Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Republic and Us

Standing on my balcony, musing over the farce of the Padma awards -- people like NRI businessman Sant Singh Chatwal, who has faced charges of defrauding Indian banks, are on the list, as if awarding Saif Ali Khan, Barkha Dutt (in an earlier year) weren't bad enough -- I saw something that left me even more depressed. The residents' welfare association (RWA) of my block was hosting Republic Day celebrations in the park that my house overlooks. The little park appeared full of people. Almost 70 per cent of the residents were gathered there, socialising and gorging on free snacks. The heavy mist that blanketed Delhi till well past 11 am was no dampener.

Why is that depressing? Because whenever there is a general body meeting (GBM) of the RWA, attendance drops to just about 30 per cent, give or take 0.5 per cent of 1 per cent. GBMs are called to discuss affairs relating to the block and to review the functioning of the office-bearers of the RWA. But barring the 30-odd regulars nobody bothers to attend them.

To me the RWAs and GBMs represent democracy at a microcosmic level and the way people behave here only gets projected at the state or national level in the state assembly and Parliament. The GBM is like a full session of Parliament and the executive committee of the RWA is like the executive arm of the state – the government, which is charged with implementing policies and programmes sanctioned by Parliament (or GBM).

The RWA charges a certain amount every month from the residents. Most pay up and there are a few defaulters. This corresponds to paying taxes and that should prompt a demand for some accountability. It’s not easy to demand and ensure that accountability at the state or national level, but surely it should be easier at the level of the locality you are living in?

And yet what do I find?

That people believe they should get their money’s worth in terms of services, but apart from ranting against the RWA or fighting with its office-bearers if they suffer some personal inconvenience – no water, theft, service lanes not clean – they are not willing to take the next step forward to be more involved.

One potent way they can get more involved is in attending the GBMs. That is like a Parliament session where the executive is grilled on its performance, larger issues are debated and decided on. Once a GBM has decided on something, it is applicable to all members of the RWA.

But people find all kinds of excuses for not attending the GBM. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, errands to run, relatives dropping in. None of these excuses are trotted out when there’s free food available. Even thick fog won’t keep them away. Ask them why they don’t attend GBMs and the pat answer is – kuch hota to nahin hai. So why don’t you come, make yourself heard and ensure kuch hota hai? Kya fayda, what’s the point?

If a GBM does decide on a particular course of action and it inconveniences someone that person just decided to ignore it. When it is pointed out that the GBM has decided this, the immediate reply is – what GBM, how many people attend the GBM, I wasn’t there, so how was it decided? So why don’t you attend? Kya fayda? There seems to be no winning this argument.

What happens as a result? The office-bearers behave pretty much like our politicians do once they are elected. There are rules about the number of GBMs to be called in a year (much like laws about Parliament sitting) but the required number of GBMs is never convened. No one questions them about it.

RWAs are run pretty much like fiefdoms – contracts being awarded for a cut or for personal favours, guards running personal errands for office-bearers, the houses near those of the office-bearers benefiting more than others. And people will just grumble but never demand accountability.

The annual election of the executive committee is also an interesting replica of state or national elections. Two groups gang up and decide to contest elections. Each go around with a kind of manifesto promising the moon. The challengers accuse the incumbents of corruption and ineffectiveness.

Most committee members have their own agendas and the temptation to use the one year in office to make money is strong and often not resisted.

Which brings one to the question that dogs national politics – why don’t good, honest, effective people become office-bearers? The answers, unfortunately, are the same. The honest people are often mild-mannered and don’t have the kind of aggression that is required to deal with rogue elements – and there are many. The honest, effective people are the ones who hold regular jobs and are not able to devote the kind of time that an RWA needs. Above all, RWA politics can be as dirty as state and national politics and these people just don’t have the stomach for that kind of politicking and worse.

Is it any wonder then that our state legislatures and Parliament are in the state they are? If we cannot ensure democracy and responsibility at our individual levels, can we do so at larger levels?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The NRI Vote

This post is likely to cost me a few NRI friends. It could have been relatives too but you can't lose relatives; you can only lose contact with them.

I am pretty worked up about the move on voting rights for NRIs. A Bill to amend the Representation of People Act to allow this was moved in 2006 and the standing committee of Parliament made certain observations. The Bill has remained stuck because of that.

I have had an e-exchange with my friend Krishna Srinivasan, who works for the IMF, on the subject. "If we are still citizens, why should we not be allowed to vote?" asks Krishna. He went on to say, "voting is a fundamental right for every citizen. No reason why they should be prevented from voting just because they relocate overseas for a few years. As long as a NRI remains an Indian citizen, she/he should be allowed to vote."

Krishna certainly has a point. I was worried that the Bill would allow even NRIs who had taken citizenship of other countries to vote. Fortunately, it does not - the right to vote is not being conferred on even those with Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card.

My issue is not about people who have relocated for a few years but those people who have gone abroad with the intention of settling down there and the only reason they are still Indian citizens is that they cannot get citizenship of the other country before a stipulated time period. Technically, yes, they are Indian citizens but are they Indians at heart? Speaking Indian languages, being part of the Indian community in the other country, sticking to Indian rituals, food and dress, visiting India every year, investing in Indian businesses etc doesn't count. Are they involved with the country in the way that all of us who choose to live here and put up with the trials and tribulations of living in India are? Should people who chose not to endure this country with all its hardships be allowed to determine who rules all those who chose to do so? That is my fundamental question.

My fear is that the amendment Bill seeks to allow such people to vote. The amendment Bill proposes that "a person absenting himself from his place of ordinary residence owing to his employment, education, or otherwise, outside India, whether temporarily or not, shall not, by reason thereof, cease to be ordinarily resident in India." Note the words, "temporarily or not". That means even those who have gone permanently will be allowed to vote because they have still retained their Indian citizenship.

I think that is unfair. NRIs don't pay taxes in India (some probably do) so why should they be allowed to determine the government? No taxation without representation should surely also mean no representation without taxation.

There are a whole lot of practical problems with the proposal, many of which have been highlighted in the standing committee report on the Bill. Apparently, conferring voting right on someone also confers on that person the right to stand for election. Now that is worrying.

The biggest problem, according to me, is - how are NRIs going to judge which party/candidate is best for the job? Can they make an informed choice the way a voter living here can? (Sure, even people here don't make informed choices, but that is another issue). The move will also skew the playing field against the smaller parties and independents who may not have the resources to reach out to NRI voters, thus giving the big parties with a higher profile an unfair advantage. I am worried about how some parties are going about studiously wooing the NRIs. I cannot believe it has to do with wanting to keep them engaged with India and its development. It’s about engaging with their particular brand of politics. It will be easier to fool NRIs, in spite of the information and technology revolution.

There was something else in my exchange with Krishna that disturbed me. He said allowing NRIs to vote "will, hopefully, contribute towards improving governance". Later he elaborated (in response to a riposte from me) that "I would like to believe that many/most NRIs would not be swayed by the populist measures used by politicians to get votes. This would, hopefully, help elect the right candidate and not the one with most money/influence, which in turn would help improve governance."

My riposte had been that the white man's burden is now morphing into the NRI burden: these desis back home don't know how to vote the right people, so we NRIs need to step in and help them improve governance etc. But Krishna's counter is similar to that smug middle class attitude all of us have - the poor vote depending on how much they are paid; it is us educated people who vote responsibly. But as I have pointed out in an earlier post, this is a myth. The middle class voters are as prone to being bribed as the poor. Not in terms of cash or liquor or whatever, but in terms of benefits - protection for encroachments, continuation of undeserved subsidies etc. What is the guarantee that NRIs won't have their own narrow agendas?

Not giving NRIs voting rights will certainly affect all those who have gone abroad purely temporarily - people on foreign assignments or jobs with international organisations or multinational corporations, students who may later choose to come back, people who have only gone to earn money for their families back home (like the poor people working in the Gulf who repatriate all their earnings), people like my friend Krishna. If some way can be found to define `temporarily' in the amendment and allow these genuine people to vote, sure go ahead. But if that cannot be done, I am afraid these people will just have to wait till they return in order to vote. We cannot allow people who have no stake in the country and don't understand or want to endure its problems to determine our governments.
P.S. I am giving a link to a summary of the Bill and the standing committee recommendations.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Justice has to be just

Now there is a Facebook group called Justice for Ruchika. I got invites but am not planning to join. It’s not that I am not angered by the piffling conviction that S P S Rathore got. No woman who has traveled in a Delhi bus will feel differently.

But I am not joining the group for two reasons. One, I feel such groups are no different from meaningless candlelight vigils about which I have written earlier.
More importantly, I am just not comfortable with all that is happening now.

Slapping new charges, filing fresh FIRs (which eminent legal experts like Ram Jethmalani and K T S Tulsi have criticized) is perhaps not the best way of going about getting justice for Ruchika.

The right way to go about it would have been to pressure the CBI to appeal the verdict in a higher court and press for a longer sentence there, which is what happened in the Jessica Lal case, and making sure that the arguments are watertight.

Take the new charges of abetment to suicide. That seems to be on very weak ground. Apparently this had been dismissed by the high court and Supreme Court earlier. The CBI officer who had headed the probe has clearly said that the charge was weak even then because Ruchika had committed suicide three years after the molestation incident and left no suicide note. So on what basis are charges of abetment to suicide be framed and made to stick? Am not sure if abetment to suicide charges can be levied only by relatives saying so or whether it requires a suicide note. I would like to be educated about this.

The immediate rejoinder to that will be that the CBI official was protecting Rathore. Maybe. But that charge can stick only if the officer deliberately overlooked or destroyed strong evidence of abetment to suicide. There is nothing right now to suggest that.

There is unhappiness over the fact that Rathore has got interim anticipatory bail and I heard Anand Parkash saying on television that this shows the system is still trying to shield Rathore. Now this is clearly unfair. Giving bail to someone on a bailable offence is hardly an attempt to shield that person.

The initial outrage over the laughable six months that Rathore got has now snowballed into something uncontrollable and often ridiculous. The Indian Express had an editorial, Call off the mob, which highlights the danger of letting public outrage dictate justice. The points it makes are very valid. The topic of NDTV’s Big Fight programme is going to be “Is media trial the only way to get justice”. This is, quite simply, appalling. There can be no justification for the media arrogating to itself the role of judges.

Like I wrote in the end of my post on the media behaviour in this case on my other blog, the travesty of justice which happened should not become an excuse for vigilante justice.