Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Leave a comment

Is Priyanka more than a show-stopper?

If she appears pleasant, and instinctively knowing, it’s because she’s grown up among courtiers in the oldest court in town.

Column in Business Standard, January 26, 2019

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s empowerment as the key party functionary in eastern Uttar Pradesh for the upcoming election campaign is the sort of news break that suddenly has the political dovecotes aflutter. The question of will-she-won’t-she has hung so long in the air that now she’s taken the plunge intriguing speculations arise.

Could Priyanka be the Congress party’s trump or Get Out of Jail card in a crucial state that returns the largest number of MPs — and where its stock fell from 21 in 2009 to an abysmal two out of 80 seats in 2014? Is she a mere show-stopper or a potential vote-snatcher? Does the five generation-old Congress dynasty now establish it as a truly monarchical enterprise? And can the Gandhi siblings — under the protective benediction of a Queen Mother —build on an anti-incumbency wave against Narendra Modi, clearly visible in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh?

Phrases such as “show-stopper” or “good optics” oddly originate in the fashion trade when designers attempt to lift jaded shows by pulling out a friendly film star on catwalks to rack up media footage. There is no evidence, however, that such moves translate into retail sales with customers queuing up.

Ten years ago Priyanka declared that she was “very clear [that] politics is not a strong pull, the people are…and I can do things for them without being in politics”. Today those words echo what Indira Gandhi, claiming to be a reluctant entrant, used to say before her active rise in politics in the 1960s.

Styling herself in the manner of her grandmother — simple cotton saris, radiant smiles, reaching out to crowds — she proved an undeniable crowd-puller while campaigning vigorously in the family pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli in 2014. Then she quietly dropped out of public view though it’s widely known that she is one of party president Rahul Gandhi’s closest political counsellors. Certainly she has greater visual appeal than Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav (and definitely Smriti Irani). On private occasions, such as shopping locally or attending a family friend’s funeral she is restrained and unpretentious, keen to avoid any undue attention.

It’s worth recalling that in 2008 she went to Vellore jail to meet Nalini Sriharan, one of the conspirators in her father’s assassination. “I do not believe in anger, hatred or violence,” she said later, emphasising that her mother had intervened to commute Nalini’s death sentence to life imprisonment.

It’s what you might expect from a practicing Buddhist with degrees in psychology and Buddhist studies.

But can compassion, common courtesy or an “emotional connect” win seats in the harsh realpolitik of Uttar Pradesh, a state riddled with divisions of caste and religion, and confronted with a seemingly impregnable BSP-SP alliance? “When you’re down to a near-cipher tally of two seats and a vanished party base anything Priyanka brings home will be a bonus,” says a former Congress MP from the state.

Strategically, her appointment to manage UP’s eastern flank is aimed at Narendra Modi minding his shop more closely in Varanasi and, equally, tie down Yogi Adityanath to his home turf, having disastrously lost the Gorakhpur by-election last March. “Rahul Gandhi has dropped the idea of alliances in favour of going it alone. His testing ground is to revive the Congress base,” says a shrewd Shiromani Akali Dal Rajya Sabha MP with an old acquaintance with the Gandhi family.

The Gandhi siblings are royalty, not merely dynastic legatees.

The country’s landscape of leadership, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, simply teems with scions of political dynasties. An abbreviated list would include Omar Abdullah, M K Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Jayant Chaudhury, Tejashwi Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, Supriya Sule, H D Kumaraswamy, K T Rama Rao and Chandrababu Naidu’s only son Nara Lokesh who currently holds triple cabinet portfolios of Information Technology, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development. Many BJP heirs are raring to go, at the slightest hint of a heads up.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is to the manner born among a glittering group that in New Delhi’s elite circles is known as Rahul Gandhi’s “chamber of princes”. If she appears pleasant, and instinctively knowing, it’s because she’s grown up among courtiers in the oldest court in town.

As for her husband Robert Vadra’s embarrassing and swiftly acquired millions that an India Today cover memorably titled “The Unreal Estate of Robert Vadra” it’s a fly in the ointment to be stoically borne. Is it a bigger or lesser issue than the numerous cases of disproportionate assets several party leaders and their progeny stand accused of amassing?

Political corruption, dynastic succession or pre-election giveaways such as farm loan waivers and reservation quotas are old tropes voters are familiar with. What they want are jobs, agricultural reform, policies that work, not unimplemented schemes. What they appreciate in leaders is the promise of humility and common touch that Priyanka has over Narendra Modi’s arrogance and swagger. That’s why she may be more than a mere show-stopper.


1 Comment

The best bookshelf of 2018

2018 was a commendable year for offerings in fiction, history and biography.

Column in Business Standard, December 29, 2018

In a long-held tradition the last column of the year is dedicated to some of the best reading of the year across genres. If fiction, in Albert Camus’s words, is the lie by which writers tell the truth, then three novels by accomplished Indian practitioners stood out for the intricacy and innovation of the form.

Amitabha Bagchi’s earlier works, Above Average and The Householder, are deft explorations of middle-class life but his latest, Half the Night Is Gone (Juggernaut; Rs 599), is altogether more ambitious. Part epistolary novel, part family chronicle spanning the 20th century, its fiction-within-fiction layering is an exhumation of a battling personal demons as he spins out his narrative.

True to its title, award-winning Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette; Rs 599) pools imagined and real-life characters across time and space. A man’s quest for the story of his mother, who eloped with a German in the late 1930s, turns out, in fact, to be Walter Spies, the famous who put on the world map. Figures such as Tagore, and Beryl de Zoete appear in nuanced reflections on the disruptive forces of nationalism, war and the feminist impulse.

Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society (Penguin; Rs 599), stretching Camus’s dictum to its satiric possibility, is a retake of Jane Austen’s Emma set in Delhi here and now. Like Zadie Smith’s reinvention of E M Forster or P D James reimagining Pride and Prejudice as a sequential crime thriller, Mr Rao has huge fun. He expands Austen’s small canvas to romp through Delhi’s mansions, nearby rural estates and hill stations, catwalks and Italian retreats. Believable characters talk fast and loose as they negotiate Austen’s thorny paths of class, money and romantic attachment. It’s delicious — and not just for diehard Jane-ites.

2018 was a commendable year for offerings in history and biography. I have often wondered why no brave amateur will cock a snook at academic historians with an accurate yet alluring study of a historic figure, in the mode, say, of or Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal by Parvati Sharma (Juggernaut; Rs 599) admirably bridges the gap. Long the subject of pop mythology and Bollywood fantasy, the fourth emperor, sandwiched between Akbar and Shah Jahan, has suffered unfairly. in Ms Sharma’s substantial source notes calls Jahangir “something of a Cinderella…[of] Mughal studies”. Rebel, aesthete, passionate romantic and obsessive sybarite, Parvati Sharma’s gripping biography brings Jahangir’s world alive as no movie or stage drama can.

Destined for as long a shelf life is and music aficionado Namita Devidayal’s account of a life closer to our time in her fascinating account of the sitar maestro, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan (Context; Rs 699). Ms Devidayal’s original account of her transformative experience — a privileged Mumbai ingénue’s sudden immersion into the world of classical music — in The Music Room (2009) made her book a bestseller. Now, her story of a complex, competitive, colourful genius takes her musical odyssey forward through wide research and travel. It’s a must-have for music lovers.

Two widely reviewed works by well-known writers illuminate new facets of enigmatic subjects. Australian writer John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (Picador; Rs 699) is an expansive conjuring of the dark arts — both as enlightenment and entertainment — from ancient times. And psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar sheds new light on the early life in Punjab of arch imperialist and writer of all-time classics Rudyard Kipling in The Kipling File (Penguin; Rs 499).

For an extended foray into the harsher realities of Indian life nothing can better than A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers (Juggernaut; Rs 699) by  Mr Alexander gave up a comfortable position at McKinsey’s to join the Gates Foundation at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 2003. During his extensive travels then, and later, when he set up his own NGO, he took copious notes of his encounters with women in the sex trade. Yet his gruelling journeys are not entirely a chronicle of despair and abject hopelessness. They are shot through with hope, and even humour, making it a deeply moving and uplifting account.

Fans of Hindi film music will rejoice at the appearance of S D Burman: The Prince-Musician by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal (Tranquebar; Rs 799). Despite its wealth of material, however, this long overdue tribute to a trailblazing talent is bulky, disorganised and in need of a skilled edit. For my money Jiya Jale, The Stories of Songs: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) is how the well-springs of a much-loved poet and popular song writer should be recorded.

Finally, as a palliative to the poisoned politics and polluted air of the capital, lawyer and Urdu scholar Saif Mahmood’s Beloved City: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets (Speaking Tiger; Rs 599) is an exhilarating, heart-rending and elegant escape.

Happy New Year!

Leave a comment

Has Modi fatigue set in?

Desperate times need desperate actions, and the BJP’s rout in the Hindi heartland limits its options for 2019.

Column in Business Standard, December 15, 2018

The gist of a famous Shakespeare quote is: When woes come, they don’t come singly, they come in battalions.

It hasn’t been the brightest week for Narendra Modi, all-powerful prime minister and the BJP’s pre-eminent lodestar. It began badly with Reserve Bank of India Governor Urjit Patel abruptly quitting his job, like an uncomfortable dinner guest walking out without so much as a thank you nod to the host. It ended far worse with the election results and the BJP’s clear erosion of power in the Hindi heartland.

I happened to be at the local butcher’s as the news trickled in. Eyes cocked at the television on the wall, mutterings of “Harengay, Harengay!” (They’ll lose, they’ll lose!) were loud but not unexpected in the main Muslim establishment in the market. For months the owner has complained of reduced meat supplies from adjoining Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and rising prices. The losses of demonetisation may have subsided but among shopkeepers, in a refrain of the BJP’s heavy reversals in urban Madhya Pradesh, the biggest grouse is against the Many can’t wrap their heads around the GST; online filing of returns can mean engaging accountants. “It’s constant headache, and it’s costly,” says the owner of the largest general provisions store.

Together with falling agricultural incomes and rising joblessness in the hinterland, these major failures have put paid to the endless stream of subsidies and schemes flowing from the munificence of  The lure of cheesily-named Central yojanas sprouting toilets, bank accounts, health insurance and LPG connections across the land left voters unmoved.

Mr Modi’s goodie-bag has often pointlessly competed with state-sponsored dole, as in Vasundhara Raje’s Bhamashah scheme in of cash handouts to women, or Raman Singh’s massive toilet-building spree in 

In India Today’s recent state-of-the-states development survey, and are ranked third and fifth out of 21 big states as most-improved, and a cherubic is seen showering blankets on poor tribals but, still, he was cold-shouldered out of the chief minister’s seat.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is right in describing the poll result as a case of “fatigue”. He might have said “Modi fatigue” — the fallout of a gigantic exercise in image-building that employs every forum and medium in promoting one single brand. At home, Brand Modi is the party’s big-ticket campaigner, sole policymaker and chief PR who sets cargo vessels afloat on the Ganga and unveils the Statue of Unity; overseas, he has a weakness for pomp and circumstance with rock star appearances at Central Park or Wembley Stadium. The Modi juggernaut brooks little dissent. RBI governors and CBI chiefs can go or be sent packing. What chief at his press conference called the PM’s “arrogance” is actually a degree of self-regard and consuming hubris.

That Mr Gandhi addressed a presser hours after a fight he led from the front, in itself, is in sharp contrast to Mr Modi’s disdain for the media. No such exchange has taken place during the prime minister’s tenure.

The president, who will take on the Modi juggernaut next summer — with its long-tailed caboodle of sadhus and dharam sabha leaders demanding the Rama temple, or hitmen who kill cattle traders and police officers — seemed to be everything Mr Modi is not. “We do not want to erase or ignore anyone,” he said of his surge in temple visits.

But he did not gloat, nor duck questions. Confident but modest, he drew the battle lines clearly. He was respectful of political foes and candid about errors of judgement and his steep learning curve. Above all he did not look like a tricked-out apparition on a self-promotion tour. In short, was a far cry from the grumpy son standing by his mother and mumbling regret at his party’s pathetic 44 MPs in 2014.

About 130 million first-time voters will be added in the 2019 general election. Some of this segment — desperate for jobs and release from the stultifying dead-end of farm incomes — may find Mr Gandhi an appealing alternative to Mr Modi. That does not mean he is PM-in-waiting, only that the final heat of the race is close.

Desperate times need desperate actions, and the BJP’s only option is to enforce legislation to build a Ram mandir. This could unleash a wave of communal hatred — the spoils of giveaways exposed as limited with diminishing returns.

An ambiguous fuzziness clings to Mr Gandhi but the worst of that halo is his accident of birth. As fourth-generation heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, his large chamber of princes is led by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot.

Is that reason to disqualify them from the big fight? Mr Modi’s banner of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” is worn out and shop-soiled. The country wants change. That’s the pointed message from this week’s debacle.

Leave a comment

Why Nehru is worth remembering

Adored and reviled in equal measure, Nehru’s legacy is obscured but not altogether erased. In the age of ephemeral Instagrams and quick click selfies it is not charmless

Column in Business Standard, November 17, 2018 

Despite a deliberate downgrading of his image and devaluing of his legacy there are good reasons to remember Jawaharlal on his 129th birthday this past week. India’s first and longest-serving prime minister (1947-1964) created — or at the very least imagined — a modern, democratic nation-state of the 20th century. The words “secular” and “socialist” prefixed to the ideals of a republic are among the most contested and derided today but they were the foundational underpinning of his beliefs.

But imagine it otherwise. Where Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives us a 600-foot-high Statue of Unity costing nearly Rs 30 billion — as if height and expense are sole criteria in defining the tallest leader — gifted the city of Chandigarh designed by a leading international architect. Where cleaning up the Ganga remains a half-realised pipe dream he penned, in a flight of romantic idealism perhaps, some of the most evocative lines in prose to India’s holiest river.

The late civil servant Badruddin Tyabji, credited with the inspired choice of placing the Ashoka chakra at the centre of the national flag, is not the only one to recall in his memoirs that when his home in New Delhi was being looted during the cataclysm of post-Partition riots, an exhausted Nehru, in the midst of calming a city in crisis, appeared unannounced and to inspect the damage, expressed his personal regret, and ordered safety measures.

It is unimaginable that attacks on minorities would continue, or grow as some reports suggest, under his leadership. It is unthinkable, if he was around, that a concert by Carnatic vocalist T M Krishna would be peremptorily cancelled by the Airports Authority of India pulling out as sponsors, as happened in the capital this week. As the historian Ramachandra Guha pointed out: It may be “intolerant” when his appointment to a chair at Ahmedabad University is withdrawn after Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad portraying him as “anti-national” and “separatist” but to hound Mr Krishna as an “urban Naxal” and “converted bigot” is nothing less than “barbaric”.

ruled by consensus, not by whispered diktat or via armies of vicious trolls. He respected the political opposition and was accessible to a questioning media, viewing criticism as a necessary, not hostile, form of public debate. He faced head-on, the wrath of an array of ideological opponents, from the leader Ram Manohar Lohia to the right-wing cow-venerating industrial baron Ramkrishna Dalmia. They, together with peasant leaders such as Chaudhary Charan Singh, attacked him on a range of policy and personality issues — from land reform and taxation to free enterprise and his upper class, Anglophone, Brahmin antecedents.

There may not be many Nehruvians around, including in his own party, but there is often sound reasoning in critiques of Nehru. Inadvertently or not, he subtly promoted dynastic succession. He made serious policy mistakes, neglecting agriculture with insufficient backup of food grain in failed monsoons, promoted a command economy over free markets, institutions of higher learning over vigorously implemented primary education, and eulogised big dams as “temples of modern India”.

For all his vaunted reputation as an international statesman, ushering in a non-aligned post-colonial world order, Nehru’s disastrous foreign policy mistake was the humiliating, costly defeat in the conflict of 1962. His “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” dream lay in tatters, hastening the onset of ill health and death in 1964. In part, this was because of his poor judgement of colleagues.

Nehru’s patronage, promotion and eventual sacking of as defence minister was his undoing. Corruption and other scandals also marked his long tenure, with characters such as his private secretary M O Mathai and the able but profiteering Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon. In the end, both had to go.

It is unlikely that Nehru could ever win an election today. What truck could he have with his own party, busily promising a “Ram Path Gaman” (Lord Ram’s Route) and commercial sale of gau mutra (cow urine) in its Madhya Pradesh election manifesto?

Charisma is a difficult thing to define in politicians but if charm and the common touch are two of its components, here is a quirky anecdote posted by the retired Punjab civil servant this week. In 1960, Mr Mishra was enjoying the view of Le Corbusier’s sparkling new secretariat in Chandigarh, feet up on his desk, and reading a novel. The door was flung open and in walked Prime Minister Nehru and Chief Minister Kairon. Nehru’s flight had been diverted and he asked for an impromptu tour of the buildings. “Kya padh rahe ho?” (What are you reading?) asked the PM. The young officer leapt up and stammered, “P G Wodehouse, Sir.” Nehru was delighted, started discussing Wodehouse characters and described his meeting with the iconic writer. Later on, as Mr Mishra rose in service he would encounter the PM at meetings, who unfailing asked, “Haven’t we met before, young man?” “P G Wodehouse, Sir.” And, he was rewarded with a twinkling smile.

Adored and reviled in equal measure, Nehru’s legacy is obscured but not altogether erased. In the age of ephemeral Instagrams and quick click selfies it is not charmless.

Leave a comment

Empty nests and empty nest eggs

The Great Property Crash is hurting the future of hundreds of thousands of homeowners throughout the country.

Column in Business Standard, November 3, 2018 

A civil servant I know, retired in Kolkata, has been sitting and biting his nails all the way up in Noida for many months now. He is trying to sell a flat he purchased in the building-boom a decade ago to buy a home for his twilight years. Even at a 20 per cent loss on his investment, he cannot find a buyer. His daughter, a mid-career Noida resident, is also stuck. Her husband and she took out a loan to buy a small flat, hoping the rental, once the mortgage was over, would supplement their income. Months later, the flat is vacant. They can’t find a suitable tenant, even at a discount.

In many parts of the country, and glaringly so in the National Capital Region (NCR), the empty nest-and-empty-nest egg story is a painful boom-to-bust saga. Inter-generationally, among the old and young, it is hitting pockets hard, in a linked chain of debt-laden banks, corrupt politicians and builder mafias and disastrous government policies — from inflated to heavy stamp duties, often higher than prevailing market rates.

According to some estimates, there may be as many as 200,000 housing units in Delhi-NCR either lagging years behind delivery dates, or languishing for want of buyers or tenants.

That figure is not exaggerated when the headline-grabbing group alone has shortchanged about 42,000 and gone down with a debt of Rs 40 billion to banks and other institutions. Last month, the Supreme Court sent three promoters of to jail where they will join Sanjay Chandra of Unitech, who’s been in for more than a year. Unitech is yet to deliver on 16,299 flats, for which buyers have paid nearly Rs 80 billion. No two operators could be in greater contrast — Mr Chandra, suave, public school and US-educated, to Amrapali’s Amit Kumar Sharma from a hick town in Bihar who siphoned off buyers’ money into other trades, from manufacturing-consumer goods, making movies and lobbying frantically for a Rajya Sabha seat.

In Delhi itself there is no land to spare. Galloping growth has centred on agricultural land in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh (Greater Noida halfway to Agra, and Ghaziabad, halfway to Meerut) or Haryana and Rajasthan (Gurgaon and beyond, halfway to Jaipur). Both states have been powered by a succession of corrupt, land-controlling governments and developers, private and public. Robert Vadra is one high-profile beneficiary of allegedly acquiring, and converting, parcels of agricultural land for commercial purposes in sweetheart deals with politicians and developers.

There are numerous other eye-watering examples of promoters and patrons cashing in during the suburban gold rush. A well-known scam involves a powerful group of high-ranking civil servants’ wives led by the silken spouse of a former cabinet secretary. Under the guise of a welfare society for disadvantaged women, this group acted as intermediary to dubious builders, and sold hundreds of flats to officials, lawyers and journalists. When deliveries were delayed by years, the do-gooding ladies evaporated; pleas and threats to the builder also fell on deaf ears. In one impasse, a few desperate journalists sought the urban development ministry’s help. A sympathetic official managed to track down the builder. “Do you know what diverting the public’s money is called?” he told him before the media group. “It’s called fraud.” The journalists managed to extract their flats (with penalties) but thousands of others have been “mugged and dumped” as one first-time home buyer put it. Many are at mercy of intervention by courts.

The housing glut and aftereffects of demonetisation have only hastened the great property crash, but they are not the only reasons for the “price correction” in real estate, as some analysts politely call it. There is very little by way of regulated town planning, infrastructure and construction standards. Middle-class complain that the gap between what the builder promised and what they got is so great that it often requires a gutting and thorough refurb. And across the social spectrum residents of Noida and Gurgaon are bitter about lack of basic amenities: Awful roads, non-existent parks, garbage disposal, water treatment plants or public security. “One of the filthiest streets in Noida is where Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma’s family runs his Kailash chain of hospitals. Please come and see,” a disgusted resident told me.

The view from the palatial penthouses in gated high rises — all manicured lawns, glittering lobbies and rooftop lap pools — may not be all that rosy. “We can’t afford these for our staff,” an international banker from Mumbai said. “There are almost no decent, compact one or two-bedroom apartments available in these areas. Mumbai offers better per square foot value for money.”

At the heart of the recent crisis between the Reserve Bank of India and government that has boiled over is a simple question: Who controls and regulates credit and money supply? The government believes it is its birthright. The main reason for the treacherous downturn in is the same. Governments control land, access to bank credit, and urban development as forms of political largesse. Any wonder that the paying public’s nest eggs are emptying fast?


Leave a comment

Phase Two of #MeToo

Why has M.J.Akbar sued only one but not the many other women journalists who accuse him of sexual harassment?

Column in Business Standard, October 20, 2018  

“Memory,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the diary we all carry about with us.” In the many painful accounts that women have exhumed from their working lives at the hands of men, the roiling of long-buried humiliations are now known as a “trigger”. News portals at the frontline of the #MeToo campaign carry warnings that the disturbing content may “trigger” other memories. In a radical redefinition of sexual harassment our daily lexicon, too, has radically changed. A male aggressor is no longer a “groper”, “lecher”, “pouncer” or “old roue” but a “predator”. Victims are “survivors”.

With the resignation of former editor and minister M J Akbar, Phase One of #MeToo has ended in decisive victory for the growing lineup of women journalists who called him out. Whether he voluntarily stepped down or was asked to is immaterial; as the first political casualty and most high-profile of public figures outed, his resignation is a major step forward for the movement.

But he is by no means contrite or apologetic. Phase Two of #MeToo has moved quickly from the newsroom to the courtroom following Mr Akbar’s criminal complaint against Priya Ramani, whose tweet opened the floodgates. Having churned the world of academics, entertainment and the media, it is now causing ripples in the legal fraternity — not only as a test case but because of its unusual inversion.

In a curious role reversal, Mr Akbar, the accused, is now the complainant, and the accuser, Ms Ramani, is the new accused. Mr Akbar’s defamation employs a long string of adverbs (“wilfully, deliberately, intentionally, maliciously”, etc.) to denounce her — and how socially damaging and hurtful to his personal image and career built with toil. Ms Ramani will be in the dock to defend herself.

Comparisons are odious but, were a parallel to be drawn, it would be the long-drawn out, and ultimately tragic, case of Oscar Wilde vs the Marquess of Queensbury, a watershed mark in legal and literary history.

It all began a bit like Ms Ramani’s terse tweet of October 8. On February 18, 1895, Queensbury (whose son was Wilde’s lover) left his calling card at Wilde’s London club. It simply read, “Oscar Wilde is a sodomite.” Wilde sued for defamation; in the sensational battle that ensued, Queensbury’s lawyers produced a series of men, some quite young, with whom Wilde had had homosexual liaisons. Homosexuality then being a crime, they succeeded in portraying him as a depraved old man luring young men into acts “of gross indecency”. Public swerved so sharply that Wilde, the most celebrated and admired writer of his time, pleadingly had to remind the court that “I am the prosecutor”.

To the question why Mr Akbar’s action is only against Ms Ramani, whose allegation is mild compared to the far more damning testimonies of the others (and they number as many as 20), the answer is that if he sued all, he would be subjected to cross-examination 20 times, with fresh arguments and evidence. Ms Ramani of course can summon all the others in her “defence of the truth”.

Perhaps the most harrowing account is by of her days at The Asian Age, an ugly cat-and-mouse game of molesting and emotional blackmail inside the editor’s cabin. Mr Akbar’s defence is that it was a “tiny cubicle patched together by plywood and glass”. No, says Ms Wahab, by 1997 he had moved into a large, book-lined virtually soundproof chamber when her troubles began.

Among Oscar Wilde’s most-quoted epigrams is “I can resist everything except temptation”. Mr Akbar’s victims, like Wilde’s, were often young and vulnerable and from small towns. Like the literary leviathan’s, his undeniable brilliance, power and professional reputation were magnetic.

When the shades fell from their eyes, some of the women left or gave him a wide berth. Despite his notoriety, older women colleagues were either unsuspecting or helpless. “I never realized MJ had his eyes on her [Ghazala]…What happened to her was horrific…She is not the type to make up a single word…I somehow believed that an arrogant man like him would not pursue someone who rebuffed him,” says senior journalist Seema Guha, who also worked at the paper. Many like her will rise to take a stand on whose truth prevails.

No one is betting on how long, or how far, the legal fight will go. But if an injunction last year by to ban his biography by journalist is any indication, it could move swiftly. The case has already reached the Supreme Court.

Given the huge stirring of public interest in M J Akbar vs and support for #MeToo, it should be speedy. “Mr Akbar has underestimated the level of pent-up anger and commitment among these women. It is not a sudden meltdown,” says a 

Wilde, whose birthday it was some days ago, died broken and penniless at the age of 46. He had the last word, though. “The truth,” he said, “is rarely pure and never simple.”

Leave a comment

The dogs that didn’t bark

How did men and women of redoubtable experience and public service, upholders of the country’s steel frame and paragons of corporate governance, never smell a rat?

Column in Business Standard, October 6, 2018

The collapse of development conglomerate (IL&FS) is one of the gripping financial whodunits of our time. It brings to mind a popular Sherlock Holmes mystery in which a prize-winning race horse goes missing before an important race, and its trainer also vanishes. The entire story hinges on the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. If the nefarious goings-on happened in the presence of a watchdog, why didn’t the dog bark? That, concludes Holmes, is precisely the point. The intruder was known to the dog.

The curiosity of the mismanagement at IL&FS, of Titanic-sized proportions that’s gone down with a debt of Rs 910 billion, is that there were watchdogs aplenty. Its independent directors, now sacked, included stellar names of such as Maruti Chairman and former banker and IT entrepreneur  Public sector behemoths such as Life Insurance Corporation and State Bank of India, custodians of the savings of millions, are among its owners. No one protested or resigned as the ship began to sink though there is finger-pointing now at obstructionist shareholders and unreliable auditors.

Several high-ranking civil servants were on its payrolls. While some quit government to join as paid-up employees on fancy salaries others such as D K Mittal and Aruna Sundarajan, later banking and telecom secretaries, respectively, had their moment in the sun on deputation to the company.

Did these men and women of redoubtable experience and public service, upholders of the country’s steel frame and paragons of corporate governance, never smell a rat? Did they not ask how secured endless state government projects, virtually from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, in building everything from tunnels, toll bridges and hi-tech cities to verticals in water, power and engineering? Or some of the unscrupulous ways and means by which it made money and spent it before going belly-up?

If the company’s large network of political, bureaucratic and banking connections reeks of favour-trading, conflict of interest and dereliction of duty, not much is known about its creator, Ravi Parthasarathy, who presided over a byzantine maze of several hundred subsidiaries and joint ventures for two decades. Other than he enjoyed smoking pipes, was a Wimbledon fan and rewarded himself with a fat pay hike, the IIM Ahmedabad graduate and former banker is an enigmatic figure; more so since he left for London after stepping down, citing health problems before the approaching storm. Whether the authorities — now embarked on a fraud inquiry — can bring him back, or he will join stayers-on like Lalit Modi, Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi is an open question.

Although had its tentacles everywhere Mr Parthasarthy is said to have run a tight ship. The business analyst Sucheta Dalal gives examples of the company’s “flamboyant, high-spending ways” and its complex, pyramid-like structure with a few cronies pirouetting at the apex like obsolete managing agency-style bosses — shades of long-nationalised firms like Andrew Yule and Bird & Co.

Land from state governments was often acquired at throwaway prices, then “any cost or fee that could be pushed past the state government was loaded on to the project” before it even got off the ground.

Ms Dalal quotes instances of the Tirupur water project in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Nadu Road Development Company where huge profits were skimmed off and ended in litigation. Justice V Ramasubramanian of the Madras High Court noted: “Investing more money just for the purpose of servicing a debt is neither a prudent business decision nor in the interest of the public.” Mr Parthasarathy was kicked out of the roadways joint venture and the government took over.

The case of the NOIDA Toll Bridge company was as flagrant. IL&FS sold part of the government land for a nice profit but when costs escalated it sought to increase the concession period from 30 to 100 years! It was only when the toll-fee paying public woke up to the jiggery-pokery that the Supreme Court intervened to abolish the toll.

Pride of its partnerships is the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, a 359-hectare smart city development on the Sabarmati’s banks, better known by the ironic acronym However, GIFT’s head auditor D C Anjaria alleged in 2016 that the Rs 700-billion venture was practically a to IL&FS and cause of heavy losses to the Gujarat exchequer.

As in the twisted Sherlockian mystery of the disappeared race horse and its trainer, the puzzle is that none of the guard dogs barked at the growing on loan defaults.

Of this distinguished assembly of captains of industry, civil servants and bankers were also representatives of public sector shareholders and foreign investors. Yet they blindly followed the old axiom: Government and management are always right. Except management is wrong when the government says so.

The watchdogs that didn’t bark have now come back to bite the government — at taxpayers’ expense of course.

Leave a comment

The cheat sheet of history

The Prime Minister is busy invoking Gandhi’s name and upgrading the Swacch Bharat campaign. But more than a century after Gandhi’s crusade deaths of sewer cleaners and manual scavengers have not abated.

Column in Business Standard, September 22, 2018

The prime minister’s 68th birthday was celebrated with hectic activity by himself and others. A prize-winning skydiver jumped 13,000 feet from a plane in Chicago, holding aloft a banner of warm greetings. In his constituency, Varanasi, which he visited, schoolchildren presented him a 101-kg. laddoo; the schoolroom, needless to say, was covered with Narendra Modi posters. This “Chacha Nehru” event — of appropriating a birthday as another Children’s Day — was topped by a story-telling session. Mr Modi’s contribution was a fable about Gandhi as a small boy.

Gandhi is very much on his mind. A day or so earlier in Delhi he swept into a school established by B R Ambedkar — with full panoply of black SUVs and security detail — and picked up a broom. Homilies on sanitation and cleanliness (amplified by video endorsements by celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) are Mr Modi’s latest advertorial that conflates his birthday party with the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary starting next month.

Except that the dimmest kid in class can tell you that Gandhi didn’t race around the country surrounded by SPG commandos and fawning chief ministers and district officials. He travelled in third-class compartments, lived among the poorest of the poor in their ghettoes, and cleaned his own latrine daily, insisting that his followers do the same.

Sweeping through the cheat sheet of history, the prime minister’s bogus genuflection at the altars of Gandhi and Ambedkar showed up for what it is — a shallow, stale exercise in shoring up support for elections that loom forbiddingly closer.

As the drumbeat grows louder, he’s running out of ideas. It wasn’t the most propitious moment for Mr Modi to descend into classrooms and ask children if they cleaned their nails and took daily baths. And loftily announce that “the contribution of ‘swachhgrahis’ (cleanliness workers) will be remembered with the same respect as a true inheritor of Bapu’s legacy”.

The impact of those words couldn’t have been more chilling a day later, when Twitter images and reports by a journalist showed an 11-year-old boy weeping over the corpse of his father, Anil, a sewer cleaner who was gassed to death when the worn-out rope lowering him into the sewer snapped. Some days earlier the family had lost an infant to pneumonia; now they had no money to pay for Anil’s last rites. It took more than 90 minutes to fish out his body.

The story shocked and angered the capital. Even as a public-spirited NGO and crowdfunding came to the family’s rescue, so did the recurrent reality of manual scavengers — many of them low-income daily wagers with no protection, safety standard or security. “That little boy used to stay near that open manhole in the sewer, guarding his dad’s clothes and shoes. For him, the sewer was his dad’s office. His words horrified me,” said the Good Samaritan who helped raise the money.

Despite a 2013 Supreme Court ban, manual scavenging has far from disappeared more than a century after Gandhi’s tireless fight to eradicate the blight. Moreover, the number of deaths is widely disputed. While a report by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis claims one manual scavenger died every five days in India in 2017, the activist Bezwada Wilson says “the government numbers are a fraction of the data we have on sewer deaths. Over 300 people were killed in 2017”. Another report claims six such deaths occurred in New Delhi alone last week.

The bleak irony is that the national capital is one of the richest places in the country. Despite the Aam Aadmi Party’s state government and the BJP at the Centre being at daggers drawn, the two dispensations occupy the same geography — the count and safe cleaning of every manhole is easily within their grasp. Neither wants to be seen to be presiding over a killer capital. Their leaders pay regular obeisance to Gandhi and Ambedkar and both swear allegiance to a clean city — even if Mr Modi picks up a token broom for effect, Arvind Kejriwal’s chief totem is the jharoo. So what’s the problem?

According to Mr Wilson, there’s simply no enforcement of the legal ban on scavenging. “There is a law in place but nobody will punish anyone here…There is no political will. Budget allocation shows sanitation workers are not priority at all.” Survival is tough for marginalised sewer workers because regulation is non-existent. Any person can call for a worker to clean their sewers, says Mr Wilson. “Neither can they refuse to work nor are they safe in those manholes.”

Meanwhile, government departments are gearing up to spend millions on a year-long publicity blitz from October 2. Mr Modi’s “Swacch Bharat” drive is to receive a full-throttle upgrade by stealing another page from history’s cheat sheet. The new Gandhian mantra is called “Swacchta hi sewa” — cleanliness is service.



Leave a comment

The mills of justice grind surely

To argue that coming out as gay was easier for the few in the anonymity and privilege of big cities as opposed to the many in the stifling oppression of small towns and villages is true. But only upto a point.

Column in Business Standard, September 8, 2018

The mills of grind slowly but they grind surely. It is notable that some of the most stirring words of the verdict that finally junked Article 377, engulfing the country in a wave of euphoria, came from Indu Malhotra, the lone woman and recent entrant to the apex court. “Homosexuality,” she said, “is only a variation and not an aberration…[It] is not against the order of nature and is nature itself.” And more remarkably that “history owes the an apology for their sufferings.”

In this Malhotra was taking a leaf out of her fellow judge, the late who vigorously campaigned against the death penalty and helped frame the new laws in a radical redefinition of rape, continually stressing that compassion was a keystone of natural justice. Only once did her calm, measured tone in her 2014 book Talking of Justice: People’s Rightsin Modern India diverge from the dispassionate to an anguished mother’s voice: So long as remained on the statue books, she said, her son, the novelist and poet Vikram Seth, would remain “a criminal, an unapprehended felon”.

Mr Seth, who had come out as gay some years earlier, had, in his stellar literary career, first touched upon the subject with light-hearted levity in his path-breaking verse novel The Golden Gate (1986) and later, with greater intensity, in An Equal Music (1999); but it was not till four years ago that he tore through the barricade by appearing on an India Today cover — looking a beleaguered prisoner and holding a “Not A Criminal” placard — in a harrowing black-and-white image shot by the photographer Rohit Chawla. It was a moment that galvanised mainstream media to investigate the travails of the extensively.

Unquestionably a growing number public figures propelled upturning social and political — celebrity endorsement as weapon of change — to join the legal challenge but 20 years ago it hardly seemed possible: Even in liberal, cosmopolitan circles the question of some “being different” (or in the Victorian phrase of “not being the marrying kind”) hung unspoken in the air, the proverbial elephant in the room. Despite supportive friends and colleagues, it was not easy to come out to parents and conservative relatives. Exemplary were the dignity, quiet conviction and even humour, with which hotelier Aman Nath and chef Ritu Dalmia, among other friends, lived with their partners.

The first time I heard an Indian film audience laugh out loud and realised the mood was changing was in Gurinder Chadha’s breakout comedy of gender stereotypes Bend It Like Beckham. A lineup of Punjabi matrons, led by the incomparable Zohra Segal, are discussing a girl’s matrimonial horoscope. “Is she Aquarian?” asks one. “No. Lesbian,” retorts Segal with a self-satisfied smile.

To argue that coming out was easier for the few in the anonymity and privilege of big cities as opposed to the many in the stifling oppression of small towns and villages is true. But only up to a point. In his bestselling memoir An Unsuitable Boy last year — a sort of Bildungsroman for the film and fashion fraternity — filmmaker Karan Johar describes the low esteem and anxiety he suffered on account of his sexuality. Far more gruelling and expansive is the account by journalist-activist Siddharth Dube, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex (2016). Mr Dube’s enviable education — Doon School, St Stephen’s College, Harvard University — brought him plum assignments with the World Bank and UNAIDS. Instead he chose to travel among India’s punished — HIV patients, sex workers, transgenders — interleaving their accounts with his own unsettling story. The book’s wide impact has led to an expanded edition, An Indefinite Sentence, out in America and India next year.

A couple of weeks ago I found Anand Grover — the lawyer-activist who has represented Anjali Gopalan and the to fight Article 377 since the early 1990s — in buoyant mood. He was confident of the statute’s imminent demise. When asked why he advanced several reasons: The government no longer had the stomach to oppose it. Public patience was wearing thin at the Court’s interminable prevarications. Above all, he said, the expanded five-member Constitutional bench was composed of enlightened minds. And, finally, that retiring would like to go down in a blaze of glory.

But even he may not have expected a verdict so resoundingly unanimous, unequivocal and progressive. Although the BJP-RSS ruling dispensation had made its acceptance of change gradually, there is a section hailing the judgment as a sign of the government’s inherently liberal ethos. This assumption is presumptuous and erroneous. The list of deepening injustice — lynchings of beef eaters, attacks against Dalits and Muslims and activists thrown into jail on specious grounds — is long.

As the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said in one of the most-quoted lyrics of Urdu love poetry: “Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siwa” (The torments of the world are greater than the pain of love).

Leave a comment

A world of bluffocrats

The inescapable lifeline of the bluffocrat is the number of Facebook page ‘likes’, Twitter or Instagram followers totted up per millisecond.

Column in Business Standard, August 25, 2018 

In Britain, they have just coined a new phrase: Bluffocrats. In a new book Bluffocracy, part of a series titled “Provocations”, James Ball, a journalist, and former civil servant Andrew Greenway, argue that their country is overtaken by chancers — “In a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep; who know how to grasp the generalities of any topic in minutes, and how never to bother themselves with the specifics. Who place their confidence in their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, rather than learning how to run things carefully.”

So who is a top-of-the-line British bluffocrat, really? Is he — for the category is predominantly male—also a buffoon like the former mayor of London and former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson? Or a perpetual itinerant like current home secretary Sajid Javid, who has held seven jobs in six years? Or George Osborne, a prominent editor with a few weeks’ experience in journalism?

In a forceful, often rollicking ride the authors take you through a broad swathe of the political, bureaucratic and media establishment populated by figures unable to come to grips with governance. Their caustic findings are bolstered by polemical conclusions. A blufflocrat is “someone who knew how to come up with a headline-grabbing idea, and how to make it sound convincing and radical — but didn’t ever have the faintest idea how to implement it.”

By that definition many masters of our universe are in competition for ace slots, from Donald Trump — for his outrageous views on everything from immigration to sexual shenanigans — to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — for his expansionist dreams — to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif — for running their economies into the ground.

If the school of bluffers includes those who get to the top not from deep knowledge but from delivering “a clever quip or a leftfield surprise argument,” then India’s Narendra Modi is the undisputed Bluffocrat Emeritus. An endless stream of ill-starred or half-digested ideas including demonetisation and GST have been propped up by a series of welfare schemes — public toilets, rural electrification and housing, instant banking and health insurance — couched in catchy slogans and drop-dead deadlines. All were to contribute to the “Achhe Din” utopia promised in 2014. Less than ten months to the next election several are a fading mirage.

To the cast of bluffocrats in public life — described in characteristic British idiom, “as the same sort of chap with the same sort of chat” — India has the added distinction of creating a new class of politician with a novel idea of body language. These are Hug-o-crats.

Through much of his term, the Indian prime minister was subjected to ridicule for clasping world leaders close to his 46-inch chest. Where a polite handshake or a decorous namaskar or salaam customary among his compatriots would have sufficed, Mr Modi took to embarrassingly deep clinches. Then Rahul Gandhi turned the tables with his surprise hug-and-wink in Parliament. The latest member of India’s Hug-o-cracy is Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu whose unexpected free hugs to Pakistan’s leading general invited censure from his chief minister and a jaded public reaction. The 54-year-old party-hopping former cricketer and TV joker is a classic bluffocrat. Well past his sell-by date, his heyday of “Sidhu Sixers” on the pitch or the screen consigned to a hazy past, he depends, like most bluffocrats, on the dubious gratification of social media.

The inescapable lifeline of the bluffocrat is the number of Facebook page “likes”, Twitter or Instagram followers totted up per millisecond. Party spokespersons such as Sambit Patra and Randeep Singh Surjewala are professional bluffmasters, fielded for their acerbic, below-the-belt one-liners as much for their dexterity on smartphones.

Their daily slog at pressers, however, must cede space to the arresting visual image a bluffocrat can speedily disseminate. A misplaced example of bleeding-heart solidarity this week came from bureaucrat-turned-Union minister K J Alphons flashing a picture of himself bedding down in a flood relief camp Kerala. Meanwhile, Shashi Tharoor, MP from the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, a gilt-edged bluffocrat of high polish and well-honed lines, hopped a ride with party leader Rahul Gandhi on his four-day outing in Germany, leaving endangered lives and life-savers to their own devices. An accomplished bluffocrat always knows which side of his bread is buttered.

Among the assertions that the authors of Bluffocracy make is that there were few women bluffocrats that made the cut, perhaps because men far outnumbered women, in this superior male-entrenched class. In India, there is the honourable exception of Textiles Minister Smriti Irani. She is an itinerant bluffocrat, now into her third ministry in four years. Indeed, it would be difficult to decide where she proved her mettle better in bluffing skilfully, as TV actress or leading light of the ruling party.

In Britain, the finest flower of bluffocrats is acknowledged to be Boris Johnson. Here is his definition of how he achieved that hallowed status. “My friends,” he said, “as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”