Monday, February 23, 2015

A tale of two "Nobel" Indians

Like all good middle class Bengali boys - I grew up to revere Amartya Sen as a post-Tagore era icon. That his first wife lives in the neighbourhood (a distant relative) and his older daughter a contemporary added to his aura. We were told - he would have won the Nobel long back had it not been for his left oriented economics (suggesting that the Nobel Committee had a clear right-wing free-market tilt). It would be dishonest not to admit - a slight surge of sub-national chauvinistic pride - when he ultimately won the prize and was later conferred the Bharat Ratna.
However, as one grew up some of that halo faded, hearing critique of friends, who were well-known economists in their own right and thought their "Amartya kaku" (uncle - as some of them were allowed to call him) hadn't made any significant contribution to the field in more than three decades and become a faux-philosopher rather than an economist. This was evident in some of his later writings - the most quoted book - title being The Argumentative Indian. One also chuckled at stories of how in his heydays he could have given the likes of Tharoor stiff competition in a certain department.
But that is not to diminish by any measure Amartya Sen's stature or achievements as one of the greatest scholars of modern India. As for his political views, I, for one, never had any issues about his criticisms of Modi, which as an independent thinking individual he was perfectly entitled to - though I felt, as an influential public intellectual, he could have avoided an overtly partisan anti-Modi campaign before the elections given his easy access to the media. But, again that was a matter of personal prerogative. It was clear that he had endeared himself to the ruling dispensation and his academic collaborator was one of the leading brains behind many of the welfare economics based schemes of the government. Therefore, it wasn't a surprise to see him chosen as the chancellor designate of the Nalanda University project. One thought it was lucrative sinecure of sorts - for it is difficult to imagine someone at his age having the energy or drive to discharge any executive responsibility - especially living outside the country for better part of the year.
But, it always struck me as odd - as to why, if creating an international centre of higher learning was indeed his mission - didn't he start closer home with his own alma mater Santiniketan? The Sen family (especially from his maternal side) had three generations of association with Tagore and, in fact, it was "Gurudev" (as Santiniketan inmates called Tagore) who had christened him "Amartya". What Tagore dreamt of as a "World University", was now going to seed with years of neglect and internecine politics. Sen still has a home in Santiniketan and spends considerable time there. What could, therefore, be a more appropriate institution for Amartya to turn-around and re-instate it in its rightful place in the global universe of liberal education.
The answer to my mind could be two a) He was apprehensive of getting mired in the centre-state cross-fire and b) Santiniketan did not have deep pockets.
While I am sure Sen didn't expect Nalanda to be bereft of politics. Though I can't vouch for the figures of Rs 2,200 crore corpus and US $85,000 per annum. of tax-free remuneration plus first class air-travel etc - Nalanda was not short of funds we all know. So, it may not be too far off the mark to conjecture - the latter was an important consideration for Sen to opt for Nalanda - unless, of course, he was guided by an overwhelming desire to leave behind his own grand legacy a la Tagore. But, if that was indeed the case - then, I am afraid, Sen has very little to show (except for an apology of a make-shift campus) in the six years that he has been at the helm. At 81 even if the government agreed to extend his tenure for a second term -  he would be better off passing on the reigns to a younger and more competent hand  who can take his dream to fruition.   
But, instead of choosing the route of a dignified and honourable exit - that he decided to attack the government with blazing guns - first by a strategically timed "open letter" leaked to the press followed by back-to-back TV interviews raises not just eyebrows but some serious doubts about his intentions. Many think it can't just be his deep rooted political prejudice towards the prime minister but suspect, an insecurity about a possible scrutiny into the affairs of Nalanda - which could taint his image at the end of what has undoubtedly been an illustrious life. 
He is called "Pachy" by friends and colleagues alike. He converted  the Tata Energy Research Institute to The Energy Research Institute - but that's another story. Whether he put India into the world climate change dialogue map or India put him there is also a matter of debate. For a while - the media was unsure about whether to call him a Nobel laureate but changed their mind when he got caught on the wrong foot, as it were, by making an unsubstantiated prediction on the Himalayan Glaciers melting by 2035.  He is also the author of a novel (Return to Almora) - which some felt could  have easily qualified for the "Bad Sex Prize". But, now he is in the news not for some fictional account but what seems like a sleazy reality show.
A few years back - I recall at their annual jamboree in Delhi's Hotel Ashok - the then very flamboyant environment minister paid him a backhanded compliment for making  climate change "sexy" - referring tongue in cheek, I thought, to many smart ladies in his team.
Though he may not quite be an Indian edition of Dominique Strauss Kahn (as some reports are making him out to be) - Pachy is not the first and probably won't be the last big name to be involved  in a sexual harassment case.  It is only natural and fair as the legal framework and organisations become supportive - more and more victims will find the courage to speak up on sexual harassment in the workplace even against the high and mighty.
I admire the courage of this young woman - who has gone and filed a police complaint which has in turn encouraged other victims to speak up. But, I think we still have some way to go in the media coverage of these cases. Some of the accounts I have read - whether of this case or other incidents in the recent past (like one involving a retired judge of the Supreme Court) even in very responsible dailies tend to border on the salacious.
For example one respectable mainline newspaper talks of office gossip at TERI about the "fifth floor girls" (referring to the floor in which Pachauri had his office). While "naming and shaming'' could well be a part of the retribution and may act as deterrent - making the allegations sensational doesn't serve any useful purpose and calls for far greater maturity and sensitivity - both towards the victim and the alleged offender (which includes the family members on either side). Abroad such reports (even in tabloids)  are much more factual confined to pertinent to details without embellishment.
But, to me the moral of both these is we should not deify our stars - because even "Nobel" Indians can have feet of clay.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ (click here to read)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Repackaging Lohia or Lenin won't get AAP far

More column centimetres and TV talk-time have been consumed in analysing the AAP victory in Delhi.  Probably, there will soon be a slew of book launches chronicling the rise of the common-man’s messiah Arvind Kejriwal.  Predictably – there is already talk of AAP spreading its wings to other parts of the country. Some feel – Mumbai is ripe for picking with a similar “urban revolution” and AAP should seriously target the BMC polls next year – while others think they will be better off prospecting in election bound Bihar and West Bengal.

Personally, I am sceptical of the national scalability of the AAP model   - especially under its present leadership and ideologues. It’s entirely possible, having surprised in Delhi they can always find the magic formula and pull off miracles in other parts of the country too.  However, with its roots in the IAC (India Against Corruption) Movement - AAP’s main plank so far has been anti-corruption (essentially at a petty level) and empowerment of the Aam Aadmi.  Whereas, BJP – under Modi has been playing the development and governance cards (the latter includes eliminating large-scale institutionalised corruption or scams as seen during the UPA regime). In my judgement, the 2 are somewhat different “positioning”, in political marketing terms, which may not hold equal appeal in all places and situations.

In an affluent city-state like Delhi – the concerns are more civic amenities, administration, law and order, petty corruption and cost of living. Development (“Vikas” as it were) though important is not an immediate crying need. People tired of the corrupt old political class wanted a breath of fresh-air. However, the same may not be the case in a state like West Bengal and Bihar – where people are desperately trying to cope with basic challenges of survival. There the crying need is economic development, employment and income generation opportunity - essentially call for a better future and standard of living. Issues like corruption – probably – come one step up on the Maslow hierarchy - when people are struggling to keep the body and soul together.

I found it telling,  in Delhi – the youth swung en-masse towards AAP. Come to think - this is the constituency that had overwhelmingly supported Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.  Throughout  his campaign – Modi was talking to the younger generation and even on the day of voting –  he tweeted urging  young voters to come out in large numbers. Vote they did – but not for his party. I would attribute this to the fact that – the younger generation in Delhi (whether they are locals or have come in from other parts of the country for education or employment) don’t have to worry about their next square meal. They are in Delhi because the city already offers them greater economic opportunity  than other places. Therefore, their concerns are different and of a higher order than their counterparts in Calcutta or Patna – when after completing school or college youngsters have to pack their bags for Delhi, Bombay , and Bangalore for higher education or in search of a job.

Bihar has already seen large-scale social re-engineering thanks to the Lohia-ites, though the jury is still out on whether Caste still prevails over development – in what is arguably the last remaining BIMARU state. But, in Bengal – the so called empowerment of the “proletariat” has no novelty factor.  People have seen a lot of it first under the Left Front and now under the Government of Ma, Mati and Manush. To them AAP will be yet another “peoples’ party” by a new name.  The ordinary Bengali is tired of slogans – they now wish to see delivery of real economic progress, industrialisation and employment – to secure the future of the next generation.

This is not to make a case for the rise of the BJP in West Bengal – especially after Mamata Banerjee has one 2 important by-polls with a thumping majority – quashing rumours of dissension within her party and disenchantment of voters.  It has also shown the Muslims are still unwilling to align with BJP. To make a decisive shift – BJP has to break into the core vote-bank of Trinamool, which won’t be easy.  

But, for AAP - to gain a toe-hold in Bengal or Bihar, it will have to radically reinvent itself. Merely repackaging Lohia or Lenin won’t get them too far.

Article first published in Swarajya: Click here to read

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why the media cannot be blamed for BJP's Loss and AAP's Victory ?

Many are blaming the media for the BJP's poll-debacle in Delhi - and conversely crediting them for Arvind Kejriwal's spectacular resurrection. It's true that the media has been deeply polarised against Modi and were far from being non-partisan. Apart from ideological difference there has been a lot of personal animosity against the man - which most haven't tried to hide even with a handkerchief. It's a situation where it would be embarrassing for the most left of centre journalist to come out in open support of the Congress or its no-longer-oh-so-young leader. Kejriwal, however, with his image of the enigmatic underdog and messiah of the common man, provided a seductive counter option to back.
But having said that - I do feel the media's own contribution to the Delhi verdict has been largely exaggerated - though it is difficult to miss the gloating and vicarious joy writ large on many faces as if it was they rather than Kejriwal who slay the common "Enemy no 1".
To understand, one probably needs to step back a little to explain the nature of the beast that is today's media - in particular, 24/7 television.
At last count, there are nearly 400 news and current affairs channels in India and the list is still growing. It's another matter that news TV commands less than ten per cent of the total TV viewership in this country and even a smaller share of the TV ad-pie - most of which are gobbled up by the top ten, a unique programming format that rests primarily on talk shows inside the studio. Therefore, prime-time debates - when the rest of the world likes to watch hard news coverage - are not as much the product of our inherent "argumentative Indian" character but also a by-product of a "low-cost" business model.
Studio debates are easy and cheap to produce. It requires modest investment on sets. Most guests are happy to come for gratis - just the prospect of being seen on television is enticing enough. Political spokespersons in any case don't charge. Only some of the regular talking heads - would get a nominal appearance fee. This is much cheaper than sending camera crews and anchors on jaunts across the country or foreign destinations to make documentaries, which few watch in any case.
But, the point of this article is not to analyse the economics of news television in India (as that might lead to another - "bazaaru" - direction) - but to try and examine how it is shaping the national discourse.
Prior to news TV - the intelligentsia formed their political opinions from the edit pages of newspapers. This was even before editorialising of news on the front-page started. Radio (AIR news) had little or no "comment" time - except for some news-features like "Spotlight". Doordarshan in its pristine avatar had some staid discussions (not even debates) of the kind one sees today on Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV. While credit can't be denied to the pioneer of modern news television in India - Prannoy Roy - for popularising TV debates first through his Budget discussions and then election analyses - the real "game-changer" was the explosion of the vernacular channels. It was especially these "sansani" Hindi channels that, in my judgement also triggered the re-engineering of the English channels - making them more accessible (call it "Arnabisation" or plain "dumb down") and less elitist.
For a generation that had almost stopped reading newspapers other than Page 3 supplements - this audio-visual "infotainment'' rekindled interest in current affairs and politics cutting across age-groups and socio-economic strata. What media has definitely achieved , above all, is raising awareness and engagement at all levels - which lead to people making a much more informed choice. It may not be totally off the mark to say - this is reflected in the high voter turn-outs in recent elections as well the regular surprised that the electorate throw at politicians (including yesterday's watershed verdict).
No doubt, it created the cult of star anchors and a band of professional talking-heads - comprising largely moonlighting or superannuated journalists. A natural fall out of this are bloated egos in the exaggerated belief that they are shaping the political destiny of the country and can make or unmake careers of politicians. The reality isn't so linear - simply because the audience are not so naive. True, television creates a lot of "surround sound" - as it were - and also has a huge "media multiplier" effect - as both print and online media tend to follow the "real time" news breaks of television. But, those evening sparring matches on the small screen - if clinically analysed - compete on the entertainment quotient with the WWE "noora kushti" of yore or closer to home, the more recent, Comedy Nights with Kapil - taking the liberty of stretching the point by a few yards.
Having spent some time in the media industry, in my view, the intelligent citizen consumes information and alternative points of view from multiple sources but digests them at their own pace before forming their opinion. So if some "star" journalists brag (as an editor of one of India's largest newspaper once to his own peril said, "Mine is the second most important job in the country after the prime minister's") about shaping national policy, they are probably being less than serious and doing it only to impress a nubile trainee in the newsroom.
That is not to discount the influence of media - in building image or creating perceptions. But, the clever players use the media rather than letting the media use them. This where the talent of Kejriwal, Modi or the latter's friend "Barack" lies. They understand the power of the medium, or know how to ride a tiger. Of course, the media can help a bit by strategically editing "Krantikari" bits of an interview or let you down by panning the camera too close to reveal the letters adorning the pin-stripes on a suit. In the process, occasionally a Rajinikanth's Lingaa may bomb at the box-office and a Slumdog will walk away with the Oscars. But, that's all in the game.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ Click here to read