Monday, 14 November 2005

A blackmail a day won't keep the BJP at bay

The Left is back to what it does best - blackmail. The latest relating to the Indian stand on Iran's nuclear programme. According to the Indian Express, at a joint rally in Lucknow on November 12, the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (S) warned the government to change its stand. Or else, Prakash Karat, the middle-aged firebrand of the CPI (M), warns "if the government does not listen to us and see reason, we will raise the issue in Parliament and force the government to change its stand."

I am not getting into the merits of the Indian government stand on the issue. There can be endless debate on it. What's more important is how the Left is constantly threatening the government on issue after issue. No issue is sacrosanct or out of bounds for them. After having successfully stalled all economic reforms, they are now turning to foreign policy. Not for a moment are they bothered about embarrassing the country.

The Left is entitled to live in its outdated world and swear by its antiquated ideology. It is entitled to air its bizarre views. Because the left parties are supporting the government, they are entitled to persuade it to listen to them. But they - a minority partner in the coalition and one which is not even in the government - cannot keep resorting to threats and blackmail. If they are so unhappy with the government, let them withdraw support.

The Congress cannot be happy with this situation - the grand old party with a national reach reduced to being a bit of a puppet in the hands of a group of five parties with sizeable clout only in two states.

So complete is the hold of the Left over the Congress and the government that anyone with a grouse against the latter promptly runs to it for help, alleging that the United States is behind the problem. Look at the Left's shameful defence of Natwar Singh. The same Left which wanted finance minister P Chidambaram's scalp because his hugely successful, taxation law specialist wife had accepted a brief from the income tax department! Clearly, corruption is to be condoned, even forgiven, if you oppose the Americans or the BJP. But if you believe in free markets or share thoughts even remotely similar to the Americans, or are seen as being soft to the BJP line of thinking, you deserve to be thrown into the dustbin.

And if you think that is ridiculous, listen to this. Students of Jawaharlal Nehru University protested against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unveiling a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru, because Singh is following neo-imperialist policies. The current Congress Prime Minister is unveiling the statue of another Congress Prime Minister and the left parties will have none of it!

It's high time the Congress calls the bluff of the Left. Or else dump it before it is reduced to a laughing stock.

And the Left should realise that the more it indulges in this kind of mindless blackmail, the only gainer will be the BJP. It was also subject to all kind of pressures of coalition politics when it led the National Democratic Alliance government. But the NDA never became a joke the way the United Progressive Alliance has. If things continue this way, the BJP may well succeed in coming back to power, this time on its own steam.

Allah, save the Indian Muslims

In all this drama over Iran and the left's blackmailing tactics, something more outrageous - and downright foolish - has got ignored. Karat, in trying to drum up support for the Left stand, says there is a close Shia link between Lucknow and Teheran, according to a report in the Indian Express. A Shia leader, Mukhtar Anees, says that after Ayodhya, Iran is the biggest issue for Muslims. It is not poverty; it is not education; it is not jobs; it is not even Gujarat (the other issue on which the left brigade turns apopletic); it is not any other issue affecting Indian Muslims within India. It is Iran.

At a time when Indian Muslims are constantly fighting the image that the rabid right is trying to give them - that they have extra-territorial loyalties - is this the kind of statement that is needed? Does the ordinary Indian Muslim really care about Iran's nuclear programme? Do Messrs Karat and Anees really think that the Muslims will thank them for this statement? Not only are these worthies playing into the hands of the Shiv Sena-sangha parivar, they are also exposing the Muslims to more taunts and jibes. Allah, save the Indian Muslims from the politicians who claim to speak on their behalf.

Saying it like it is

Here's a wonderful straight talking piece from the Indian Express

Terror's Jeru-Salem

Why in India, unlike in Israel, a terrorist means more than those he murders


Posted online: Monday, November 14, 2005 at 0000 hours IST

Abu Salem looked good in Saturday's Page 1 photographs. The security officials accompanying him looked a little bedraggled. For the families of the 257 Mumbaikars who died in the 1993 bomb attacks, that would have seemed wholly appropriate. For them, the extradition of Salem is not, as it is for the Indian establishment, proof of the state's persistence and cleverness. It is a reminder that the Indian state is soggy soft when it comes to responding to attacks on Indian citizens.

This may seem unfair not only to security agencies but also to neutral observers. There was after all months of patient, often hard-nosed diplomacy that got Salem out of Portugal. There is also the continuing efforts to get Dawood Ibrahim, who is a bad guy for even the Americans now. Didn't we also send a list of 20 most wanted mischief makers to Pakistan? Didn't we catch the chaps who attacked Parliament and then massed our army along Pakistan's border? Hasn't Manmohan Singh called Pervez Musharraf to express his strong displeasure at indications of "external involvement" in the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts? Aren't security agencies already hot on the trail of LeT terrorists thought to have planned and executed the pre-Diwali attacks?

All this and more surely don't indicate a soggy soft state? It does because all this is not the point. The point - this is the easiest to understand when any of us is a direct victim of terror and not a sympathetic observer - is how does the state fundamentally view an attack on its citizens.

How instinctively outraged is the Indian state when a bomb kills 40 holiday shoppers in a market? How deep is the feeling that such an attack is utterly unacceptable because it holds up to ridicule the state's primary remit - protecting citizens? To what extent does the state accept the argument that no matter how important the relevant policy/political constraints and strategies, the horror that follows the death of innocents and the compulsions that follow the challenge to authority must be the first inputs in any response? In short, does the Indian state have moral capacity and pragmatic courage? To put it even more briefly, is India like Israel?

This is, of course, an awfully politically incorrect thing to say. But the point here is not Israel's many sins of insensitivity towards the Palestinian cause. Just as the point about examining the Indian state's DNA is not this, that or the other investigative action. The Israeli state may really push the envelope when it comes to ignoring the suffering of another people, but it is almost matchless when it comes to empathising with the suffering of its own people. The moral capacity to feel deeply outraged and the pragmatic courage to do something about it is in the Israeli state's DNA. The Indian state lacks that particular trait.

It is fashionably "liberal" (a misnomer, as we shall shortly see) to say that the lack of this trait makes the Indian state a better entity. But those who are forever arguing that we must search for the roots of terrorism and not search and destroy the perpetrators of terror forget, or don't care, or don't know, that the state's moral and practical incapacity in the face of thugs-with-a-cause is symptomatic of a greater failing: The state doesn't respect citizens, it doesn't respect their liberties.

If the state that governs us doesn't deeply care if we die because of a terrorist bomb, how can it care if in our lives so many rights are circumscribed. Think about the callousness you have encountered from so many representatives of the governing class. Think about the boorish cop, the arrogant bureaucrat and the venal politician. Almost none of them subscribe to the foundational principle of a civilised society - that every individual and his rights count. That is why a state that is soft in its response to terrorism is not liberal, if we take liberalism to principally mean the recognition of the individual.

That is also why the state's responses to natural disasters are so horrendously ineffectual in India. We are not a sub-Saharan basket case with meagre resources and zero institutional capacity. The Indian state doesn't do as much as it easily can because the people are on its radar screen as an undifferentiated mass. Two thousand killed in an earthquake, 20 killed in a terrorist bomb and two killed in a hell hole of a public hospital - they are all, in the most dreadfully apt meaning of the word, statistics.

The only thing that has changed, although partially, in the state's treatment of its citizens is the scope of economic liberty. This is not a heartfelt change - as politicians and bureaucrats prove daily when they take decisions or talk reforms. But it's a change that was forced by a crisis and is perhaps irreversible.

The state may not particularly like the fact that a phone, a cooking gas cylinder, a car, or a home, is no longer an unattainable fantasy for many of us. But the cost of reversing the process that made these things possible scares it.

There in lies a clue about a possible corrective to the Indian state's responses to terrorism. The state has to be apprehensive about the cost of treating dead Indians as dead sheep. Who can scare it? We can. How can we scare it? By getting angry.

Treated for decades as a big blob of humanity, we have lost most of our capacity for anger. Sure, we get angry when power bills go up and when law suits threaten live cricket telecast. Sure, we get angry sometimes during elections. But we don't get angry at the quotidian reality of the state's brutal indifference to us as individuals. If we did, the day after the pre-Diwali blasts, Delhi would have been seething, not shopping. The pundits called it Delhi's resilience. Resignation was more like it.

No wonder Abu Salem looked so cool is those photographs. He knows that he means something as an individual to the Indian state. The 257 Mumbaikars he allegedly helped murder meant nothing.

When the capitalists wooed the comrades

Here's something I wrote about in DNA, put off as I was with the way Mukesh Ambani, Swraj Paul and L N Mittal went to pay their respects to the CPI (M).:

Currying favour with the comrades

Monday, October 24, 2005 20:11 IST

When all those business barons descended on AK Gopalan Bhavan (the headquarters of the Communist Party of India-Marxist) were they really, as we have been told, attempting to understand the Left position on various economic policy issues? Or were they merely trying to buy peace with a party that is being seen to increasingly influence - nay, dictate - the economic policy of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government?

Going by the past record of corporate India, the latter assumption wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Take the case of the Swatantra Party, the only party to champion the cause of free enterprise at a time when socialism was the dominant ideology. One would have thought the party coffers would have been flush with funds from all the big business houses. Perish the thought. The Swatantra was always strapped for cash. Businessmen did contribute to it; but in dribbles.

The bulk of the funds went to the Congress Party, the party that was driving all those socialist policies. Even the Tata group - among the few business houses that supported the Swatantra openly and wholeheartedly - gave only one-third of its political contribution to the party. The other two-thirds went to the Congress. No wonder, a chronicler of the party's history, Howard Erdman, commented that this was a rich man's party which no rich man was willing to give money to.

Little seems to have changed over the years. As Indira Gandhi steered the country's economic policies further and further to the left, Indian businessmen preferred to operate under the table and shovel funds into party coffers and to individual politicians to get their work done. So much easier, isn't it, to swing a licence here and a permit there than compete fairly.

Businessmen across the world may make noises about being stifled by government interference in the economy, but all of them prefer a situation where they are in a position to tweak policies to their benefit.

Interesting that Mukesh Ambani, in his meeting with CPM heavyweight Sitaram Yechury, should have appreciated the party's stand on certain aspects of globalisation and have commented that there is no need for the country to go in for "mindless foreign investment". It would be interesting to know what Ambani meant by 'mindless'. Something that adversely affects the interests of the Ambani empire, perhaps?

Remember the Bombay Club that came up when the Indian economy was being opened up in 1991? The group lobbied against foreign investment, using the specious argument of the need for a level playing field for Indian businesses. Many of the worthies behind that campaign changed their tune when they realised their businesses could also benefit from globalisation. But the lobbying against competition never ceased.

When the automobile policy was being revised around 2000, many of the foreign car manufacturers who came into India when the sector was opened up in 1994, were at the forefront of lobbying against the import of second-hand cars. The current campaign against foreign direct investment in the retail sector comes as much from organised Indian players as by politicians.

When Arun Jaitley was information and broadcasting minister for a brief period, he used to recount with glee how owners of newspapers which used to carry scathing editorials criticising the government for various restrictions on foreign investment would come to him to lobby against foreign investment in the print media. Take any sector of industry - even those like telecom, which benefited hugely from the liberalisation of the economy - and tales abound of players manipulating government policy to stymie competition or incumbents ganging up against new entrants.

But how sustainable is this, from a business point of view? Wheeling-dealing and lobbying are hardly cost-less transactions. There is a price to be paid - in cash, cheque or some other favour - especially around election time. It definitely won't show on the books of companies, but surely such unrecoverable costs will impact bottomlines in some manner? Wouldn't there be a larger cost to be paid somewhere, by someone?

Also, is it worth it? Business environment keeps changing and today's gain may not be of much use a year later. That time a competitor may be more successful in getting its way on something. Remember, the intense lobbying in the telecom sector in 2002 over WLL and fixed line services was sparked off by new technologies completely transforming the playing field. Sneaky lobbying only vitiates the policy-making environment and has an adverse pass-through impact on the economy as a whole, as inefficient players manage to negotiate preferential treatment and protection for themselves. The country has paid a price for that. Can it continue to do so?

It might be far better for the industry to stand up and take a stand against mindless and short-sighted populism. Let them generate informed public debate and build up awareness on issues. Decisions affecting their operations have an impact on the entire country, and people have a right to be informed. Clearly, it's time to jettison what Minoo Masani called the "cowardly and supine attitude of big business in India."

Saturday, 9 July 2005

How utterly Congressi

(Bibek Debroy took back his resignation a week after I posted this after an assurance of his academic independence being protected. All's well that ends well.)

Eminent liberal economist Bibek Debroy has resigned as director of the think tank Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies (RGICS). Forced to resign would be a better term. Debroy was told that he wouild have to get all research papers cleared by the executive panel of RGICS before they are published. Why? Because a project he led - an Economic Freedom Index for Indian states - rated Gujarat as the most economically free state. So what's wrong, you may ask? Nothing really. It's just that the present Gujarat chief minister is a man who goes by the name of Narendra Modi.

How utterly Congressi! The party has proved that it hasn’t shed its inherent dictatorial tendencies, even though it sports a liberal mask. Scratch the surface and all the old Congress failings are there for everyone to see.

And all this happened because an irresponsible journalist gave a ridiculous spin to an apolitical academic exercise based on objective and economic criteria. This was not a perceptions-based survey. The EFI ranks states for economic freedom on 26 indicators put under three groups:

* Size of government (government revenue expenditure, power subsidy, state-level taxes and government employment).

* Legal structure and security of property rights (quality of legal infrastructure, completion of cases, violent crimes and economic offences).

* Regulation of credit, labour and business (wage levels, man days lost, licence and market fees, implementation of industrial entrepreneur memorandums (IEMs) and so on).

Are Debroy and the team he led - which included think tank Indicus Analytics - to be blamed if Gujarat comes up tops on these counts? Debroy has explained that much of the data used for the research were sourced till 2001, just about the time that Modi became chief minister. And that this really speaks of achievements of successive Gujarat governments.

But that’s neither here nor there. Assuming the data – data doesn’t have any political colour – were for Modi’s tenure, should facts be suppressed because of his political record? Is this the intellectual freedom that the Congress and the liberals supporting it claim to uphold? How different are they from the sangh parivar whom they accused of intellectual tyranny?

The needless controversy erupted because, I am ashamed to say, of my tribe. The Economic Times, to be more specific. It gave a needless political hue to the report. `Rajiv Gandhi think tank gives thumbs up for Modi' (or something to that effect), the headline screamed. It was an absolutely mischievous thing to do and I apologise to Debroy on behalf of my profession. It was that article which probably led to Modi deciding to use the report to his advantage. I had written about the index in the Business Standard in March 2004. A few months later Sunil Jain also wrote about it, also in Business Standard. Neither of us gave any `spin’ to it and the report went unnoticed. Till The Economic Times needlessly sensationalised it.

When I read the ET report, I was dismayed and since then I have been expecting something like what eventually happened to happen.

But there are some basic issues involved here.

One, should one deny credit to Gujarat as its economic performance and record or just because its chief minister has a rather sorry record of human rights? Going by that logic, one should deny China credit as an economic superpower because of the human rights record of its government. Successive governments and not just one government as in the case of Gujarat. All those people who are critical of Debroy sing paeans to China's economic performance. Sounds very much like double standards doesn't it?

Secondly, are we all going to say that as long as Modi is chief minister of Gujarat, we will never give it credit for anything? Sounds like intellectual tyranny to me.

Ironically, by forcing Debroy to quit over this index, the Congress has only helped Modi claim entire credit for something that is really an achievement of successive Gujarat governments. It was ridiculous when Modi went to town with the report, touting it as some kind of certificate for his performance. Somebody needed to counter that by saying, `buddy, this isn't an endorsement of your government. This is something for which all Gujarati politicians - across parties – and bureaucrats must take credit.' But those who forced Debroy to quit - and my fellow journalists who feel Debroy was wrong - have done just the opposite.

Who’s come out the winner in all this? Sadly, Narendra Modi.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Remembering 1975

This is an absolutely fantastic piece that appeared on the edit page of Business Standard on 25 June 2005, the thirtieth anniversary of the Emergency.

The Family and the Emergency
T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan / New Delhi June 25, 2005
If Nehru can be assessed, why not his daughter and grandson?

D D Kosambi is perhaps India’s finest historian. He wrote in 1964 that ancient Indian history was like a fine mist. “In India, there is only vague popular tradition, with very little documentation above the level of myth and legend.”
But for once he got one detail wrong. It is not just ancient Indian history that is as described by Kosambi. Even modern Indian history—very modern Indian history, indeed—is like that as well.
We have seen an example of this recently over the Jinnah debate, which, oddly, has had the effect of getting people to scrutinise Nehru’s responsibility for the partition! Perhaps that was what L K Advani intended all along, which, if true, is really quite cunning of him.
But even closer to us lies another event, now mostly forgotten even by those who suffered hugely because of it. Without prodding by one or two newspaper columnists, how many people would have remembered that, 30 years ago at midnight this day, the Congress party imposed the Emergency, which took away all our basic freedoms?
Indira Gandhi proclaimed a national Emergency merely because she had been unseated from her parliamentary seat by a court verdict that held her guilty of electoral malpractice? How many recall that she did so merely in order to maintain herself and the Gandhi family in power?
How many people realise that it was her Congress party which introduced the notion of “a mere technicality” even for major infringements of the law by politicians? How many remember that she amended the Constitution in such a way that the Prime Minister could not be accused even of murder?
Indeed, how many Indians have any idea at all of what the Emergency meant for India, and under what circumstances it had been imposed?
My sons, who are 21 and 17, know exactly what happened on January 30, 1948, when, and how. But they have no clue at all of what happened on June 26, 1975, and why. Nor, indeed, do their cousins who were born during the previous five or so years. That whole generation has been kept in the dark.
The Emergency, infamous as it was, is a black hole in the collective memory of the country. Even the RSS and the BJP have forgotten it, so much so that, in the true Hindu tradition described by Kosambi above—in which history is reduced to mythology—even the head of the RSS thinks that Indira Gandhi was great.
But should he not actually be asking: If the RSS is being held guilty of the murder of Gandhiji, why do we not hold the Congress guilty of the murder of democracy? If it is not enough for the RSS to express regret over what Nathuram Godse did, why is it enough for Indira Gandhi (and last year, Sonia Gandhi) to express similar “regret”?
I am not writing this article to “rake up the past”, which is how reminding people of the uncomfortable things done by the Congress is described by the Congress. (What others did, of course, is proper history.)
I am writing this merely to remind ourselves of the narrow escape India had in 1975-77. If Sanjay Gandhi had had his way India may have become mightily prosperous. But, have no doubts, it would at the same time have become like a Latin American dictatorship.
The ironies are also worth recording. The very same Communists, who are now in bed with the Congress, had been jailed in large numbers by Indira Gandhi (barring some major exceptions like Jyoti Basu. I explored this point in an article last year).
How have these fellows, with their long memories of “historical forces”, forgotten the tortures suffered by their party colleagues? Clearly, like Henry Ford, Indian communists also think that “history is bunk”.
And you know what the supreme irony is? Kosambi was of the Marxist intellectual persuasion and a mathematician, a lone brilliant star in a sea of mediocrity.
Historians can be very influential, even more so than economists because they alter the way we view the past and therefore the present. For instance, properly speaking, we should remember Indira Gandhi for imposing the Emergency.
Instead, what do we remember her for? For lifting it, because reams have been written by official family historians, mostly of the Marxist persuasion again, about how democratic she was. Why, a couple of years ago one of them even published a whole book saying that the blame for the Emergency should be shared at least half by JP because he challenged Mrs Gandhi.
The truth about what actually happened between November 1974 and June 1975 was brought out two years ago when the diary of B N Tandon, who was a joint secretary then in the Prime Minister’s secretariat (as it was then called) looking after political affairs, was published. I translated it from the original Hindi. The diary makes for extraordinary reading because it was maintained on a day-to-day basis.
But when it was published, 28 years after it was written, the reactions were typical. Far from trying to cross-check what Mr Tandon was saying, most reviewers attributed motives to him. The pack was led by no less a person than R K Dhawan, who said Mr Tandon was peeved because he had been denied promotion.
Dhawan can be forgiven, but what about the others? What excuse did they have for ignoring the facts and attacking the author? One reviewer even had nasty things to say about me!
The second volume of the diary, covering the period from July 15, 1975, to July 24, 1976, when Mr Tandon left the Prime Minister’s secretariat, will soon be published. I should add that I have not translated it. It throws even further light on what went on.
But to what extent will it alter the way we view the Gandhi family? Even if we concede that the sins of the grandmother should not be visited on her relics, surely the time has come to re-assess the role of this family in the country’s fortunes? If Nehru can be re-assessed, why not his daughter and grandson, if not yet his grandson’s wife?
Not to put too fine a point on it, it is time the family went out of politics. Many young Congressmen think so too (and the mother of one of them has already been punished because the son said so openly.)

Sunday, 22 May 2005

Appeasement politics and the obsession with BJP

For once, I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the left. Every right-thinking person (for once, the left is thinking right) has to be outraged by the absolutely inane move by the human resource development ministry, headed by the ageing Congress warhorse, Arjun Singh, to reserve 50 per cent seats in the Aligarh Muslim University for Muslims. This from a government that came to power on an anti-communal plank and is surviving only because of a negativist anti-BJP glue holding the UPA coalition together. Apparently, Arjun Singh was also the one who advised Rajiv Gandhi to enact the retrogade Muslim Women's Bill. And he is supposed to be one of the upholders of true secularism in the Congress!

Well-known left intellectuals like Irfan Habib and his AMU colleagues were the first to raise their voices in protest. The left parties have opposed the move as strongly as they do any economic reform measure. They have all said it is minority appeasement politics in its worst form and demanded its withdrawal. But while the government caves in to their protests about economic reform, it refuses to retract on this. Speaks volumes for the Prime Minister's oft-stated assertion that his government is committed to an open economy, doesn't it?

That apart, there are several interesting aspects to this issue.

One of them is the almost complete silence by those I term the `proper' liberals over this. All the disapprovals and displeasure have been expressed only by the left lobby. Come to think of it, even some of the other prominent leftists are silent on this. Why haven't we heard a word from Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Mushirul Hasan or Romila Thapar?

Second, is the left concerned about the communal overtones of the move or something else? If you read all their statements carefully, one sentence comes through in each case - that this move will result in the government playing into the hands of the BJP. So they seem more bothered about the mileage that the BJP will get out of this, rather than the inherent immorality of the action itself. It gives the impression that they would have kept quiet if the BJP is not likely to make political capital out of the issue.

I would love to be proved wrong but I have a feeling I won't. Because in the first week of April, there was another instance of blatant minority appeasement. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, assured a delegation of Parsis of all government help to help the Parsi community check the alarming decline in its population. Is that the job of any government, let alone a secular government?

Why did no one react to this bit of news? Because, unfortunately when all manner of liberals berate communalism, they are only talking about the BJP- sangh parivar-Shiv Sena. We are supposed to believe that these groups - and the odd fanatic fringe of the Muslims - needs to be decimated if the scourge of communalism is to be eliminated.

It would be foolish to think that the battle against religious fanaticism will be won with the obliteration of the BJP and sangh parivar just as it would be foolish to think that the battle against statism will be won with the defeat of the communists. The communists were in no position to influence policy through the 1990s (except for one and a half years of the United Front government) but statist economic policies continue to prevail. If true economic liberalism has not been achieved in India, it is not because of the communists alone. It is as much, if not more, because of opposition from rent seeking politicians, bureaucrats and other incumbents of the present system, none of who will be card carrying members of any of the communist parties.

Similarly there is ample evidence of communalism being alive and well in various other political and social formations. The banning of Satanic Verses, the Muslim Women's Bill, the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid were all done by the secular Congress. In an earlier post, Hum to anything karega, I had cited various instances of blatant pandering to the Muslim votebank by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. All of them are supposed to be the torch bearers of secularism! Or look at the disgustingly casteist Mandal card played by V P Singh in 1990.

Forget politics and politicians. Look at one demand that the Parsi community has made. They want the government to step in to support health clinics for Parsis, which are few and badly maintained. It is both a communal and statist demand. And that too from a community from which many of India's liberal stalwarts are drawn and one that has prospered through private enterprise.

Or look at the reaction to an extremely forgettable film called Jo Bole So Nihal. A handful of Sikh groups - political and religious - have ensured that it is pulled out of all theatres of Punjab. What were the grounds for protests? The film had some semi-nude scenes and this was offensive because the title o f the film was a Sikh religious chant or war cry. There was organised violence at the theatres in Punjab and the distributors finally had to withdraw the film from the state. But the Sikh groups are not satisfied and are now crying for a worldwide ban on the film. And even as I write this comes news of bomb blasts in two cinema halls in Delhi that were screening the film.

Concentrating the guns all the time on the BJP-sangh parivar-Shiv Sena while keeping silent on other forms of communalism on the grounds that the former is more dangerous is not going to weaken them, let alone eliminate them. On the contrary it is only giving them a readymade plank of hypocrisy, one which they are using constantly to their advantage. Communalism has to be opposed because it is a detestable phenomenon, not just because a particular political formation is indulging in it.

Friday, 29 April 2005

Is a liberal political party feasible?

Since January 2004, a group of liberals (proper liberals, not the left liberals) have been mulling the idea of setting up a liberal political party in India. It even experimented with supporting Sharad Joshi's Swatantra Bharat Party (SBP) in the 2004 elections, but that experiment didn't quite work out the way it was meant to, to everybody's disappointment. But efforts are continuing because people still feel that there is the need for a liberal political party in India to step into the vacant space created by the exit of the Swatantra Party.

There were two drivers behind these initiatives - the need for a party which believes in a free society and economy and the need to restore values in public life which, it was argued, only a new political formation could do. The existing parties had all thoroughly discredited themselves and had contributed to the decline in values as well as generated contempt for politics among the public at large.

But are the assumptions correct? Is India ready for a political party that believes in liberalism?

I am not sure how ideologically inclined the average Indian voter is, barring the committed communist or sangh parivar followers. There is a vague preference among the other voters for either the Congress or the BJP or various regional parties in states, but I doubt whether anyone really understands the ideological issues involved. The growing anti-Congress sentiment stemmed less from discomfort with its ideology and more from what it came to stand for - dynasty, dictatorship, corruption and arrogance of power. That's why from time to time after 1977, people voted in non-Congress governments, only to have them betray their trust. It was the NDA which really proved that a non-Congress political formation could provide a stable and equally good - or bad - government. I am not sure that ideology played a part in bringing the NDA to power. If it had, the BJP would have come to power on its own steam and would have not got thrown out in the elections. Its defeat and the victory of the UPA had little to do with ideology. The NDA was punished for not living up to its promise of providing a better government and the BJP for not being different from the Congress.

Therefore, I don't think the vast majority of the Indians are going to be wowed by a new party that is talking about free markets, primacy of the individual, open society etc. Or indeed any political formation talking about any ideology. Right now, from what one hears and reads, all they want is good governance and clean public life. They are tired of political parties that, when in opposition, block the very policies that they initiated when they were in power and vice versa, even as they come together to unanimously pass legislation giving politicians higher salaries and perks. They are sick of politicians nitpicking about the circumstances under which ministers should resign - chargesheet or arrest warrant or case filed. Newspaper columns and television chat shows are full of fulminations against politicians and despair that such politicians get elected repeatedly because there is no choice. The fact that many people exercised the negative vote in Mumbai during the 2004 general elections shows that people are willing to do what is within their power to do in order to bring about a change.

Does this necessarily lead to the conclusion that India is ready for a new party or political formation which is committed to value-based politics? One that does not believe in using money or muscle power in elections, which will not indulge in double standards. Those working towards a liberal political party believe that India is ready. But I beg to differ.

The problem is that all of us are looking at the crisis in Indian politics purely as a supply side issue - that there are not enough good people in public life whom those desiring a better India and a cleaner politics can vote for. But there is a demand side issue as well - is there sufficient demand for such people?

It would be tempting to answer this question with a resounding yes. I myself in two earlier posts had taken a similar stand. In Why doesn't the urban middle class vote, I had said: 'I think the reason why the urban middle class does not vote or engage with politics more actively is because it faces a crisis of choice. There is no party that represents their voice.' I had argued much the same in another post, Is negative voting a negative idea.

But public dissatisfaction and anger has not reached a critical mass. The demand for a cleaner politics, though it exists, is not sufficient as to make any new political initiative successful. Something I heard on a television debate reinforced this impression. In the Bihar assembly elections, a majority of the sitting legislators who contested lost their seats. All those with a criminal background who contested won. While the BJP and the Congress did not field criminals, their allies all did. In some cases, when the criminal-politicians were denied a party ticket, they quit the party and contested as independent candidates. They won, defeating candidates of various political parties.

Don't just dismiss this as yet another horror story from the badlands. Remember Jayalalthia came back to power through an election. And there are no allegations of booth capturing or rigging. In Goa a politician who keeps switching parties gets elected each time. In Kerala, a minister accused of rape got elected some years back. In Delhi, politicians who every Delhi-ite knows as having led the anti-Sikh rioters in 1984 get party tickets and are elected.

But when an upright Manmohan Singh contests for the Lok Sabha from the South Delhi constituency, peopled by the elite who often bemoan the sorry state of Indian politics, he loses. Both the BJP and the Congress have a large number of people who will bring a certain amount of decency to public life. But they will never be fielded because they are not seen as `winnable' candidates. The party cadres will never work for them. But why should they not win, despite party cadres, if there is sufficient demand for such people?

So why doesn't the constant lament about lack of good people in politics translate into votes for them even when they are fielded by well established parties? Contesting as independents is not an option at all; it is simply pointless. It perhaps has to do with the fact that the majority of the grumblers are actually quite at ease with the existing system and have managed little ways to tweak it to suit their ends - whether it is unauthorised constructions, illegal pumping of ground water, getting false certificates or some other misdemeanour. Voting a person with integrity into politics will mean putting this comfortable little world that we have built for ourselves at risk. Remember that the very people whose drawing room conversations are all about the sorry state of governance were the ones who lobbied against NDA's urban development minister Jagmohan when he set about demolishing unauthorised constructions, not in the slum clusters, but in the areas where the middle class resides.

It is this issue that will have to be addressed and demand generated before going ahead with a liberal political party.

Why this blog and why this name?

This was my first post and I am posting this again for people who are visiting this blog for the first time.

Well, I've been observing public discourse in general as well as participating in a minor way in the liberal discourse on various issues. I was getting increasingly uneasy with the kind of stridency in public debates/discussions. People have stopped talking to each other, whether in the print or electronic media or, even in private conversations. Instead they are constantly talking at each other. There is no give and take of ideas or thoughts. `I am right and you are wrong and I am not going to agree with you, so don't try to persuade me,' is the unspoken refrain in all conversations. Sometimes it's not unspoken.

What's even more disturbing is the extreme polarisation of views on practically anything. It's my white versus your black. I am always white and the other person is always black. There is no space for greys. The BJP is always wrong and the non-BJP is always right or vice versa depending on your ideological leaning. If you are pro-reforms, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P Chidambaram are always right and a complete free market is the only solution to all ills (even your domestic squabbles). If you are against reforms, Ahluwalia and Chidambaram are always wrong (and that vermin Surjit Bhalla should be exterminated!); Sitaram Yechury and Jean Dreze are always right and the State must continue to manufacture sliced white bread.

And then there are the labels. If you speak in favour of economic reforms, you've sold your soul to the IMF-World Bank-MNC combine and don't care for the poor. If you speak in favour sectoral regulators and social security, you're a statist or, worse, communist. If you say the NDA government did some good or criticise the Haj subsidy, you're a Hindu fundamentalist or a good Hindu (depending on who you are speaking to). If you criticise Narendra Modi and Murli Manohar Joshi, you're a leftist pseudo-secularist or a genuine secularist (again, depending on whom you are addressing). And if you are constantly seeing merits in either point of view, well, tough luck, you're a IMF wallah one day and a jhola wallah the next; you're a Hindu fundamentalist one day and secularist the next. More likely, at the end of it all, you'll just be one confused soul and will find yourself paying the price of not aligning with one or the other ideological camp.

Whatever happened to nuanced stands? Why does questioning why Sonia Gandhi did not take Indian citizenship for 20 years mean that you are a jingoistic nationalist who is against people of foreign origin ruling the country? Why does asking what business the State has to manufacture bread mean that you want poor people to starve to death? Why does crediting Arun Jaitley for his his pro-reforms stand mean that you are also endorsing his staunch support for Narendra Modi? Why does saying that public investment in certain kinds of infrastructure is necessary mean that you are advocating state intervention in the economy?

It's all to do with the tyranny of political correctness. And with ideological groups appropriating various terms. The left has hijacked the pro-poor platform; and the sangh parivar has set itself up as the only group speaking for the Hindus. Nobody is trying to wrest these platforms back from them.

I am personally against any kind of fundamentalism, religious, ideological, fiscal, economic or whatever. That is why this blog and the name.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a freethinker as `a person who rejects accepted opinion, especially those concerning religious belief'. In a world where liberalism, the free market, communism and socialism have become as rigid religions as Hinduism or Islam or Christianity, I find myself constantly at loggerheads with one or the other school of thought as I refuse to subject myself to any form of ideological fundamentalism. Why unrepentant? Because I find I am often forced to be defensive about the views I hold because labels are being thrown at me.

My basic ideological leaning is towards liberalism and an open society and, to that extent, I have a revulsion towards socialism and communism. I not only find them irrelevant and outdated but they also carry within them the seeds of tyranny and dictatorship. But my liberalism is not one which demands an unquestioning obedience and blind genuflection to liberal shibboleths. Nor can I ignore the merits of an argument that those opposed to my beliefs have.

I have one set of liberal comrades who believe that if the communists say something, the opposite must be true. And another set says that if the BJP-sangh parivar combine says something, we must say the opposite. I realise both the loony left and the rabid right can evoke such extreme reactions among the most mild-mannered people but if even liberals abandon the path of sanity, how are we better than either of those fanatical groups?

I have been labelled a Hindutva type as well as a pseudo-secularist. My left leaning acquaintances think I am a economic liberatarian while some of my liberal comrades in arms think I am just a shade lighter than socialist pink.

But I am nothing more than an unapologetic free thinker, who refuses to be tied down to or get straitjacketed within any one dogma. Or accept any label.

What this blog will do

This blog will be my own personal soapbox, if you will, on which I will from time to time sound off on various issues, trying to separate unrelated issues and steer clear of ideological inflexibility. Above all, I will try and explain what liberalism means to me at a personal level. I will not be politically correct and I will not pull any punches.

I will also put up writings that i feel deserve to be read more widely.

Thursday, 24 March 2005

The ant and the grasshopper

This was a wonderful email going around. Just had to put it up.


The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.
The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.
Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies in the cold.


The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.
The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.
Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.
BBC, CNN, NDTV show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.
The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be that this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?
Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration outside the ant's house. Amnesty International and Kofi Annan criticise the government for not upholding the fundamental rigths of the grasshopper.
The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support for the grasshopper. Opposition MPs stage a walkout from Parliament.
Left parties call for a Bharat Bandh in West Bengal and Kerala demanding a judicial enquiry.
Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act (POTAGA) with effect from the beginning of winter.
The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA, and having nothing to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government and handed over to the grasshopper in a ceremony covered by BBC, CNN and NDTV.
Arundhati Roy calls it "a triumph of justice".


The ant dies of starvation, and the grasshopper dances away the winter and summer. Come next winter the grasshopper knows nothing about building or maintaining a home. He searches for the ant, but there are not ants anymore. So the grassshopper dies too.
Arundhati Roy comes back to claim an award for predicting the environmental collapse that contributed to the extinction of the ant, and then the grasshopper. She donates the money to build a centre for environmental justice.

Saturday, 5 March 2005

Hum to anything karega

This is an ad line of a car, which is a take off on a Kishore Kumar number – hum to mohabbat karega. It could well apply all those acting in the name of secularism. Nothing demonstrates this more than when, on Day One of the Jharkhand imbroglio, a young Congress leader RPN Singh blithely told NDTV, `arithmetic can be bought, secularism can’t.’ So now we are to believe that secularism is justification enough for the rape of democracy! Strong words but no words can be strong enough to describe what Syed Sibte Razi did.

But let’s not blame the young man. He probably doesn’t know any better. After all time and again he has (like all of us have) seen very senior politicians justify all manner of unprincipled alliances, rationalise supporting or taking the support of the likes of Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mulayam Singh Yadav or worse (believe me, there are worse) in the name of secularism. So he was probably under the impression that paying obeisance to the word secularism is the best way to earn some brownie points.

The problem is that secularism has come to be identified with, not anti-communalism, but pure and simple anti-BJP-ism. So, opposing the BJP combine is reason enough to strike deals with other communal and caste-ist leaders. I recall a conversation I had with a Communist Party of India (CPI) leader in the mid-1990s about this whole thing about communal politics. There was some elections going on and this person was lamenting that the candidate from Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party – the Samajwadi Party – in his constituency was distributing calendars with the picture of Ram to the Hindus and with some Muslim symbol to the Muslims. `Look at how they are using religion during the elections. It is very sad,' he said. I asked why the CPI was allying with the Samajwadi Party. `Because we have to stop the BJP. It is communal,’ was his reply. He was dead serious. I remember Kishore Kumar warbling `joota polish karega’ in this song. Anything to win my lady love, he was singing. The CPI leader could well have been singing the same line in the context of keeping the BJP out.

So Mulayam Singh Yadav can distribute religious calendars and openly pander to the Muslim votebank with ridiculous sops (like making schools in UP declare half day on Friday to enable students to attend Friday prayers, a step that was withdrawn within two days), which even the community itself may be embarrassed about, but he is the upholder of secularism. Laloo Yadav can use a hastily put together report on the Godhra carnage in the elections, but he is a bulwark against communalism. Ram Vilas Paswan can openly proclaim that he is wooing the Muslim vote and yet can say with an absolutely straight face that he is the only truly secular politician in the country. All three may have chargesheeters with the most heinous crimes to their credit but that’s alright because they are the poster boys of secularism. (Come to think of it, is that surprising? When Indira Gandhi can emasculate the institutions of democracy and her favourite bahu can go one step further, what are a few murders and kidnappings?)

The upright Manmohan Singh is forced to take a criminal like Taslimuddin into his cabinet because otherwise the Rashtriya Janata Dal will pull out and that would be a blow to secular forces! The Left tried to persuade Paswan to support the RJD in Bihar – after the elections threw up a hung assembly – in the interests of secularism. Despite the RJD’s dismal record of governance, and the caste killings in Bihar, the Congress and the Left will always support the RJD because otherwise secularism in Bihar is under threat. Who cares about the people of Bihar? Words like secularism are more important. Caste killings are okay but killings in religious riots are not. (It’s another matter that they are never religious riots but riots engineered by goondas of all political hues – red, green, saffron, pink.)

Secularism means that religion should be left in the private domain. No political party in the country can take credit for that. Secularism is also the opposite of communalism. But can any of the parties claiming to work in the name of secularism be termed as not communal? No. That’s why I say secularism in India has just become a synonym for anti-BJP-ism. It’s a negativist, not positive, principle. It’s an affliction of not just the politicians but also of the liberals (both the left leaning ones and the economic right ones).

The BJP is also to blame for stoking this kind of sentiment by taking up dubious causes just because they are perceived as hurting Hindu sentiments. Just like the actions of the Yadav duo and Paswan probably embarrass the Muslims, the actions of the BJP often embarrass the Hindus.

What this negativist attitude results in is the kind of actions we saw in Jharkhand. And what may perhaps happen in Bihar.

In the interests of true secularism, we need an informed and cool-headed public debate about the meaning of secularism and how it should play out in public life. But is there scope for such public discourse in the country today?

The foundation of civic and responsible society

I am part of a mailing list discussing the possibilities and scope for liberal politics in India. Since the recent state assembly elections, and especially in the context of the formation of the Gurgaon Residents’ Party and its participation in the Haryana elections, the group has discussed the poor turnout of Gurgaon’s upper middle class voters, which was especially glaring since many of them supported the formation of the party.

An observation by one member of the group, Dev Chopra, was particularly insightful and posed an extremely relevant question about the responsibility of citizens. Is it something that will – or should – surface once in five years or however frequently elections may be held?

Here’s what Mr Chopra had to say:

`Would any of the leading lights of the GRP consider assessing, what percentage of the public owning their newly constructed homes, in the last 18-20 years show their Completion or Occupation Certificates BEFORE living in or renting out their property? One will not be surprised to find that 50-60 percent just ignore that statutory requirement. In Phase II of DLF . . . alone, one may discover at least 300 properties being used for commercial ventures, so as to make a quick buck, thereby contravening the residential "ambience" of the area. The typical Delhi city problem of: a) over construction, b) commercialising the residential areas, c) ignoring local laws and installing booster pumps for water--hurting the neighbours, d)installing big transformers and pollute the neighborhood/s, and so on. Self interest and not civic sense rules the roost here.’

`Their focus is more on "encroaching on public land, outside their boundary walls to make green patches, with flowerpots, iron railings on both sides of the road, thus further narrowing the road for vehicles to cross by" unconcerned with community needs.’

Indeed, can one be a responsible voter if one is not a responsible neighbour or citizen?

There are many I know who will argue that completion/occupancy certificates, zoning laws, encroachments etc are all appurtenances and consequences of a statist economy and that they actually lead to the kind of politics we have. That’s something that could be the subject of a passionate debate but the larger point is the complete lack of a civic sense that gets extrapolated on to political participation, even if it is just going and voting in an election. If I don’t care enough about my neighbourhood, will I care about the country?

I had touched upon the issue of low voter turnout in a previous post – Why the urban middle class doesn’t vote – and while that’s one part of the story, the other part is what Mr Chopra has pointed out.

If we see nothing wrong in installing booster pumps to draw out water, thus depriving someone else, we won’t find anything wrong in what politicians are doing all the time, hijacking public money/resources/facilities for their own use. It’s so much easier to fulminate over the quality of people in public life in our drawing rooms, but voting for a party or candidate that stands for clean, value-based, principled politics is difficult. Because we are afraid that if we do get a more principled politics, we will stand to lose our cosy little worlds which we have created through bribes, use of influence, blatant misuse of the law etc. And I, for one, don’t think a liberal politics can be built on a foundation of complete lack of civic sense.

What does the liberal credo say about civic duties and responsibilities? I think this issue needs to be studied and debated by all those who want a more liberal, value-based politics. It’ll be a long haul, but who said building something, especially something absolutely new, was easy?

Sunday, 27 February 2005

Smut in the name of news

The steady erosion of media ethics has been bothering some of us for quite some time. What India TV did on February 27 – airing sexually explicit videoclips about two Bihar politicians – was quite disturbing. The following post was first sent to, a mediawatch website. Am posting it on this as well.

The airing on India TV of some sexually explicit clips of some well-known Bihar politicians indulging in some sexual dalliance once again throws up the question of where our TV channels draw the line. Nowhere, it appears to be right now.

Rajat Sharma’s India TV chose election results day to expose some politicians, one of whom was a candidate for the Bihar legislative assembly. What India TV did crossed all lines of decency. Hardly anything was left to the imagination in spite of some blurring of images and a black board saying Censored blocking off some images. What was even more disgusting and was the repeated airing of the clips, and the anchor prompting all the while, `look carefully, why do we need to censor this visual’. And in the next breath they would say, these visuals are so disgusting, we don’t know what to say! There are so many issues that this raises about media ethics.

One, the question of where to draw the line between public and private. The channel repeatedly said, look at the public face these politicians show and look what they do behind closed doors. Band kamre ke andar. Well, if it was behind closed doors and the politicians were not raping anyone, what business is it of anybody whom they have sex with? Were the women in the visuals under some kind of pressure? Or were the politicians using their clout in some way? The channel was silent on that. If this was not the case, what business is it of the media to intrude into someone’s bedroom or hotel room and violate their privacy?

Two, the India TV anchors kept harping on the morality issue. `In harkaton ko zara dhyan se dekhiye, kya yahi hamare neta hain? (look at these images carefully; are these our politicians?)’ `These are our representatives.’ `This man has three sons and a daughter.’ `This man is fifty-three years old.’ So? Fifty-plus men with grown up children don’t have sexual urges? Since when has having sex inside a closed room between two consenting adults become a crime? Or does getting into public life mean that politicians have to turn celibate?

It was perhaps only former information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad – whom the channel had invited to the India TV studios – who raised the issue of propriety of airing the visual. He roundly ticked off India TV on two counts. He had been invited, he pointed out, to what he thought was a discussion on the Bihar election results, only to have the anchor seek his reaction to the tape and focus the discussion on politicians’ behaviour. Prasad has a point. Can TV channels call someone for one discussion and then take the discussion on to some other issues, even if it was as serious as the sexual escapades of politicians?

Prasad raised a second, more pertinent point. Very bluntly he asked the anchor whether this was being done just to push up TRPs. He wasn’t denying the media the right to expose politicians, he said, but wondered whether not the electronic media should draw a lakshman rekha about what they show, especially on a day when everyone was gathered in front of the television sets.

Far from being chastened, the anchors wondered why the media was being lectured and whether politicians shouldn’t adhere to some lakshman rekha in public life. One even wondered why Prasad was pointing this out when other politicians had roundly condemned the politician caught on camera, hinting that Prasad was being lenient towards the concerned person.

If that wasn’t brazen enough, the channel invited public comments via SMS and displayed all the congratulatory messages it got. The channel will no doubt use this flood of congratulations to justify what it did. But was the public reacting in an informed way. By constantly dubbing the actions `kaale kartoot’ (black deeds) wasn’t the channel influencing public opinion by ignoring the fact that those in the video may have been two consenting adults?

This issue raises far more questions about media ethics than about the behaviour of politicians. `Naitikta ke saari haden paar kar gayi hain’ (all limits of propriety have been crossed) said India TV about these politicians. Looks like it was India TV which crossed all the limits.

But let's not blame India TV alone. It has only gone one step further than others. When the Delhi Public School MMS scam (in which two school students were shot having sex and the MMS clip was sold across the country) was talking up space in the print media and airtime on the electronic media, some channels said they had the clip and showed blurred images of the offensive clip. And when a controversy raged over Mid Day carrying explicit pictures of film stars Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur kissing in public, TV channels kept showing those visuals, even as they organised sanctimonious debates about the issue of privacy of public personalities.

Does this mean the electronic media should be subjected to some form of censorship? NO WAY. But the media generally needs to debate the extent it will go to in order to improve circulation or TRP ratings as the case may be.

Saturday, 19 February 2005

Another toughie

I’ve got a comment on my piece on The Dilemma of Regulating Education. It raises a very important point and one that I missed out on – the quality of education imparted in these institutions. Particularly worrying is the quality of medical education.

This is another dilemma. Since these institutes will be churning out doctors who will be dealing with people’s lives, can we afford to wait for a purely market-driven correcting mechanism? But, as the author of the comment says, “legislative intervention might be more harmful than market design!”.

Is there an in between path relating to this aspect of education?

I guess accreditation by organizations like the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) is the answer. These two are already in place, though reports about the quality of monitoring by the AICTE are not very good. One hasn’t heard negative reports about accreditation by the MCI, but I am willing to be corrected on this.

Yes, this is another toughie.

Sunday, 13 February 2005

The Dilemma of Regulating Education

On February 11, the Supreme Court struck down the Chhattisgarh Private Sector Universities Act, 2002, specifically Section 5 of the Act which does away with the role of the University Grants Commission in the setting up of universities, and cancelled the registration of over 100 private universities which had come up in the state. It was acting on a public interest litigation filed by a former UGC chairman, Prof. Yashpal.

My immediate reaction to the order was one of dismay. Then as I started to ponder over the various facets of the issue, I realised that this order will pose a dilemma for all those believing in a free market in education. Well, maybe not all, because there will be a group who will be very clear in their opposition to the judgement and see it as an unpardonable restriction on the free market. I don’t think it is as simple as that.

Prof Yashpal and the Court were both acting with very honourable motives, no doubt. The Act had been passed by the then Congress government in Chhattisgarh, headed by Ajit Jogi and had led to the mushrooming of private universities in the state, some run on sound business principles (there’s nothing wrong with managing educational institutions on such principles) but many of them hole-in-the-wall kind of establishments and fly-by-night operators taking gullible students and their parents for a ride. Things were bound to come to a head sooner or later.

What I find disturbing with the Supreme Court order is the fact that it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And like another judgement two years back banning capitation fees, only treats the symptoms of the disease and not the root cause – the fact that demand outstrips supply of education.

There is no denying that there is an `education market` where the forces of demand and supply work just as they do in other markets. Right now, it is a seller’s market because of the restrictions on setting up of educational institutions by private parties.

The number of students in the higher education system (estimated at 8.8 million) is only 6.7 per cent of the population in the eligible age group. Raising this to even 10 per cent will mean bringing 14 million students into a State-domnated education system which is barely able to cope with the current burden. In such a situation is it right to restrict choices available to students by creating entry barriers for private players? Or by making higher education a State monopoly? Clearly not. The State has no business running educational institutions or creating conditions where the market gets restricted.

But how is one to deal with the phenomenon of unscrupulous operators? Sure, market forces will deal with them and will weed out the genuine from the fakes. But that’s little comfort to those whose hard-earned money the crooks have run away with. Yes, there are laws against cheating and fraud and not honouring contracts and commitments which these people can take recourse to, but we all know the way the law and order and justice system works – or doesn’t work – in India. Sure, this is something that India needs to work on since a sound law and order and legal system is the bedrock of a free market. There’s also immense weight in the argument that the lack of a sound system of justice shouldn’t be an excuse for government intervention in various activities.

But even if a sound legal system were in place, would it be absolutely wrong to have some minimum norms for setting up educational institutions? The libertarians would say, yes, it would be. They also have some case when they say that prescribing such norms and having some organisation to enforce them only results in corruption and doesn’t ensure that the norms are met. The regulatory capture argument cannot be ignored. But I’m not entirely sure that a scenario of not having any norms at all at all is necessarily desirable.

In 1995, the then Congress government at the Centre introduced a Private Universities Bill, which enables the establishment of self-financing universities with their own curriculum, fee structure and degrees to supplement the efforts of the state-run universities. The Bill allowed registered societies, public trusts and companies to set up universities and design the curriculum. The UGC was to vet the proposals and monitor the functioning of the universities. The Bill got put on the backburner thanks to misplaced outrage – from the Left, obviously – that the state was withdrawing from the education sector. Nothing came of the Bill, eventually.

That Bill, I think, struck the right balance on regulating education. Where the Chhattisgarh Act erred was in doing away with the role of the UGC in the setting up of universities. The latest Supreme Court order tries to correct that, but it has ended up tarring all the private universities with the same brush. It will also result in any new initiatives to involve the private sector in education and get the State out being put on hold.

The trick will be to find a way of weeding out the bad eggs (some will still slip in, but the scope will be reduced significantly) without heavy-handed government regulation.

Like I said, this is a real tough one.

Saturday, 5 February 2005

Why doesn’t the urban middle class vote?

On 3 February, Haryana went to polls. What was interesting this time was that the residents of the new housing colonies in the glitzy part of Gurgaon formed their own party – Gurgaon Residents’ Party (GRP) – and fielded a candidate. A majority of these people come from the affluent upper middle class, who view politics as a cesspool and will not have anything to do with it barring drawing room conversations and exercising one’s vote. The fact that they formed a party and contested the elections, albeit with one candidate, is a significant step forward.

But what happened on polling day? The voter turnout in New Gurgaon was a measly 40 per cent or less. In one polling booth, there were only 173 people who cast their vote. Now, I’m guessing that some of this could have to do with the fact that many of the residents of New Gurgaon may have moved in very recently or are still registered as voters in other parts of the country. But that would be a small number.
It’s become fashionable to berate the urban middle class (both upper and middle) for not being more dutiful citizens. But few will try and analyse why the urban middle class behaves the way it does.

For some idea about the reason, here’s an article you should read. It’s called `Upper middle class seceding from India’ and was written by TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan. Here’s the link: It’s an excellent piece.
I will just quote two passages from there, but you will need to read the whole article to understand the import of what TCA is saying.

“The combined effect of these two developments on our society has been dramatic. The economic strength has meant the enlargement of the middle classes and the controlled political chaos has meant their gradual disengagement from the political process. The voter turnout is a quick indicator of the underlying attitude.”

“The political issue is whether a country with a disengaged middle class can look after its institutions of democracy and governance. These institutions require a high level of commitment, and the fact that this commitment is being eroded is evident in the decline of our institutions.”

I think the reason why the urban middle class does not vote or engage with politics more actively is because it faces a crisis of choice. There is no party that represents their voice. Let me elaborate from a personal perspective. Actually it’s not very personal and I have found many of people of my generation and from a similar socio-economic background feeling the same.

My political awakening came during and just after the Emergency, around the time I was finishing school and joined college. Obviously, we couldn’t but oppose the Congress, which embodied everything that was bad about Indian politics – dictatorship, dynasty, lack of principles and values, the lumpenisation of politics (represented by Sanjay Gandhi’s goons and the Youth Congress riff-raff). For those not enamoured of the Left, it was the Janata Party that was the preferred party. And though our admiration for the Janata Party was shaken in the wake of the developments in 1979, something within us revolted at the thought of voting for or supporting the Congress.

Soon the disillusionments with the non-Congress parties began to increase, as the heroes of the Emergency chose personal aggrandisement over principles. The BJP was formed in 1980 but no one seriously reacted to it. It was just another star in the anti-Congress galaxy. The National Front experiment revived our hopes of an era of value-based principled politics but it was like the last burst of light from a dying flame. The election violence in Meham orchestrated by deputy prime minister Devi Lal’s party and the government’s refusal to take action, L K Advani’s rath yatra, the crude antics of those who claimed to be inspired by JP. And then, the Mandal issue. That was perhaps the last straw.

I didn’t exercise my vote in 1991. I couldn’t bring myself to.

1991 was a watershed. The Congress that came to power seemed to have put the dynasty and the socialist legacy behind it. We started looking at it in a new light. But we found that the party hadn’t gotten over the dynasty.
Corruption, communalism, casteism and criminalisation became the new leitmotifs of Indian politics. There was no room for values, principles, ideology. That’s when I decided to start voting for individuals and not parties. The choice got narrowed down to candidates from the Congress and BJP. The rest had rendered themselves absolutely irrelevant and were speaking in an outdated idiom I couldn’t relate to. Yet I resented having to choose between these two parties.

Right now there is no party that resonates for me. No party is interested in appealing to me or to the socio-economic group I come from.

The Congress may have improved in some ways and there are a lot of people in the party I respect a great deal but its continued belief in the divine right of the Gandhi family to rule is abhorrent to me. The sycophancy seems to have plumbed to disgusting levels. But I am told it is not an issue for the vast majority of the people in the interiors of the country.

So I look towards the BJP. For me, its championing of economic reforms and its bijli-sadak-pani slogan were a refreshing change from the mai-baap attitude of the previous governments. It too has a number of people whom I have a lot of respect for. And it seemed to have put the fuddy-duddy Jan Sangh behind it. But it became a Congress clone and I also come up against its Hindutva agenda. Though I will take on critics of the BJP who adopt double standards when hitting out at the party (more of that in a later article), I am uncomfortable with its sectarian appeal. I cannot relate to a party that rationalises the Babri Masjid demolition or does a knee jerk reaction to the arrest of the Shankaracharya. But I am told that the BJP does not bother if people like me agree with it or not. We are, after all, not its constituency.

The sundry regional parties and the non-Congress, non-BJP parties aren’t bothered about me and I don’t want to have anything to do with them.

And then there is this whole attitude to economic reforms. `It has benefited only the urban middle classes. They don’t represent the real India,’ is the refrain. The aam admi is the one who counts, we are told, not the urban, English-speaking middle classes. Those who opposed the BJP thought they were mocking that party when they said India was shining only in the metros. They didn’t realise that they were mocking people like me as well.

For every political party, people like me are a minority who can be ignored. And then they complain when people like me don’t vote.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Saturday, 29 January 2005

Comic Relief

I cracked up when I read this. And have been laughing ever since. Enjoy!!!

and here’s a follow up

Is negative voting a negative idea?

The Indian Express, in the lead editorial on January 26, has criticised the concept of negative voting and says it smacks of a negative attitude to politics rather than a constructive attitude to reform.

Well, perhaps it is. Or is it?

The issue of negative voting has been in the public domain for long. But what many people did not know was that it is possible. Just before the 2004 elections, the Indian Liberal Group, of which I am a member, put out a note telling people exactly how to go and register a negative vote. Several ILG members in Mumbai exercised it.

I am completely taken up by the idea of negative voting. For several elections now, I have stopped voting according to parties, because I feel there is absolutely no difference between the Congress and the BJP (those are the only two choices for me). Therefore, I have gone entirely by the candidates they have put up. I believe it is important to get people with integrity and people who will perform into the various levels of elected bodies. (Voting for the sundry other candidates has never been an option for me because I don’t know them or what they represent; also quite a few are absolutely shady or frivolous characters.) Sometimes the choices have been very clear because of the outstanding nature of the candidates concerned. But sometimes I have been hard put to choose between the two parties because the candidates have been equally lacklustre but also have not evoked extreme negative reactions and thus warranted a negative vote. In such cases I have voted for one or the other out of instinct, which has not been proved wrong.

But what would I do if I had to choose between a Sajjan Kumar of the Congress (a key accused in the 1984 riots and who had been seen leading the rioters and who arranged for a huge crowd to come and protect him when the police came for him sometimes in the 1990s) and Narendra Modi (ok, he’s not from Delhi, but you get the point)? What do I do if my choice is between D P Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Taslimuddin and Mohd. Shahbuddin or sundry other criminals wanted for rape, murder, extortion, kidnapping etc.? Between Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav, who have no compunction about fanning casteist and communal sentiments (if you’re wondering how I can call these two communal – a term we have all reserved for the BJP – that will be a subject of a subsequent piece)? Between Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi (both condoning corruption and indulging in casteist politics)? Or, assuming that I vote on the basis of ideology and not individuals, what if there is no party that represents my ideology of a free and open society?

I could stay away from voting. But I am told it is my duty to vote. But it is also my duty to vote responsibly. So my conscience is torn between two conflicting duties. The only way I can fulfil both duties is a negative vote.

Now the Indian Express argues that this is `middle class dissatisfaction with politics’ that `should not be confused with dissatisfaction in general.’ It also says the purpose of elections is `to elect a government, not simply express vague dissatisfaction.’

Vague dissatisfaction? The Indian Express grossly underestimates the extent of discontent that is seething under the calm middle class exterior. Someone (either Surjit Bhalla or TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan) had written about the middle class seceding from India (I will be writing on that too at some stage) and I think this is an extremely serious problem which papers like the Indian Express are glossing over.

In any case, how are ordinary people to express dissatisfaction? They can write letters to the editor, but how many can be published? Taking to the streets is an option, but is that a desirable one? The vote is the only weapon people have.

The editorial says `negative dissatisfaction is not an answer to the question of who should rule’. But who rules you (specifically, the quality of who rules you) determines how you are ruled. And voting is the only way for you to decide the quality of your elected representatives. If you elect good men and women to your local body/state assembly/parliament, your level of dissatisfaction will also go down.

There are, we are told, several other ways to express dissatisfaction. One of them is not turning up for election. But going to the polling booth and registering a protest vote also ensures that someone else doesn’t go and vote in your name, something that happens all the time.

A negative vote is one way for people to show that, yes, they have a stake in and believe in the system but want a change in the way it operates. I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. It’s far more positive and constructive than merely going and voting without applying one’s mind. It signals a desire for reform. When I say, through my vote, that I will not vote for X,Y,Z or A,B,C, I am saying we need better people in politics.

The editorial does not suggest what should be a positive or constructive attitude to political reform. (Well, it does talk about enabling more people to run for public office, but I don’t think there is anything barring you and me from standing for elections.) One way would be for people who are dissatisfied to get into politics. But not everyone (and this cuts across social and income groups) has the time/money/stamina or inclination for politics to do this. Does that mean that they should reconcile themselves to being ruled by thugs, fanatics or simply incompetent and corrupt people?

A negative vote is a compromise path between armchair fulminations and time-consuming activism. It may not be the best option but is the only one available now.