Friday, May 22, 2009

Now India Gets a New Ministry that is Likely to Deliver

Dear doctor, give berths to my son, daughter, nephew and our servants too...!

POLITICS, AS the good doctor Manmohan Singh says, is the art of the possible. There is always the game of the pragmatist in it, howsoever much you might wish ideals had an upper hand.

Last time when Dr Manmohan Singh was asked to lead the United Progressive Alliance Government as Prime Minister, I think he realized it from day one. You think of the mandate you were given by the people, how to keep the promise given to them, and how to govern a country almost on the brink.

And your allies, I use the term for want of a better term to describe the partners in a political alliance, have other ideas: They are thinking about the berths they should get, the portfolios they should target for and the sons, daughters and nephews and nieces to be accommodated in ministerial berths.

Last time it was so, and this time too the same was the fate of the government at the centre. Muthuvel Karunanidhi, Shibu Soren and others were demanding all kinds of berths and accommodations last time; they threatened and cajoled, threw many tantrums and played many games, and got away with what they wanted and of course in the course of five years of rule made a mess of many departments that the stink is felt even in Delhi gullies.

Thankfully, people found a solution themselves in the case of Soren who was trounced in the polls. However, Karunanidhi did his best to see the tradition is kept alive: He was eager his son, daughter, nephew and the two chaps known for corruption be accommodated in the ministry. He has walked out and even boycotted the swearing-in ceremony on Friday.

Sure, this will be sorted out because without those government berths and ministerial posts, what is DMK or for that matter, any other political party? They are there for power and they will get it. But I am happy with the team of ministers now sworn in with Dr Manmohan Singh and I feel India could hope for a better, comparatively corruption-free government in the next five years. My only regret is that people Laloo are missing in this ministry, and the left has been reduced to a non-entity in these times when their voice should have been much more pronounced in our Parliament.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When the Chicken Came Home to Roost: Electoral Defeat for LDF and its Implications

NOW THAT the LDF in Kerala and the left forces all over India, except in Tripura, had to face one of the severest electoral setbacks in recent history, parties and concerned citizens and political pundits are busy discussing what went wrong. There are mutual recriminations and blame games, which unfortunately do not throw much light on why such a defeat and whether it was inevitable.

The politburo of the CPM, the other day, came out with a statement which said its election-eve move for a third front was not accepted by the people, indeed it was seen as a non-starter. But a serious and more nuanced self-critical assessment would have to be made and it should come only after the meetings of the central committee and the various state units of CPM including that of West Bengal and Kerala.

But the situation in Kerala was more or less evident to any independent and impartial observers and if you check my earlier posts here, you would see that I had explained the strategy of CPM in Kerala was proving to be a big failure, and that their moves to cut into Muslim votes were actually working against their interests, helping only to consolidate minority votes in the state.

Now the question is, whether these electoral moves launched by the official group in Kerala CPM, in spite of reservations within the party and the left front, were such an innocuous effort or was it part of a long-term agenda?

I think so. They were not done in good faith. There was a hidden agenda behind them and it simply failed, or was defeated by party ranks themselves. That seems to be the truth.

Here are my main points:

1. Why did Madani and Raman Pillai got the special attention from official left as they did this time? Was it an aberration or the manifestation of a process of transition in left politics or was it part of a strategy that would mean a major change in left politics as we have seen in the past?

2. It would appear that the calls for widening the mass base of the left forces, in Kerala, were made with a clear agenda. It would mean the sidelining of the traditional left parties, which some people have been describing as bereft of mass base any longer, and bring in new forces in their stead. Hence what we have seen in Kerala is a deliberate attempt to demolish the 30- year old LDF and build a new dispensation.

3. Who are the new forces to take their place in the new front envisaged by the official left? Think back to the 2006 Assembly poll and you will know who they are:
They are mainly the disgruntled elements at odds with the UDF like K Muralidharan and his DIC (now NCP), fortune-seekers like Madani and Raman Pillai, and the retrograde and compromised people like Kanthapruam. If possible they would have been happy to bring in godmen and women like Amritananda Mayi as we saw left ministers making a beeline there.

4. Why they are special and useful? First, they are career politicians who would not nitpick on policy. A decent agreement on sharing of spoils would keep them happy. Karunakaran was the best example of this line in politics. He was successful for three decades this way.

5. The CPM has undergone deep internal transition by way of its cadres and class basis. It is no longer a working class party. The new middle class leadership want to implement their new line of politics that would benefit their class, and they find better models in the right-wing, like Karunakaran, and this time made an effort to practice it here. With disastrous results, as we can all see. Now I hope the Governor would allow the law to take its own course and CBI would go ahead with the SNC Lavalin case and show the left leaders how democracy works (at least outside Kannur.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Good Doctor Wins Again

Dr Manmohan Singh wins a second term, will take over as prime minister this week: news

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Our Media is a Laughing Stock (and Rightly So?)

Here is a post I made recently on the current state of affairs in Malayalam media scene:

I WAS watching with a bit of discomfort the kind of media criticism going around, which is basically accusatory and counter-productive. Criticism is welcome, but criticism that is insincere and that comes in the form of sweeping generalisations like syndicate, conspiracy, etc, are done with an eye to curry favour with some corners in the ruling establishment. I have no patience with such conspiracy-mongers, whether they are politicians or cultural figures, and I know that anyone familiar with how media functions would know such a vast conspiracy network is simply impossible in the competitive media; neither in Kerala nor elsewhere.

Then why such repeated accusations and how they are accepted, at least by a section of our people, as true?

I think one of the reasons could be the lack of a self-critical approach on the part of the media itself, its arbitrary nature and its lack of professionalism. Media persons generally do not listen much to outside criticism, and they are not keen to own up mistakes and offer corrections. For a variety of reasons. They have not much time to listen and reply, they are not public figures to vigilantly keep a clean image, and often they do not understand the need for keeping such a continuous and difficult debate going with the world at large. And may be they have a self-image that is moulded in the 19th century idiom, as even today we speak of people like Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai as our icon instead of asking whether we do need to look elsewhere for better models.

Changing ideas and habits is difficult. Exactly ten years ago, as I was president of the Kozhikode Press Club, we were having a heated debate on why do we need to build a modern professional media training centre in the press club. The question raised was, since we are a class of employees in an industry, it is for the managements to train and make use of the staff. Why an employees' union should bother about it? I still remember a colleague in Mathrubhumi who asked me why did I work for the managements.

I had to explain that the world is changing and technology is changing. We are becoming obsolete and if we do not equip ourselves we would be thrown out. Now ask anyone in the media circles around and they will tell you mass retrenchment has become part of our industry, and hundreds of people have lost jobs. If you are interested, read the general secretary's report in this issue of Pathrapravarthakan, KUWJ journal, which gives details about the ongoing cases and the grimness of the situation.

So you cannot isolate the gloomy media atmosphere and put all blame on a coterie who are syndicated or conspiratorial. The cynical mood in the media scene, the negative attitude of media persons, the poverty of intellect, are part of a gloomy society, it reflects the gloominess all around us.

But we do need to try to change this and bring some optimism to this profession. One of the reasons why I give much importance to stories like KGK's (who writes about the better days in journalism) is to drive away this mood of self-flagellation and cynicism. Such stories could help us recover our self-esteem and restore our past and legacy to us.

In my own paper, I tried to train our youngsters in media ethics and offered them a series of classes. They were all young people and it helped quite a lot. In fact I used the Media Ethics Guidebook of New York Times (available at their site, a very wonderful guide indeed) to tell them how to go about in professional life, how to behave and how to respond to criticism and all that...

But you know three years down the road, I see that almost 70-80 per cent of my original staff have left me. Poor pay and hard work do not help retain the staff, howsoever committed they might be. Now we will have to rebuild all that from the scratch, reminding me of the boatman's frantic efforts to keep it afloat even as water rushed inside through the hole below.

Well, not a very happy scenario. But what could we do but to keep our faith?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

My Dalit Servant and a Case of Thermodynamics

SOME TIME ago, Sajan, a friend, was busy setting up his biogas plant in his kitchen. I was one of those who keenly monitored the progress of the effort, and in fact I was disappointed when Bindu came up with a note of dissent, reporting that the plant simply did not give sufficient gas to do the cooking. That was bad. Hence Sajan started hunting around for kitchen waste to refuel his plant.

I was interested in the affair not (only) because all of us are very keen on what goes (wrong) in the other guy's kitchen (and possibly bedroom too.) I had a private motive because I was also having troubles in my kitchen. My problem, then, was a Parishad-type chulha which I had set up that simply did not work.

I talked to many people what was the problem with this chulha, which instead of pumping out smoke through the chimney, was spreading it inside the kitchen making the claim a 'smokeless chulha' somewhat of a misnomer. My wife kept grumbling, and I kept my mouth shut (I was the person who suggested we must have a chulha too!).

Then our servant, a dalit lady who travels from a village to the city to work, said the problem was with the way it was designed: It did not have sufficient space for allowing the smoke to escape into the chimney pipe especially when we kept big pots above it. The problem, then was that of thermodynamics and I decided this was too much of a task for me. I left it at that accepting failure.

But the indifatigable lady was not like me. One day she showed me how to do it. Push it a bit lower and allow more space, and it worked beautifully. Now we cook in it quite often.

I wrote about it because this week I read Sunita Narain, in her Down to Earth column, write about a woman she met in Udaipur, Rajasthan, 25 years ago. She too had such an improved chulha which, however, did not work. What she did was to break it a bit and make it useful, or using our own improved terminlogy, re-engineering it.

I think these incidents are very important and they give us lessons about how to go about improving our people's lives. We need to listen to people who have grassroots level experience, or in other words our technocrats and knowledge-creators need to be a bit more down to earth. Otherwise their wonderful inventions would remain just that: inventions with no practical application.

(For those interested in the Sunita Narain column, see

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rahul and India’s Tryst with Destiny

Rahul Gandhi praises the left parties and expect they would support a Congress-led government at the Centre, raising hackles among his allies: news

At last, a Gandhi returns to the Nehruvian ideas...!

A FEW weeks ago, when a friend came to discuss politics, I said I would be happy if one day Rahul Gandhi took over the reins of this country.

He was aghast. He said in that case he would surely migrate to Pakistan or some other country. Like Rahul, he too belonged to a family that was a part of nationalist tradition; his great grandfather, like Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul, was a freedom fighter who spent many years in jail and suffered immense hardships.

I was surely joking, or I thought I was joking, but ever since I was thinking about this issue: How would I or my friend who found the suggestion quite revolting, would accept the day when Rahul actually takes over the reins of this country? Or in other words, is there anything inherently wrong with or revolting about a scion of a great family taking over the reins of a nation, begetting the charge as a family trust?

Well, if you go by copybook democracy, you would surely find it revolting. Democracy means the rule of the people and the people would decide who should rule them, right? That means, there is no question of a family inheritance.

I have no quarrel with it, if the Indian people, myself included, in their own wisdom, decide to anoint a person of their own choice as their leader. But do you think this is possible, at least in the foreseeable future? How do our leaders emerge and what forces are propelling them in public life?

I have been in the Communist Party for some time and from what I have seen there, I am sure if you want to rise up in the party or emerge as a people’s representative, you need clout, real clout, with the leader or the group of leaders who call the shots. Or you should be the son/daughter/wife of such leaders or at least close relatives. Look at our MPs or ministers and you should know what I mean. In CPI, another party which shouts the loudest about propriety in public life, the situation is worse: In Kerala 50 per cent of their ministers are sons of former leaders and even in the party, the sons and daughters rule the roost.

I don’t blame communists for taking care of their kids first. If the parents do not take care, then who would look after the children? And I tell you, I have seen the celebrity sons of other leaders, like K Muralidharan and M K Muneer, sons of former chiefs ministers K Karunakaran and C H Muhammed Koya, enter politics and rise up in the echelons of their respective parties. Both of them first started out in Kozhikode, where I was a reporter, and no one today asks how did they enter politics. They are now part and parcel of our political life. Both had held positions of power and no one asked how could they attain such positions of power so early in their career.

So I do not think there is anything inherently wrong or unethical in Rahul entering politics and taking over the reins of his party or this country. Only if he is good enough to run a country like India.

And how does Rahul look in his role as a career politician?

I had watched him speak in Lok Sabha in the confidence motion a few months ago, where he spoke about his encounter with a village woman called Kalavathi, and his press conference the other day, and I do feel he is sincere, and is a lot more intelligent than he looks. He made remarks which were not very apt in the present circumstances, like his praise for communists when fierce anti-communists like Mamata Banerjee are his party’s allies in Bengal right now. But in the long run, I think, he would prove right.

More than a quarter century ago, when Sanjay Gandhi entered politics, I had heard Khushwant Singh sing praise for the man, who proved to be a mere bully. Then Rajiv Gandhi came to politics reluctantly, and he was no success either. But sure, politics was not his first choice.

Now why do I feel Rahul would be different? Somehow, his face reminds me of a great tradition in India and he conjures up the images of his great grandfather, the man who spoke about India’s tryst with destiny. Maybe Rahul too is part of that destiny.