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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Two Tears for Barkha Dutt

The so called Barkhagate controversy raging here is a pointer to two significant truths.  The first is that the Alternative Media seems to have come of age.  It is much the more a moment of celebration for it, because it has stood up to question the powerful and established mainstream media, which has the backing of corporate houses and unlimited funds.  The second is that “Scandal”, as a "growth industry" spawned by 24/7  cable news,   now threatens to engulf the creators themselves. 

To briefly establish the context: an assorted transcript of wiretaps of conversations between journalists and a corporate PR consultant, regarding many issues, some of which now appear to have a bearing on the 2G scam, were leaked by unknown people, for unknown motives, to the leading media organizations.  Yet, barring a few exceptions, no one raised the issue.  Viewed in a certain manner, these transcripts appear to indicate an abuse of the privileged position of proximity to people in positions of power and influence that the media enjoys.  Uncharitable bloggers and tweeter birds have described them as “lobbyists”, “fixers” and “facilitators”.  Barkha Dutt of NDTV, for some reason or the other, has become the emblematic figure in the whole episode. 

The transcripts were discussed on some blogs and the trickle soon became a torrent, especially on Twitter.  It viralized to such an extent that the mainstream media, which had imposed a conspiracy of silence for so long in deference to their secret covenant of “not naming and shaming their own kind”, have been forced to fall in line, and now appear to have been themselves infected by the mood of the slugfest.  Some of the journalists whose names figure, prominent telecasters and columnists, have come out with their long explanations through their columns etc.  But it is the larger media that owes an explanation; as to why they studiously ignored it for so long and have engendered the debate only under duress, compelled by the outrage in the alternative media that itself leads to an adverse presumption of guilt against them.  Thus our concern is why the mainstream media played shy of airing an issue which was not only of great public interest, but of overarching media concern as well.  Their magisterial stance was that the public was better off not knowing it.  The censorship is the issue, not the content of the transcripts. 

One must, at the very outset, disclaim any view on the authenticity of the transcripts, or the allegations of wrong-doing.  That is a matter for detailed investigation.  But a TV channel came to the defence of its iconic but beleaguered colleague not so much with a marshalling of facts as with an admonition, a reprimand to those who had dared form their own opinion.  The channel would like to educate its viewers in the art and science of decoding meaning from a given text.  Aided and abetted by the mass media, in this post-modernist age, whatever random insight the audience can bring to bear upon the reading of a text or viewing footage is considered fair enough.  One must not submit to the criterion of authorized reading of a text. 

The fundamental requirement of the successful communication of a message, says famous semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco, “…is a code, shared by the source and addressee.  A code is an established system of probabibilities…. ” The inept, ill-informed and inquisitorial handling of serious issues related to corruption and wrong-doing in the past has established the code that allegation of wrong-doing is in itself the conclusive proof of wrong-doing.  Media has for long appropriated the job of institutions of polity charged with the responsibility of investigating matters according to a fair and codified procedure.  Now the media itself is on the wrong side and the lynch mob cannot wait to make a kill. 

Barkha Dutt, ring master of many a confrontational live wire big fight and gladiatorial duel, was in the unfamiliar role of defending herself on NDTV.  To her repeated pleas against the nebulousness of the charge and her plaintive query, “Why am I being singled out when a whole lot of other people from the media figure in the list”, Manu Joseph quipped that it was because she had a pretty face.  I don’t know if he was being facetious, but I shall attribute full seriousness and gravity to his remark. 

How long can tongue twisting South Indian names, to which no face can be attached, hold the interest of the baying voyeuristic crowd?  Better to hook a story to a well-known figure, and better still if it is a high profile woman in the public eye.  Who cares if, in the process, the eponymous Barkhagate overshadows the larger story of acquiescence, manipulation, power-broking and pervasive corruption in high places. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Watching prime time TV during the run up to elections is a valuable experience. To find one self – humble, anonymous, powerless citizen- being courted  by those who would rule us for the next five years, forces one to reflect on the whole electoral enterprise. “ ‘Free elections’’, says the maverick thinker, commentator and polemicist Slavoj Zizek,” involve a minimal show of politeness when those in power pretend that they do not really hold the power, and ask us to decide freely if we want to grant it to them.” The model code of conduct enforced during elections in our country, only serves to reinforce the illusion. The contestants are at their most “politically correct” behaviour. After the verdict, of course, they show their true colours.Is it given to the citizen to enforce a reversal of their behaviour pattern; they could be their natural selves before they were elected but an epitome of correctness after they had won the trust of their constituents?

Apart from the tired old generation, there are a host of younger “leaders” in the electoral fray now, who owe their rise to prominence exclusively by inheritance or political maneuvering or daring acts of criminality, begging us to allow them to be our masters. But their way of doing politics is the same as that of their precursors. The absence of greater variety by way of “new people” seriously impedes the possibility of political change and evolution. As if inbreeding in politics had not muddied the waters enough, retired bureaucrats and police officers, who could be described at best as closet politicians, reveal their true colours by seeking a role in active politics.

Reverting to the issue of voter participation and their freedom of choice. By what criteria would they decide that one or the other is more worthy of their votes and better suited to hold public office? Between hordes and hordes of people charged with various crimes, political charlatans and serial defectors which one is the least venal, which one is the most trustworthy, who can tell? How do they choose the kindliest of oppressors?  Is it a privilege to be forced to choose, one or the other from the available lot, against their innermost convictions? Should it not be within their rights to reject  them all?

It is perhaps axiomatic to say, that only those with lots of disposable cash can seriously contest elections Thus money- largely the ill gotten wealth of the contenders -makes a mockery of the  right to equal opportunity and equal protection that democracy offers by way of equal voting rights and equal right to seek votes for an elected office.In a situation like this the ordinary citizens with just enough to keep body and soul together can only make a symbolic fight. So what are they doing here on this table, where the stakes are so high that only the rich can play and win?

There is a deep narrative structure to the staged contestations and phony debates conducted by the seekers of office in “code language.” When in power they are wonderfully understanding of each other’s crimes and corrupt practices. When out of power they seek every opportunity to disrupt normal life by demanding that those guilty of self same charges be punished. The everyday spectacle of demonstrations and bunds which affect the life of the common citizen exemplifies this “strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance.”

All this is made possible by Television, which is the most ill suited medium for debating serious issues because its primary concern is to deliver audiences to its advertisers. If corruption is the issue why should party A be made to answer the charges of party B or why should party C get away by accusing party D of greater misdemeanors? It is the honest tax payer who is the aggrieved party. The political actors are past masters at feigning conviction and the television is an accessory to their deception. Instead of the seekers of political power ,collectively, being made to account for the situation in detail, the TV manages to stage a fixed political reality show and we are reduced to be mere voyeurs of the antics of the participants in political arena .

But I still love elections. Howsoever illusory the nature of the experience- seated on the make believe throne in all ones phony majesty, playing king and granting ruling rights to all and sundry- is exhilarating while it lasts.

Monday, September 20, 2010


( An invit piece which was written on the occasion of a seminar/ conference on Cardiology at Patna. The death of a friend recently gave it an immediacy, which I had not felt when I scribbled it in a lighter vein.)

    Posthumous  shame is likely to be heaped  on those those who die of heart attack . Only if they had taken enough precaution, they could have kept their deaths  at bay. Preventive heart care is attracting eager converts to its fold. Seminal to the dogma is the assumption that the heart is intrinsically unreliable and fickle. One shouldn't trust ones heart-not only in amorous matters but in the simple physiological sense of the term as well. It is essentially delicate and fragile; vulnerable to a hundred influences from our own mental landscapes as well as from the external environment.  If you are forty ( better still if you are thirty five) it, needs to be kept under constant surveillance. Abnormal heart sounds may indicate enlargement of heart; bifid impulse is the harbinger of evil tidings.Not seeing your doctor  will seriously jeopardise your chances of survival. There are no atheists or agnostics now. Few can ignore a chest pain, or palpitation or shortness of breath. Flatulence can scare most of us with intimations of disaster. The spell is inescapable.

Heart foundations are propagating the new religion of heart care with as much zeal, and ardour as the proselytizers ever did. In our time everyone-from policemen to politicians, from doctors to dream-merchants, from stock brokers to surrogate mothers- just about everyone, is believed to have a heart apiece, despite the compelling evidence of the heartlessness of many of them! People who   are overweight  they are living a state of sin and their hearts are in mortal danger of being claimed by the devil. Djuana Barnes sounded the alarm bells when she said, 'We are adhering to life now with our last muscle -the heart."

The sickness of the heart we are told is caused by our personal life style, (diet, activity, addictions etc.) and the harmful things in the personal environment. The classical medical wisdom that disease is the result of infringement of natural laws has come full circle. "Diet" says Deepak Chopra M.D, oncologist turned T.M exponent, "is destiny". (Revising Freud's dictum "Anatomy is destiny".) .To buttresses his point he enlists the authority of the Taittereya Upanishad. No less!

"Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shalt be no more cakes and ale?" asks a Shakespearean character rhetorically, to which the answer of the virtuous must be a firm and unambiguous, "Indeed, there shall be no more cakes and ale". Cholesterol, rich food, red meats, ice creams, condiments and cookies, in short whatever tickles your palate are temptations placed in your way by the devil himself to which the standard response should be the upanishadic Neti, Neti (Not this, not this).

Salvation lies in plain salads, sprouted beans, and frugal diets. When it comes to eating, altruism is the best policy; charity a strategy of survival. Eat the lean portion yourself, and give the succulent bits to your neighbor (especially, if you covet his wife!) The yolk of the egg, the fat in the milk, they are all dispensable and deserve to be gifted away- to your enemies! Traditionally men have sought the solution to their nagging problems at the bottom of a bottle. The standard excuse given by tobacco addicts is that they try to smoke away their worries. Some relaxation may be given in case of alcohol and one may imbibe it occasionally-preferably under medical supervision- but smoking is absolute blasphemy. If things get too tensed up, well! swallow an Alprazolam. But I find the stunning piece of wisdom offered by the once stunningly beautiful Brooke Shields more comforting. "Smoking kills" she says "If you are killed, you have lost a very important part of your life".

The narrow and straight path in the new ecumenical faith leads to the gymnasium’ and aerobic clubs, swimming pools and jogging tracks. The third commandment requires you to renounce the comfort and the warmth of your blanket in a cold winter morning, get into your sneakers and track suits and head straight for the Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park or some such place. Five days a week, through fog or rain hell or high-water; all the year round.

There are some more prohibitions and one wonders, whether it is the heart which is at the centre of the doctor’s concern  or is he bent upon turning us all into saints. Late night bridge parties are to be abhorred; instead pranayam and yogic postures are to be practiced early morning, behind closed doors or better still in the open. Meditation is chicken soup for the soul, all right, but it is even better for your blood pressure and your heart. Viipasana and Yog Nidra have been appropriated as therapeutic tool for idiopathic angina. In fact there is a whole ritual no less esoteric than that of a holy anchorite who has renounced the world. The devout of this sect are to be seen walking on spiked sandals, clapping their hands away to no purpose, or laughing away to glory, under the banyan tree in the local zoo.

The most important ritual of the cardiological rite, however, is  the routine checkup, for those who want to keep their body and heart together. A consultation with your doctor assumes the gravity of a confessional session. Alone with your doctor you are prepared to reveal all, in a mood of repentance and tell-all. Through percussion and palpation he prizes out the rest of the secrets out of your heart. His stethoscope probes it from every conceivable angle. You are wired to the ECG machine; you jog on the treadmill. Meanwhile you keep confessing, uninterrupted, a long list of mea culpa.

"Doctor actually I overindulged myself during the last couple of days. I have been smoking lot lately as I am going through very difficult times". “I was spotted with a women friend in the club by a common acquaintance. Had a row at home. That is when I felt a stabbing pain in my chest, on the left side". And so on. The list of woes is endless. The cardiologist, like a kindly priest presides at the confessional and listens with amused detachment. He is indulgent towards these fallen souls. He knows the way of all flesh and reassures the patients, and asks them to be good and responsible.

But there may be greater peril lying in store-the judgment may be severe. The man in white may pronounce with appropriate gravity the condition to be tricuspid regurgitation, peripartum cardi-omyopathy or heart valve pulmonary stenosis or some other disease with equally sinister name. It falls on the affected victim and his family like a tonne of bricks. The sinister sounding name kills before the disease does. The cardio thoracic surgeons, especially, those who perform the critical suture are to their profession what the aviators (not mere pilots!) are to the vocation of flying- the elite of an elitist club. What they love best is finding excuses for performing the cardiac bypass surgery. In a consummate display of their skill they saw you down and then sew you up, as a tribute to their Olympian gods like Christian Bernard Denton Cooley and others.

But "The heart has its reasons", as Blaise Pascal said (or was it Emerson?)" that reason does not know" and ever so often confusing evidence keeps turning up which inspires skepticism even fatalism in the humble uninitiated fold. This heretic has broken all the commandments, flouted all the injunctions of the sacred text. He is a doctor himself (was, alas! he is no more. Death claimed him in his late nineties and certainly the heart was not the culprit. ) around ninety, already and has ambitious projects up his sleeves. A lover of good food he can eat his breakfast, lunch or dinner at anytime of the day-and several times, at that. His dinners are invariably washed down with copious amounts of good whisky and he gave up smoking out of sheer fatigue and boredom rather than in deference to the prevailing orthodoxy. If ever there was a convincing rebuttal to prevailing orthodoxy, it is him.

And this friend of mine. Forty-eight, athletic and young, lived his life by the book. Almost like Rousseau’s noble savage. Definitely not the type A personality. He died on way to airport of a massive heart attack. The chauffeur discovered him, dead as a dodo, at the airport, in the back seat of the car. I was told there was a frozen look of mild surprise on his face.What had he done to deserve this? Milton though blind, justified the ways of God to men in unreadable and boring poetic texts. The cardiologists, however, were not at a loss for explanation.It seems that he had a genetic predisposition. Was born of the wrong sort of parents.So there you are. You cannot trust your heart. NEVER!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bringing up Father

It was a Sunday and, while surfing the World Wide Web, I noticed on the net my daughter, who is generally unavailable to speak to us during the day time, available for chat.  Normally she likes to lurk in the “invisible mode” or her presence is sternly marked in a forbidding red, warning obtrusively solicitous parents to stay off.

It seems we stay in different time zones; on different planets, almost.  Even our biologies, it appears, are different.We are the 9:30 to 6:00 people while for them the day begins when we are preparing to call it a day. So we generally manage to put in a word or two edgeways and get the standard reply ‘Dad I’ll call you in a while.”  If it is 12:00 PM then may be at 12:40 AM, if her shoot gets wrapped up early, and at 4:30 in the morning if things did not go as per schedule, she would like to pick up the threads.  In a state of total stupor or somnolence we end up getting all confused and tangled.  We beg ourselves, hoping to sort out the matters tomorrow.  My wife has been trying to conclude a conversation in respect of my daughter’s marriage for the last two years. It still goes on - simply because she has not been able to advance her most cogent and clinching arguments. When the summit actually takes place she is at her fuzziest and most confused, while her interlocutor is in a state of heightened clarity.  No prizes for guessing the result.

We got started after the customary hi and things like that.  The drift of conversation was in no particular direction, but what bugged me the most (dear me, my English is really getting all screwed up!  Are children such bad influence on parents?) was a string of consonants, like proper nouns of Balkan or East European origin.  In a kindly fashion my daughter took to educating me in the new language with all the consideration due to a nouvau admis.  I had heard that "LOL" is the shorthand expression for laughing out loud.  But there was the ASAP, for my benefit it was explained as soon as possible ,then BTW cropped up, which I understand is "by the way".  In the middle of a raging conversation you could just hang up, leaving the other fellow high and dry with a BRB - be right back. Then there was this neologism NTW, not to worry, but I am told it is catching up fast.  Or viralising, I should say.  But more economy was available.  On the chat you do not say I am happy or annoyed in words, you just hurl a smiley - annoyed, delighted, intrigued, puzzled etc. There are a dozen of them nicely organized in columns, in half platoon strength.  And yes, even in their world there are etiquettes, clearly recognized protocols.  Capital letters and punctuations are screaming bad manners.  Internet has forged its own sociology of private and public manners, new and dynamic forms of community.

We had a long conversation and on almost every issue we had different views.  Since my daughter has studied literature in one of the best colleges of the country, the cultivated illiteracies of the text messages, the brutal abridgement of the capacious and rich English language, the deeply alienating influence of internet, pop culture and high art figured recurrently.  I am afraid we could never ever come to a common ground.  The chat came to an end with a parting shot from her.  She quoted Jacques Lacan’s famous quip with its proper spelling, Les Non-Dupes errent. (‘The undeceived are deluded’).

My daughter excused herself.  After all, the young of her generation are so hard pressed for time!  They have to remain in touch with each other, the 450 friends on Facebook, the 1100 followers on twitter, the streaming e-mails on their Blackberry, blogs, the new cool video on you-tube!

But long after she had left, I wondered if this is the first time people of two generations are trying to start a dialogue.  The children have been forever in a state of holy war against their intrusive, ignorant parents.  It is something that is perhaps, in the nature of things.  So what is different?

I just venture the proposition that the pace of change in our generation was perhaps slower, therefore, obsolescence set in much later, the shelf life of parents was much longer. In our time I guess, and more so in the time of my father and before, two generations could be part of the same adult world but with clearly defined roles, well defined territories.  In their prolonged period of childhood they became conditioned to look up to the adult for guidance and advice. The parent child relationship - essentially one, between untrusting-self and the regulating other - was one of authority.

But now we have worked up a rapid, vertiginous pace.  Now the secrets of adulthood or the ways of the vile wicked world are open to children much earlier.  Parents no longer hold the key.  They trust themselves, their own judgments, opinions and capabilities, and they have moved the internet in loco parentis.

Instead of curiousity and wonder, a certain world weariness and cynicism is the hall mark of the precocious adult. Riding the wave of technology, especially the TV, internet, the iPhone, they have renounced the community of real men and women and retreated to the virtual communities where they have discovered new modes of participatory activity and leisure, new ideals of shared experience, new sites of protest and resistance.  The generations seem to inhabit different worlds with different rules, mores conventions and morals.  Relationship, marriage, paternity they all stand liberated from the immemorial taboos.  People of my generation tend to put too much premium on experience.  But I now realize experience has its down side.  With age comes not only the erosion of physical capabilities but also stiffness of mental fibre, the incapability of appreciating the new and the unfamiliar. I think the best strategy is to have trust – trust in their judgment and ability and pray to God that your trust is not misplaced.

But reverting to the core issue, the debilitation of genuine literacy in favour of the digital, the deliberate renunciation of the vast resources of language in the interest of expediency, economy of both time and money (I am told mobile service providers charge per character instead of words), the dumbing down by way of homage to the intellectual democracy, has a direct bearing on the whole issue.  We live inside the language of our discourse.  And as Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.  A few lines from Romeo and Juliet, the emblematic symbol of romantic aspirations in our less unhurried times in the world that has gone by, juxtaposed against two lines from the chart buster song “You and Me Baby” which inaugurated the third millennium for us, would perhaps illustrate the point .

If I profane with my unworthy hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

The great ceremony of the courting ritual, the obliquities of speech, the passionate yearning and that awful daring of the proposition that demands but a kiss, will be thrown into sharper relief by this direct and uncomplicated exhortation of the Bloodhound Gang pop music group of this Brave New World:

You and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.
So let‘s do it like they do on the discovery channel.

Romeo and Juliet would be left stranded and speechless, in this world of naked apes and instant gratification of desire.  But I am not worried about the plight of the iconic lovers, nor about the elimination of all possibilities of romantic love.  I can rationalize my own little dialogic problems with my children.  We will soldier along, since we must.  My worry is how their generation and the succeeding generations will be able to strike even a conversation between themselves, each a separate island , seated or strapped variously, to their laptops and iPhones or playstations and desktops.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Democrary and the Great Disconnect

The news papers carried this morning  a fervent appeal by the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner urging the Bihari youth to vote in great numbers. The item evoked my interest so I wanted to know more. I am normally done with four newspapers in close to two minutes. If my reading glasses are at hand well and good, if they are not, I make the newspaper adjust to my myopia. But I don’t miss very much. Glasses or no glasses, I manage to get the flavor and I thank God for giving me that day, my daily fix of sleaze and scandal, high-minded rhetoric and promises galore, privileged intimation of forthcoming political defections or new alliances in the making. Sometimes I find my name figuring in there. Seasonally, for the last couple of years the odds of my being appointed to some post or the other has been discussed. Then I reach out for my glasses. I like to be enlightened on these matters. Otherwise two minutes is all that I can spare. But today I made an exception. For a public cause, I called to the aid of my failing eyesight my pair of reading glasses.

Why have the youth of Bihar voluntarily renounced their right to vote? By not exercising their right to vote are they making a subtle political statement? And thinking of the their alienation and withdrawal the martyr’s memorial, just a few hundred meters away from where I live, floated before my mind’s eye! The statues of the young students frozen in their stance –marching into a hail of bullets yet holding the tricolor aloft- cast derision on death and mock the might of the empire over which the sun never set. They paid for with their lives to secure for us our independence and the right to vote. Would they consider sitting somewhere in the heaven, wearing their halo of martyrdom around them, their sacrifice worth it? Was the hard fought right to self-determination worth the price after all?

I wondered if this abstention is due to the fact there is an absence of worthwhile opportunities for raising their political awareness before they acquire the right to vote. The traditional modes of participation like student union elections are largely nonexistent. Student politics has always mirrored the concerns and preoccupation of national politics and is a report of what is happening in the broader society. For the youth it is a period of apprenticeship in the culture of parliamentary democracy, a recruiting ground for political cadres, and it incubates the future political leadership. The JP movement of 1974 is a case in point. One may not agree with either the agenda, or the philosophy behind the “Total revolution” but who can deny the reality of the ‘radical youth’ with their unabashed enthusiasm and utopianism or the momentousness of the occasion?

Or is it because the nature of politics today offers no scope for romantic idealism to the youth? What is there for them to be passionate about? There are no radically different visions of society on offer-visions which can captivate their imagination or inspire hope. All the parties dish out the same trite agenda whose similarity and repetitiveness emit a stale odour which you can catch from miles away. Nor for that matter the farcical change of the hearts and minds which compels large scale migration of members from one political club to the other holds their interest. The youth know they would be better occupied following the fortunes of their favourite sports stars –their movement from Milan AC to Real Madrid or from Kolkata Knight Riders to Chennai Super kings.

Arthur Miller had once observed that our political life, thanks to 24/7 TV is now “profoundly governed by the modes of theatre, from tragedy to vaudeville to farce.” The television is both a powerful ally and a useful tool through which the politicians try to project themselves as characters that they are not. In the live telecast of the proceedings of the houses representatives appear to have very few stakes in what goes on in the house. At their most radical, they can only throw a couple of chairs taking care not to cause hurt to their assumed adversaries or get hurt themselves. Even as a spectacle it comes out a loser in terms of audience preference for programmes like WWF.

But even if the youth somehow overcome their aversion there are not very many of them left to vote. A very significant section of them has been forced to become absentee voters out of dire necessity. They have joined the exodus to Delhi, to Poona, to Bangalore or wherever they see opportunity for decent education. And those not endowed with wealth or work are similarly forced to migrate in search of livelihood.

I realized that I had only questions, no answers, only hypotheses and speculations no hard theories. Obviously, I could not get under the skin of the young generation, I could not think like them. But I tried to make an effort of imagination, a nimble leap across the years. What would I be doing, say, if I were eighteen today? Would I listen to the elderly rubbish and make a beeline to the nearest voting booth? In the absence of ideology and idealism, faced to choose between hedonism and nihilism where would I be standing. I am ashamed to admit that I found myself merging into the character of that deeply connected youth in that interesting commercial, in spiritual communion with his mobile, knocking down kids and flower vases, ready to fall off malls. In that state of supreme connect, who would care for the vote?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Intellectuals And Their Idee fixe

[For the fellow travelers, people can] “be divided into two camps, one the incarnation of good and the other of evil”.
Raymond Aron in "The  Opium Of The Intellectuals."

Operation Green Hunt is perhaps the first determined and concerted effort at neutralizing the Maoist threat and it certainly has put them to notice about the seriousness of the intent of the Indian state.  It is too early to predict its outcome, but it has  thrown the domestic politics in a state of ferment. The ruling establishment itself, going by the press reports, is wracked by internal squabbles and dissensions. Some commentators have expressed the fear whether it will stick to its resolve to fight the Maoist menace or give in to the doubts and self criticism of many of its own allies, party ideologues and intellectuals. One gets a feeling that a significant section of the political opinion in this country wants not only the Operation Green Hunt stopped but some actually wish the Maoists to win. Never was the need for collective thinking to establish a consensus in accordance with the prevailing realities of the situation felt more urgently than today. In a polity dominated by violence in all its forms, in a society where legitimate authority is fast losing its grip over its constituents, the theory of the state as being the sole repository of coercive force needs to be made practical through sustained and purposive engagement. “I do not want to take names”, the Union Home Minister was quoted as saying the other day, “but many of them are highly educated …..They write very well”. This group is propagating the view that “the government is bad and has to be fought at every turn and every stage.” Arundhati Roy’s Gandhi with the Guns must take the pride of place in this form of writing.

In the view of a sympathetic blogger Arundhati Roy’s essay Walking with the comrades, “somehow manages to tread that very fine line of neutrality… she indicates her distance from her subject quite rigorously and repeatedly…..” Her case could not have been stated better— however as one goes along one will wonder whether this is the only reading possible - but the point is which ideal reader has Arundhati Roy in mind- only the trained literary critic with a fine ear and an alert mind for the modulation of the narrator’s voice? Or the common reader at whom mass media is generally directed the reader whose critical resources are not quite equal to the task of the fine distinction demanded by the text. In view of the widespread debate that this essay has initiated both in the mainstream as well as the alternate media, it is clear that people have engaged with it as a serious political text and it has been taken as an endorsement of the Maoist violence. Hence the issue for the debate could be formulated along these lines – is Ms Roy merely indulging her taste for literary exuberance and bucolics or is it a cleverly camouflaged Maoist propaganda?

Arundhati Roy’s fame and standing spreads far beyond her vocation as a writer and she is one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time. The public intellectual speaks on a wide variety of issues of contemporary concern to which he brings an oracular authority. Illuminating the issues in the light of his clear thinking, he analyses the situation dispassionately and objectively in order to situate the issue in its proper context. Apart from the value of what he says his writings are also remarkable for lucidity, reasonableness, and objectivity. Therefore with the enormous power to influence public opinion and shape up public policy comes a tremendous responsibility, especially in view of the fact that the likes of Arundhati Roy hold the monopoly to the creation and supply of emancipatory ideas to this world. No one denies that  she owed the debt of hospitality to those who are sworn to the destruction of the Indian state  but she also enjoys the trust and confidence of the civil society, howsoever ineffectual it may be. So “the fine line of neutrality” was a just requirement of the occasion and merging her voice with that of her temporary hosts an act of betrayal.

Ms Roy’s notions of the Maoist struggle are not only romantic they are a little infantile as well. “I am surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal. They are all Maoists for sure. Are they all going to die …?” What does one make of this meaningless babble? Beautiful or not, children or adult, what other fate can befall those who are fighting a protracted war with the state. And should these young guerrillas for whom the cinematic killing of the hero at the end of the movie Mother India is weak ,maudlin stuff, the real “blowing up of policemen” is their quota of entertainment be referred to as children and kids again and again? The heavy duty sarcasm in the description of these guerillas as “internal security threat”, “Gravest Internal Security Threat”, “blood thirsty” should leave no one in doubt that the story is being narrated from a partisan point of view.

Her lyrical advocacy of the valiant Maoist guerrillas battling the Indian state for the rights of the poor is aided by some clever debating skills as well. First an ex parte hearing is given to the Maoists to help them build formidable case against the Indian state, as indeed it is possible to do so against any state, at any time of human history. The considerable evidence against the Maoists- formidable as it may appear to those who are not their camp followers- is not put up at all. Then all the clichéd and counterfeit universals of such a discourse are deployed to justify their wanton killings which are termed as just reprisals for brutal policies of the enemies they are up against. “The gruesome beheading of the policeman Francis Induvar is still fresh in everyone's mind” for which the Maoists will not even make a plea of diminished responsibility; the moral and spiritual blame for the beheading of the ill-fated cop must be squarely laid at the doors of the Indian state. Ms Roy argues “by institutionalizing injustice in the way that it does, the Indian State has turned this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest.” And yes! Maoists are very generous. They are ready to pay compensation to the family of the bereaved whom they kill with diabolic unconcern, or collateral damage that they inflict, a very capitalist solution! Ms Roy does not instruct us whether this should be made  the  rule of engagement?  Money for killings - on either side? For the record since Ms Roy composed her panegyric, "the beautiful children" have toted up an impressive figure of several hundreds of innocent anonymous civilians killed in trains and buses blown up in different locales in different parts of the country as a “specific solution to a specific problem”. To be sure the videos of these  would provide invaluable instruction and entertainment of the  future generations of the "beautiful children."

Arundhati Roy’s account, largely on the basis of her tutorial in the jungles of Dandakaranya, seeks to construct an uncontested narrative of the whole Maoist movement as also a part of our hsitory.So far so good. No one can dispute that these “comrades”-the adivasi foot soldiers- have been dealt a very bad hand. But what is sad and dispiriting is her conclusion that this binary world of the hunted and the oppressive state has arrived at a stage of social and political entropy that the possibility of change though any agency other than violence appears nonexistent, as if the countless democratic non violent struggles to overcome the local environments of oppression and exploitation through peaceful means throughout the country were not part of our time and place. The success of Indian constitutional democracy may not satisfy some absolutist standards but who can deny the fact that to it we owe the radical change in power relations that obtained  sixty years back and the subalterns and the marginalized have acquired their new character. But to admit this possibility would be inconsistent with the Maoist  strategy of invoking force to justify counterforce and  engender a vicious cycle of alienation of  more and more  people.

But Ms Roy will have none of it .She is convinced that the present system has outlived its utility. “I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: They want to crush us, not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering the world an alternative model.”But this “alternative model” was experimented with, in half the world, for the best part of the century, and it fell on its face not by the application of superior force but by the greater appeal of the liberal market democracy. Whether the resurrection of Marx who now indubitably belongs to the heritage of European culture is a viable project, whether the formidable edifice of Marxist reflection and analysis which dealt in certitudes would be as relevant in an age when there has been such a radical change in the character of productive forces, technology and human society, one cannot be too sure. The leftist discourse itself is such a mishmash of Marxist ideology, vague socialist leanings, phrases and ideas adapted from the neo liberal discourse, bourgeois political opportunism of the worst kind, and proletarian confiscation for the private profit, downright criminality and hedonism. And those who are running the show know that such projects thrive on impossible promises. So in order to keep the hope alive lies, deceit duplicity and force are important weapons in their arsenal especially when they are dealing with their own followers.

Not that Ms Roy is unaware of this, “When the party is a suitor (as it now is in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, its army genuinely a People’s Army. But after the revolution easily this love affair can turn into a bitter marriage. How easily the Peoples’ army can turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow will it change its mind?” This bit of thinking aloud should have been posed to the Gandhians with the Guns. As a public intellectual she owed it to the society to act as an interlocutor between the mutually hostile parties to the dispute but she keeps these doubts to herself and expresses the optimism, “But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilize us in the present.” That is too heavy a price to pay for the salt of her hosts.

Her apologists say she is not obliged to give out a programmatic vision for the whole of India so long as she can write some stirring prose extolling the social bandits of Dandakaranya. As all her previous reflections have shown, she is good only at fulminations and polemics, grandstanding and high rhetoric. Perhaps it is we who have been dupes to our own optimism, pouring over her tiresomely long disquisitions hoping against hope that “A directionless dyslexic, capable of getting lost between my bedroom and my bath room” would show us the way out of the most serious crisis in our nationhood.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Apocalypse Postponed

Haunted as the world is by the spectre of Jihadi terror and extremist threats, the act of one lone individual which nearly pushed the world to the brink of total and irreversible destruction went absolutely unnoticed. Thanks to the great statesmanship of the President of Banana Republic the Apocalypse was postponed. Musings brings out the first of a series of such Tales from the Banana Republic for its followers and friends.  Comments would be very welcome.

Mr. Ghotaskar's removal from his assignment-even though it had been a long time coming- unsettled him completely. A couple of days after he was made to quit, grave and worrying symptoms began to be noticed in his behaviour by his family members and his close friends.

He no longer flaunted the three inch wide sandalwood paste on his forehead. "What is the point in belonging to the highest Brahminical order, what use is all this Puja Path, paying obeisance to the 330 million gods, if they spurn you like this.” Mr. Ghotaskar was known to practice celibacy for the last several decades, simply because he couldn't find the time for any activity other than sitting in his office. He himself famously explained it once. “My career is a very jealous and possessive mistress, and it will not allow me to court any other.” He came to office as early as it was practicable, and left when the watchman threatened to lock him in and retire for the night with the keys. His efforts to keep his assignment from poaching colleagues occupied so much of his time that it left him with little time for his other familial obligations. The routine had got so intricately woven in his life cycle that his biological clock functioned accordingly. Even on Sundays and holidays he would visit the office on one pretext or the other because it kept him normal and balanced. His wife could take it no more and decamped with the gardener. When this news reached him he remained completely unmoved and he went about his business as usual. Denied access to that charmed office of his, for the first time he demanded to know where his wife was. It seems his family had read courage and stoicism in a gesture of pure indifference or incomprehension.

This discovery by Mr. Ghotaskar caused considerable consternation in the family. The confirmed celibate now boasted of his tremendous tumescence and showed interest in lewd stories and limericks. The embarrassment of his close friends and family grew with every passing day, until one day he was found to be shouting at some one, who was however not visible to others. His friends and family came out and tried to remonstrate with him, to calm him down but his anger showed no signs of abetting. If any thing he was beginning to get more and more aggressive. "Sir, you are a liar and a cheat" followed by some expletives and then he become incoherent. A few drops of froth were also noticed at the corner of his lips. His son got terribly alarmed and immediately called up his family doctor, "Uncle, Papa has certainly become unhinged. To think that he is standing up and shouting at his superior is a dangerously abnormal behavior. When he was alright he would always stand up with one hand raised in a gesture of salute, even when talking to them on the phone. In person he would prostrate himself to lick their boots. Whether hallucinating or not is not the issue, the fact that he is standing up to his superior provides the key to his abnormal behavior. We must no longer hesitate to put him under psychiatric care". So Mr. Ghotaskar was finally bundled out to a mental hospital-where they put him on sedatives for a while and did some counseling. The treating Doctor was of the opinion that he had just been touched in some corner of his head, and he just had to learn to accept the reality of his removal. The regular counseling would help him cope with it and he should be fine very soon.

Mr. Ghotaskar had risen steadily in his career braving all the hazards that his particular profession presented. The career of a government servant is a virtual battle field mined with backbiting, negative PR, character assassination etc but he negotiated it very deftly and arrived where he had longed to be all his life. At the very top! But strangely enough, he was not enjoying it any more: on the contrary, it was a big disappointment, an anti climax and a let down. He felt cabined, cribbed and confined. Of course all the privileges were his. Innumerable servants, several cars, parties, conferences, tours, ceremonials. To tell the truth, many more were added to the already long list and yet there was something vital missing. Mr. Ghotaskar like many other civil servants could not live by bread alone. He must have cash to go with it and cash was hard to come by because he was that much more in the limelight. Even then he could manage some but it was not in the prescribed dose to keep him healthy, wealthy, happy and wise.

It appears his friends and members of the family had failed to read the symptoms of the impending illness. Even when he had not been certified insane he complained that some one else kept marching by his side all the while. The afternoon shadow longer than himself often scared him and he viewed it as an attempt to cut him to size. He tried to drive away these negative thoughts by collecting a clutch of his cronies in a closed room where he would shout at the top of his voice "I am the master of the universe". This shot of adrenaline did bolster his sagging self confidence, but only momentarily, and he needed this fix more and more often. Otherwise he spent his days in fear and trembling. Or in less gloomier moments, he would just sit in his office all day long fondly touching the upholstery, gazing at the stationary, looking up the succession board where his name stood out in bolder print. He had already carved out a place for himself on the succession board. What he was now worried about was history-or precisely the dung heap of history, the ultimate destination of all those who achieved that position. From the thought of history to the onset of hysteria was just a few steps and a passing apprehension of being removed rendered him inoperative, inactive, and infirm. He became less and less productive.

The patience of the president of Banana Republic finally ran out and Mr. Ghotaskar was given the marching order. There was no particular provocation. Just that his inactivity and his paranoia had reached the tipping point. Mr. Ghotaskar was a congenital liar but he surpassed even himself that day-he strung together eleven separate lies during the course of one single statement and was not agile enough to eat his words instantly. It cost him his job and tragically enough, his sanity as well. So here he was, recuperating under the expert care of a renowned psychiatrist.

But it was not long before Mr. Ghotaskar came round. He started wearing his sandal paste as meticulously as ever. The rounds to the various temples etc increased and the time spent in spelling out his wish list also increased. He would often come back to the temples add a post script or heavily underline the important parts of his request that he made to gods. Never to take any chances he would mobilize at least two dozens other gods to a particular task and several others were sounded out and kept on hold, just in case. Finally one day, there was some stirring in the statue of Hanuman in the temple near the Central Bank and clearly, unmistakably, he asked Mr. Ghotaskar with a smile to state his wish. This Hanuman had always a slightly sullen and angry look about him, as if, he had been snapped on his incendiary mission to Lanka, and sculpted in that state. This was perhaps the reason why it was less frequented by supplicants, and believed to be even less likely to grant wishes. So Mr. Ghotaskar least expected anything to come out of this routine call. Moreover he was lost in a fantasy in which he imagined that he had acquired the powers to assume whatever shape he wanted to. He was enjoying the bounties of the lost office by assuming the identity of his successor. Long used to deceit and cunning, straight, and simple solutions never occurred to him. So on the spur of the moment, he demanded that he be given the powers to impersonate any one-human, animal or machine, he chose to. "So be it", said Lord Hanuman and then immediately froze in his sullen angry stance.

Mr. Ghotaskar made some dry runs to test the boon and was delighted at the results. No body even so much as suspected any foul play." Now was the time to get back at the manipulating bastard", he thought. "His name would be mud from tomorrow. If I am perceived to be bad he will be seen in a worse light henceforth”. He planned to set afoot a hundred mischiefs in the disguise of his successor, make up for deficiency in the targeted amount of cash and make merry in general while his successor would face the music. So Mr. Ghotaskar assumed the looks of his successor and occupied his seat in the office of his successor who was out on a secret undisclosed mission. But even before Mr. Ghotaskar could cause much mischief he was discovered. The successor of course was no saint, and he had his share of weaknesses but they were all etched on the human scale and in his short stint he had restored some sort of normalcy. Mr. Ghotaskar had been able to impersonate his successor only in terms of out ward appearance but so unique was he in his behaviour that even the divine weapon could not be of much help. It remained its own original self and immediately raised suspicion in the minds of the close retinue of the chief. The whispering campaign alerted the genuine incumbent who rushed back from his secret destination and challenged the imposter. Mr. Ghotaskar was discovered in no time and was branded on his left cheek with an indelible mark, under the orders of the government so that he could not deceive any one again.

Mr. Ghotaskar however did not give up. He sat down in a yogic posture of meditation and concentrated deeply to keep the negative thoughts away. Where did he go wrong? How and when did he stay off the trajectory success that he had plotted for himself? "Ah" no negative thoughts. Let me recall the happier years. Perhaps that will recharge my batteries, perhaps reveal to me the formula of my success so far.

Mr. Ghotaskar recalled that he had performed feats that defied even the laws of Euclidean geometry. His performance was always at an abysmally lower plane compared to the rewards. They were totally unaligned and yet no one in the entire bureaucracy had been able to figure out this mathematical fallacy, and hence his case was put in the category of unsolved management problems. Mr. Ghotaskar smiled to himself. He could feel the muscles in his entire body relax and a pleasant feeling of well being spread across him. Mentally, he counted his hoard of cash. It had crossed the ten figure mark, and he felt himself awash with a beatific feeling. But then unaccountably his prosperity reminded him of the poverty of the people of Republic and it gave him a shot stab of remorse. Was he seized of some subliminal guilt? However there was light at the end of this tunnel of confusion. "Shall I impersonate the President’s chief advisor? I shall engage him in important matters of state. Warn him of the unholy designs of the neighboring kingdom. Assess the relative strengths of the generals charged with defending the kingdom, compare our military might, then bring him round to the internal security scenario .From the defence, scenario to the internal security situation would be a very natural progression, and then may be casually he would let slip the topic of rehabilitating myself - Mr. Ghotaskar that is . The idea appealed to him and he devised the many opening gambits. But on second thoughts he abandoned the idea. The thought of war and financial management perhaps may not usher in the right frame of mind to elicit a favorable decision. It may indeed leave him a little insecure, perhaps anxious and worried. The more he cogitated, the less favourable a strategy it seemed to appear. Just then he had a eureka sensation. “I shall approach the President with some innovative programme for the poor; the President is very deeply committed to these programmes. The plight of the poor could be dwelt upon some length, till the milk of human kindness became operation flood. And then casually mention about the deep injustice committed to me, Mr. Ghotaskar, that is. May be the president will agree to rehabilitate me, Mr. Ghotaskar, that is, along with the innumerable poor. He chuckled at the idea, “The chief advisor pleading for the rehabilitation of poor Mr. Ghotaskar!” He immediately assumed the look of the chief advisor and stood before the mirror to ensure that every detail of his dress and demeanor was just right. But alas, the branding mark on his cheek stood there. He hurriedly checked up with the Lord Hanuman near the Central Bank but he said he that was helpless because this branding was inflicted after the boon was granted. Sorry, he said, retrospective remedies were not with in his powers. He couldn't do very much about it. Given this conditionality the boon had become infructuous as far as impersonation of human forms was concerned.

A deeply disappointed and demoralized Ghotaskar retired to his hideout intent on vengeance and a come back. Only if he could meet the president and remind him of his unflinching loyalty and years of entertainment that he had provided to him and his courtiers for free! Only if he could plead his case in person! In his human form he would never even be admitted in the presence of the president leave aside an appointment.

"He had two more life lines still", he thought", he could assume animal and machine shapes". At this stage we would do well to summarize the story of Mr. Ghotaskar’s long ordeal and the fortuitous circumstances that prevented him from making a personal representation to the President .He tried being a dog in the President’s house, but his dog in the manger attitude and his propensity to wag his tail surreptitiously to the arch opponent of the President also, earned him his dismissal. The disguise of a mole, he thought was ideal for him. He had in fact been one- for several political parties, all at a time, for many years and had never been discovered. His association with the president in this avatar was even shorter lived. Mr. Ghotaskar assumed his human shape very reluctantly but he looked more frustrated and angrier than ever .He was full of negative, destructive thoughts. He cursed Lord Hanuman day and night .He would sit in his garden and throw bricks, mud, weed, whatever came handy at all and sundry .His family members again got alarmed they suspected these to be the symptoms of another break down.

The counselor and the psychiatrist were both summoned. The psychiatrist suggested his removal to an asylum at once .In his view of things Mr. Ghotaskar was too far gown and was now in urgent need of shock therapy. But the counselor, a bald kindly gentleman, pleaded for a few days postponement of this drastic mode of treatment. He was confident that there was nothing wrong with Mr. Ghotaskar. He was just a little frustrated.

He gently took him by the arm and asked him to sit by his side.“Mr. Ghotaskar what is bothering you? You have such a wonderful record of service. You have graced all the key appointments, enjoyed every privilege and perk that your particular position allows you to. You went right up to the top. You have lived a full life, what is your regret”. Mr. Ghotaskar let lose his flurry of complaints. How he had been cheated by life, by his friends, by his protégé, by Lord Hanuman himself .He went on for hours together, endlessly repetitive, at times boastful, sometimes maudlin, sometimes threatening to be self destructive. The counselor listened to him with enormous patience, providing him just the right dose of reassurance. The session which had started around afternoon went right up to late in the evening. Mr. Ghotaskar was by now totally composed and in complete command of himself though just a little pensive “I must work upon him a little more”, thought the counselor. He knew Mr. Ghotaskar’s fondness for drinks, so he said, “How about a drink Mr. Ghotaskar”. Mr. Ghotaskar was instantly receptive, but at whose cost- that is the thought that was engaging his mind. The counselor knew Mr. Ghotaskar only too well. “There is some good Scotch lying in my car but I am afraid we will still need some soda”. Mr. Ghotaskar instantly made amends for his earlier indecision by quickly offering to provide the soda. After two refills Mr.Ghotaskar became a little philosophical holding forth on the eternal verities of life. “The idea of God itself is a delusion. One of the longest lasting delusions which has affected mankind through out the ages, trans culturally.” The counselor was trying to figure out which way this abstract observation was headed but Mr. Ghotaskar was immediately on ball. “Now look at me. Who could be more God fearing than I. Lord Hanuman gave me the boons alright, but how ineffective they proved to be. It could not achieve my purpose and yet through out the ages, we have all believed him to be omnipotent. He is supposed to have burnt Lanka single handedly, lifted mountains with people and plants, insects and animals on board. And yet he could not so much as haul this pretender out of my chair and evict him from my office.” The counselor listened to Mr. Ghotaskar with great patience, periodically filling his glass with generous amounts of whiskey. “I have tried every thing, I have even been a dog and a mole and yet! Even the boons given by Hanuman have failed me.“But you have still one boon left- you haven’t tried being a machine”.

Mr. Ghotaskar almost sprang from his seat. “Oh yes how I could have forgotten that. What shall I be--- a bulldozer, a road roller; an electric saw, what shall I be. I shall cut him into pieces, I shall bulldoze the pretender and then roll him to finely powdered dust, I will squash him to a pulp and then roll him into sausage.” “Just hold on. You are too confused. The idea behind assuming these different forms is only to achieve your objective-- you have to get back your job which belongs to you right fully, and is yours in perpetuity, is that right? “Well said doc”. “So what you need is the right ideas. Why not become a computer”. “Wow”, he jumped at the suggestion, “I’ll become a computer, the most powerful computer on this earth.”

He instantly sat cross legged and asked Lord Hanuman to grant him his wish. Lord Hanuman was looking a little bored even irritable. “Yes Ghotaskar, what it is it this time round”. “Oh God please make me a computer”. Lord Hanuman looked distinctly puzzled. This is the first time such a boon had been asked of him. And he himself was not too sure about the computers, whether it was good for humans to be computers. So he asked Mr. Ghotaskar to carefully consider the proposition. He also reminded him that many a demon, god and humans had come to grief by acquiring powers that they should not be having. But Mr. Ghotaskar was unmoved, computer he wanted to be and the Lord must grant him his wish. “Make me the most powerful computer on the earth.” So Lord Hanuman put him inside the central computer in North American Air Defence Command, PENTAGON. “I am the most powerful member of the tribe after all.” Drunk with his new found power he challenged all comers to various games of black jack, back gammon and chess and bet them all in no time. “But why have I become a computer in the first place. I must get back my assignment. How could being a computer help was even beyond his computing ability which was measured in several bytes.

Then the penny dropped for him .As the central computer at NORAD it was his responsibility to assess the threat perception of incoming nuclear missiles and launch a counter attack. Or if the need be to launch a preemptive strike. So he spoke to all his counter parts - computers- in London, Paris, Beijing, Kremlin, even Delhi, Pyongyang, Telaviv, Pretroria, and Islamabad. In league with them he staged a scenario that scared the day lights out of those charged with the responsibility of using these diabolical weapons. He simulated a cloud of nuclear missiles on the horizon, and warned the US president of an impeding attack by Moscow. “Mr. President we have precisely thirty minutes for a response but I am afraid that there has been a major malfunction in our control and command system so the hatch of the nuclear silos won't open.” His counterpart in Moscow threw its hands in despair that it found itself helpless against a preemptive strike by Beijing. Delhi, Islamabad, Pyongang London Paris, Telaviv were paralyzed with fear on being similarly duped. Hotlines rang ceaselessly between the various capitals with in those anguished few minutes, and in an informal impromptu world summit the like of which had never been seen before the statesmen asked each other to cease and desist. Having brought the world to the brink of a nervous break down the central computer announced that it had been invaded and taken over by a desperate civil servant. If his wishes were not granted then and there, he would actually precipitate the Armageddon. The world leaders led by the president of the US listened with great trepidation the demand. “Mr. Ghotaskar of the Banana Republic must be restored to his original assignment and an equivalent of a years pay and allowances be paid to him as reparation damages. Further to that the President of the republic must make a solemn undertaking that he shall be allowed to remain there till his superannuation and after that he should be provided a sine cure assignment befitting his status.” The world heaved a collective sigh of relief but where the hell was this Banana Republic?

The key advisors and strategists of the world leaders were busy locating the republic, the services of the Google fellows were requisitioned, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Spanish, French, Chinese, Creole and all the language experts put their collective experience together, but they could not locate the republic so that the entire world community could plead for the immediate fulfillment of Mr. Ghotaskar’s demand. Time was running out and many a world leader could be heard silently saying their prayers when the chief of the South Asia bureau of the CIA said I have heard the word Ghotala. Let  me see. And soon he was able to find out the exact location of the republic .The president of Banana Republic was immediately contacted and the planetary delegation pleaded for the demand to be acceded to at once. The president of the Republic had made a solemn declaration only a couple of days before that terrorist demands will not be met with, whatever the cost. But this was something out of this world. He dare not demure. The superpowers were already threatening to blow up should he not immediately announce, as asked for by Mr. Ghotaskar.The president immediately agreed but demanded to speak to the cyborg monster who had invaded the computer .He was curious - who could be this nut who would threaten to blow up the world for this puny assignment. The message was relayed to the president of Banana Republic live via the satellite which had been maneuvered over the republic just in case. Mr. Ghotaskar’s synthetic mechanical voice still retained that hallmark quality and the president immediately knew who it was. “ Oh it is that Ghotaskar in one of his nine lives. Let him come. He is welcome and all his demands have been accepted.”

The biggest crisis in the history of mankind had been averted but a small problem had still to be tackled at home. Mr. Ghotaskar’s successor had become hugely popular – not because he was in any way extraordinary but he had a tremendous advantage by comparison. Mr. Ghotaskar could not be rehabilitated without outraging the public opinion .Caught up between the planetary pressure and public opinion at home the president came up with an innovative solution. He had an exact replica of all the appurtenances and accessories of Mr.Ghotaskar’s office made in papier mache. Even the various attending staff were cast in a similar mould. Mr. Ghotaskar arrived with all the pomp and show attached to his office and made himself comfortable. He just did not seem to notice –or even if he did, he did not mind very much .Legend has it that he discharged with great distinction his virtual responsibilities. The president of Banana Republic went down in the annals of mankind as some one who thwarted the evil design to unmake in a few minutes the world that God took six days to make.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The current post was actually in the nature of a brief response to the text of a talk “Poverty, Corruption and Accountability” delivered by late Sri Pradhan Jwala Prasad at the Rotary Club Patna , which he had mailed to me for my comment .Sri Pradhan was a distinguished engineer and a public spirited senior citizen with a variety of social concerns which put us younger ones to shame. He firmly believed in the power of reason and critical debate so vital to a vibrant civil society. Unfortunately he died only a couple of days ago in a very unfortunate accident and I held back the mail which was written on the same evening-but not sent for some reason- that he died. I have now decided to post it on my blog as a tribute to the memory of Sri Pradhan


Manoje Nath

In a market driven society the poor cannot create demand nor step up the market hence they stand in stark contradiction to the logic of the neo-liberal order. Yet there is a very unusual political consensus that will not oppose, either on pragmatic considerations or for reasons of economic viability, the allocation of resources to poverty eradication programmes even though there has been routine and unedifying lack of achievement and orientation in meeting the targets. A certain agreed inefficiency in the management of these programmes is also perhaps part of the same consensus. Every culture obligates its citizens to set apart a sum of money towards charity, Dan, or Zakat, where the recipient is an anonymous, incidental medium for ensuring one’s own rites of passage. The poverty alleviation programmes may sometimes appear to be a mode of political correctness and expiation.

To introduce some clarity in our thinking it would be useful to differentiate the role of various agencies. The professional economists, statisticians etc devise the parameters for defining poverty and methods of arriving at poverty estimates .The political establishment makes the necessary allocation, and the budget is approved by the legislature. The problem of identifying the actual poor in accordance with given criteria and ensuring that the subsidy reaches the deserving poor –essentially a managerial problem –is the exclusive domain of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state government.

We are still wedded to the old colonial concept - salvation only at the hands of the district magistrate- where the district administration is a pre existent arrangement to be assigned any and every task, howsoever, over worked, or ill equipped in terms of both motivation and skills it may be. The poor achievements in the poverty alleviation programmes can be largely attributed to the fact that the system geared to the task of delivering the benefits is rigid, attitudinally inadequate and unbending to the task in hand. Traditionally the authority of the district magistrate is rooted, largely, in the fact that he commands the obedience of the district police force. But where as it is advantageous in –maintaining law and order, reigning in the malcontents, performing regulatory functions, the law –and – order – cast –of –mind has a countervailing disadvantage for this kind of a task. The poor, in their inability to articulate their concerns, in claiming their due are vulnerable and helpless like newborn babies. It is not enough to make allocations; it is more important to reach it to his doorsteps and empower him to claim it as his right. The newborn baby and the poor are alike in their helplessness- they are stricken with hunger but cannot articulate it, nor may reach for food howsoever plentiful the availability. Just as the baby has to be helped to the mother’s breast for nourishment a lot of flexibility and hand holding is required in reaching the relief to the poor households. For the poor to benefit from any programme one has to understand the narrow realities of his life and above all have great compassion commitment. Otherwise since the bureaucracy is also in the monopolistic possession of information, it can always manage -and manipulate it, to its advantage. But more importantly, performance in this major sector of the state activity and the career rewards of civil servants are not aligned on the same plain. How cavalier can some civil servants be will be evident presently.

Just one monumental deception perpetrated by the Food and Civil Supplies Department in the year 2002- it is being quoted because it is emblematic and the facts are in the public domain -will demonstrate that the poor can sometimes be stripped of their humanity and be reduced to being mere numbers in government records.

In the year 1998 the food cell of the Economic Offences Wing of the CID during the course of its investigation into the Red card scheme came across huge irregularities both in terms of errors of exclusion as well as inclusion. The distribution of the subsidized food grains was another racket. The EOW registered more than 40 cases– was obliged to register because these irregularities constituted cognizable offences and the police are duty bound to investigate each one of them. 800 more such cases were registered in the districts in a particular period of time, against various functionaries of food and civil supplies department and FP shop owners. The number of accused may have run into thousands. Several detailed and evidence based reports urged to get a genuine survey conducted because the dimension of the problem was not amenable to solution by criminal cases. The sheer volume would place it beyond the reach of such a measure. How many people can you prosecute? Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, the sheer enormity of the numbers would nullify the power of deterrence.

Under constant pressure to weed out ineligible from the list of beneficiaries, the department of food and civil services conveyed to all concerned in 2002 that a survey had brought to light 21, 00,018 ineligible beneficiaries, and a district wise break up for all the 37 districts was given out. It also had been able to identify the ineligible beneficiaries as well as an exact number of the eligible ones so that a neat swapping could take place. The Economic Offences wing of the CID which was keeping a very close eye on the situation contested this but it was overruled and the matter was handed over to the Vigilance for further investigation. The CAG report discovered, during its detailed audit of Food Security programme in 2005 -2006, that this bit of statistic was a figment of imagination .No such survey had taken place! When asked to clarify, “The department stated that the departmental figures were based on rough estimation of 30 per cent families. The reply of the department is not tenable because rough estimation cannot lead to deletion of ineligible and inclusion of eligible families in absence of specific information relating to individual beneficiary.” (Page 69 of the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. For the year ending 31st March 2006. Civil.)

The Vigilance Department, which had been entrusted with the enquiry after divesting the food cell of the EOW of the responsibility, was alerted during their inquiry to the fact that no such survey had taken place. But instead of unmasking the lie it skirted the issue altogether and submitted its several hundred-page rambling report, with no clear cut recommendation, which reached the government after 3 years. Given that the delivery system is a network of responsibilities so organized and so subdivided that the individual is conscious of no responsibility at all, it sometimes becomes difficult to call the various functionaries to account. Performance of the civil servants in this major sector of the state activity and their career rewards are not aligned on the same plain. Not many of these have come to much grief for the tardy implementation of the TPDS programme which may have deprived the poor of Bihar of food subsidy opportunity worth thousands of crores of rupees between 1998 and 2005. But significantly enough the Secretary Food and Civil Supplies who solved the problem of identification with the simple expedient device of shouting “Aaall is well” and the obliging police officer who lent a helping hand did extremely well for themselves.

Thus in the absence of a credible and parallel channel of information and grass root level political commitment the bureaucracy can sometimes stall feed the Government any data. More than that such large scale doctored figures not only derail the ongoing programme but they also create a false template for future revisions. Pre existing figures are like indentations or grooves into which any identification exercise naturally gets sucked into given the arduous nature of the task. Political representatives -even of the so called pro poor parties- often indulge in canvassing for the inclusion of favoured groups and individuals urge the exclusion of their adversaries. Thus identification of the poor becomes problematic. It is also the obligation of political parties to make the poor worthy recipients of welfare programmes of the state, which as Lawrence Mead says in his book Beyond Entitlement, is to create “civic obligations ...send the children to school, respect the rights of others. It does not in any manner obligate the poor to any political party.” In absence of this dialectic the poverty alleviation programmes tend to become a mode of domination and dependence.

A fact that has escaped the notice of poverty economists is that the poverty alleviation programmes almost necessarily lead to a large scale impoverishment of the public sphere and the debasement of the values of the community. Since the per capita subsidy is extremely low a very large number of the poor have to be excoriated to make a decent pile. Thus a formidable nexus of graft and rent seeking on a grand scale –there were approximately 55000 FP shops in Bihar during the particular period - develops in which civil servants, elements of politics, law enforcement, freely collaborate for mutual benefit. The collections evaporate at the lower reaches and precipitate at higher peaks and generally may not leave an audit trail. But it inculcates a way of life based on corruption, unlawful behaviour and a general attitude of cynicism and despair. The criminal cases registered in the wake of some enquiry or the other slowly languish and are ultimately settled out of court or plainly forgotten. If at all the cases reach the courts, the poor are further cheated by the system by being asked to attend these criminal proceedings either as a complainant witness, or an accused- thus losing his wage for that day, if he is lucky; things could be lot worse - because the poor sod put his LTI or signature on some paper.

The lack of social empowerment of the poor makes a mockery of their legal entitlement. The extraordinary passivity of the poor underlies the paradoxical situation: their social reality becomes starker even as they are becoming a credible political force. The institutions of the open society do not fare much better. The TPDS matter was continuously agitated in the legislative assembly, writs were filed in the Hon’ble Patna High Court and the Supreme Court .No less than 1000 reports appeared in various newspapers. But in the absence of a sustained engagement and lack of access to authentic information, neither relief nor recompense came their way. The media has created a thriving public sphere but it is still far from creating some kind of a participative parity in terms of issues and agenda as far as the disadvantaged groups are concerned.

Given the enormity of the task, the community must step in to act as a guarantor. Instead of treating it as a bipartite issue between the anonymous state and the nameless, luckless beneficiary, it must assert its role as a stakeholder for the programmes to achieve the transformative impact. Even though programmes like NREGA and even TPDS have an important vigilance and social audit roles, the civil society at large helplessly watches the miscarriage of the programme.

The idea of a welfare state, we may remind ourselves, is not the result of the efforts of progressive minded thinkers but of a hard headed “reactionary” like Karl von Bismarck who was aware of the threat to the well being, security and stability of the state form the poor malcontents. We may not always get the allocation that we demand -competitive claims on national resources decide that- but we can certainly ensure that every paisa that is allocated reaches the beneficiary to stem the appeal of extremism. It is all for our own good.


The author had the occasion to investigate many of the anti poverty programmes during his 14 year stay in the Economic Offences Wing of the CID Bihar where he closely observed the nuts and bolts of the delivery appartus as well as the mechanics of the programme implementation . This article is a thumbnail version of a larger project - which has since been abandoned -The Parable of the Well Paid Public Servant: A Review of Three Major Poverty Alleviation Programmes (Targeted Public Distribution System, the Dhoti Sari scheme and the Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana, the whole ensemble of Roti, Kapada and Makan.)The write up referred to is more in the nature of a police report- heeding the advice of Pierre Bordeau, the noted French sociologist,- that one must avoid the temptation to turn these stories in to “literature”. The best thing Bordeau says is “to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. …. to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary and almost unbearable violence.”

These generalizations draw upon his experience of investigating a slew of cases but only TPDS programme 1998 -2005 has been cited, given the limited scope of an article and the fact that this particular incident has for long been in the public domain.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Commemorating the Saint, Canonizing Corruption

(This piece was written for a newspaper immediately after the killing of Satyendra Dubey. I thought this would be relevant in the context of my latest post, Conscience is the cancer not corruption.)

The reactions to Satyendra Dubey's tragic death provide a substantial psychoanalysis of the postmodernist society. Even while the investigation is on to establish the motive and identity of his killers, he has already been apotheosized as the sacrificial victim to the Golden Quadrangle project, which, for its sheer size and sweep, is a significant civilizational milestone. The association of ritual sacrifice and the rise of civilization, and of the sacrifice leading to the establishment of order, are ideas that are ingrained in the collective psyche and, in so honouring Dubey, is the society catering to its own deeply felt existentialist craving?

Development projects generally engender some kind of a gold rush, given the opportunity it provides for making money. After the contractors, subcontractors etc. have maximized their profit, reportedly, in states infested with extremists, it is further vulnerable to the proletarian confiscation by extremist outfits, as well as to extortion by the mafia. Pitted against the fervour that is brought to bear on this activity are the apathy, listlessness and an extraordinary passivity of the people – because, as yet, there is no communitarian mode of fighting for common causes. Whether it is the private man for profit or public man for office, we ruthlessly push for the gratification of our objectives. The practice of blat and bribery is quite common and acceptable, not only in development projects, but elsewhere as well. Sometime back, a leading financial journal brought out an issue devoted exclusively to corruption. Interestingly enough, the main thrust was on the problem: how does a manager do business given the inevitability of this factor?

Perhaps as a reminder of the fact that we may be going overboard in our reactions to Dubey's killing comes the revelation of the deeds of Ranjit Don ,the master hacker of competitive examinations. His clientele consists of the elite of the society; those who could pay a million rupees and more to secure the admission of their loitering heirs to the prestigious medical, engineering and management schools of the country. His capacity for accumulating phenomenal wealth in a short time is part of his charisma.

He is a hero not in spite of the questionable means but because of it. His supporters took out a procession on two wheelers from Nalanda to Patna. Their grievance? A man who had done so much for the development of Bihar was being unjustly arraigned. The conjuror of stamps Telgi also has, reportedly, a fan following.The value of dishonest theft over honest labour could not have found more resounding endorsement than this. Given this culture, the effort of an honest man doesn't hew in the agenda of career advancement or success; in fact, there is something of a kamikaze self-destructiveness about his efforts. He only ends up annoying the powerful groups without necessarily enlisting the goodwill of the society at large. Such a man questions the basic premise of doing business. Hence, he is viewed as taking up a terrorist position. Had he been armed with an AK47 or RDX, it would have been easier to handle. But the danger stems from the fact that he is anachronistically frugal. He is armed only with a determination not to make compromises. The intractable problem that he poses is sometimes soluble only by getting rid of him. The various organizations show a remarkable convergence of approach in dealing with such malcontents and stragglers. Of course, he isn't murdered. He is often tolerated like a quaint little absurdity, an alien from a different moral world. Sometimes he is humoured as being slightly unhinged but should he become troublesome, the full arsenal of penalties is unleashed to neutralize hum. After all, one full vigilance week is reserved for emancipatory and enlightening speeches, and for affirming one's faith in the values of probity.

It is not that only those who have been to the IITs are bitten by this bug. Can morality be taught like mathematics or lessons in probity ingested like so many pills? Man or woman, honesty has no gender. It can be found anywhere - even in the police. However, the rule holds. Those afflicted with it are at a tremendous risk. Not long ago, a young superintendent of police did realize it - too late - in a remote district of the erstwhile south Bihar, now Jharkhand. He had stood up against the so-called extremists who enforce their curfew in the forests for the illegal loggers and kendu leaf contactors to carry on their profitable business, peacefully. He was ambushed and his dead body lay in the jungle for several hours, before a police party could reach there. There was a faint whiff of a scandal about some fifth column activity. A divisional Forest Officer refused to abdicate his responsibility of preserving the jungles in the hills of Kaimur district and, for this reason, he had endeared himself to the local masses. But that was no protection against his death and dismemberment at the hands of an extremist group in the name of these very people. A handful of enraged students of a veterinary college similarly torched their principal sometime back in the full view of shocked but passive fellow students - because he refused to be a party to mass cheating. News channels report that a senior civil servant is on the run because he had refused to sign a list of appointees that he believed was trumped up.

All these episodes jogged the social conscience for a while, but it hasn't made the life of the Dubeys and Sanjay Singhs any easier. Because martyrs and saints are no longer models for emulation. Their image serves a very utilitarian purpose. By the very act of conferring sainthood on them - their rejection as an "outsider" is part of the mystique - their deeds are placed beyond the realm of an ordinary man's effort. The society thus alleviates any vestigial anxiety or guilt on this score and keeps its constituents both peaceful and pacified.

Corruption is responsible for the sorry and sordid state we are in but alas! We cannot quite do without it. Just as the post modernist society, by entrusting power to politicians, disdains any aspiration to power itself, by periodically enacting this ceremony of innocence and self-flagellation, it rids itself of any responsibility to be honest.

These are the personal views of the author