Saturday, April 28, 2012

Maoists or Mamata – both extort - so who’s worse???

There have been recent cases of foreign tourists being kidnapped by Maoists in Odisha. An MLA was also kidnapped. All of them were later released after suitable deal terms were worked out with the state government. While these kidnappings generated anger across the country – a similar almost-daily kidnap drama enacted by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) on the UPA Government hardly seems to do so. Is there a difference at all between the two types of hostage taking? Which of the two is worse?

When the Maoists kidnap, they hold up the working of a state government for several days. The result of the kidnapping is almost always preordained. The state will negotiate, the Maoists will demand the release of some of their buddies, the state will demur, but eventually the state will give up and settle. There is no give and take. It’s only take and take. It’s a preditable pattern.

The exact same thing happens every time Mamata makes a demand on the central government and takes it hostage. Her latest is the demand for a moratorium on interest payments on loans that the state is burdened by. She may have a point. The state may well need such help in order to be able to show some tangible progress in her state. Presumably, the interest saved would be deployed into productive asset creation which in turn would lead to an increase in state GDP, jobs etc, starting off a virtuous cycle of growth. The problem of course is that the central government would then be left holding the debt. And it’s in no position to do so. There would also be similar demands made by the other states; how could the central government decline that demand once it has conceded a simlar one to Mamata?

A state government is alright in making its demand and the central government should have the flexibility to decide on the basis of merits. If it were an opposition state, the central government would be under no pressure to oblige. But Mamata occupies a special position. She is a part of the UPA, and every time she attacks the Congress, it creates a great media story. It also gives the opposition another stick to beat the ruling party with. It hardly matters to the BJP that it too had suffered similar humiliation from Mamata (and Jayalalitha) when it was ruling at the center. Rather than work with the Congress to try and find a solution to such tactics of extortion, it is happy to just sit back and enjoy the moment and take a few more digs at the Congress.

This unique advantage that Mamata enjoys is exploited to no end by her party. Every month; sometimes more often; a new threat is issued. In all cases, she succeeds. It all started with the TMC’s opposition to the Lok Ayukta clause of the Lokpal Bill passed by the Lok Sabha. The TMC refused to support the government in the Rajya Sabha. No one – including most famously the BJP – bothered about having given a word to Anna in the “Sense of the House” resolution that the Lok Ayuktas would be created by a single act of Parliament. As expected, the Lok Ayukta clause is likely to be dropped. More recently came the opposition to the creation of the NCTC – again in tango with the opposition – forgetting that almost all parties had voted for the Act which envisioned the setting up of the NCTC in the first place. The NCTC has not yet been set up. Then came her opposition to amendments to the RPF Act – again the same have been put on the back burner.

Her opposition to liberal economic policies is well known too. She opposed FDI in multi-brand retail; continues to oppose higher FDI limits in Banking, Insurance etc. Now she’s opposed diesel price increases. In all case, she has succeeded with her demands. Just like the Maoists succeed every single time. Sometimes, one wonders if Mamata even understands economics. She should rely on her able Finance Minister for this. But for Mamata, everything is politics. She sees ghosts everywhere. She recently barred her party workers from having any personal liason (marriages) with workers of the Left parties. Very soon, she may go further and demand an amendment to the various Indian marriage acts – legally preventing marriages between families belonging to opposition parties!

The central government has been held hostage for many months now; by an ally called Mamata Banerjee. That’s what makes it so impactful a story. Central governments are used to battling the opposition, and usually have the numbers to carry on the fight. But how can a ruling alliance fight an ally without without whose support it may not have a majority? It’s pure blackmail and extortion. Just like the Maoists are used to doing.

Eventually, all terrorists get vanquished. Soon after independence, the violent secession movement of the Razakars in Hyderabad state was vanquished. More recently, the Khalistan movement was vanquished. Eventually, the Maoists will be vanquished too. If it continues down the path of extortion, so too will the TMC one day. In many cases, extortionists start off as being friends of people. Just look at Gaddafi. He was brought into power as the very popular “Brother Leader” – throwing out the tyrant king Idris. But abuse of power made him one of the world’s worst terrorists. What happened in the end? The message to Mamata should be clear.

The real truth is that there is no difference between the kidnap-and-extort techniques of Mamata and the Maoists. She needs to be contained just as much as the Maoists need to be. Today, she’s in the UPA. Tomorrow, she may be in the NDA creating problems for that alliance. A legislation that binds partners together for the full duration of the government is what we need. Just like the anti-defection law binds an MP or MLA to a political party, we need a similar anti-defection law which binds a political party to its alliance for five years. This will bring in some degree of stability to politics.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A toast to India…..

Two recent stories should bring cheer to us. The first one was that India had become the world’s 3rd largest economy in PPP terms, inching ahead of Japan in 2011. The 2nd one was about the Agni-5 missile that India successfully test fired yesterday. Both these stories taken together – along with several others in the recent past – highlight yet again that India continues to be the toast of the world; its progress may be doubted by some at times, but its surety of progress never!

Add to it the story of how India is negotiating hard for being granted an entry into the four multilateral institutions that regulate nuclear trade worldwide (the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Control Technology Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement). As well as the smart maneuvers India is making at getting into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and it becomes clear that India is starting to move and get noticed. The stories also provide a relief from the usual badgering that the internal politics of the country seem to be doling out. Since this blog is very much about the positive things in the country and prefers to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty, today’s post is perfectly apt.

Take the Agni-5 story first. What is particularly interesting is the amount of concern the Agni-5 launch has aroused in our neighbour China. At first, the country made attempts to underplay its importance; saying that the two countries were not in a race against each other; that both were fast growing emerging economies and both had a place in the world. But soon the Chinese media ran stories warning India subtly to not alter the balance of power in the region. But later the most intriguing of all Chinese responses was visible. The Chinese added a huge conspiracy dimension to the story by claiming that the real range of the Agni-5 was 8000 kms and that India was intentionally making a lower claim. That China felt concerned enough to try and raise the hackles of the Europeans is in a way, a certificate of the success of the Agni-5! It appears, as per the Chinese, that the Agni-5 can target all of Asia and 70% of Europe. The Chinese have also grudgingly admitted that India has entered a select club of countries that have such advanced technologies. Of course, they have also rubbished our infrastructure facilities and have claimed that it will take several years for India to deploy the Agni-5. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that we have rattled the Chinese!

Military strength plays an important role in a country’s global positioning. A militarily stronger country has a bigger swagger; no one ignores it. Of course, military strength alone is not enough, as the Russians learnt after several decades of being a military superpower. Military power accompanied by economic success is what gets a nation noticed.

That brings me to the next story. That India’s GDP has gone ahead of Japan’s in 2011 as per an IMF report. The GDP is measured in PPP terms – simplistically meaning that we remove the impact of pricing differences between countries. The same McDonald’s burger costs Rs 50 in India (approx), but $2.2 or some such thing in the US (Rs 110 if the exchange rate were taken as Rs 50 or so). In reality, since a burger fulfils the exact same need in both countries and by the exact same amount, the two should be brought down to the same price. On average, the exchange rate needs to be deflated by a factor of more about 2.5 for India. This makes the Indian GDP some $4.5 trillion in size. The Japanese GDP actually comes down a bit because of its high pricing differential. As a result, India inches ahead of the Japanese.

Now, the cynics will jump to say that we should look at per capita incomes and not absolute GDP. Of course this is correct, but in the path to progress, one of the important milestones is when the overall size of the economy grows bigger and bigger and crosses other bigger daddies. In order to remove poverty visibly and to ensure all citizens get a decent life to live, we need to grow some 8-9 times more than at present. Even so, crossing every milestone along the way should be celebrated with full gusto, not with criticism.

Over the last couple of years, we have been too critical of ourselves. Even Ratan Tata said the same thing. We have been beset by a series of scams – and even before they have been proved or disproved, political opponents of the government have put it in the dock. The CAG has added fuel to the fire by bringing out one damaging report after the other, publishing ever-rising scam figures – not bothering about not getting into policy areas. In many cases – say the subsidy policy, or the fuel pricing policy, or the FCFS policy – the government may prefer a policy of not maximizing its own revenues. As long as it ensures that its policy benefits reach the masses, it cannot be called a scam. The CAG thinks otherwise. Further, a competitive media has found the CAG’s reports to be cannon fodder for headline grabbing stories. In the meantime, the Anna struggle – fuelled again by TV channels mostly – brought much of the country to a standstill. Collectively, India was stopped in its tracks. Instead of reaching out to the world with strength, the country was hit by rigor mortis in decision making. Since every decision taken could later be considered a scam, no one wants to take decisions any longer. In the world of bureaucrats, it’s ok not to take decisions; it’s not ok to make honest mistakes. Not surprising then that the GDP growth has slowed down recently and the India story is starting to get questioned in some quarters.

But such bogus scams are starting to unravel. Earlier this week, the Adarsh scam was proved to be anything but. The land that supposedly belonged to the Army – and on which a building for Kargil veterans was supposed to be built – was shown never to belong to the Army at all. None of the former CMs who had been slurred against had any knowledge of the land’s ownership pattern when they cleared concessions to it. That should give relief to the Congress. If the Supreme Court now rules that auctions is not the only way to dispose off national assets, it will provide relief to the Central government on the 2G scam as well. In any case, apart from a Rs 200 crores charge against Raja in the DB Realty – Kalaignar TV, there is no other accusation of corruption made against any party….

The real truth is that while it’s good to be critical and clean up the system, it’s another thing to go witchhunting. It’s time our institutions – like the CAG and media – played a more responsible role. Creating an environment of sensational scams may help the opposition, but it harms us all. If decision making stops, the opposition may benefit, but the people of the country suffer.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Adarsh scam – what Adarsh scam??!

Very quietly yesterday, the Adarsh scam just blew into thin air. The 2-member judicial panel that had been looking into the ownership of land issues for the past one year came to the rather remarkable conclusion that the land on which Adarsh stands did not even belong to the Army. It belonged to the state. Further, since the land did not belong to the army, the building itself was never intended to be reserved for Kargil war veterans. Additionally, all three ex CMs have been exonerated of any wrong doing in the so called scam. With this report, much of the political sting has gone out of the whole matter.

The CBI is continuing its investigations. If anyone thought that the CBI took instructions from the ruling government, this should be proof otherwise. I am sure the CBI – if that is its mandate – or any other body will surely find that norms were flouted at Adarsh. But then what’s new about that? Almost all buildings in Mumbai have flouted some or the other rules. But was the Adarsh scam really about flouting some measly building rules? Or was it about political abuse – an emotional saga waged by a relentlessly aggressive media?

The core accusation was that the land belonged to the Army and that Adarsh was supposed to house the Kargil war veterans. The judicial panel has found that the Army was in possession of the land from 1996 to 2004, but there is no evidence that it possessed the land before 1996. What this means is that the Army was an “occupier” of state government land. If that were true, then there was no question of a building dedicated to the Kargil veterans coming up on that plot of land in the first place. And even if the building gave preference to these veterans, there was nothing that said that only war veterans could be given houses in the building. This must be a matter of great relief to the many civilian occupants (some of them supposed benami holders for politicians) who have been caught in a vortex of political maneuvers for no fault of theirs. The court should now give the building the full clearances and its members the right to enjoy its facilities.

The most important finding of the panel of course is that there is no evidence that either of the three accused former CMs of Maharashtra – all of the Congress – Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde and of course Ashok Chavan who resigned specifically on the Adarsh issue – had any personal knowledge of land ownership. And yet, the media made it appear that they had abused their positions of power. Think about it – for no reason at all (in hindsight), Ashok Chavan – a capable CM otherwise – was forced to resign. Public accountability is alright – but removing a performing CM on mere media reports and unproven accusations is damaging to the working of a state government. Everyone knows that changing captains midstream leads to confusion and poor performance. But then again, in politics, that is a valid opposition strategy.

There have been many similar stories in the recent past which show that media outlets rush in to publish reports without having enough information on hand. Hyper competition in the media industry is destroying the credibility of the fourth estate. No longer can the printed word be taken at face value. One is compelled to read different newspapers to get an idea of what the truth is. In many cases, the truth that comes out post a detailed investigation is totally different from the canards that get splashed on the front pages earlier. In the meanwhile, much damage is inflicted on the players involved.

So what happens now? Will the Adarsh scam be buried as it should be? Or will the issue continue to be whipped politically? Since truth hardly matters in politics (and increasingly in media), I feel the Adarsh scam will continue to dog the Congress for a few more years – at least till 2014.

In a similar vein, the 2G scam and the CWG scams have been blown out of proportions. As also the several CAG revelations in various states like Gujarat. I am willing to wager a bet on the outcome of the 2G scam probe that the various courts and CBI are looking into. The SC by canceling the 2G licenses has taken a view that FCFS was wrong. In prescribing auctions as the only way to allocate natural resources, the SC has gotten into the area of policy making. The government is rightfully seeking a review of this on grounds of judicial overreach. The entire estimate of the CAG on the “presumptive loss” of Rs 1.76 lac crores is based on the government’s policy being flawed. It is not an allegation of corruption. There is nothing so far in the entire 2G scam that has brought out any case of corruption – save of course for the DB Realty- Kalaignar TV accusation. There is no money trail that leads up to Unitech; none to the other companies named. In media of course, the accused have been pronounced guilty (in a way).

The real truth is that we need to hold our horses while reporting on unproven cases of corruption. Many of them are merely political accusations. The media must be a lot more responsible. It must wait for the investigations to happen and for the courts to rule….

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

BJP and Congress have an opportunity in Bengal….

Thanks to the pathetic governance provided by Mamata in her first year of rule, and the extreme disenchantment of the people with the Left parties, a big window of opportunity has opened up for the two national parties – the BJP and the Congress.

More than anything else – and this is something the two national parties are perhaps still not understanding – the people of Bengal want a different type of “paribartan” than what Mamata has offered – they want modern economic policies. They have had enough of communism; communism that has seen the state slip behind a few decades in comparison to the other states. When they voted out the Left, most political pundits argued that the people were upset with the Left’s hooliganism. What I had always thought was that the people were upset with the lack of economic progress. Since the only option they had was Mamata, they voted for her. The last one year or so has shown that Mamata is probably worse than the Left – in every respect.

Mamata seems to be having some sort of a complex psychic problem. She imagines ghosts where none exist. When a professor put out some cartoons, she saw that as a CPM ploy. Now one of her partymen has issued some sort of a diktat that TMC members should not marry CPM cadres. More than anything else, Mamata’s media management has been pathetic. In any case, it would be rare to find a husband-wife combination with the two belonging to two different parties. Where then was the need to make such a statement?

But Mamata’s psychic problem goes much beyond mere wild imagination. She is exceedingly sensitive about her persona. She would ideally love to be cast as Ma Kali – the one who annihilated the hegemonic and cruel Left. That is why she took offence to the usual bashing up of politicians that agitated citizens engage in. The cartoons controversy is unacceptable in a liberal democracy like India. Media – with all its political baises and imperfections – is an important pillar of democracy. Media provides the outlets which help people express their ire against politicians. Mamata should have seen the cartoons as some sort of an early warning her people were giving her….the message contained was very serious. It’s the message that Mamata should have tried to read and understand without getting hassled and thinking that the CPM was out to get her. They don’t need to get her – she will get herself.

What next for Bengal is the main idea of this post. The CPM is stuck in a world of its own – refusing to change its economic views even though its patrons in China and Russia have almost completely shown their backs to Marx. Till the time the entrenched leadership of the CPM continues, one cannot expect any change in the party. That means that for the next 20 years at least, the CPM will continue hurtling from one poll disaster to another. Since the TMC is rightly accused of being even more leftist that the Left parties, there is no hope there as well. That is why; the economically liberal national parties should see this as an opportunity at establishing themselves in Bengal.

More than the BJP, it is the Congress that has the chance to resurrect itself. The Congress has been a liberal party – at least since 1991 when economic reforms were first launched. If its central government is being held back from more liberalization, it is because of the drag that Mamata is. The Congress must revive its organization in Bengal on the promise of a new world. A new economic order: more industrialization; more jobs; more IT companies; in short, a much more favorable and modern economic environment. If it did that, it is my bet that the people would prefer to vote for the Congress than either the Left or the TMC.

While the BJP does also have a good chance on grounds of its generally liberal economic policies (even though it is today sometimes taking a retrograde point of view – thanks largely to politics), it will suffer from its anti-Muslim imagery. Remember 30% of Bengal is made up of Muslims – and whoever they may vote for, the Muslims will never vote for the BJP. Not even if the party provides respite from the economic problems that the community faces. The BJP will have to woo the Hindu masses – which, thankfully for it, are not divided on caste lines like they are in the Hindi heartland. The BJP could offer an economically more rightist option, while sticking to its core Hindu philosophy, and this could well give it the legs it needs in the state.

If neither the Congress nor the BJP take up the opportunity, it will pass back to the Left. After a few more years of TMC misrule, the people will be forced to go back to the Left. After all, the only weapon that people have in their hands is the ability to throw out an insensitive incumbent. They will keep using that weapon even if it gives them no results – in the hope that one day, they will get someone better.

The real truth is that Bengal is crying out for faster economic growth; not more shared poverty. It wants to move away from orthodox, anachronistic communist policies that have driven industrialists away. It is extending an arm of friendship to both the BJP and the Congress. But are the two parties seeing this? Or are they just continuing to wage their war of attrition? What they do will determine not only their own future, but also the future of the Left and the TMC in Bengal….

Monday, April 16, 2012

Unfair to impose RTE burden on private schools….

The RTE Act itself is a laudable initiative – recognizing as it does the importance of education in economic and social progress of a country. However, more than the Act itself, what has drawn attention, and a considerable amount of ire amongst private schools, is the way it proposes to allow the government to encroach on a territory that doesn’t even belong to it – making it compulsory for private schools to keep 25% reservation for the economically weaker sections. It attempts to mask the real issue that it is the Government that has failed miserably in this sector and hence it should be the only one taking the burden the Act imposes.

Forcing privately run schools which do not depend on the Government for funding to accommodate 25% more students is nothing but blatant arm-twisting. It’s pure blackmail under the garb of social welfare. What if the Government were tomorrow to enact a Right to Transport Act and then force every private vehicle owner to deploy his vehicle to transport the poor? Likewise, what if the soon-to-be-introduced Right to Food Act gave the hungry the right to demand food from those households that had enough food to eat? Acts like RTE and the Right To Food should put the responsibility of delivery on the Government; not on those who have worked hard to create alternatives to the Government’s failed systems.

In fact, had the Government not failed so miserably in delivering decent quality education, there would have been no need for an act like the RTE. Just look at the condition of the education sector. Government schools suffer from a severe lack of good quality teachers. Forget good quality teachers; they don’t even have enough number of teachers. No one wants to put his/her child in a Government school, unless there is really no option available. In most schools, teachers are absent for most of the time. There is inadequate reading material. And even basic infrastructure – like electricity, black boards and chalk sticks, and books are missing.

The RTE should have been aimed at removing these deficiencies by putting responsibility on the Government to clean up its act. Instead, the Government has decided to impose the responsibility of universal education on the private sector. Private schools – which run far more efficiently – will now have to reserve 25% of the seats for those who come from the underprivileged sections of the society. Since no school can turn away existing students, this will amount to adding 25% more seats. Schools that have land available will have to build more buildings – presumably with funds that will be made available by the remaining 75% students. Or from reserves which the school would have otherwise used for its present students. Schools that don’t have land will have to address the situation differently. I don’t even know how.

In the recent past, we saw the Government arm twist the IIMs into taking in more students. Again, the objective was laudable, but the implementation was all wrong. The main objective of the Government was to put the burden on the IIMs – relieving itself of the responsibility – and not bothering to address the core issues that lead to a capacity constraint in the first place. It is a well known fact that all IIMs suffer from staff shortage – the pay scales, the research facilities, the infrastructure are all totally out of whack – but the Government finds all that to be a sticky subject to deal with. Without adequate consideration of the issues, it simply ordered an increase in capacity.

As a result, the RTE is becoming a case of political gimmicry. A way for the Congress to show its pro-poor credentials. A way to deflect the criticism that it has been getting for inadequate legislative performance. A way to clean up its image tarnished by corruption charges. I doubt if the Government has a serious interest in improving the education scenario of the country. If it did, it would spend more on education (rather than on wasteful subsidies), focus on implementation, and work at removing the bottlenecks. As is clear to all, it has no such intentions.

The private sector is the only shining part of the education sector in the country. No wonder then that the poor want to send their children to these schools. But rather than imposing ourselves on these schools, shouldn’t we be demanding that the government schools become better in quality? No, but that’s the tough thing to do. The easier way is to simply grab what’s already available – all in the name of a socialistic approach to development. This is supposed to be proof of the “inclusive growth” agenda of the Government. Ridiculous.

The real truth is that while introducing the RTE itself, the government should have taken the entire burden on itself. Even the SC should have put the onus for deliveries on the Government, not on unaided private schools. It should have recognized that forcing private schools in this manner – without finding a solution to the funding issue – will lead to an erosion of quality in even in these private schools. Much as I support the RTE, I am appalled at the Government’s skullduggery in this regard….

Monday, April 9, 2012

One more verdict (Ode) in Gujarat riots case….

Justice delayed may be justice denied…..but even then when justice is finally provided, it is satisfying. India is proud of its rule of law, and anyone who has decided to take the law in his/her own hands deserves to be punished. We talk of corruption as an act of taking the law in one’s hands and demand the toughest punishment possible. In the same way, we must demand the highest punishment possible to the wrong doers of Gujarat.

Murder in any form is heinous. Massacre is worse. What happened in Godhra when 59 car sevaks were murdered was unpardonable and the guilty should have been brought to the books. However, that was the role of the law enforcement agencies and not of ordinary citizens. But why blame the ordinary folks? When the leading political party of the state has positioned itself as a staunchly Hindu party, what else could be expected? The BJP fanned the fires, and gained politically. Modi’s undefeatable. He’s called “Hindu Hriday Samrat”. But in the process, it ruined the social fabric of the state. Hindus and Muslims were never great friends in Gujarat – but the way the BJP exploited the situation, it has created a permanent tear in the fabric.

Who will these 23 convicted people blame today? In the frenzy of the moment, and under a wily and deceitful political leadership, they took the law in their own hands. Where are those leaders now? Who is there to see them through their torturous life ahead (or through death if they are given the death sentence)? As always happens, the cowards have run away. Hardly has any political leader been punished so far, though verdicts have been given in as many as nine cases so far.

The Godhra riots were the worst form of display of human brutality. What’s the big deal in 1500 people attacking a group of 23 helpless people – which included 9 children and 9 women – and murdering them? I have lived in Gujarat for more than two decades and I can tell from personal experience that Gujaratis are peaceful people. They surely don’t want the stigma of being called mass murderers. They are not the types who will gang up to brutalize innocent and helpless people. They are the kind who will hold themselves back even under the most provocative of circumstance – think of the almightly – and ask themselves if those sought to be attacked are responsible for the original crime. A Gujarati can never murder anyone. These 23 people who have been convicted have been misled. They are victims of political manipulations.

I was equally happy when 31 people (mostly Muslims) were convicted of the original crime in which 59 car sevaks were murdered in Godhra. There should be no place for violence. If the BJP wants a uniform civil code, they got evidence of it when the courts ordered 11 of these 31 to be given the ultimate punishment – the courts show no favors based on religion. I wish the government of Gujarat also did the same. But in Gujarat, being a Muslim is a huge disadvantage – in fact a huge risk to life itself.

But again, justice delayed is justice denied. In the original Godhra train massacre, while 31 were eventually convicted, more than 90 Muslims were acquitted. The tragedy is that these poor people spent nine long years in jail as undertrials. Who will return them their lost time? Should the judiciary not question itself on the time it takes to settle matters?

But how much can one blame the judiciary when the investigation agencies themselves are in cahoots with their political masters. It’s a well known fact that the business of religion has led to deep and permanent divisions even in the law enforcement agencies. The police in Gujarat repeatedly botched up investigations, forcing the Supreme Court to transfer the probe to the SIT in nine cases. From newspaper reports, it appears that today’s verdict is just the 3rd of these nine cases to be ruled upon. There are six more to go. There are hopefully six more convictions waiting to happen.

If the police forces have been wasted by religious fervor, the courts in Gujarat have not been spared either. Suspecting bias, the Supreme Court has transferred several cases outside the state. What worse indignity can a state suffer than to have its own judiciary questioned by the SC? Was the BJP leadership there to accept the disrepute they have brought to the state? No way. They were perhaps busy pressurizing witnesses to turn hostile; luring others with economic gains to return judgments in their favor. After all, the one excuse that the Gujarat BJP leadership gives for everything these days is the economic progress of the state. A truth indeed – but one that has nothing to do with the BJP (read my posts titled “Modi’s growth story is a sham…..” dated September 17th, 2011).

But again, this is not an indictment of the BJP alone. The Congress was equally responsible for the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Just like the BJP fails in accusing the Congress of being corrupt, the Congress fails in accusing the BJP of leading a pogrom against the Muslims. Both parties need to introspect. The country expects them to behave much better.

The real truth is that in the land of Gandhiji, Godhra is a blot…..the only way to remove it is to bring the guilty to justice. And to put systems in place that such incidents never happen again…..

Antony first persecuted, then glorified…..

Since the time General VK Singh alleged bribe offers were made to him, AK Antony has first been reviled beyond repair and then glorified beyond limit by media. This yoyo behavior of media is hardly new – and it goes on to show how dangerous this habit of publishing half baked stories laced with strong politicized opinions can be.

Just look at some of the headlines in the leading newspapers since the story broke.

March 27th: General makes new claim – opens new front against government. The article inter-alia contains the following assertion “He fired another salvo at the government”. Interesting. Exactly who said that the General was accusing the government or the minister of any wrongdoing in this affair? No one knows, but the newspaper added that twist. The opposition predictably went after the government “Opposition MPs forced adjournment of both houses of Parliament”. Another assertion: “Antony was on the backfoot”. These statements made it look as if Antony was corrupt – the hint was that since the only beneficiary of bribing the general would be BEML, and BEML was a PSU, so somehow, it must have made the offer on Antony’s instructions. Further, the way journalists push once they get an opening, they make almost anyone take forced viewpoints even though they may not normally be prone to do so. Retired Army Chief Shankar Roy Choudhury apparently stated “It is a serious matter – what action did the defence ministry take so far?” he asked. Again, very interesting. Why would he question the government’s role in the affair, without similary questioning General Singh’s mistake of not putting his complaint down in writing?

March 28th: While admitting that the General had told him about the bribe offer, Antony was shown as being on the backfoot yet again. He is reported to have said “I was shocked”. And “If I am wrong, you may punish me. I think I’ve done my best. I’ve not covered anybody”. So Antony had to defend himself. But the media twist to his assertions was one of suspicion. As far as the media was concerned, Antony was guilty of not having acted on the General’s verbal communication with the minister. Did anyone ask why the General did not put his complaint in writing? No. There is no juice there. The juice is when a minister is crucified.

March 29th: This is the day when the General’s letter alleging ill preparedness of the armed forces was leaked to the media. Again, media gave it an interesting twist. The title of the front page story read “Angry government in bind over army chief – Leak of letter to PM scene as anti national act”. So, the media concluded that it was the General who had leaked the letter – and that the government was angry. The newspaper quoted an unnamed “source” who apparently said “We’ve no doubt that the army chief is acting on a personal agenda, looking to settle scores with the establishment that “denied” him justice in the controversy over his actual date of birth. But we don’t want to make a martyr out of him especially when he has styled himself as an honest soldier who has been humiliated by the government”. Now who is this source? Is he a source from the government or from the opposition or from the media or some “expert” – the statement has different implications depending on who the source is. But the newspaper does not bother to clarify. Without the clarification, it makes the government look defensive.

March 30th: “Antony guns for leak culprits, say they will be punished” – and the tide appeared to be turning for Antony. The newspaper, quoting the minister said “Murky deals will be scrapped at any stage. We will take strong action if any malpractice, corruption or lobbying is established…..there will be no mercy, there is zero tolerance for corruption”. Wow…..Antony seems to be getting his own back!

April 1st: In a reversal of fortunes for Antony, the newspaper story read “Antony could be jailed for inaction – delay in filing case violation of legal duty)”. Sorry….Antony, you have to wait a little longer!

The stories of the last couple of days have now swung in the exact opposite way and are painting Antony as a saint.

On April 7th, the story was titled: “Antony under fire for war on arms lobby? Fresh Controversies May Be A Bid To Oust Minister”. “Because of his uncompromising stand against corruption Antony has antagonized a whole range of interests: arms lobbies, middlemen, foreign governments and armament firms. Rarely has a defence minister attracted this sort of hostility” reported the paper.

On April 8th, the story read “Nixed copter deal put min in arms lobby crosshairs?” Almost speaking in glorifying tones, the news story said “Antony took the tough call to cancel the order for the 190-odd attack helicopters for the army due to irregularities in the bidding process and deviations from established procedures and this brought home to defence lobbyists and vendors, who were used to having their way, that it would not be business as usual anymore.”

The point of this post is to demonstrate how the impatience (irresponsibility?) of media and the deep temptation to write sensational stories can take the truth out of journalism. There was a time when the written word (in a newspaper) could be taken as the gospel truth. No longer. Nowadays, it is better to wait for a few days or weeks for the truth to slowly emerge. Newspapers (and to a much larger extent TV news channels) have long given up on truth and verifying stories before printing them. The Indian Express story of April 4th is another similar case in point.

It would be better if media outlets did far more homework in ascertaining facts, took opinions from all concerned, did a little analysis of their own…..then reminded themselves not to sensationalize the story. Editors must remember that they wield enormous powers – their opinions shape a million other opinions. When we put our children through school, we search for good teachers. A poor teacher can ruin the full life of a student. It’s the same with media…..

The real truth is that media is fast starting to look like a soap opera – maybe the words “drama” and “action thriller” define news outlets better than the old-generation ones like “truth”, “thoroughness” or “unbiasedness”. In a democracy, media is supposed to be a watchdog against governmental malpractices. But at present, media is looking more an entertainment product than anything else. There was a time when English media was different – but today even that’s not true.….

Friday, April 6, 2012

Indian express takes sensationalism to a new high…..

We need freedom of press. But is this the meaning of freedom of press? Shekhar Gupta is a well regarded editor and I personally have always enjoyed reading his articles and his paper. The Indian Express has been at the forefront on breaking news – but never before has the paper made such a massive goof-up. It’s time for Shekhar Gupta to personally apologize to his readers and to his countrymen at large and be ready to face any action that may be required under law.

Instead, he is most likely to continue defending his highly imaginative and poorly corroborated story. General VK Singh himself has said recently in rather harsh words that “the story is stupid”. Does Shekhar Gupta have anything to say more than hinting that the whole issue has been covered up?

In fact, the whole of media is responsible for an environment of competitive sensationalism. Today, not a single media outlet can claim to be doing its homework well; researching a topic before putting it out.

Why blame media alone though. The CAG is another body that has made sensationalism in its reports a habit. The CAG made a huge mistake in the S-band spectrum issue – comparing it with 3G spectrum – escalating the valuation of the airwaves and hence alleging a “loss to the nation” of some Rs 2 lac crores. It has now been asserted by the scientists themselves (not by the Government) that S-band cannot be compared with 3G. But has the CAG apologized to the nation? No way. In the meantime, the reputation of several decorated scientists like Madhavan Nair has been torn to pieces. Sensationalism is the continuing mantra with the CAG under its present boss.

Take the Supreme Court. In the past, there have been many charges of judicial overreach or judicial activism, but the judiciary has by and large stayed within logical bounds. In the 2G “scam” for instance, the SC has strayed deep inside government territory. What expertise does the SC have to suggest a specific policy – “auctions” as the only way to allocate national resources? What is its authority to declare FCFS as a flawed policy? The SC has no business to tread on these subjects. The SC can of course rule on policy abuse like it is doing with Vilasrao Deshmukh’s land allocation abuses. But the SC is also prone to sensationalism. The headlines it grabbed by canceling 122 licenses is what must have got its adrenaline up. And when the telcos have asked for a review, guess who reviews the decision? The same judges who passed the order in the first place! What is the chance that the same judges will overrule their own order? Next to impossible. And yet, the rejection of the review petitions of the telcos became sensational news in the media. The telcos will now seek a “curative petition” – which in reality will be the first review of the decision passed earlier by the two judges. Till the curative petition is heard and decided on, the media will have a field day with all kinds of sensationalal and scandalous stories.

Coming back to the Indian Express story, the sensationalism crossed all limits. In one way, by raising the spectre of a coup, the paper may have actually kindled the possibility of one. It may have planted the germ of this disastrous idea in the minds of some in the military establishment – a germ that will continue to fester. Maybe someday in the future, that germ may become a full-blown monster – and maybe the country will actually witness a coup. That’s the real risk Shekhar Gupta’s story has exposed this country to. That’s why he should just apologize and be ready to face whatever punishment he should rightfully get.

It’s also important for the entire media industry to sit back and review its current state. We have rampant competition in media – and that is forcing it to lower its standards. At one time, the written word in a national daily of repute like the Indian Express would be taken as the gospel truth. No longer can we claim that. Today, sensational stories are put on the front pages of papers – and apologies if any are placed on inside pages. Journalism is a profession of ethics – if that basic truth is violated, journalists can turn this country upside down. It’s time for media pundits to sit together and evolve the basic minimum standards in the business.

The real truth is that sensationalism is one of the major challenges before the country. The temptation to sensationalize is enormous. But the damages are enormous too. If this remains unchecked, we will indeed be reduced to a banana republic, where rumors rule and the process of law is given the go by. Maybe, this is a good time to stanch this trend. Maybe Shekhar Gupta can start himself by apologizing. Maybe he can help build the new rules for media….

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The BJP’s troubles with the CAG and Team Anna

The shoe is now on the other foot. For long, the BJP enjoyed the thrills provided by the wild imagination and arbitrary accounting practices of the CAG – sting as they did the Congress. Now that the CAG has pointed a big fat finger at the BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi bringing out yet another sensational report, the BJP’s discomfiture must be profound. Further, the double standards of the party with respect to the Lokpal and Lok Ayukta are becoming even clearer with every passing month – making it difficult even for the obviously political Anna movement to refuse to acknowledge.

First, the CAG story. The figure propped up by the CAG in its report on Gujarat is staggering. The TOI reported on the last day of March that the CAG had pointed to losses amounting to some Rs 17000 crores in Gujarat. Now, Rs 17000 crores is a staggering number for a single state by any yardstick – what makes matters worse is that apparently, these figures are for just two years or so. There are charges of favoritisim to the CM’s “favorite” corporates – Adani and Essar – and there are charges of poor financial management with respect to oil and gas exploration in the KG basin. There are a plethora of other charges – from not managing the water pollution issues to many more.

Somehow the national media has downplayed the CAG report. Almost nothing has come out in the papers after this initial report was published. The way the report was presented in the state assembly is also indicative of the way Modi functions. The opposition MLAs were banished from the house for “creating ruckus” – this made sure that there was no discussion in the assn the report in the assembly. Nice. Did the media blast this undemocratic – almost dictatorial – way of working? No. Surely the opposition Congress must have attacked the BJP? No. A weakened Congress doesn’t even have the energy left to take on the BJP on this highly damaging report. Except for a lightweight Shaktisinh Gohil – leader of the Congress in Gujarat – there has been no major uproar created by the Congress nationally. So does Modi walk away free? Probably.

Want my views on the CAG’s main charge against Gujarat? I think its all baloney (as the charges in the 2G, S-band and Coal mines are). The CAG has made comments on the inefficiency in exploration in the KG basin – that some 12 drills had to be drilled rather than the 4 planned etc etc. I think the CAG would do good to go through some operational experience. If only they were tasked with actually “doing something” rather than criticizing the work of other “doers”, they would get a better sense of how real life works. It’s a fact that forecasting oil and gas reserves is an imperfect science and there are many hits and misses before hitting paydirt. To present this as a “loss” is a mockery of common sense.

I had written about this a few days back in my post titled “CAG at its ridiculous best again” on March 23rd:  This disastrous working of the CAG should not be made into a political battle. The CAG will devour whoever comes in its way – whether the NDA or the UPA or the Regional parties. The CAG needs to be tamed. It has a huge role to play. It cannot be let to malfunction in this manner” If the BJP thought building its political strategy on the CAG’s reports was going to help it, it was clearly being na├»ve.

It’s a similar story the BJP is facing with Team Anna. Now there is no doubt that Team Anna has been very pro-BJP so far. For long, and with no explanations offered, it has tolerated the obvious double standards of the BJP. It has never questioned the BJP on its volte face on Lok Ayuktas (the party had agreed to include them under the Central Lokpal bill…..then it suddenly backtracked). While it condoned every such act of the BJP, it was happy to tomtom its rare acts of support immediately – like when the Uttarakhand assembly adopted a “strict” Lok Ayukta bill. Team Anna lost its entire raison-d’etre by siding with the BJP. Now that the movement has lost its sting, it probably realizes its mistake. In a much delayed action, it has criticized the “weak” Lok Ayukta bill passed by the Himachal assembly. The BJP has reacted just like the Congress has been doing for long: that Acts are made in Parliament and Assemblies, not on the streets. And the party does not need a certificate of approval from Team Anna. Wow.

But if history is anything to go by, Team Anna will let the BJP off the hook again – just like it did when the Bihar assembly snubbed it by passing yet another “weak” bill. Or when Modi did by not appointing a Lok Ayukta for years. The Anna movement is led by leaders who have mixed their own personal agendas with the movement. No movement can succeed if it has leaders like Kejriwal and Bhushan and Bedi.

The BJP has to realize that its obstructionist role is doing it no good. It fared miserably in the UP state elections. It is being seen more and more as an opportunistic party; siding with those who attack the Congress whether or not it believes in the issue. By not supporting FDI in multi-brand retail, by refusing support on several other bills including insurance reforms, by riding on the rebellious nature of Mamata Banerjee and by relying on illogical reports of the CAG, the BJP has painted itself as a party desperate for power. A party that is willing to sacrifice any principles it ever stood for.

The real truth is what I have written earlier. There is very little to choose between the Congress and the BJP on matters like corruption. The only major difference between the two remains that one calls itself secular, while the other is an out and out pro-Hindu party……