Saturday, June 18, 2005

If thy (big) brother wrongs thee...

Earlier, I had written a short piece l’affaire Reliance (If thy brother wrongs thee…). Like many other well-wishers of Indian economic progress, I am glad that this chapter of public acrimony is done with and the brothers can now compete on business results for the right to be called the true successor of Dhirubhai.

One aspect of this closure which is both tragic and hilarious is how our ministers are tripping over each other to issue a clean chit in respect to all alleged irregularities. Both Chidambaram (Finance) and Gupta (Company Affairs) are busy shouting from the rooftops that this settlement obviates the need for any other enquiry. Look at what Chidambaram says in respect to the allegations leveled by the two sides during the battle (see Times of India here): “I am happy that settlement has been reached. Where is the need for other issues? If there is any specific violation or complaint, we can look into it. [But] after this settlement, I don't think there is any need for an inquiry.” Gupta is quoted later and the sentiments are the same: “since the settlement is already there, I think all the issues are resolved”.

I stake no position on elements of guilt, if any, in the various allegations raised by (current or erstwhile) insiders at the Reliance group. And, same as with Chidambaram and Gupta, it is not my remit to pronounce verdict on the issue. I wish C&G would recognize this and allow the investigators to do their job, and the judiciary (should the investigators find cause to involve this organ of the state), its job.

But again, I am assuming that this is because they know not what they do. What if they do know what they’re doing? What if, like the press during the emergency (“the pressmen had been asked to bend and they began to crawl”), the ministers are just doing what they believe will endear them to the best connected business in town?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Ever vigilant - II

Writing in the Guardian (here), Sidney Blumenthal paints a very bleak picture of W’s lieutenants – and of what they’re prepared to do to subvert institutions in their quest for an across-the-board Republican majority, drawing parallels (and making the connection) with Nixon’s regime to make his point. Two things stand out: one, in the matter of Deep Throat and the outing of Watergate scandal M/s Woodward and Bernstein, they may have been more of pawns than center-pieces. Which is not all bad, should you be willing to accept that it’s all personal in the end (Had it not been for Felt’s sense of injustice at having been passed over, would he have mounted the same campaign to out Nixon’s shenanigans? Probably not, but maybe someone else, slighted differently, would’ve had done something similar, one hopes). And second, even in today’s day and age and even in a country as enamored with detailed background checks on public figures as the US, a hard-line clique with such ethically ambiguous past as M/s Cheney, Rove and Rumsfeld have remained at the nerve center of decision-making, pushing their very narrow-minded agenda for a fairly long time.

A good friend who is a proud citizen of the US never fails to remind me of how numerous, deep rooted and powerful the “self correcting mechanisms” in the US society, economy and politics are. In matters such as these, however, I wonder whether I shouldn't ask him to research applicability of Rudi Dornbusch’s work on exchange rates and overshooting to social/ political change too (including, of course, the determination of the degree of overshooting which could materially impair, even if not permanently destroy, some or all of these "self correcting mechanisms").

Once again, the point is simple: we may not have the leverage that Mark Felt had, we may not create the impact that he did but what we will always have is the ability to increase the counterbalancing weight when things overshoot in the wrong direction - for this, as before, we need to remain ever vigilant.

51 years ago, on June 9, 1954, US Army counsel Joseph N. Welch confronted US Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the Senate-Army Hearings over McCarthy's attack on a member of Welch's law firm, Frederick G. Fisher. Said Welch: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Read the next day's reporting by New York Times here.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The many denominations of secular

Amit Chibber commented on yesterday's post, Saagar manthan and referenced the issue of defining secular: which of the definitions - US First Amendment (equal blindness), India (equal affirmation), France (affirmative atheism) - is "correct". I refrained from labeling my preferred definition of secular as “correct” in the original post for the very reason that there are competing versions. I am however, convinced that the ‘blind to religion in matters of state’ interpretation is the only workable solution (and therefore, the “correct” interpretation – should you want me to declare) in a multi-denominational society like ours.

The equal affirmation route, which we have been working with for the past so many decades, can not serve us well on a number of counts: (a) competitive populism – which equal affirmation encourages – is too big a temptation for any politician, and more so for those who have been reared on such a diet since their infancy. Notably, the direction of policy in such competitive populism approximates the ever decreasing spiral that a moth describes in his journey towards the flame; (b) in a society like ours – with the number of denominations being what they are and indeed, with the definition of Hinduism being as broad ranging as it is – it is difficult to find the point (across one, more or all dimensions of policy) which represents ‘equal affirmation’ and we end up on an ever oscillating see-saw where balance, desirable as it may be, is ever elusive; (c) it serves as yet another manifestation of the state as a ‘provider’ in a realm that is essentially private. As for the French interpretation, it is more statist than I am comfortable with and also, it does commit the state to one denomination – to the extent that atheism is, in itself, a doctrine pertaining to religion.

In any case, the framers of Indian constitution did the best in the circumstances they were presented with and we have "equal affirmation" as our guiding light for now. This, however, does not mean that "equally blind" will go against the spirit of our constitutions for, equal affirmation (with the degree of affirmation set to zero) is "equally blind".

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ever vigilant

A new book by two Washington Post journalists (Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution; Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser; Scribner; 2005) recounts how Mr. Putin has systematically subverted all institutions in Russia that are capable of challenging his authority. An article based on the book appeared in today's Post and can be found here (registration may be required). The article is a must read; specially for those among us who have forgotten - or never cared to find out about - the excesses of emergency. I was reminded of this when someone, waiting with me for an incoming train that was delayed, wistfully spoke of the efficiency in public services during the emergency period.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely - without exception. And, in a democratic setup where democracy is mapped uniquely to the conduct of an electoral process, people forget that elements such as a free press, rule of law, separation of powers etc. are equally important. It is easy to let these institutions and forces decay - specially when vested interests adopt salami tactics and chip away slowly at various peripheral points to ultimately destroy them. In order to ensure that we - or those who come after us - don't live through another period where even habeas corpus is suspended, where elected representatives don't assume that their election means a license to govern autocratically, we need to be ever vigilant.

The habeas corpus (literally, produce the body; this writ tests only whether a prisoner has been accorded due process, not whether he is guilty; a safeguard against illegal imprisonment originally formalized in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 in England) issue is an extreme example but it is important as a reminder of how much was given up in personal freedom not too far in our past.
On April 28th 1976, 4 of the 5 senior-most Hon'ble Justices of the Supreme Court of India overruled decisions from as many as 9 High Courts in the country in the matter of ADM Jabalpur v Shivakant Shukla [(1976) 2 SCC 521]. They were the then Chief Justice A.N. Ray, along with Justices M.H. Beg, Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati. The lone dissenting voice was that of Justice H.R. Khanna of whom the New York Times remarked: 'surely a statue would be erected to him in an Indian city'. Justice Khanna paid the price for his dissent. He was next in line to become Chief Justice of India. He resigned when his junior, Justice M.H. Beg, superseded him (for an account of how the 4 Hon'ble Justices tried to use elegant prose to cloak their blatantly craven pronouncement, see Jos. Peter D 'Souza's account in PUCL Bulletin of June 2001 here).

Saagar manthan (Churning the ocean)

Mr. Advani has predictably raised a storm back home with his Jinnah/secular remark in Pakistan. See news stories here and here. From what one knows of his habits, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was obviously no fundamentalist. Even in his political life, there are two phases: one where he was purely supporting the cause of Indian independence (somewhat desultorily, by many accounts) and then, when he was made the urbane spokesman of the two-nation argument. Be that as it may (this posting is not about whether Jinnah was secular or not: secularism, as only a very few realize, should not be about EQUAL treatment to all religion by the state - which is impractical - but should be about being BLIND to religion in matters of state), I am extremely pleased with this development – and, to the extent that we won’t see another backtracking of the type “I have been misquoted; what I really meant was the exact opposite of what you heard”, this is a (or the beginning of a) momentous development in our politics.

Till date, we struggled to choose from Congress-I (center-left, old, ever willing to pander to all kinds of minorities in the name of secularism and social justice, corrupt, centralized, autocratic), regional parties (parochial, rural focused, state-as-a-gravy-train mentality), BJP (extreme right-wing, old, corrupt) and the Left (irrelevant but refuses to die). With this development what I see is – shorn of all (and there will be many during the transition) complications – the emergence of the first center-right national alternative (while the NDA was, arguably, center-right in its conduct, that was much more due to the compulsions of coalition politics than there being a unifying center-right ideology to begin with).

It is imperative that, over time, we reach a point where (with economies of scale kicking-in for the political process) the electorate has clear choices to make between center-left and center-right alternatives (should the 2-3 party kind of system truly take root, they will each be somewhere close to the center), instead of choosing from numerous competitors and then leaving the bartering (with all attendant shenanigans) to the elected representatives (or, to their leaders/brokers). This is required for our executive (as long as the executive comprises a sub-set of the legislature) to be incented in taking a pan-India, development-focused view on issues.

I have been – and, as of now, remain – strongly against BJP policies (e.g. education, role of religion in public life, swadeshi vs. free-trade, etc.). But, as this drama plays out – and it will take years, not months or days, I hope to be one of the many who will have a real choice between two parties that have the same warts (the two-party system won’t necessarily take out corruption, centralization-of-power etc. issues) but different promises on (goals of and path towards) social and economic development.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

People like us

It is after a very long while that I have read a considered piece by someone owing allegiance to the left. In today’s Indian Express, Dipankar Mukherjee (CPI-M, Rajya Sabha) justifies the need for a CBI inquiry into the sale of the two Centaur hotels in Mumbai. The article can be found here.

The case for a preliminary enquiry exists. That much was, I think, clear even when one went through the 3-part ‘anticipatory defense’ by Mr. Shourie (writing in the same newspaper a few days ago – see here). He had, in his inimitable style, not just decimated a number of uninformed (or under-informed) reporters who posed silly questions to him but had extended the discussion to covering “why I did what I did”. And it is in this that he needs to pause and reflect whether he himself is not using an “elastic foot-ruler”: had this been an instance of a Congress-I disinvestment minister and Arun Shourie, the journalist that he used to be, his conclusions would be quite different than what they are now.

Mr. Mukherjee has made more detailed points in his article (and has of course succumbed to the temptations of exaggerating some accusations) but the core issues are these: One, that these units were to be sold as going concerns and in each of the Centaur examples, not just the actual actions after the event but also the discernible intent in advance point to them being speculative transactions. Two, in respect to the encashment of bank guarantees, why the laxity shown to Mr. Kerkar? After all, is it not for such infringements that Mr. Shourie (the journalist) would reserve his most passionate moral indignation? Why allow the two extensions to Mr. Kerkar, if the agreed procedures were that, should he not pay up, the guarantee is to be forfeited; or, if a DoD official has already opined that the incremental bank guarantee has "infirmities", what business is it of DoD to have the bankers come over and redraft the guarantee – shouldn’t Mr. Kerkar’s company be responsible for submitting a guarantee that meets with DoD’s requirements?

I am completely one with those who believe that Mr. Shourie brought a degree of probity rarely encountered in the executive branch of our government. However, that does not imply he is above the law and/or should have any special privileges in respect to scrutiny of his actions. And when he makes such a big deal of the possibility of an enquiry: “We should look upon allegations and inquiries as one of the ‘conditions of employment,’ so to say; as one of the things we will have to put up with—like transfers to out-of-the-way places—as the price of doing good work in the India of today” Mr. Shourie forgets that others have been living this reality for years, it has always been a ‘condition of employment’ and countless bureaucrats have had to walk through this hell already.

What is to be gained by perpetuating the mistakes (motivated/ unnecessary enquiries) of the past? Just this: our criminal justice system needs a thorough shake-up (on the twin poles of independence for investigating agencies and counterbalance in some shape to check excesses and/or provide some measure of possible relief to those who will be incorrectly charged/implicated in wrongdoing) and unless that happens, the standards should be applied uniformly. Also, note that even this argument presupposed Mr. Shourie’s innocence in terms of both commission and omission. But, isn’t it entirely possible that Mr. Shourie’s placement was a mask (to use the unfortunate term that got Mr. Govindacharya expelled) behind which other, more powerful elements were continuing in their shenanigans? Isn’t it also possible (though less so, I think) that Mr. Shourie was blind to procedural issues (and/or implications) in his zeal to “reform the system”? (If so, he should’ve had spoken up for – and acted towards – reforming the procedures and not to circumvent them and expect the world to applaud.)

And, finally, there is one nugget buried in Mr. Mukherjee’s piece that deserves greater attention. He writes, “The CAG report has been labeled ‘unworthy of the high constitutional authority’, ‘elastic foot ruler’, etc., by those who claim to be the upholders of parliamentary democracy in the country” and then reminds us “If Laloo Prasad Yadav talks about the Election Commission, everybody including the media takes exception. Yet, no one bats an eyelid when CAG is so ridiculed”. Indeed: let us not have our own “elastic foot-rulers” to judge people differently. I am no fan of Mr. Yadav's style of business - but he deserves only the same opprobrium as we are prepared to deliver, in similar instances, on others of his calling.

Smoke and mirrors

This is plain absurd: yesterday, the government imposed an outright ban on the depiction of smoking and tobacco products in cinemas, TV and (this bit is unclear) in any other visual media. See news stories here and here. It appears that, after a 2-month grace period, even the older creatives telecast on TV or shown in public theatres will have to have cigarettes blurred over (Question: in the next round, will the police go house-by-house with editing equipment for people who may have video cassettes, CDs or DVDs of such offending material? Answer: Don’t bet against it).

Before I proceed further, here’s some relevant background: I am a reformed (actually, trying to be reformed – the urge never goes away for the rest of your life, I am told) smoker myself and can attest to the fact that despite full knowledge of terrible health consequences, it is a difficult addiction to get rid of. I have also, previously, worked in a different industry that trades in another socially acceptable vice: beverage alcohol and know that private commercial concerns usually trump inclinations of being socially responsible: surrogate advertising etc. will flourish unless there’s a coincidence of clear regulation and spirited (no pun intended) enforcement.

There will be a number of arguments from both sides but here’s my simple contention – in their zeal to protect the children (as they see their citizens, no – their subjects), isn’t the government hitting a more fundamental right (in respect of free speech)? As long as smoking is not illegal, how is the depiction of smoking illegal? Please do not confuse this with advertising – which the government, in its zeal to discourage smoking, can regulate or prohibit: the overwhelming majority of instances where smoking is depicted in films are not related to paid insertions instigated by tobacco manufacturers. And, to the extent that these are depictions that influence impressionable minds, let us use the powers of moral suasion to create change where possible. Where it is not possible, let us agree to disagree (“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it”) and expend our energies on educating citizens about the ills of smoking. There’s the “slippery slope” argument, of course – the nanny state starting with this and moving on to banning, progressively, dangerous driving, conspicuous consumption and other ‘undesirable’ elements from the screen (Why only the screen? Why not the printed word next?). There’s the “too many laws, too few implementation” argument – instead of creating another set of prohibitions, why can’t we have better enforcement of those which already exist in this respect i.e. the one about “no smoking in public places”.

Finally (and should any of you think this is frivolous, remember that there are temples to this living deity), how will you blur out (without jeopardizing its entire artistic merit) a sequence where the cigarette is tossed up, spins many times, is caught between the lips and – in the meanwhile – a pistol has materialized which is fired to light the cigarette! To think that we will be fooled by a blur replacing the cigarette! Rascals!

“Next morning I got up late on account of the big fee I had earned the night before. I drank an extra cup of coffee, smoked an extra cigarette, ate an extra slice of Canadian bacon, and for the three hundredth time I swore I would never again use an electric razor. That made the day normal.” Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)