Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When Arun Shourie redefined BJP as Congress + Cow!

Probably the worst thing to happen to a leader with statesman like airs is to become a butt of laughter and sarcasm – going by the spiralling jokes around the Indian PM Narendra Modi in the media these days, he may soon outdo the former Congress PM Manmohan Singh by a wide margin.

But last Monday the tormentor who joined the jeering crowds turned out to be none else than Arun Shourie a revered figure in the BJP-RSS circles. On the occasion of a book launch in Delhi the well-known journalist and a prominent figure from BJP Shourie claimed that Modi’s Prime Minister’s Office [PMO]  has proved to be the weakest in history. This is indeed the most scathing attack on the Narendra Modi government seen in the last eighteen months since the new government was formed.

The fact that the criticism comes from within the fold is telling enough but the vehemence of the remarks made by Shourie is unprecedented. A dismissive knee-jerk reaction to the remarks may be that perhaps Shourie like several other senior BJP leaders is airing his grouse at not being given due consideration by the Modi government. But if you look at the specific barbs, you may begin to see why Shourie’s charges against the Modi government are finding wider resonance in the country.

The report in question quotes Shourie as saying ‘The way to characterise the policies of the government is – Congress plus a cow. The policies are the same’. This refers of course to the current controversy around beef and cow protection that has overshadowed all other public concerns in India, thanks to BJP-RSS and the vigilante groups encouraged by them.

Shourie’s arguments in the favour of his sarcasm are as follows:

a) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is  more interested in managing the media coverage than the economy. 

b) There has never been as great a centralisation of functions, not power, of functions in the PMO as now.

c) Industrialists are afraid of speaking against the government. 

d) The NDA government should embrace everybody instead of getting into “boxing matches” with states and the opposition

The specific reproaches and the sarcasm together seem to suggest that Shourie is close to giving up on the Modi regime. The question is what others within the BJP fold think and how soon they will decide to make themselves heard. This is important since even those well-wishers of the Indian democracy who oppose BJP most vehemently are hoping the party will make more space for dissident voices and that they may lead the ruling party out of the rut dug in by a small coterie around Modi.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Tale of Crime and Reform from Bihar

by Ratnakar Tripathy

This is a tale from Bihar about how crime and politics weave into each other in Bihar and elsewhere in India. This is also a tale about how crime and democratic politics often part ways as well. The tale here has a happy ending however, not just for the criminal turned politician but also the voters of Bihar and our democracy. Which is why I am going to add a preface to this story with a moral.

I wish to narrate this story to make a single simple point – that our understanding of crime-politics nexus is highly mechanical, linear, simplistic. The fact is the arena of democratic politics impacts a criminal career in many possible ways. The key word here is ‘dynamics’ namely the constant flow and the coming and going between professional crime and politics in our democracy. If Bihar is much safer today, it is not because hearts have changed but because it doesn't pay or rather it is increasingly hazardous to continue in crime. On top of that if you fail to inspire sufficient dread among the common citizen who seems to care two hoots for your haughty menace, crime loses glamour and prestige!

Imagine a mid-life crisis faced by a pro criminal – at the age of 50 when the first alarming signs of ageing appear as the children grow up, and as a don finds more risk than reward in his criminal career, he turns a worrier. He knows no trade except one that requires little other than social skills and leadership qualities, both of which have been part of his make-up since his adolescence – politics seems the easy answer. Why not? He is a graduate, reads the papers regularly and can deliver a coherent speech in front of a large audience. When he joins his paws smiling politely to say ‘Namaste’ his ring-laden hands don’t exactly look like a bludgeon!  
But the moment a criminal or an ex-criminal as we prefer to call them enters politics, we throw up our hands in despair giving up on our democratic system which has no easy way of purging them out unless convicted after many grinding years. But before a frenzied state of outrage completely overwhelms you, take a pause and listen to this real life tale, a report from ground Bihar Elections 2015, except I won’t name names here, thus no characters, no sources identifiable easily.  Here it is:

‘A drifted into petty crime during college days in Patna and by the early 1990s was already a feared figured in his locality in Patna. He ran a gang of chain-snatchers, raiders and kidnappers for some years before rubbing the local police the wrong way and had a few bones cracked before being hauled to the prison. Inside the prison over time he turned more professional than ever forming an interstate gang and monitoring and running it from within the prison walls. His name began to appear in the press and his contacts extended all the way in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The lanes around A’s abode were avoided by outsiders as the residents put more and more layers of steel grills between them and the streets. I was told around 1995-2004 there was a near hundred percent chance of being mugged if you entered certain lanes after sunset.  Not to mention the gangs chucking crude bombs on each other during daylight hours! Cases against A were piling up like medals earned by an athletics prodigy.

A made a steady climb in the criminal hierarchy before serving his time and finding release. Of course this happened time and again like a vicious circle before A turned into a ‘respected’ criminal even the cops couldn’t trifle with. A became notorious for being quick to draw and aim exactly. In the meantime, he had made quite a bit of money even as his hair began to turn grey and his daughters reached a marriageable age.’

Agreed, thus far the story sounds like a faceless cliché – it could be anyone’s story. But hear the rest. 
‘2014 - enter a top cop posted in Patna. A is summoned to a secret meeting where it is made clear that his career is about to be cut short. There is competition from other dons and younger talents of course over the ever shifting turfs but then a police encounter is made to seem not too remote a likelihood. Reality sinks in. A gets the willies early into this silk smooth and affectionate counselling session at midnight. Quaking in fear he falls at the feet of the tough cop with a good heart. Leafing through a thick file on A, the top cop suggests a way out. And what is that?

 A few days after this meeting along with his entire brood, oldies, adults, men, women and children, A forms a semi-circle in front of the top cop in a pre-dawn assembly. The site is the Ganga River where the entire clan stands knee-deep in water, their hands folded in prayer. What follows is an improvised ceremony where under the ‘priestly’ gaze of the top cop A takes an oath - he pledges never to touch the gun again. Marigolds, incense and tearful eyes of the relieved family members define the moment around the riverside temple. Before the first river bathers arrive, the crowd has scattered with no trace of the mammoth moment.’

But then the last barber shop before the river front, a gossip hothouse which serves me for haircuts is where I heard this story in whispered undertones. I won’t have heard the tale if I hadn’t expressed my worry over the likelihood of A being elected an MLA from my area.’     

My concern here is not to pose A as an exemplar or even presume that A has been able to extricate himself from the world of crime irreversibly. The simple point I make here is this – it is because people like A all over Bihar have been tamed by politics and a regime of common law and order that in today’s Patna you can go for a night show and walk home whistling the tune of the day.

A is very much around but he is not pointing a gun at anyone anymore! He is asking for votes in a secret ballot system even as he fights his umpteen cases. The point is there is now more going out of crime in Bihar, wherever, than coming into it.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bernie's Challenge

Bernie Sanders might have started to attack Hilliary Clinton and her campaign. That was coming, no surprise there. One can also reasonably argue that, Bernie will not cross the decency line as like how Donald Trump is doing with impunity. Trump said in an interview that "he is divisive now, but will be unifier afterwards". One wonders why the seasoned media person Stephanopulos, who was conducting the interview, did not ask follow up questions - "does that mean Trump justify any means to win the election? Why does Trump think Americans, for example Hispanics after his racial outburst at the start of the campaign, would trust him after having run a contentious presidential campaign?" Trump talks about American Leaders being dumb. At times I feel like his target is wrong; it is American Media which is dumb in not asking tough questions to our politicians and our candidates.

One can also see Media's coyness in not asking Bernie - how is Bernie going to achieve his agenda when GOP has a firm lock on Congress? Even if Dems take back Senate, not at all given though, House will be with GOP and Tea Party making it impossible to enact any of Bernie's agenda. The job of American Media is 'force Bernie' to answer these questions. Because without it, what Bernie is talking and for that matter what Hillary Clinton is proposing, is all vaporware

Till Obama Election, American Public and Punditary believed in some kind of bi-partisan approach to governance and legislation in Washington. Even in George Bush era, Dems had come around with Bush whether in raising debt limit or No Child Left Behind Act or even giving massive tax cuts. But after Obama election, visceral hate of Obama and Obama's big mistake of not investing enough to establish a strong rapport with Congressional members[1]; simply upended any possibility of bipartisan governance. America essentially got pushed into a kind of parliamentary era where 'nihilism' from Opposition party is the norm.

However, the problem is American Political System is structurally way different than a parliamentary system. Meanwhile lack of legislative majority is not a problem for Republican Presidential candidates at all. They do not have to worry about how to get Congressional majorities. GOP at State level has done that job for them. Frustration of GOP voter is, "we gave you both houses of Congress and asked you to wage an all out war against Obama; you did not do that". The real task for GOP Congressional Leaders - and Presidential Candidates too - has been to explain why GOP cannot wage an 'all out war' against White House. After all, same American votes which gave GOP majorities in Congress also elected Obama to White House. Republican candidates do not want to remind this electoral mandate to their base nor want to point our political structure of 'checks and balances' as per our constitution. In other words, these Republican Candidates and their party leadership are not doing the task of explaining this reality to their voters. The easy path for Republican Presidential Candidates is to ride the resultant frustration of GOP voters and keep escalating this anger.

On Democratic side, there is no such anger; but these voters are offered the 'cool aid' in absence of reminding what is needed to enact an agenda. Unless Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton render their vision of how anyone of them is going to bring Democratic majority in Congress; all their agenda is useless. President Obama deceived us in 2012 by saying GOP fever of opposing him will subside after 2012 elections. It did not. Further, as a Dem Party leader Obama failed in driving Dem voters in 2014 midterm elections. Unless and until Democratic leaders are breaking this pattern of young and economically weaker population skipping vote, there is no meaningful political authority available for Democrats to sustain any progressive agenda; regardless of 'demography is destiny' hype.

If the argument from these Dem. Candidates is voting for them is nothing but sustaining existing progressive policies, ObamaCare for example; then it is lot less inspiring proposition. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton need to understand that they will have to be 'parliamentary leaders' here - their own election swing needs to have enough coattails so that many more Democrats are propelled to Congress. Portraying GOP members in Congress as 'barbarians at the gate ready to wreck progressive edifice'; well it is a viable political strategy and it is germane. However, at that point Hillary Clinton will have much more convincing case than Bernie Sanders; exhibit A - her endurance in 11 hours of Congressional hearing conducted by rabid Tea Party members. She can credibly claim that for all her political life she has been fighting these 'barbarians at the gate' to protect progressive policies. Bernie Sanders would not have an answer for that unless he understands the importance of becoming a parliamentary leader; ready to fight for many more democrats candidates down ballot. Sure, he will fail in that. But the thing is when you see trenchant polarized American society and politics as long as your eyes can see in the future, also absence of any new crisis forcing Americans to come together; someone has to nudge American Political system to what it takes to have a governable, working majority aligned with the White House occupant. Else this 'calendar of chaos' will continue to rule our lives resulting in collapse of American Republic under its own internal contradictions

[1] - Obama White House worked the Iran Deal brilliantly through the hostile Congress - both to get the first bill of up or down vote and then subsequent filibuster proof support. May be President Obama learned the trick only after being in the White House over six years. Fact is, precisely this skill of shepherding policy agenda through raucous place called Congress is required for any President to be successful.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

An Africa wave in Indian foreign policy

by Ratnakar Tripathy

As India rose above its stereotypes after the 1990s, Africa in recent times is fast emerging above the long-standing clichés around it. Africa never loomed large in the Indian consciousness after the days of Non-alignment in the 1960s. All this is about to change this week with the India-Africa Forum Summit 2015 (IAFS-III), being held from October 26-30. This summit and the accompanying extravaganza will see the participation of 54 countries and 35 heads of states. The two earlier summits in 2008 and 2011 were much smaller in comparison, registering the presence of 15 leaders or so.

Even the Indian media unused to Africa coverage is likely to get a sudden jolt this week and perhaps come up with dedicated Africa Desks in the coming months. Most of all, the educated Indian in the process may begin to see Africa not as a uniform mass but a continent offering as much variety and contrasts as Asia.

So what is the drive and the purpose behind this grand meet apart from the breaking of myths and stereotypes and the bonhomie that will be on display? The government website at this stage does not reveal much apart from the general objectives but India has focused on five elements as part of a ‘development compact’. These are trade and investment, technology, capacity building, lines of credits, and concessional finance. This is meant to contrast with a purely transactional manner in which other global players have sought to deal with the continent. Also the data from recent years is quite revealing – it shows not simply that Africa and India are coming closer but that there is a certain urgency that needs to be addressed.

India is looking at many advantages in its interaction with Africa. In the context of a new multi-polar global order, Africa can prove an important partner for India on all global strategic issues. Africa is one of the fastest growing regions with huge natural resources. According to African Economic Outlook 2015, the continent’s GDP is expected to strengthen to 4.5% in 2015 and 5% in 2016 from 3.5% in 2013 and 3.9% in 2014. This growth is driven by mounting investments in natural resources and infrastructure, strong household spending, and rising trade with emerging countries like India and China.

India-Africa bilateral trade grew around 23% annually between 2005 and 2013, with trade figures at $93 billion in 2013 expected to hit $100 billion by end of this year. In fact, the Indian government through its Duty Free Tariff Preference (DFTP) scheme promotes African exports to India. Capital investments from India to Africa have risen to $54.5 billion between 2003 and 2014, with 363 projects. Coal, oil and natural gas, and metals at this point top the Indian investment in Africa aimed at reducing India’s dependence on Middle East. These together account for over 55% of India’s capital investment in Africa but other unexplored possibilities await attention from India. Why India should continue to take such a keen interest in Africa is therefore not a difficult question to answer.

And yet the scale of the India-Africa Forum Summit 2015 does deserve a more substantial and far-reaching answer!

The answer lies in great part in what China has been up to in Africa in recent times – China has thus far been indisputably dominant in Africa. Its trade with Africa stood at more than $200 billion in 2013 and is estimated to cross $385 billion by the end of 2015. But with signs of the Chinese economy slowing down, Africa’s heavy dependence on China may begin to look unhealthy and worrisome. The past months have seen a significant drop in Africa’s trade balance with China and things could quickly get worse with the lower forecast growth rate of 3.1 percent for China. This is why we stand at a moment when the Indian and the African interests seem to converge rather nicely. After all India lies much closer to Africa with far longer cultural, political and economic ties with the region. Add to it the Indian diaspora in a number of African countries and the possibilities seem immense. Taking a broader view of the matter, India after all needs Africa not only for its growing energy needs but also the expanding African markets created by a rising middle class. The Indian naval interests and ambitions in the region go far beyond the issue of piracy and are on the upswing. 

The different regions of Africa offer a variety of options to the Indian business interests which are by no means confined to extractive industries. There are resource-rich landlocked countries, low median-age populous countries, post-conflict nation, nations with major agriculture and floriculture potential, and countries with special infrastructure requirements. Further, eastern and southern Africa are likely to emphasize infrastructure, farming, manufacturing and tourism and extracted resources would be a priority for West Africa. The land-locked states may be expected to construct infrastructures for access to distant ports.

Among the 137 Indian projects across 41 African countries with lines of credit worth US$ 7.5 billion almost 70% have a capacity-building component. Another instance of the capacity-building programmes are the 40,000 fellowships for African students created between the first India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008 and 2015. The recipients of the fellowships are quite likely to act as ambassadors in the coming years. The demographic profiles of India and Africa match very well – while India has 65% of its population at 15-64 years, Africa stands at 57% in this measure. This further raises the possibility of start-ups in the realm of ICT. Water conservation and alternative energy are some of the important areas where the two can collaborate fruitfully.

For all the above reasons the next week will be a time to watch out for the numerous concrete deals, MOUs and pacts made between India and the African nations individually as well as through various common African platforms and bodies.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Commentary – His Master’s Voice?

The state of Haryana has had an unenviable run as far as its Chief Ministers go. The first noticeable CM that it got was the Bansi Lal, one of the chief villains of the emergency era. Bhajan Lal retained his CM’s post by defecting along with the entire cabinet. And if one looks at the list, one can’t be blamed to think ‘and then it went downhill’. Bhajan Lal’s another claim to fame is he is one of the rare non-Jat leaders to rule the state for over a decade. The present occupant of the seat, Manohar Lal Khattar, shares that fame, being a non-Jat. His other claim to fame is that he is the first BJP CM since the state’s inception in 1966. 

Khattar has one more claim to fame – he is probably the weakest, the lamest CM BJP has ever foisted upon any population. He is a first time MLA, with just a couple of decades of experience in active politics. His elevation to the CM’s post was quite a surprise. Earlier, only Congress was known for such surprises (Babasaheb Bhosale in Maharashtra). 

In this perspective, Khattar’s interview gains importance. One thing that emerges clearly from this interview is, one needs to be wary of him. Not because he is dangerous, but because he is ignorant, hence unpredictable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Does the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act (NJAC) compromise judicial autonomy?

In the past several days, away from the political cacophony, India has found itself embroiled in a rare and profound controversy – over one of the fundamental questions around its constitution and its basic democratic doctrines – that of balance of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Even more interesting and unusual is the fact that the issue has been discussed widely at a popular level on the TV channels.

Earlier in 2014, the present government at the centre managed to have the parliament unanimously accept its formulation of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act. The act aimed at putting an end to what is called the ‘collegium’ system whereby a body of the Supreme Court judges takes decisions over own appointments as well as that in the country’s High Courts. But in a recent judgement last week the Indian Supreme Court decided that the NJAC act was ‘unconstitutional’ in that it violated the principles of judicial autonomy. 

On the other hand the collegium system has no sanction in the Indian constitution and is no more than a convention. The convention is however based on a Supreme Court ruling in 1993 when the bench ‘ruled that the Chief Justice of India must have a “primal” role in the appointments of judges and that the executive could not have an equal say, or else it could lead to “indiscipline” in the judiciary. Those critical of the collegium system allege that it suffers from lack of transparency and has also led to favouritism in appointments resulting in a decline of talent in the courts. The sharpest criticism came from the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who termed the Supreme Court’s decision as the ‘tyranny of the unelected’. Jaitley in turn was attacked by the Congress wary as it is of the likely ‘tyranny of the elected’ for being disrespectful of the courts. 

The argument given by the Congress is substantial despite the clear partisan tone – it claims ‘Judges are no doubt unelected but they swear allegiance to the Constitution. Their special function is to do justice between individuals, between collectivities and between the citizen and the state in a free and fair manner. A political party in contrast is free to pursue its political agenda, Judges, on the other hand, are not bound by the political agenda of a majority government, nor by the laws that reflect that agenda, but only by the duty to protect the fundamental rights of the people where each counts for one.’ No wonder the Congress which supported the act an earlier stage has changed its mind and claims that with the new government trying to compromise the autonomy of several institutions, the collegium system may be just fine at least for the time being. 

We thus have a deadlock over the issue even though the Supreme Court is willing to reform the collegium system to some extent and make it more transparent. The constitutional experts seem to be equally divided over the issue between two main positions – ones who take a purely constitutionalist-juridical view and claim that the collegium has no basis in our constitution and that it is for the president [read the parliament] to appoint judges after consultation. Those more sensitive to the changing political climate interpret things differently and are more concerned with protecting the judiciary’s autonomy from a parliamentary majority whose intent is suspect. 

This article titled ‘Government versus judiciary: A flashback on the face-off sparked by the ongoing judicial appointments debate’ presents a coherent background with explanations and implications of various positions despite sounding favourable towards a specific stance. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Commentary - Kissinger on America's Middle East Foreign Policy

Reading Henry Kissinger's OpEd in WSJ, one gets a clear sense of disappointment for someone who erected the edifice of America's Middle East policy in 1970s. Kissinger's claim is this policy architecture lasted for over 4 decades. He does not name President Obama in the OpEd but it is clear that he faults Obama Administration for the collapse of this policy architecture. But he is bit selective here. A major component of his policy architecture was Israel Palestine conflict. Oslo Accord was the natural evolution of the policy framework which Kissinger helped to erect in early 1970s; no doubt. But in the end Israel Palestine problem has remained unsolved and is showing every sign of going the way of South African Apartheid regime. There is no 'good end' there with what Israeli and Palestinians are following. Kissinger's Middle East architecture never delivered Israel Palestine peace in the end; he got peace noble prize for a failed cause; his policy of bringing America on Pakistan's side in Bangladesh war was morally corrupt, in the end completely wrong and the world has moved beyond the foreign policy of a super power which engineers coups in other countries. May be all these failures of Kissinger's approaches have chastised him in not naming President Obama in his critique. Nevertheless, such presumptuous tone of the OpEd - "what did you do to my intelligently crafted policy" is unwarranted. It is because such a tone makes Kissinger to miss many more obvious points in the current quagmire of Middle East. His deep understanding of the subject clearly brings up holistic and historical perspectives as well as many insights. But it still seems like he is missing the forest for trees. 

Core of Kissinger’s argument is two fold: 
- America’s current Middle East policy has resulted in America going away from our traditional Sunni Allies in the region and 
- Realpolitik demands that to defeat ISIS and its terrorism, America needs to learn to live with Assad regime. 

In Kissinger’s thinking, Iran Nuke Deal is the culprit for sowing doubts in minds of our Sunni Allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Gulf States. When Kissinger argues that Nixon China rapprochement cannot be a model for Iran Nuke deal, it is clear that he is not ready to pay the price – concerns among Sunni Allies that America is propping up Shiite power Iran. But what Kissinger ignores is, not doing the deal was not an option for USA when the entire Europe, Russia and China all were warming up to open business with Iran. Obama's Iran Deal is a way of retaining the 'say' of America on Ayatollah's nukes when rest of the world wanted to move on. Admittedly there are implementation challenges, but Kissinger is not talking about those with any insights.

Next, Kissinger essentially echoes Vladimir Putin's line - defeating ISIS is the main job, Assad can come later. The reality is Obama Administration has acquiesced with this policy implicitly already.[1] Nevertheless, the kind of atrocities Assad regime has committed and is still doing; it is untenable for any democratically elected leader to accept legitimacy of the Assad regime. We are in the 21st century where the world is more intertwined, fully wired and propping up brutal dictators is not easy for any democratically elected world leader. We are not living in Kissinger's world of ignored telegrams; we are living in the world of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram

Kissinger stays away from tactical aspects of Syrian war and that is wise. Whether to give antiaircraft missiles or antiaircraft guns to Syrian rebels (but which ones?) in addition to antitank missiles or to establish no fly zone next to Turkish border or to support Kurdish attack on Raqqa via air force; all these choices are going to increase American entanglement in the Syrian quagmire and Obama Administration’s reticence is understandable there. However, Kissinger does not talk any longer term principles which American Policy needs to follow as few other commentators are arguing

Kissinger talks about the federal architecture of Syria and Iraq when the current war ends. But to talk about all that without mentioning Kurds, who can become America's crucial ally; is just not credible. Kissinger's analysis offers some insights, like how America is at odds with practically each and every player of the Syrian theater; but overall his analysis is unlikely to provide much policy prescriptions to Obama Administration than what they must be thinking already.

[1] - Actually Obama Administration paid dearly for this policy of not actively seeking ouster of Assad. When it embarked on ill-fated program of training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS, it did not find much takers because Administration was insistent on not taking arms against Assad. For all Syrian rebels, Assad is the first enemy and Obama Administration failed in anticipating that fact. From Administration perspective, danger of American Arms in hands of ISIS and al-Nusra Front were real; potentially causing some serious damage. Besides, it is possible that while Administration was closing the nuke deal with Iran; it did not want to antagonize Russia’s ally Assad explicitly since Russian node for the nuke deal was always essential.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Award-returning – A confederacy of dunces

Are we expecting a true genius, as predicted by Jonathan Swift? The signs are all there. The dunces from both the sides are working in such a tandem that all the tandem bicycle enthusiasts have hung their heads in shame. Such co-ordination is beyond their wildest dreams.

It all started with Modi government occupying the central government. Yes, they are not ruling, they are occupying the central government in the hope that the ‘ruling’ part will take care of itself. The opposition party was still shell-shocked at becoming one. It has remained so, except coming up for air a few times.

The ‘intelligentsia’ was also shell-shocked. But for over a year, they couldn’t find any rallying point to oppose the lack of governance, the absence of ‘development’, the shameless favoritism, childish utterances of the PM and the infantile statements of the ministers. School kids in a village next to CM Vasundhara Scindia’s constituency had to resort to a road block to get more teachers. This was enough to puncture the claim of ‘development’, but nobody took it up.

Rationalists of note, Pansare and Kalburgi were murdered in broad daylight. Dabholkar’s murder is still a mystery.

Then the Dadri murder happened, and suddenly the ‘litterateurs’ found voice. Some fertile mind came up with the idea of ‘returning the awards’ and it seems to be a minor epidemic. Let’s examine the idea.

What is expected from Sahitya Akademi? To publish a press note condemning the government? If yes, which government – State, or Center or both? Does Sahitya Akademi have any judicial / quasi-judicial / administrative powers? One can resign from government, bureaucracy or police force if that respective branch is not taking any action that is due.

What does ‘returning the award’ translate into? Are they returning the money? One uncharitable view can be that they used it interest-free (I am sure some nitwit from the Government side will take this line). When a person like Nayantara Sahgal is returning the award after 29 years, will she return the amount that she got in 1986, or the prevalent award money? And if they are not returning the money, what exactly are they returning? The photographs of the ceremony?

The ‘award’ is not like a license or a registration, like that of a doctor or a lawyer or a CA, which can be revoked/relinquished. So ‘returning the award’ is crass tokenism, which doesn’t help anyone except the BJP. It is as notional as Sachin Tendulkar ‘dedicating’ his Bharat Ratna to all Indian mothers. Has it helped a single Indian mother who was forced to participate in female feticide or to face dowry death? So the ‘award returning’ will help the ‘litterateurs’ to grab headlines for a few moments, but how is it going to help the victims of Dadri lynching or the investigations in the murders of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi? Will it prevent more such lynching or murders from happening?

If the ‘litterateurs’ are really so concerned, they will have to show some action on ground. How about pooling money to start a fund for helping victims of such incidents?

How about raising a voice against brazen acts such as canceling Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai and Pune? Emboldened by this, Shiv Sena has spread its vicious tentacles in Ahmedabad, canceling a performance by a Sufi band.

On 14 Oct, a family from Pakistan couldn’t find place in any hotel, lodge or guesthouse, because they were from Pakistan. They have valid visas. They didn’t face any problem in Rajasthan, but faced it in a ‘economic capital of the country’. That is the level of poison that has been injected in people’s mind.

Of these ‘award returning’ group, will they return their Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees or PhDs, because those were awarded by a University that is under HRD ministry, hence the government? Will they at least ‘return’ honorary doctorates? Will they return their passport or driving license or PAN card, because it is given by the government? Will they stop working on any and all government committees?

They will not. Because all these are tangible things, related to material existence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Commentary - Will Hindi Literature have Best Sellers again after decades?

For several decades after independence, the phrase ‘Hindi bestseller’ had acquired the status of an oxymoron. The reasons are many – being associated with the freedom movement, the ardour for Hindi cooled, the publishers began to depend on bulk supplies to institutions and libraries, often paying a pittance to the writers. Add to it the sharp turn towards ‘elitism’ that Hindi literature took in the 1960s and you begin to get a very rough idea of this rarely investigated decline. But Hindi was growing on a simmer – with big leaps in literacy, the newspaper circulation figures exploded by the 1990s and continue to grow even though Hindi pulp fiction saw a decline in the new millennium.  It has indeed taken around three generations or more after independence to meaningfully utter the phrase ‘Hindi bestseller’ even though we may only be at the threshold of a phenomenon that may face further hiccups.

The good news comes from some unlikely sources – according to a recent report in the press, ‘Hindi-language books are having their moment on Amazon’ seeing a 60 per cent growth of sales in the last six months. On the other hand the selection of books saw a 40 per cent jump in the same period bringing more titles into the market. If this is not enough there are some new stars emerging in the Hindi literary sphere – they are still pygmies compared to a Premchand or a Renu but they have begun to create a significant body of admirers and buyers. A report on some of them such as Ravish Kumar [yes, of NDTV fame], woman writer Anu Singh Chowdhary, Divya Prakash Dubey and Satya Vyas have opened some new literary avenues for popular [but non-pulp] Hindi literature. And this is by no means the end of the list.

Looking at the figures from, one wonders if Hindi literature has all along suffered from a supply chain glitch at the hands of the conventional publisher-retailer. This is a matter that requires a close study and no conclusions can be drawn in a hurry. But the very fact that an impersonal sales portal proves more successful in selling Hindi books certainly tempts one to wonder. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Amazon report is the transparency of the figures. It is generally impossible to get precise figures from Hindi publishers who have forever complained of a perpetually dull market.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why Indian writers are returning Sahitya Akademi award like a tsunami

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Helpless expressions of daily moral outrage over communal incidents and increasing bigotry seemed to have become a way of life In India for some time now. Rather like a dull ache in the conscience you cannot do much about. But in recent days, a number of writers, one at a time decided they have had enough. They are determined to go beyond the talk and act – to return their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, the top literary body in India. This delayed gesture of protest comes long after a series of murders of writers and intellectuals Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Panasare in Maharshtra and M M Kalburgi in Karnataka. Notably, while Maharashtra has a BJP government, a Congress government rules Karnataka where Kalburgi was killed.

What started as a trickle has now turned into a cascade and even as I write these lines, the latest count is above 30 with 15 to 20 Konkani writers of Goa Konkani Lekhak Sangh (GKLS) considering returning their Sahitya Akademi awards en masse in the next few days. Nine writers from Panjab have already taken the step yesterday. The writers from various languages include widely known figures like Uday Prakash, Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Sara Joseph, Krishna Sobti, K. Satchidanandan, Dr. Atamjit Singh, Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Ajmer Singh Aulakh, Waryam Sandhu, Aman Sethi, Shashi Deshpande, and G.N. Devy, to name a few. The latest in the series is Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana who announced on Tuesday that she was returning her Padma Shri, over perceived threat to free speech.

The immediate trigger for the spate of resignations and protest or the tipping point so to say seems to be the Dadri village incident when Mohammed Akhtaq, a Muslim ironsmith was killed by a vigilante group early this month for storing beef in his frig which was later found to be mutton in government conducted forensic tests. The obvious connection is the ‘climate of intolerance’ that the BJP-RSS duo have fomented at carefully selected sites with great vigour in the past eighteen months. In an open letter titled 'The Unmaking of India', Nayantara Sahgal the 88-year-old writer and Jawaharlal Nehru's niece, referred to the recent lynching of Mohammed Akhtaq and alleged that that the right to dissent, an integral part of the Constitutional guarantee was being threatened.

These writers are of course complaining about the growing intolerance and the silence of PM Narendra Modi over all these incidents. Or even Sonia Gandhi one may add with reference to Karnataka that has a Congress government! There is a good reason however why broad terminology like ‘increasing intolerance’ commonly used to characterize the situation seems far too understated, non-specific and inadequate. There is also another danger in using this description – we might seem to imply that an epidemic of intolerance is spreading over the broader populations in India, a highly questionable proposition and that individual responsibilities are not easy to locate. The level of danger to freedom from people in the positions of authority rather than a sweeping ‘mentality of intolerance’ should be evident from the following two examples: 

First, even as the Sahitya Akademi controversy raged, on 12 October, a mob of Shiv Sena men in Mumbai attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni [former BJP leader and aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee] who was to attend the launch of a book written by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri - the SS activists painted Kulkarni’s face black. The move clearly had sanction from the top as the SS MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut reacted to the incident by saying the “agents of Pakistan” [Kulkarni] should be “kicked on the butt”. Yuva Sena Chief Aditya Thackeray rubbed salt to the wound by claiming the attack on Kulkarni was ‘historic and democratic’.

Second, as writers continue to return their Sahitya Akademi awards to protest against the graveyard silence of the central government and the Akademi over the threat to free speech, on Monday 12 October, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s in his response said, “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.” Speaking to a newspaper Sharma said: “This is an award given by writers to writers. It has nothing to do with the government. It is their personal choice to return it… we accept it.” Technically Sharma is right as Sahitya Akademi is a registered society but like many other supposedly autonomous institutions, it is funded and controlled largely by the central government.  

While it is easy to take a cynical view of the matter and dismiss the protest as entirely symbolic and thus ineffectual, one must remember that the scale of the reaction is immense and perhaps more than matches anything that happened even during the emergency of 1975. Second, writers are not mass leaders and often the most they can do is to write and speak to the media which is what they are now doing in increasing numbers. Third, returning the award as individuals may certainly be a better option than keeping quiet or grumbling among the close circles. These writers and artists are of varied ideological persuasions and it may not be easy for them to join a common procession!  The Hindi poet Vishnu Khare argues that the Sahitya Aakademi is a den of corruption and privilege and that there have been other deserving occasions in the past when such a gesture seemed befitting.  Similarly, Namwar Singh the famous and notorious literary powerhouse of Hindi and a Marxist trivializes the gesture accusing the protestors of chasing the headlines. He raises the technical point that the Sahitya Akademi is and continues to be the writer’s own elected body and some other forms of protest may be more appropriate. There are other academics and intellectuals active in the social media who allege that such gestures are entirely attention-seeking gimmicks – all this shows how poorly the world of letters is prepared for the onslaught on basic democratic rights. This is a terrible portent!

On the other hand, the cascade of protests may just be a prelude to a larger upsurge. During the Emergency of 1975 , the nation was taken by surprise waking up to the new reality with utter shock. Remember, the writers have anyway reacted in an uncoordinated and spontaneous fashion from different parts of the country and it seems superfluous to try and guide their actions at this stage. Even if you dismiss the return of the award as a feeble and ill-suited form of protest, attributing petty motives to the writers from all over the country and of different ideological hues, what still remains undeniable is – unlike the Emergency, we have been warned in advance in the most categorical manner possible and to the best of the ability of our writers! Why then impose on them the requirement of well-calculated, smartly devised, or strategically apprpriate action? 

The writer’s response may not seem coolly rational, may even be somewhat hotheaded but that is not the same thing as being wrong!

Commentary - Beef ban politics: views right, left and sober

The politics of beef ban has brought out mostly the clichéd, the bombastic and the pompous on both sides to the fore. It is rare to find a voice of sobriety and sanity, which actually says something. 

For the first and worst two types, article by Shiv Visvanathan is an excellent example. To be charitable to him, a person who has to call himself a ‘social nomad’ has to be pitied more than considered. Such cliché is now no longer ‘cute’, it is juvenile. On top, he is a ‘Professor’ in an ‘institute’ (Jindal School of Government and Public Policy). A quick check about the ‘School’ will be enough to give you a perspective – one of the many private institutes that are primarily and secondarily founded to balloon up egos of the founding family. So, one reads with bemused interest the portentous argement that ‘Professor’ Visvanathan unleashes. The ‘Professor’ claims that PDP-BJP government ‘imposed’ beef ban and questions the sanity behind it. In reality, the PDF-BJP government implemented the ban and not imposed it. The article is full of such ‘arguments’ with more gas than a soda factory. 

The other extreme is equally hilarious. The article by Madhav Bhandari, who is the national spokesperson of BJP is a very good showcase of the somersaults that the poor fellow has to perform as part of his job. Mr. Bhandari admonishes journalists for sitting in cities and working from air conditioned offices and claiming that the prices of animals have come down, there are no buyers and it is difficult to bear the burden of the animals during draught. But he doesn’t specify his own postal address. Let me guess – it must be a very small village with a population of couple of hundred, no roads nor electricity. And I am sure Mr. Bhandari must be sitting in the middle of a thriving animal market where livestock is traded with more zest and much more profitability than stocks of Tata Steel or ITC. On the whole, one’s bemusement after reading ‘Professor’ Visvanathan’s article gets a befitting reply – an equal and opposite bemusement! 

An article on the same page sounds so sane, so sober that it seems to be completely out of place! Zafar Sareshwala is actually an academician – Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University. He is also described as a leading businessman. And he proves his business sense by presenting a very realistic view without playing either the ‘secular’ card or the ‘religious’ card. In fact, he finishes his short article by condemning the radicals behind the beef ban politics more decisively than any that I have read in the recent past.