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The Left is entitled to live in its outdated world and swear by its antiquated ideology.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."