Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

That Narendra Modi joke you’ve never heard

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:46 pm

There is a famous scene in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, where Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is recovering in a hospital after being seriously wounded in a gun fight with the hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in the role of a life time).

A bed-ridden Moss is visited by another hitman, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is surprised to find Moss alive after his encounter with Chigurh.
“What’s this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?” asks an irritated Moss.
“No, I wouldn’t describe him as that,” says Wells.
“How would you describe him?” Moss wants to know.
Chigurh is a remorseless killer, the most dangerous man imaginable. But Wells doesn’t say any of that. Instead, this is how he describes Chigurh: “I guess I would say he doesn’t have a sense of humour.”
Like lightning that illuminates an entire landscape in a single flash, this one line is all we need to see Chigurh for the kind of man he is. He sounds more terrifying in this sentence spoken by a fictional character than in all those other scenes where he actually goes around killing people. And we find it chilling precisely because McCarthy here hints at the Chigurh lurking in each one of us, waiting to be summoned by the right cause, the right ideology, or the right man on a white horse.
Narendra Modi is scary for the same reason that Chigurh is scary: on publicly available evidence, he does not have a sense of humour. And neither do his legion of fans, who are less his fans than aspirational clones, as attested by the popularity of the Modi mask.
As Sandipan Deb observed in an article hereNo one jokes about Narendra Modi. In the whole vast limitless universe of the World Wide Web, there is not a single joke about Modi—at least none that are searchable. But there are tons of gags about Rahul GandhiManmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi; entire websites and facebook pages dedicated to having a laugh at their expense. Is it because the latter three are inherently funny people while there is nothing at all funny about Modi? Or is it that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who worship Modi, and those afraid to joke about him?
Humour, like some chemical elements do when brought near a white flame, acquires a strange new property when brought into the force field of power: it turns subversive. If you’re not living in an oppressive or totalitarian state, humour flows freely around the nodes of power and public discourse retains its civility under pressure. The moment the weight of power falls heavily upon those governed by it, humour disappears. And when it reappears, as it eventually will, it does so as a weapon that punctures the self-righteous piety which envelops power; it deflates the puffed-up sanctimoniousness that tyranny wears to shield itself from being interrogated by the kind of free and fearless speech that makes any democracy worthy of being called one.
Therefore, a sense of humour, defined as a willingness to laugh at oneself, is a fundamental value in a democracy and a non-negotiable quality for anyone who would aspire to a leadership position in politics. That people are not comfortable cracking jokes about Modi is a big minus for the PM wannabe. However, it is consistent with his history of bigotry, and fully in keeping with the allegations of his political opponents, who accuse him of possessing a fascist mindset. Indeed, humour does not mix with extremism, and if Modi wants to leave his extremist past behind, he must learn to lighten up—and that doesn’t mean joking about other people. For instance, if only he’d had a sense of humour, he would have done better than to run away from hard questions like he did in his interview with Karan Thapar.
Of course, one can argue that Modi’s public persona of a humourless authoritarian is just an act. But it is that act which wields power and takes decisions as well, and it is the nature of such power to seek control. And because humour cannot be controlled, power hates it. To take a recent example, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, another humourless authoritarian, arrested a Jadavpur University professor last year just for sharing an email that poked fun at her.
Today, when Modi is only a PM aspirant, and that too notionally, and not officially, his acolytes can barely stand jokes about him. I honestly would like to know if there’s anybody out there who believes that in a scenario where Modi is PM, Modi jokes would be tolerated in public discourse the way Manmohan or Rahul jokes are today. If you are that anybody, let’s see if you can walk your talk by sharing a joke about Modi (not by him) in the Comment section below.
Modi and his followers are too much in love with the image of the grim visionary who will lead India from the chaos of adolescence to the macho-rity of adulthood—obviously, for when you fall in love, you always do so with an image. What distinguishes an authentic individual (more commonly known as a human being) from an image is vulnerability. In so far as Modi is a human being just like the rest of us, just like Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh or even Arnab Goswami, he is vulnerable.
But the hard visage of Modi’s leadership persona has no room for anything as ‘soft’ as vulnerability, which is why he is a dangerous man for democracy. There are no jokes about Modi because Modi is first and foremost an image, and images are too worried about cracking up to crack up themselves. Modi’s India is no country for irreverent men—and that’s no laughing matter.

The schizophrenia around Narendra Modi

In Celebs, Culture and Society, Politics, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Agreed, Narendra Modi is a polarising figure. But like all clichés, it has zero explanatory value, offering little insight into the Modi phenomenon. What it does, rather, is to induce a kind of schizophrenia in the public consciousness about a man who, apparently, is two different people. But Modi isn’t two people—the Modi who spoke of empowering women at the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) forum on Monday is the same person was the chief minister (CM) of Gujarat when scores of Muslim women were raped and killed in the communal carnage of 2002.

The enthusiasm for Modi among those who subscribe to the Hindu supremacist ideology is understandable. But there are many who pay lip service to religious equality and yet assert that Modi is no longer the political animal that was the CM of Gujarat in 2002; they would have you believe that he has magically transformed from a communalist demagogue into a clean, decisive politician who would offer leadership, integrity and good governance. Well, here’s the thing: this is nothing but a self-serving delusion.
If there is one essential quality of a true leader, it is the ability to inspire trust. Look up any article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review—and see if you can find a piece that does not list trust as an essential leadership trait. Given Modi’s track record, an obvious question to ask would be: Can India’s minorities entrust their safety and well-being to a man who refuses to take responsibility for the communal carnage that took place under his watch as Gujarat CM? This question did not come up at FLO and I haven’t heard it being asked of Modi at any other industry forum either, which is odd considering that both business and communal riots take place in the real world, and this is a question of effective governance.
Am I saying that Modi can never be trusted as a national leader? Not really. He can still establish himself as a great leader who can be trusted to provide good governance. But there is only one way to do it: by taking responsibility for his failure in 2002. How does he do that? He needs to, at the very least, empathize with, if not apologise to, and seek the forgiveness of, the riot victims’ families. But we know right away that he never will do anything like this, which is why it comes up less and less these days. (In fact, a Modi apology has become such a laughable notion for so many that it was presented as an April Fool’s joke by a news portal last week.)
The very moment we accept that Modi has never acknowledged the 2002 riots as a failure on his part is the moment the good governance argument in favour of Modi stands exposed for what it is: a lie. It can either be true or false that Hindu supremacist violence is good for business. If we go by the ‘success story’ of ‘Modi’s Gujarat’, then it must be true that violence against minorities has been good for development as we have defined it. At any rate, it does not seem to have had a negative impact on business growth—otherwise influential sections of India Inc. would not be pro-Modi.
So if, as a businessman and/or a decent human being, you want Modi on the national stage, then you have to acknowledge either that A) you are indifferent to the fate of the minorities; or B) you really believe they deserved what came their way in Gujarat in 2002. Since neither of these positions is compatible with the political and social values of respectable public discourse, which still holds that murder of minorities is bad, you have no alternative but to turn schizophrenic in order to be able to believe that Modi will be good for business and also protect minorities.
It is a testimony to how far the mainstream national consensus on Modi has shifted, and how successful Modi’s image managers, Apco, have been in disassociating Modi from his past, that today you can barely bring up 2002 without being branded either a Congress stooge or a ‘commie’ or just a spoilsport bore. But take away the schizophrenia, and the reality stares you in the face: the Modi of 2002 is the Modi of 2013, and he is fully capable of ‘allowing’ again what he ‘allowed’ in 2002. How can we be sure of this? Two reasons: one, it has worked for him; two, he has gotten away with it, so far.
Many commentators point out that India is not Gujarat; that Modi has ‘evolved’ as a leader, and can never do as PM what he allegedly did as CM in 2002. But that’s precisely how schizophrenia works—it forgets, and then alters reality to fit the delusion. By endorsing Modi for a national role, we are communicating a simple message to the man: your central government can do in the future what your state government did in 2002, and we, as a nation, won’t hold you to account, just as we’ve not held you to account for 2002.
Consider: some thirty years after the Holocaust, Israel was still sending out death squads to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Germany still does not want to forget its Nazi past, which is why it has a Holocaust museum. We, however, are in a hurry to forget what many respectable forums have termed ‘genocide’ even though it’s been barely 11 years.
Maybe all the perfumes of propaganda will finally wash away the black spot of 2002 from Modi’s record. After all, it was the same Modi whose government revised the state’s higher secondary school textbooks to glorify Hitler instead of condemning him. But George Santayana’s oft-quoted dictum has been proved true by history many times over: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is only one way to make sure India does not repeat 2002: keep harping on it.

Will you please brand yourself, please?

In Business, Management, Politics, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Of late, for some reason that is not clear to me, I’ve been getting lots of mail offering to help me ‘reinvent my brand’. One such mailer I got yesterday beseeches me to attend a programme where I will be trained to “brand my brand”.

Sure, these days you get spammed by all sorts of mails, from those promising to enlarge your penis, to those desperate to transfer a billion dollars to your account, to those peremptorily asking you to “revert on the business proposal”. So initially, I thought I was being mistaken for a consumer product of some kind, which perhaps needed a stronger branding. But my name does not (at least to me) sound like the name of a washing powder or a tooth paste, or….well, Sampath Condoms, anyone?

But then, as a marketing whiz friend explained to me, with a duh look on his face, Hey, you don’t have to be a condom in order to be a brand. You can be (and have to be) a ‘brand’ so long as you wish to sell yourself or any aspect of yourself to anyone anywhere in any market. And this applies to each one of you reading this who is there in the job market, and in the ever-expanding celebrity market.

Just as an exercise, why don’t you try segregating all the subtly self-promotional mails you get from your so-called well-wishers/friends/networking contacts? From newspaper articles they have written, to books they have published, to the awards they have won (and secretly sponsored), to the hot/cool people they have bedded, to the parties they’ve attended and taken pictures of, to the expensive holidays they’ve enjoyed, to the videos they’ve made of themselves shaking hands with Roger Federer  – it is all one big ‘personal branding’ exercise. Or maybe not: perhaps they just figured, accurately, that you were genuinely interested in their personal milestones and they were only doing their best to assuage your hunger for the boring details of their exciting lives.

So, if you thought, like I did (and secretly still do, in the middle of the night, when my ‘Brand Custodian’ is not watching) that all talk of ‘personal branding’ is just gas, well, fart again! Sorry, think again. It does not matter any longer how good you are at what you do; nor does it matter how long you’ve been doing it (not even if you’re a brand of dentures); and it matters not at all if your ‘brand image’ is the exact opposite of what you really are.

What does matter is ‘perception management’. And if anyone knows the value of ‘personal branding’ in Indian politics today, it is the one man who needs it the most: Narendra Modi. He has hired the world’s most powerful lobbying and PR firm, known, incidentally, for its respectable clientele of war mongers. In what must go down as a brilliant case study in the annals of image management strategy, Modi has, in a short span of time, gotten the world to merge the identity of Gujarat with that of his own. So today, Brand Gujarat and Brand Modi are inseparable – and the visit to SRCC was all about investing the ‘brand equity’ of Brand Gujarat for longer term ROI on the national stage.

But brand positioning is not a simple art. As any PR executive will tell you, the whole process begins with what they call a ‘perception audit’. In Modi’s case, such an audit today would still throw up a giant bucketful of stuff that could dissolve into irrelevance even the most painstaking of brand campaigns. All the chemicals of Apco cannot wash the blood of the hands of a man who presided over what everyone knows he presided over in Gujarat in 2002. I don’t even have to say what it was – that’s how powerful Modi’s brand is, and here I am not talking about the ‘brand’ that he and his minions were trying hard to ‘build’ through his SRCC event.

Unlike Rome, brands are built in a day. All you need is money to spend. Our brave new brand-enriched world is one of smoke and mirrors, where, as Macbeth’s witches famously observed, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

So here, off the top of my head, is a list of entities that could do with some help in ‘reinventing’ their brand: the Indian army in Kashmir, politicians as a class, Delhi police, Dow Chemicals, Suresh Kalmadi, and that news anchor who keeps yelling on TV. Happy branding to you all!

Team Kejriwal: Wishful thinking, not ethical cleansing

In Politics, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm

In an earlier column, ‘The agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda’ (October 20, 2012), I had voiced my scepticism about the anti-corruption movement. A lot of readers were pained by what they felt was my excessive cynicism regarding Team Kejriwal.

Quite a few directed me to a recent article by Yogendra Yadav in Outlook, titled ‘Ethical Cleansing, not Ritual Purity’, in which the good professor has made an impressive case for transforming a social movement into a political party.

Yadav’s thesis rests on two basic arguments: One, “if politics is about shifting the balance of power in a society, then not resorting to politics is not an option. Politics is the yugdharma of the time we live in”. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem is with Yadav’s second argument: that the politics of social movements, such as the Right to Information (RTI) campaign, or the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), are impotent when it comes to effecting changes that threaten the “interests of the political class”. I find it curious that he uses the term “political class” here and not “ruling class”.

In a rhetorical sleight of hand, political engagement, which we all agree is unavoidable, becomes mysteriously reduced to electoral politics. “Movement politics,” writes Yadav, “is necessary but insufficient; in itself it can only be the second-best option. For those who dare to think big and press for fundamental systemic changes, there is no substitute for a political instrument of their own.” And what is Yadav’s vision for a “political instrument”? It’s the same old wine in a newer but ‘cleaner’ bottle – a political party, but composed of ethical individuals who, by definition, will not be from the existing ‘political class’ which has become ‘impure’ due to corruption and is therefore in need of “ethical cleansing”.

But since when did ‘cleansing’ come to mean ‘systemic change’? Cleaning a house is very different from breaking it down and building a new one. Yadav claims to be breaking the house (system) by seeking to clean it. Not happening.

I find it strange that even a brilliant political scientist like Yadav seems to run out of imagination when it comes to thinking of a genuine alternative to the prevailing system, which he himself agrees needs an overhaul. Is starting a new party to contest elections the best way to change a system that is programmed to accept and incorporate new political parties, and depends exactly on such initiatives to give its fast-fading legitimacy a new coat of varnish?

By locating the cause of our system’s failure in a ‘political class’, Yadav sidesteps the class conflict at the heart of the systemic crisis. His logic is: we are stuck with parliamentary democracy, so why not make the best of it?

But history has proven time and again that electoral democracy never works as well for the masses as it does for the classes. Let us look at just one example from recent history.

The African National Congress (ANC) is a mass movement-turned-political party. When the ANC, which led the anti-apartheid struggle of the black majority in South Africa, came to power in 1994, it too had a ‘vision document’ just like Team Kejriwal’s Vision Document. Called the Freedom Charter, it’s worth a glance – it’s freely accessible on the ANC website.

Among other things, the ANC promised black South Africans the right to work, nationalisation of mines, banks and monopoly industries, and land redistribution to poor Blacks. The party has been continuously in power for 18 years, from 1994 to the present, and the disparity between the black majority and the tiny white elite has only gotten worse.

The ANC government has followed every single one of the neoliberal policies of its white supremacist predecessor. Though it had the power to carry out reforms (the opposite of the Manmohan kind) needed to make South Africa a more equal society, it chose not to do so, and today the country’s economy is firmly in the hands of the white business elite.

So what happened? Can anyone doubt that Nelson Mandela’s ANC winning the elections was a good thing? That Mandela himself was a good man, like Gandhi and Nehru were? Then how come the ANC today is known more for its corruption scandals than for taking care of the interests of its primary constituency – the poor Black majority? The parallel between the Congress of pre-independent India and the ANC of apartheid South Africa is matched today by a similar parallel between the corruption-ridden, 21st century avatars of the two great parties.

Of course, democracy is useful. But it is more useful to some than to others. As the American activist Pete Dolack notes in his blog, Systemic Disorder, “Democracy is a historical accident of capitalism.” Modern democracy emerged as an institution to adjudicate conflicts between capitalists. It worked because it offered a mechanism “for selecting political leadership in the absence of an absolute monarchy or the continued ascendancy of a static landed aristocracy”. It is to the credit of the working classes that they were able to “wrest some of that democracy for themselves”. But there is nothing about democracy that is inherently revolutionary – and in a capitalist state like ours or America, no way!

Yadav wriggles out of this contradiction between democracy’s political potential and its anti-political source code designed to suppress that potential, by conflating all politics with electoral politics.

What drives him to do this? I don’t know but my guess: His infatuation with electoral democracy. It is a common failing of all liberals. They go all weak-kneed at the very mention of the word ‘democracy’. But it is the neo-cons, the Pentagon and our own corporate masters who have best understood, and mastered, the political uses of democracy: that it’s value lay not in its practice but as an idea, as a vision for social and political mobilization, as rhetoric, and as a sugar-coating for the bitter pill of capitalism that the classes need the masses to swallow (preferably of their own free will).

The agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda

In Media, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Earlier this week at a public meeting in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal urged his supporters to celebrate Dussehra by burning the effigies not of the mythical demons, but of today’s demons – corrupt politicians. “I leave it to you to select which corrupt politician will be your Ravana, and which ones your Kumbhakarna and your Meghnad,” he told a cheering audience.

This facile personification of an abstraction (corruption) and its emotive linkage to a religious symbol (burning the effigies of the righteous Rama’s enemies) encapsulates the essential character of the anti-corruption movement that now aspires to be a “political alternative.”

Arvind Kejriwal and his band of activists are going to launch a political party. But is anti-corruption enough of a platform to launch a whole new political party? What constituency do they really represent? How does one understand Team Kejriwal’s leap into parliamentary politics? While I do not question their individual good intentions, their singular obsession with corruption and their reluctance to engage with the structural issues that make corruption widespread, if not necessary, are worth pondering.

Who does Team Kejriwal represent?
The past 20 years of liberalisation have put more money into the hands of India’s middle classes. Their economic empowerment has given them a new sense of political entitlement, but not political empowerment.

Unlike the economy, Indian politics has continued on its pre-liberalisation track. A small dynastic coterie calls the shots in all the mainstream parties. The pre-modern institutions of caste, religion and family still count for more than capability or integrity or leadership. As a result, the onward (and upward) economic march of the middle classes has been held to ransom by the regressive feudal politics of a tiny elite that has basically gamed the system.

From a Marxist perspective, the rise of the anti-corruption brigade can be read as a manifestation of the power struggle between two different factions of the ruling class – the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. The former are in command now, their financial power having secured them political control over the state machinery and party functionaries, from the PMO downward. Vedanta’s grip over the state administration in Orissa is a telling example.

The petty bourgeoisie, or the educated urban middle classes, possess social and cultural capital but not enough of financial capital for deployment to produce surplus value – not in the prevailing political system. The present system is ‘corrupt’ and needs an overhaul precisely because it does not accord enough value to their social and cultural capital – encapsulated in the word ‘merit’.

Slaying the Corruption Dragon
Enter Team Anna/Kejriwal. Never before in independent India has the urban, literate middle class — cutting across the traditional divides of caste, religion or ethnicity — coalesced into an electorate by itself. But twenty years of consumerist prosperity has made this imminent.

This grouping of urbanised middle class Indians has tasted the fruits of western modernity. They are disgusted by the feudalism of the political class. They are even more disgusted by the impunity with which a tiny cabal of businessmen and politicians are sucking the country dry. But they are most disgusted at being left out of the banquet.

Clearly, the ‘system’ isn’t working. Not for them. Their sense of political entitlement is violently at odds with their political impotence. The BJP, which was supposed to look out for the entrepreneurial, meritorious, middle class Hindus, has long since betrayed its core constituency. It is less an opposition in Parliament than an envious but sporting rival. It is the political vacuum created by the BJP’s abnegation of its oppositional role that the anti-corruption brigade led by Team Anna/Kejriwal has exploited, and hopes to fill.

Hence the constant confusion about their relationship with the BJP: Are these guys with the BJP or not? They seem to be, with their borderline Hindutva symbolisms and rhetoric, but they are also anxious to distance themselves from the BJP, tainted as it is by the rot in the prevailing system. They want the BJP’s constituency but not its burdensome political legacy. So they walk the tightrope, leaning now on the side of jingoism and Hindutva, now tilting the other way to fire a few quick salvos against the ‘corrupt’ BJP.

For all its dangerous ideology, the BJP still has a political vision – of a Hindu rashtra. But the newly empowered middle classes, despite their recent political awakening, have no political vision as such. They may take pride in their Hindu identity, but they don’t care one way or the other about a Hindurashtra, which explains the BJP’s ongoing existential crisis. Nor are they animated by a sense of social responsibility towards those less fortunate than themselves. Rather than calling them the middle class, it would be more accurate to refer to them as the ‘consumer class’.

Their very idea of citizenship is mixed up with that of the consumer. Their overarching political anxiety is: How do I secure the goods and services for which I’m paying by way of taxes? They cannot entertain the idea that the state may have responsibilities even to those who cannot pay taxes because they don’t earn or consume enough to do so. Their idea of a functioning political system is one that can quietly lay out a smooth expressway to consumerist paradise: Good infrastructure, parking, no slums, and law and order so they can walk around in branded clothes without getting mugged. And, oh yes, affordable education, hospitals, etc.

What’s preventing this consumerist paradise from materialising? Corruption, of course! The Solution? Kill this dragon of corruption. The knights of the Anna round table will hunt down the Corruption Dragon and slay it. Then all Indians can live happily ever after. This is the fairy tale that the anti-corruption brigade is peddling. But that is all it is: A fairy tale.

The uses of corruption
To make sense of the Kejriwal phenomenon, and to understand why the corporate media (itself hardly a paragon of probity), which has little time for issues of deprivation and social justice, is so invested in this campaign against corruption, we need to ask some basic questions: What is corruption exactly? And what purpose is served by the high decibel discourse of corruption?

The most obvious rhetorical use of ‘corruption’ is as a diagnosis of what is ailing modern India. It presents us with an easy, identifiable, enemy: The corrupt. Where there is corruption, there are bound to be corrupt people, the Ravanas. Identify the corrupt, punish them, and cleanse the state of the corrupt, and India will be pristine once again, all set to fulfill her destiny of 10 per cent growth year after year for eternity.

Really? In fact, the syphoning of public funds into private pockets, or demanding bribes for doing a job (or not doing it) are symptoms of a malaise that runs deeper: a fundamental power inequality that comes into play soon as you erect an apparatus known as the state.

Power, as we all know, corrupts. Corruption is born at the same instant a bureaucrat is born – there is no existential gap that separates an ‘honest’ bureaucrat from a corrupt one, for the simple reason that every bureaucracy is nothing but an ejaculate of democracy getting shagged by power.

A politician holding an executive post is but another cog in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, though a prestigious one. He is different from the bureaucrat in only one respect: he is elected by the ‘people’, while the bureaucrat is selected through an exam or nominated by an elite. But his job is essentially one with that of the state: To serve the power elite.

Indeed, there is nothing about the quality of power wielded by a Lokpal that would make this bureaucrat immune to the fundamental logic of power.

The discourse of corruption serves four key purposes. Firstly, it crowds inequality and social justice off the mainstream agenda. The two issues are linked: Social justice will not be a major concern (as it isn’t for the anti-corruption brigade; their primary concern is ‘governance’) unless there is an uncompromising respect for political equality. But nobody would argue that India’s middle classes believe in egalitarianism. Apparently, ‘merit’ somehow confers on them a distinction that exempts them from the logic of political and social equality.

Secondly, corruption, like ‘human rights’ or ‘terrorism’, is a term emptied of context and history. The exclusive focus on corruption as the prime failing of the state obfuscates the fact that a nation-state’s primary job has always been to organise the protection of ruling class interests. The history of independent India is an abiding testament to this simple political truth. But the bogey of corruption deflects attention from the repressive nature of the state’s relationship with the overwhelming majority of its subjects, and the exploitative economic structures it enforces. Ever wondered why the benevolent Indian state still needs the colonial IPC? And POTA? And MCOCA? And AFSPA? And UAPA? And the sedition law? They’re not for meant for corrupt politicians, by the way.

Thirdly, the hyper-focus on corruption serves to blunt the sharpening political consciousness of the ‘under-class’ by offering them a simplistic discourse containing good guys and bad guys. The corrupt politician is Ravana, while the honest ones, like Kejriwal or Ashok Khemka, are like Rama. And if you know your Ramayana, you’d vote for Rama and the allies of Rama.

The ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’
Lastly, an exclusive focus on state corruption furthers the neo-liberal agenda of a leaner but meaner state. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including, most expansively, by the eminent economist Prabhat Patnaik.

This is how it works: By repeatedly associating state initiatives and programmes with corruption, you make a strong case for privatisation, for the handing over of public assets held in trust by the state (such as PSUs) into private hands. Simultaneously, because governmental corruption (and consequent inefficiency) is anyway sucking up all tax revenues, you make another strong case — for lower taxation.

But when you lower taxes, government revenues will go down, which means government expenditure has to go down too – so the government has to shrink. But since the defence budget (no matter how obscenely large for a poor country) cannot be cut, it is the social welfare schemes that have to go – so, Down with Subsidies! Down with NREGA! Down with PDS!

Since the state cannot tax its richest citizens, ie the corporations (it could spoil the investment climate), it will never have enough in its coffers to invest in public projects. So to raise the money, it has to call in foreign investors, who won’t come unless they can take out from the country far more than what they put in (that’s just capitalism, nothing personal). So you woo them with more tax sops. Thus presiding over the draining of public assets into private hands, the state cannot but abdicate its responsibility towards the vast majority. This abdication, then, is presented to the aam admi in the form of a simplistic, depoliticised narrative – the narrative of political corruption. And the cycle begins all over again.

This, in a nutshell, is the agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda. This is not to say that all IAC activists are going about their job with a cynical awareness of what they’re really up to. But many of them are fairly sophisticated intellectuals who ought to know which side of the class bread their one-dimensional crusade will butter.

If it weren’t for the comforting binary of ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’, the working classes and the peasantry — whose very real and legitimate anger against the political class the anti-corruption movement is tapping into — might well pose a serious threat to the prevailing order. The land of a million mutinies might even cobble together a revolution, if not splinter into a dozen fragments.

By turning into a political party, Team Kejriwal will only serve the ruling class agenda of funneling the growing anger of the mango people into the same old democratic channels that are hard-wired to betray them. Thanks to the mythical beast known as Corruption, the nation under siege has a common enemy that millions can unite against in hateful rage. So let’s go burn those effigies. Happy Dussehra!

Beware of those who speak of ‘national interest’

In Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell warns us against words and phrases drained of all meaning, words that can mean whatever the powerful want it to mean. One such term gaining in currency is ‘national interest’.

Government spin doctors (and their stenographers in the media) routinely conflate national interest with people’s interest. But ‘national interest’ is very different from the people’s interest.

‘National interest’ concerns a nation-state’s ability to wage war. Whatever enhances this ability is considered to be in the national interest; whatever threatens it is against the national interest. The most transparent expression of this principle is seen in the ruling classes’ obsession with ‘national security’.

The people’s interest, on the other hand, is always issue-specific. It is rooted in local geography, history, and community, while ‘national interest’ is tied to abstractions such as ‘development’ or ‘reform’ or ‘security’. The people’s interest might find a voice in democratic platforms, such as a movement or a party, while national interest is ‘protected’ through the executive and repressive arms of the state – the PMO, the police, etc. And where the people’s interest comes in conflict with ‘national interest’, the former will be booted out, democracy be damned.

A good example of ‘national interest’ is our mindless obsession with Kashmir, where anyone who speaks of the democratic will of the people of Kashmir is branded as ‘anti-national’. Hello! If India is a ‘democracy’, and democracy means implementing the will of the people, then the will of the people of Kashmir – whatever it is – should be carried out, and for that you don’t need AFSPA or mass graves or the army. A referendum should be good enough. Try telling that to the guardians of India’s ‘national interest’.

The real reason for the Indian elite’s obsession with Kashmir is that ‘losing Kashmir’ (whatever that means) will make the Indian state look ‘weak’. And because perceptions of weakness are as much a no-no as real weakness, it overrides the democratic rights of real human beings living in the Valley (people’s interest).
In fact, the momentum is going the other way: in his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Yo Yo Money Singh declared that economic growth will henceforth be a ‘national security’ issue. Now, that’s a very direct way of letting your people know that when it comes to enriching the already-rich in the name of economic growth, the state from now on has a ‘legitimate’ reason to crush people’s interest (real democracy): national security. Don’t you dare stand in the way – of SEZs, of mining, of forcible land acquisition for industry, etc.

This brings us to another Orwellian word: democracy. Democracy is not an absolute state, like, say, pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you aren’t. But you can be a democracy and also not be one. How? Because democracy is a description of a process, and a matter of degree. Therefore, to say ‘India is a democracy’ means nothing. Democracy comes into existence only in history, in the processes followed in specific situations involving different interest groups.

In India, save for the urban educated middle class, democracy has served more as a safety valve mechanism for channelling frustration than as an effective tool to bring about lasting change in the lives of the disempowered. Two random examples will suffice to illustrate India’s failed experiment with democracy.

One, the terrible brutality with which the state repressed the villagers protesting the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, an action best described in the protesters’ own words – as “the murder of democracy”. Two, allowing FDI in retail, which will cause the immiseration of the 40 million people employed in India’s informal retail sector. Such a large-scale destruction of livelihoods is the worst kind of anti-people villainy that a state can unleash, and yet that is what India’s “democratically elected” government has done.

In today’s India, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for; when the people’s interest clashes with corporate interest, the moneybags are bound to win, as has happened with FDI in retail and in Kudankulam. In both these cases, the state was aligned with corporate interests and against its own people.

Whenever this happens, the standard ideological manoeuvre of the ruling dispensation is to invoke ‘national interest’ in some form or the other. In Kudankulam, the ‘national interest’ argument was invoked to shove an anti-people project down the throats a community opposed to it. In the case of FDI in retail, ‘national interest’ takes the avatar of ‘economic growth’ (now conveniently a matter of ‘national security’).

Historically, it has suited the national elites that control the state machinery to align themselves with the economic power that corporations wield. So the people will always find themselves acting ‘against the national interest’ whenever they act against the interests of corporate capital. Hence, the need to closely monitor them.

So every democratic nation-state will eventually degenerate into a police state. The process is well underway in India and the US, and it’s no coincidence that the bulk of the Indian security forces currently in active deployment are ranged against their own fellow citizens – from Kashmir to Kudankulam. The Nazis demonstrated long ago that nationalism is incompatible with democracy. Modi will demonstrate this for India in a few years.

The Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, is supposed to have said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.” Today, whenever a government spokesperson speaks of ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ (or its post-modern avatar, ‘internal security’), it’s a sure sign that the state is preparing to use the gun against its own people. Operation Greenhunt, anyone?
G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Stop insulting Yo Yo Money Singh

In Celebs, Politics, Popular Culture, Satire, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:50 pm

To call our PM a “tragic figure” is not only insulting but also inaccurate. As it turns out, it wasn’t the Washington Post (WP) as such but historian Ramachandra Guha who called him that. Oh wait, Guha said what he did, not to the WP but to an Indian publication, Caravan. And hey, he said it not now, but in 2011.

But nobody made a fuss in 2011. So why now? (Clue: name of the paper). Right! The Washington Post is a white man’s newspaper, published from the white man’s HQ. And we neo-colonials know instinctively that when the white man talks, the brown man must listen.

It is amazing how short public memory is, but hey, India was a colony till recently – it was still one when our PM was born in 1932. Here’s what that good and intelligent man Jean-Paul Sartre had to say about the political leadership of newly independent former colonies: “The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of Western culture … After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing to say to their brothers; they only echoed.”

Today, it is Sartre’s whitewashed adolescents (Manmohan was thoroughly whitewashed in the “mother country”— in both Cambridge and Oxford) who have hijacked what somebody once non-jokingly referred to as “India’s tryst with destiny”. Discarded now are the ideals of social justice and equity that informed the vision of our freedom fighters.

Reading the papers everyday makes you wonder: Why did our forefathers drive the Brits out? I wasn’t there when it happened, but here’s my guess: because the white man was looting India’s wealth, especially natural resources; they were giving a hard time to most Indians, especially farmers; and while a small class of native businessmen did well for themselves, millions starved, and thousands of political activists went to jail; the colonial police massacred innocent civilians, and forcibly evicted ‘native peasants’ from their lands, pushing them deeper into destitution.

I can’t see that things are any different now, under our own ‘brown rang’-ed PM, Yo Yo Money Singh (no relative of Yo Yo Honey Singh, but related to three mega-scams: CWG, 2G and Coalgate). Having embraced the Western model of capitalism, but without the luxury of colonial plunder on which to build its capitalist infrastructure, India is at a crossroads where it faces the prospect of cannibalising itself, eating parts of its own body politic — such as adivasis (or religious minorities). Talk to the average CEO, and his attitude to India’s tribals would echo that of the white coloniser’s toward the ‘natives.’

The reasons for terming our PM a “tragic figure” are predictable: one, corruption has proliferated under Singh, and guess who’s to blame – the degenerate natives; and two, the PM has slowed down on economic reforms, meaning that he’s not taking proper care of the white man’s money, which should be freely allowed to come into this former colony and profit from its resources.

One of the worthies quoted at length by the WP article is Tushar Poddar, a Mumbai-based managing director of Goldman Sachs, that illustrious standard-bearer of destructive capital which had a starring role in the 2008 financial crisis. WP quotes Poddar as saying “[The 2009 election] was a victory for him, but he did not step up to claim it — [Manmohan’s] lack of leadership, that lack of boldness, lack of will — that really shocked us. That really shocked foreign investors.”

That’s what it’s all about: foreign investors. FDI in retail, anyone? Yo Yo Money Singh is a “dithering”, “ineffectual” and ultimately “tragic” figure because, in recent times, he’s been a disappointment in his assigned role. And pray what was his assigned role?

In The Wretched of the Earth, the great post-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon showed how the national middle class’s “historic mission” is that of the intermediary. “Seen through its eyes,” he wrote, “its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism.”

Singh’s designated role, as the chosen (but never elected) representative of the national middle class, was to function as an intermediary between the nation and foreign capital, in Fanon’s words, to be “Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Seen from this perspective, it’s obvious that Singh has done a terrific job, but the greedy white man and his native brown counterpart want more, and they want it now! Though Singh has done a lot, he cannot do everything because, well, India is a democracy, you know? It’s not his fault, really.

So let’s not insult the PM any more – he’s just a child of history. He’s served his masters well. Now he has to move on – hence the timely nudges from the CAG, Team Anna, and of course, the white man’s press (Washington Post, Time, The Independent et al).

He has to make way now for another man, someone less likely to be hindered by democratic forces, someone who will not display the “lack of boldness” or “lack of will” that so “shocked foreign investors”; someone who’ll show “leadership” given the tougher tasks ahead – such as crushing revolting natives with an iron fist, showing no weakness; see issues only from the investors’ point of view; and show the working classes and minorities who’s boss. Something tells me this man is already here. Clue: he has a beard too.

 

G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Ek Tha Tiger: The other side of the coal scam

In Business, Environment, Politics, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm

I’ve spent the past few days reading a couple of page-turners that I recommend strongly to every Indian who cares about her country: the CAG’s audit report on coal block allocations, and a new report released by Greenpeace, titled ‘How Coal-Mining is Trashing Tigerland’. Both are freely available online, at the CAG and the Greenpeace websites respectively.

Till now, the media has focused primarily on the CAG report. But you have to read both together to get the full picture about the implications of coalgate.

The CAG’s audit report makes three things amply clear: one, in the last seven years, the government of India has given a major push to coal-based power; two, a lot of private players have made a lot of money out of coal, and more through speculation than by actually producing coal; three, the office of our beloved incorruptible prime minister was right in the thick of coalgate, having chosen to avoid a transparent process of competitive bidding — opting instead to award coal blocks through a ‘screening committee’ — despite being advised by its own legal experts that a competitive bidding process would not contravene the existing mining laws.

Yes, the corruption in the coal block allocation is mind-boggling. I mean, can someone even explain what Rs1,800,000,000,000 means – on a human, as opposed to a cosmic, scale?

But corruption is only half the coalgate story – the half that’s easier to tell, because it doesn’t challenge any of our assumptions.

Coal mining is the biggest threat to the tiger

The more significant story, in my opinion, is the one which will affect every one of us far more directly than the notional loss of Rs1.8 lakh crore ($33 billion). It’s the story of what’s in store for you (I’m referring here specifically to those Indians who are not NRIs, don’t have a second home or loving relatives abroad where they can run away to, don’t have a Swiss account nobody knows about, and are not planning to emigrate to New Zealand or Canada in the foreseeable future) when all the 150-odd coal blocks allotted by the Union coal ministry between 2004 and 2009 are mined.

The basis of the Greenpeace study is something you can try yourself: Take an India map. Referring to the CAG report, plot the locations of all the coal reserves and allocated coal blocks on this map. Then take another India map and plot on it the locations of all the tiger habitats and reserve forests in central India. Then superimpose one map on top of the other. You will discover a) that the bulk of India’s coal reserves fall in central India – covering the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Odisha and eastern Maharashtra; and b) that the coal fields in central India are contiguous with dense forests and intrude into the territory of India’s national animal, besides several other endangered species.

What will ensue if we allow coal mining in these forests is the worst kind of environmental and human disaster we’ll ever know (short of a nuclear calamity; but Manmohan Singh, the architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal, has that covered, too, viz Jaitapur, Kudankulam et al). To summarise in brief, developing our coal reserves in central India will involve the following: extinction of the Royal Bengal Tiger from this region; the decimation of at least a million hectares of native forests in central India (the biodiversity and forest ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve, we will gobble up, termite-like, in 40 years flat, turning lush forests into gaping, polluted, barren wasteland); destruction of the livelihood source of half of India’s Scheduled Tribe population; destruction of watersheds of major rivers, including the Mahanadi, Narmada, Tapti, Godavari, Indravati, and Damodar; incalculable loss of India’s bio-diversity and natural beauty that is a part of our national heritage (something which no agent of private capital masquerading as a public servant, least of all a Manmohan or a Montek, can understand the value of); and the shame and blow to national pride that the next generation of Indians will have to live with when they wake up to the monumental idiocy of their fathers in destroying so much for the greed of so few in so short a time, and that too for a dirty, climate-hostile, limited, non-renewable fuel that anyway cannot solve India’s energy problems.

What if we tried to attach an economic value to a loss on a scale like this? The Dutch research institute CE Delft did exactly such a study of the externalised global costs of the impact on human/ environmental health and climate change caused by coal-mining and combustion, and arrived at a figure of $452 billion for 2007 alone. That’s more than a dozen times the magnitude of the estimated loss due to coalgate ($33 billion). And the figure is especially scary when you consider that India is not only the world’s third largest coal-producing nation, but also the fourth largest importer of coal.

Why India can and should wean itself off coal

What’s really alarming is that, despite coal being in the news, nobody seems to be debating a simple question (where are you Arnab Goswami? The nation needs an answer to this one): Can’t India grow without increasing its reliance (pun unintended, believe me) on the dirtiest fossil fuel around?

Article continues below the advertisement…
Today, more than 50% of India’s energy needs are met by coal. But it has been established that coal is one of the worst contributors to climate change – it contributes not only through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also through destruction of the forests when it is mined. [Forests trap atmospheric carbon in their biomass and are major carbon sinks. This is the basis of the UN’s REDD+ (Reduced Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) programme which offers incentives to developing countries to preserve their forests – an incentive India is well-placed to tap, IF we keep away from coal and leave the forests alone.]

Of course, the reality is that many of our policy wonks are climate sceptics who believe it’s OK to use up all our coal reserves before we look at alternatives to coal. As writer Peter Dolack asks in his blog, Systemic Disorder, “There is delusion, and then there is willful fantasy. At what point does the first pass into the second?” Well, if you too are a climate change sceptic, here are some hard facts:

The 20 hottest years on a global basis have all occurred since 1987
9 of the 10 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001
June 2012 marked the 328th consecutive month that the global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average
For 2010 and 2011 combined, 27 countries recorded an all-time national high temperature while one recorded a national low
There is complete consensus among climatologists that anthropogenic climate change (global warming caused by human activity) is REAL. The debate is only about how much time we have before the rising temperatures go into a destructive feedback loop. The seeds of doubt are being peddled only by a bunch of think tanks funded by the oil and natural gas industry. Exxon Mobil reportedly spent $16 million just between 1998 and 2005 funding denier groups, according to a Monthly Review article in May 2012. And in India, we have our own bunch of industry-sponsored ‘experts’ who want to limit the debate on India’s energy future to two equally moronic, dangerous and completely irrational choices: nuclear energy (dirty but clean) and coal (dirty but cheap).

The alternative to coal is renewable and doable

Renewable forms of energy accounted for half of all new electric capacity added globally in 2010, and delivered 20% of global power supply. They are cleaner, their costs of production are rapidly coming down, and India, specifically, is superbly placed to tap all three major renewables – solar, wind and biomass.

Yet it is only rarely that we hear of the most rational option around which to secure our future energy needs: a diversified basket of renewable energy produced in a decentralised manner. Why? Because decentralised renewable energy (DRE) models based on solar, wind and bio-mass don’t give a tiny elite with a monopoly over power and money, an opportunity to make “windfall profits” (that’s the CAG’s term, by the way) in as short a time with as much ease and secrecy and as little transparency as centralised mega-power projects such as nuclear power (sorry, national security, so we won’t tell you anything) or coal (just get a ‘recommendation’ from the state government and you get a coal block absolutely FREE! What a scheme! If I were a businessman with political connections, I’d love it too!).

Renewables, on the other hand, are decentralised by design. They can be community-owned and controlled instead of being state or corporate owned. They could be home solar panels, biogas plants fed from farmyard manure, or wind turbines in farmers’ fields. Damian Carrington has written in the Guardian about a small German hamlet called Feldheim whose inhabitants produce all the power they need locally, from some 43 turbines scattered across their fields – they don’t need the major utilities anymore (read: they are fine without coal or nuclear power).

Incidentally, another rigorously researched Greenpeace report asserts that India can have 92% of its energy needs met from renewable sources by 2050. Germany increased the share of its electricity produced from renewable sources to 25% in 2012 from 6.3% in 2000, and has already made investments to make this 35% by 2020. We have far more MW (megawatt) of renewables at our disposal than Germany. So why can’t we? Who stands to benefit if India doesn’t pursue this option and goes for expensive nuclear energy and dirty coal power instead?

he shenanigans of the coal lobby

But the frightening reality is that we are going all out for coal, even when it’s clear that it’s a fuel we neither need nor want but are merely addicted to for the present. And this addiction is partly by design. Why were so many coal blocks given away for free to private players, many of whom had no background in power generation or even manufacturing? Why were more coal blocks allotted than were needed to meet our production targets as per the 11th Plan? Why were private players allowed to set up so many coal-powered thermal power plants (71 in water-scarce Vidarbha alone, but that’s another story for another day) without any prior infrastructure or arrangement for coal supply?

One answer: it’s an old ploy employed by India Inc. Once you’ve already set up a hundred coal-powered power plants, then you can always talk about ‘demand’ and ‘shortfall’ and pressure the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) into clearing more coal blocks. This was how the No Go zones – areas of dense forest cover, tiger corridors and bio-diversity hotspots – which the MoEF and the coal ministry had provisionally agreed on in 2010, were scuttled by the latter under pressure from the industry lobby.

The establishment of No Go zones was a brilliant idea. In one stroke, it would have resolved the uncertainty over environmental clearance for every individual mining project, while at the same time securing India’s basic environmental objectives such as keeping tiger territories inviolate and protecting reserve forests.

Does anyone remember the hue and cry that was raised when it was reported in 2005 that tigers had been wiped out of the Sariska reserve? Everybody, including, presumably, the tiger-loving, patriotic managements of corporate groups like the Adanis, the Tatas, Jindals, Bhushan, Reliance, Hindalco, Vedanta, and Arcelor Mittal must surely have been saddened by the dwindling numbers of India’s national animal. There are barely 1,700 of them left according to a 2010 estimate from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Yet these corporates are at the forefront of coal mining projects that spell doom for not one, not two, but at least ten tiger reserves in central India. All the coal fields in this region are in close proximity to the tiger reserves. Not just the mining activity, but also the infrastructure that goes with mining – a road and rail network, at the minimum – will destroy tiger corridors (between two reserves) and fragment their forest habitat in such a way that the reserves will no longer be able to sustain a tiger population.

But those who spend all their time thinking about how to make money tend to have a narrow kind of personality that simply has no mind-space for realities that cannot be processed through profit-loss filters. Some of these businessmen even cynically used the long blackouts on July 30-31 caused by multiple grid failure (which had nothing to do with a shortfall in coal supply) to lobby for environmental clearances for more coal blocks and coal mining projects. But the fact remains that the MoEF has given enough clearances to exceed our coal production targets right up to 2017.

In any case, our coal reserves (the ones that are economically viable for mining) will run out in 40 years. As of today, India has already lost 70% of its forest cover. If we went ahead and extracted all the coal we can mine, we would have finished off much of the remaining forest cover too [please note: in carbon terms, there is no comparison between afforestation initiatives (‘forests’ planted by man) and the native forests with their richness in carbon-trapping bio-mass. Afforestation can never match the carbon density and biodiversity of a destroyed native forest].

De-allocate the ‘coalgate’ mining blocks

There are three solid reasons for de-allocating the 150-odd coal blocks sanctioned under coalgate and putting a permanent moratorium on any fresh allocations.

First, the private players have already made their money. In fact, the CAG reports says that only one of the 57 blocks allotted to the private sector has been developed, which means that most of them have not spent money on developing the mines allotted to them, as they should have, as per Plan projections. In an insightful article on First Post titled, ‘Who wins, who loses from Coalgate? The markets know’, Arjun Parthasarathy, the editor of the appropriately named investorsareidiots.com, explains how the beneficiaries of the coal allocations have raked it in – they cashed in on rising market valuations on the back of their acquisition of coal blocks and land. When their stock prices crashed post the CAG report, it was the shareholders who lost the most.

Two, many of these mines are in No Go zones or zones which should be No Go if you consider the environmental implications rationally. If we decide to leave the forest alone, we can look at alternative renewable sources plus encash the forest cover under REDD+.

Three, because the process of allocation was flawed, it’s only fair (to those who didn’t get any) that they are all cancelled. And once you cancel them, it’s a good opportunity to have a national debate on whether we shouldn’t put a lid on coal-mining in forest areas once and for all.

From ownership to trusteeship

There seems to be a belief prevalent among our ruling classes that the state owns all of the country’s forests and natural resources. Hello – it does not. Not only do the forests not ‘belong’ to the state, it does not even ‘belong’ exclusively to all human beings taken together. Other living species, passport-bearing citizens of what a Greenpeace campaign describes as ‘Junglistan’, also have a claim on it. We humans are at best trustees, and as a representative only of humans, the state, too, is a trustee of the forests and rivers that fall within the man-imagined borders of the man-made entity that has no basis in the natural world – the nation state, and the parasite whose host it is, the corporation.

We need to look at our forests and national resources through the prism of trusteeship and not ownership. The problem is: try telling that to the mandarins who run the show in the PMO and the commerce ministry.

The twin ideas of capitalist industrialisation and endless economic growth were born at a time in history when human beings had no conception of ‘limits’ to natural resources. It was assumed that raw materials can be extracted wherever found, ad infinitum.

Now the ability of technology to extract has far outstripped the ability of the planet to supply. And the large-scale destruction of the natural environment and phenomena like global warming are symptoms of this mismatch between the scale of technology and the scale of the planet. One sobering example of this mismatch is that humans have enough nuclear bombs to destroy the planet many times over, but no power to create another planet when this one is gone, eaten out from the inside by a particularly virulent strain of the human species that reports only to Capital and answers only to profit.

The deadly coalition

So, if we look at the big picture, and not just at short-term fixes, the writing is pretty much on the wall: we have to choose between coal and our tigers/forests. If we choose coal, we can enjoy our dirty electricity in the short term but we and our children (and those of you in your twenties now) will most definitely get screwed by environmental disasters in the long-term, and screwed in ways that many of us don’t yet have the imagination to fully comprehend.

So let the CAG and the Greenpeace report be a wake-up call. Read them both if you haven’t already. If there’s one message that leaps out from this exercise, it is this: India needs to decouple economic growth from fossil fuel, and most definitely from coal. And not only is this not difficult, it is also good business, and profitable in the long run. The only thing stopping us from taking this path is the all-powerful coalition of corporate giants and political dwarves. Corruption is just one name for this coalition and what it does. But it does not even begin to encapsulate the scale of damage that this coalition can unleash if left unchecked.

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Finally we know what India’s poor really want

In Politics, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I learnt something new today. Do you know what the poor need the most in their lives? Take a guess.

Did you say three square meals a day? Wrong! C’mon, the poor don’t need to eat so much. If they eat as much as we do, food prices will shoot up and the already inflated inflation will inflate even more.

Shelter? Oh no. We build homes only for two kinds of people these days: the rich, and those who can take a home loan. People below the poverty line (BPL) are obviously neither, so they don’t qualify.

Free healthcare? Don’t be silly. What if they flood our hospitals with their dirty, malnourished bodies? We can’t have that, can we?

Give up? Well, what the poor really want, what they really-really want, are mobile phones. That’s the earth-shattering discovery made by the babus and netas running this country. And they’ve set aside a cool Rs7,000 crore to gift a cell phone to every BPL family in India.

As per media reports, the PM will unveil this ‘welfare scheme’ (we’ll come back in a bit to the question of whose welfare), titled Har Hath Mein Phone, on August 15. So come Independence Day, six million of India’s BPL families will walk out of poverty into a new life — of cell phone-enriched poverty. And that’s not all. Along with a handset, the state will also bestow a bonanza of TWO HUNDRED MINUTES of FREE local talk time!!!

I can already see people jumping up and down in joy at this largesse. Only, somehow, they don’t seem like people below the poverty line. Some of them look like cell phone manufacturers to me. Others look like service providers. And the rest look like politicians. Not your typical BPL lot. How come?

The Rs7,000 crore, or whatever government funds are eventually spent on this scheme — guess whose pockets they’re going to end up in? Not with the BPL families – they only get a cell phone, remember? Plus 200 minutes of FREE talk time. A little bird tells me the bidders who win the right to provide the service are set to rake it in. Our famously incorruptible ministers and bureaucrats will honestly ‘evaluate’ bids from the private sector, and of course, none of the bids will be from companies set up expressly for this scheme by some politician or the other in the name of his brother-in-law or daughter-in-law.

But it’s not about the money alone – please don’t underestimate our political class. Reportedly, the government is excited about this scheme also because it will “provide an opportunity for the ruling dispensation to open a direct line of communication with a sizeable population that plays an active role in elections.”

Assuming “plays an active role in elections” means voting, basically it means the UPA can spam the poorest of the poor with text messages urging them to set aside trivial concerns like where the next meal’s going to come from, and instead go and vote for their candidates. After all, we gave you a cell phone, didn’t we? And 200 minutes of free talk time? Have some gratitude, you poor people!

Apparently, the government wants to pitch the Har Hath Mein Phone scheme as a “major empowerment initiative of the UPA 2” with an eye on the 2014 general elections. Maybe I’m missing something here, but can someone explain how a BPL family, a family that, more often than not, comprises indebted, semi-literate, chronically malnourished persons with almost no prospects other than a lifetime of poorly paid, exploitative casual labour, is supposed to become empowered by the sudden ownership of a cell phone (and 200 minutes of free local talk time)?

How? My neighbour, for instance, tried very hard to empower her maid by giving her a cell phone. But the poor thing (pun intended) apparently didn’t want to be empowered — at least not telephonically. Each time my neighbour gave her a cell phone (I must add it was for her own convenience, so that the girl could inform her if she was going to take leave or be late for work), within a month or two, she would come back and tell her she’d ‘lost’ the phone. This happened three times before my neighbour realised that the girl perceived more empowering properties in hard cash than in a handset (which she’d been selling off).

So what are the chances that the BPL families would sell off the phones after using up the 200 minutes of free talk time? Maybe they’ll sell it even before they use up the talk time. And that’s assuming they get these phones in the first place and some low-level clerk doesn’t divert them to the grey market.

But let’s assume that all the six million targeted BPL families get the phones. And that they don’t sell them. What are they going to do with them? Download free anti-hunger apps? Perhaps there are anti-malarial apps that can be downloaded directly into your bloodstream. Or maybe they’ll look for road-laying work on naukri.com.

You never know. Perhaps the bold visionary genius of the likes of Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia will come up with some new technology-driven solution to poverty and hunger that can be solved simply by giving everybody a UID card and a cell phone.

I have a better idea though. Better than Har Hath Mein Phone. It’s called Har Hath Mein Gun. Give all the BPL households a gun, a free bullet for each family member. Tell them to shoot themselves in the head.

G Sampath is an independent writer based in
Delhi. He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com
linbox@dnaindia.net

Can India Inc. face the truth about the Manesar violence?

In Business, Labour Rights, Management, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.

First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike the worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea/toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.

The backstory

Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.

But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.

The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.

The permanently temporary worker

At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. — add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.

It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.

To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.

Before and after Manesar

Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:

One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.

Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.

According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.

Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?

And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.

Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.

But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.

Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.

While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.

Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com