Saturday, November 20, 2010

Yatha praja tatha Raja

We The People Are Corrupt!

It’s virtually impossible to check the veracity of AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa’s assertion that the loss to the public exchequer on account of l’affaire Raja is more than the cumulative loot of India by its colonial masters during the days of John Company and later the British Raj. We could try and compute the official gains of the Empire from records in India House, but the value of the loot, in the strictest sense of the term, would be anybody’s guess. It is possible that the profits, both legitimate and illegitimate, that filled coffers in Britain over 200 years of its colonial enterprise in this part of the world added up to less than `1.76 lakh crore. Or, it is equally possible that it far exceeded the net worth of the Empire of Greed that A Raja built during his tenure as Telecom Minister under the tutelage of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Politicians are given to exaggeration and Ms Jayalalithaa is no exception.

Yet, the enormity of Raja’s loot can be minimised only at the risk of aping spokespersons of the Congress who refuse to accept that spectrum was sold for a song to firms many of which came into being only to grab a slice of the 2G pie. There is the additional risk of being seen as justifying the Prime Minister’s refusal to prevent the ‘Great 2G Spectrum Robbery’ since not to do so would be to repudiate the dharma of coalition politics. Needless to say, there was nothing dharmic about either Raja’s stunningly bald-faced defiance of all norms of probity or the Prime Minister’s resounding silence over the plunder that took place under his watch. By no stretch of the imagination does coalition politics mean allowing allies to denude the nation of its wealth: Rs 1.76 lakh crore is not exactly small change even in these days of rampaging inflation.

The outpouring of moral outrage over Raja’s crime may have served the purpose of forcing one of the most corrupt Ministers (by no means was he the lone wolf in the Cabinet) in the present regime to quit office in disgrace although he remains defiant as ever. But it has also swamped a revealing report on Global Financial Integrity that was released last week. The details of the report indicate the extent of corruption in India and confirm what we refuse to accept: We are a corrupt society with a corrupt system; a nation that silently indulges in corruption while raucously protesting against it, as is being witnessed at the moment.

The GFI report says, “From 1948 through 2008, India lost a total of $213 billion in illicit financial flows (or illegal capital flight). These illicit financial flows were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, and criminal activities.” Illicit financial flows pertain to the “cross-border movement (or transfer) of money earned through illegal activities such as corruption, transactions involving contraband goods, criminal activities, and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities”. The total of $213 billion is a misleading figure because “the present value of India’s illicit financial flows is at least $462 billion,” the GFI report explains, adding, “This is based on the short-term US Treasury bill rate as a proxy for the rate of return on assets.”

What we are looking at is illicit financial flows of Rs 20.85 lakh crore over 60 years. This, however, is not the sum total of all illicit gains through corrupt practices. “This estimate is conservative,” the GFI report says, adding by way of a cautionary note, “as it does not include several major forms of value drainages out of poorer countries not represented by money”. Among these ‘major forms of value drainages’, the report says, are trade mispricing that is handled by collusion between importers and exporters within the same invoice; the proceeds of criminal and commercial smuggling such as drugs, minerals and contraband goods; and, mispriced asset swaps where ownership of commodities, shares and properties are traded without a cash flow. All this should sound very familiar to Indian ears.

The GFI report points out that the “total capital flight represents approximately 16.6 per cent of India’s GDP as of year-end 2008”; that “illicit financial flows out of India grew at 11.5 per cent per year”; and, that “India lost $16 billion per year between 2002-2006”. Who are responsible for this huge outflow of illicit funds? High net-worth individuals and private companies were found to be the “primary drivers of illicit flows”. India’s “underground economy is also a significant driver of illicit financial flows”.

The report explains that from 1948 through 2008, “the Indian private sector shifted away from deposits into developed country banks and towards increased deposits in offshore financial centres”, also known as ‘tax havens’ from where money was accessed by many of the fly-by-night operators who benefited from Raja’s largesse. The fact that deposits in tax havens have increased from 36.4 per cent of illicit financial flows in 1995 to 54.2 per cent in 2009 tells its own story.

The GFI report provides some other interesting insights. For instance, contrary to the claims of successive Governments, more vociferously by the UPA regime, India’s underground economy, which is “closely tied to illicit financial outflows”, continues to expand with each passing day. The present value of illicit assets held abroad ($462 billion) “accounts for approximately 72 per cent of India’s underground economy — which has been estimated to account for 50 per cent of India’s GDP ($640 billion at the end of 2008)”. Just above a quarter of illicit assets are held domestically.

Champions of unrestricted free market economics and liberalisation insist that these will help fight the menace of corruption and the acquisition of illicit wealth. But this is what the GFI report says: “In the post-reform period of 1991-2008, deregulation and trade liberalisation accelerated the outflow of illicit money from the Indian economy. Opportunities for trade mispricing grew and expansion of the global shadow financial system — particularly island tax havens — accommodate the increased outflow of India’s illicit capital flight.” What should also cause concern is the statistical correlation between increasing illicit financial flows and deteriorating income distribution.

A country where lobbyists have Ministers wrapped around their little fingers and can get policy tweaked to suit the interests of unscrupulous corporates, a society which sees nothing wrong with greasing the palms of babus, policemen and politicians to access services to which people are entitled, a nation whose people believe it is perfectly alright to jump the queue by paying middlemen and bribing the crook at the counter, and a people inure to the crime of all-round corruption should not feign anger and outrage over Raja emptying the till of the store he was supposed to look after and manage while cocking a snook at one and all, including a Prime Minister too effete to protest. A severely compromised media only highlights the rot within.

We are what we are, and so are those whom we elect to office.

[This appears as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on November 21, 2010.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Corrupt system, corrupt society

66 die in Delhi house collapse. Does anybody care?

On Monday night a five-storey illegally constructed residential building in east Delhi came crashing down like a house of cards. By Tuesday, the death toll had mounted to 66.

The disaster occurred in the congested, filthy trans-Yamuna area of India's national capital. The parliamentary constituency of East Delhi is represented by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's son, Sandeep Dikshit, of the Congress.

Most residents are immigrants, a majority from Bihar. East Delhi 'colonies', which are large, sprawling urban slums with poor sanitation, near non-existent civic amenities, prolonged power cuts, poor water supply, offer cheap accommodation. Vast stretches of east Delhi have become a ghetto with over-flowing open drains, piles of festering garbage and potholed roads, for immigrants.

The building that collapsed stood a short distance from the 'world class' CWG Games Village. Lakshmi Nagar, and not the tinsel-and-glitter CWG facilities, presents the true face of Delhi.

Sheila Dikshit has washed her hands of any responsibility and slyly passed on the buck to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi where the BJP has a majority. What is not mentioned is that councillors have no executive authority which is vested with the Commissioner who reports to the Lt-Governor of Delhi.

MCD is a den of vice where corrupt babus and venal 'engineers' rule the roast. It's a babu-engineer-land mafia-developer-politician nexus at work. They are a law unto themselves. MCD exemplifies the cash-and-carry culture of Delhi.

But political parties are not free of blame either. Before elections, politicians promise to 'regularise' unauthorised colonies. The Congress, which for long has flourished on 'jhuggi-jhonpri' votes in Delhi, has mastered the art of 'regularising' unauthorised colonies. So its promise carries greater weight.

Before last year's Assembly election, Sheila Dikshit had promised to 'regularise' 1,200 of Delhi's 1,600 unauthorised colonies with illegally constructed buildings violating basic norms required for MCD sanction. The so-called 'Residents Welfare Associations' of these unauthorised colonies were given 'provisional certificates'. After the election, which the Congress won, the list was trimmed to 622.

Every time questions are asked as to why action is not being initiated against unauthorised colonies with illegal buildings, a counter-question is posed: Where will the residents go? That's a neat trick. Grab land, build houses which are death traps, rent them out to immigrants looking for cheap accommodation or sell floors to those looking for cheap housing or benami property, and voila, nobody can touch you.

Human life in India has no value attached to it. Nobody will be held accountable for these terrible deaths. To use a cliche, no heads will roll.

Those who pretend concern over corruption would do well to ponder over this: The loot at the top -- 2G Spectrum scam, Adarsh Housing Society scam, CWG scam -- symbolise the rotten icing on a rotten cake. As a nation, as a society, we are thoroughly corrupt. Or else the sprawling slums of east Delhi, which are loftily described as 'colonies', would not have existed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Prof P Lal, in memoriam

He inspired me to seek a living from the written word

Poet-translator-teacher. That’s how newspapers described Professor Purushottam Lal — better known as Professor P Lal — who died in his beloved city, Kolkata, on November 3. Readers were also informed he was 81. Those who knew Prof Lal also knew that he was not given to maudlin sentimentality — he often described Indians as “naively sentimental”. But perhaps he would have preferred to leave for the hereafter surrounded by shelves laden with books, framed prints of poets, hand-written manuscripts and his family in his crammed though spacious study at his house in Lake Gardens. That was not to be. He had been unwell for some time and required frequent hospitalisation; this time he did not return home. Death stalks us every day and night of our lives; when it finally catches up with us, it is usually without notice. That’s how we are destined to live and die. After the last prayer has been said and the final tribute paid, the passage of time begins to dull the fondest of memories. The cycle of life doesn’t stop turning; it maintains its own steady pace.

Prof Lal will be remembered by many of his admirers as a poet who had crafted a style of his own, very Indian, very desi, not dissimilar to the notes of Hindustani classical music, yet tantalisingly, just so, modern and European. Others will remember him as a publisher who had an eye for spotting young talent and gave budding writers the break they were looking for. That’s how Vikram Seth, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das and many others embarked on their journey to literary stardom. Then there are those who believe he was a gifted translator. His mammoth, 18-volume, sloka by sloka, rendition of Mahabharat in English shall continue to bear testimony to his remarkable ability as a translator. Prof Lal chose to use the word ‘transcreation’ and not ‘translation’; he wasn’t simply looking for words to replace words, but creating a new text based on the original.

He will also be remembered for his publishing house, Writers Workshop, which he ran single-handedly, well almost. For he never forgot to mention, in the opening pages of every book he ever published, that the volume of prose or poetry had reached the reader’s hands via the hands of a typesetter (who was partial towards the Times Roman typeface, possibly because there never was enough money to buy or cast new typefaces), a printer (who operated an antiquated though made in India treadle machine) and a binder (who used cotton handloom sari cloth woven in India). In his lifetime Tulamiah Mohiudden became as much an institution with his imaginative use of Sambalpuri fabric as Writers Workshop. Prof Lal’s son, Ananda, whom I have known as a friend for more years than I can remember, tells me Tulamiah’s children have continued with the tradition made fashionable by the binder of Writers Workshop books. As for the covers, they were invariably designed by Prof Lal: The title and the author’s name, hand-written in his inimitable calligraphy with a Sheaffer fountain pen, would be embossed on the hand-woven fabric in gold. Prof Lal was inconsolable when the nib of his pen broke after decades of use. That particular model was no longer available in stores. He wrote a letter to Sheaffer, wondering whether they could help him locate a nib. They sent him a new pen, with a similar nib specially made for his use. I will never forget the childlike delight with which he told me the story, showing off the pen as a priceless trophy. Yet, no two books ever looked similar. Ananda says Writers Workshop has till date published at least a thousand titles, but as always, and in many ways like his father, he is self-effacing. I am told the Writers Workshop list covers more than 3,000 books.

Pritish Nandy, the radical poet of the 1960s who went on to become a typewriter guerrilla and now produces Bollywood films, would remember Prof Lal as the publisher of his first, slim volume of poems. I was neither a budding writer nor an aspiring poet when I first met Prof Lal in 1981; so I have never had the privilege of being published by him. The only time my name featured in a Writers Workshop title was when Prof Lal wrote a book on his near-death experience in the late-1980s when he was struck by a strange bug while on a lecture tour in the US. In his dedication, he included my name. That was his way of expressing affection for a student who lazed on the back benches, rarely if ever turned in his assignments, but never forgot to attend his class. And that’s how I have always known Prof Lal — as a teacher for whom I had, and shall always have, the highest regard and utmost respect.

Prof Lal’s lectures were invariably scheduled in the afternoon when silence would descend on St Xavier’s College. His mellifluous voice, which he would never raise, would add to the sense of post-lunch lassitude. Unlike the other teachers, he never came armed with tattered, yellowing sheets of paper scribbled with notes. He would just stroll in, perch his elbow on the table and, after the customary greeting, gently initiate more of a conversation than launch into a prepared lecture. He would use metaphors that were magical, words that knocked on the doors of imagination. Perhaps it was practiced ease; years of teaching undergraduate students of English literature abroad had given him a certain sophistication lacking in the other teachers of the department who followed the strait and the narrow of the university syllabus, insisting we scribble down their words, learn the notes by rote and prepare for examinations in which we were expected to get a first. For Prof Lal, a third was as good as a first, provided the mind was not stuck in a groove and roved free, seeking pleasure in prose and poetry, essays and novels beyond the texts prescribed by Calcutta University. He would never bother about marking classroom attendance — presumably he found it repugnant that students should attend his lectures merely to mark attendance and not to learn.

I was a back-bencher and would listen to him in rapt attention, my legs sprawled, eyes half closed. One day, after the bell rang, he waited for me to pick up my bag and walk towards the door. He called me over to where he was standing and said, “I won’t ask you why you never hand in your assignments, but for that alone I will invite you home for tea. Come over this Sunday.” And so it was that I set foot into the famed study where writers would meet for scintillating conversation and manuscripts would be carefully read to spot that special talent which needed a helping hand. Prof Lal was in his favourite armchair, reading a book. He put it aside as I entered the cavernous room on the first floor, the late afternoon sun pouring in through the open windows. I had expected him to rebuke me for not taking my assignments seriously. Instead, what followed was a long conversation that stretched late into the evening. That was the first of many such conversations, and the beginning of a guru-sishya relationship that endured over the years. An added benefit was the friendship I struck with Ananda, then at a loose end and now a professor of English at Jadavpur University.

Kolkata will miss an intellectual who made the city his home, far away from Kapurthala where he was born. While others, including his students, left Kolkata looking for greener pastures, Prof Lal stayed on, resolute in his belief that this was his karmabhumi. In his death, I have lost an affectionate teacher and someone who inspired me to seek a living from the written word. Meanwhile, the queue ahead gets shorter.

[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 14, 2010.]

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Obama comes job-shopping

Are we mindful of our concerns?

A friend on Twitter, @naveenks, made the most profound comment on US President Barack Hussein Obama’s visit to India, which officially begins tomorrow morning: “There was a time when Indian Prime Ministers used to visit the US looking for food to feed hungry Indians. Now US Presidents visit India looking for jobs for Americans.” There couldn’t have been a more apt comment as Mr Obama makes his first halt on a job-shopping trip to Asia. To Mr Obama’s credit, as also to his advisers’, no false claims of furthering ‘strategic relations’ have been made; hence, expectations should not soar in Lutyens’s Delhi or elsewhere in India. To that extent, it was unfair to expect him to name Pakistan — or its ‘non-state actors’ — as the perpetrator/s of the November 26, 2008 bloodbath while reading out his treacly message for the victims and survivors of Mumbai’s unending night of horror. This is not the first time people have pretended the fidayeen came from outer space and Kasab is an extra-terrestrial alien. His immediate predecessors, Mr Bill Clinton and Mr George W Bush, were keen on striking a strategic alliance between the US and India as part of a realignment of geostrategic interests designed to fetch mutual long-term benefits; Mr Obama does not need to toe their line and is at liberty to aggressively seek for America a ‘strategic relationship’ with Pakistan. The ongoing US-Pakistan ‘strategic dialogue’, which involves the active participation of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, speaks for itself and where India stands in the changed circumstances. Whiners do not make winners; a country that does not fight to protect its interests should not expect others to join an imaginary battle.

That does not necessarily detract from the importance of Mr Obama’s visit. An American President knocking on our doors for jobs to sustain his presidency back home is not an everyday occurrence. If only Mrs Indira Gandhi had been alive today, she would have relished this moment of triumph: India’s sweet revenge on the US for treating her so shabbily. Mrs Gandhi was not in Washington, DC with a begging bowl to feed her hungry millions, but to plead the case of Bangladesh and seek American support for a just war of liberation. MV Kamath, who was posted in Washington those days, recalls, “The United States, under President Richard Nixon, was strongly on the side of Pakistan. Nixon hated India with the intensity of a burning Sun. His unprincipled Secretary of State, a real chamcha and an unscrupulous one at that, was ever-willing to back his boss to the hilt. If Nixon showed anger against India, Kissinger would happily fan it. If Nixon abused India, Kissinger was willing to go all the way to insult it … The plane in which she (Mrs Indira Gandhi) travelled was ordered to come a halt at New York’s Kennedy Airport close to a stinking urinal deliberately. One had to hold one’s nose while passing by. According to the lowest level of protocol, she was received by a junior State Department official. I was one of those present on the occasion … The first meeting between her and Nixon was fixed. Punctual to the point, Mrs Gandhi presented herself but Nixon deliberately made her wait for some 40 minutes to show his contempt for his visitor ... It was bad manners at their worst…”

No matter how lofty the cause, Mrs Gandhi was a supplicant in Nixon’s court and he was loath to let this fact go unnoticed. That does not, however, require us to be boorish as Mr Obama comes looking for jobs to bail out Americans from an economic crisis that continues to get worse, causing unemployment to rise to a level that has forced his ‘coalition of voters’ — the college-educated, the suburbanites, the politically uncommitted — to disown their ‘Apostle of Change’ and make Tea Party a fashionable political term of grassroots resistance to what is increasingly being perceived in the US as bad governance and which has fetched the Democrats a walloping in last week’s mid-term elections the like of which has not been witnessed in 72 years. Mr Obama’s approval rating, let us not forget, hovers at 45 per cent, and he is not even in the last year of his term.

So here are the bare facts. Mr Obama arrives in India not as the world’s most powerful person (that honour now goes to Mr Hu Jintao, President of China), an American President who can assert his authority and swing congressional approval for long-term strategic deals. The mid-term elections have left him severely bruised and his presidency hobbled. Republicans now have a majority in the House; the Democrats’ lead in the Senate is too narrow to over-ride opposition to presidential initiatives. The reversals are far worse than those suffered by Mr Clinton and Mr Bush. Unlike Mr Obama, neither Mr Clinton nor Mr Bush was isolated within his party. The Democrats are increasingly reluctant to either endorse him or be seen to be endorsing him. Few candidates wanted him to campaign for them and the party is already divided on renominating him for 2012, although these are early days for the race which begins late next year.

Domestic issues, especially the American economy, will preoccupy Mr Obama through 2011 to shore up his ratings. It’s unlikely he will focus on foreign relations and policy unless they are directly linked to domestic concerns. Hence his honest admission that his Asia visit is meant to ‘shop for jobs’: Any big ticket agreement that is arrived at while he is in New Delhi is likely to be linked to job-creation in America. That’s why Mr Obama is pushing hard for Government-to-Government defence purchases by India. It obviates procurement norms, fast tracks contracts, and advantage accrues to the supplier Government: The Obama Administration can boast to have created that many more jobs.

India has agreed to purchase 10 C17 transport planes for the IAF. The deal would fetch the US $ 5 billion. More importantly, it would save up to 30,000 jobs. Mr Obama now wants India to place its order for 126 multirole aircraft for the IAF with Lockheed Martin or Boeing, or both. That would save and generate as many as 27,000 to 31,000 jobs. If India agrees, we would be underwriting Mr Obama’s job-creation programme and funding the recovery of the US’s badly hit economy to the tune of more than $10 billion. Curiously, as soon as India agreed to the purchase of the C17s, Mr Obama announced an additional military aid package of $ 2.037 billion (over and above the $ 7.5 billion ongoing aid) for Pakistan. So, by placing orders for American merchandise, India not only creates jobs in the US but also defrays part of the mounting cost of American civil and military aid to Pakistan. For the record, since 9/11, American aid to Pakistan has surpassed $ 25 billion; nearly all of it in military assistance.

India Inc has made two points in response to Mr Obama’s job-shopping agenda. First, with India emerging as one the fastest growing source of FDI in the US, thousands of jobs have been created and secured by us in that country. Second, notwithstanding this fact, Mr Obama has become increasingly protectionist. For example, tax breaks for companies that outsource business or employ non-Americans are being withdrawn; H1B visa fees have been raised astronomically; and, it’s more difficult to get business visas than ever before while many Indians with business visas are being refused entry at port of arrival.

It is against this backdrop that we should judge the outcome of Mr Obama’s visit to India, not imagined slights and grievances which have no place in hard-headed diplomacy.

[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 7, 2010.]