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Posts tagged ‘Politics’

Contrarian views on the leadership challenge that is affecting India’s anti-corruption debate

As I was following news updates on India’s 64th Independence day, it was nearly impossible to miss that anger against the omnipresent corruption, was the dominant theme across the country. Well at least, that was the case for middle class Indians and NRIs, and we tend to believe that our India is the only India

To make an objective assessment of the state of the nation on the eve of its 65th birthday is a complicated exercise. For more intelligent people and institutions than I am, have attempted that exercise with mixed results, and I won’t go there.

But I am going to write about a specific theme that I refer to as nation builders, in the context of the anti-corruption movement, and argue that we are below the pass mark in this regards

The structure of this article would be to assess our quality of nation builders, and the context of the anti-corruption movement separately, and then conclude on how the lack of quality amongst our national builders, has skewed the anti-corruption debate in the wrong direction

To start with, I lay down, 5 broad categories of people (in no particular order), who are behind successful institutions of all sorts (be it a sports team, or a country, or a business). The emphasis would be on countries though:

  1. Do-ers  / Activists
  2. Thinkers / Intellectuals
  3. Pragmatists
  4. Change agents / Innovators
  5. Artists / Entertainers / Evangelists

In my opinion, most successful countries have good systems & processes, governance mechanisms, advantages of nature, and many other contributing factors. But where the human capital / leadership, does not have a healthy balance of the above, it is difficult to see the long term success and stability of that country

Each and every one of us combines a few of the traits above, and it is difficult for one to be only a do-er or a thinker. But some primary traits dominate the other traits, and hence the categories. Also, some extraordinary figures in history have combined multiple traits in a rare way: for example Rabindranath Tagore was a thinker, artist, change agent, all rolled into one person

The do-ers / activists

These are the people, who do not necessarily think much, but have the passion, energy and time to jump to contribute to any cause. These are excellent foot soldiers, who under proper guidance and command from a superior of higher intellectual capacity, do an extraordinary job for a cause. Think of the soldiers that brave all odds for their countries, the people who take to streets for various revolutions that have shaped modern history, the millions that believed in Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King’s methods, or millions of others who heeded Subhash Chandra Bose’s call.

The ideas or causes may not exactly be their original views, but once they sense some cause worth fighting for, they are out on the streets, literally.

They would typically do well when the leadership that drives them has an intellectual and a moral authority. They would create havoc where there is no high standard of leadership, such as the Al Qaeda terrorists, or the looters of the recent UK riots.

Thus, these set of people can be a the source of enormous power or enormous tragedy to a country, depending on how they are utilized

The thinkers / intellectuals

These are the philosophers, writers, speakers, gurus, scientists who shape our thinking. These people dedicate their life to widening their knowledge and sharing that with us.

When combined with the right circumstance and a receptive society, they leave a significant impact on us, which lasts beyond their lives. Think of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, and many others.

Some of the thinkers can also be guilty of being idealists, or dreamers, or way ahead of their time. But, while we may not necessarily agree with their views, we cannot deny their massive influence and legacy.

The pragmatists

The very survival of a nation, without the pragmatists, is impossible. These people are the engines on which nations run, and while it is possible to somehow get through without the other categories of nation builders, without pragmatic leaders, we simply cannot survive

Think of all sorts of kings and leaders staring from Emperor Ashoka, to Nelson Mandela, and that ability to balance between thought and action shines through.

Quite often, pragmatists are well read, intelligent, and capable of thought as well as action. But by ceding ground to the intellectuals and the do-ers in their respective areas of strength, they play a crucial role of running the show.

While it is possible for the do-ers / thinkers to be away from the mainstream politics, a pragmatist is one who would get his hands dirty in the mud of politics, to lead, govern, think, and shape the society.

In my opinions, some of the best pragmatic leaders of civilization would have made fine do-ers or thinkers, if they chose to prioritize one aspect over other.

India was at once stage blessed with a plethora of pragmatists such as B.R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, but sadly there is absolutely nobody of that stature and class today. The only two people who have come close are Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh (at least circa 1990s, and UPA1)

It is ironic that we have a shortage of pragmatic leaders. I genuinely believe, many Indians are very pragmatic in their approach to daily life (career, family life, community activities etc), but cut to the political class – even at a local MLA level, we are found wanting here

The change agents

These are people with a burning flame to achieve something extraordinary, in a focus area of their choice, and leave a lasting impact on their small scope

Think of all sorts of innovators, entrepreneurs / business men, and social activists working for a specific cause.

Many of them are virtually unknown outside of their sphere of work, but within that domain they have played exceedingly well

Think of those who shaped India’s position of dominance in IT service, the guy who created a program to feed hungry people in South India, the guy who decided to build a casino in the middle of nowhere and make Las Vegas virtually out of dessert sand, think of Ramesh Ramanathan who decided to quit a successful corporate career and start Janaagraha in Bangalore (An organization whose philosophy I admire tremendously, and have volunteered for. It is possible that the movie Swades was loosely based on his life).

There are many more such innovators in all sorts of fields, in different parts of the country, and I am always excited to learn more about such “real life heroes”, as I call them. One such website I have started following recently is: http://www.thebetterindia.com/

These people are quite often out of the mainstream politics / governance of a nation and each has their niches. But successful societies have many such home grown heroes in many small towns across the nation.

In fact, one of the foundations for America’s success was its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Artists / entertainers / evangelists

This is a broad category comprising people in the performing arts, literature, who do a dual job of entertaining, as well as spreading a message.

To me, this layer is the icing on the cake, where a nation has a good base on the other layers. It is the crucial, final step in a country’s progress, and interestingly many nations get there even when there is not much governance / development.

The power of a good musician, or a brilliant writer, or an actor, is too strong to be impacted by other aspects of the country. India is by itself a wonderful example of how you can have a thriving arts and expression scene, without having to necessarily build infrastructure, or be an economic power.

And our arts scene, has also been blessed with many tall figures who have lent their hands for socio political causes ranging from women’s empowerment to the present day anti – corruption movement.

This also includes the opinion makers in the media, who shape our public perceptions. I use the word evangelists for them, and I hope you understand that it’s not in the context of a Christian preacher!

Lack of quality leadership in the context of the anti – corruption movement:

Now, I am going to jump into the topic of the anti-corruption movement, and look at how a cross section of the people who have strong opinions here, have got it so wrong.

Firstly, for some context into the root causes of the massive demonstrations, protests, and fasts:

  1. Un-precedented corruption across levels of public service. The mess, should never have been so bad, and its time all of us acknowledge the extent of the loot. There is enough written about the various scams in the public domain, so I would not elaborate
  2. Stalled / half-baked economic reforms, implying that babus still have enormous political and economic clout in the system. This was best seen in the auction of the 2G licenses, where the telecom ministry enjoyed massive discretionary powers, that should never have existed in the first place
  3. Addition of unnecessary political layers such as the NAC, instead of reducing the layers of governance / policy making. Today, the Congress party has no legitimate grounds to term the civil society movement as extra constitutional, as it started the trend by creating the NAC.  The NAC was the Gandhi family’s brain child to enjoy enormous political power, with zero accountability

The context above set the ball rolling for various actors to get involved in various capacities in the anti – corruption movement such as the “Civil society” members of Anna Hazare’s team, the Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, the 24*7 news media, the layman Indian activists online and on the streets, and even members of the arts world

Faced with media grilling, protest marches all over, and opposition baying for blood, and a leadership in hibernation, the ruling congress dug itself into an even deeper hole with its dictatorial tone against protestors.  By cracking down on protestors, by creating a diluted and idiotic Lokpal Bill version, and by fostering false accusations against those leading protest, the Congress has taken our politics to its lowest and ugliest level.

Together with our media, they have made a Gandhi out of a well-intentioned, but not so pragmatic man and his movement, and they have made a Bose out of a maverick yoga guru. Most sadly, the Gandhi family (no relation to the Mahatma Gandhi) does not want to acknowledge the role of unfinished reforms kick started by its own party leaders (Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh). Instead, it just wants to indulge in populist measures, targeted for votes in upcoming elections, as if money grows on trees. I don’t expect much from the Gandhi family, but what the hell are intelligent people such as Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and P. Chidambaram smoking?

But has the rest of the country that’s not in the ruling country, shown their leadership traits? Absolutely not, and here is what they are guilty of:

The Civil society members believe their solution to the problems (aka Jan Lokpal Bill, with some decent, and many outrageous provisions) is the sole one, and are un-willing to follow democratic processes.  For example I found the idea that Ramon Magsasay award winners should be on the Jan Lokpal bill team, plainly laughable. Why not film fare award winners, or Arjuna award winners?

(By the way, if you have not read either of the bills, you have no business commenting on the issue)

I at least have some respect for Anna (for his age and his work in rural Maharasthra), Kiran Bedi, the Bhushans, and Arvind Kejriwal. But Baba Ramdev takes the lunacy a few notches further. Notwithstanding his scientifically shallow statements on AIDS and other diseases, his proposals for making India free of corruption are pipe dreams at best

The Opposition BJP is trying to ride bandwagon without having a clear strategy. No neutral person could miss the BJP’s hypocrisy in being cheer leaders for the civil society team in Delhi, while attacking civil society member Justice Santosh Hegde of Karanatka Lok Ayukta, who exposed its corrupt CM Yediyurappa. Also, BJP is shooting a lot of self-goals, as it won’t take Congress any time to create a dozen Hazare’s and Ramdev’s if BJP were to come to power. Any opposition party in the world, with half a brain, would not have ceded so much political ground to hitherto unkown actors, when the ruling party is in such a deep mess. The BJP’s tactics of late, have been suicidal to put it mildly

The media, especially the TV media makes heroes out of Anna and Ramdev one day, only to take them down the next day. Neither of the extreme caricatures are true, and it is a reflection of the confusion, power collusion, idiocy, and hypocrisy in our media, The Indian Express has been consistently critical of the movement, and while I personally would take the criticism a couple of notches down, I am impressed with their consistency on the issue. The TV channels are guilty of creating a spectacle for their TRPs, and changing tunes to suit their political chums

The intellectuals are taking criticism of the people’s movement to an extreme level, and not spending sufficient energy on articulating their solutions, some of them actually very good. I’ve personally enjoyed reading the views of the Pragati national interest group: http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/ There are more such blogs, but you may not have seen them, because most of them are too busy making Anna Hazare jokes up on Twitter / Facebook / SMS. And you may also not have read them because you don’t care enough. All of us need instant 2 minute solutions to fix the country’s problems, and the moment somebody has something that provokes a thought, but is more than one sentence long, we have lost interest

The angry middle class people, are jumping at an opportunity to “do something” without reading or understanding anything, leave alone having an intellectual approach to the debate. Where the intelligence fails, so does the standard of debating, as I‘ve seen a thousand people mushroom overnight on the internet claiming to be the sole saviours of India. I find this growth of internet experts deeply disturbing, as they do not believe in a civilized debate, do not want to learn, and are adamant in taking the my way or highway route to every topic

The polarization amongst the various categories above , leading to silly generalizations such as “If you don’t support Anna Hazare, you are a traitor”, or “Anna Hazare fan boys have no brains and no say in political discourse”, or worse still “All Anna Hazare supporters are RSS members”. First of all, it’s not a crime to be affiliated to RSS, although I hold absolutely no brief for them; and secondly it does not reach some people’s brain that you can have a view on a given topic that is similar to RSS’s views, without having any affiliation with them

The absolute lack of application of brains to think, read, understand, and come up with solutions to this problem is shocking. I don’t have any magic bullets to solve corruption, as it involves multiple things to happen over a period of time (more reforms – especially opening up sectors such as retail, less government, strengthening democratic institutions instead of creating more extra constitutional layers such as NAC or Lokpal, more awareness campaigns on different forms of corruption etc )

I am deliberately not elaborating on this although I have some views to fill a blog post, as I am humble enough to say I am not an expert. Also, the few good experts I know have done a far better job articulating them in their words. I would urge you to read a plethora of blogs, publications and magazines to open yourself to different and innovative ideas on tackling this problem in sustainable way, without having to take to the streets. I hope to read, share, and be educated on well thought out solutions, to a complicated problem

So, how has our modern society shown leadership, especially in the context of the anti-corruption movement (using a scale that reads: Poor – Average – Good)

Doing / Activism: Good

I would say that the only good thing that has come out, and would be proved right in the long run, is a middle class waking up from a slumber. The bulging middle class is not indifferent any more, and is taking socio political involvement beyond their coffee table discussions. They are hopelessly wrong in the present episode with their logic and approach, but in the long run, you would rather take a stupid public, than a dead one. I hope I am proved right on this

Thinking / Intellect: Average

We have some experts, and lots of good ideas, but most of the country does not read blogs or listens to 1 hour lectures on tackling corruption (On an average, I would say only 1 out of every 10 visitors to this blog would have read so far, without leaving out of boredom, or because I said something about someone they are a fan of). And they do tend to have a class bias in that mocking / condescending tone used for Anna or Baba. Further, they ought to be doing a far better job of evangelizing their few good thoughts.

Pragmatic leadership:  Poor

Here is a question to those who don’t vote: why they hell don’t you vote? Here is a question to those who do vote: why do you still vote for a caste / community / family name, and then crib you don’t have good leaders.

The consequence of the apathy above, is reflected in the quality of our political leadership, and no major party or leader has shown good leadership in this episode.

Change / Innovation: Poor 

In this context, a few success stories would have made an overall impact on the national mood. But our economic growth has stalled, inflation is high, worries of recession impact is high, and economic success stories are far and few in between. A few success stories may not get rid of corruption, but do help to keep our spirits and brains on a high.

Artistic expression: Good 

Bollywood, TV and radio shows, artistes of all hues have donned the hats of activists, and the same assessment that applies for the activists, holds for them as well. On a slightly different topic, the convergence of mainstream commercial movies and what we used to call earlier as Art films, means that we are exposed to some good ideas and messages in films such as (to name a few on top of my head):  Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Swades. The quality of books coming out on Indian issues, is also good, so not many complaints here.

Verdict:

Juxtaposing the two strains of thought, I would conclude that in the most vital areas of political leadership / pragmatism, intellectual capacity and innovation, we fare very poorly, while we are doing okay with activism and expression. It’s almost like running a car equipped with excellent tyres, mirrors, and seats, without a good engine.

That engine of pragmatic, strong, and responsible political leadership, is at the heart of any good democracy. And the heart of a democracy is its diverse people. While some of our ignored people cried their hearts out, we Indians of middle class India slept. We were blind to the pains of the underprivileged, the tribals, and the poorest of the poor in our hinterlands. Today, we wake up with tremendous energy and are firing on all cylinders, albeit in the wrong direction. How different are we from the tribals up in arms against the corrupt leaders in their regions? The voting class is more awake than ever before, and the best way to use the energy is at the time of elections, by voting for, demanding for, endorsing for, and evangelizing for the few good leaders we have , cutting across our party, caste, community, class, and language biases.

The process of the change in politics would be slow, painful, and bumpy, but there is no better way, as every other alternate form to democracy, is fraught with far more dangers.

If in the meanwhile, you really want to do something useful there are many different ways to do so. You could do so be a change agent, show your skills as an entrepreneur and provide employment to a few people. You could contribute money, or volunteer for a cause. If you can sing, dance or write, you could use that skill to support various causes. Or just by merely trying to read more, understand deeper, and sharing your knowledge with others, you could do your two cents to the society. You don’t have to sit and fast on the streets, or force people to do so, to be a useful contributor to the society.

I personally aspire to be a Pragmatist / change agent, based on my introspcection of my qualities, and personal situation.

After all the evolution in the leadership quality, starts with each and every one of us, so before we expect a sea change from our ruling class, we have to be prepared to take a few baby steps in our lives.

Footnotes:

Since, I first published this blog, L’affaire Lokpal has become a soap opera that our 24*7 media has lapped up. Irrespective of who comes out on the winning side between team Anna & the government, the media houses are clearly smiling at their triumph.

But I am happy that finally some intelligent views have started emerging. First up, I was really impressed with Arun Jaitley’s speech in the parliament questioning the government’s handling of Anna. The gist of his brilliant oratory was: 1. You copied up to Anna first, 2. Then you dealt him with an iron hand, and created a mess, 3. BJP may not agree with many of Anna’s demands, but supports his right to protest, 4. The government should have handled this subject with much more political tact.

As an unexpected by-product, our parliamentarians have woken up, taken cognizance of the world looking at them, and are starting to show their responsible face.

Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsVVIoTaDCE

Then, Nandan Nilekani defended the existing parliamentary institutions of our democracy, in a far better way than most veteran politicians can manage. He is of course focussed on his UID project and how it can change retail corruption, and he is showing a lot more respect to our parliamentarians, than many of us would. But his views are worth hearing nevertheless. And, I wish congress leaders who are in silent mode, listened to his speech and took down some notes:

http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/anna-s-way-not-the-only-way-nandan-nilekani/208285

In the meanwhile, Team Anna is hell-bent on riding the emotional wave of last few weeks, and ramming down its version of the Lokpal bill down our throats. I was wondering how Anna and co have become so stubborn, and dictatorial, but as more articles and interviews emerged on their backgrounds, it all makes sense now.

Here is a brilliant profile of Arvind Kejriwal, by the Caravan magazine:

http://www.caravanmagazine.in/Story.aspx?Storyid=1050&StoryStyle=FullStory

And here are some stories you may not have heard, about the Anna whose name is on your T Shirt or cap:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD7fCRY7J94&feature=player_embedded

http://kafila.org/2011/04/12/the-making-of-anna-hazare/

I still remain firm in my views, that the so-called intelligent class has to hard sell its solutions (Nandan style), and not attack the personalities in Anna’s camp. But it is revealing to read about how Anna runs Ralegaon Siddhi (beating up drunk people, insisting on his solutions, moral policing), and I shudder to think of the wider negative impact when such people gain more political power.

Cheers!

Vasu

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Lessons for “V d Tweeple” & “We the people” on forging India ahead

“Kuch Kar Guzarne ko khoon chala, koon chala” (The blood stirred to do something), is an immensely inspirational song from the Hindi film “Rang De Basanti”. Over the last few weeks, my blood has boiled, rather than stir, at an immense sense of shame over being a mute spectator to India’s cancerous growth of corruption. Corruption across public institutions and political parties in India is no news, its something we have lived with throughout our history. But the last few months have seen scandals of shocking magnitude been exposed with wide-reaching ramifications. Throughout our history, we have relied on a combination of multiple bodies to make sure that the corruption is kept relatively at check, exposed when out of control, and the guilty are brought to justice even if it is late in the day. These include, but are not limited to: the Central Bureau of investigation (CBI), the judiciary, the Comptroller Audit general (CAG), the Lok Ayukta, and principally the mainstream media (MSM) whom we relied on to give us a relatively accurate picture of what is going on. One by one, the integrity of these bodies itself, has been questioned, but today we face a very dark day when the integrity of the MSM is under immense scrutiny, and thus leaving the average Indians gaping at a cloudy prism of information, without knowing what to believe, and what not to believe. It all started with the leak of tapped conversations between Niira Radia, an influential corporate lobbyist, in the public domain, a few months back, and later by Open & Outlook magazines in mid November, 2010. These magazines exposed her conversations with politician, her corporate clients, and significantly, respected Indian journalists who mould public opinion, and throw a light into the intense behind the scenes activity and lobbying to place the right man in the lucrative telecom ministry of India in 2009, to tap financial benefit from having their man. That man itself, is Mr. A. Raja, who had to quit his post as telecom minister in November 2010, when it was established that the auction of 2G Telecom spectrum to operators, has been rigged by him, and has cost India at least 39 Billion USD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._Raja). He is from the DMK party, which is a Tamil regional party, which is an ally of the ruling congress party.

It is indeed a tragic irony, that India which has been a strong driver of the “Information age” that we live in, is in danger of being blinded and misled by the MSM, and collectively failed to deal with the truth on time, in what is known as the “Radia tapes” controversy. The controversy itself would not have been known to a majority of Indians, if the social media / twitterati / netizens did not find the courage, drive and intelligence to fight the organized mass media blackout, that was orchestrated to protect a few influential journalists from public scrutiny.

Today, there are many un answered and worrying questions that I attempt to structure and address them in one essay This would be a detailed, candid, deeply introspective, yet solution seeking blog. I would touch upon multiple aspects of the functioning of our media, corporate, political system and civil society, but cannot claim insider knowledge on many topics, and hence would leave you with probably more questions than answers.

First up, since this is going to be a very political and controversial subject, I need to add a disclaimer here. I write this, and all my blogs as a private citizen, and a common Indian. I do not represent any company, group, party, ideology or internet activism group on my blogs. There are multiple vested stakeholders and average citizens engaging in shrill discussions online with the mass media, and I do not support or oppose any particular view point. Rather, I believe each person is more than capable of speaking for himself, as I am doing now. For a further understanding of my identity to those who do know me, kindly read the section “About me” before you proceed further.

The big questions in our minds:

1. What are undisputed the facts of the matter, as established news publications, and as acknowledged by the public figures involved? What exactly are the accusations? Has any financial undoing been established, directly or indirectly? If, not why are some of us making such a big deal out of it?

2. Who are the broad constituents of MSM; those are relevant to this discussion? Is the state of affairs in regional / vernacular / not so big media houses, the same as MSM, better, or worse? How has the MSM reaction, coverage, and analysis evolved over the course of last few weeks? Are we saying that the entire MSM is rotten, or are there still very respectable voices we listen to? Now that the MSM has finally discussed the journalists’ names on print and T.V, is it necessary to air these tapes to the general public?

3. What are hashtags like #barkhagate and who created these terms? Are they by any means affiliated to any religious, political group, or informal entity such as #internethindus? If not, why is this categorization by the MSM dangerous to the civil society?

4. Why is internet community so shrill in seeking the sacking of specific journalists, and are they behaving like a “lynch mob”? What is the historical context towards the immense hostility shown by thousands of netizens towards the MSM? Why is one particular journalist, Barkha Dutt the face of the debate, when so many more people are involved? Don’t we know that everywhere in the world, journalists are bound to be ideologically biased, and seeking to further interests of corporate that have stake in their media houses? Are we netizens naive, or is there a reason in asking for a utopian level of ethics from our MSM?

5. What lays beyond the tapes, in terms of corporate – political – public institution corrupt practices? Isn’t the corruption and nexus cutting across the political parties Is a smoke screen being created by some to divert public attention to the Radia tapes, and ignore the massive government scandals?

6. Is the 4th estate completely compromised, or is there hope for it to emerge stronger? How can the MSM co-exist with the ever growing clout of the informal internet based social media activists (5th estate) , and is it possible to look at this as mutually beneficial and healthy relationship? What is the tremendous positive opportunity that this historic moment in our country presenting to the average citizen as well as the mainstream media? Should, and how should the so called or informal internet based social media co-exist with the organized media? In the age of wiki leaks, is it possible for traditional and informal media to live in isolation?

What are undisputed the facts of the matter, as established news publications, and as acknowledged by the public figures involved? What exactly are the accusations? Has any financial undoing been established, directly or indirectly? If, not why are some of us making such a big deal out of it?

Here, is a brief summary of what started off as a small story of leaked Radia tapes a few months back, and what spiraled into a fire known as #Barkhagate. The wikipedia page on the Radia tapes controversy captures the summary quite accurately “The Radia tapes controversy relates to the telephonic conversations between Nira Radia, a professional lobbyist and an acquaintance of the (then) Indian telecom minister A. Raja, with senior journalists, politicians, and corporate houses, taped by the Indian Income Tax Department in 2008-09. The tapes led to accusations of misconduct by many of these people. Nira Radia runs a public relations firm named Vaishnavi Communications, whose clients include Ratan Tata’s Tata Group and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries”.

The people whom Radia interacted with in the course of her work, and whose voices have featured on the tapes available in the public domain so far, read like a “Who is who” of Indian public life:

Politicians: Raja, former Telecommunication and IT Minister; Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP; N.K. Singh, Rajya Sabha MP

Journalists: Barkha Dutt, Group editor, English news, NDTV; M.K. Venu, senior business journalist ; Prabhu Chawla, editor of India Today magazine; Rajdeep Sardesai; Shankar Aiyar, then with India Today Group; Vir Sanghvi, HT advisory editorial director

Industry Heads: Ratan Tata, Tata Group; Tarun Das, former CII head; (Mention of) Mukesh Ambani, Reliance Industries; Manoj Modi, Reliance Industries

Others: Ranjan Bhattacharya (foster son-in-law of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee); Suhel Seth, management guru and columnist

It has to be said here, that from what has been leaked to the public domain of the 5,000 odd conversations that are available with the IT department, most conversations are not of journalistic, public value. These are everyday conversations X or Y could have. Some of the conversations show a strong degree of lobbying, while in some it is very mild innuendo, and cannot be taken as any gesture of wrong doing.

These tapes were first published in the Open Magazine, and then the Outlook magazine, in Mid November: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/some-telephone-conversations

http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268069

Outlook and the Wall Street Journal are the few publications of repute that have covered these conversations, view points, in great detail, and have sections of their online portals dedicated to this topic. There is a treasure trove of information on these sites, that I request you to read, and there is no way I can repeat them here. I salute the editors of these publications along with my social media friends, for contributing facts and views to this debate.

None of the people named in the tapes, originally disputed the conversations were authentic, or the voice was not theirs. As the public outrage grew, some of the journalists maintained that though the voices were indeed theirs, selective parts of the conversations were strong together to present a not so faithful account.

Here are examples of some of the late clarifications, after intense to very valuable critical view points for more than a week, a sufficient time to prepare a strong defense:

http://www.ndtv.com/page/?type=barkha-statement

http://www.virsanghvi.com/CounterPoint-ArticleDetail.aspx?ID=582

http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?268162

The Congress party initially claimed these tapes cannot be verified, in a shocking statement of denial, and hasn’t followed that up with a more updated version of the truth, the last time I checked. The BJP made mild noises in the parliament on the tapes, but the fact that it hasn’t made as much noise as you would expect from the leading opposition parties, is probably a function of its house not being in order on corruption scandals and the anxiety that the other tapes, may feature potentially embarrassing conversations for its parties. More worryingly, it may not want to antagonize its already poor relations with the MSM. The BJP did however make a demand that the JPC probe into the 2G scam should feature the Radia tapes. We may probably never know the truth on why the BJP is so quiet on this and failing tactically and morally as an opposition.

Ratan Tata, has moved the courts to block the tapes from being accessible to the public, and gave an interview to Shekhar Gupta of Indian expressing discussing how potentially this was a ploy to divert attention from the bigger 2G scam: http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/walk-the-talk-with-ratan-tata/178312by

NONE of the conversations I have heard so far prove any direct financial mal practice or a quid pro quo, material wise. But most of the conversations reveal a broad agenda of Ms Radia to ensure that her clients benefited by having the right ministers in the right places, by having the journalists echo her clients’ view point in their columns or stories, and by using the journalists as go-betweeners or conduits between her corporate interests and the political party in power, the congress.

The broad issues that the critics of the journalists and MSM have pointed out, can be summarized as follows:

A. The journalists, have long been suspected of a strong left-liberal, pro congress bias, which by itself is perfectly fine, but something they have denied all along. These conversations indicate how close the journalists are to the ruling congress. Or at least, how close they claim to be.

B. As a journalist who was privy to an in depth understanding of how corporate were trying to lobby for ministries, favoring terms, this should have been the biggest journalistic story of their lives. Yet, none of them have published these stories, or hinted to the general public of the behind the scenes affairs. Thus even if they did absolutely nothing wrong, they failed massively in their duties as journalists of repute.

C. They promised acts that went way beyond their bounds as journalists. Thus, they misused the power of access that their employer gave them, for their personal agenda.

D. Once the tapes were leaked, by refusing to discuss them in their news channels, by refusing to air them on their channels or publish the transcripts on their papers, and by denying the critical public a credible explanation, until absolutely forced to by the social media activism, they have made what was a fleeting suspicion of wrongdoing, look like an attempt to bury the truth. There is absolutely no way to explain this attempted full black out, which is presently an attempt to massage the discussion in their favor

Who are the broad constituents of MSM relevant to this discussion? Is the state of affairs in regional / vernacular / not so big media houses, the same as MSM, better, or worse? How has the MSM reaction, coverage, and analysis evolved over the course of last few weeks? Are we saying that the entire MSM is rotten, or are there still very respectable voices we listen to? Now that the MSM has finally discussed the journalists’ names on print and T.V, is it necessary to air these tapes to the general public?

For the sake of discussion, I would refer to the large English newspapers, T.V channels, and their regional affiliates as the MSM. It is not possible for me to discuss the role of every regional news channel or newspaper, and hence the discussion would focus purely on the response, reactions of the MSM.

At the same time, I have to convey my inference from the few public debates I have heard on this debate, which the mess in regional and small news channels / papers is far worse, and there is a worrying lack of strong media guidelines being created, let alone enforced. The mess in Indian media, was captured wonderfully in the movie that satirized Indian media “Peepli Live”, and is India’s official entry to this years Oscars as the foreign film.

Outlook was one of the few credible MSM groups that ran the story with detailed follow-ups. Subsequently the only coverage it received (in rough chronological order) was from Washington post, Wall Street Journal, Deccan Herald, Express Buzz, The Hindu, Times Now, and CNN-IBN.

This is not to say that all of the Indian media is dumb and un ethical. Across the political spectrum of viewpoints, we still have active journalists like P. Sainath of the Hindu just to take an example, who remain loyal to their profession’s soul and write about topics we tend to ignore in a lucid, intelligent way. But, to the vast majority of the public, the NDTVs, CNN IBNS, Times Nows, Indian Expresses, Times of India, and Hindustan Times represent the English MSM

Last Friday, CNN-IBN had a panel show conducted by Karan Thapar, that was the first time that any news channel I follow, referred to Barkha, Vir, Venu, and Chawla’s names on air.

Sagarika Ghose of IBN, acknowledged the social media pressure that made her news channel take this up more seriously that it initially did on twitter, when she tweeted “OK twitterati please can you stop bombarding me with barkhagate. YES it’s a wake up call, YES we are all looking inward, YES we will all act!”

So, if by the time you read this blog, you have already heard a debate on this topic in public, and wonder why the hell I am making such a noise, please remember that if not for people like us, you wouldn’t have heard this story. I personally tweeted for weeks till my fingers ached, heard stories of people who tweeted and blogged taking leaves form work, and one impressive story of someone who was injured and immobile, and decided this was the most productive and useful thing he could do!

Some of the twitter conversations war filled with hate and rage, and some of the conversations revealed the simple minds of many Indians, but I stood along side all these people in pushing the media to the brink. The voices were shrill and perhaps the battle cries lost a lot of objectivity, but this had to be done, to ensure the media opens up and speaks about their holy cow. I have no sense of pride or shame about my actions. I felt I did what I had to do.

What are hashtags like #barkhagate and who created these terms?  Are they by any means affiliated to any religious, political group, or informal entity such as #internethindus? If not, why is this categorization by the MSM dangerous to the civil society?

#Barkhagate was the first hashtag created on Twitter to open up a social media debate on this topic. A Facebook group, and a blog with the same name was created, that went viral with thousands of people signing up, posting links / discussion, commenting on the same. I cannot say exactly who created #barkhagate (though I have a guess, but don’t want to reveal the person’s name as the MSM has in the past went after normal people to strike fear in the public). But as one of the thousands of people who tweeted day in and day out on the #barkhagate tag, I can only say we are all in it together.

Many of the people who were very critical of Barkha Dutt for multiple reasons (some I would elaborate on in the next section), felt that this was a catchy tag, and it spread rapidly. I am not for or against using that tag, and the strong suggestion that Barkha Dutt was the single person involved in a scandal.

Last week, after the #barkhagte tag trended on top for over a week, the twitter algorithm removed it from the top trending topics. Of the few active tweeters at that particular time there was a debate on whether to continue tagging #barkhagate, or create a replacement. I was of the opinion that a replacement tag would be a good idea and suggested #mediamafia for the following reasons: 1. It removes the suggestion of individual slander, and helps us remember that a larger section of the media is involved in the controversy either by featuring on the tapes, or by colluding with those on the tapes in the black out, 2. From a historical understanding of how I perceive the Indian media, I have no doubts that at times it behaves like a mafia, and is selective on the right to free speech, 3. In case of a proactive move by Barkha Dutt / NDTV to remove the tags associated with her name from Twitter, a generic tag name would not suffer, and the public debate would continue.

Since I floated the idea, the tag has been trending in top 5 for almost another week now, making the discussion of Radia tapes with multiple pseudonyms, the biggest story of the Indian Twitterati. And yet, this was blacked out by the MSM that runs 1 hour stories on 2 minute celebrity tweets, for far too long.

On all of these topics, the greatest positive for me was the coming together of a diverse set of Indians, who shared no common religious, political, ethnic, linguistic common ground. All of us were united in the media scrutiny, but as in a true democratic medium like twitter, deeply divided on our ideologies. I am emphasizing on this, as I was pained to discover the counter strategy by the MSM, and vested interests to paint all of us as a lynch mob of bigoted, right wing Hindus, funded by the Sangh Parivar. That is about the stupidest, most idiotic, and the most irresponsible statement I have ever heard on this subject.

The same applies to the thousands of Christians, Muslim, brothers and sisters who participated in these debates with me. Using divisive tools such as religion has been the way the British colonialists, and political parties have exploited us all along. Now the MSM has joined this deeply polarized, brazen escape route to deflect valid criticism. In the cloud of politically / ideologically / religiously motivated and abusive tweets by some, many of our sensible moderate voices, and highly relevant questions to the media, were almost lost.

Whatever action you may or may not take on the Radia Tapes, I request the MSM not to characterize everyone who questions you as a vested interest or a fringe elements / nuisance in the society. By doing so, you are not achieving any credibility for yourself in the long run, you are deepening the polarization in our society that many of us fight so hard to reduce, and you also reduce any potential chances of mutual trust between the average Indian and your fraternity. I cannot speak for all netizens, as the internet is a true democracy in action in terms of its sensible and ugly voices mingling together. I cannot speak for all, but anyone who searches these hashtags would know that amongst the many right wing Hindus (or #internerthindus as Sagarika Ghose of IBN categorized them) un-necesarily critisicising Barkha’s pro Kashmiri Muslim bias in this debate, there were so many thousands sensible voices of Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike asking very profound intelligent questions to the media

Why is internet community so shrill in seeking the sacking of specific journalists, and are they behaving like a “lynch mob”? What is the historical context towards the immense hostility shown by thousands of netizens towards the MSM?  Why is one particular journalist, Barkha Dutt the face of the debate, when so many more people are involved? Don’t we know that everywhere in the world, journalists are bound to be ideologically biased, and seeking to further interests of corporate that have stake in their media houses? Are we netizens naive, or is there a reason in asking for a utopian level of ethics from our MSM?

Most Indians hate or love Barkha Dutt, and there are very few people I know who were neutral to her. I had a lot of respect for her during the Kargil war coverage, where she made her name and earned her celebrity status. But I do remember thinking, as a naive college kid, if it is a security risk having live T.V coverage when the war was actually happening. I didn’t think much about it at that time, but subsequently understand that her war coverage has been critically analyzed by many public figures including those in the armed forces. I am not taking ay sides here, but would leave her Kargil war coverage as one of the many inflection points when people started getting really upset with her.

Subsequently her championing of many causes such as empathy to Kashmiri separatism, celebrity murder cases such as Jessica Lal (while not spending much air time on not so famous people who were murdered or raped brutally), the Tsunami coverage, and the coverage of the Godhra riots in 2002, left most people polarized. To some, she represented a journalist who told the human suffering angle in every story and that endeared them. To others, who had strong views on these subjects, they saw her as shrill, loud, and in constant belief that her view point was the only opinion that mattered (I personally think her viewpoint on quite a many things are valid, but that doesn’t matter when you don’t let the panel or audience talk when they disagree with you)

But to most, the most shocking incident came during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hers was not the only coverage that was shameful, but her T.V channel cannot deny that by revealing sensitive information, and live coverage of a counter terror strategy, they could have POTENTIALLY, UNWITTINGLY helped the terrorists in their mission.

While I was shell shocked, the biggest blow was to come later. A blogger called Chaitanya Kunte wrote a very critical blog after the Mumbai attacks against the T.V coverage of NDTV / Barkha Dutt. Mr. Kunte is a common man like you and me, and was obviously shell shocked and that reflected in the choice of his words, and some bias in his arguments. He is no journalist, and wrote a piece that most bloggers would consider good enough to publish. NDTV acted in a brazen manner, swooped down on him, forced him to remove the blog and issue an apology instead. Kindly Google his name, and check if you can see the original blog. Chances are you won’t, but nevertheless every Indian ought to know his name.

He is the face of the common man, who dares to question a bid media house, and a celebrity journalist, and got punished in the end. This was the symbol of the MSM’s bullying ugly face, and any one who challenges me why we use names like media mafia, would be urged to study this example. A mafia don would have been proud of such an attack on an individual who chooses to question his intelligence or authority. In my mind, he is the icon of our fight for a media soul searching drive.

Barkha has constantly questioned why people have attacked her more than anyone else. Well if she read this blog, she would know, but perhaps so sue me as well? I don’t know and I don’t care if she does. Its about time we stopped making heroes of these average journalists who sensationalize everything for TRPs, violate un-written yet well understood journalistic code of conduct, lose the plot from being a person who covers the story to being the story, wear their political biases so blatantly on their sleeves without ever acknowledging them and mislead the public, bully anyone who dares question them, and most importantly, do not have an ability to “JUST SAY SORRY”.

To me she is has fallen as a public figure, political commentator, and TV celebrity anchor even if no quid pro quo can be established in this episode. It’s for NDTV to decide what to do with her, and they can take the moral high ground, or believe that people can always “watch another channel if they don’t like her”, or that people will forget this fuss in a few months time. Trust me, we will stop watching your news channel, but not forget this episode for a long time to come!

As for Vir Sanghvi, you just need to listen to the tapes, and match it with everything you have read or heard from him. The tapes reveal the extent to which Vir is politically close to power centers, and the extent to which he can distort the truth so as to present his friend’s viewpoints. There is enough evidence to suggest that one his popular counterpoint columns., matches very closely what Radia dictated him to write. It is difficult for me to write any more on his actions without losing my cool, so would stop here. But, please do listen to the tapes featuring him.

As far as media ethics itself is concerned, none of us are living in a fairy tale land where all news is true. We do acknowledge that media houses are run by cooperates, and media interacts on a daily basis with the good and bad people, and there is no utopian world.

But here is why, in spite of working in a corporate myself and acknowledging the pressure the media houses may face, I still seek a soul searching amongst the fraternity:

A. The Indian media, probably has the most preachy, “holier than thou”, and wise tone when attacking political, or advising the public, or jumping to conclusions about political / public leaders in a jiffy. The choice I am asking you to make is to tone down the preachiness, or be subject to the debate yourself. You can’t have the cake and eat it too!

B. Most Americans or Europeans are smart enough to understand the political and corporate connection between each media house. Most Indians do not understand these subtleties. Most Republican voters would watch Fox News, and Democratic left-liberals would watch MSNBC, and it’s accepted as part of the game. Apart from Pioneer, and Outlook, none of the media houses I know of accept their political ideology and are categorical about it. In, short you can quote honestly that you are pro congress before you play 200 propaganda stories of Rahul Gandhi in a poor man’s house, or taking a train, or you maintain you are neutral and keep the news un biased. You are well within your right to be pro party, as long as you can explain your stance in a well informed and intelligent manner. I am not a left winger, but I admire Vinod Mehta of Outlook for always being categorical about his ideological bias. If you for example, love Rahul Gandhi so much or hate Narendra Modi , you owe the country a credible explanation in terms of books, documentary shows, etc that describe why. Today I may not vote for Rahul, but if I watch a T.V show that presents a critical study of his achievements, I may be inclined to. (I am just kidding, I know he has done nothing worthwhile so far, but still if he is the media darling., I’d like to know why)

C. You cannot have different rules for different people. In your TRP wars you play tapes of sex scandals involving god men, exposes of corrupt politicians, hate speeches, and seditious speeches again and again, but you have collectively blacked out airing the Radia Tapes. You can collectively brainstorm on how to be more responsible as a MSM in airing sensitive tapes, or you can say we will air all tapes immediately without verification. You need to have one consistent rule book in your game

What lays beyond the tapes, in terms of corporate – political – public institution corrupt practices? Isn’t the corruption and nexus cutting across the political parties? Is a smoke screen being created by some to divert public attention to the Radia tapes, and ignore the massive government scandals?

Most tweeters, bloggers would probably just seek Barkha or Vir’s resignation, and forget the rest of the people involved. That doesn’t apply to people like me, for in spite of whatever strong views I may have on these journalists, I know that they are very small fish in a large ocean of sharks and killer whales.

Every public institution in the country is under the scanner, and as Ratan Tata mentioned, it is quite possible that the tapes were leaked by vested interests in power to deflect the attention from the corruption scandals. I have tremendous respect for Ratan Tata to understand that he was seeking a level playing field in the political decisions of the telecom spectrum allocation, but by not allowing the common man to hear all the tapes and make up their minds, he is not helping us clear the air. Rather, the air has started becoming murkier.

There is long way to go before, India can achieve social an economic development that is good enough for it to be classified as a developed nation, leave alone superpower status. As discussed in my previous blogs on challenges facing India, having an ethical, intelligent, modern, and pro active media that gets its house in order is the critical first step in our long and painful journey to progress.

The media is the prism through which we view the society, nation, and the world, and today the prism is extremely distorted. Fixing the prism may not fix all the problems, and neither would breaking it altogether. But we need to collaborate in ensuring the media comes out of this dark episode in a healthier shape.

Is the 4th estate completely compromised, or is there hope for it to emerge stronger? How can the MSM co-exist with the ever growing clout of the informal internet based social media activists (5th estate) , and is it possible to look at this as mutually beneficial and healthy relationship? What is the tremendous positive opportunity that this historic moment in our country presenting to the average citizen as well as the mainstream media? Should, and how should the so called or informal internet based social media co-exist with the organized media? In the age of wiki leaks, is it possible for traditional and informal media to live in isolation?

Ayushmedh, a friend of mine, wrote a blog a while back wondering of the traditional MSM as we know would and shouuld be replaced by a 5th estate of informal netizens discussing news: http://jindagi-ek-pathshala.blogspot.com/2009/03/fifth-estate.html

He is not the first one with the idea, and neither would he be the last. We live in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Wiki leaks, Google, Blogs, YouTube etc, where it is possible to make news reach people in no time. It’s called “going viral” and more often than not it happens to bad news or ugly sensationalistic trash. But every now and then, such as the Mumbai Terror attacks, the IPL scandal, and now the Radia Tapes controversy, the 5th estate has shown its tremendous positive value to the society

But I live in no illusions of self grandeur, dreaming that I would run an internet based news agency one day that makes NDTV feel like an extinct dinosaur. I know that when the dust settles on this all of us would get back to our busy careers and personal live.  On the contrary, I strongly believe its time for both sides to acknowledge how they can compliment each other and make sure that in the Information era, credible, intelligent, ethical, and quick dissemination of information prevails.

Here are some rough thoughts, on how this should pan out in the long run:

A. Educate everyone you know to use traditional and social media pro actively. When a simpleton drinking tea and reading news in rural Tamilnadu, develops the intelligence to verify what he read in his Dina Thanthi news paper, by checking it on the latest internet connection he got at his home, you have forced the traditional media to improve its standards

B. The internet empowered generation can serve as a powerful conscience keeper, by constantly forcing the media to develop better standards and accuracy

C. The social media guys who do not get to interact with the news makers, can benefit from hearing what journalists who have that power access, say on social media forums

D. The fact that we literally FORCED CNN-IBN to have a panel discussion on this topic, is a positive sign for me that while the MSM can be very selective in its hearing, it is not fully deaf. Every intelligent person with international exposure, or curiosity to look beyond traditional media, that I know of, would vouch for you that the quality of shows, documentaries, panel discussions, and topics on channels like BBC, Discovery, National Geographic / History channel, even Al Jazeera, is far better than most Indian channels. I would personally blog about topics I would love to see discussed on Indian T.V, and when this sort of feedback is slowly but surely addressed, you have a winning formula

E. Public figures, especially politicians should be aware that if they were living in the west, they cannot get away from being silent on so many topics of national interest. I would love to see a panel show debate on topics like the NREGA, the Gujarat / Bihar development story (are these true, or are these illusions?), check back on previous corruption scams, India’s defense strategy, India’s approach to counter Maoism threat and ensure development in the tribal areas. Imagine if you could get Arundhati Roy and Chidambaram to spar at each other on the Maoism topic. Too many of our leaders and ministers get away from not airing publicly what their approach to any topic is, and I think that’s because they do not have any approach at all in the first place. The modern 4th / 5th estate can help us separate the wheat from the chaff and tell us who the credible leaders are across party lines. In fact one of the tweets, I shared, ran something like this” I dream 4 D day, when I can watch a pre election T.V debate b/w Mayawati, Sonia, Modi, Nitish moderated by Karan Thapar”

F. How many books have you read by our MSM celebrities? How many of them are capable of writing one on the topics they love to shout loudly about? How many of them have the ability to present a policy paper on engaging with China? How many people can tell you what REALLY happened during J.P Narayan’s socialistic movement, without living in the 1970s themselves? The answer is quite a few, but none that you and I may have heard of. There are like I said, many credible journalists, and perhaps it is time the MSM brought them to the fore, and the average social media geek read them first before jumping into a lets bomb China first discussion on Twitter

Like I mentioned earlier, this blog would perhaps have more questions than answers. But the very fact that many common men like me have these questions, and would eventually find an answer, leaves me with hope. In fact, I can state without doubt this rather dark blot in our history as a free speaking democracy, has actually given us a tremendous opportunity; It has given us a historic chance to blend the voice of the different India, and evolve a society that can discuss freely, critically yet non abusively about topics we had no clue about earlier; It has also given us the opportunity to wake up the middle class from its long slumber of indifference to the society, and placed in their hands, a chance to make up for days when we slept; It has given a chance for Hindus and Muslims to walk side by side in asking for more from its public figures; It ha s given a chance for the credible journalists to emerge even stronger in public view, while the tainted ones can either acknowledge their mistakes and improve, or live in denial and fade away; It has given a chance for the day when a villager in U.P or Rajasthan, would vote for a particular party or leader based on a well informed decision, and not because party X paid channel Y to make a hero out of leader Z.

This is not a dream, but a statement of hope. I pledge to make this hope come true for my future generation, would you care to join me?

Cheers!

Vasu

What are India’s biggest challenges in our quest to become a vibrant, rich, progressive, and powerful nation?

There have been multiple inspirations to study in detail, where India stands in the world, and which direction it should head in. At some level you could say, it is an enduring fascination throughout my life. Self –assessment, benchmarking with peers, and identification of improvement areas is something I am obsessed with doing for myself. I extend that to other things I am passionate about, from the silly to the critical. As a natural extension to my relentless quest for personal and social improvement and change for the better, India’s growth and challenges is a perennial topic of interest to me

In fact, even on this blog, I have made multiple straw man lists, of issues that we face, and must improve on, individually, and collectively as a society. But like indicated in my previous blog, I have decided to structure, consolidate, and synthesize in a far more detailed way, and hence this attempt.

But perhaps the biggest inspiration, as well as catalyst to structure these thoughts, was Ramachandra Guha, an author whom I tremendously admire, though not always accepting his views (For that matter, I very rarely agree with anyone without a hard debate, so I guess for most parts, Guha convinces me as well as any one can). In addition to having reading most of his columns, and his book “India after Gandhi”, I stumbled upon his lecture in Canada, here on

YouTube:

The topic is “10 reasons why India cannot, and must not become a superpower”
If you are left-wing, or anyone looking for an excuse to bash India, here is a clarification: This is not India bashing, but a pragmatic analysis of India’s significant challenges, some well-known, and some not so well-known
If you are ultra patriotic / jingoistic / right-wing, here is another clarification: The authors of this blog, as well as Guha, are declared patriots, and love our country. But sometimes, it makes sense to be realistic in assessment of our flaws, so we can truly succeed. I love India tremendously, but like Guha, I am not blind to our gaping weaknesses.

So, I urge anyone reading this blog without vested interests, and anyone who is understanding India well, to spend good time listening to, and studying this speech. It’s an hour well spent, and would definitely lead you a bit more cognizant of understanding India.

Here is the list of 10 topics, which Guha broadly categorizes as significant challenges India faces:
1. Left wing extremism / Maoism violence in tribal belt
2. Right wing religious fundamentalism, that is presently under control, but may raise its head any time
3. Dynastic politics
4. Failure / corruption of public institutions
5. Growing gap between the rich and the poor
6. Degradation of natural / environment / resources
7. Media apathy
8. Political fragmentation and the consequent incoherence in policy
9. Un reconciled borderlands
10. Unstable neighborhoods

But why does he say “India should not” aspire to be a super power. I leave it to his articulation of the same, and it’s a brilliant analogy. It’s not something I agree 100% with, because as an individual, I am full of audacity, hope, and optimism. But I do, agree to a large extent that in the minds people in the world, “super power” has multiple negative connotations. I am personally of the view, that the world should NOT HAVE any super powers at all, rather a broad mix of strong countries with common values that manage the world and I would definitely like to see Indian in that club.

I broadly agree with Guha’s list, though my attempt is to structure it differently, and add a few points of my own. For example, I think we have all found it easy to use phrases like “India & Bharat”, or Rahul Gandhi’s naive, lame attempt of “There are two Indias,…”. It is too simplistic to use left-wing extremism / Maoism in tribal areas, and classify it as a rich India / vs. poor India debate. We are an extremely fragmented and diverse country, and that’s the beauty of the Indian experiment, which to me is still a dream. Hence, my list and future blogs would refer to the multitudes of India’s that live within one geographical mass that is the Indian sub-continent.

Before I go into my list, I would urge you to read about me, in order to make a valid comment. In most societies, it is possible to dissociate the identity of the author from his / her view, because my understanding of India and experience with social media and blogging suggests that it is better to have an upfront disclaimer of who I am

Here is how I would classify, India’s biggest challenges from becoming a superpower. Kindly note: 1. The list is not in any specific order of importance, 2. For each of the topics in the list, I would like to dedicate my time to develop my understanding significantly, so as to assess what potential solutions are the most pragmatic. As and when I have the level of knowledge of the topic I am confident about, I would dedicate a detailed blog to that and link it here, and 3. I have not included multiple challenges, where I have felt that the society, and polity is well aware and has made progress on addressing them:

1. The mess with our main stream media, and the far-reaching consequences :

Let me state this in categorical terms here: India’s main stream media is collectively un ethical, too light on substance, does not have the ability to look at itself critically and improve, is full of shallow journalists who sensationalize news in their attempt to become celebrities, panders easily to those with power and money and is far short of world standards when it comes to credibility and substance. All this and more I would be covering in very great detail, in my next blog, and this topic has risen to #1 in my priority list, based on the ongoing revelations of the 2G Telecom scam, Radia tapes leak, and the issue referred to as “Barkhagate”. The mess goes far beyond 1 or 2 people under great scrutiny now, yet there is a need to be empathetic to our mainstream media on the unique challenges their profession faces in India. As a society, we need to take this problem fare more seriously than we do, as we are completely unaware of how it affects decisions in life , that range from the trivial to the strategic: Be it investing in the market, or deciding which food to eat, or which party / leader to elect, our media has collectively clouded our judgment, and this has to be rectified soon.

2. Socio political challenges, mapped with our ethnic identities:

a. Why are we such suckers for a monarchy / dictatorship?
Our very deeply ingrained respect for authority, stemming from our idol worship / Bhakti culture, has had many positive effects in shaping modern India, but is it good in the long run? In present context, we have become a country of hero-worship, making and destroying celebrity heroes out of undeserving people. To me, we are perennially a few weeks away from becoming a fully functional dictatorship, which Indira Gandhi came very close to achieving, and which Guha only mildly refers to as Dynastic politics. While the Gandhi family, lives in a perennial dream of ruling the country forever as kings & queens, the last few decades have seen the cancerous spread of hero-worship to other political parties, corporate, god men / swamis, and even media personalities

b. Sustainability of our “confused democracy”:
For any political analyst, India is a rich country to study with its diverse range of political ideologies and parties. Yet, I am of the strong opinion that each of the political spectrums in our country has a sham of a party representing it
Left-liberal / Centrist: I am clubbing the Congress, the multiple Communist / Socialistic parties in this. Collectively they are a massive failure on the ground in the last 60 years, yet have the right media, muscle, and money power to portray otherwise. Nehruvian policies of international neutrality, socialism, were valid at that time, and while some in the Congress have moved on (driven by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is the best congress leader post Nehru), the left is still stuck in the 19th century. The biggest areas of Maoist / Naxalite problems are regions dominated by left-wing politics for 6 decades; Congress has won votes in the name of the poor, without doing any up liftment for the poor masses; and the Congress likes to play a good cop / bad cop game with us: If any populist scheme / governance mechanism is implemented successful it is due to the benevolence of the Gandhi family, if there is any failure, it is indirectly passed onto the Prime Minister, and the royal family is protected at any cost. The Congress also practices a Centrism of no – action: we will wait, wait, and wait forever and not take a stance lest it may affect our votes from a particular group, and finally we will make a small wound into a cancerous growth.
Right-wing: BJP is a party which has some ideological view points I agree with (national security, uniform civil law, a certain amount of pride and patriotism for the country, free market based economy, and meritocracy). And the last time I voted, I voted for Vajpayee, who was right-of center, and able to control the far right voices in the Sangh Parivar. Like it or not, the RSS is a non constitutional authority just like the Gandhi dynasty when not holding power, or Russians / Chinese dictating Communist in India (Ironically I have always light-heartedly maintained to my RSS friends, that if you split from BJP and have your extreme right-wing party, I would not mind that compared to sitting in Nagpur and bullying the BJP leadership in Delhi). BJP’s biggest emerging leader is Modi, and post Godhra he has constantly referred only to Gujarat’s development and infrastructure in his speeches. Has he shed the hard-line Hindutva agenda, or is this an illusion? If Modi never raises the communal issues, and Muslims vote Modi and BJP in Gujarat, Bihar, why does the media keep raising it – who is right, and who is wrong, or is there a grey area? What are the ideological views and governance experiences of the others in the BJP? There are many un answered questions to me, and the sooner these are addressed, and the sooner the internal leadership tussle in the right wingers is settled one way or another, the better it is for India., The next few years in Indian politics are absolutely crucial to our democracy, as we wait and watch if the right BJP would turn up. An extreme right-wing / tea party kind of party would be extremely divisive and polarizing, while a right of center, pro development party would be strongly welcomed to most in the public, yet under constant scrutiny of the media that is by and large strongly biased to the left liberals. If the right BJP does emerge, will they engage pro actively with the masses, minorities, and media to remove their present political untouchables / pariah status?

The parties that focus on specific ethnic / caste / linguistics identity, at best serve a short-term purpose of achieving social parity, but in the long run, unless they can reach out beyond their specific identity, they would not do any good for India. Without an exception, ALL political parties in India have a confused understanding of secularism, and purely use the word for getting votes.

Thus, a few parties that represent each valid aspect of the spectrum, is important for any democracy to thrive. Whether in power, or in the opposition, the BJP and Congress have a lot of internal cleansing to do, and do it quickly while the country loses its patience with its major parties.

The other key to making our present confused democracy into a thriving democracy, rather than a banana republic, lies with the citizens. Why is the urban middle class that is so quick to blog, tweet, and gossip about national politics, reluctant to take part actively in public protests, democratic, movements, or vote? When was the last time you discussed any political issue when hanging out with friends, and did not get a gentle suggestion to change the topic? How many more “Rang De Basanti” or “Swades”, do you need to watch before you stop criticizing the system, and did your bit to improve any one small part of the system?

3. Lack of concrete state, and efforts to reduce the polarization in our cultural / religious / ethnic identities
Here, I seek to rebut the simplistic, “two India’s” theory. Actually, we are a motley crew of extreme diversity. While “Unity in diversity” is a fantastic theme, it is a glorified dream, which we have somehow remarkably managed to sustain for 6 decades. The sharp differences go beyond Rich Vs. Poor: Marathis Vs Non Marathis in Mumbai, Tamil Vs. Hindi in Chennai, Economically progressive Southern & Western states vs. poor BIMARU states, Aryan Vs. Dravidian in the south, upper caste vs. lower caste vs. dalits vs tribals, the India that builds 50 storey buildings in Mumbai Vs. the India that is shockingly exploited in Chattisgarh, Kashmiri Pandits Vs. Kashmiri separatists, conservative and ultra religious vs. liberal and agnostic, urban vs. rural, patricidal men vs. increasingly empowered women, urban women who run companies vs. rural women married at 5 and serve as slaves to their families, and most critically Hindu Vs Muslim across India.

At any given points of time, there are massive separatist discussions and activism that happens, and we shy away from engaging with those on the other side of the fence. There are some issues we are aware of, and have solved in the past, but many of us live in total bliss, un aware that it could all fall apart quite quickly. While I am proud of this diversity, of late I am surprised that in this information age, our differences are becoming highly polarized, rather than blurring out and co-existing peacefully.

There are no easy answers, or short-term solutions, and I am yet to hear 1 Indian leader that can articulate a vision to bridge the multiple Indias. But at the personal level, a lot of us can open out and reach out to those people who have Indian passports, but look, talk, eat, and behave very differently from us. Since this is a complicated theme, I would need a dedicated blog that focuses on specific topics

4. Development & economy
Here are the broad problems that I see with the long-term sustainability of our economic progress:
A. Highly service and export oriented, without having enough focus on investing in bleeding edge technology
B. If the big global economies weren’t in recession, and the time right for exports, would Indian have seen such growth in the last few years? I am no economist, so i would take an expert who would challenge me, but if the answer is no, what happens to us when the other countries pick up steam
C. What is the next big economic idea to come out of India, that has not been adopted elsewhere already?
D. Is the “Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” being exploited by the rich to become richer, or used judiciously to foster inclusive growth?
E. Whether you buy a cell phone, pizza, or SUV, is the service quality or sales skills anywhere on par with international standards? (On a lighter but related note, my dad bought a Volkswagen recently in India, and was shocked at the service. He felt a roadside hawker selling Bhel Puri, would have done a better customer relations job, and that if not for the big brand and the actual car being good, none of these people would be in business!)
F. What are our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of progress: To many people, it is the number of Indians that feature in Forbes lists, and that’s total BS. Do we pro actively measure ourselves on measures that range from rural development, success of our schemes such as NREGA, infant mortality rates, health and hygiene numbers, number of graduates in India, etc? A lot of people could find this bit a little harshly critical, because in reality there are millions of intelligent people in the country that work at the grass-roots, but I still state it here, because when you sit in your 3 room central Mumbai house, and open your news paper, or switch on your T.V, or invite your business partner for lunch, I bet these topics don’t feature.
G. How many average Indians understand basics of money management, cash flow, investment & returns?

5. Our volatile neighborhood
On this topic, I am 100% in sync with Guha, so there is no need to repeat. Except to add that, in spite of having the misfortune of having Pakistan as our neighbors, we have to pro actively engage with our neighbors, while at the same time strengthening our security and military capabilities. If India shines spectacularly, while the rest of the sub continent is in shambles, it is not a recipe for long-term good.

Cheers!
Vasu

From Chennai to Chelsea, Anaivarukkum iniya puthaandu vazhthukkal!

“I wish Chennai a very Happy Tamil New Year” M.S  Dhoni signed off, after Chennai Superkings (CSK) thrashed Kolkata Knight Riders at Chepauk, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament.

It brought a rare smile on my face on what has been a day of lousy, but not to unexpected news alerts, on the ugly affairs behind the scenes of IPL. For those who are bothered in reading further, I would recommend an excellent blog and discussion on this topic, which I’ve been tracking all day: http://prempanicker.wordpress.com/2010/04/13/actions-reactions/

It made smile because CSK jumped from 7th place to 2nd place, in a league so tightly contested that there are enough voices guessing that all this is all fixed to ensure a successful IPL 2010. While I am not jumping the bandwagon with the conspiracy theorists, given the people involved in running the show & our cricket history, I won’t be too surprised. And Chennai’s 7 to 2, and may be back to 7 in a few days show, just makes you wonder and indulge the conspiracy theorists for a while.

 That was a curiously funny smile 🙂

It made me smile, because CSK is one of the teams I support, and though ultimately I don’t really care who wins, sometimes native loyalties can break all cynicism and indifference you may have for a sports tournament. To me, the real buffet as a cricket lover is India touring South Africa this year, and Australia next year; that what would be the last time I get to see pillars of the Indian game like Sachin and Dravid, before they fade away into the sunset. It’s probably our best chance ever for those two missing series victories to justify our #1 test team tag.

The IPL is a good evening snack to have before the sumptuous buffet later this year, but a CSK win brings out a chuckling smile nevertheless 🙂

For the record, my loyalties for the IPL are divided between Chennai (where I was born and grew up), Bangalore (lived most of my adult life, and is a second home), and Delhi (I’ll back any team Sehwag plays for in any format)

It made me smile, for one of the few positives amongst the hordes of stupidity that the IPL brings. That Dhoni, a man from Jharkand, is seen as their own by the Chennai fans is beyond doubt. He was obliviously playing to the gallery, and expects the Chennai crowd to be even more vociferous in support in the coming matches. I am hoping the IPL does not divide us even more, and make us add to our four walls of religion, community, language and social strata. The bonding that happens between a Dhoni and Tamils; a Yusuf Pathan and Rajasthanis; a Bhajji with Mumbaikars (how did Raj Thackeray allow him to play in the first place?); and a Sachin Tendulkar with all Indians is a special feeling that only sports can provide. Witness the Argentine Messi playing at Barca, for sheer magic!

That was a genuine smile 🙂

It also made me smile, as officially I do not think it is the Tamil New Year in the first place! There was an utterly unwanted, and stupid political move thrust upon by the DMK government a few years back to make January 14 the Tamil New Year, changing the traditional date of April 14. All their petty agendas aside, the people still celebrate April 14 as the New Year, and January 14 as Pongal. I do not know what the official stance is now and I do not care. Even Wikipedia is inconclusive.

 Just as Madras will always be Madras to me, (and so it goes for Bombay, Calcutta etc), April 14 is always the New Year, and it usually means good food. And oh yeah, I would celebrate January 1 and any other new years that are there as well; the more festivals there are the merrier, I say!

That Dhoni was oblivious to the controversy, and wished folks of his temporary adopted home well, and in the process give a middle finger to divisive politicians who have no other work, brought out the biggest smile of the day for me  🙂

So here I am wishing any person reading this now, “Iniya puthaandu vazhthukkal”, or a happy new year in Tamil. We have a short life, so any occasion to celebrate and be festive is precious, and meant to be lapped up.

 I’ll leave you with a song from one of the few Tamil films I loved in the recent past, called Subhramaniapuram. This  is a period film set in early 80s, and this song is a modern fusion of traditional Tamil folk sounds. Sort of represents the good, silly, and funny things about our culture in an interesting way. The dances and village road shows (Thiruvizha) are truly representative of life in the Tamil hinterland.

Have a ball everybody 🙂

Cheers!

Vasu 

Footnote: If you are inclined to comment, please wish me a happy new year in your language, in addition to whatever you had to say. That would be nice and interesting 🙂

Update on April 25: Thanks for those who voted on the poll earlier. For the record, Chennai won the IPL in a classic final beating Mumbai Indians. In spite of all the controversies around, the game was the winner, and Dhoni is on track to become Tamilnadu’s chief minister in the future, given our love for embracing an outsider who shines in our territory 🙂

Yes we can!

Much has been written and said about Obama winning this year’s Nobel peace prize.  I would say it was an absurd decision, but we have seen funnier things happen in life!

This cartoon somebody sent to me by e-mail captures it better than any detailed political analysis would do.

Enjoy 🙂

Cheers!

Vasu

Excerpts from Ramachandra Guha’s “India after Gandhi”. Reproduced from Outlook magazine

http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?234562.

This is one of the best books I’ve read that discusses India’s modern history and role in the world. I may not agree to all the points made, but I strongly admire the central themes of Indian democracy, pluralism, and ability to cater to the needs of a significantly diverse population, in the face of complexities of the magnititude not witnessed anywhere else in the world.

The book is a strong recommendation for any Indian / person interested in India. At the very least, you can try to read & absorb this article 🙂

Cheers!

Vasu

Hello world!

Hello world!

This is not my first blog, but it’s my first at word press. After irrationally switching blogs from different sites just to see if I am more active with it, I am here!

Sounds fairly stupid, but what is a life without any stupidity or silly acts?

My “About me” section is not going to tell you anything, and most probably a few good friends would be the only people to read his blog to start with, so I thought I would start with a short intro and a long list of topics I want to write about.

I am an Indian man, in late twenties, single, working in business consulting, and living in Europe after seeing a few snippets of other countries. The rest, you either know if you are a friend, or would know if and when you read my blogs.

So without further ado, here is a very ambitious list of topics close to my heart that I have strong views on, and where I wish to write, and get critical feedback on: 

  1. The story of my experiments with charting my own path to life:
  2. Role models:
  3. Indian politics and social issues
  4. Religion & faith
    • Religious, ideological and cultural dogmas that ail the world
    • Can you be rational, liberal and not a communist
    • Can you be a believer, spiritual, and not religious?
    • The supremely powerful entity called I
  5. Globalization: the Good, the bad, and the Ugly
  6. Us and them: Impact of globalization on India:
  7. Relationships
    • Why do we complicate, essentially simple things?
    • Inter cultural relationships: why I find the concept so exciting!
    • From an Indian perspective: why are most Indian men jeans wearing patriarchs?  Family system and feudal mindset vs. western inspired romantic and sexual awakening: where is this clash going?
  8. Travelogues from planned and spontaneous, long, and short trips, to faraway lands, or nearby villages
  9. Funny / light hearted tales from everyday life
  10. The life of an expat
  11. Movies I have loved and watched over and over again
  12. My bucket list of whims and fancies that posses me, what I managed to do, and what are still pipe dreams: Ranging from owning  a German Shepherd, to making a film,  to climbing Everest
  13. Epics and mythologies: what we can learn from them, and what should be taken with a pinch of salt
  14. The big, bad, virtual world: How a lot of us have learnt a lot using the internet vs. how stunted our social skills could become due to / in spite of social networking
  15. Links to interesting blogs / articles / videos  that I have an opinion on, or that I find just plain funny
  16. Quotes and statements that resonate with me 

That’s it for the lofty plan! 

I have started at this website by sharing links to a few select blogs I wrote earlier, and are dated pretty much mid 2007

Cheers!

Vasu

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