Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lessons that Bihar can teach West Bengal

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is hardly any 'good news' in this season of despair and mounting cynicism. One of the few comes from a hitherto unlikely quarter: from Bihar and the large Bihari diaspora scattered over India.

Economic growth, it is well recognised, depends as much on actual generation of wealth as on sentiment, the shorthand for a positive perception of the environment. Ever since Nitish Kumar's conclusive re-election, the sentiment on Bihar has turned bullish. This is evident not so much in the capital markets of Mumbai where these things take longer to play out, but among those who have an emotional stake in Bihar's future. Accustomed for long to being the butt of derision and ridicule, Bihar has now been infected with a heady, we-can-do-it mood. In the short term, the tangible results of this optimism may be modest: a real estate boom, growth and establishment of small and medium enterprises and some willingness of those who had bought a one-way ticket out of Patna to return and do something worthwhile. Once the investments of the pioneers start yielding results, the big players will be inclined to give Bihar a try.

The promise and expectation of good governance is all that it takes to arouse the native entrepreneurial instinct. If the Nitish Kumar Government can combine security, education and decent roads with adequate power supply and a measure of streamlined decision-making, Bihar has the potential to make a worthwhile contribution to the larger India story.

The signs of re-awakening in Bihar should, ideally, have a multiplier effect in the rest of eastern India, but particularly in West Bengal. A few decades ago, Bengalis would have found the suggestion of learning from Bihar quite preposterous. Till the early-1960s, West Bengal ranked next to Maharashtra as the country's most industrialised province. Calcutta was the economic and cultural hub of a huge area that covered both the erstwhile, undivided Bengal Presidency and the North-east. It was a cosmopolitan city that embraced gracious living and intellectual vibrancy.

All that, tragically, is history. If there is a city that, despite its many flyovers and umpteen shopping malls, epitomises a sense of decline, it is Kolkata. There is still a pulsating busyness about the city but it is also coupled by a visible sense of desperation, an outcome of shrinking opportunities. Kolkata has mastered the art of survival but lost the ability to grow and prosper. An imperial success, Bengal failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the market economy.

At one time the Bengali middle class personified enlightenment and the push to modernity. Those impulses were fuelled by a thriving economy centred on both trade and modern manufacturing. Once economic stagnation and decline set in, a way of life and thinking also dried up. Today, the Bengali middle classes are struggling to keep afloat, desperately leveraging their modest real estate holdings for modest advantage. Those who could, abandoned sonar Bangla long ago to build careers elsewhere. Like their Bihari counterparts, they haven't done too badly. Those who couldn't move out have adjusted to a new life devoid of the embellishments of gracious living. With the shrinking of the economy, there has occurred a truncation of the mind. And, if the garish posters of Bengali films are anything to go by, there has also been a debasement of taste.

For three decades, Bengalis were intoxicated by the prospect of an undefined revolution that would bring salvation. Like Lalu Yadav's social awakening that conferred a sense of empowerment but thwarted the quest for livelihood, the CPI(M) destroyed many social hierarchies and injected into the less privileged a sense of heady insolence—the cholbe na culture. In Bihar, unguided social engineering produced a 'jungle raj' marked by lawlessness; in West Bengal, the Reds unleashed a cadre raj that sought to exercise total control over the locality and the workplace. Outwardly, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee conveyed a sense of refinement and even decency. But they were like the proverbial gold filling in a mouth of decay.

The same exasperation that decimated Lalu in Bihar is likely to lead to the Left Front defeat in next summer's Assembly poll. You can whiff the yearning for change in Bengal and see the wilting of the CPI(M)'s famed organisation. However, unlike the hopes pinned on Nitish, there are few expectations from Mamata Banerjee. In confronting the Left, she too has imbibed the same militant negativism that once defined her adversary. But unless she can transcend the politics born of cussedness and despair, Bengal is destined to remain the sick lady of the east. Bihar and Orissa are marching ahead because they don't have the hang-ups that stem from misplaced superiority.

Sunday Times of India, December 19, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Green fundamentalism as state oppression

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sunday Pioneer, December 5, 2010

Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar is, arguably, one of the most resourceful figures of contemporary India with interests that range from politics and business to cricket. To admirers he is the very personification of business-friendly pragmatism, carrying with him the reputation for getting things done. To sceptics, however, Pawar is synonymous with amoral deal-cutting and calculated expediency—the epitome of the go-getting ruthlessness that has come to define both Mumbai and Indian capitalism.

Pawar's colleague in the UPA Government Jairam Ramesh sets a very different trend. A wordsmith with a penchant for witty one-liners, he has won admiration in a remarkably short time for his ability to grasp issues and challenge conventional thinking. A far cry from the fuddy-duddy politician, Ramesh is the bridge linking Indira Gandhi's vengeful populism with the Sonia Gandhi's more calibrated, but no less self-serving, paternalism.

Since assuming charge as Environment Minister, Ramesh has consciously kept himself in the news. On the plus side he has energised wildlife protection and sought to put some order into India's neglected National Parks and animal sanctuaries. But these have been overshadowed by the controversies over his attempt to close the gap between India's environment policies and the path being advocated by the West, notably the European Union. His unilateral declaration, just prior to last year's Copenhagen summit on Climate Change, of reducing carbon gas emission by 20 per cent by 2020, was been attacked by many as "lacking due diligence". There are now fears that at Cancun he may commit India to an international inspection regime without securing anything tangible in return—apart, possibly, from a career in the global seminar circuit when he ceases to be minister.

The charge of playing to the activists' gallery has, ironically, spurred Ramesh to don the Al Gore mantle more energetically. In the past few months, Indian business and state governments have been devastated by the single-mindedness with which he has used his discretionary powers to stop big-ticket projects. He has been particularly savage in using the Green veto against Orissa. But he was more accommodating with state governments in which Congress has a stake, prompting charges that environmental laws are being used as a variant of the license-permit-quota raj.

A clash between the forces that Pawwar relates to and those who play cheerleaders for Ramesh was imminent. Pawar has reposed faith in a market-driven growth that, it must be said, also suffer from familiar distortions; Ramesh, on his part, champions an interventionist state, apparently committed to checking the distortions resulting from rapid growth.

Ideally, the clash should have come a few months earlier when Ramesh put a spanner in the works of Vedanta and POSCO in Orissa, one of India's most backward states. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik decided that quiet lobbying, the good sense of the PM and the judicial process were better alternatives to a direct clash with the Centre. The Orissa challenge would have triggered an overdue debate on the conflict between growth and Green fundamentalism, and the right of the Centre to dictate to the states. Tragically, the opportunity was missed.

Pawar's protest against the stay on all work and the restoration of status quo ante in the Lavasa hill station located in the Baramati parliamentary constituency has been seen in a narrow political light: as a constituency compulsion and a defence of its promoter Ajit Gulabchand of the Hindustan Construction Company. Indeed, Pawar has readily conceded that he conceived the spectacular township after a trip to the English Lake district. Additionally, his daughter was among the original promoters, till she sold her stake in 2004.

Equally, the sub-text of Ramesh's stay order has been read as a bid to 'fix' Pawar and ingratiate himself with the likes of Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare—activists who are to the Sonia Congress what Left intellectuals were to the Indira Congress. In short, the battle is widely perceived to be political and not really centred on the protection of the environment.

It is for, example, revealing that Ramesh's ex-parte order is based on Lavasa not getting certain clearances from the Centre. In its reply, Lavasa Corporation, apart from listing the 25 different clearances from different authorities it has already secured, says that it has secured the necessary permission from the Maharashtra Government. It claims that as per law it does not need a clearance from Delhi. Ramesh's ministry has thought otherwise and peremptorily imposed a stay without even a hearing. The stay was carefully timed to disrupt Lavasa's Rs 20 billion IPO scheduled for this month.

Whether Ramesh is personally culpable for his draconian order that demands the demolition of an entire town, the unemployment of 8,000 workers and the dispossession of 1,600 house owners, is for the courts to decide. What is important to note is the potential havoc an Environment Minister can wreak with his apparent discretionary powers. And it was done on the strength of a dispute over the jurisdiction of the state and central government—a babu problem, not a Green issue.

Indian environmentalism under Ramesh is fast turning into state oppression. Too many people have tolerated his flights of whimsy silently. Maybe it needed Pawar's buccaneering endorsement to create the confidence to challenge a minister who has convinced everyone that he is just a proxy for the heir apparent.




Sunday, December 5, 2010

Time to fight the cancer, not join the lynch mob

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1921, India was in ferment. After prolonged drift, it had found its voice in a man variously described as 'Gandhi baba' and 'Gandhi maharaj'. He united the country in open revolt against an arrogant Raj. Lawyers abandoned their practice, students left their studies and babus resigned their secure jobs in response to his promise of "swaraj in one year." The moment was heady.

For one Indian, 1921 was however a time for reflection. From his rural arcadia, Rabindranath Tagore detected "a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…The sight that met my eye was, on the one hand, people immensely busy; on the other intensely afraid."

India 2010 is not the nation of 1921, not by a long stretch. Yet, there is something eerily reminiscent of the cocktail of headiness and suffocation Tagore experienced.

The concern may well stem from a personal proximity to the epicentre of the earthquake rocking politics, business and the media—all pillars of the Indian Establishment. For the past three months, the country has been shaken by a scam fever: the outcry over the Commonwealth Games, followed in quick succession by the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the Karnataka land scams and the 2G spectrum loot. Simultaneously, there were the infamous Niira Radia conversations which (to borrow a British MP's observation on WikiLeaks) have redefined "public interest" to mean "the public is interested."

If India was simply experiencing a turbulent bout of ethical cleansing, excitement would have been coupled with gleeful endorsement. For some time, citizens have agonised over India occupying the twilight zone between a banana republic and a mafia state. To that extent, all moves to stem the decline and purify the system need strong encouragement, even if enthusiasm is couched in understandable cynicism.

Tragically, apart from hitting some targets the scam season has inflicted serious collateral damage and vitiated the atmosphere. The Radia tapes may have provided immense voyeuristic pleasure to those unfamiliar with and, perhaps, even envious of the cosy smugness that defines an incestuous establishment and those on its periphery. But initial inquisitiveness has quickly given way to a vengeful iconoclasm based on the facile assumption that India's entire wealth-generation process is centred on cronyism and corruption.

It is understandable when Arundhati Roy deduces from the tapes that the "state has been corporatized" and that thanks to big money the institutions of "this so-called democracy", including the judiciary, are "being hollowed out." It is also predictable that voices of post-colonial condescension in the West should celebrate "The rotting of new India." What isn't clear is why India's middle class should throw its moral weight behind this carpet bombing exercise.

What the Radia tapes indicated was not a single-minded desire of corporates to subvert every institution but their gritty determination to overcome a difficult, if not hostile, business environment. The cronyism that underpinned the Government's 2G spectrum policy was not the creation of the FICCI and CII or, for that matter, one of the Ambani brothers. It stemmed from the enormous discretionary powers enjoyed by a minister and a departmental autonomy that flowed out of the compulsions of coalition politics. Indian entrepreneurs had two options: to either play the game by rules set by venal politicians or opt out.

Radia's conversations are indeed revealing. But far from revealing "how corporates manage everything in this country", as lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the Supreme Court, they illuminate the path India Inc had to negotiate to remain in business. They also reveal that apart from having to manage a minister unconcerned with India's larger growth story, businesses had to also cope with the no-holds-barred assaults of competitors.

Yes, there was subversion but there was a context to it. Gentlemanly capitalism had been elbowed out by a treacherous business environment centred on arbitrariness. Yesterday it was a telecom problem, today it is one of environmental blackmail and tomorrow it could be something altogether different.

Instead of fighting the cancer, a lynch mob has, however, set its sights on mocking the famous, destroying reputations and creating a mood viciously hostile to entrepreneurship—the force that has propelled India's growth story.

In 1921, Tagore feared that along with the courts and colleges, "reason and culture…must be closured" and India forced to genuflect before "some mantra, some unreasoned creed." Today, while trying to cleanse the system, we may well be throwing the baby out with the soiled bathwater.

It's time to pause and focus the pent-up anger in the right direction.

Sunday Times of India, December 5, 2010

Friday, December 3, 2010

Credibility crisis

By Swapan Dasgupta

On the NDTV programme last Tuesday evening which was devoted exclusively to media navel-gazing, my co-panellist Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of Times of India, indulged in some nostalgia. In the old days, he suggested, a lobbyist would never have been entertained in newspaper offices. So different, the sub-text read, from today when Niira Radia can pick up her mobile phone for a cosy chat with the who's who of the media about the need to convey the authentic DMK position to the Congress. I could read his despair: what is the world coming to?

The "Golden Age" of Indian media when editors were kings, when noble souls worked for a pittance and when the management wouldn't dare step into the editorial floor is a lovely idea. It's also a delightful and self-serving myth.

In 1986, a small Bombay weekly published a report that the then holder of the "second-most important" job in India had subscribed to 3,000 non-convertible debentures of Reliance and paid for it through a loan from a private bank that also serviced the company. To compound matters, it also emerged that Times of India had written a feisty editorial criticising the Government for its ban on the conversion of these non-convertible debentures into equity.

A feature of the new Made in Media age is that while journalists (particularly those on TV) have become celebrities, they are also exposed to the one constant pitfall of celebrityhood: unending public scrutiny. India may not have the equivalent of the "Street of Shame" column of Britain's Private Eye where every peccadillo of every self-important hack is mercilessly exposed in an easily decipherable code, but it required the Radia tapes to dispel the belief that the media is above scrutiny.

Back in 1986, an editor guilty of violating an unwritten code could get away with nothing more than a modicum of personal embarrassment. As with an errant cricketer, today's celebrity journalist can't pretend that match –fixing is a minor lapse. The more high-profile the journalist, the higher the pedestal, the more exacting the expectations and more nasty the fall. Having created the illusion of a doughty Fourth Estate that upholds virtue and hounds all wrongs, the media shouldn't feign surprise if it finds itself at the receiving end of the fierce middle-class indignation normally reserved for dodgy politicians.

The media has suffered collateral damage from the Radia tapes. Many conversations Radia had with sundry journalists were innocuous: some exchanges of real information and lots of media tittle-tattle. But there were three sets of conversations that warrant a little extra attention. First, there were requests to the journalists to use their privileged access to politicians to carry messages and influence important political decisions. Secondly, there were discussions for a "pre-scripted" interview with a corporate notable, including the offer of a dummy run. And finally, there was the guarded sales pitch by an editor of his ability to influence Supreme Court judgments—an audacious hint that was subsequently brought to the attention of the apex court itself.

It is important to note that the initial media reaction to the tapes was the familiar near-total denial. The nothing-has-happened attitude that marked the suppression of the "paid news" and plagiarism scandals resurfaced and persisted for nearly a week. Although all three journalists proffered we-have-done-nothing-wrong personal statements on the web, there was a public reaction to the media's double standards, robustly articulated on the social media. For the first time ever, the media had to respond to the enormous groundswell of consumer disgust and demand for accountability. In the evolution of a public, democratic culture the inclusion of the media in the larger quest for transparency and accountability is a huge step forward.

The furore over the Radia tapes has certainly shaken the media as never before and brought to the fore ethical and professional issues that need to be tackled pragmatically, not dogmatically.

There is, first, the entire question of the media's relationship with corporates and publicists who come in various guises: lobbyists, public relations companies, brand promoters and advocacy groups. To presume that media must shun them, as Padgaonkar seemed to suggest, is absurd. Corporates need to have their perspectives in the public domain and many companies have outsourced this job to the publicists. With India being driven by energetic capitalism, the media also has a legitimate interest in business. To presume that mere articulation of corporate interests implies backhanders is preposterous. Journalists must engage with lobbyists, perhaps even develop a relationship of trust. But it is important to know when to say 'No', a principle equally applicable to NGOs who have agendas too. There are enough codes of conduct to guide the profession.

Secondly, the suggestion that the identity or nature of sources must be divulged is impractical. Meaningful political journalism involves developing relationships based on discretion and confidentiality. A good source takes years, if not decades, to develop and cannot be frittered away by a spit-and-run approach. Barkha Dutt didn't err by not divulging that Radia was now a player in the DMK: she was far too valuable a source to be 'burnt' for one rapidly-moving story. Her unprofessionalism lay in not reporting the three-way divide in the DMK and at the same time appearing to play courier for Radia.

Thirdly, much of the cyber activists' disgust stem from the perceived bias of journalists. This is a problematic issue which I, as an opinion writer, don't have to confront. Each media group has its biases and preferences that never remain a secret. This isn't unusual. Subjectivity is a feature of media in all vibrant democracies. Its rough edges can, however, be blunted by a fierce commitment to accuracy and meaningful consumer choice.

Finally, there is a seamy underside to the media that was only tangentially apparent in the tapes. The media has paid insufficient attention to the mushrooming of fixers, extortionists and plain criminals in its ranks, more so in the smaller towns. This is the real cancer that has to be eradicated.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, December 3, 2010

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