Dotting the ‘i’

#1. The censor board, after consulting with its specially constituted panel, has decided to clear Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film — after the makers carry out 26 cuts. Oh, and change the name of the film from Padmavati to Padmavat.

Does it occur to you that as a nation, our collective “sensibility” is extremely fragile, and also extremely malleable? That these “sensibilities” are easily offended and as easily appeased? What is an ‘i’, more or less, among friends anyway?

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that this is the last you are going to hear of a tiresome movie by a tiresomely pretentious film-maker — once the release date is set, now-dormant sensibilities in Rajasthan and elsewhere will be duly aroused again, and much ruckus will duly follow.

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Yes, Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is unhappy, and he has good reason to be. No one responds to my ‘good morning’ messages, he cribbed at a meeting of party lawmakers the other day.

That’s fair. It is not about sycophancy, or the social media analog of kids jumping up and going ‘good morning Miss’ when the teacher walks into the room. It is about common courtesy, about basic good behavior. And decency, good behavior, these are important, yes, in any civilized society, in any culture?

Right. Meanwhile, in Parliament, Mr Arun Jaitley made an important intervention:

On Wednesday, making a statement in the Rajya Sabha, leader of the house and finance minister Arun Jaitley said: “The PM in his speeches did not question, nor did he mean to question the commitment to this nation of either former PM Manmohan Singh or former VP Hamid Ansari. Any such perception is erroneous. We hold these leaders in high esteem, as well as their commitment to India.”

Any such perception that Modi was attacking both his predecessor and a former vice president of India was “erroneous”, Jaitley said.

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WTF Just Happened: December 24

#1. In Uttar Pradesh, the always-innovative Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath — who, last month, came up with the Kamadhenu model to kickstart the state’s economy — has solved the problem of backlog in the state courts. His government will soon withdraw nearly 20,000 cases against politicians.

The move is aimed at reducing the pendency of cases. Yogi said that the police usually registers petty cases against people’s representatives staging dharna or protesting on some issue. “These cases should be closed.”

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Another day, another balloon goes pffft

The Adarsh Housing Society scam first hit the headlines in 2010. Eight years later, today, the Bombay High Court set aside the sanction, given in February 2016, by Maharashtra governor Vidyasagar Rao to prosecute former state Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. Here is the part that should make you sit up and take notice:

A division bench of Justices Ranjit More and Sadhana Jadhav ruled that though the CBI had claimed to be in possession of fresh evidence against Mr. Chavan at the time of seeking the sanction, it “failed to present any fresh evidence”.

So here we go again. A scam is unearthed – and make no mistake, there was much about how bureaucrats, politicians of various parties, and senior military officers conspired to bend FSI, zoning and ownership rules in exchange for flats that was patently fraudulent.

 

With much fanfare, the CBI steps in. Media houses vie with each other to quote ‘unnamed CBI sources’ making a series of sensational claims of proof. The case drags its way through the courts at a pace any self-respecting snail would scorn. And finally, when the verdict is in, it turns out the investigation was shoddy (it is increasingly difficult to avoid the suspicion that often it is deliberately so),  no real proof was presented, and yet another scam gets buried. The media for its part moves on to the next narrative — have you ever seen an instance where the media went to its ‘sources’ and demanded an explanation for all the tall claims?

 

Just a passing thought, on a busy day.

1.76 lakh crore and other fictions

For those interested, here is the full text of the CBI special court’s judgment in the case of CBI vs A Raja and Ors. It is a lot to read and unpack, particularly if you want (as I do) to go back in time and check out the original reporting/statements at each point, on each issue and allegation.

There is also a lot of commentary surrounding the verdict; people are also exhuming cautionary articles from the past and going ‘I told you so’. I have, as time permits, been collecting these and will do a roundup soon. For now, though, on a day of many meetings, I’ll leave you with two pieces.

#1. An excerpt from Vinod Rai’s book, Not Just An Accountant, where he attempts to justify his notional 1.76 lakh crore figure.

#2. A piece by Shekhar Gupta where he talks of the harm caused by intemperate calculations of various scams, and why none of these scams will ever result in judgments in the courts. A relevant clip, from a piece you need to read in its entirety:

So here I am again. Rs 1.76 lakh crore, the popularly peddled and believed size of the 2G scam in 2007 was 4.41 per cent of India’s GDP. It was a couple of billion dollars more than twice our entire defence budget for that year.

….

The reason is simple. When the CAG offered different figures of notional loss in 2G spectrum, from Rs 57,000 crore to Rs 1.76 lakh crore, everybody, from Modi to almost all of the media, jumped for the highest amount. The media has been slowly getting off that kerb. But the BJP is stuck. With every round of spectrum release, it faces the same embarrassing challenge, to justify its Rs 1.76 lakh crore loss fallacy as new auctions yield no more than a fraction of that. That’s why the shyness in freeing up more spectrum, a textbook case of shooting yourself in the foot. It was a touching speech a couple of years ago when speaking at a CAG event, Arun Jaitley cautioned it against exaggeration and drew the line between activism and sensationalism.

The argument here is simple: Once the BJP latched on to the 1.76 crore figure and rode it for all its political worth, it inadvertently established a benchmark, to which it remains shackled now that it is in power. Thus, in the 2015 auction (full details here), the government realized a total of Rs 1,09,874 crore (less than the 1.76 crore notional loss touted for the earlier auction, so does this mean the government undersold?), and 11% of the available spectrum remained unsold because the government, held captive to the ‘scam’ figure it had propagated when in opposition, was forced to set the base price too high.

The story repeated in 2016. Only 40% of the available spectrum was bought at auction; only Rs 65,789 crore was realized. . In other words, a valuable resource that could materially speed up the information superhighway remains unsold because the government of the day is forced to live with the valuation it touted to “prove” a scam. And, over two auctions spread over two years, the government has not yet raised the figure it had claimed, when in opposition, the previous government could have realized.

The only outcome? As Gupta argues in his piece:

India’s telecom growth has been held to ransom by that mythology and the BJP government will spend embarrassing months dismounting that tiger.

Maybe it will manage a clean dismount. Maybe not. How, though, do you calculate the enormous damage done in the interim, just so a party could win an election? What is the “notional value” of that scam?

But never mind all that: Remember Judge Loya? Remember the Caravan story that first threw his mysterious death into the spotlight?

Here is the follow-up, and it is equally scary.

 

“Not proven”

In Scotland, courts have the option of picking from three possible verdicts: Guilty, Not Guilty, and Not Proven.

It is this third verdict that the CBI special court actually pronounced today at the conclusion of the prolonged hearings into the 2G scam, some seven years after a report by then Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai rocked Parliament, gave wings to the BJP’s anti-corruption plank, and led to the then UPA government fighting a losing battle at the polls.

Only, since it does not have the third option available to it, the court acquitted.

Special judge O.P. Saini said, “I have no hesitation in holding that record is not sufficient and the prosecution has miserably failed in proving charges. All accused are acquitted.”

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A short post on journalism circa 2017

Below, a clip from a Hartosh Singh Bal piece from the Caravan’s annual media issue:

In March this year, Modi pulled out of the Economic Times Global Business Summit at the very last minute, citing “security concerns.” Along with him, several ministers and senior bureaucrats also withdrew from the event. The decision caused a huge loss of face for the Times Group. Given the largely favourable coverage of the government in the group’s publications, it was difficult to fathom the reasons for the government’s step. Subsequent events seemed to carry their own message. A journalist critical of the government, Rohini Singh, left the Economic Times, and a spoof on Modi, which ran on one of the group’s radio stations, was soon taken off the air. (Singh went on to author a story for The Wire on the finances of Jay Shah, the son of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah.)

In a recent podcast on the state of the media, Amit Varma and I had discussed this incident and its implications. Bal spells it out, on similar lines, in his piece:

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