for several Muslim organizations to issue a fatwa against her. Soon she was booted out of Bangladesh; her book banned there. She was forced into exile in Sweden. Ten years later she came to India, and fortunately, the Indian government gave her a visa to stay and work (unsurprisingly by the NDA government, but more on their motive later). She chose to live in Bengal – a state which has a high % of Muslims. Another controversy – and some riots in Kolkata – later and the Left government pressurized her to leave the state. Wasn’t that a cowardly act also?

Again, she went abroad. Again she returned back to India, this time to live in Delhi. How much time before the Congress develops cold feet on her case as well and asks her to leave India? There are enough threats to her and the Congress may just find it more convenient to keep their Muslim supporters happy rather than worry about the damage to the progressive fabric of the country.

It’s not that the BJP is any more liberal. While it calls for a uniform civil code in India, its liberal attitude comes out only when it is preaching to the Muslims to change their conduct. That’s why it allowed Taslima Nasrin to come and settle in India – going against Islam as she was. And when it’s convenient for the party, it prefers to forgive its own cadres. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Godhra massacre, the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, the support for alleged saffron terrorists in so many cases are all trademarks of the Hindutva policies of the BJP. Just as much as the Congress and the Left are anti-secular at times, so is the BJP is as well.

The real truth is that disallowing Rushdie to come to India is a shameful thing for India. And the Congress is responsible for backing down. At least on this one subject, it certainly doesn’t get my vote…..

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It was a threat to the Constitution…..not to federalism as the BJP is claiming

What threat to federalism is the BJP talking about? This thing about federalism seems to have become a favorite excuse with the party to block important pieces of legislation – especially the ones connected with corruption. They used the same plea in knocking off the proposal to have Lok Ayuktas enacted alongwith the Lokpal. Now they are saying that the Governor appointing the Lok Ayukta in Gujarat without a recco from the Council of Ministers amounts to an attack on federalism. A look at the facts of the case – very well captured in the HC order of yesterday should prove that the Governor has not acted on her own will (or on orders from the Center). She’s been forced to take the step she did.

What are the facts of the case? Take a look and decide for yourself:

1)      From Nov 2003 when the previous Lok Ayukta retired, till August 2006, the CM did not even initiate the process of selecting the new Lok Ayukta for the state. Now, the CM doesn’t have any role to play in the choice of the Lok Ayukta – but the process of getting a new one in place has to be started by the government. The government conveniently “forgot” to work on this. In all previous cases, the new Lok Ayukta was in place soon after the old one retired (within a few weeks). Why not this time?
2)      Eventually when Modi did start the process in August 2006, he totally exceeded his brief. He wrote to the Chief Justice recommending the name of Justice Vyas. Now the job of recommending is the Chief Justice’s. Modi had no role to play in this. Clause 3 of the Gujarat Lok Ayukta Act clearly says that the Governor (no doubt on the recommendations of the Council of Ministers) would appoint the Lok Ayukta in consultation with the Chief Justice and the Leader of the Opposition. It’s not like the CM was left out of this by mistake – in the discussion that took place in the state Assembly before the Act was passed, the BJP (then in opposition) had insisted on the exclusion of the CM. Of course, the Governor has to act on the recommendation of the Government; however the Government is duty bound to recommend the name that is ok with the CJ and the Leader of the Opposition.
3)      Fortunately for Modi, the Chief Justice gave his assent to Justice Vyas. However, Modi had totally forgotten to consult the Leader of the Opposition. The Governor was duty bound to bring this up. In doing this, the Governor also asked for information about what consultation processes were followed by other states. That information took nearly six months to get. Subsequently Justice Vyas got appointed as the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Maharashtra and hence was not available. A very convenient misstep by the government – not consulting the Leader of the Opposition – led to the wastage of nearly two and a half years.
4)      Its 2009 now. Nearly six years have elapsed by September 2009 and the Governor now asks for fresh proposals from the CM after consultation with the CJ and the Leader of the Opposition. Nothing moves in the government. Three months later, the Governor is forced to initiate the process with the Chief Justice asking for names. Finally by end-Feb, the CJ provides a panel of 4 names. Justice Vora – Modi’s current favorite – is one of them.
5)      For the next two months, Modi attempts to consult the Leader of the Opposition. But the Leader of the Opposition insists correctly that the CM has no role to play. Eventually, Modi chooses the name himself (How? Under what authority?), gets the name ratified by his Council of Ministers and makes the recommendation to the Governor. It is this arrogance of the CM that has led to the HC issuance such tough strictures against him….
6)      From then on, the Chief Justice (and not the Governor…..there is no political interference unless one assumes that the CJ is a political person) gives three names one after the other as his choice for the Lok Ayukta. First, it is Justice Dholakia, then Justice Dave and finally Justice Mehta. But all along, Modi has kept insisting on just Justice Vora. When he has no role in the choice of the Lok Ayukta, why did he keep pushing one single name? In fact, Justice Vora has also become unavailable because he had taken up another assignment – but Modi still wanted him to be considered.
7)      Modi objected to Justice Mehta’s name on frivolous grounds – again when he had no role in the choice. The CJ responded back and assured Modi there was no such worry in his mind. But even after so much time had elapsed, Modi still kept pushing for Justive Vora. Why?
8)      After August 2011, when the Chief Justice rejected Modi’s worries about Justice Mehta, there was tremendous pressure on Modi. The Leader of the Opposition had accepted Justice Mehta’s name. The CJ and the Governor were both pressurizing Modi to complete the process by recommending Justice Mehta’s name to the Governor. Even at this stage, the ball was with Modi. He could have made the recommendation and averted a constitutional crisis of sorts. It’s only when Modi kept failing to do this that the Governor was forced to make the appointment on her own. Even in doing this, she had all legal opinion backing her decision.
9)      No surprise then that in his order yesterday, Justice Sahai has made very intensely critical observations about Modi. It was the government that created a “constitutional mini crisis” he said. “For preserving democracy and to prevent tyranny, it became absolutely essential for the governor to exercise discretionary power under Article 163 of the Constitution and to appoint Mehta…..” and “The action of the CM and the Council of Ministers were perilous to democracy and the rule of law” – surely this cannot be proud moment for Modi.

In the meanwhile, there are many allegations of corruption against Modi’s government that have gone unattented because the Lok Ayukta has now not been in place for more than eight years. The Times of India lists many of the pending cases – they will now hopefully be investigated. How convenient for Modi not to have had a Lok Ayukta for so long.

Not for a moment am I supporting the part of the Lok Ayukta Act of Gujarat that gives the CM no role at all in the appointment of the Lok Ayukta. I have argued for long that the CM must be part of the team that chooses. The BJP government has been in power for so long – they could have amended the law if they felt strongly about it. But using delaying tactics in this manner is certainly not on.

The real truth is that Modi has played a well thought out role in delaying the appointment of the Lok Ayukta. Sooner or later, the law was bound to catch up with him. This order should serve as a reminder to all CMs and political parties that they must mend their old fashioned ways – and work towards having a strong anti-corruption mechanism in place. Those states that don’t have Lok Ayuktas – including Congress governments – must enact new laws in place at the earliest…..

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If General Singh was born in 1951, would he have become General at all?

General VK Singh, the high decorated Chief of Army Staff has decided to take his struggle for deciding his real date of birth to the Supreme Court. In doing so, he has challenged the Ministry of Defence which decides matters of senior level postings, retirements, etc. The facts of the matter are a little unclear – and the Supreme Court will no doubt look into them. But there is one thing the General may want to keep in mind. That if his word is taken, then maybe he would have never made it to General at all. Mor on this later.

The basic controversy has arisen because the first UPSC form that General Singh signed (but not filled) when he applied to the Army mentions 1951 as the year of birth. Apparently the practice in those days was for the clerk to fill the form and the candidate to merely sign it. One would normally assume that the candidate would at least look once at the form before signing. Any error would be caught immediately and the error rectified there and then. If the practice was that candidates didn’t usually look at the form before signing, then by now, we should have had many hundreds or even thousands of cases of errors – and that experience should have provided us the precedent to resolve such problems.

The primary and most relevant documents that matter in proving the date of birth are the birth certificate issued by the hospital at the time of birth and the school matriculation certificate issued upon completion of SSC. Both mention 1951 as the year of birth, proving the General’s claim. These documents have been filed in the Adjutant General’s office which maintains all official records.

Unfortunately, the Military Secretary’s office (Ministry of Defence) continues to have the UPSC joining form and 1950 as its official record. There is thus a conflict between the records maintained by the Army and the concerned government ministry. Till the Supreme Court decides the matter, we will not know what the truth is. But as a result of the anomaly, an unnecessary controversy has broken out. And it’s become political. The opposition has accused the government of mishandling the situation and compromising “national security” (how I cannot understand).

When the Supreme Court hears the appeals, it will no doubt settle the age controversy one way or the other. And in the best traditions of respecting judicial verdicts, both the General and the Indian Government will abide by its verdict.

For now, let us assume that the General is right about his age. In that case, it is very likely that the General would never have become General at all. He would have retired as a Lieutenant General and the controversy would not even have arisen. Why do I say this?

Here’s why. As is well known, the Indian Army – just like all other bureaucratic arms of the government – relies strongly on age in deciding postings and promotions. In fact, bureaucrats are usually referred to as “batch of 1970” and so on depending on when they got inducted into the IAS. Likewise, IPS officers also follow a strict seniority principle in senior level appointments. There’s a corollary to this age principle. Unless there is a strong reason, a senior (by age) officer is not superceded by a younger officer. Hence each year matters and usually the batch become the benchmark for deciding who goes ahead and who stays behind in crunch situations. There may be other factors that come into play in deciding which officer within the same batch goes ahead, but batch seniority is the primary criterion in deciding promotions. This batch seniority principle is followed throughout the entire bureaucracy; each officer aware of the impact of this on his/her terminal designation at the time of retirement.

If the Military Secretary’s Office had updated the General’s records to reflect the correct date of birth, then it is entirely possible that the General may never have been made General at all. In fact, the fact that he was considered a year older must have played a role in him getting the job compared to his peers. Had it been known that he was a year younger in reality, it is likely that someone a year older would have got the job. In that case, General Singh would have retired as Lieutenant General. In fact, all through his career, he would have reached each position a year later than he actually did. It would be very unfair if the General got the advantage of older age all through his life, but when it came to retirement, he got the advantage of being a year younger.

The real truth is that this looks like a case of a genuine error in the records maintained by the Army and the Military Secretary’s office. This issue should have been sorted out earlier, but if wasn’t done, then it surely cannot be taken up now. The General himself has said that he doesn’t want a year’s extension. All he wants is for his word to be trusted. I think there is no reason for us to disbelieve him…..and that’s where the matter should end….

Please don’t censor the internet…..

Till the time it was just Kapil Sibal (in effect, the government) threatening to censor the internet, it was one thing. It was easy to criticize him and call him old fashioned. Now the courts have started to say the same thing. Why are the Executive and the Judiciary coming together on this issue? Are they reflecting the mood of the common people of this country and our society? And even if they are, is that justification enough for them to censor the internet and take what many are calling a very retrograde move? This post is written out of anguish and anger…..it looks to me to be a losing battle unless we can bring up a miracle.

I can already imagine the war cry that many orthodox people of our country will be raising on this issue. Of course, the internet should be censored. There is porn available freely on the internet. Our youth is getting spoilt by such unhindered exposure to such debauched content. Some will even say that this is the gameplan of the Western powers to influence our culture and eventually take over our youth.

It will hardly be difficult to prove that the charges against Google and other websites are true. Yes, it is true that for someone seeking porn, or fanatical stuff, or anything else that society considers “depraved”, it is freely available on the internet. The charge is 100% true. There is no point even attempting to put up a fight against such an accusation. Surely that is reason enough for the courts to order a clampdown on the net? Since there is a fair degree of censorship on other forms of media – the TV for instance cannot show adult stuff till 11 pm or so and even after that, there are serious restrictions – should there not be censorship (euphemistically called “programming guidelines”) on the internet also? No one can ever win against such arguments. The battle is lost even before it’s begun.

Kapil Sibal must be wringing his hands in joy with the court getting involved in a matter that he first raised. Just a few weeks back, he had himself bared his fangs at social networking sites – supposedly to get even with civil society which had used the internet to put massive pressure on the government during the Anna struggle. He – unfortunately for him and fortunately for us all – played his cards wrong and it appeared as if he was trying to protect the government’s back side, rather than thinking about society’s good. But now with the courts involved, it’s a different matter – its suddenly about morality. It’s about the attack on Indian culture….on the Indian identity itself…..and the damage the identity can suffer thanks to all the uncensored stuff one finds on the internet. When the courts say something, it usually carries a lot more weightage.

First it was the Congress that wanted to censor the internet. But honestly, I don’t expect the BJP to be any different - I can imagine the party supporting the court’s views. I can imagine the Muslim clergy and the Church also supporting the court’s views. I can hear them all screaming: Down with the internet. Let us remain cacooned in our own orthodox past. Leave us alone. We don’t want to become liberal. We don’t want to merge with the rest of the world. Down with the internet.

In what form will this censorship work? Like in Pakistan, will suggestive words like “sex” be banned from being used on the internet? Or will it be worse like in China, where Google had to leave the country and go. So no Google, no twitter, no Youtube, no nothing. In short, India will become another China or another Pakistan or another down-in-the-dumps orthodox and totalitarian regime in the world.

The discussion on censoring the internet is in effect a discussion on what our society stands for. I have said this many times before – that while India is progressing quite rapidly on the economic front, it is not doing so socially. Our society is still stuck in old social mores. The practice of casteism is still fully intact – with maybe….just maybe – a small dent having been made in the biggest metros. We are still very parochial about our religious beliefs and if we were given a chance, we would like to remove the word “secular” from our country’s Constitution. The collective weight of our traditional thinking pulls the country’s liberalism down a few notches every year. We deny MF Hussain the right to paint the way he wants to; Salman Rushdie the right to visit the country; and merrily play our politics on caste and religion lines. There is simply too much to gain and too little to lose for politicians of any party to go along with such retrograde views. Where does that leave the liberal folks of the country?

What about the Constitutional provision of Freedom of Speech. Unfortunately, every clause in the Constitution comes with enough conditionality attached; so any clause can be interpreted in any number of different ways. It can be argued that freedom of speech is great; so long as it doesn’t affect anyone else. But porn and inflammatory religious material on the internet does affect the sentiments of our people and hence there is nothing wrong in curtailing such freedom of speech, some would argue.

What can we do about all this? All that we can do is raise our voice on the internet itself. Create enough social groups; post enough tweets; write enough blogs; so that the loud sound of our protests reaches the courts. It may well be a losing battle, but it must still be fought. This is too important a battle to be lost without a fight. The battle must also be fought legally. If the Delhi HC rules in favor of censorship, we must appeal in the Supreme Court. Maybe a middle ground can be found – where objectionable content is removed when someone complains but no pre-publishing censorship is imposed? That’s how it works in other media. Whatever we do, we cannot take censorship on the net….

The real truth is that the internet is a platform where people express themselves without any restraint. They sometimes vent their anger; sometimes share their joys. In the ultimate analysis, the internet is a social lubricant – bringing together thousands of people who would otherwise find it impossible to meet and exchange ideas. Nothing should be done to stop that. People who use the internet know how to discard lewd stuff. Such stuff is not taken seriously. India must never be seen in the same league as Pakistan and China…..no matter what.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

In defence of Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS….

Our response to the defeat in Australia is pathetic to say the least. Typically over the top. Agreed 2011 has hardly been the year of glory for India – except of course the ODI world cup win in April. We got beaten black and blue in England (a complete whitewash) and now the same appears to be happening in Australia. There is nothing wrong in being disappointed; even angry. Cricket is a game of passion in India. A drubbing of this order is bound to take the mood in the country down a few notches. And yet our vociferous demand – mostly led by a news-starved and immature media – is typically driven by a need to sensationalize than to analyze carefully.

The biggest demand made in India is that all the “oldies” should be thrown out. VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, MS Dhoni are no good. They’ve outlived their time. And how long can we wait for Tendulkar’s 100th hundred – as if once that event happens we can also conveniently dump him. And while we are at the cleaning up stage, let’s also dump the “relatively” old guys Gambhir and Sehwag. I am reminded of that old ad “saare ghar ke badal daalo” (change each piece in the house)! So who should we get in place of these oldies? Doesn’t matter really as long as we throw out the entire present team. That’s how angry we are right now. We are able to see nothing except this very bullet-point objective. We are driven by our heart; not by our mind.

But then that’s usually true of us Indians. We are usually driven by our hearts; almost never by our minds. We appreciate the cold thinking that the Australians do to build their team; yet we fault our selectors when they do the same (I will prove this later). Why do we do this? Because we cannot handle failures. We are poor losers. And our media prefers to be a reflector of the mood of the people – if only it did some analysis instead, the truth would emerge and the conclusions drawn would be very different.

Because here’s what the analysis would have revealed. When the team for the Australia tour was being chosen, the selectors would have looked at the performance of the eligible players in the full year of 2011. Guess who the players with the best average were? Rahul Dravid had an average of 57.25. The war horse made 1145 runs including 5 centuries and 4 half centuries. Next was Sachin Tendulkar with an average of 47.3 including one century and 5 half centuries. Yes, Tendu has had a dry spell with respect to centuries, but there is no drop in his average (his life time average is some 54). The third in the pecking order was our now-much-reviled VVS Laxman with an average of 40.7 including one century and 6 half centuries. All these best performers were the “oldies” – who we want sacked at the earliest. In fact, there were only seven other cricketers who made more runs than Tendulkar in 2011 and two of these seven are our lads (VVS and Dravid). Dravid was the best of the best – top scoring with 1145 runs – and also making the maximum number of centuries (5) and half centuries (4). Let’s look at the performance of some of the younger lads. Kohli (22.4), Raina (25.9), Murali Vijay (12 but from only 3 tests) and Yuvi (27.2 but from just 3 tests) are all at the lower end of the performance ratings. So who do we sack – the youngsters or the oldies??? Our selectors were right – they chose the best players available…..let’s not blame them just because we aren’t doing well.

What about the Aussies who we are all raving about right now? Not even one top order batsman of theirs matches up to Dravid. Warner had an average of 48.75, but from only 3 tests – strictly not comparable. The next highest was Hussey with 42.5 and Clarke with 38.6. What about the oldies that Australia stuck with? The oldest of them all – Ponting – had an average of only 31.9 and not a single century in all of 2011. But Australia didn’t react the way we are reacting. They didn’t go and throw out all their proven and experienced batsmen. Their media didn’t demand their scalps inspite of having had a bad year. They preferred to be driven by their minds…..

There is no doubt in my mind that we must demand accountability from our cricketers. They must perform. They cannot expect to be included in the team simply because of their past performances. Just like film stars, they are valued only as long as they perform. But any decision we take on them should be based on cold logic and not on hot emotions. Agreed India has many young and talented nuggets waiting to get the break – and they must be given a chance – but that decision must be made strategically. At all point, a certain balance must be maintained between youth and experience. That’s why I am with Dhoni when he has advised caution against removing senior players randomly.

What we need to do now is analyze the reason we do so badly when we go to countries like Australia and England. We’ll perhaps do poorly in South Africa and NZ also. The reason is not difficult to find. Our batsmen cannot handle the short pitched and fast rising deliveries. We get no training in those when playing in our own country. Our young batsmen – who we are counting on now – don’t get any training either. When exposed to the pitches in these countries, they are literally caught off-guard. It’s different in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies where the pitches are more like we have in our country. So we do well in those countries. If we are serious about winning internationally, we must develop pitches that help us rehearse adequately right here in our own country.

A similar reason had led to the debacle of Indian hockey when we failed to install astro turfs in our country. The astro turfs were much faster compared to the natural grounds on which we used to play. No wonder then that the Australians and Europeans took hockey away from us. It wasn’t about the capability of our players then; it isn’t about it now.

There is a reason why our first reaction is always to “throw them out”. We are an immature country driven by our emotions. When someone does well, we revere the person; even building temples in their names. We pay them like no one else does; award them with national honors like Padmi Shris and Padma Bhushans; give them huge advertising contracts. But somewhere in our minds, we grudge them the money they make. We feel jeolous of them. We don’t mind them their fame, but in a country where hundreds of millions of people still can’t eat two good meals a day, we feel that so much money is bad. We believe that money “spoils” the cricketers. We believe that they stop working hard once they have made their bucks. That’s why they went go-karting right? We forget that psychologists often advise people before a big event to relax – do something that is different from the main thing. In many ways, the moment these guys start earning lots of money, we start plotting their downfall. We want them to fail, so we can say “he deserved it”. We are unforgiving even towards those who have performed consistently for so long – the likes of Dravid and Tendulkar. In the past, we were similarly unfair to Ganguly and in the future, we will be to Dhoni.

So what do we do now? Well…..we analyze our problems and fix those. The problem is not our batsmen. The problem like I have mentioned earlier is the quality of pitches in our own country. The problem is the attitude of our fans and our media. The problem of our current underperformance cannot be addressed by pandering to media demands of sacking one and all. The solution lies in going into a huddle and addressing the problem from the roots.

The real truth is that we must learn to be a little more mature in our conduct. No country can perform in this manner. This yoyo like behavior will have devastating consequences. For all we know, Dravid and Tendulkar may still have it in them to give us a few more years of great performance. Let’s not act against them just because we are angry. Let’s demand more – but let’s be fair please. And my strong word of advice to media – please refrain from sensationalizing things. You sensationalized politics, Anna and you are now sensationalizing our poor performance in Australia….it’s time you became a little mature too.

PISA results shame India….but is anyone surprised really????

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results out recently and covered in today’s papers have put India at the 2nd from bottom position out of 73 countries that participated. PISA tests three subjects – Mathematics, Reading and Science – and India has ended either last or in the bottom three in all three subjects. To me, this is not surprising at all. Anyone who has a child in school in India knows what I mean.

But before we go there, a little more on PISA itself. PISA is an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) test – and 34 of the 73 countries that participated in this latest round in 2009 and 2010 are OECD countries. OECD can be taken to be a short cut for “developed democracies that believe in market economy”. Amongst the non-OECD countries that participated, most are European countries with small populations. Then there are non-European countries including all non-Europeans members of BRIC (Brazil, India and China). In short, the sample of comparison is a little skewed towards either developed countries or small countries with a history of good education. However, that should hardly be the way we should look at the results that we have got. Rather, we should look at the results as an eye-opener.

The fact is that the quality of education in India is pathetic. Even a cursory look at the government’s role in education would show that. In government schools, there is a serious shortage of teachers – forget good quality teachers. There is also the real problem of basic infrastructure like classrooms, black boards and the like. The quality of text books is pathetic too. Student enrollment is a huge problem and incentives (midday meals for instance) have to be given just to enroll students. Thereafter making them continue poses another problem. As in all government jobs, teacher salaries are pathetic and consequently, a teacher’s job is seen as a “job of the last resort” for most people. Since pay is poor, teachers respond with low personal commitment – bunking class more often than the students; and hardly ever updating their knowledge. The curriculum in schools is so pathetic no decent person would put his children through such education. The books are hardly ever updated. The English used in the text books (even in the Maharashtra Board books taught to students in Mumbai) is pathetic – full of grammatical errors; it’s a miracle to find one full paragraph with no errors.

Worse than the pathetic state of affairs of our education is the way our students are tested. Exams test theoretical knowledge – usually “mugged up”. Learning in any case is always by rote. Even testing is done in a way that encourages mugging. In the 10th and 12th standard Board exams in Maharashtra (and so also in most other states), students are advised to go through the exam papers of the previous years – since the questions in that year’s Board exam would usually come from those old papers only. Even in mathematics, or accountancy, or any other subject which requires conceptual skills – questions as have appeared in the past are presented in papers of subsequent years. Even mathematics is tested in this manner.

Never ever is there any focus on practical learning in our education. Science is all about learning theories (again by rote) with there being no facility to visit science centers to see the theories work in practice. In fact, most Indian cities do not even have well equipped science centers which can teach practical modern science to students.

The PISA testing system is designed almost to expose India’s weaknesses in education. The PISA mathematics literacy test asks students to apply their mathematical knowledge to solve problems set in various real-world contexts. How can poor Indian students studying under an education system that encourages study by rote be expected to face such questions? Likewise in the reading test, PISA does not measure the extent to which 15-year-old students are fluent readers or how competent they are at word recognition tasks or spelling. Instead, they should be able to "construct, extend and reflect on the meaning of what they have read across a wide range of continuous and non-continuous texts” (Wikipedia note on PISA). Indian students are bound to fail in such tests. Give them “mugging up” tests and see how they fare.

There is another part to the education system in India. There are private schools that have a far higher quality of education, but those are relatively small in number, catering mostly to the affluent urban sections of the society. Even these come under the archaic curriculum of our Boards. But at least the private schools provide better teachers, expect compulsory attendance, and help with at least some explanation of concepts. If the PISA tests were to be taken by students from private urban schools, I have no doubt India would fare much better.

In many ways, the education system in our country reflects the kind of society we are. A small section of our population – mostly made up of the upper castes that are well educated – is able to afford the best opportunites for itself. These people have seen the fruits of development. They rely mostly on private schools for educating their kids. On the other hand, there is the big mass of our country – made up mostly of the under privileged including the lower castes – that has to make do with whatever the government dishes out. And just like in every other sphere, the government’s efficiency in education is pathetic. Not surprising then that even the two states supposed to be ahead in education in India – Tamil Nadu and Himachal – have been rated so poorly in the PISA test.

India has participated for the first time in PISA. Rather than complain about its methodology, we should treat the results as an eye opener. As the TOI quotes the OECD secretary-general Angel GurrĂ­a “Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” If India is serious about growing economically, it cannot expect to do so only on the back of its fortunate sections – it has to be able to provide adequate and equal opportunities to all its citizens. I have written about this several times – the focus in India is on slogans. “Right to Education” is a buzzword in India – but there is no explanation of what constitutes education. If merely being able to write one’s name makes one literate, then that’s not going to be enough in the emerging world. If the government were serious about education, it should add the word “good” in the Right to Education. And it should look at improving its delivery systems – it is squarely the job of the government to provide good education.

The real truth is that anything which the government undertakes in India ends up being really poor quality. We can have very high quality private buildings, but the road outside that the government makes can be expected to be full of potholes. We can have a vibrant private sector industrial sector, but the power and water that the government provides will be both inadequate and poor quality. It’s the same tragedy with our education system – and its time the government woke up to its responsibilities.