Friday, December 31, 2010

What Future for the Indian National Congress?

A complacent Congress is unaware that it is rapidly losing all credibility.

The Indian National Congress is none the better after its 83rd plenary session in Burrari, Delhi, which also marked the 125th anniversary of its founding. For the first time since its unexpected return to power in 2004 as the head of a coalition government, the Congress Party is in deep trouble. In less than 18 months after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that it heads was re-elected, the party is beset with allegations of corruption, incompetence at the centre and in the states where it is in power, factionalism at all levels and it finds itself without a mass base of any kind. The only force driving the Congress Party is the “follow the leader” sentiment, which has kept the party afloat since 1998 when Sonia Gandhi took control. The excitement around the heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, has begun to wear thin. While the younger Gandhi is credited (wrongly?) for the triumph in 2009 and he has made some attempts to rebuild the party at the grass-root level, the disaster in the recent Bihar assembly elections has removed a good part of the shine on the general secretary of the Youth Congress.

Read More here..

Monday, December 20, 2010

More Than Delayed Justice

The initiation of war trials has the potential to establish a secular, democratic state in Bangladesh.

Democracy in Bangladesh has been blighted by assassinations of political leaders and by military forces and extremists subverting democratic institutions. Such repeated acts – military coups, political assassinations and, worst of all, war crimes against civilians – have gone unpunished and at times have even been legimitised by those in power. Now, nearly four decades after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, the polity led by the ruling Awami League Party has finally decided to initiate trials against war criminals involved in horrific acts against humanity during what the Bangladeshis call the Liberation War.

Read more of the EPW editorial here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Perfecting Patronage

Regional parties have entrenched themselves in the system of crony capitalism.

Much of the attention in the Radia tapes, featuring lobbyist Niira Radia, has been on the mischief played by journalists. What has received less attention is the close nexus between lobbyists and regional political actors. The tapes show how different factions within the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) were pitching in 2009 for key roles in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. And the lobbyist’s primary concern was to bend this struggle to suit the interests of her clients and place a minister of their choice in the telecommunications ministry.

The DMK, the party of former union telecommunications minister A Raja, has been with all governments in the centre since 1996 (barring brief inter­regnums in 1998-99 and early 2004), as part of the United Front governments of 1996-98, the National Democratic Alliance government of 1999-2004 andUPA-I andII. Political scientists have heralded the process of accommodation of regional parties in the central power structure as a progressive feature of Indian federalism and have seen it as a deepening of democracy. The explosion from the late 1980s onwards in the number of “effective parties” in the party system was a consequence of the decline of the Congress as a hegemonic force.

The greater regionalisation and the dawn of the coalition era were believed to help a more effective articulation of local interests and do away with patronage based on power at the centre. But in truth regional parties such as the DMK have used their power in the centre to strengthen the patronage politics in their respective states. The DMK, for instance, has moved smoothly into the crony capitalist structure at the centre and has used the resources it has collected to feed the party machine in Tamil Nadu. The DMK government in the state has seen a number of welfare schemes – some well-received ones such as the sale of rice at subsidised prices and the Kalaignar insurance scheme, but also some outlandish ones such as the distribution of colour television sets. What is characteristic of theDMK’s ways of consolidating power is the manner in which the party has conducted itself during elections. Tamil Nadu political watchers point to the “Thirumangalam model” as evidence of the DMK’s successful (though illegal) use of moneyed resources to confer patronage and garner political support. The assembly by-elections in Thirumangalam in January 2009 saw the disbursal of a large amount of cash to win votes. The elections in the Madurai Lok Sabha constituency later that year also featured similar practices. The DMK has in a certain sense perfected this model through the use of resources garnered by its top functionaries in the central government in the award of licences, contracts and project approvals. The leading party in opposition in Tamil Nadu has been no better. Corruption was a feature of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government as well when the party was in power (1991-96 and 1999-2004) in Tamil Nadu.

Both the Dravidian parties have in the past leveraged their presence in the central government to entrench their patronage networks and strengthen the hand of the leadership. The DMK is virtually controlled by a single family which is seamlessly enmeshed in big business and politics. The AIADMK is almost a mirror image, offering very little that is different in the content of its politics and in the structure of its organisation.

The “system” of patronage has served the two parties well during phases of rapid economic growth, but what will happen if an economic crisis were to hit the state is anybody’s guess. The short-term benefits of disbursal of patronage have helped the parties manage substantial banks of support, but they tend to be short-lived as the basic economic and livelihood issues remain unaddressed. That is why newer political parties have emerged in Tamil Nadu such as the actor Vijayakanth-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The telecom scam, the outlook of the regional parties of Tamil Nadu and the UPA’s response, all highlight the substantive infirmities of Indian liberal democracy after liberalisation. At least in the case of the regional parties from Tamil Nadu, the expected beneficial effects of regionalisation are no longer to be seen. The so-called “deepening of democracy” that has taken place is more a case of a circulation of elites. The regional elite has partaken of the larger process of rent-seeking, using resources thus gained to disburse patronage. No substantive alternative processes of representing local interests have been explored by the regional parties and political contestation at the state level is limited to who is more effective in the politics of patronage. No wonder then that both the AIADMK and DMK have vied with each other to be part of the government at the centre irrespective of which coalition is in power in New Delhi.

An EPW Editorial

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Curious Case of Barkha Dutt (and others)

Excerpts from Silver Blaze (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), by Arthur Conan Doyle

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Reality TV met News Opinionating met Court TV yesterday when well known TV journalist Barka Dutt, news editor of the NDTV channel came under cross questioning by four editors - Sanjaya Baru of the Business Standard, Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor of the Times of India, Manu Joseph of the Open Magazine which broke the “Radia tapes” story and Swapan Dasgupta, right wing columnist and contributor to The Pioneer and The Telegraph among others.

The key behind this charade held by the channel was to bring into focus the role played by Barkha Dutt as a news editor reporting during the UPA-II cabinet formation based on information she received from corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. The conversations with Radia establish a few things - a) Barkha Dutt explicitly agrees to act as a message courier between Radia (ostensibly speaking for entities within the DMK) and Congress leaders - senior ones like Ghulam Nabi Azad for e.g., b) Radia was particularly keen on passing the message as to who among the DMK was a preferred candidate for ministership in certain berths.

The anger against Barkha Dutt expressed online was on various counts. Many in the public were linking this up with the 2G scam and role of DMK minister A Raja in it. They saw it as a case of Radia playing a facilitator for the re-entry of A Raja into the UPA-II cabinet despite serious questions about the 2G scam during UPA-I and journalists helping her in the process. It was galling for the public to see journalists who they ideally see as detached players wanting to partake into such murky processes orchestrated by corporate players.

No wonder, Barkha Dutt, being the high profile journalist that she is, was prominently highlighted along with a few others. The other high profile journalist Vir Sanghvi was caught even more red handed, playing the rat to Radia’s Pied Piper in helping in message delivery and opinion making about two issues - again the A Raja re-installation in cabinet and also the Mukesh Ambani line in the gas dispute between the Ambani brothers. Sanghvi has recently taken a break from writing his column, Counterpoint. And he makes a bogus defense based on “stringing his source”, but the proof is in the pudding that is his writing and there, as is pointed out earlier, he is caught red handed doing Niira Radia’s bidding. Evidently Vir Sanghvi is more interested in pushing for the national interest as long as that interest expediently serves the corporate lobbyist's.

Barkha Dutt in her first response was outraged by the insinuations of lobbying in particular. She insisted that her assurances to Radia were basically “fibs” wanting to string her to get further information. And it is this outrage that pervaded her response besides the point on media ethics, where she questioned Open magazine (and Outlook magazine)’s decisions to publish transcripts of her conversations without contacting her for a response and so on. This was evident in her replies during last night’s inquisition-of-sorts as well.

But substantively, the key question remained and asked only by a relative few - Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu in his article, and by the Open magazine’s editor, Manu Joseph and his colleague. Joseph asked Dutt why wasn’t it that as a news editor she saw it necessary to bring to the public’s purview that a corporate public relations person having two of the richest clients in the world and indeed most powerful in India, was trying to pass on messages on which DMK leader was suitable for a particular cabinet post? Wasn’t it obvious that the role of corporate players wanting to have a say in getting ministers of their liking was a case of gross crony capitalism? Why was her coverage restricted to the minute-by-minute reporting of what the DMK’s demands were and what bargains were being struck by the Congress and the DMK rather than this substantial question of great public import? And why wasn’t this point highlighted even during the height of the revelations of the 2G scam, as representatives of various political parties pointed out irregularities in the 2G auction and the losses to the public exchequer (as early as early 2008). Or even during the recent release of the CAG report that put a number to the notional loss suffered by the exchequer - a mind boggling Rs 1,76,000 crore. Why didn’t Barkha Dutt want to bring out the undue and unusual interest shown by corporate players in wanting A Raja’s continuation in cabinet, during her reportage of the 2G Scam recently? Surely it was in public interest to bring out the nuances and minutiae of how crony capitalism worked and how ministers were at the bidding of big corporate players who controlled the strings of functioning of democracy from without, wasn’t it?

No, according to Barkha Dutt. It was a mere judgement call whether to report this or not. This was commonplace - the undue and shady corporate interest in public affairs and day-to-day and she didn’t consider it important enough.

Here is where Barkha Dutt is trying to string the public along with her and fib to us. Here is where the main contradiction is brought out clearly. Here is why the import of the Open magazine and Outlook magazine stories are brought out in the clear and in substance. It is similar to why the dog didn’t bark in the Silver Blaze story in the Sherlock Holmes series.

Our news media revels in trying to outdo each other in bringing out procedural, titillating details as if they are doing ball-by-ball commentary of a cricket game, when it comes to political reporting. But they do not want to displease their advertisers, mostly big corporate fund dispensers, by seeing and reporting things that are fundamentally wrong in the core issue of crony capitalism. It makes more sense for them to ridicule the political class and play up the middle class imagery of the crooked political class without distinction and difference and win eye balls in that process.

This is the problem with Indian news journalism. As Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times tweeted, “the larger problem of political journalism, esp[ecially] on TV: it privileges process minutiae over substance”. The question is why? This editorial in the EPW commenting on the Paid News issue can provide answers - “The Indian media is selling its soul to the market and forfeiting its claim to be an independent estate” or this editorial , which comments on the media coverage of the 26/11 incident says,
The manifest failures of the political establishment though, cannot obscure the fact that older notions of the media serving as a vigilant watchdog over public affairs have once again proven hopelessly romantic and outmoded. The media is a slave of the market. Its social role is little else than to serve as an echo chamber for the voices of the rich and the powerful, however shrill, irrational or lacking in coherence these may be.
Or more systematically as to how profit privileges public interest in the mass media, by the formidable intellectual, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the excellent book, “Manufacturing Consent”. A film made on the subject can be viewed here -

So, there you go.It is a good thing that the larger public now gets to see the “lapdog of the market” face of the media for once, shown up through the “Radia tapes” story. Holmes would have approved.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Nitish Kumar’s Triumph

An improved administration with a selective use of identity helps the ruling coalition triumph in Bihar.

In what must be described as an expected result, the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition has come up trumps in the Bihar state assembly elections. The coalition has not just won. By achieving a three-fourths majority in the assembly, it has nearly annihilated the opposition comprising the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) alliance and the Congress Party. The outcome repeats the Lok Sabha election results in 2009. The reasons for the strong victory in the assembly elections are the same as in the Lok Sabha polls – a very positive perception about the JD(U)-BJP government’s public works programme and the quality of state administration as also the ruling coalition’s very deft use of identity to shore up its base.

Fore more, read the rest of the editorial here.