Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Change electoral system to fight graft...

This is the second part of what Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me when I interviewed him in December 1997. It was published in The Times of India under the headline: The Man India Awaits.

The monster of corruption is threatening our polity. How, in your view, could we battle this monster?

As I see it, good governance is possible only when a Government has an ethical base. Tragically, morality and ethics are at a discount in politics today, not only in India but countries across the world. Today we find country after country grappling with the monster of graft; competitive politics is increasingly relying upon the strength of money, more so with the waning of ideology. But corruption cannot be just wished away; it needs to be fought at every level, beginning with the cleansing politics of the influence of money power. The second requirement is extensive electoral reforms...

You have often talked about the need for systemic changes, that we need to have a second look at our Constitution...

After 50 years, yes, the time has come for a second look at our Constitution and to explore the possibility of institutionalising some systemic changes. Some people have pointed out the merits of the presidential system. But here, too, the question arises as to what sort of a presidential system would suit India.

You know, there is this Supreme Court judgement prohibiting any change in the basic structure of the Constitution. We have to bear that in mind. But even within the present structure, certain changes can be brought about, especially to ensure stability. For instance, we could consider a five-year mandate for the Lok Sabha, thus preventing mid-term polls. We could also consider the German system that doesn't allow a no-confidence motion against the incumbent Government but only a motion of confidence in an alternative Government. Whatever it is, but we must look for a cure to this instability. I would suggest that we appoint a high level Commission on the Constitution to take a fresh look at it and recommend systemic changes.

What sort of electoral reforms would you recommend?

Our electoral system is flawed on several counts. For instance, the first-past-the-post system which India borrowed from Great Britain does not appear to have served the country well. Perhaps the time has come for a review of this system and to take a close look at other systems prevalent elsewhere in the democratic world.

A fundamental flaw in our system is that often a party's support base is not reflected in the number of seats it is able to win. With a huge share of the vote, you could end up with seats much below the number required to obtain a majority in the House. Conversely, with a smaller share of the vote, a party could find itself on the Treasury Benches. A direct fallout of this, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Congress which has vacated political space at a rate faster than in which any single political party can occupy this vacuum, is the current political instability. So, why don't we have a look at the list system or a mixed system of representation?

In recent years we have witnessed the emergence of regional parties and the decline of national parties like the Congress. What reasons would you attribute to this... 

In the wake of India's independence, there was a tendency to centralise power in
Delhi. Primarily, there were two reasons for this: Our experience of partition and the need to consolidate more than 500 states and the provinces into a Union. Essentially, the idea was to avoid further fragmentation. There was this additional factor that the Congress was the dominant party both at the Centre and in the states. With the national parties fully engrossed by national problems, region specific problems and aspirations were ignored. Over-centralisation also resulted in Chief Ministers running to the Centre for the smallest of clearances and permissions, not to mention funds. All this resulted in the emergence of regional parties. So long as these parties have a national outlook, I see nothing wrong with them.

This brings us to the issue of decentralisation and giving more powers to the States...

Yes, there has to be decentralisation of political as well as economic powers. Decision-making cannot be restricted to the Centre alone. We have been arguing for greater fiscal autonomy for the States as well as shifting the balance of resources in favour of the States. As far as political powers are concerned, on issues like the appointment of Governors, the consent of the Chief Minister should be secured. Needless to add, I am totally against the misuse of article 356 and given a chance, would amend this Constitutional provision so as to prevent its abuse. The Sarkaria Commission's recommendations were allowed to gather dust. Many of those recommendations need to be updated and, more importantly, implemented.

What, in your opinion, should be the character of a stable coalition Government? And, why do you think coalitions have failed till now?

Let me answer the second question first. As a people we are yet to learn the art of working together. If individuals in a party cannot function smoothly, leading to fragmentation of parties, how can parties come together and function smoothly? In any case, this 14-party Government was a joke of a coalition. As for the first question, well, ideally a stable coalition should have a large party as its nucleus. This has been proved in States where coalitions have worked, for example, West Bengal.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

'I dream of a strong, prosperous India'

"At a time when every party was singing paens to the Nehruvian model of command economy, the Jana Sangh was demanding that the economy be freed from the clutches of Government control..." 

This is what Atal Bihari Vajpayee told me when I interviewed him in December 1997. It was published in The Times of India under the headline: The Man India Awaits.

I accidentally stumbled upon the text of the interview. Re-reading it, I realised he was a true visionary, a towering stalwart among pygmies who then crowded the Government at the Centre as they do now; a leader who inspired hope and kindled aspiration, much like Narendra Modi does today.

It's a long interview. I thought of breaking it up into smaller parts. Here goes the first of the lot. Read, retrospect, react.   
At a political rally addressed by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the veteran leader took the mike, somebody from the audience shouted, “Desh ka pradhan mantri kaisa ho?” and the others responded with “Atal Bihari jaisa ho!|” Mr Vajpayee, in his inimitable style, began his speech by saying, “Sawal yeh nahin hai ki pradhan mantri kaisa ho. Sawal yeh hai ki desh kaisa ho.”

Mr Vajpayee's pride in his Indian heritage is deep, vast and abiding. If, on the one hand, it causes him deep distress at the present state of the nation, it also forms the foundation of his hopes for tomorrow on the other. Indeed, the greater the sorrow he feels, the more determined he grows to make India rise above its failures and resume its place at the apex of civilisation.
A popular poem of his offers abundant proof of this.

He exhorts Indians to find within themselves, the daring, courage and honour that characterised great Indian men of yore. His call sounds for all those who can willingly make sacrifices without expecting either fame or any other reward in return ... “who burn like a flame in the dark even while others shine in the light of fame”. His summons are for people “who have the glorious vision of the future in their eyes and the speed of storms in-every step”. He knows that nothing can stop the rising tide of patriotism and it is with this knowledge that his call rings out: “Come all who dare.”

Mr Vajpayee, in this era of globalisation, economics is fast supplanting politics all over the world. You are widely perceived as India's next Prime Minister. If you were to become India's next Prime Minister, what would be Swadeshi's influence on your economic policies? And since a country is largely shaped by its economic-policies, what should be India's approach?

Let me make it clear that Swadeshi does not mean that India will become an island by itself or become isolationist. Neither does it mean that we will not allow the inflow of new ideas and  new technology or, for that matter, foreign investment. 

Swadeshi essentially means that people should have the confidence to build a modern and prosperous India by working hard and making the maximum use of the resources that are available at the moment. It means making India a global player. It means strengthening our indigenous research and development. Swadeshi ultimately means ensuring a reasonable standard of living for all citizens.
Those who say that India cannot move forward unless others come to our aid, are wrong. We have an abundance of natural resources, trained technical manpower and our achievements in science and technology are remarkable. Therefore, there is no reason why we should not have pride in our national capabilities. I would say, in a nutshell Swadeshi means "India can do it and India will do it".

Would you reconsider liberalisation?

There can be no going back to a completely state-controlled economy in which, instead of rewarding private sector for higher production, limits were imposed through quotas. Since its inception, right from the days of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, my party has all along demanded deregulation of the economy and cutback in Government controls. At a time when every party was singing paens to the Nehruvian model of command economy, the Jana Sangh was demanding that the economy be freed from the clutches of Government control.

Expansion of the public sector without developing a professional managerial class for the public sector enterprises has made many of them unprofitable and unviable. I believe that we should try and revive those undertakings that can be turned around. In any event, I am against substituting the earlier policy of indiscriminate expansion with indiscriminate closure. In all this, the workers' interests need to be safeguarded.

There is this view in your party against consumer items, especially those manufactured by MNCs...

What I and my party are opposed to is allowing the Indian market to be swamped by products that offer an illusion of prosperity but in reality meet the demands of a very narrow band of people. Putting it simply, we are against unlimited consumerism which may appeal to cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile Indians, but ignores the needs of 75 per cent of the country's population that lives in our villages. Other countries in South-East Asia that have prospered, have done so through high rates of saving. We, too, must strive for higher savings rates.

If you were the Prime Minister, would you recommend a change in the manner of approval of foreign investments or regulate its inflow?

I would ensure that every investment offer is decided on merit and whether it meets our country's needs. I would bear in mind our national interests.

There is an increasing demand from Indian industry for a level playing field. Which essentially means a degree of protection for local industry...

I am inclined to agree with them. Indian industry has to be given time and all help to prepare itself to meet the challenges of globalisation. Till recently they operated in a largely protected market. To suddenly push them into competition, that too with those who are at a more advantageous position, especially as far as access to capital is concerned, is unfair. Yes, I do favour a level playing field. If in the USA they can have this slogan, ‘Be American, Buy American’, why can't we say, ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’? Instead of being swamped by foreign brands, why can't we make Indian brands globally acceptable?

There is also this thing that economic liberalisation has not benefited small scale industry and agriculture... 

Small scale sector deserves full protection and all possible incentives. As for agriculture, we all know that investment in this crucial sector has declined, resulting in a slowdown of
agricultural growth despite a good monsoon. I would consider investment in agriculture one of the top priorities for a Government committed to good governance.

(To be continued. Published in The Times of India on December 25, 1997.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Who let the trolls in?

Welcome to the New Virtual World Order!

(Visual courtesy: http://hebreaksthecedars.blogspot.in)

The first time I encountered the word ‘troll’ was in high school. That year, we had to read JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit, as part of our course for English literature. It was in the pages of that fascinating book that we discovered amazing creatures, including hobbits and trolls.
Trolls, we were told by way of introduction to these supernatural beings, traced their origin to Norse mythology. They were not particularly handsome in their appearance, lived in mountain caves and had their own social code. Human beings steered clear of them as they did of human beings.
I read The Hobbit at the turn of the last quarter of the last century. Although it’s a memorable book, hugely entertaining at one level and profoundly meaningful at another, I had forgotten about trolls and their strange ways. And I didn’t hear or read about trolls till my foray into social media via Twitter.
I must admit that I was clueless about the terms of engagement in Twitterdom. I learned the rules, such as they are, as I went along, often through mistakes that I wouldn’t ever commit again. Those were days of well-meaning innocence. I wish I had been cynical.
Two terms I would hear often is ‘troll’ and ‘trolling’. The Urban Dictionary, which too I discovered via social media, defines a troll as someone who is deliberately provocative, disruptive and abusive.
A ‘troll’ is someone who “continually harangues and harasses others, has nothing worthwhile to add to a conversation, thinks everybody is talking about him/her, and has multiples monikers to circumvent getting banned”. Trolls also use anonymity as a shield. And their online activity is what is known as ‘trolling’.
Meeting a troll in the misty mountains of Hobbitland would have been a thrilling, if not delightful, experience. Meeting a ‘troll’ on an online forum, especially an open forum like Twitter, can prove to be neither thrilling nor delightful.
Yet, not everybody who is impolite to you, or does not shares your views, or has a bone to pick with you because of real or imaginary grievances, or simply has had a bad hair day and is nursing a foul mood, is a ‘troll’. Nor does someone who pitilessly demolishes your argument, or calls you out for being less than truthful with facts, or tells you on your face that you are a charlatan and/or a philanderer (because you indeed are one), qualifies to be labelled as ‘troll’.
I have no issues with such people even if they are labelled as ‘trolls’ by those who feel unsettled by them. On more than one occasion I have defended them because I see them as subaltern sepoys who have at last found a means of having their say and calling the bluff of those given to bluster.
Also I quite enjoy watching worms squirm. Those mortified by ‘trolls’ like these have had a free run till now. No longer shall they go unquestioned; no more can they peddle their bunk without a quality check. That’s social media’s biggest contribution.
A ‘troll’ is someone who intentionally harasses and abuses. A ‘troll’ is someone who deliberately defames and slanders you.
A ‘troll’ is someone who slyly stalks you, twists your words, and seeks to denigrate your views by imputing slanderous motives.
A ‘troll’ is someone who can be confronted and charged with criminal offence. At least that’s my interpretation of who or what is a ‘troll’ and his/her ‘trolling’.
The presence of ‘trolls’ as I see them is undesirable on an open media platform where freedom of expression is often misconstrued as freedom to abuse, to defame and to slander.
Individuals taking shelter in anonymity do so. Bots using monikers also do so, perhaps with a degree of sophistry.
I would also add a third category of ‘trolls’: Individuals who use their real names and are either brazenly shameless or secure in the knowledge that prosecution for libel is not an easy option in our country.
They spit and scoot. They squat and stalk. They are possibly sickos with twisted minds and darkened souls.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. In real life there are ‘trolls’ all around. Colleagues bitch about you behind your back at office. Relatives say nasty things about you after dining at your home. Examples abound.
Hence, it makes sense to ignore ‘trolls’ who abuse, defame and slander others, taking recourse to bazar language. It also makes sense to ignore the posh ‘trolls’ who pretend to be socially, culturally and intellectually superior and believe everybody else is a ‘moron’.
Some of these posh ‘trolls’ also happen to media stars, courtesy their real and sugar daddies. We contemptuously ignore insufferable fools, so should we ignore insufferable ‘trolls’ like these.
But that’s easier said than done. Often individuals take offence, very serious offence, to ‘trolling’ by ‘trolls’. What invariably follows is ‘I feel outraged’ or ‘I feel violated’. That’s silly.
In the virtual world of social media, it’s absurd to feel angry or violated, not the least because the millions out there give a damn about your feelings. Tough luck. Get real. Deal with it.
There’s a problem though. The easily offended, the perpetually violated, find it difficult to get real and deal with the fact that not everybody is a fawning admirer and an unquestioning toady.
News telly stars, who have till now talked down to their audience from the safe confines of their studios, are alarmed at being confronted on social media platforms, say, Twitter, for their glaring biases and for running motivated stories.
Writers who have pontificated from their ivory towers, brooking neither criticism nor correction, are horrified for being told on their face that what they produce is bilge. That’s not what they are accustomed to hearing.
The Bold and the Beautiful, the pretty people who blow kisses, call each other ‘dahling’, and pretend to know all about wines and single malts although anything but rum, the good old sailor’s drink, gives them indigestion, at Dior-drenched Page 3 parties, are left speechless by the audacity of the unwashed masses on social media platforms. Who let the dogs in?
The new digital order did. Social media isn’t the Gymkhana and Twitter isn’t the IIC. By the way, Bharat speaks English too. And guess what? Bharat has this terrible habit of questioning hypocrisy, exposing duplicity and lampooning gasbags masquerading as intellectuals.
So what will you do? Write a pompous piece denouncing Bharat? That will fetch much mirth and laughter – before you know, Bharat will be rolling on the floor laughing his ass off.
Horrible ‘troll’ this, Bharat. But that’s what you get for removing the digital divide. Welcome to the New Virtual World Order.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Meanwhile, in the White House...

Rick McKee is the staff cartoonist at The Augusta Chronicle

 Nate Beeler is the award-winning editorial cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch.

Shadow of nuclear Iran

Israel has never been free of threats to its very existence. But never before has the Jewish state been so worried about the future.

Rare, if any, has been the occasion when Israel has not been burdened with the onerous task of seeking answers to tough existential questions. Ever since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, it has had to relentlessly struggle on several fronts at the same time. There were wars, launched by Israel’s Arab neighbours, that had to be fought and won; there were challenges to the fledgling Israeli economy, including sourcing oil and gas, which had to be overcome; there were problems, associated with institutionalising a democratic order, that had to be resolved.

Nearly six-and-a-half decades later, Israel is an oasis of peace and prosperity, surrounded by the sterile sands of Arabia. A robust democracy with a healthy economy — which is in stark contrast to the global financial turbulence — Israel, where democracy flourishes in its truest sense, should have had little to worry about. Yet, beneath the apparent calm that prevails in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (and the rest of the tiny country which in reality is a mighty nation), there is mounting disquiet bordering on alarm.

All of a sudden, Israel finds itself confronting a rapidly changing situation in West Asia where yesterday’s certitudes have turned out to be untrue and unreliable. Israel can no longer take for granted its three-decade-long peace with Egypt which, even if frosty at best of times, had allowed it to focus on nation-building without being distracted by threats of war. The entirely unexpected collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime and the menacing rise of Islamists have not been without consequences that indicate a return to the past.

There is much talk in Cairo of disowning the 1979 Peace Treaty that followed the 1978 Camp David Accords, signed by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The Muslim Brotherhood had never accepted that peace agreement: Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The assassin, Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, was executed, but that did not in any manner lessen the opposition to peace with Israel.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood wields power in Egypt and, for all practical purposes, the 1979 Peace Treaty lies in tatters. The supply of Egyptian gas to Israel has been stopped; Sinai is now controlled by marauding mobs of Islamists; the demilitarised buffer zone between Egypt and Israel neither offers protection nor assures peace. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are at an all time low.

The situation in Jordan, the other Arab country with which Israel had signed a peace agreement, remains unstable. For the moment, the progressive and pragmatic King Abdullah of Jordan has the upper hand, but it is anybody’s guess as to how long he can hold out against the Islamist surge following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which has turned out to be a torrid summer of political instability and social upheaval.

In Syria, President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist loyalists are fighting a rearguard battle against Ikhwani forces hugely emboldened by the turn of events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The fallout of the raging civil war in Syria is being felt in Lebanon where the Hizbullah continues to expand its hold over the state and its agencies. From Tel Aviv (or, for that matter, from anywhere else) the view of the rest of West Asia, which the West refers to as the ‘extended’ Middle East, that is, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia up to Iran, gets progressively bleaker. Ironically, much hope is now vested with Saudi Arabia to hold the Islamist tide; yesterday’s sponsor of militant political Islam is today’s defender of moderation of faith in politics at home and abroad.

Turkey, with which Israel enjoyed (and to an extent still does) excellent relations, has its eyes set on emerging as the main power in the region and seizing the leadership that was till now jointly held by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Here, too, the irony can’t be missed: The Turks have little in common with the Arabs, civilisationally and culturally. Locked in this battle for leadership after the tectonic shift of power from the Arab Palace to the Arab Street are Saudi Arabia and Iran — the first desperate to retain its primacy over Sunni Arabia; the latter seeking to establish Shia hegemony over Sunni states either in turmoil or with tottering regimes.

All this constitutes bad news for Israel. There is understandable concern over Iran’s proxies — Hamas in Gaza, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Shia dissidents in Arab states — gaining strength. The possibility of Sunni Ikhwanis, eager to demonstrate their anti-Israel credentials and thereafter take their anti-Semitism to its logical conclusion, making common cause with Shia Iran cannot be ruled out. The lifting of the embargo on allowing Iranian ships to pass through the Suez Canal does not portend well for the future — many in Israel see it as a sign of emerging threat on a front considered secure till now.

Topping the list of these concerns is Iran’s military nuclear programme which, unless dismantled soon, will inevitably result in Tehran acquiring weapons of mass destruction. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Iran is racing towards producing weapons grade uranium; that it is simultaneously working on delivery systems by way of acquiring missiles and related technology; and, that there is absolutely no reason to believe that the Baghdad talks, on which much hope has been pinned by the global community, will yield the desired results. If Iran were to get its own Bomb, others in the region would want it too. And this is where Pakistani proliferation comes in: Having provided technology and hardware to Iran, it will not hesitate to hawk both, if not readymade Bombs, to the Arabs. There’s a lot of money to be made.

That’s the doomsday scenario. Israel hopes (against hope) that this won’t come about, that sanctions and international pressure will yet make Iran wilt. But it’s also aware that sanctions have not always had their desired results or else the world would not have been saddled with rogue regimes straddling unruly states. Hence, it’s working on its own strategy to deal with a nuclear armed Iran.

Tiny David defeated mighty Goliath. That lesson of history should not be lost on those who dream of wiping Israel from the map of the world.